Celebration Time, Come On [Encore Publication]: How to shoot festivals, street fairs, and other celebrations

As a professional travel photographer, I have to be prepared at any given time to shoot in nearly every genre of photography.  Landscapes, urban scenes, street photography, night and astrophotography, sports, wildlife, and portraiture are all stock-in-trade, and I love them all!  But when I’m asked what my favorite photographic genre is, I reply that I love portraying living culture the most of all.  Making images of people celebrating their culture, especially when those images convey a sense of place, is my top objective when I shoot, whether I’m halfway around the world or near home.

Culture can be expressed in small everyday elements of dress, gesture, and environment.  But celebrations such as festivals, street fairs, religious observances, arts, and sports show us culture writ large.  It is these outpourings of color, sounds, motion, and ritual that show us how people are different and yet similar all around the world.  And of all the celebrations I shoot regularly, my favorite of all is the annual Carnaval San Francisco.  So in today’s post, we’ll explore how to shoot striking images of cultural celebrations, using Carnaval SF as an example.

This year’s Carnaval was held this past Sunday.  But I was privileged to be “embedded” with several of the comparsas, or Carnaval groups, during the months leading up to the big parade day.  This allowed me the opportunity to get to know the leaders and dancers in these groups, making very special images of the preparations for Carnaval.  While I won’t be including any of those behind-the-scenes images in today’s post, the images of the parade day itself did benefit from my having had the chance to get to know the members of these groups over the months leading up to the day.  We’ll include some discussion of this observation in the post.

I’d like to start with an observation on gear.  I see a lot of fellow photographers shooting at events like Carnaval with way too much gear.  When I say too much gear, I mean more gear than is good for them or for the participants and observers of the festival.  Several photographers had two or three DSLR bodies mounted with enormous zoom lenses and attached to large strobes with huge diffusers.  Some used monopods and a few even tried to set up tripods for this rapidly moving and crowded event.  I brought a single DSLR with two light and fast prime lenses (a 50mm “normal” lens, and an 85mm portrait lens).  That’s it.  I never mounted a zoom lens during the whole day of shooting and I never used any artificial light.  And of course I went handheld the whole day; there’s really no safe or practical way to use a tripod at a crowded and mobile event.  All 2500 images I made that day used just that compact kit, and I’m very happy with the results.

It’s a good idea to arrive well before the scheduled start time.  Often, the best images of the day will be the ones you make during the preparations rather than during the event itself.  For this image of a leader of the Viva la Diva group, who I knew well from working with them over the last few months, I got in close with an 85mm portrait lens and allowed her elaborate headdress to fill the entire frame.  Buy this photo

Try to include some of the elements surrounding the people in the celebration.  A portrait that shows a person or people within their surroundings is called an “environmental portrait,” and often these tell us more about the person and the culture than do close-ups.  Buy this photo

Seek out the key people in a celebration, such as the King of Carnaval shown here.  He has such an amazing presence that all I had to do was find the right vantage point and shoot away.  I always look for uncluttered backgrounds when making portraits, so the background doesn’t distract much from the image.  Buy this photo

Kids make wonderful subjects during celebrations, especially during those moments when they forget the camera is there and are completely uninhibited.  Buy this photo

Try to choose backgrounds that complement your subject without competing with it.  I asked this samba dancer to pose by a street mural whose bright blues complemented her own costume.  Buy this photo

Group portraits can be challenging.  It’s difficult during the chaos of a celebration to get everyone’s eyes on the camera.  Try to find a vantage point that flatters everyone in the image (for full-body portraits, it’s often best to shoot from the level of the middle of the body, not from head level), choose an uncluttered and undistracting background, and select an aperture that gives just enough depth-of-field to keep all the people in focus while softening the background.  Buy this photo

To make close-up portraits during the actual celebration (in this case, a parade), it is not necessary to use a long telephoto lens.  Shooting with a long lens means you’re “taking” the portrait, not “making” the portrait.  You simply can’t interact with your subject while shooting from far away.  I prefer to use a prime normal or portrait lens so that I can interact with my subject and make an image where his personality shines through.  It helped here that I knew the members of this group from our interactions over the last few months.  Buy this photo

Another reason to use a fast prime lens is that you can choose a very wide aperture (here, F/2.0 using an F/1.4 lens) to get tack-sharp focus on the subject’s face while softening the background and sometimes other parts of the body.  Here I wanted to emphasize the pointing gesture by having the fingers so close as to be out of focus, while the dancer’s face and body are in sharp focus.  Buy this photo

For images that really pop, use a large aperture (small F-stop number) to soften the background and separate the subject from the other people and objects around him.  Buy this photo

During the chaos and cacophony of an urban celebration, it’s nice to find those quiet moments, too.  While most festival dances are joyous and boisterous, this Latin American folkloric dance is quiet and mournful.  I wanted the portrait to reflect that mood, so I shot from the side as if walking next to the dancer and caught the quiet gesture of holding the white handkerchief.  Again, a large aperture was used to blur the background and emphasize the subject.  Buy this photo

I look for scenes where participants are just being themselves.  These girls were having a blast, marching and chatting with each other, but they also were interacting with the crowd.  I got down nearly to the ground so as to shoot from their level and framed the image so as to emphasize the color and pattern of their costumes.  Buy this photo

Most images of parades are shot from straight ahead looking backward onto the subjects.  You’ll observe in this post that most of my images are not made from that perspective, but occasionally it does work to frame a great scene, such as this delightful image of a salsa dancing couple.  Buy this photo

It can be challenging to include a whole parade contingent in one shot.  Here I was able to frame the whole group in formation, including some of the lovely San Francisco houses on the steep hill behind, by running ahead to the truck in front of the dancers and getting as much distance as I could between me and them.  I shot with an 85mm lens and selected a small aperture (large F-number) so as to keep all of the dancers and the background in focus.  Buy this photo

With bold and colorful costumes, some subjects cry out for a big striking close-up.  When this dancer stopped to interact with me, I got in close with a portrait lens and captured him full-frame.  Buy this photo

Don’t shy away from using non-standard aspect ratios.  To include the whole Muito Quente contingent, I moved back from the dancers and captured the whole width of the street, then in post-processing I cropped to keep the full width but remove the unwanted foreground and background portions.  Buy this photo

Again, it is helpful to know the participants in advance of the performance.  I had been working with the Muito Quente group for several months before the parade, which made it more natural to interact with each of the dancers and make the best images possible.  Buy this photo

Always shoot in RAW mode for maximum flexibility.  A few words about post-processing: Using Lightroom, I make small adjustments to the color and contrast curves so as to emphasize the subject.  A little boost to the vibrance (but not so much as to make the image appear unnatural) and a touch of post-crop vignetting can really make the image pop.  Buy this photo

Sometimes it’s okay to break the usual rules of composition.  A portrait is not supposed to be cropped at the joints, such as at the knee, but here it works because the dancer’s ornate flowing dress gives a sense of motion and fluidity in the bottom of the frame.  Buy this photo

Even in a fast-moving parade, find the opportunities to have your subject stop for a moment and interact with you.  The resulting images will convey much more personality that way, even if the personage is fully masked.  Buy this photo

We’ll close with this moment of sheer Carnaval magic.  It’s such a wonderful feeling when all the elements come together to make a memorable image.  This portrait uses most of the techniques we’ve discussed in today’s post–careful composition, bright vibrant colors, a perfect moment, sharp subject with soft background–and conveys a strong sense of personality, culture, and place.  And that is what Carnaval, and cultural celebrations in general, are all about!  Buy this photo

What are your favorite cultural celebrations?  How do you make images that capture their essence?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

“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.

