The Harsh Realities [Encore Publication]: How to shoot in extreme conditions


Travel is exciting because it exposes us to new environments from which we can learn about the diversity of the world and our own place within it.  But travel also can expose our expensive and sensitive photo gear to extreme conditions.  Heat, cold, humidity, dryness, wind, dust, sand, salt, water, and physical shocks are among the harsh realities of travel photography.  Let’s examine some of these hazards and discuss how to mitigate the potential harm.

  • Cold: Extremely low temperatures can cause all kinds of problems with modern electronics, including cameras.  Batteries don’t hold their charges very well in frigid conditions, so you need to carry extra batteries and keep them warm in your pocket or inside your parka.  Also expect to be recharging them more frequently than in warmer climes.  The LCD displays on your camera (and other devices such as your smartphone) can stop working partially or completely in very cold temperatures.  I’ve found there isn’t much that can be done when this happens except to try to gently warm the device, but that can be difficult when in the field shooting.  Fortunately, most of the time the display will return to normal functioning when it warms up.  Remember that very cold air is usually also very dry air, so be careful of condensation when getting out of the cold and returning to the warmth of an indoor environment.  The moisture that condenses on the inside of our lenses and electronic equipment can be damaging, so it’s best to let the gear warm up again while inside a sealed bag to prevent excessive condensation.  A large freezer-style bag works well for this purpose; just remember to place your camera and lens in the bag before coming inside from the cold.  Avoid lens changes in extreme cold conditions whenever possible.
  • Extreme cold, such as in Svalbard, can cause problems with the operation of batteries and LCD displays, and with condensation.  Buy this photo
  • Humidity: Excessive humidity can also cause condensation and fogging of the glass surfaces and displays on your gear.  In very humid conditions there is lots of moisture in the air, while in air conditioned vehicles and hotel rooms there is less moisture.  That means your lenses and LCDs will likely fog up quickly after leaving the air conditioned comfort of your hotel or vehicle.  To mitigate this problem, try to store your gear in an area that is less air conditioned, such as a storage area or bathroom.  And when you leave your hotel or car, keep the gear inside your camera bag to help prevent the buildup of moisture.
  • Wind and Dust: Recall that we’ve discussed many times in other posts the need to keep a UV (or haze) filter permanently attached to all lenses.  This protects the lenses from scratching damage, but has the secondary effect of protecting against dust building up on the front surface of the lens.  Dusty areas are also a good place to keep your lens cap on except when you are actually shooting.  Rule Number 1 in dusty environments is never, ever to change lenses outside unless it is absolutely necessary.  I like to carry two camera bodies with different lenses so that I can shoot with both lenses without the need to change in the field.  And if you do get dust on the camera’s viewfinder, lens, LCD, or mirror, you should have a good blower brush and soft lens cloth with you so you can clean it off.  I do not recommend trying to clean your camera’s sensor yourself unless you are confident you have the skills and equipment to do it properly.  Instead, turn on your camera’s sensor-cleaning function, if it has one, to try to prevent dust buildup, and heed the caution never to change lenses in dusty or windy environments.  A few small specks of dust on the sensor can even be removed in post-processing, although this becomes very difficult if the sensor is badly marred by the stuff.  I have a friend who is an ophthalmologist as well as an avid photographer, and he is one of the few people I know who will clean his own camera’s sensor.  I have a wonderful photo of him in full surgical regalia, using a microscope and surgical instruments to do the job.  For the rest of us, bring the camera to a good repair shop after your trip ends and before the next big adventure begins.
  • Physical Shocks: Travel is the school of hard knocks for camera gear.  Safari vehicles, “puddle hopper” bush planes, and long bus rides over bumpy roads are the norm for adventure travelers.  Once the gear takes a punishing blow that damages it, there is very little to be done in the field.  My best advice is to carry your gear in a very good padded bag with snug fittings around each piece, and to bring a backup camera body and lenses in overlapping ranges of focal lengths to ensure redundancy in the event of a mishap.

Game drives while on safari are near the top of every photographer’s “bucket list,” but the harsh realities of jolts, dust, and humid heat can threaten your sensitive camera gear.  Buy this photo

There’s an old saying, “If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay at home on the porch.”  If we were the types of photographers who wanted to avoid all these hazards, we’d just stay at home, right?  But travel photographers are the adventurous sort, and we consider these risks to be a cost of the intense pleasure we derive from shooting all kinds of fascinating subjects in new environments all around the world.  Plan well to minimize problems, bring extra gear for redundancy, and when something does go wrong keep a positive attitude: you’ll be well rewarded when you get home and have unique images as a souvenir of your efforts!

When have you faced extreme conditions for your shoots, and how did you overcome them?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling?  Find them all here: Posts on What to Shoot.

Revisiting Your Old Friends [Encore Publication]: Take a fresh look at your older images with new postprocessing

In today’s digital photography world, images are made as much in post-processing as they are in the camera.  We only get one chance at creating the image in the camera: the choices we make to compose the image, focus, expose, and fire the shutter at just the right moment are behind us the instant the shutter is released.  But the choices we make after the fact, using image processing software such as Adobe Lightroom, can be revisited as many times as we wish.  Because Lightroom is a non-destructive editor, meaning it keeps the original image file intact and just records the editing choices we make in its catalog, we can return to the image again and again, making slightly or entirely different choices.

When I return from a trip, I try to select the best raw image files and apply some post-processing within a few days.  That’s so I don’t agonize endlessly about creative choices, which would severely increase the turnaround time for sharing the images with the world.  But increasingly I find it is a good practice to return with a fresh eye to images I made some time ago, applying some different post-processing choices to render the image differently.

There are three scenarios under which I often revisit my older images:

      • The images are very old and were shot using film in the pre-digitial era.  In this scenario, scan the transparency (slide), negative, or print and then apply post-processing to the digital scan.

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Here’s the original scan of a 35mm color slide (transparency) shot during a 1991 trek in Nepal’s Anapurna region.  The image is grainy and the background behind the girls’ heads is distracting.  I decided to clean it up a bit using Lightroom.

NepalWith just a few minutes of tweaking using Lightroom, I was able to crop the image for more dramatic impact, render a true black background, reduce the grainy noise in the shadow areas, and enhance the saturation of the colors.  Buy this photo

    • The images were shot digitally but were made before I started routinely using image-processing software such as Lightroom.  In these cases, I like to apply post-processing to see what artistic options I may have missed in the earlier digital years.

This old Scandinavian stave church was shot as a color image in 2005.  It is so high-contrast that it appears nearly monochromatic on the display screen.  It’s a striking image, but looking at it today I wondered how much more effective it would be as a true black-and-white photo, so I decided to revisit the image using Lightroom.

Here’s the same digital image file, but converted to black-and-white using Lightroom’s color channel processing module.  I boosted the contrast even further and then adjusted each color’s saturation in the black-and-white mix to achieve the exquisite texture of the snow on the ancient building’s roof.  Buy this photo

  • The images are more recent, but I want to make some new creative choices.  Here the idea is to render the image in a different way to achieve a different end result.  For example, an image I initially processed in color may turn out to make a lovely black-and-white photo.  Or perhaps I crop a crowd scene to emphasize just one or a few of the people within it.  The choices are nearly limitless.

Reviewing my favorite images from a recent trip to New Orleans, I saw this shot of a characteristic French Quarter balcony and realized it would be even more powerful if certain colors were more saturated.

A brief session in Lightroom’s Develop module was all it took to boost the saturation of the blue and red channels and to adjust the shadow and black point tonalities.  The resulting image more closely reproduces the emotional experience I recall when viewing this scene live.  Buy this photo

Take a look at some of your older images.  Which ones would you like to revisit and give a fresh new look?  Do you regularly return to work on your library of existing images?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about post-processing your images?  Find them all here: Posts on Post-Processing.

Portrait Photography Gear [Encore Publication]: Affordable kit for making great portraits

Whether in my home town or traveling around the world, I love to shoot portraits.  There is something magical about creating an image that captures the essence of a person.  It can be daunting for many photographers to describe what gear they think is required to make professional-quality portraits: we often visualize a fully equipped studio with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of high-end lights, modifiers, and backgrounds.  The reality is that we can make portraits of publication quality, shot on location and using kit that costs far less.  Here I outline a basic setup that is portable enough to pack on nearly any trip and costs only a few hundred dollars (not including your basic DSLR or mirrorless camera body).

Really all you need to get great people photos is a good portrait lens and a little know-how.  Make sure to set exposure and focus on your subject’s face.  I often use my camera’s Spot metering mode to get the correct exposure in tricky lighting conditions, such as when the subject is backlit.  In these conditions, it can also be helpful to fill in any harsh shadows on the subject’s face by using a touch of flash with a diffuser attached or a reflector.  That’s really all the gear you need: camera with portrait lens, flash unit, and a reflector kit.  Let’s look at the gear and basic techniques.

My indispensable portrait lens is the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  I shoot at least three-quarters of all my portraits, whether in the studio or on location, using this one piece of glass.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a person.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh,” or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

This portrait of a grandmother and granddaughter at Carnaval San Francisco was made with natural light using an 85mm lens at a wide aperture to throw the background into soft focus.  Because no flash or reflector was used, there are some shadows on the subject’s faces, but I like the shallow depth of field that really emphasizes the subjects, and this would have been difficult to achieve with the slower shutter speed required to synchronize with a flash.  Also, carrying a reflector through the hustle and bustle of a chaotic street fair can be impractical.  I’m very pleased with this image even with a few shadows.

This portrait was shot using natural light only.  Some shadows are visible on the faces, but the effect is not unpleasant, and the soft focus from shooting without a flash is very effective.  Buy this photo

Your camera most likely has a built-in flash, and in many cases it is good enough to provide some fill-in lighting for backlit subjects or even to serve as a main light in very dark situations.  But for more control over how much light you want, the quality of that light, and where that light comes from and goes to, you likely want to have a separate flash unit.  I use the Nikon SB-910, which is powerful and flexible enough for most settings.  It has been discontinued and replaced by the Nikon SB-5000, but the older model is often still available.

Whatever flash you use, it is best to attach a diffuser of some sort to soften the otherwise very harsh light of the flash.  I also keep my camera set to lower the flash output by 1 stop, and I only override this setting occasionally.  Flash is often best when used sparingly.

This next image was shot at the same location as the previous one, but here I used an off-camera flash with diffuser to provide fill lighting on the subjects’ faces, thus reducing the shadows.  The only downside of using flash on location is that a slower shutter speed (typically about 1/160 of a second or slower) must be used, which in turn requires a smaller aperture (here it is f/8), and this can lead to more distraction from in-focus backgrounds.  I could have mitigated this problem by attaching a neutral density filter to block some of the light and allow a larger aperture.

This group portrait was made under similar conditions to the previous image, but here a fill flash was used to soften the shadows.  Buy this photo

An inexpensive accessory can provide the best of both worlds for on-location portraiture.  For less than $20 you can purchase a reflector kit with a variety of different colored reflectors and diffusers.  The reflectors are used to bounce some of the sun’s light back onto the face of the subject, thereby filling in any harsh shadows, while allowing you to shoot at any combination of aperture and shutter speed you choose in order to soften the background.  Each color of reflector imparts a different mood to the image.  An added bonus is that you can preview the precise effect the reflector has in your viewfinder or on your LCD screen.  Really the only downside of using a reflector in the field is that they are bulky to carry and often require an assistant to hold in place while you shoot.

This is the reflector kit I carry with me to most portrait shoots.  It’s high quality, very portable, and affordable.

This portrait was made by metering off the face of the model, choosing a wide aperture to blur the background, and bouncing some sunlight onto her face using the gold reflector from the kit mentioned above.

Using a reflector to bounce sunlight onto your subject’s face can reduce shadows while allowing you to retain full control over your aperture and shutter speed.  Buy this photo

There you have it: my formula for getting professional-looking portraits in the field with relatively inexpensive gear that’s easy to carry and use.

What is your favorite gear for portraiture?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

Interested in other posts about photography gear?  See them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/gear/.

 

The Sharpest Tack in the Box [Encore Publication]: How to achieve sharp focus in tricky shooting situations

One of the most important elements of an image is focus, and even an untrained viewer can tell immediately when a key part of the image is not in sharp focus.  The stakes are even higher when we consider that poor focus is nearly impossible to correct in post-processing.  Most of us rely on our camera’s autofocus functionality to help us achieve tack-sharp focus while shooting, but as with every other automated system in a camera, even very sophisticated autofocus mechanisms can go awry, especially when we’re faced with tricky shooting situations.  Here’s a quick guide to minimizing focus problems and achieving sharp focus in nearly every shot.

Scenes with low contrast, such as in this image of ice floes on the Barents Sea in Svalbard after sunset, can fool even sophisticated autofocus systems.  Override your camera’s autofocus system and instead shoot manually in these conditions.  Buy this photo

  1. Make sure to select the part of your image that you want to be in sharp focus.  It sounds like a no-brainer, but surprisingly frequently the reason an image’s main subject is not in focus is because the photographer never told the camera’s autofocus system what to focus on.  Remember that as with any assistive technology, a camera’s autofocus system is just a collection of hardware and software designed to make a best guess about what the user wants.  If you leave your camera set to full autofocus mode, it does its best to identify what its software determines is likely to be your intended subject.  A human face, for example, is likely to be what you want to have in sharp focus, so the camera focuses on that.  But often the camera does not guess correctly.  Nearly every camera, including the one in your smartphone, allows you to manually select your desired focus point, often by simply touching the desired part of the image on the screen.  Be sure to check what your camera is doing and correct it by manually selecting the focus point if it guesses wrong.
  2. Recognize that your camera’s autofocus system will likely not work in certain tricky conditions. Most autofocus systems work by looking for areas of the image where the contrast is changing, such as at the outlines of a person or a building.  But in very dim lighting, or when the main subject is badly backlit, or in scenes with very low contrast (think of a stormy sky or the waves of an ocean), the autofocus does not work.  Recognize these deficiencies and be prepared when shooting in these conditions to take manual control.  Every camera has a mechanism to manually select focus, and you need to know how to use that feature.
  3. Choose the autofocus method best suited to your shooting needs.   Most advanced or professional cameras allow you to choose among several different types of autofocus methods.  Often, the first choice is between single-focus mode or continuous-focus mode.  Choose single-focus mode when your subject is relatively stationary and you must have precise focus achieved before releasing the shutter.  For subjects that are moving quickly or where you need to time your shot exactly, even at the expense of not yet having perfect focus, you should choose continuous-focus mode.  Within each of these modes, your camera may offer sub-choices, such as letting you manually choose the exact focus point you want or choosing a range of points from which the camera selects focus based on the motion of the subject.  This is rocket-science technology, but fortunately it is pretty straightforward to choose the desired method once you understand what each one does.  Read your camera’s manual and always practice in the different focus modes before going on any important shoots, especially on a major trip.
  4. Circumvent the whole problem by choosing a wide depth of field.  Sometimes the best artistic choice requires a narrow depth of field so that only the main subject is in sharp focus, and sometimes the light is too dim to choose a narrow aperture, but if you can make the shot work with a wide depth of field (in other words, using a small aperture, represented by a high f-stop number), then you don’t have to worry about focus at all.  In most situations, universal focus from several feet away from your lens through infinity is achieved at apertures of about f/16 or smaller.