Focus on Tahiti Dance Fete [Encore Publication]: A case study in shooting under challenging circumstances

The travel photographer must be prepared to shoot under challenging circumstances, because often we have little control over the conditions in the field.  We may plan our travel years in advance to observe and photograph a total solar eclipse, only to wake up on the morning of the eclipse to find the sky is totally overcast.  Or we could make arrangements months ahead to be at a major cultural festival, but learn upon arrival that the area we’re shooting from is hundreds of yards from the action.  These things happen, but the professional photographer still needs to get her shot.  So, what can be done to persevere and increase our odds of getting usable images under adversity?  The answer, of course, depends on the specific circumstances of each shoot, but there are some general tips I can offer.  Today’s post presents a case study based on my recent shoot of the solo dance competition at the Tahiti Fete in San Jose, California.

The dancers made lovely subjects, but the shooting conditions were very challenging.  Read on to learn how to make the best of a difficult situation.  Buy this photo

Upon arrival at the dance competition, I realized immediately that this shoot would be challenging.  It was held in a cramped hotel convention room with a makeshift stage, rows of folding chairs for spectators, insufficient lighting of poor color quality, and a bank of judges blocking most of the view of the stage.  To make matters worse, the room was packed with people, many of whom stood up to cheer on their friends, and the only available seats were near the far end of the room.  An extra challenge was thrown into the mix by the cluttered and unattractive background behind the performers on the stage.

Cluttered backgrounds are a significant obstacle, but good images can still be made in these situations.  Buy this photo

What can be done to mitigate against a cluttered background?  I shot plenty of images of each dancer to increase the likelihood that I could eliminate some of the more distracting background elements while still capturing the excitement, grace, and colors of the dancing.  This image was the best I could capture of this particular dancer, so I committed to it in post-processing.  I cropped the image to avoid the most distracting elements, adjusted the exposure curves, contrast, and sharpness of the background to de-emphasize it, and applied some post-crop vignetting to ensure the dancer would be highlighted.

When using a very high ISO, some noise will result.  This doesn’t have to be a disadvantage.  Buy this photo

The lighting was very dim at this venue.  Because I was shooting from far away, I needed to use a long telephoto lens, which limited me to a small aperture and no possibility of using flash.  Nonetheless, a fast shutter speed was required in order to freeze the fast action of the Polynesian dancing.  This combination (low lighting, small aperture, and fast shutter speed) leaves no option other than a very high ISO setting.  I shot the above image at ISO 6400.  Even with an excellent professional camera sensor, such a high ISO will generate some noise in the image.  Noise can often be reduced to acceptable levels during post-processing.  But for this particular image, I was aiming for a soft, painterly feel.  The visual effect of high contrast, soft colors, and a bit of visual noise here gives the feel of an impressionistic rendering.  For this expressive Tahitian subject, I was very happy to have a Gauguin-esque style shine through in the final image.

 Cut out elements that don’t work.  Buy this photo

To make the above image, I cropped out distracting portions such as the judges’ heads in the foreground and an ugly door and wall in the background.  The resulting aspect ratio is non-standard, but works well for this image.  I desaturated the background and used post-crop vignetting to focus attention on the dancer.

 


Black-and-white renderings can be more forgiving when color quality is low.  Buy this photo

This image portrays a lovely subject but the lighting was especially poor.  Realizing I couldn’t do much to mitigate the strange color cast resulting from the artificial lights, I converted the image to monochrome, boosted the contrast, and adjusted the color channel mix to render a pleasing and elegant final image.  Check out this post to learn how black-and-white conversion can be used to save the day when color temperatures or image noise are problems: Post on B&W conversion to save strangely colored images.

Bringing it all together: This image works nicely in spite of all the challenges present at the shoot, including foreground obstacles, dim and low quality lighting, a far-away vantage point, and a cluttered background.  Buy this photo

In spite of multiple significant technical issues, I was able to make some striking images of the lovely dancers at this Tahitian festival.  Hopefully, the tips presented here will help when you next are faced with a challenging shoot.  The most important thing is to keep shooting as best you can while in the field.  There are multiple methods you can use in post-processing to mitigate against the shooting challenges and end up with images you will be proud of.

What techniques do you use when faced with difficult shooting conditions?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

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.

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.

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        • 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.

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  • 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.

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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.

The Raw Truth [Encore Publication]: Why you should always shoot in RAW mode

Editor’s Note: Since publishing the original version of this post several months ago, I have made a major change to my workflow and now shoot in RAW format only (i.e., with no JPEG version saved in addition to the RAW version of each image).  Shooting RAW+JPEG was a crutch that I used for a couple of years as I transitioned from JPEG to RAW format, but I realized I never use the JPEG files right out of the camera, and saving duplicate JPEG files takes a lot of disk space and time.  Please read my update in this recent post: Post on RAW vs. RAW+JPEG.  The original post on RAW mode follows:

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For many years after I took the plunge into digital photography, I had my camera set to store image files in the JPEG format only.  I now realize that during those years I was throwing away a lot of very valuable information with every photo I made.  There are two main reasons for this information loss.  First, the JPEG format does not store the detailed data for each pixel in the camera’s sensor but instead does some processing according to your settings and then saves only stripped-down information from each area of your image.  Second, the JPEG standard is what’s referred to as a “lossy” format; every time it is opened and resaved, the image loses more detailed data.  Once your image data is thrown away, you cannot retrieve it.

By contrast, the RAW file format keeps all the data your camera’s sensor “sees” for every pixel in the image.  Yes, RAW files are bigger and take a bit longer to store on your camera’s memory card than JPEG files, and yes, they take up more space on the memory card and on your PC’s hard drive later.  For those early years of digital photography, I avoided shooting in RAW mode because I was concerned about having reduced shooting speed and storage space for these monster-sized files.  I also was concerned that it would be too much work to shoot in RAW mode because RAW images require post-processing in order to look their best.  I now realize that I had been making a big mistake.  Shooting in RAW all the time, even when high speed is needed for action shots, ensures that you’ll always have the most image data to work with later.  You will be able to crop your images more tightly, print them to larger sizes, and especially important, refine the exposure and color with far more control if they were shot in RAW format rather than in JPEG or other compressed formats.

I now shoot nearly exclusively using my camera’s setting to save files as both RAW and JPEG.  Having the JPEG version of each image can be helpful if I want to share the photo right out of the camera.  It will look pretty decent without any post-processing because the JPEG file is stored with all of the camera’s settings for white balance, sharpening, and so on.  But when I come home from a trip, I always do my post-processing on the best images using RAW files exclusively.  Because the RAW format stores so much more information about the color and brightness of every single pixel of the image, I have much more freedom in how I choose to develop the image using my editing software (typically Adobe Lightroom, but occasionally I also use Adobe Photoshop).

Below, I show two files of the same image of my wife and me by a “fairy chimney” rock formation in Cappadocia, Turkey, both processed in exactly same the same way in Lightroom, but the first one was originally saved by the camera as a JPEG while the second was originally saved in RAW mode.  While the differences may be subtle at the size and resolution shown in this post, you can still make out more details in the RAW file, especially in areas shrouded in shadow.  The color of the sky is deeper.  Colors and shapes are rendered with more accuracy.  And of course, if we needed to crop or enlarge these images to a much bigger size, the quality of the JPEG file would deteriorate much sooner than would the RAW file.

 The JPEG version of this image.

 The RAW version of the same image.

I recommend shooting in RAW+JPEG all the time, unless you know you will need the slightly faster shooting speed or extra storage space of JPEG alone.  Doing so will give you the best of both worlds: a quick and easy JPEG to share right out of the camera, and the much more detailed data in the RAW file from which to bring out the nuances in color, texture, and exposure later during post-processing.  If you use JPEG alone, you’ll be throwing away image information you may wish you had later.