Capturing tack-sharp images of fast-moving wildlife like the cheetah requires selection of an autofocus mode capable of dynamically refocusing on the moving subject.  For this shot of a cheetah in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, there was the added challenge of having low contrast between the animal and the background.  I chose my camera’s continuous-focus mode with predictive focus so the camera would anticipate where the cheetah was moving and focus ahead of the shutter.  Buy this photo

By using these tips, you can achieve tack-sharp focus where you want it in nearly all of your images, whether you’re shooting with a simple point-and-shoot or phone camera, or the most advanced professional camera.  Any camera frequently makes the wrong guess about where the focus point should be, so do not rely blindly on autofocus.  It’s worth investing some time to learn how to configure autofocus appropriately for any shooting situation, and how to turn it off and instead focus manually when required.  Happy shooting!

How do you achieve sharp focus in tricky conditions?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

Want to see more articles about techniques?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/.

Top Tips for Great Travel Images: These five simple “hacks” will result in more professional images

Festivals and street fairs can be challenging to shoot due to backgrounds cluttered with people, buildings, and cars.  To make this portrait of grandmother and granddaughter at Carnaval San Francisco, I got down low so that most of the background was covered by the cloth of the costume, and I used a wide aperture to throw the hectic street scene into soft focus.

The web is positively overflowing with “life hacks,” simple tips and tricks to save us all time and effort and to achieve better results.  Some lists are better than others, but it is in the spirit of these lists that I bring you this compilation of five simple travel photography hacks.  These techniques are not difficult and do not require expensive gear.  They work equally well for your photography whether traveling or at home.  And I promise that if you follow them, your images will improve.  Pros do these things almost automatically; to us, it’s hygiene, like tooth brushing.  If you read no other post about photography, read this one.

  1. Avoid cluttered backgrounds: So often the travel images of a professional stand out from those of amateurs simply because they took careful notice of what was in the background while composing the shot.  Try to frame your subject against a clean backdrop such as a dark-colored wall or the sky.  If there’s no way to avoid including some clutter in the background, at least use a wide aperture (low F-stop number) to throw the background into soft focus.  I’m always reminding my students–and myself–to pay at least as much attention to composing the background as the main subject.
  2. Watch your horizon: Frequently, we’re so intent on composing the main subject within our viewfinder that we forget to check whether the camera is level before firing the shutter.  An uneven horizon can give the impression of vertigo, like the subject is going to fall out of the frame.  Some cameras have a virtual horizon function to show you whether the horizontal and vertical axes are level, but whether you use it or not, be sure to check visually that the edge of the image looks correct.
  3. Achieve sharp focus: The one characteristic of an image that even the most inexperienced viewer can identify immediately, and one that’s almost impossible to fix in post-processing, is poor focus.  Today’s cameras are so easy to use that we often overlook this most basic element.  The camera can’t know for sure what subject you intend to have in focus; it can only make its best guess.  So take the extra fraction of a second while composing your image to move the camera’s focus point onto the main subject (even smartphone cameras have this capability).  Or use a small aperture (high F-stop number) to provide a wide depth of field so that essentially everything is in focus.
  4. Choose the correct exposure: Another very basic element of any photograph, exposure can only be correctly chosen by the photographer, not by the camera.  Your camera’s Auto mode can be fooled very easily by many tricky situations, most commonly by backlighting of the subject.  It’s fine to use the camera’s guess as a starting point, but nearly every camera (including smartphone cameras) have a way to manually override this guess, so learn how to do this and add in about a stop or two of extra exposure if your subject is backlit, more if the backlighting is severe.
  5. Turn off the darned flash: Most cameras have a mode where the flash fires automatically if the meter determines the extra light is needed.  This is rarely a good thing.  Far better to turn off the auto flash setting and make your own decision about when to use the flash.  Otherwise, your low-light images could end up with an eerie, unnatural color cast or your far-away subject could be underexposed (a flash typically lights an object only a few feet away from the camera, so why fire the flash when you’re photographing an object hundreds of yards or even miles away?).  Worse, if you are shooting through glass or another reflective surface, your flash reflects off the surface, ruining your whole image.  Worse still, your flash may blind everyone else near you in a very dim setting, damage sensitive artwork, or scare or anger nearby wildlife.  I’ve seen countless visitors ejected from museums, zoos and aquariums, and other wonderful destinations because they hadn’t figured out how to override their camera’s auto flash setting.  Just turn off the darned flash, and use it manually when appropriate.

To properly expose a backlit subject, you will usually need to override your camera’s automatic exposure mode.  Two easy methods are to use your camera’s spot meter (if available) to set the exposure based on the area where the subject is, or to use exposure compensation to dial in an extra 1-2 stops of exposure.

Learn these simple techniques and follow them whenever you shoot, and you’ll start making images that stand out from the crowd.  Remember, you, and not the technology inside your camera, are the creative force behind your images.

What are your favorite tips and tricks to ensure you make the best images possible?  Please share here!

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

I Feel Like a Kid in a Candy Store [Encore Publication]: Capturing the spectacular SF Movement Arts Festival

Note: If you live in the SF Bay Area, please plan to attend the 2020 installment of this amazing event on January 24 at Grace Cathedral.

As an official photographer once again for this year’s SF Movement Arts Festival, I look forward to the privilege and pleasure of capturing images of most of the more than 300 talented and diverse performers who will participate in this year’s version of this amazing event. If you live in the SF Bay Area, please plan to attend this coming Friday, January 24.

This epic event of breathtaking beauty and scope brings together many of my favorite choreographers and dancers–those with whom I collaborate throughout the year, their younger students, and some who I’ve never met before–representing a tremendous range of movement practices and dance styles, and throws them all into the grand interior spaces of San Francisco’s iconic Grace Cathedral. My assignment, truly a labor of love, is to stay all day and all night: for the rehearsals, side photo shoots, and the performance, in an effort to capture images of nearly every performer in the festival. Truly, I feel like a kid in a candy store, having the opportunity to make images with so many amazing movement practitioners in this ethereal space, all in one day.

Today’s post, presented as a simple photo essay, shares some of my favorite images from this mind-boggling event. All I will add in the way of technical notes are a few points my regular readers will already know to expect from me:

  • When shooting fast-moving action in a relatively dark space, use as fast a lens as you can given your focal length needs, boost your camera’s ISO sensitivity setting to as high as you can get away with, and choose an aperture as wide as possible given the depth-of-field you seek
  • Choose a shutter speed that is fast enough to freeze the performers’ movement, unless you’re intending to create an artistic motion blur
  • Watch your backgrounds: what’s behind your main subject is as or more important than your subject itself, so try to choose a pleasing or less distracting background whenever possible, and keep your horizons level
  • Compose your images with an eye toward putting your viewer within the performance to experience the beauty, athleticism, and grace first-hand
  • Shoot lots of images because the performers’ body postures, gestures, and facial expressions will change in an instant and you want to be sure to capture a few frames that bring out their very best.

You can view and purchase all of the images in this post, and many more, by visiting my web gallery here: SFMAF Photo Gallery .

I hope you’ve enjoyed this small sampler of images from the incredible SF Movement Arts Festival. You can view and purchase all of these and many more by visiting my web gallery here: SFMAF Photo Gallery .

Do you have a favorite festival or cultural event that inspires and excites you so thoroughly that you feel you could photograph it every day? What are your go-to techniques for capturing images at these events? Please share your thoughts here!

Brave New World [Encore Publication]: AI tools for photographers are improving

As a working professional photographer who also spent nearly 30 years as a technology manager/executive, I’ve long had an interest in the intersection between art/creativity and technology.  Recent attempts to marry photography with artificial intelligence have ranged from useful (facial recognition) to silly (Instagram filters) to hype (an expensive camera that several days after you shoot sends you only the images it deems worthy).  But as pattern matching algorithms improve and machine learning becomes more reliable, we are starting to see some amazing applications at the intersection of AI and photography.

I’ve recently been playing around with two good examples from Adobe.  Available only in the online version of Lightroom as “Technology Previews”, these tools enable you to search all your images for specific attributes and to have the AI automatically select what it determines to be your best photos.

To activate these new tools, go to https://lightroom.adobe.com, log in using your Adobe Creative Cloud credentials, and then click on the Lighroom logo in the upper left and select “Technology Previews” from the drop-down menu.  Click the check box next to “Best Photos”, and you’re good to go.

There are two main tools available at this time:

  1. Intelligent Photo Search: This is already very impressive technology.  You can search all or a subset of your images using any natural language term you want.  You could, for example, search all your images for photos of cats, or of mountains, or of dancers, or of waterfalls.  The more specific your search term is, the more accurate the results are likely to be.  When I searched for “waterfall” or for “dancer”, the AI seemed to get many or most of my photos featuring those themes, and only occasionally did it include photos that did not feature those themes.  When my search terms were broader, like “clouds” or “mountains”, the results were less accurate.  Aesthetic searches, say for the color “blue” or the effect of “motion” resulted in mostly accurate selections of images featuring these concepts.  While there are a few false matches, and likely quite a few more errors of omission of images that should have matched, this technology is quite useful in its current state.
  2. Best Photos Selection: This one is more of a work in process.  You can select any of your online galleries and ask the AI to select what it “thinks” the best photos are.  You can move a slider to increase or decrease how selective this tool is.  As a default, it shows you its picks for the top half of your photos, and then you can refine the selectivity to include more or fewer photos.  I tried this advanced technology using several of my recent photo galleries.  In most cases, it included my two or three favorite images in its initial selection of the top half of all the photos, but dropped them from its cut as I increased the selectivity.  In one gallery, for example, an image that was recently selected as a favorite by the editors of “National Geographic” was dropped by Adobe’s AI in the first cut of 10% of the images.  That image was quite artsy and abstract, and it’s not reasonable to expect that a machine could choose it as special.  Yet in another of my galleries, the AI included an image that recently won a major local competition in its final cut of just 1% of the images.  That image is a more traditional landscape that could reasonably be evaluated by a machine as a “good” photograph.

The bottom line here is that the applications of advanced technology to the art of photography are improving at an astonishing rate.  While neither of Adobe’s AI tools is as good as a human artist at selecting images by their features or their quality, both tools are off to an impressive start and one of them (Intelligent Photo Search) is already very usable.  I would not be surprised if, in a year or two, this technology advances to the point where machines can be making decisions about photography along with humans.  Both human and AI evaluations will have their strengths and weaknesses, and I can see them coexisting for the foreseeable future.  I recommend we all, as photographers, get steeped in this advanced technology and prepare for a future in which man and machine will both play a role in sophisticated evaluation of images.

A “Fixer” for the Rest of Us [Encore Publication]: How you can leverage local resources to shoot like a pro

How do professional travel photographers on assignment create those amazing, make-your-jaw-drop images?  You know, the photos we see when browsing the pages of a major travel magazine or website?  There are several advantages the pros have, including technique honed over decades of practice, state-of-the-art equipment (with prices to match), and the ability to spend a lot of time at the same location, returning again and again until the time of day, lighting, weather conditions, and subject matter are perfectly aligned for a great shot.  But one advantage available to the pros can be borrowed, at least in part, by the rest of us who love travel photography, too.  That is the use of a “fixer,” a local expert who knows the region, the language, the culture, and the way to get things done, and whose expertise helps the travel photographer get those incredible shots.

While we were visiting a carpet weaving collective in Goreme, Turkey, our group’s trip leader introduced me to this worker who was enjoying a cup of Turkish coffee during her break.  Buy this photo

If you are traveling on a group trip run by a good travel company, you may already may have a fixer working to make your experience (including your photographic experience) as rewarding as possible.  The operator will likely have chosen an itinerary that will get you off the beaten path and into the settings where unusual and powerful images can be made.  They will have arranged your accommodations and transportation well in advance of your departure.  The company should have planned some activities and excursions that will allow you to interact with local people and see how they truly live.  And best of all, they have provided you with a local expert, often called a trip leader or program director, who knows the lay of the land, speaks the local language(s), and can facilitate your getting the kinds of shots you want.  This is of paramount importance when you want to have lots of interaction within a culture very different from your own, which I believe is the best part of traveling as a photographer.

For example, I made the above portrait after being introduced to the young worker at a carpet weaving collective by our trip leader in Turkey.  He translated so that she and I could get to know each other a little bit first, and then asked her if I could make her portrait.  It is certainly possible (I’ve done this countless times) to ask for yourself by using sign language, pointing to your camera, and smiling a lot, but having a local person with you can be a great help.

Sometimes, knowing where to go to seek out authentic cultural interactions works magic.  I captured this shot of our host family during a home-hosted lunch on an estancia (ranch) in Patagonia.

Our hosts, Chango and his extended family, were happy to pose for a portrait after we enjoyed their hospitality on their Patagonian ranch.  A local guide and good travel company can help arrange these kinds of authentic interactions.  Buy this photo


Visiting a rural elementary school in Tanzania afforded us the chance to meet kids in the classroom.  This type of experience would be hard to arrange while traveling independently, but a good group leader or guide can facilitate meaningful interactions with local people.  Buy this photo

When the trip is scheduled specifically to attend a special event, it is especially vital to have a good leader who is adept at working with local professionals to plan all the details.  For example, it was quite a major logistical feat to get a large group of scientists and photographers into place to study and view a total solar eclipse in a part of the world as remote and forbidding as Svalbard.  Our trip leader partnered with an astrophysicist who is a world authority on eclipses, beginning years in advance of the solar event, to ensure we had the best chance possible of clear weather conditions and the right vantage point from which to study and photograph the eclipse.  This is the sort of value that an expert fixer brings when you book a trip with one of the top companies.

Our eclipse expert and one of his students set up their gear on the morning of the total solar eclipse in Svalbard.  Buy this photo

To be sure, there are some compromises required for group travel, and having access to a shared program director is not the same as having a dedicated personal fixer to arrange your photo shoots for you.  I like to travel independently in places with developed infrastructure and where I can readily bridge the cultural or language gaps myself.  That said, I also love to travel in small groups run by excellent travel companies, in large part because their planning, coupled with the knowledge of the local trip leader, helps me make those memorable images.

Want to read other posts about planning your travel photography?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/travel/plan/

Have you had a situation where you got your shot thanks to the knowledge of a local expert?  How do you arrange your travel when you’re visiting remote parts of the world or when you want to have lots of interaction within a culture very different from your own?  I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences!  Please respond via the comment box.

Photography as a Bridge to Local Culture [Encore Publication]: Your camera is a great tool for meeting local people and learning about culture

I’ve heard certain travelers grumble that photography inhibits deep cultural learning and interaction when we visit new places.  Our cameras, this line of reasoning goes, isolate us from the local people we’re trying to get to know.  The lens, they believe, acts as a distancing device to turn locals into subjects and travelers into tourists.

I disagree emphatically!  Your camera is a great tool for meeting local people and learning about culture, immersing yourself even more deeply in the spirit of the place and the lives of the people who live there.  But only if you use it in the right way.  Allow me to explain.

While the local customs and even the laws governing whom it is acceptable to photograph, and when or where it is okay to make an image of them, do vary from place to place, there are a few common-sense guidelines that will help us travelers engage in a friendly, curious manner instead of upsetting people and causing social discord.  Here are a few key guidelines to keep in mind.

    • The Golden Rule: If it’s not okay in your home country, it’s probably not okay in other parts of the world.  Would you appreciate a stranger running up to you on your front lawn and shoving a lens in your face?  I’m guessing, no.  So please don’t behave in that way toward people in other places.
    • Make a portrait, don’t take a portrait: Get to know your subject first as a person, even if just for a brief exchange.  While there are occasionally situations where the moment or the expression will be lost by approaching your subject before shooting, I find that most of the time I make better images as well as have more meaningful interactions, when I say hello and ask the person first.

USA

I chatted for a while with these samba dancers as they were celebrating just after San Francisco’s Carnaval parade.  Getting to know them first made it easy to ask permission for a portrait. Buy this photo

    • Approach children with sensitivity: Kids can be amazing photographic subjects!  They are often uninhibited in front of the camera and they portray cultural practices and lifestyle in a relatable, endearing way.  But it’s especially important to understand when it’s okay to make a portrait with them.  While traveling in South Africa, I saw first-hand what can happen when travelers misunderstand social norms.  A fellow traveler in my group saw a young boy playing near where we were waiting for a border crossing.  She shouted excitedly, “Soooo cute!,” and rushed up to the child, camera extended toward his face, to take his picture.  In an instant the boy’s father ran over, irate, and yelled at me (he mistakenly thought I was the fellow traveler’s father), “How would you like it if we came to your country and started taking pictures of your children?”  A few minutes later I explained privately to the offending traveler why her actions caused a negative reaction.  She had no idea this behavior wasn’t okay.  When in doubt, refer to the Golden Rule, above.

Kashgar, China

We visited the old town in Kashgar just before the Chinese government began demolishing the homes there and relocating the mostly ethnic Uighur people.  It was and remains a complicated social situation, but I was fortunate to be able to make this memorable portrait of a young Uighur girl in traditional clothing sitting in front of her soon-to-be-destroyed family house.  I approached her mother first to make sure it was okay to photograph the girl.  Her expression of pride mixed with apprehension is what I feel makes this image strong.  Buy this photo

    • Getting to know you: It may seem difficult to talk with a stranger from a very different culture who likely speaks a very different language from our own.  For us introverts, it seems like even more of a challenge.  But I’ve learned a few tricks and tips that make it much easier to get to know a person before photographing them.  Learn a few words of the local language.  Just saying “hello” or “good day” can be a great icebreaker.  It’s a fairly universal gesture to point to your camera and extend your arm gently toward your hopeful subject to inquire, “Is it okay if I take your picture?”  Just as happens in our home countries, a subject may say no, but most of the time people are happy to be photographed if you are polite, respectful, and try to interact with them first.  A trip leader, guide, or local friend can often be a great help by introducing you to the person you’d like to photograph.

Turkey

At the start of our trip through Turkey, I asked our trip leader to introduce me to people we felt would be good portrait subjects.  With his help I was able to overcome the language and cultural difference and capture this striking portrait of an employee at a carpet weaving cooperative.  Buy this photo

    • How close is too close?: In most situations it is fine to make an image that includes a large group of people, none of whom will be too prominent in the photo.  For close-up images, though, in which an individual person or small group of people will be the obvious subject, it is best to ask first.
    • Money matters: When there is a commercial transaction between you and your subject, it often paves the way to ask to make their portrait.  I’ve had good experiences photographing local street vendors, musicians, artisans, and shopkeepers after purchasing their wares or tipping them for their services.  And of course it is usually fine to photograph singers, dancers, and musicians in a performance you have paid to attend, as long as local rules about photography are obeyed (sometimes you will have to pay extra for a license to photograph, and frequently flash is not permitted).  But it can become a slippery slope when people begin to expect to be paid just for having travelers photograph them.  In Peru we had many people, including young children, dress in traditional costumes and approach us to pose in photos for money.  In an Argentinian mountain village we were even asked to pay to photograph a gentleman’s Saint Bernard dogs.  In these situations, you’ll have to exercise your best judgment.
    • When can you shoot first and ask questions later?: It’s rare, but on occasion you will encounter situations when the “decisive moment” will be lost if you ask for permission to shoot.  This is another judgment call.  Just like when shooting street photography at home, I consider several factors when deciding whether to make an image of a stranger in a different part of the world.  When I do see an amazing expression, gesture, or moment and decide to capture it before getting to know the subject, I will usually approach them and show them the image on the camera’s display, attempting to query whether it’s okay.  A smile and an easygoing, open gesture can help when approaching.  If the response is clearly negative, I delete the image on the spot and in front of the subject. Again, see the Golden Rule, above, and keep in mind that courtesy and respect make all the difference.

Cuba

This was one of those situations when I shot first and asked questions later.  The proprietor of Maria’s Cafe in an eco-village in Cuba’s rural Vinales Valley was standing on a balcony above the cafe surveying the activity below.  I loved the way her contemplative expression and relaxed gesture were framed by the saturated Caribbean colors of the doorway, so I made this image right from our table.  Later, when Maria came down to talk with customers, I showed her the photo and she was pleased with it.  Buy this photo

Beyond these general guidelines, there are local variations.  Do get to know the customs that prevail in the countries and regions you plan to visit.  For example, in some cultures it is acceptable to stand very close to others when conversing, while in other cultures the social boundaries are much more pronounced.  Sometimes it is fine to approach a child directly, but in other cases the first contact should be made with the parent or teacher.  There’s quite a bit of local variation in the amount of small-talk people engage in before getting down to business.  Knowing the local customs not only helps you make better portraits of the people you meet, but will also encourage deeper interactions and mutual respect.

In my experience, the camera is a wonderful bridge that enhances, rather than detracts from, making meaningful cultural connections with people while traveling.  Just try to do it the right way!

Want to read other posts about what to shoot during your travels?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/travel/shoot/

Do you have a good story to share about your experiences, positive or otherwise, in photographing people you met during your travels?  What’s your approach to making portraits while abroad?  How has photography enhanced your cultural interactions?  Please post your thoughts in the comment box.

The Best Auto Mode You’ve Never Heard Of [Encore Publication]: What is manual mode with auto ISO, and when should you use it?

I’ve written often in “To Travel Hopefully” about the importance of learning to go beyond your camera’s full “Auto Mode,” in order to be able to control the exposure of your images.  Frequently I like to shoot in full “Manual Mode” so as to be able to choose both my shutter speed and my aperture for full creative control.  But in rapidly changing lighting conditions, it is a real challenge to stay in full manual mode, and it’s a big help to allow the camera’s exposure programs to choose the best overall exposure from image to image.  There are a few ways to do this.  In between the full auto mode and full manual control, there are two common semi-automatic exposure program modes that most photographers are aware of, namely Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes.  In today’s post I introduce another exposure mode that few photographers are aware of, but that can give the best of both worlds: automatic exposure setting while retaining full manual control over both aperture and shutter speed.  This exposure mode is called “Manual Mode with Auto ISO.”

It’s important to be able to control shutter speed because that’s the mechanism by which we can freeze action or allow it to blur for creative effect.  It’s equally important to retain control over aperture because this is the means by which we can increase depth-of-field to keep everything in focus or decrease depth-of-field to soften the background.  But there’s a third side to the exposure triangle beyond shutter speed and aperture.  This third parameter is our ISO setting.  Several years ago, most camera sensors weren’t very good at handling noise at very high ISO settings, so we took a risk of ending up with very noisy images if we used our camera’s Auto ISO setting.  Not so today.  Many modern sensors are quite adept at capturing nearly noiseless images at ISO settings up to at least 3200 and often to 6400 or even a lot higher.  So the stigma that “serious” photographers have historically attached to using the Auto ISO setting should really be laid to rest.

That happy development allows us to use a mode called “Manual Mode with Auto ISO,” in which we set the camera’s exposure program to “M” or full manual mode but also enable the camera’s Auto ISO setting.  By doing so we can preserve full control over both our shutter speed and our aperture, but also allow the camera to choose the best ISO setting to give a good overall exposure as lighting conditions change.  Making this mode even more appealing, most cameras let us select the highest ISO setting (say, 6400) that we’re willing to allow.  So if the lighting level gets sufficiently dim, the ISO won’t go so high as to introduce a lot of noise into the image; instead, we just select a slower shutter speed and/or a wider aperture.

A good example of when it makes sense to use Manual Mode with Auto ISO is when shooting a street fair or an outdoor sporting event.  In these situations the lighting can change quickly depending on the cloud cover, what direction we’re shooting, and the subject and type of image we’re making.  The following three images were all shot at last year’s Carnaval San Francisco, a big street festival and parade.  It was a sunny day, but much of the parade route was in open shade, and depending on the subject there were times when I wanted to use some fill flash.  To freeze the motion, I needed a fast shutter speed, and to isolate my main subject I usually wanted a wide aperture.  Using Manual Mode, I could choose both of these settings.  But because the light conditions were ever-changing, coupling the use of Auto ISO with Manual Mode allowed the camera to adapt the exposure to the light levels for each image.

Full direct sunlight on the main subject made for very bright lighting.  Buy this photo

Open shade with a touch of fill flash required slightly different settings.  Buy this photo

A close-up portrait made in cross-lighting needed yet another exposure level.  Buy this photo

The next time you’re shooting in a shifting lighting environment yet also want to preserve full control over both shutter speed and aperture, try Manual Mode with Auto ISO.  It’s not covered in most cameras’ instruction manuals, but it can be a big problem-solver in many situations.

Do you use Manual Mode with Auto ISO to control exposure?  Do you have other tips for how to adapt to changing lighting conditions without handing over the creative control to your camera?  Please share your experiences here.

Want to read other posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

 

The Things We Carry [Encore Publication]: Basic Gear for Travel Photography, Part II

Kyle Adler photographer travel photography

Let’s pick up the gear discussion where we left off on the recent post.  Last time, we covered cameras and lenses.  Now we’ll talk about flashes, tripods, accessories, bags, and other essential kit.

Flash Units

Your camera most likely has a built-in flash, and in many cases that can be good enough to provide some fill-in lighting for backlit subjects or even to serve as a main light in very dark situations.  But for more flexible control over how much light you want, the quality of that light, and where that light comes from and goes to, you will likely want to have a separate flash unit.  I use the Nikon SB-910, which is powerful and flexible enough for most settings.  It has been discontinued and replaced by the Nikon SB-5000, but the older model is often still available.

Whatever flash you use, it is best to attach a diffuser of some sort to soften the otherwise very harsh light of the flash.  I also keep my camera set to lower the flash output by 1 stop, and I only override this setting occasionally.  Flash is often best when used sparingly.

Tripods

For most travel situations, you’ll want a lightweight tripod that folds up to a nice portable size but still offers enough stability for most uses.  There are times, though, when I need to bring along my heavy and bulky professional tripod.  Whatever tripod you choose, be sure to fit it with a good quality head (ball heads provide a lot of flexibility and ease of use for travelers) and remember to take along the plate that attaches the tripod to your camera, if required.

My go-to lightweight travel tripod is the Manfrotto Be Free.  It folds up to an incredibly small size yet affords a surprising amount of stability.  The included ball head works well but is difficult to adjust for sensitivity.  This tripod is designed to fit into a special pouch in my favorite travel photography backpack, also made by Manfrotto.

The SLIK 615-315 is a great tripod for use close to home or on trips where you will have constant vehicle support.  It’s very solid, supports a tremendous amount of weight, and can be adjusted for nearly any shooting situation.  I recommend you fit it with a good ball head for maximum flexibility.

A monopod can be a real problem solver when you need more stability than handholding or resting your camera on a vehicle or table will afford, but you can’t carry or use a full tripod.  I use the Manfrotto 681B model.

Accessories

We photographers love our toys!  While it is easy to get carried away and purchase every cool accessory that comes along, I will try to limit the recommendations here to a handful of truly essential items.  And don’t forget the little things like lens cleaning cloths, a blower brush for dust, and of course extra batteries and chargers for your camera and flash.