Do you shoot in RAW mode?  If so, what do you like about it?  If not, why not?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

Photographic Blasphemy [Encore Publication]: Why you don’t need a tripod for most travel photography

Warning: The following assertion will sound heretical to many photography enthusiasts.  Stop reading now if you can’t handle the truth :-).

I’m going to say it.  You don’t need to carry a tripod for most travel photography situations.  There, I’ve said it.

This is blasphemy to many photographers.  After all, for the past 15 years or so, the badge of a “serious” photographer has been this three-legged object we stick between our camera and the ground.  Most scenic overlooks and other landscape photography-friendly locations have been positively flooded by a veritable sea of tripods in recent years.  I’ve seen viewpoints so clogged by tripods that photographers and even (heaven forbid) non-photographers are forced to elbow their way through just to get a place to stand to watch the sunrise, sunset, or other pretty happening.  For years, I have carried at least a lightweight tripod, and occasionally a heavy-duty professional tripod, with me to nearly every shoot, which for me is usually about two per day.  It’s become an ingrained behavior, a knee-jerk reaction, for most photographers.  But why, exactly?

During my recent travels in India, I made many wonderful images in all genres of photography.  I used a lot of gear to do so.  One item I didn’t use: a tripod.

There are times when a tripod is necessary.  In very low-light situations, such as true nighttime scenes, most astrophotography, and some indoor shoots, it is essential to mount the camera on a sturdy tripod.  When a very long shutter speed is required for a specific effect, such as blurring water in a waterfall or shooting a dancer using rear-curtain sync flash, then you really do need a tripod.  We can even include shoots where several images will be combined using software to make a high dynamic range (HDR) or panoramic image in the category where a tripod is helpful (though, I would argue, not really essential anymore, given how good software has become at stitching overlapping images together).

But so many other times, a tripod is not only not an asset but actually becomes a liability.  Travel photographers must be very mindful of the size and weight of the gear we carry on our adventures.  Every item we bring has to be considered in terms of its value: will the space it takes up in our limited carry-on baggage allotment and its weight on our back every step of our trip be worthwhile in terms of its usefulness in making the best possible images?  A tripod, even a lightweight travel tripod, is a relatively large and heavy piece of gear.  There are other items we need to leave at home in order to make room for a tripod.  [Read my pillar post on packing for travel photography: How to pack for a trip.]

I recently returned from a 2.5-week journey through the north of India.  I brought as much gear as I could reasonably fit in carry-on for the international and internal Indian flights.  It weighed a lot, and I had to lug much of the gear I brought on the trip each day on my back through 115-degree heat, sometimes up steep hills to the top of ancient forts.  At the end of the trip, I contemplated my usage of each item I carried.  Both DSLR camera bodies, every lens (even the massive 500mm super-telephoto which I required to make great images of far-off tigers), the speedlights, both battery chargers, and all remote releases, cables, filters, cleaning supplies, etc. were used at some point during the trip.  The one item I never once needed: you guessed it, the tripod!

True, India is a very densely populated country where most sites do not allow tripods or, if they are allowed, the crowds are too thick to deploy them.  And there was ample bright sunlight at most of our locations to handhold the camera.

But I would argue that a tripod is simply not needed for many travel photography situations in general.  These days, a camera’s sensor is so fast and noise-free, and the camera’s resolution so high, that camera shake for most landscape photography settings is a much smaller risk than motion of the subject itself.  My Nikon D810 has a resolution of nearly 37 MB, so if a single tree branch or sometimes even a single leaf moves, I can see it in the image.  A tripod is no more going to stop a leaf from moving than could the ancient viking king Canute stop the tide from coming in (a story frequently misused in modern times, by the way).

From now on, when I pack for a day’s shoot or a month-long journey, I’m going to seriously consider whether I’ll need a tripod and will pack one (or two) only when I can reasonably expect to need it.

What about you?  Do you always carry a tripod, or do you consider its appropriateness before you travel?  If you always carry it, do you always need it?  Would you bring some other piece of gear along if you didn’t have to make space for the tripod?  Please share your thoughts on this controversial topic here!

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

Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright [Encore Publication]: In search of the elusive royal bengal tiger in India’s Ranthambore National Park

Wildlife photography is one of the most exciting and rewarding pursuits I know, but it requires some special knowledge and gear, plenty of time, and lots of luck.  I’ve posted on this topic before, specifically about wildlife photography gear (Post on Wildlife Photography Gear) and about sensitivity to the wildlife we’re shooting (Post on Approaching Wildlife).  Today’s post is a case study on my recent wildlife safari in Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, India.  The park is famous for its population of wild royal bengal tigers, but even with its high concentration of the big cats, it is rare to see them.  We were fortunate to encounter two tigers during our game drives, one a female who was stalking prey at some distance from us across a meadow, the other a large male who was close to us but obstructed by dense jungle vegetation.

I was rewarded with a few marvelous images of the female tiger, my favorite of which is this one:

The money shot!  After weeks of planning, days of travel, hours of driving on rough tracks, and minutes of shooting, I had bagged several hundred images of this remarkable female tiger.  A few of the images had the required combination of tack-sharp focus, uncluttered background, and appealing view of the animal.  Buy this photo

Making an image like this requires careful planning to be in the right place at the right time.  In our case, our travel company lined up the logistics and hired an expert guide and driver, which certainly helps, but it is still necessary to prepare for a photo safari like this.  It requires some knowledge of the behavior of the wildlife you are seeking.  It calls for having the right gear and knowing how to use it under time pressure and without hesitating.  And it requires shooting a whole lot of frames in rapid succession, because most will not turn out perfectly.

To capture most wildlife, a long telephoto lens is a necessity.  My go-to long 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.

Stability is very important when shooting a moving subject far away using a super-telephoto lens.  During most game drives around the world, a tripod or monopod cannot be used due to space constraints in the vehicle.  I will often use a beanbag to support the camera and lens, but on our canter (a large open vehicle that seats more than 20 people) in Ranthambore National Park, even that could not be used, as there is no surface to support the beanbag.  So the only option here is to shoot handheld.  Fortunately, the lens has good image stabilization built in, but it is also important to use good shooting technique and a very fast shutter speed.  Remember to keep one hand under the lens to support it, the other hand on the grip of the camera, and both elbows firmly pressed against your sides.  Gently squeeze the shutter release.  I recommend setting your camera to continuous shooting mode if it has this feature, as this will maximize the number of images you can capture as well as avoiding the camera shake from having to press the shutter release repeatedly.

To control exposure when shooting wildlife, I usually use Manual Mode with Auto ISO.  This little-known but extremely useful exposure mode allows you to set both shutter speed (which needs to be fast enough to avoid camera shake and to freeze the animal’s motion) and aperture (which I like to keep close to wide-open in order to soften the background), while adjusting the ISO to keep the exposure correct during changing lighting conditions.  To learn more about this technique, read this post: Post on Manual Mode with Auto ISO.

Shoot many images while encountering the animal in the field.  Keep them all on your memory card (which, of course, you should back up to another medium) until you have the opportunity to carefully cull them down to the ones that are technically adequate.  Finally, during post-processing, you can select the few images that are both technically acceptable (tack-sharp focus, proper exposure) and artistically appealing (the subject looks great, the background is uncluttered and attractive).  These selected images should then be carefully cropped and adjusted for exposure, contrast, and color balance.

There you have it.  The effort that goes into making just a handful of really excellent wildlife images is disproportionate to the workload involved in most tasks we do, and the frustrations are many, but the rewards when it all goes well and we have a wonderful portrait of the animal in hand make it all worthwhile.

What are your favorite wildlife photography techniques?  Please share them in the comment box.

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

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/.

Focus on How Weird Street Faire [Encore Publication]: A case study on simple techniques to capture winning images of festivals

As a professional travel photographer, I shoot regularly in nearly all genres of photography.  A typical day on the road might include shooting landscapes, wildlife, cityscapes, portraits, action (sports, dance, performance), and nighttime photography.  While I enjoy all types of shooting, my great joy as a photographer is capturing portraits of the people I meet.  Whether close to home or halfway around the world, getting to know the people and learning about their culture through making portraits of them is a wonderful experience.  And there’s no better way to capture images of many amazing people in a short time than by attending local festivals.  People tend to be their best selves at special celebrations like festivals and street fairs.  They dress exuberantly, dance with abandon, make new friends quickly, and (nearly always) are overjoyed to pose for photos.

I shoot about a hundred festivals and other special events every year, so I’ve learned a few tips about how to make the best images during these occasions.  In today’s post I share some simple but effective techniques for capturing great portraits at festivals and other gatherings, using San Francisco’s recent How Weird Street Faire as a case study.  How Weird is a vibrant and colorful, only-in-SF, annual celebration of individuality, tolerance, music, art, and hula hoops.  Read on to see some of my favorite images from this year’s festival, presented along with some discussion of how they were made.  To view more of my images, or to buy some, check out this gallery: How Weird photo gallery.

I see a lot of fellow photographers at events like How Weird shooting with huge telephotos and even tripods, like they’re after images of wildlife on a Kenyan safari.  In my opinion, they are missing the point.  We’re making portraits of people here, so use a normal or moderate telephoto portrait lens, preferably a fast prime lens, ditch the tripod and monopod at home, and get in close to chat with and get to know the people you’re photographing.  When you interact with people, you get a sense of what makes them special, allowing both you and them to capture that special trait in your photos.  Random sniping from far away with a long telephoto will yield far more bland and generic photos.  All of my images at How Weird Street Faire were made with a single camera body and one lens, my trusty 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens.  Sometimes simple is better, especially when it comes to capturing people at fast-moving events.

Larger groups can be challenging to capture in portraits, particularly in bustling spaces like those of a festival.  When they couple I was chatting with suddenly ran into a friend and they had a group hug, I quickly stepped back a few paces and made this expressive and engaging portrait.  It’s okay to break the rules sometimes–here, one of the subject’s faces is completely obscured and another’s is partially obscured, yet the portrait works because it captures the energy and affection of the moment.

When photographers argue that the “street photography” approach (candidly sneaking images of people who aren’t aware they’re present) is the best for capturing people’s true essence, I show them images like this one.  This wholly genuine and unguarded moment of the girl dancing was made with her full knowledge and permission.  The trick is to chat with the subject and get their permission for photography first, then to lay back for a while and let them go back to what they were doing.  After a few minutes, they’ll nearly forget you’re there and they will reveal their true selves.  But unlike shots you sneak without permission, now you have a subject happy to have you photographing them, and you can take your time and not have to rush your work in order to hide your shooting from them.

Often we see only the most obvious subjects at crowded, chaotic events like festivals.  It’s easy to spend all our time shooting people dancing, partying, and displaying their costumes, but I try always to look for the more hidden people and infrastructure that support the event.  This DJ was partially hidden atop the big dance stage and behind the banks of speakers, but she made a fun subject for this portrait.

Don’t be afraid to get in close.  This portrait really pops because the tight composition allows us to focus our attention on the symmetry and color of the subject’s hair and costume.  

The interactions between people are at least as much fun to observe and capture as the individuals themselves.  I had chatted with and photographed a group of people for a few minutes when I observed this fun interaction, so I stepped back and framed some shots of the two young people together.

While post-processing my images after the shoot, I decided to render this one in monochrome to achieve a gritty urban street scene sort of feel.  Often color can distract from the power of an image, so always consider which of your images could benefit from conversion to black-and-white.

In ordinary daily life, I find that perhaps two-thirds of people are willing to have their portrait made if the photographer spends some time getting to know them first and then asks politely.  But at a festival, nearly everyone is excited about posing for portraits.  The trick is to capture scenes where they show you their underlying personalities a bit, rather than just striking a cliched pose for the camera.  To achieve that here, I spent a few minutes shooting, asking the couple to pose in different styles and have fun with it.

Putting it all together.  Here’s a summary of the basic techniques I use when shooting portraits at festivals:  1) Use a fast prime normal or portrait lens.  2) Set your camera for a fast shutter speed (1/500 second or faster is good for dancing and other fast action), wide aperture (f/2.5 or wider is ideal except for large groups) to isolate the subject, and an ISO appropriate to the lighting of the scene (I used ISO 100 the whole day due to the bright outdoor light).  3) Get to know your subject before shooting, let them relax, and capture them during an authentic moment.  4) Try to compose the portrait with as uncluttered a background as possible; of course, this is often difficult at crowded festivals.  5) During post-processing, crop to clean up the scene and then vignette just a touch to further clean up busy backgrounds.

I hope this discussion of techniques to capture portraits during festivals has been helpful.  The best way to learn these techniques and to find your own style is to shoot and shoot some more!

Please leave a comment with your own thoughts and tips about how to make great images of people at celebrations.

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

Celebration Time, Come On [Encore Publication]: How to shoot festivals, street fairs, and other celebrations

As a professional travel photographer, I have to be prepared at any given time to shoot in nearly every genre of photography.  Landscapes, urban scenes, street photography, night and astrophotography, sports, wildlife, and portraiture are all stock-in-trade, and I love them all!  But when I’m asked what my favorite photographic genre is, I reply that I love portraying living culture the most of all.  Making images of people celebrating their culture, especially when those images convey a sense of place, is my top objective when I shoot, whether I’m halfway around the world or near home.

Culture can be expressed in small everyday elements of dress, gesture, and environment.  But celebrations such as festivals, street fairs, religious observances, arts, and sports show us culture writ large.  It is these outpourings of color, sounds, motion, and ritual that show us how people are different and yet similar all around the world.  And of all the celebrations I shoot regularly, my favorite of all is the annual Carnaval San Francisco.  So in today’s post, we’ll explore how to shoot striking images of cultural celebrations, using Carnaval SF as an example.

This year’s Carnaval was held this past Sunday.  But I was privileged to be “embedded” with several of the comparsas, or Carnaval groups, during the months leading up to the big parade day.  This allowed me the opportunity to get to know the leaders and dancers in these groups, making very special images of the preparations for Carnaval.  While I won’t be including any of those behind-the-scenes images in today’s post, the images of the parade day itself did benefit from my having had the chance to get to know the members of these groups over the months leading up to the day.  We’ll include some discussion of this observation in the post.

I’d like to start with an observation on gear.  I see a lot of fellow photographers shooting at events like Carnaval with way too much gear.  When I say too much gear, I mean more gear than is good for them or for the participants and observers of the festival.  Several photographers had two or three DSLR bodies mounted with enormous zoom lenses and attached to large strobes with huge diffusers.  Some used monopods and a few even tried to set up tripods for this rapidly moving and crowded event.  I brought a single DSLR with two light and fast prime lenses (a 50mm “normal” lens, and an 85mm portrait lens).  That’s it.  I never mounted a zoom lens during the whole day of shooting and I never used any artificial light.  And of course I went handheld the whole day; there’s really no safe or practical way to use a tripod at a crowded and mobile event.  All 2500 images I made that day used just that compact kit, and I’m very happy with the results.