Three kinds of filters are essential gear for most photographers.  I’ll cover each type below.  Note that you must use a filter that is the correct size to attach to your lens.

It’s a good idea to keep a UV filter attached to your lenses at all times, as this helps protect the front element of the lens from scratches.  Use a good quality filter, though, as the poorer ones can affect image quality.  I would recommend removing the UV filter when shooting with certain other combinations of filters, as the edges of the image can be cut off (vignetting) with too thick a stack of filters on the end of the lens.  I’ve had good luck with Hoya UV filters.

The second must-have type of filter is the circular polarizer.  A polarizing filter can reduce glaring reflections and can darken skies and enhance natural colors.  This little gadget is almost a secret weapon for making images that really pop.  Again, I like the Hoya products, which are thin, well made, and perform as they should.

The final essential filter is the neutral density filter.  These reduce the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor, so you can use slower shutter speeds to blur motion, or so you can use a wider aperture to get a shallow depth-of-field, even in bright sunlight.

Another essential is a good remote release for your camera.  I know plenty of photographers who still use the good old trusty wired (or cable) releases.  I like to be able to move away from the camera when shooting remotely, so I favor a wireless release such as the RFN-4s Wireless Remote Shutter Release.

Smartphones

Most of us would never consider leaving home without our phone, and there are additional good reasons to carry yours with you when you are photographing at home or around the globe.  First, the cameras in today’s better phones are now good enough to make quite good images.  I’ve been very impressed with the quality of the main camera, and even the selfie camera, on my Apple iPhone 6S.  But your phone is also an essential photography tool because there are some very good apps to help you plan, shoot, and share your images.  There are too many to list here, but I’ll plan a future post to share some of my favorites.

Bags

Aside from cameras and lenses, no other category of gear gets photographers arguing quite so heatedly as bags.  For a travel photographer, your bag must be highly protective and durable yet lightweight, fit your gear well but with the flexibility to change out kit as needed, and preferably not advertise that you have expensive camera equipment inside.  The choice of what bag to use is a very personal one, but I’m still going to recommend my three favorites.

For those times when you need to bring most or all of your gear on a trip, I like the Tamrac 5586 Expedition 6x Backpack.  It carries a lot of gear snugly and flexibly, and it doesn’t look like a camera bag so it’s less likely to invite the wrong kind of attention.  It will almost always be accepted as carryon on flights, but it is a bit bulky and heavy for all-day, everyday use while traveling.  I’ll often use this bag to get all my gear to my first destination, then pack a day bag for just the gear I’ll need for each day of the trip.

My current favorite bag for day use for nearly any shooting situation near home or while traveling is the Manfrotto MB MA-BP-TRV Advanced Travel Backpack.  It can fit a reasonable amount of gear while leaving room for non-photography items like a jacket or a water bottle (yes, even photographers occasionally have to drink or stay warm).  It disguises your gear pretty well, has good rain protection, and even sports a special sleeve for carrying the Manfrotto Be-Free Travel Tripod.

For carrying just a few pieces of gear around town or close to home or hotel, a shoulder bag can work well.  This is the best setup for quickly accessing your gear while shooting, but it can be tiring to carry the weight across one side of your body if you have a lot of trekking to do.

Software

For post-processing my images, I use both Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop Elements.  I can do 90% of my processing using just Lightroom, but occasionally I do need the added power of Photoshop.  While I still use the perpetual license software versions, by now most photographers have gone over to the monthly licensing structure that Adobe calls the Creative Cloud.

What gear can’t you live without?  Have you discovered any little gadgets that improve your images or make life easier for photographers?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box.  I’d love to get your ideas!

Want to read more posts about photographic gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

The Things We Carry [Encore Publication]: Basic Gear for Travel Photography, Part I

In today’s post, we’ll cover cameras and lenses.  I’ll post again soon with Part II, which will discuss flash units, tripods, accessories, bags, and other essential gear.

One of the biggest challenges we face as travel photographers is what gear to carry with us.  On the one hand, we have to be ready for anything.  It’s quite possible we will have to shoot landscapes, wildlife, portraits, architecture, indoor performances, and night scenes, often all on the same day.  On the other hand, there’s a practical limit to how much we can carry without being turned away by airline personnel or damaging our bodies.  And who really wants to travel with 75 pounds of photo kit?

Here is my basic setup for travel.  Note that my gear is suitable for a professional or enthusiast photographer on a not-unlimited budget (my wife keeps me from getting carried away).  There are less expensive alternatives for most of the gear I carry, and those on unlimited budgets can spend much, much more than this.  I will adjust what I bring depending on the specifics of the trip.  For a safari in East Africa, that 500mm lens is essential, but I wouldn’t want to lug it on a hiking trip in Ireland.  On a trip to view a total solar eclipse, I’ll need that rock solid but very heavy professional tripod, but on most trips my lightweight travel tripod is good enough, thank you.  But the following list of items comprises the core of my basic travel gear.

Cameras

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to your choice of camera.  These days, even a simple point-and-shoot camera or a smartphone camera is capable of making very good images.  But if you’re willing to carry a bit more weight and to learn how to use it before you take it on your first trip, a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera or a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera will give you much more flexibility.  I use a DSLR, but more and more of my photographer friends are switching over to mirrorless cameras.  It’s really a matter of personal choice, and if you’re not planning to carry a lot of specialized (and heavy) lenses with you, the smaller size and lighter weight of a mirrorless camera may make up for the loss of certain features.  For very photo-intensive trips where it would be impossible to replace a lost or broken camera, such as an African safari, I will pack two DSLR camera bodies, but often I take a chance and bring just one.  Whatever camera you take on your trip, make sure you know how to use all its features and have tested it thoroughly before you leave, and if you’ve been using it for a while, have it cleaned in advance of your departure.  Note that while I am a Nikon shooter, comparable gear is available from Canon for DSLR afficianadoes.  In the high-end mirrorless arena, Sony’s Alpha a7R II is favored by many professionals and enthusiasts.

My go-to camera is the Nikon D810.  This is a professional model and not for beginners, but it really does do it all.  The resolution is extraordinary, it performs superbly in very low-light situations, the autofocus is fast and flexible, it’s continuous burst shooting speed is good enough, and I love the feel of the camera in my hands and the control it offers over all settings quickly.  I’ve put this baby through hell and high water, but it always comes through for me.

Lenses

For beginning users of interchangeable lens cameras, or for seasoned photographers who need to travel light, a small and lightweight “walkaround lens” may be all that you need to bring for a day’s shooting.  Mine is the Nikon 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 lens.  It’s a good value for a well-built if not quite professional grade lens, and while not particularly fast, it does offer vibration reduction which allows you to shoot at slower shutter speeds while controlling for camera shake.  I recommend this lens for users of cameras with full-frame sensors who want a small, light, and fairly durable lens for those situations when you want to be ready for most anything.

It’s a good idea to have a wide-angle zoom lens for landscapes, architecture, and other situations where you need to include a lot of area in the frame or want a more uncluttered or exaggerated perspective.  I use the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 lens for this purpose.  It’s got great image quality and is well built, but it is rather heavy and bulky.

A telephoto zoom lens is a must-have for most travel photographers, as it allows you to shoot many wildlife subjects as well as emphasize details in all subjects you encounter.  A longer lens also can be used to provide a compressed perspective that makes far-away subjects appear to be closer to foreground subjects; this perspective can be very powerful in landscape images.  My primary tele zoom is the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR lens.  While this lens is built on aging technology and doesn’t always feel as solid as more professional lenses, it is relatively small and lightweight, fairly inexpensive, and provides a very effective vibration reduction function.  This lens has been a staple in my bag for many years, during which time I’ve used it to capture some of my favorite images.

 

You may never need a super-telephoto lens.  They tend to be expensive, bulky, and heavy, and on many trips you won’t need it.  But for those trips when you expect to encounter lots of wildlife or want to capture astronomical events like an eclipse or transit of a planet, a very long lens is essential.  Mine is the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 lens.  It’s more economical than a Nikon or Canon super-tele, and it produces reasonably sharp images even when used at its widest aperture.  You can spend much more on this type of big glass if you want or need to, but I’ve found this lens works quite well for me.

So far, we’ve talked about zoom lenses.  It’s also a good idea to carry a few prime (fixed focal length) lenses.  These tend to be faster, higher quality, and less expensive than zoom lenses in the same category.  The downside, of course, is that you have to “zoom with your feet,” that is, find a vantage point that works to compose your image without benefit of changing the lens’ focal length.

If you pack only one prime lens, it most likely will be a “normal” lens, that is one with a focal length of about 50mm for a full-frame camera or about 35mm for a crop-sensor camera.  I carry the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens.  This is the one I use in very low-light situations or to get a really shallow depth-of-field.

I think my current favorite lens of all is my Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a human being.  I use it for nearly all of my portrait work these days.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh”, or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

A wide angle prime lens can be useful for landscapes, architecture and interiors, and astrophotography, among other purposes.  I like the Nikon 24mm f/1.8.

 

Stay tuned for Part II of our gear discussion, to be posted soon on this same Bat Channel.

What’s your go-to camera and which are your indispensable lenses?  Add your thoughts to the comment box at the end of this post!

Want to read more posts about photographic gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” ~Maya Angelou [Encore Publication]: How to make great portraits while traveling or near home

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” ~Maya Angelou

I have long believed that travel equates to growth; that we cannot know our place in the world until we have experienced the lives of people in many different places.  Of all the joys of travel photography, to me the greatest is having the chance to meet people from very different backgrounds, to get to know them for a few minutes or for much longer, and to collaborate with them to make memorable images.

A recurring theme in this forum will be how to use our cameras as a bridge to learn about and to share insights into other cultures.  But the emphasis of this particular post is on the technical elements of creating portraits.  These techniques apply as well to shooting portraits across the street from our home as to making great people images halfway around the world.

Most portraits that we see published in magazines or photography books were made in the studio, where the photographer has complete control over the lighting and background, and often is working with a professional model.  But when we’re traveling, there’s often only a moment after getting to know a person and receiving their permission to photograph them, during which to set up our gear and shoot.  We have to live with whatever lighting is available and often must make do with a cluttered background.  To make this portrait of a woman enjoying a coffee break at a carpet-weaving collective in Turkey, I wanted to give the image a soft, flattering look and to bring out the rich, saturated colors of her clothing.  I chose a smaller than usual aperture to provide greater depth-of-field, so that the old house itself became part of the environment.  To accommodate the soft and dim natural indoor lighting, I used a higher ISO setting and a slower shutter speed.

Turkey This portrait set in a weaving collective in Turkey evokes a sense of place and a mood of quiet repose.  Buy this photo 

While trekking in Nepal, we stopped to rest at a teahouse where these two sisters were also taking a break along their journey.  I wished them “Namaste,” or well wishes, and they responded with a traditional hand gesture of greeting.  This image was made long before the digital era on a film camera with a normal lens and natural lighting only (had I had a flash unit handy, it would have helped to bring out the girls’ hair against the dark background).  I love the warmth of the girls’ expressions and the simple but bright colors of their dresses set off against the black background of the teahouse’s interior.

NepalA friendly welcome from these two young sisters at a rural teahouse in Nepal.  Buy this photo

Sometimes we want to tell the viewer more about our subject than what is possible in a simple close-up portrait.  An environmental portrait allows us to include more than just the subject by zooming out and bringing in other elements.  I photographed this maker of traditional Turkish instruments in his workshop while he tested a nearly-completed Bağlama, surrounded by other partially made instruments.  To my eye, the resulting portrait is more compelling than a close-up because it shows the subject in his environment.  To make this portrait, I used a wider focal-length and a narrower aperture so as to have more of the environmental elements in the frame and in focus.

TurkeyAn environmental portrait of a maker of traditional Turkish musical instruments.  Buy this photo

A portrait doesn’t have to portray a stock-still person posing for the camera.  Some of my favorite portraits evoke a strong sense of motion.  I made this portrait of a samba dancer during the Carnaval San Francisco annual parade by getting in close and shooting with a medium-length telephoto lens set to a small aperture to soften the background.  I used a fast shutter speed to freeze the action (although sometimes a slower shutter speed can be used to create a nice blurred effect).  In post-processing, I cropped the image to further isolate the dancer and emphasize the grace of the motion.

USA This dancer in a Brazilian Samba krewe was captured in a tight composition that was further cropped in post-processing to give a strong sense of motion.  Buy this photo

Keep an eye on the total composition when framing a portrait.  It’s more than just a matter of framing the subject within the image: other considerations include the background and the overall flow of the viewer’s eye across the image.  In this portrait of the proprietor of Maria’s Cafe in rural Cuba, I composed the image to use the brightly colored door, balcony, staircase, and tree to frame the subject herself.

CubaComposing a portrait involves thinking about the background and the viewer’s overall experience in looking across the image.  Buy this photo

A really good portrait should tell a story about the subject.  Here, Cuban tobacco farmer Benito relaxes in his drying barn with a cigar he just rolled from his tobacco harvest.  I got in close and used the natural light of his cigar lighter and the diffused sunlight within the barn, with no flash added.

CubaThis portrait of a Cuban tobacco farmer tells a story about who he is and what he does.  Buy this photo  

Consider the angle from which you shoot a portrait, as it has a strong influence on the emotional response of the viewer.  Most of the time we want to shoot a head shot or head-and-shoulders shot from a height midway between the top and bottom of the image, but to make this portrait of sisters on the outskirts of Arusha, Tanzania, I chose to shoot from slightly above.  It’s a fine line between giving a sense of vulnerability and causing the image to seem condescending, but I like this photo in part because I feel the unusual vantage point evokes a strong sense of emotion.

TanzaniaAn unusual shooting angle can enhance a portrait, but be careful not to overdo this effect.  Buy this photo

Another rule meant to be broken is freezing the action of a portrait’s subject.  During a fitness photoshoot with my friend Crystal, I shot mostly with a fast shutter speed to freeze her while she worked out.  But for this image, we wanted a blurred effect to create a sense of her forward motion while running, so I used a slower shutter speed.