It’s a good idea to arrive well before the scheduled start time.  Often, the best images of the day will be the ones you make during the preparations rather than during the event itself.  For this image of a leader of the Viva la Diva group, who I knew well from working with them over the last few months, I got in close with an 85mm portrait lens and allowed her elaborate headdress to fill the entire frame.  Buy this photo

Try to include some of the elements surrounding the people in the celebration.  A portrait that shows a person or people within their surroundings is called an “environmental portrait,” and often these tell us more about the person and the culture than do close-ups.  Buy this photo

Seek out the key people in a celebration, such as the King of Carnaval shown here.  He has such an amazing presence that all I had to do was find the right vantage point and shoot away.  I always look for uncluttered backgrounds when making portraits, so the background doesn’t distract much from the image.  Buy this photo

Kids make wonderful subjects during celebrations, especially during those moments when they forget the camera is there and are completely uninhibited.  Buy this photo

Try to choose backgrounds that complement your subject without competing with it.  I asked this samba dancer to pose by a street mural whose bright blues complemented her own costume.  Buy this photo

Group portraits can be challenging.  It’s difficult during the chaos of a celebration to get everyone’s eyes on the camera.  Try to find a vantage point that flatters everyone in the image (for full-body portraits, it’s often best to shoot from the level of the middle of the body, not from head level), choose an uncluttered and undistracting background, and select an aperture that gives just enough depth-of-field to keep all the people in focus while softening the background.  Buy this photo

To make close-up portraits during the actual celebration (in this case, a parade), it is not necessary to use a long telephoto lens.  Shooting with a long lens means you’re “taking” the portrait, not “making” the portrait.  You simply can’t interact with your subject while shooting from far away.  I prefer to use a prime normal or portrait lens so that I can interact with my subject and make an image where his personality shines through.  It helped here that I knew the members of this group from our interactions over the last few months.  Buy this photo

Another reason to use a fast prime lens is that you can choose a very wide aperture (here, F/2.0 using an F/1.4 lens) to get tack-sharp focus on the subject’s face while softening the background and sometimes other parts of the body.  Here I wanted to emphasize the pointing gesture by having the fingers so close as to be out of focus, while the dancer’s face and body are in sharp focus.  Buy this photo

For images that really pop, use a large aperture (small F-stop number) to soften the background and separate the subject from the other people and objects around him.  Buy this photo

During the chaos and cacophony of an urban celebration, it’s nice to find those quiet moments, too.  While most festival dances are joyous and boisterous, this Latin American folkloric dance is quiet and mournful.  I wanted the portrait to reflect that mood, so I shot from the side as if walking next to the dancer and caught the quiet gesture of holding the white handkerchief.  Again, a large aperture was used to blur the background and emphasize the subject.  Buy this photo

I look for scenes where participants are just being themselves.  These girls were having a blast, marching and chatting with each other, but they also were interacting with the crowd.  I got down nearly to the ground so as to shoot from their level and framed the image so as to emphasize the color and pattern of their costumes.  Buy this photo

Most images of parades are shot from straight ahead looking backward onto the subjects.  You’ll observe in this post that most of my images are not made from that perspective, but occasionally it does work to frame a great scene, such as this delightful image of a salsa dancing couple.  Buy this photo

It can be challenging to include a whole parade contingent in one shot.  Here I was able to frame the whole group in formation, including some of the lovely San Francisco houses on the steep hill behind, by running ahead to the truck in front of the dancers and getting as much distance as I could between me and them.  I shot with an 85mm lens and selected a small aperture (large F-number) so as to keep all of the dancers and the background in focus.  Buy this photo

With bold and colorful costumes, some subjects cry out for a big striking close-up.  When this dancer stopped to interact with me, I got in close with a portrait lens and captured him full-frame.  Buy this photo

Don’t shy away from using non-standard aspect ratios.  To include the whole Muito Quente contingent, I moved back from the dancers and captured the whole width of the street, then in post-processing I cropped to keep the full width but remove the unwanted foreground and background portions.  Buy this photo

Again, it is helpful to know the participants in advance of the performance.  I had been working with the Muito Quente group for several months before the parade, which made it more natural to interact with each of the dancers and make the best images possible.  Buy this photo

Always shoot in RAW mode for maximum flexibility.  A few words about post-processing: Using Lightroom, I make small adjustments to the color and contrast curves so as to emphasize the subject.  A little boost to the vibrance (but not so much as to make the image appear unnatural) and a touch of post-crop vignetting can really make the image pop.  Buy this photo

Sometimes it’s okay to break the usual rules of composition.  A portrait is not supposed to be cropped at the joints, such as at the knee, but here it works because the dancer’s ornate flowing dress gives a sense of motion and fluidity in the bottom of the frame.  Buy this photo

Even in a fast-moving parade, find the opportunities to have your subject stop for a moment and interact with you.  The resulting images will convey much more personality that way, even if the personage is fully masked.  Buy this photo

We’ll close with this moment of sheer Carnaval magic.  It’s such a wonderful feeling when all the elements come together to make a memorable image.  This portrait uses most of the techniques we’ve discussed in today’s post–careful composition, bright vibrant colors, a perfect moment, sharp subject with soft background–and conveys a strong sense of personality, culture, and place.  And that is what Carnaval, and cultural celebrations in general, are all about!  Buy this photo

What are your favorite cultural celebrations?  How do you make images that capture their essence?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

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.

 

“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.

Focus on Tahiti Dance Fete [Encore Publication]: A case study in shooting under challenging circumstances

The travel photographer must be prepared to shoot under challenging circumstances, because often we have little control over the conditions in the field.  We may plan our travel years in advance to observe and photograph a total solar eclipse, only to wake up on the morning of the eclipse to find the sky is totally overcast.  Or we could make arrangements months ahead to be at a major cultural festival, but learn upon arrival that the area we’re shooting from is hundreds of yards from the action.  These things happen, but the professional photographer still needs to get her shot.  So, what can be done to persevere and increase our odds of getting usable images under adversity?  The answer, of course, depends on the specific circumstances of each shoot, but there are some general tips I can offer.  Today’s post presents a case study based on my recent shoot of the solo dance competition at the Tahiti Fete in San Jose, California.

The dancers made lovely subjects, but the shooting conditions were very challenging.  Read on to learn how to make the best of a difficult situation.  Buy this photo

Upon arrival at the dance competition, I realized immediately that this shoot would be challenging.  It was held in a cramped hotel convention room with a makeshift stage, rows of folding chairs for spectators, insufficient lighting of poor color quality, and a bank of judges blocking most of the view of the stage.  To make matters worse, the room was packed with people, many of whom stood up to cheer on their friends, and the only available seats were near the far end of the room.  An extra challenge was thrown into the mix by the cluttered and unattractive background behind the performers on the stage.

Cluttered backgrounds are a significant obstacle, but good images can still be made in these situations.  Buy this photo

What can be done to mitigate against a cluttered background?  I shot plenty of images of each dancer to increase the likelihood that I could eliminate some of the more distracting background elements while still capturing the excitement, grace, and colors of the dancing.  This image was the best I could capture of this particular dancer, so I committed to it in post-processing.  I cropped the image to avoid the most distracting elements, adjusted the exposure curves, contrast, and sharpness of the background to de-emphasize it, and applied some post-crop vignetting to ensure the dancer would be highlighted.