A slower shutter speed can be used to give more sense of motion to a rapidly moving subject.  Buy this photo

Sometimes a perspective change can work wonders for a portrait.  In this image of the chief of a remote village in Swaziland, I got down low and shot with a wide-angle lens to portray her in the context of the hut behind her and the gourds she holds in her hands.  A wide view in a portrait can lead to less-flattering likenesses, so this effect should be used sparingly.

SwazilandA wide-angle lens and unusual perspective shooting from low to the ground lend this portrait of a Swaziland village leader a sense of connection to the place.  Buy this photo

A note on gear: My go-to portrait lens is the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a human.  I use it for nearly all of my portrait work these days.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh,” or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

Which of your portraits do you find most memorable, and why?  How did you create them?  Please share your thoughts here.

Please read this post for my essential tips on how to photograph people while traveling: Post on Travel Portraiture.

Baggage Claim: A photographer’s guide to how to pack for a trip

 Special trips often require specialized gear.  To photograph the total solar eclipse in Svalbard in 2015, I had to pack a heavy professional tripod, 500mm super-telephoto lens, a remote release capable of functioning in extreme cold, and a custom-made solar filter.  Thankfully, most trips are easier to pack for.  Buy this photo

Packing is never the most fun part of a trip, and the special challenges we travel photographers face can be particularly vexing.  But with a few guidelines and some common sense, we can easily bring along just what photo gear we’re likely to need and still be able to make room for some socks and underwear.  Here is my very opinionated guide to how to pack for any length and type of trip.

    1. What type of trip are you taking?
      • If it’s a driving trip directly from your home, you can bring all the gear your heart desires.  Just be sure not to leave valuables in plain sight in the car when you step away for more than a moment (thieves love camera gear), and make sure you have a shoulder bag or backpack to carry just what you need for car-free excursions.
      • If you’re flying (unless you have your own private jet, in which case you also need to make room for me on your next trip), you’re going to have to reduce the gear you carry to just the essentials.  It is possible to customize the foam insert in a hard-sided case to hold your photography gear, and then you can check this bag in the hold of the aircraft, but this requires some effort to prepare the case for your specific gear and then you will likely find the case quite heavy to lug around for the land portion of your trip.  And woe to you if your bag is misrouted, lost, or stolen.  I recommend packing a carry-on item that meets your carrier’s size requirements and filling it with just the most essential gear you’ll need on your trip.  More on that topic in a moment.
      •  For most purposes, a backpack is a good packing solution.  There are many styles available for photo gear, but my favorites are these two:
        1.  For those times when you need to bring most or all of your gear on a trip, I like the Tamrac 5586 Expedition 6x Backpack.  It carries a lot of gear snugly and flexibly, and it doesn’t look like a camera bag so it’s less likely to invite the wrong kind of attention.  It is almost always accepted as carry-on, but it is a bit bulky and heavy for all-day, everyday use while traveling.  I’ll often use this bag to get all my gear to my first destination, then pack a day bag for just the gear I’ll need for each day of the trip.
        2. My current favorite bag for day use for nearly any shooting situation near home or while traveling is the Manfrotto MB MA-BP-TRV Advanced Travel Backpack.  It can fit a reasonable amount of gear while leaving room for non-photography items like a jacket or a water bottle (yes, even photographers occasionally have to drink or stay warm).  It disguises your gear pretty well, has good rain protection, and even sports a special sleeve for carrying the Manfrotto Be-Free Travel Tripod.
    2. What types of shooting will you be doing on the trip?
      • Will wildlife or astrophotography be involved?  If so, you’re going to have to strain your back, anger the airline staff, and enlist your travel partner to help, because there’s really no substitute for a long and heavy super-telephoto lens in this situation.  When I’m on safari or chasing a solar eclipse, I pack my massive 500mm lens into the larger of my two backpacks and accept my fate.  You’ll realize it was worth the effort when you get home and are able to share your amazing photos of a leopard in a tree or the sun’s corona on full display during a total solar eclipse.
      • For most other types of trips, you won’t need to pack a really long lens.  My general rule is to pack a range of zoom lenses that covers from fairly wide (about 16mm) through fairly long (about 300mm), including a couple of fast prime lenses for when the light is low and/or the very best optical quality is required.
    3. How much redundancy do you need on the trip?
      • Always bring a backup battery (or several) and a backup battery charger.  Murphy’s Rule as applied to travel photography guarantees that batteries will die just as you frame the shot of a lifetime.  Bring at least one extra.  And chargers are left in hotel rooms or in tented camps on the Serengeti with some regularity, and they tend to get fried when plugged into unusual power grids, so bring an extra one with you.
      • Don’t forget the little things.  Pack several power adapters of the type used in the countries where you’ll be traveling.  These get lost easily and can be hard to replace while traveling.  Bring twice as many memory cards as you think you’ll require; it’s easy to fill them up when you get to shooting a mountain gorilla or carnaval dancers.  If you plan to back up to a laptop or external hard drive, bring extra connecting cables.  While traveling, I back up to a second type of memory card using my camera’s second card slot, so I bring quite a few memory cards of both types with me.
      • Lenses are heavy and expensive, but they sometimes stop working, so if you’re on a particularly important trip you may want to bring several lenses in overlapping focal lengths.  That is, you could bring a wide-angle zoom lens and a wide-angle prime lens, plus a walkaround zoom lens and a “normal” prime lens (about 50mm for a full size sensor or about 35mm for a crop sensor), plus a telephoto zoom lens and a telephoto prime lens or two telephoto zooms with overlapping ranges.
      • If it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build your portfolio with very special and irreplaceable images, I recommend bringing a backup camera in addition to your primary camera.  For a recent safari trip in East Africa, I brought two DSLR bodies as well as quite a few lenses so that I’d have a backup solution to any single point of failure.  The more exotic your destination, the more likely that dust, wind, salt, extreme heat or cold, and heavy shocks or drops will damage your gear, so for those amazing one-of-a-kind trips I suggest biting the bullet and carrying backups for any gear that could fail.
    4. What accessories do you need to accompany the rest of your gear?
      • Attach a UV filter to each of your lenses before you leave and keep it on to protect the front element of the lens throughout your trip.
      • Carry a polarizing filter and a range of neutral density filters in the correct diameters to fit at least your wide-angle lens and your walkaround lens.
      • For more on filters, read this post: Post on Filters
      • A flash unit is helpful to have on most trips, unless you’re sure there will be ample natural light or you’re willing to use your camera’s built-in flash.
      • A good lightweight travel tripod with a head and mounting plate that suit your needs is essential gear on many trips.
      • Don’t forget any special-purpose gear that you need for just this type of trip.  When I travel to see a solar eclipse, for example, I need to be sure I bring my solar filter that attaches to my super-telephoto lens.  I also need to bring my heavy-duty professional tripod instead of the lightweight one I typically carry on trips.
    5. How will you be shooting from day to day during the trip?
      • If you’ll have constant vehicle support or won’t be going far from your hotel, you may be able to make do with just the bag you brought on the plane.  Or you can bring along a small shoulder bag to carry just a few items for the day’s shoot.
      • Most of my trips involve considerable hiking and public transportation from day to day, so I either carry everything in my smaller backpack or bring it along in checked baggage during the flight.  Then I can transfer just the gear I need for each day’s shoot into the smaller pack, which makes life easier when hiking 10 or so miles per day.

For a safari you will need a long lens to capture small or distant wildlife.  I recommend bringing a beanbag for camera support instead of a tripod, as the latter cannot be used in a safari vehicle.  Be sure to bring an extra camera and lenses, and carry more batteries and memory cards than you think you’ll need.  Buy this photo

Of course, if you use a mirrorless camera with only a couple of compact lenses or an advanced point-and-shoot camera, you do not have to worry about many of these items, but still be sure to review the list above to ensure you bring all required accessories.

With an overall strategy tailored to your itinerary and shooting style, and careful attention to execution to ensure you don’t forget anything, it’s really not that difficult to pack just what gear you’ll need in a way that will allow you to enjoy your trip when you’re not shooting.  After all, travel is about gaining experiences, and not all of those experiences can or should be photographed.  Pack for your photography, but also for your overall travel enjoyment.

What are your hacks for packing your photo gear for a trip?  Please share your tips and tricks in the comments box here.

Filtered Down to the Essentials [Encore Publication]: Why you should always have these filters in your bag

Filters are the Rodney Dangerfield of photographic gear: They don’t get enough respect.  Most photographers will begin to salivate when talking about the latest camera bodies or lenses and even plates or heads for our tripods, but we tend to think of filters as pedestrian items, if we think about them at all.  I nearly always make room in my bag for several filters, and I believe that using them properly is more important than what camera or even which lens I choose.  Let’s look into why these affordable little accessories are so important.

Three kinds of filters are essential gear for most photographers.  I’ll cover each type here.  Note that you must use a filter that is the correct size to attach to your lens.

It’s a good idea to keep a UV filter (also known as a haze filter) attached to your lenses at all times, as this helps protect the front element of the lens from fingerprints, moisture, and even scratches.  In addition to offering some physical protection for your lens, a good UV filter can also improve image quality when there is atmospheric haze or moisture in the air.  Use a good quality filter, though, as some can adversely affect your image quality.  I would recommend removing the UV filter when shooting with certain other combinations of filters, as the edges of the image can be cut off (vignetting) with too thick a stack of filters on the end of the lens.  In most cases, use of a UV filter does not affect the exposure more than about half a stop, so they can be used in most lighting conditions. I’ve had good luck with Hoya UV filters.  Always be sure to look at the specifications for your lens before buying any screw-on filter, because the diameter of the filter thread must match the size of the lens.

The second must-have type of filter is the circular polarizer.  A polarizing filter can reduce glaring reflections and can darken skies and enhance natural colors.  This little gadget is almost a secret weapon for making images that really pop.  Again, I like the Hoya products, which are thin, well made, and perform as they should.

It takes a bit of practice to learn to use a polarizing filter properly.  While looking through your camera’s viewfinder or LCD screen, turn the outer part of the filter slowly to see the effect.  The greater the angle between the light source (typically the sun) and the shooting direction, the bigger the effect of turning the outer ring of the filter.  You will observe as you rotate the outer ring of the filter that the sky, clouds, and any bodies of water will transform quite dramatically.  When you see the effect you like best, overshoot a little bit and then rotate the outer ring back to where you want it.  In most cases, I recommend not using the maximum amount of polarizing effect when there are reflections from water or glass, because you usually want some of these reflections to be visible in your final image, but this is art, not science, so you get to choose the effect you want.  Note that using a polarizing filter will cost you about 2-3 stops of exposure.  You will have to use a slower shutter speed and/or faster ISO or wider aperture, so use a steady tripod if the lighting conditions are dim.

Here’s an example of a shooting situation in which a polarizing filter can really make an image pop.  For this shot of the imposing peaks in Southern Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park, I rotated the polarizer to about 2/3 of its maximum effect to darken the sky, make the clouds more dramatic, and bring out the bright sheer faces of the granite peaks.

A circular polarizing filter makes a big difference when shooting mountains, skies, and/or bodies of water.  Buy this photo

The final essential filter is the neutral density (ND) filter.  These reduce the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor, so you can use slower shutter speeds to blur motion, or so you can use a wider aperture to get a shallow depth-of-field, even in bright sunlight.  ND filters come in different strengths as designated by the number in the filter’s specifications.  For example, an ND2 filter blocks 1/2 the light for a one-stop reduction in exposure, while an ND8 filter blocks 7/8 of the light for a three-stop reduction in exposure.  It’s a good idea to carry a range of ND filters for each lens you plan to use in the field.  A newer type of ND filter even allows for variable adjustment of the strength of the ND effect with just one filter, but these tend to be expensive.

A classic example of a situation in which you’d want to use an ND filter is when shooting moving water in bright lighting conditions.  You may want to use a longer shutter speed to blur the water, but even at your camera’s lowest ISO setting and your lens’ smallest aperture there could still be too much light for a slow shutter speed.  Mounting an ND8 filter to your lens will allow you to use a shutter speed eight times longer than without the filter, so for example you could move from shooting at 1/30 of a second to 1/4 of a second.

Here’s a photo of my younger daughter by a waterfall in Yosemite National Park.  The image was made in the early afternoon under very bright sunlight, bright enough that even using my camera’s slowest native ISO sensitivity and my lens’s most narrow aperture, I would still have had to use a shutter speed of 1/60 of a second, which would have frozen the water in the falls.  Using an ND8 filter, however, I was able to slow down the shutter speed to 1/8 of a second, long enough to impart a nice blur to the falling water.

 Use of a neutral density filter allowed me to blur the falling water even under very bright lighting conditions.  Buy this photo

I recommend carrying a kit containing several ND filters of different strengths for each lens you plan to use for landscape images.  Once again, make sure the diameter of the filter matches the diameter of the lens you intend to fit it to.

Note that there’s another type of ND filter called the “graduated ND filter,” and this filter varies the light-blocking effect from one end of the filter to the other end.  I used to use this type of filter quite often, but in this digital era I find it usually works just as well to simulate the effect of a graduated ND filter using post-processing software later.

Armed with these three types of filters, you will be prepared to create the images you have in your mind, even under challenging shooting conditions.  Happily, filters are small, light, and not terribly expensive, making them one of the better values we photographers can find.

Which filters do you always carry, and when have you found them most useful?  Any tips or tricks on how to use filters for the best results?  Please leave a comment in the box after this post to share your thoughts.

Want to see more posts about photography gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

 

Beyond the Auto Mode [Encore Publication]: Take control of your images by learning to manually set exposure, focus, and more

Travel photography is so exciting and satisfying in part because it requires us to capture every kind of image in all kinds of shooting environments.  You could be heading out to shoot landscapes when suddenly a rare sighting of an animal transforms your activity into a wildlife shoot.  Or you may be on the road for your next destination when you stumble upon a colorful local festival, and now you’re shooting portraits of the revelers.  This rich diversity of subjects also creates one of the biggest challenges for travel photographers: how to be prepared for anything that comes our way.  For beginning photographers there is some comfort in using the Auto mode that nearly every camera offers.  After all, we’re more likely to get an acceptable shot this way, when the subject turns quickly from fast action to landscapes to the low light of evening, or to an indoor performance.  But in most cases, your camera’s Auto mode, which attempts to make its best guesses as to what settings to use given existing conditions, will yield only acceptable photos and not the striking and memorable images we’re after.

There is a better way.  Take control of your images by learning how to manually set your exposure, focus, and other aspects of your photo.  All advanced point-and-shoot cameras and all mirrorless and DSLR cameras allow you to set most functions manually.  Even some basic point-and-shoot models have a way to go manual, but often this will involve options buried deep in a menu somewhere.  And there are apps available for both iOS and Android smart phones that allow you to take manual control over your phone’s camera.  I use an iPhone 6S, and I’ve found the “ProCam 4” app to work very nicely for providing control over the phone’s camera setting for exposure, focus, and flash.  You can find it for less than $5 on the Apple App Store: ProCam 4 App.  Even without using an app, most smart phone cameras do allow you to override the automatic settings by clicking on the part of the image you want to be in focus and used for the exposure setting; usually you can also set the exposure based on a different area of the image from the area that you want to be in focus.  But the dedicated apps will give you greater control, as they allow you to choose the shutter speed, aperture (when not fixed), and ISO for each shot.

For this image of a whirling dervish in Goreme, Turkey, I wanted to blur the dancer so as to give a sense of the continual turning motion in the ceremony, so I used my camera’s shutter-priority exposure mode and selected a slower shutter speed.  Buy this photo

The key to successfully using your camera’s manual settings is to learn how they work and to practice at home, long before you actually take a trip.  Like anything else, selecting the settings we want on a camera takes practice.  In this digital era, it’s easier to learn because you can see the results of each setting immediately on your camera’s screen.  So dig out that camera user guide, or find it online, or search for a good tutorial.  But do learn how to adjust the key settings manually.

The first manual setting every photographer should learn is how to turn off your camera’s flash.  This sounds very basic, but I’m always amazed to see so many flashes going off in inappropriate places: museums that don’t allow flash photography, cultural performances, sports stadiums where the subject is thousands of feet away from the camera (the flash will only provide acceptable lighting for a few dozen feet, at most), and even the shy octopus exhibit at our local aquarium.  Believe me, you do not want to flash the octopus.  So learn how to turn your flash off, and be sure you actually do turn it off when you’re in a venue where flash is inappropriate or won’t help your image be better exposed.  Remember that glass reflects light, so you don’t want your flash on when shooting through windows of a vehicle or the glass windows of animal enclosures at zoos or aquariums.

Next, learn how to set your camera’s exposure manually.  The light meters built into today’s cameras are very smart, but they are also easily fooled by tricky lighting conditions.  The most common problem is backlighting.  If your subject is lit from behind, as many outdoor subjects are, your camera’s auto mode will likely expose for the brighter background and will leave your main subject underexposed.  You can adjust for this is several ways.  It may be good enough to just use your camera’s exposure compensation button to dial in, say, one extra stop of exposure.  Use your camera’s LCD screen and (if it has one) the histogram, to see how the subject is exposed with varying levels of compensation.  In some cases (if your main subject is quite close to the camera), you can use fill flash to fix backlighting problems.  To do so, manually turn on your camera’s flash, or attach a separate flash unit, and choose the setting for “fill flash” or “balanced TTL” (through the lens) flash mode.  Again, check exposure using your camera’s screen and histogram.  I find I usually get good results in tricky lighting conditions by using my camera’s spot metering mode, which tells the camera’s meter to use only the very center (or whatever area I select) of the image when choosing the exposure.

Other than allowing you to properly expose your main subject, manually setting the exposure also gives you control over what combination of shutter speed (how long the exposure lasts), aperture (how wide the lens is open), and ISO (how sensitive the camera is to light) you want for each shot.  If you’re shooting fast moving action like sports or wildlife, you will likely want to choose a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion (unless you want a blur effect as an artistic choice).  If you’re photographing a waterfall or sky and want to get some nice blurring of the water and/or clouds, you will probably want to choose a slower shutter speed.  Many times you want only certain parts of the image to be in focus.  A wide aperture (low F-stop number such as f/1.8) will give you a shallow depth-of-field, allowing only one part of the image to be in focus and blurring the other parts.  Conversely, a narrow aperture (high F-stop number such as f/16) will allow all parts of the photo to be in focus.  The final element determining exposure is the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor, measured by an ISO number.  Select a higher ISO (such as 1600 or above) only when you really need the extra sensitivity for very low-light subjects when a longer shutter speed or wider aperture is not suitable.  When you use very high ISO settings, the image will tend to have a lot of noise.  Today’s cameras are getting better at limiting noise at high ISO settings, and there are ways to reduce some of the effects of the noise using post-processing software, so my approach is to use as high an ISO as is required after considering the range of available shutter speeds and apertures.

To capture these professional beach volleyball players in sharp focus and to freeze the moment, I selected single-focus-point focus mode and chose the exact spot in the viewfinder where the players would be positioned, and also used my camera’s shutter-priority exposure mode to select a very fast shutter speed.  Buy this photo

The other major type of manual setting that you need to know how to use is focus.  Most cameras today do a pretty good job of choosing the right part of the image to focus on, but they often need some help from the photographer.  From simple smart phone cameras through professional DSLRs, the autofocus function almost always lets the photographer select what part of the image they want to be in focus.  If you keep your camera in fully autofocus mode and don’t help by selecting where your main subject is, it may very well guess incorrectly and put another part of the image as the center of focus.  So, learn how to select the focus point even while letting your camera’s autofocus mechanism actually choose the focus distance.  Sometimes a camera’s autofocus capability may not work for the conditions under which you’re shooting, and in these cases you need to turn off autofocus completely, and focus in manual mode.  Some instances when this is necessary are when shooting in very low light conditions, or when shooting in poor contrast environments (for example, your subject’s texture looks a lot like that of its background, or you’re shooting into the bright sun).  In these cases, turn off the autofocus function and adjust focus manually until the subject looks sharp.

It’s still fine to walk around during your travels with your camera set in fully Auto mode, just in case something very unexpected comes up.  But do know how to set the main functions manually so you’ll get the best possible images in the 95% of the shooting situations when you do have time to set up first.

Want to read other posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/

Do you have tips and tricks you can share on manually adjusting the camera’s settings to get great shots?  How about a time you kept the camera on Auto mode and got disappointing results?  Please share your thoughts using the comment box at the end of this post.

If You Can’t Be with The Camera You Love [Encore Publication]: How to make the best of it when you don’t have ideal kit with you

There’s an old adage that goes, “The best camera is the one you have with you.”  That is never more true than for travel photography.  As travelers, we have to compromise regarding what gear we pack for a whole trip, and then we have to compromise again with respect to what equipment we can pack on a particular day’s outing during the trip.  If a flight is involved, we’re often obligated to leave much of our gear at home so as to avoid having to check our precious photography equipment.  If a good deal of hiking, biking, or travel via public transportation is required, we may have to leave bulky or heavy items in the hotel room for the day.

Fortunately, it’s never been easier to ensure we always have at least some backup solution to keep shooting even when a key camera, lens, filter, or tripod has to be left behind.  The smartphone that nearly everyone carries with them at all times likely has a pretty darn good camera attached to it.  My Apple iPhone 6s, for example, comes with a 12 MP camera, incorporating a decent if small sensor and a tolerable quality and moderately fast (f/2.2) lens.  Even the smaller “selfie” camera has a 5 MP sensor.

No one will confuse the images made using this camera phone with those made using my professional DSLR camera and collection of lenses, but in a pinch I can get acceptable quality shots with just the phone’s camera.  The trick is understanding how to use your smartphone’s camera, or your small point-and-shoot camera, in the right way to capture the images, and then to post-process the images in such a way as to overcome the compromises built into the camera.

Just yesterday I found myself on a family day trip to the annual Scottish Highland Gathering and Games without my professional camera gear.  I made the best of things and shot all day with just my camera’s phone.  I’m fairly pleased with the resulting images, even though of course they would have been better had I had access to my regular camera and a few choice lenses and accessories.  Here are a few of my images along with some tips on how to get the best out of a not-so-great camera.

First of all, learn how to control your phone’s camera manually so that you can choose what part of the image you want to be in focus and what part of the image you want to drive the exposure.  Nearly all modern phone’s cameras allow you to touch the screen to select where on the image you want to set the focus and exposure.  In this photo of a Scottish traditional music performance, I set the focus point on the fiddler to ensure sharp focus on the musicians.  Then I adjusted the exposure by moving the vertical slider upward, in order to add some brightness to the image and avoid underexposing the backlit performers.

Touch your smartphone camera’s screen to select the focus point, and then move the exposure slider up or down to adjust the exposure separately from the focus point.  Buy this photo on my website

Better yet, take full manual control over your phone’s camera by installing an app.  There are good free and inexpensive apps for both iOS and Android.  The one I use for iOS is called “Manual” and is available on the Apple App Store: Manual app.  With such an app installed on your camera, you can specify manually exactly what settings you want to use for the focus point, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, flash, etc.  This level of control was essential for a shot like the one below.  The tossin’ of the caber, a “heavy athletics” event in which the contestants throw a 75-pound tree trunk as far as possible, requires a fast shutter speed in order to freeze the rapid action.

Note: Since I first wrote this post, I have started using a different iOS app to take manual control over my phone’s camera.  It’s called “ProCam 4” and it’s quite a bit more sophisticated, but as easy to use, as the “Manual” app.  You can purchase it on the Apple iTunes Store here: ProCam 4 App.

Using the “Manual” app I was able to focus on the athlete and choose a fast shutter speed to freeze the rapidly moving caber.   Buy this photo on my website

To capture this action shot of an indoor sheepdog trial, I had to set a fast shutter speed and increase the camera sensor’s sensitivity (ISO) to accommodate the quick action and the low-light setting.  Again, the Manual app allowed for this flexibility.  I also cropped the image during post-processing because the phone’s camera does not have a long enough focal length lens to zoom in closely on the subject.

Both manual selection of the ISO and shutter speed and cropping during post-processing are required to get a decent shot of action like this sheepdog trial.  Buy this photo on my website

To capture this image of a girl teaching young children how to dance around the maypole, I had to use all the elements we’ve been discussing here.  I used manual settings to choose a focus and exposure that were correct for this subject, forced the camera’s flash to fire to try to even out the harsh shadows across the girl’s face, and employed cropping and lighting adjustments during post-processing to achieve a pleasing composition.

Bringing it all together: To make this image of the maypole celebration, I manually selected the focus, exposure, and flash, and then cropped and adjusted exposure during post-processing.  Buy this photo on my website

Next time you can’t or just don’t have the best equipment with you, use the tips we’ve covered here to make the best of a challenging situation.

When did you have to make do with less than ideal gear for a shoot?  How did you make the best of it?  Do you have tips or tricks you can add?  Please contribute your thoughts using the comment box at the end of this post.

Want to read more post about photographic gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

People Pictures Beyond the Selfie [Encore Publication]: Why selfies don’t make great images, and how to get really good pictures including yourself

Several times in the pages of “To Travel Hopefully,” I’ve emphasized the importance of including yourself and your travel companions in some of your images.  Not only will you and your friends enjoy seeing yourselves captured in these travel photos, but the inclusion of people in travel images gives a sense of scale to the places you visited and tells a more compelling narrative than would be possible in photos without people.

The standard way of including yourself in a photo these days is to use your phone’s selfie camera, but there are a number of reasons why taking selfies is not the best way to capture your own likeness in an image.  First, the sensor in the front-facing (“selfie”) camera on your phone very likely has a much lower resolution than does the phone’s regular camera, so the picture quality is lower.  Second, it’s difficult to properly compose a photo when holding the camera out at arm’s (or selfie stick’s) length, let alone to smoothly release the shutter.  Third, the perspective imparted to the image when the camera is held above in selfie fashion is distorted and often unflattering.  It’s really quite unlikely that you’ll get professional quality images of people using the selfie technique.

A selfie doesn’t allow you to properly compose your image, is awkward to shoot, and uses a low-quality image sensor.  Instead, mount your camera on a tripod, compose the image exactly the way you want it, and release the shutter remotely or with the camera’s self-timer.  Or enlist the help of another photographer.  Buy this photo

Fortunately, there are better ways of including yourself in your photos, and they’re not difficult to implement.  The two most straightforward methods are placing the camera on a tripod and triggering the shutter with a self-timer or remote release, and setting up the camera for another person to shoot handheld.

The basic setup is the same for either method.  Have the other people you want included in the photo stand in the desired location.  If you’re the only person present, make a note of where your body will be placed in the composition.  Then compose your image from the best vantage point, with the camera either mounted on a tripod or handheld.  Configure your camera’s settings (focus, exposure, flash, etc.) the way you prefer, and test the settings by shooting a few frames without yourself in the image.  Then move into your predetermined position in the frame and either fire the shutter remotely with the self-timer or remote release, or ask another person to push the shutter button for you.

If you do choose to have another person press the shutter release button for you, you need to be thinking about two things: 1) ensure they know how to operate the camera and won’t run away with it, and 2) be aware that in many countries and regions the person who pushes the button owns the copyright for the image even if they did not contribute artistically to making it.  I prefer to use a tripod and remote release whenever practical, so as to have a higher likelihood of capturing the image I envision and to avoid any question as to who owns the copyright.

Do you have a favorite method for including yourself in your photos?  Please share your ideas in the comment box.

Want to see more posts on how to shoot while traveling?  See them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/travel/shoot/.

Portraits from Irish Pubs [Encore Publication]: Ireland’s trad music scene is a visual as well as an aural treat

The Republic of Ireland has undergone tremendous social and financial changes over the last 20 years.  It’s now indisputably a modern global society with a strong diversified economic engine.  Yet it’s also a happy truth that today, as in days of old, the pub remains at the center of Irish social life.  Far more than a simple watering hole, the local Irish pub, whether in the center of cosmopolitan Dublin or in a tiny coastal fishing village, is a gathering place where stories are shared, traditional music is played, old friends catch up, and new friends are made.  Oh, and a pint or two might just be downed.