When using a very high ISO, some noise will result.  This doesn’t have to be a disadvantage.  Buy this photo

The lighting was very dim at this venue.  Because I was shooting from far away, I needed to use a long telephoto lens, which limited me to a small aperture and no possibility of using flash.  Nonetheless, a fast shutter speed was required in order to freeze the fast action of the Polynesian dancing.  This combination (low lighting, small aperture, and fast shutter speed) leaves no option other than a very high ISO setting.  I shot the above image at ISO 6400.  Even with an excellent professional camera sensor, such a high ISO will generate some noise in the image.  Noise can often be reduced to acceptable levels during post-processing.  But for this particular image, I was aiming for a soft, painterly feel.  The visual effect of high contrast, soft colors, and a bit of visual noise here gives the feel of an impressionistic rendering.  For this expressive Tahitian subject, I was very happy to have a Gauguin-esque style shine through in the final image.

 Cut out elements that don’t work.  Buy this photo

To make the above image, I cropped out distracting portions such as the judges’ heads in the foreground and an ugly door and wall in the background.  The resulting aspect ratio is non-standard, but works well for this image.  I desaturated the background and used post-crop vignetting to focus attention on the dancer.

 


Black-and-white renderings can be more forgiving when color quality is low.  Buy this photo

This image portrays a lovely subject but the lighting was especially poor.  Realizing I couldn’t do much to mitigate the strange color cast resulting from the artificial lights, I converted the image to monochrome, boosted the contrast, and adjusted the color channel mix to render a pleasing and elegant final image.  Check out this post to learn how black-and-white conversion can be used to save the day when color temperatures or image noise are problems: Post on B&W conversion to save strangely colored images.

Bringing it all together: This image works nicely in spite of all the challenges present at the shoot, including foreground obstacles, dim and low quality lighting, a far-away vantage point, and a cluttered background.  Buy this photo

In spite of multiple significant technical issues, I was able to make some striking images of the lovely dancers at this Tahitian festival.  Hopefully, the tips presented here will help when you next are faced with a challenging shoot.  The most important thing is to keep shooting as best you can while in the field.  There are multiple methods you can use in post-processing to mitigate against the shooting challenges and end up with images you will be proud of.

What techniques do you use when faced with difficult shooting conditions?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

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.

Focus on How Weird Street Faire [Encore Publication]: A case study on simple techniques to capture winning images of festivals

As a professional travel photographer, I shoot regularly in nearly all genres of photography.  A typical day on the road might include shooting landscapes, wildlife, cityscapes, portraits, action (sports, dance, performance), and nighttime photography.  While I enjoy all types of shooting, my great joy as a photographer is capturing portraits of the people I meet.  Whether close to home or halfway around the world, getting to know the people and learning about their culture through making portraits of them is a wonderful experience.  And there’s no better way to capture images of many amazing people in a short time than by attending local festivals.  People tend to be their best selves at special celebrations like festivals and street fairs.  They dress exuberantly, dance with abandon, make new friends quickly, and (nearly always) are overjoyed to pose for photos.

I shoot about a hundred festivals and other special events every year, so I’ve learned a few tips about how to make the best images during these occasions.  In today’s post I share some simple but effective techniques for capturing great portraits at festivals and other gatherings, using San Francisco’s recent How Weird Street Faire as a case study.  How Weird is a vibrant and colorful, only-in-SF, annual celebration of individuality, tolerance, music, art, and hula hoops.  Read on to see some of my favorite images from this year’s festival, presented along with some discussion of how they were made.  To view more of my images, or to buy some, check out this gallery: How Weird photo gallery.

I see a lot of fellow photographers at events like How Weird shooting with huge telephotos and even tripods, like they’re after images of wildlife on a Kenyan safari.  In my opinion, they are missing the point.  We’re making portraits of people here, so use a normal or moderate telephoto portrait lens, preferably a fast prime lens, ditch the tripod and monopod at home, and get in close to chat with and get to know the people you’re photographing.  When you interact with people, you get a sense of what makes them special, allowing both you and them to capture that special trait in your photos.  Random sniping from far away with a long telephoto will yield far more bland and generic photos.  All of my images at How Weird Street Faire were made with a single camera body and one lens, my trusty 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens.  Sometimes simple is better, especially when it comes to capturing people at fast-moving events.

Larger groups can be challenging to capture in portraits, particularly in bustling spaces like those of a festival.  When they couple I was chatting with suddenly ran into a friend and they had a group hug, I quickly stepped back a few paces and made this expressive and engaging portrait.  It’s okay to break the rules sometimes–here, one of the subject’s faces is completely obscured and another’s is partially obscured, yet the portrait works because it captures the energy and affection of the moment.

When photographers argue that the “street photography” approach (candidly sneaking images of people who aren’t aware they’re present) is the best for capturing people’s true essence, I show them images like this one.  This wholly genuine and unguarded moment of the girl dancing was made with her full knowledge and permission.  The trick is to chat with the subject and get their permission for photography first, then to lay back for a while and let them go back to what they were doing.  After a few minutes, they’ll nearly forget you’re there and they will reveal their true selves.  But unlike shots you sneak without permission, now you have a subject happy to have you photographing them, and you can take your time and not have to rush your work in order to hide your shooting from them.

Often we see only the most obvious subjects at crowded, chaotic events like festivals.  It’s easy to spend all our time shooting people dancing, partying, and displaying their costumes, but I try always to look for the more hidden people and infrastructure that support the event.  This DJ was partially hidden atop the big dance stage and behind the banks of speakers, but she made a fun subject for this portrait.

Don’t be afraid to get in close.  This portrait really pops because the tight composition allows us to focus our attention on the symmetry and color of the subject’s hair and costume.  

The interactions between people are at least as much fun to observe and capture as the individuals themselves.  I had chatted with and photographed a group of people for a few minutes when I observed this fun interaction, so I stepped back and framed some shots of the two young people together.

While post-processing my images after the shoot, I decided to render this one in monochrome to achieve a gritty urban street scene sort of feel.  Often color can distract from the power of an image, so always consider which of your images could benefit from conversion to black-and-white.

In ordinary daily life, I find that perhaps two-thirds of people are willing to have their portrait made if the photographer spends some time getting to know them first and then asks politely.  But at a festival, nearly everyone is excited about posing for portraits.  The trick is to capture scenes where they show you their underlying personalities a bit, rather than just striking a cliched pose for the camera.  To achieve that here, I spent a few minutes shooting, asking the couple to pose in different styles and have fun with it.

Putting it all together.  Here’s a summary of the basic techniques I use when shooting portraits at festivals:  1) Use a fast prime normal or portrait lens.  2) Set your camera for a fast shutter speed (1/500 second or faster is good for dancing and other fast action), wide aperture (f/2.5 or wider is ideal except for large groups) to isolate the subject, and an ISO appropriate to the lighting of the scene (I used ISO 100 the whole day due to the bright outdoor light).  3) Get to know your subject before shooting, let them relax, and capture them during an authentic moment.  4) Try to compose the portrait with as uncluttered a background as possible; of course, this is often difficult at crowded festivals.  5) During post-processing, crop to clean up the scene and then vignette just a touch to further clean up busy backgrounds.

I hope this discussion of techniques to capture portraits during festivals has been helpful.  The best way to learn these techniques and to find your own style is to shoot and shoot some more!

Please leave a comment with your own thoughts and tips about how to make great images of people at celebrations.

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

Purple Mountain’s Majesty [Encore Publication]: Including mountains in your images

Whether we’re traveling halfway around the world or just a few miles from home, we travel photographers get excited about including mountains in our images.  Mountainous landscapes can provide so many of the most basic elements we look for in a great photograph: beautiful light, compelling composition, exquisite textures, and an authentic sense of place.  In this post we will cover some of the fundamental techniques for capturing great images of mountains.