Many pubs feature live traditional, or “trad,” music on a nightly basis.  The casual informality of Ireland’s pub scene allows local amateur musicians to sit in with seasoned pros and pass down the songs from old to young.  Members of the “audience” (it’s hard to distinguish between performers and audience when the sessions are so participatory) are invited to step up to the “stage” (usually just a table covered with pints of beer) to sing a song at any time.  This informality allows the travel photographer to get to know these wonderful musicians over a few pints and to make authentic portraits without feeling like we’re intruding.

Today’s post is a simple photo essay featuring portraits I made of musicians and fellow customers at a variety of pubs across Ireland (plus one in Scotland).  I will forgo the usual technical details except to remind you that when shooting portraits in low-light settings where the use of flash is impossible, that a good fast portrait lens should be used along with a high ISO setting.

My current favorite lens of all is my Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a human being.  I use it for nearly all of my portrait work these days.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh,” or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

This young singer and fiddler who we met at Dublin’s famous O’Donoghue’s Pub was already a seasoned pro.  In this portrait I sought to capture her expressiveness with hand gestures.  Even without hearing her sing, the viewer can tell that she is expert at weaving stories.  Buy this photo

O’Donoghue’s is widely known as the spot where bands such as the Dubliners sparked the Irish folk music revival in the 1960s.  This band carries on the tradition, sharing songs old and new.  With a wide aperture comes shallow depth-of-field, so when photographing several people at one time you may have to choose which part of the image will be in focus.  Here I wanted to place the emphasis on the guitarist, so the other players are in softer focus.  Buy this photo

Another of Dublin’s great spots for trad music is the Cobblestone Pub.  On this night they were holding a very casual session, where all musicians were invited to come and play some tunes together.  The informality gave me a chance to get to know most of the players over the course of the evening and to make portraits without feeling like an intruder.  Again, the shallow depth-of-field required artistic choices about which subject would be in sharp focus and which would be in softer focus.  Buy this photo

In lively Kenmare, we wandered into a pub where a fabulous folksinger was performing many of the Irish songs I remember from childhood in Boston.  I chatted with Pat during his set breaks and bought a couple of his CDs.  He was a great subject for some expressive portraits, too.  Buy this photo

We didn’t have to leave our hotel on our first night in Killarney to hear some wonderful trad music.  This trio played many of our favorite songs right in the hotel’s pub, and they got most of the audience up to sing and dance along.  Buy this photo

Surprisingly, we heard only one rendition of Cockles and Mussels (aka “Sweet Molly Malone”) during our whole stay in Ireland.  This brave soul stood up in front of the crowd to sing that old standard.  Buy this photo

There’s nothing like watching an Irish crowd respond to the playing and singing of “The Wild Rover” to get one’s blood pumping.  Be ready to capture action in the “audience” as well as on the “stage.”  Buy this photo

Our second night in Killarney brought us into the center of town to an old and lively pub.  The table next to ours had four generations of a local family in attendance, each enjoying the musical set in their own way.  The oldest generation was my favorite.  Buy this photo

I got to know this fiddler over the course of the evening in Killarney.  During the break between sets she was kind enough to let me make her portrait.  It can be difficult in these crowded settings to avoid a cluttered background, but using a wide aperture for a shallow depth-of-field can help, as can careful post-processing.  Buy this photo

Elements I look for when making a portrait are faces with character and colorful details.  I found both with this accordion player and his beautiful instrument.  Buy this photo

 

The tiny fishing hamlet of Dingle has a population of just 1900 people, yet it somehow supports 52 lively pubs.  My kind of town!  Over pints of ale and shots of local whiskey in this colorful old pub, we made new friends from across the street and from as far away as Newfoundland.  This portrait of a musician was made almost entirely with light from the fireplace.  Buy this photo

The Scottish traditional music scene is as vibrant as Ireland’s, as evidenced by this band we heard at Edinburgh’s Sandy Bell’s Pub.  This place was bustling and extremely crowded.  The cluttered background somehow doesn’t detract too much from the power of this portrait.  Buy this photo

Have you traveled in Ireland or Scotland?  Do you have favorite portraits of the generous and friendly people you encountered there?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box.

Want to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling?  Find them all here: Posts on What to Shoot.

Cool, Calm, and Composed [Encore Publication]: All the technology in the world can’t replace your vision when composing images

Photographic composition is the process of determining which elements to include in the image and how to combine them in an artistically pleasing way.

What makes a great photograph?  You’ll hear many different answers to this question from different people, but to me a great photograph needs to integrate at least three of these four elements: compelling subject, beautiful light, flawless technical execution, and thoughtful composition.  Assuming we can find a great subject and either find or manufacture lovely lighting, the technology in modern cameras can assist us in certain technical matters such as exposure and focus.  But even the best of today’s AI technology can’t replace the artist’s vision when it comes to photographic composition.  For more of my musings on the application of AI to photography, see yesterday’s post: Post on AI and Photography.

Today’s post presents a quick primer on some of the guidelines that can help us compose our images.  But keep in mind that there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to composition.  The photographer must choose which “rules” to use when composing, and when to break some rules.

      • Rule of Thirds: One of the first compositional tools most beginning photographers learn is the so-called Rule of Thirds, which states that strong composition is achieved by placing key elements along the imaginary lines that divide the frame into thirds vertically and horizontally; better yet, try to place the most important parts of the subject at the intersection of a pair of these lines.  This portrait I made of two sisters in Arusha, Tanzania, places each sister’s dominant eye at an intersection point of two of the imaginary dividing lines.

Tanzania Buy this photo

          • Leading Lines: Another tool to aid in composing strong images is using the natural lines in the image to draw the viewer’s eye into the frame.  This landscape made while hiking part of the Sheep’s Head Way in southwestern Ireland incorporates the leading lines of the ancient stone wall, the rainbow, and the coastline to draw the eye down to the sea, over the rainbow, and across the coast.

 Buy this photo

          • Framing Elements: Using natural frames within the image to set off the main subject can be a useful technique.  Look for doors and windows in a population center, or for natural arches, trees, and other landforms in a natural setting.  This night landscape made in Yosemite National Park frames the Milky Way within a ring of trees and granite walls.

 Buy this photo

          • Point-of-View: Think about how the different elements in the image will appear in the perspective of your location.  I could have shot this portrait of a man with his duck at a street fair in San Francisco straight on with them both looking into the lens.  Instead, I chose a viewpoint that was very close to the duck’s head, shooting up from its perspective and relegating the human to the background and edge of the frame, nearly out of focus.  This changes the nature of the portrait to a more humorous and offbeat tone, which matched the occasion of the How Weird Street Faire.

USA Buy this photo

          • Background: Always be at least as aware of your background as your foreground subject matter.  Careful choice of background to support your image’s overall theme is one of the surest ways to elevate your image.  In many cases it is desirable to have a clean, uncluttered background, but for this image of the San Francisco Pride Parade, I wanted the background to support the theme of solidarity and strength in numbers.  While the main subject in the front is the only element in crisp focus, the layers of marchers with flags behind him supports the concept he is not alone.

 Buy this photo

        • Patterns: Composing an image around a recurring pattern can add considerable dramatic impact.  I framed this image of miners’ cottages in Svalbard, Norway by isolating the repeating pattern of houses, each in a different vivid color, against the stark white of the snow and bleak sky.

 Buy this photo

  • Symmetry: Images with symmetry along one or more dimensions are often striking and artistically pleasing.  The subject can have natural symmetry, such as in a face, or can be framed with its reflection to create symmetry.  I framed this image of a resting alligator with its reflection in the Louisiana bayou waters to create a dramatic symmetry.

 Buy this photo

Keep these guidelines in mind as you choose how to compose your images, but remember that which one(s) you apply will depend on the image, that its okay to break the rules, and that ultimately you are the artist and what you envision, not what the rules state, is correct for you.

What guidelines help you compose your best images?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

Mardi Gras SF 2018 [Encore Publication]: A case study on shooting action in low light

San Francisco has been celebrating Carnaval for 40 years, and for the past 5 years I’ve been documenting this wonderful event.  The anniversary season officially kicked off last night with San Francisco’s take on Mardi Gras.  I covered the small parade through SF’s historic Mission District and also the performances of several comparsas (like krewes or samba schools) at one of the event’s venues.  Today’s post showcases some of my favorite images from this year’s Mardi Gras while also serving as a case study for shooting fast action in extremely low light conditions.

Taking the approach of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” remember that when shooting action in low light it is okay occasionally to intentionally allow some motion blur to emphasize the movement.  Here I achieved a soft painterly effect by choosing a slower shutter speed to capture this image of a young dancer mustering for the parade.

The use of flash is required for much low-light action photography, but that doesn’t mean your images have to be harsh or unnatural looking.  A few hints: 1) Get the flash off your camera using a flash cord or remote control; 2) Use balanced fill flash instead of automatic flash for a more realistic look; 3) Dial down the flash’s power by using flash exposure compensation (I use -1 stop most of the time); 4) These settings often will require that you use a high ISO setting and a fast lens.

Use a fast prime lens to achieve a fast shutter speed along with a relatively shallow aperture to freeze and isolate your subject.  Most of these images were made with a 50mm f/1.4 lens.

In post-processing your images, consider these tips: 1) Apply some noise reduction to mitigate the digital noise associated with high-ISO shooting; 2) Adjust the white balance to render the colors you remember from the shoot (always shoot in RAW mode if possible to allow setting the white balance during post-processing); 3) Apply a touch of post-crop vignetting to emphasize your subject and reduce background clutter.

For group shots, try to find an uncluttered background and pose everyone as tightly as possible so that your fill flash will illuminate them evenly.  Don’t use a wide-angle lens for group shots!  Sure, doing so will make it easier to fit in all the subjects, but it also provides a very unflattering perspective for most people.  Here I shot with a 50mm “normal” lens and moved back to fit in the entire group.

Portraits work very well using balanced fill-flash techniques.  Be sure to find an uncluttered background and get the flash unit off the camera.  Here I bounced the flash off the awning of a building to achieve a soft effect relatively unencumbered by shadows.

By applying some of these techniques, you can capture fast-moving action even under extremely low-light conditions and still achieve realistic looking and flattering results.

Do you have suggestions for shooting action in low light?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts about techniques.  And remember that all the images featured in this post as well as thousands more are available for viewing or purchase on my website–just click on any photo to view it in more detail.

Focus on Tanzania [Encore Publication]: Every wildlife photographer’s dream destination

There are very few destinations more exciting to us travel photographers than East Africa.  My family’s 2.5-week trip to Tanzania, with a brief stroll into Kenya, was a dream come true.  Operated by Overseas Adventure Travel, the adventure began with a pre-trip excursion to the Kilimanjaro region, then moved on to the regional capital city of Arusha and to safaris in Tarangire National Park, Olduvai Gorge, Serengeti National Park, and Ngorongoro Crater.  It goes without saying that the wildlife photography in Tanzania is second-to-none, but we found the authentic cultural interactions with the nomadic Maasai and other local people to be a highlight of the trip.

The usually shy Mount Kilimanjaro made a brief appearance as we awaited sunset near our lodge.  The glaciers that adorn this iconic landform are melting quickly as a result of climate change, so this is a place to visit soon.  I used a polarizing filter on a medium telephoto lens to reduce the haze and bring out the texture of the mountain, and I framed the shot through some branches near our campfire.

Mount Kilimanjaro lit by alpenglow.  Buy this photo

On a game drive in the Kilimanjaro region, we encountered this lovely lilac-breasted roller.  To capture this image, I used a long telephoto lens (500mm, which was equivalent to 750mm when fitted on this camera) and stabilized it on a beanbag that I rested on the top of the safari vehicle.  This is a very important accessory to bring with you on a safari, as you cannot fit a tripod in a safari vehicle and a monopod is awkward.  While the beanbag that I use is no longer available, this one is well reviewed by photographers and represents a good value.


Lilac breasted roller captured with a 500mm lens in the Kilimanjaro region.  Buy this photo

The cultural learning and interaction was a big part of this trip.  Here my older daughter is greeted by a young Maasai woman as we arrived at their settlement.  The Maasai are nomadic herders, usually moving from place to place to pasture their cattle throughout the seasons of the year.  It was a fascinating opportunity to meet them and learn about their way of life, and to make portraits with the Maasai people we met.

A warm welcome as we arrived at the first of two Maasai villages visited during our trip.  Buy this photo

I had a fun interaction with this young Maasai boy by showing him the images as I shot his portrait in various places around the village.  He had not seen many photos of himself.  Here he is posing in front of his family’s house.

A Maasai boy by his family’s shelter.  Buy this photo

Our visit to the bustling city of Arusha was intended to be a staging point for the game viewing excursions to follow, but we found Arusha to be a very interesting cultural crossroads.  Here is a shot of what passes for a towing service in the area, a broken-down van being pulled to a service station on top of a donkey cart.  Always be on the lookout for serendipitous moments like this one when you travel!

A street scene in Arusha, the region’s largest city.  Buy this photo

Along the road from Arusha to Tarangire National Park, we stopped to chat with a group of several young Maasai men.  They had recently undergone the ritual circumcision ceremony that marked an important milestone on their journey to become warriors.  For the next six months they would wear the special face paint while they underwent their final training.  Our local guide was very helpful in facilitating our conversation.  Through him, I asked this man’s permission to make a portrait.  This was shot with a moderate telephoto lens and a wide aperture to soften the background.

A young man nears the end of his journey to becoming a Maasai warrior.  Buy this photo

Tarangire National Park is a gem of a nature preserve that is often overlooked by visitors to Tanzania.  Be sure to visit Tarangire if at all possible!  Here’s a shot of a baby baboon in a group of baboons we were observing there.  When shooting backlit wildlife, use your camera’s spot metering mode with the focus point on the animal, so your camera won’t underexpose the main subject.

A playful baby baboon in Tarangire National Park.  Buy this photo

We stopped for a visit to a second Maasai settlement, very different from our first Maasai encounter.  This second group of Maasai were only semi-nomadic and lived much of the year in a more permanent settlement.  While their way of life was a bit less precarious, and included public education and solid housing, they still lacked a source of safe drinking water, a common problem in East Africa.  We presented the chief with a water filter we had purchased in Arusha, for use by the whole village.  This group portrait was made of the villagers when they accepted our gift of the water filter.