As with most kinds of photography, it all begins with beautiful light.  Whenever possible, try to shoot mountain landscapes near sunrise or sunset, or when something interesting is happening with the weather conditions.  The quality of light tends to be best during these times.  You’re more likely to capture lovely colors on the peaks and in the sky, and the image is more apt to give a sense of depth and drama than during the middle hours of the day.

Shooting from the deck at our lodge in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, I had to miss most of an excellent dinner to capture Lago Grey with its mountains and glaciers during the “golden hour” just before sunset.  The lovely interplay of colors and textures, from the sky to the peaks and to the icebergs and water, made the resulting image worth the effort.  Buy this photo

When shooting mountain landscapes, it is usually a good idea to bracket your exposure.  With the camera fixed on a sturdy tripod, compose your scene and then shoot a series of images, each with a slightly different exposure.  Many cameras have settings to automate the process of bracketing.  The two main benefits of exposure bracketing are raising the odds you’ll have a perfectly exposed image and allowing you to create a high dynamic range (HDR) image from several different exposures.  See this post for a refresher on how to use exposure bracketing: Post on Exposure Bracketing.

This HDR image of Yosemite National Park’s peaks reflected in the Merced River was created from a series of different exposures made using bracketing.  The camera was mounted on a tripod and I made a series of seven shots, each one exposed 2/3 of a stop brighter than the previous one.  Buy this photo

I’m often asked how to make mountain images that really “pop”.  Why are some photographs of mountain landscapes so dynamic and compelling, with intriguing contrast between the peaks and the sky?  Of course, there are many elements that go into the making of an excellent image, but there is a “secret sauce” that can dramatically improve many mountain images: the polarizing filter.  Properly using a circular polarizing filter on your lens can emphasize the contrasting parts of the rock, snow, and/or ice on the mountains and can also add drama to the clouds and sky.  Every image shown in this post was made with a polarizer.  Be sure to adjust the filter by turning its outer ring until you see the effect you want to achieve.  Usually this involves rotating the filter’s ring until you see the maximum polarizing effect possible and then dialing it back a little (or a lot) until you achieve a balance between added drama and a natural look.  Experience helps here.  Check out this post on the use of filters, including polarizers: Post on Filters.

This image of a rare lenticular cloud forming on the summit of Osorno Volcano in Argentinian Patagonia was made using a polarizing filter to bring out the cloud formation and darken the sky.  Buy this photo

Mountain colors can be glorious, but also consider converting some mountain images to black-and-white during post-processing.  Rendering in black-and-white can emphasize the textures on the crags and peaks of a mountain and can also lend drama to the foreground and sky.  Shots captured with a polarizing filter will usually result in more intriguing monochrome images.  When converting to black-and-white during post-processing, be sure to play around with the contrast and individual color channel sliders until you achieve the result you want.  For more info on black-and-white photography, check out this post: Post on Black and White Photography.

This shot of a rock dome in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows area is striking when rendered in black-and-white.  Buy this photo

Sometimes when we’re traveling we don’t have the option of returning to a gorgeous mountain location when the lighting is perfect.  Don’t let the flat lighting of a bright mid-day sun stop you from shooting the local peaks.  Great images can be made at any time of day.  Just make sure to follow the main techniques outlined in this post: compose well, use a polarizing filter, and bracket your exposure.

Patagonian peaks captured on our way out of Torres del Paine National Park.  Because we didn’t have the option of returning at the golden hour, I made this image in the harsh mid-day sun.  With careful attention to composition and the use of a polarizing filter and exposure bracketing, I was able to make a favorite image in spite of the less than perfect lighting conditions.  Buy this photo

What are your go-to methods when shooting mountain scenery?  What are your favorite mountain locations?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box here.

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

 

Photographic Blasphemy [Encore Publication]: Why you don’t need a tripod for most travel photography

Warning: The following assertion will sound heretical to many photography enthusiasts.  Stop reading now if you can’t handle the truth :-).

I’m going to say it.  You don’t need to carry a tripod for most travel photography situations.  There, I’ve said it.

This is blasphemy to many photographers.  After all, for the past 15 years or so, the badge of a “serious” photographer has been this three-legged object we stick between our camera and the ground.  Most scenic overlooks and other landscape photography-friendly locations have been positively flooded by a veritable sea of tripods in recent years.  I’ve seen viewpoints so clogged by tripods that photographers and even (heaven forbid) non-photographers are forced to elbow their way through just to get a place to stand to watch the sunrise, sunset, or other pretty happening.  For years, I have carried at least a lightweight tripod, and occasionally a heavy-duty professional tripod, with me to nearly every shoot, which for me is usually about two per day.  It’s become an ingrained behavior, a knee-jerk reaction, for most photographers.  But why, exactly?

During my recent travels in India, I made many wonderful images in all genres of photography.  I used a lot of gear to do so.  One item I didn’t use: a tripod.  Buy this photo

There are times when a tripod is necessary.  In very low-light situations, such as true nighttime scenes, most astrophotography, and some indoor shoots, it is essential to mount the camera on a sturdy tripod.  When a very long shutter speed is required for a specific effect, such as blurring water in a waterfall or shooting a dancer using rear-curtain sync flash, then you really do need a tripod.  We can even include shoots where several images will be combined using software to make a high dynamic range (HDR) or panoramic image in the category where a tripod is helpful (though, I would argue, not really essential anymore, given how good software has become at stitching overlapping images together).

But so many other times, a tripod is not only not an asset but actually becomes a liability.  Travel photographers must be very mindful of the size and weight of the gear we carry on our adventures.  Every item we bring has to be considered in terms of its value: will the space it takes up in our limited carry-on baggage allotment and its weight on our back every step of our trip be worthwhile in terms of its usefulness in making the best possible images?  A tripod, even a lightweight travel tripod, is a relatively large and heavy piece of gear.  There are other items we need to leave at home in order to make room for a tripod.

I recently returned from a 2.5-week journey through the north of India.  I brought as much gear as I could reasonably fit in carry-on for the international and internal Indian flights.  It weighed a lot, and I had to lug much of the gear I brought on the trip each day on my back through 115-degree heat, sometimes up steep hills to the top of ancient forts.  At the end of the trip, I contemplated my usage of each item I carried.  Both DSLR camera bodies, every lens (even the massive 500mm super-telephoto which I required to make great images of far-off tigers), the speedlights, both battery chargers, and all remote releases, cables, filters, cleaning supplies, etc. were used at some point during the trip.  The one item I never once needed: you guessed it, the tripod!

True, India is a very densely populated country where most sites do not allow tripods or, if they are allowed, the crowds are too thick to deploy them.  And there was ample bright sunlight at most of our locations to handhold the camera.

But I would argue that a tripod is simply not needed for many travel photography situations in general.  These days, a camera’s sensor is so fast and noise-free, and the camera’s resolution so high, that camera shake for most landscape photography settings is a much smaller risk than motion of the subject itself.  My Nikon D810 has a resolution of nearly 37 MB, so if a single tree branch or sometimes even a single leaf moves, I can see it in the image.  A tripod is no more going to stop a leaf from moving than could the ancient viking king Canute stop the tide from coming in (a story frequently misused in modern times, by the way).

From now on, when I pack for a day’s shoot or a month-long journey, I’m going to seriously consider whether I’ll need a tripod and will pack one (or two) only when I can reasonably expect to need it.

What about you?  Do you always carry a tripod, or do you consider its appropriateness before you travel?  If you always carry it, do you always need it?  Would you bring some other piece of gear along if you didn’t have to make space for the tripod?  Please share your thoughts on this controversial topic here!