Maasai villagers with their new water filter.  Buy this photo

Serengeti National Park is the stuff we travel photographers’ dreams are made of!  Along with game walks and game drives in open safari vehicles, we also had the chance to soar silently above the Endless Plains in a hot air balloon.  This is an amazing way to view the migrations of the herds and the predators and scavengers that tag along.  This image was made by shooting down from the basket of our balloon toward a balloon closer to the ground.  You can see the trees and herds of wildebeest on the plains below.

Safari by hot air balloon.  Buy this photo

Of the hundreds of animal species we encountered, including so much more than just the Big Five, the leopard was one of the most elusive.  Here we spotted (as it were) a leopard napping in a tree in Seregenti National Park.  This shot was made with a long telephoto lens resting on a beanbag in our safari vehicle.  My go-to lens for wildlife photography is the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 lens.  It’s more economical than a Nikon or Canon super-tele, and it produces reasonably sharp images even when used at its widest aperture.  You can spend much more on this type of big glass if you want or need to, but I’ve found this lens works quite well for me.

A sleepy leopard yawns in a tree above the Endless Plains of Serengeti National Park.  Buy this photo

The migration of the herds is an annual event across the combined national parks of Serengeti in Tanzania and Maasai Mara in Kenya.  It’s a spectacular sight as millions of wildebeest, zebra, and gazelles slowly migrate across plains and rivers, occasionally being eaten by the predators who follow them.  To give a sense of the scale and the action, in this image I zoomed in on a group of wildebeest with a telephoto lens so as to compress the scene.

A small vignette from the massive migration of the herds across the East African plain.  Buy this photo

We were very fortunate to come across this quiet scene of a lioness with her newborn cubs.  We watched from a distance so as not to disturb this family as she cleaned and played with her two cubs, them mewing like housecats all the while.  The light was low in this glen, and the long telephoto lens was slow, so I stabilized it on a beanbag and shot at a higher ISO setting to allow for a reasonably fast shutter speed.  There was some noise in the image as a result of the high ISO (camera sensors weren’t as good at high sensitivities back in 2012), but I did my best to reduce the noise during post-processing.

A mother lion spends some quality time with her cubs.  Buy this photo

We visited a primary school in a small community.  This was one of the first schools in Tanzania to serve breakfast and lunch to students who walk miles each way to school and would have to double their daily walking distance if they had to return home midday for lunch.  My daughter enjoyed talking with students about their daily lessons.

Visiting a classroom at a rural primary school.  Buy this photo

Farewell to Tanzania!  My family enjoys a glorious African sunrise at our tented camp located right inside the national park.

A Serengeti sunrise.  Buy this photo

Want to see posts on other travel photography destinations?  See them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/destinations/.

Have you visited East Africa?  What were the highlights of your trip?  Please share your comments here.

Focus on New Orleans [Encore Publication]: This iconic US city pulsates with jazz, creole, and historic beauty

Some places are magnets that draw us back again and again.  I’ve made at least a dozen visits to New Orleans and each time, I find something new.  It’s an iconic US city that also defies easy categorization.  Home to unique and cutting-edge forms of music, cuisine, and culture, it is also steeped in a grand historic past that evokes France, Spain, Africa, and the Deep South of the US.  Quite simply, there is no other place like New Orleans, and nowhere else do travel photographers find more charismatic subjects.  Here are a few of my favorite images from a recent visit to NOLA, along with a few words about what they depict and how they were made.

Aside from Paris, I can’t think of any other city that has influenced the cocktail more than New Orleans.  Here I captured my older daughter enjoying a classic NOLA libation during dinner on our first night in the Big Easy.  I used only natural light and selected a large aperture to soften the background.  Laissez les bons temps rouler!  Buy this photo

It’s boozy, vomit-filled, sophomoric, touristy, overpriced, and downright awful, but Bourbon Street is a part of the landscape and is worth a quick walk-by.  At night, its neon assault can almost seem romantic.  This shot was handheld using a high ISO setting and a small aperture for greater depth of field.  Buy this photo

The lovely Spanish colonial architecture of the French Quarter cries out to be photographed.  I made this shot of a wrought iron balcony using a telephoto lens and enhanced the color vibrancy during post-processing.  Buy this photo

It’s the tiny cheap eateries as much as the temples of haute gastronomy that keep New Orleans at the top of the list of cities for dining.  Be sure to grab some po’ boys, beignets, or muffulettas at these humbler places, and bring your camera to catch some of the action.  This image of workers in a po’ boy shop was shot from the hip, street photography style, using a high ISO to allow for a quick shutter speed.  Buy this photo

New Orleans is rightly famous for its jazz, which seems to seep through every crack in the pavement of the city and can be heard in places humble or elevated.  None is better than the iconic Preservation Hall.  As with many performance venues, this hall allows photography without flash, but it is always better to ask permission first and to be discrete during shows.  Use a fast lens and high ISO setting to allow a fast shutter speed.  Buy this photo

A short trip outside of the city quickly reminds you that New Orleans is a part of the American Deep South.  This image was shot from an airboat plying the bayous of Jean Lafitte National Historic Preserve.  I metered the exposure on the lush vegetation lining the waterway so as to avoid overexposure from the bright reflections.  Buy this photo

I captured this image of an alligator seeking the sun on an overcast winter’s day by framing tightly around the gator and its reflection.  In post-processing, I cropped to emphasize the symmetry of reptile and reflection and converted the image to black-and-white, while increasing its contrast a bit.  Buy this photo

I’m a big fan of food photography, especially when the plate is as strikingly beautiful as this one served at Brigtsen’s Restaurant.  I framed the shot tightly with a fast prime lens and a wide aperture to reduce the depth of field.  Buy this photo

Wherever we travel, we should make images that bring out a sense of place.  This image of my daughters strolling in the Garden District works because it captures the iconic symbols of this neighborhood–the stately mansions and live oak trees–while being a bit playful and framed in an unexpected way.  And as I’ve said many times, remember to capture your travel companions in some of your shots.  Buy this photo

Have you visited New Orleans with a camera in hand?  Please share your experiences.  Where do you like to visit and what do you like to shoot?

Want to read more posts about travel photography destinations?  Find them all here: Posts on Destinations.

Filtered Down to the Essentials [Encore Publication]: Why you should always have these filters in your bag

Filters are the Rodney Dangerfield of photographic gear: They don’t get enough respect.  Most photographers will begin to salivate when talking about the latest camera bodies or lenses and even plates or heads for our tripods, but we tend to think of filters as pedestrian items, if we think about them at all.  I nearly always make room in my bag for several filters, and I believe that using them properly is more important than what camera or even which lens I choose.  Let’s look into why these affordable little accessories are so important.

Three kinds of filters are essential gear for most photographers.  I’ll cover each type here.  Note that you must use a filter that is the correct size to attach to your lens.

It’s a good idea to keep a UV filter (also known as a haze filter) attached to your lenses at all times, as this helps protect the front element of the lens from fingerprints, moisture, and even scratches.  In addition to offering some physical protection for your lens, a good UV filter can also improve image quality when there is atmospheric haze or moisture in the air.  Use a good quality filter, though, as some can adversely affect your image quality.  I would recommend removing the UV filter when shooting with certain other combinations of filters, as the edges of the image can be cut off (vignetting) with too thick a stack of filters on the end of the lens.  In most cases, use of a UV filter does not affect the exposure more than about half a stop, so they can be used in most lighting conditions. I’ve had good luck with Hoya UV filters.  Always be sure to look at the specifications for your lens before buying any screw-on filter, because the diameter of the filter thread must match the size of the lens.

The second must-have type of filter is the circular polarizer.  A polarizing filter can reduce glaring reflections and can darken skies and enhance natural colors.  This little gadget is almost a secret weapon for making images that really pop.  Again, I like the Hoya products, which are thin, well made, and perform as they should.

It takes a bit of practice to learn to use a polarizing filter properly.  While looking through your camera’s viewfinder or LCD screen, turn the outer part of the filter slowly to see the effect.  The greater the angle between the light source (typically the sun) and the shooting direction, the bigger the effect of turning the outer ring of the filter.  You will observe as you rotate the outer ring of the filter that the sky, clouds, and any bodies of water will transform quite dramatically.  When you see the effect you like best, overshoot a little bit and then rotate the outer ring back to where you want it.  In most cases, I recommend not using the maximum amount of polarizing effect when there are reflections from water or glass, because you usually want some of these reflections to be visible in your final image, but this is art, not science, so you get to choose the effect you want.  Note that using a polarizing filter will cost you about 2-3 stops of exposure.  You will have to use a slower shutter speed and/or faster ISO or wider aperture, so use a steady tripod if the lighting conditions are dim.

Here’s an example of a shooting situation in which a polarizing filter can really make an image pop.  For this shot of the imposing peaks in Southern Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park, I rotated the polarizer to about 2/3 of its maximum effect to darken the sky, make the clouds more dramatic, and bring out the bright sheer faces of the granite peaks.

A circular polarizing filter makes a big difference when shooting mountains, skies, and/or bodies of water.  Buy this photo

The final essential filter is the neutral density (ND) filter.  These reduce the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor, so you can use slower shutter speeds to blur motion, or so you can use a wider aperture to get a shallow depth-of-field, even in bright sunlight.  ND filters come in different strengths as designated by the number in the filter’s specifications.  For example, an ND2 filter blocks 1/2 the light for a one-stop reduction in exposure, while an ND8 filter blocks 7/8 of the light for a three-stop reduction in exposure.  It’s a good idea to carry a range of ND filters for each lens you plan to use in the field.  A newer type of ND filter even allows for variable adjustment of the strength of the ND effect with just one filter, but these tend to be expensive.

A classic example of a situation in which you’d want to use an ND filter is when shooting moving water in bright lighting conditions.  You may want to use a longer shutter speed to blur the water, but even at your camera’s lowest ISO setting and your lens’ smallest aperture there could still be too much light for a slow shutter speed.  Mounting an ND8 filter to your lens will allow you to use a shutter speed eight times longer than without the filter, so for example you could move from shooting at 1/30 of a second to 1/4 of a second.

Here’s a photo of my younger daughter by a waterfall in Yosemite National Park.  The image was made in the early afternoon under very bright sunlight, bright enough that even using my camera’s slowest native ISO sensitivity and my lens’s most narrow aperture, I would still have had to use a shutter speed of 1/60 of a second, which would have frozen the water in the falls.  Using an ND8 filter, however, I was able to slow down the shutter speed to 1/8 of a second, long enough to impart a nice blur to the falling water.

 Use of a neutral density filter allowed me to blur the falling water even under very bright lighting conditions.  Buy this photo

I recommend carrying a kit containing several ND filters of different strengths for each lens you plan to use for landscape images.  Once again, make sure the diameter of the filter matches the diameter of the lens you intend to fit it to.

Note that there’s another type of ND filter called the “graduated ND filter,” and this filter varies the light-blocking effect from one end of the filter to the other end.  I used to use this type of filter quite often, but in this digital era I find it usually works just as well to simulate the effect of a graduated ND filter using post-processing software later.

Armed with these three types of filters, you will be prepared to create the images you have in your mind, even under challenging shooting conditions.  Happily, filters are small, light, and not terribly expensive, making them one of the better values we photographers can find.

Which filters do you always carry, and when have you found them most useful?  Any tips or tricks on how to use filters for the best results?  Please leave a comment in the box after this post to share your thoughts.

Want to see more posts about photography gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

 

Focus on Total Solar Eclipse in Chile: A photo essay of images from Chile and Easter Island

Having just returned from leading a 2.5-week photography tour through Chile and Easter Island and including the July 2 total solar eclipse, I’d like to share a few favorite images. You can find the full photo gallery here: https://www.kadlerphotography.com/Travel-Photography/Chile-Eclipse.

Santiago Cathedral’s tower reflected in the windows of a modern glass office building.
Glorious cityscape of Valparaiso.
We were fortunate to visit Valparaiso on the day of the Festival of St. Peter and St. Paul.
We were fortunate to visit Valparaiso on the day of the Festival of St. Peter and St. Paul.
We were fortunate to visit Valparaiso on the day of the Festival of St. Peter and St. Paul.
Sea lion sibling rivalry.
The diamond ring effect signals the start of the 2.5-minute period of totality.
A timelapse montage showing the path of the sun across the sky during the entire solar eclipse and through to sunset.
What we do on photography tours.
Glorious landscape around the Miscanti Lagoon.
Three species of native pink flamingo live in the Atacama Salt Flat.
Pattern and texture on the Atacama Salt Flat.
Three species of native pink flamingo live in the Atacama Salt Flat.
We were so fortunate to travel during a new moon in winter to the Atacama Desert. There’s no better combination of time and place for viewing (and photographing) the Milky Way.
Tatio Geyser Field.
Old church in the village of Machuca.
Valley of the Moon.
We enjoyed a breathtaking sunset at Kari Viewpoint in the Atacama Desert.
Group portrait of the entire Photography Tour team in front of the seven Mo’ai of Ahu Akivi on Easter Island.
Orongo Crater.
Gorgeous sunset over the ocean behind mo’ai.
Ahu Tongariki is the largest ceremonial platform on Easter Island, once holding 16 mo’ai. After the mo’ai were toppled during a period of civil unrest and then, more recently, devastated by a tsunami, 15 of them were reconstructed with help from Japan.
Traditional Rapa Nui face painting on Anakena Beach.
Vai Te Mihi performed a show of traditional Rapa Nui dance and music.
Vai Te Mihi performed a show of traditional Rapa Nui dance and music.
Vai Te Mihi performed a show of traditional Rapa Nui dance and music.
Worth the 3 AM wakeup call! A once in a lifetime opportunity to photograph the Milky Way above mo’ai on Easter Island. We had a bit of cloud cover, but overall I was very pleased with the resulting images.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this sampling of images from this amazing adventure. Please check out the full gallery here: https://www.kadlerphotography.com/Travel-Photography/Chile-Eclipse. And please join me for upcoming photography tours and workshops around the world: https://www.meetup.com/TravelPhotographyWorkshops/.