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

Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright [Encore Publication]: In search of the elusive royal bengal tiger in India’s Ranthambore National Park

Wildlife photography is one of the most exciting and rewarding pursuits I know, but it requires some special knowledge and gear, plenty of time, and lots of luck.  I’ve posted on this topic before, specifically about wildlife photography gear (Post on Wildlife Photography Gear) and about sensitivity to the wildlife we’re shooting (Post on Approaching Wildlife).  Today’s post is a case study on my recent wildlife safari in Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, India.  The park is famous for its population of wild royal bengal tigers, but even with its high concentration of the big cats, it is rare to see them.  We were fortunate to encounter two tigers during our game drives, one a female who was stalking prey at some distance from us across a meadow, the other a large male who was close to us but obstructed by dense jungle vegetation.

I was rewarded with a few marvelous images of the female tiger, my favorite of which is this one:

The money shot!  After weeks of planning, days of travel, hours of driving on rough tracks, and minutes of shooting, I had bagged several hundred images of this remarkable female tiger.  A few of the images had the required combination of tack-sharp focus, uncluttered background, and appealing view of the animal.  Buy this photo

Making an image like this requires careful planning to be in the right place at the right time.  In our case, our travel company lined up the logistics and hired an expert guide and driver, which certainly helps, but it is still necessary to prepare for a photo safari like this.  It requires some knowledge of the behavior of the wildlife you are seeking.  It calls for having the right gear and knowing how to use it under time pressure and without hesitating.  And it requires shooting a whole lot of frames in rapid succession, because most will not turn out perfectly.

To capture most wildlife, a long telephoto lens is a necessity.  My go-to long 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.

Stability is very important when shooting a moving subject far away using a super-telephoto lens.  During most game drives around the world, a tripod or monopod cannot be used due to space constraints in the vehicle.  I will often use a beanbag to support the camera and lens, but on our canter (a large open vehicle that seats more than 20 people) in Ranthambore National Park, even that could not be used, as there is no surface to support the beanbag.  So the only option here is to shoot handheld.  Fortunately, the lens has good image stabilization built in, but it is also important to use good shooting technique and a very fast shutter speed.  Remember to keep one hand under the lens to support it, the other hand on the grip of the camera, and both elbows firmly pressed against your sides.  Gently squeeze the shutter release.  I recommend setting your camera to continuous shooting mode if it has this feature, as this will maximize the number of images you can capture as well as avoiding the camera shake from having to press the shutter release repeatedly.

To control exposure when shooting wildlife, I usually use Manual Mode with Auto ISO.  This little-known but extremely useful exposure mode allows you to set both shutter speed (which needs to be fast enough to avoid camera shake and to freeze the animal’s motion) and aperture (which I like to keep close to wide-open in order to soften the background), while adjusting the ISO to keep the exposure correct during changing lighting conditions.  To learn more about this technique, read this post: Post on Manual Mode with Auto ISO.

Shoot many images while encountering the animal in the field.  Keep them all on your memory card (which, of course, you should back up to another medium) until you have the opportunity to carefully cull them down to the ones that are technically adequate.  Finally, during post-processing, you can select the few images that are both technically acceptable (tack-sharp focus, proper exposure) and artistically appealing (the subject looks great, the background is uncluttered and attractive).  These selected images should then be carefully cropped and adjusted for exposure, contrast, and color balance.

There you have it.  The effort that goes into making just a handful of really excellent wildlife images is disproportionate to the workload involved in most tasks we do, and the frustrations are many, but the rewards when it all goes well and we have a wonderful portrait of the animal in hand make it all worthwhile.

What are your favorite wildlife photography techniques?  Please share them in the comment box.

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

The Raw Truth [Encore Publication]: Why you should always shoot in RAW mode

Editor’s Note: Since publishing the original version of this post several months ago, I have made a major change to my workflow and now shoot in RAW format only (i.e., with no JPEG version saved in addition to the RAW version of each image).  Shooting RAW+JPEG was a crutch that I used for a couple of years as I transitioned from JPEG to RAW format, but I realized I never use the JPEG files right out of the camera, and saving duplicate JPEG files takes a lot of disk space and time.  Please read my update in this recent post: Post on RAW vs. RAW+JPEG.  The original post on RAW mode follows:

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For many years after I took the plunge into digital photography, I had my camera set to store image files in the JPEG format only.  I now realize that during those years I was throwing away a lot of very valuable information with every photo I made.  There are two main reasons for this information loss.  First, the JPEG format does not store the detailed data for each pixel in the camera’s sensor but instead does some processing according to your settings and then saves only stripped-down information from each area of your image.  Second, the JPEG standard is what’s referred to as a “lossy” format; every time it is opened and resaved, the image loses more detailed data.  Once your image data is thrown away, you cannot retrieve it.

By contrast, the RAW file format keeps all the data your camera’s sensor “sees” for every pixel in the image.  Yes, RAW files are bigger and take a bit longer to store on your camera’s memory card than JPEG files, and yes, they take up more space on the memory card and on your PC’s hard drive later.  For those early years of digital photography, I avoided shooting in RAW mode because I was concerned about having reduced shooting speed and storage space for these monster-sized files.  I also was concerned that it would be too much work to shoot in RAW mode because RAW images require post-processing in order to look their best.  I now realize that I had been making a big mistake.  Shooting in RAW all the time, even when high speed is needed for action shots, ensures that you’ll always have the most image data to work with later.  You will be able to crop your images more tightly, print them to larger sizes, and especially important, refine the exposure and color with far more control if they were shot in RAW format rather than in JPEG or other compressed formats.

I now shoot nearly exclusively using my camera’s setting to save files as both RAW and JPEG.  Having the JPEG version of each image can be helpful if I want to share the photo right out of the camera.  It will look pretty decent without any post-processing because the JPEG file is stored with all of the camera’s settings for white balance, sharpening, and so on.  But when I come home from a trip, I always do my post-processing on the best images using RAW files exclusively.  Because the RAW format stores so much more information about the color and brightness of every single pixel of the image, I have much more freedom in how I choose to develop the image using my editing software (typically Adobe Lightroom, but occasionally I also use Adobe Photoshop).

Below, I show two files of the same image of my wife and me by a “fairy chimney” rock formation in Cappadocia, Turkey, both processed in exactly same the same way in Lightroom, but the first one was originally saved by the camera as a JPEG while the second was originally saved in RAW mode.  While the differences may be subtle at the size and resolution shown in this post, you can still make out more details in the RAW file, especially in areas shrouded in shadow.  The color of the sky is deeper.  Colors and shapes are rendered with more accuracy.  And of course, if we needed to crop or enlarge these images to a much bigger size, the quality of the JPEG file would deteriorate much sooner than would the RAW file.

 The JPEG version of this image.

 The RAW version of the same image.

I recommend shooting in RAW+JPEG all the time, unless you know you will need the slightly faster shooting speed or extra storage space of JPEG alone.  Doing so will give you the best of both worlds: a quick and easy JPEG to share right out of the camera, and the much more detailed data in the RAW file from which to bring out the nuances in color, texture, and exposure later during post-processing.  If you use JPEG alone, you’ll be throwing away image information you may wish you had later.

Do you shoot in RAW mode?  If so, what do you like about it?  If not, why not?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

Celebration Time, Come On [Encore Publication]: How to shoot festivals, street fairs, and other celebrations

As a professional travel photographer, I have to be prepared at any given time to shoot in nearly every genre of photography.  Landscapes, urban scenes, street photography, night and astrophotography, sports, wildlife, and portraiture are all stock-in-trade, and I love them all!  But when I’m asked what my favorite photographic genre is, I reply that I love portraying living culture the most of all.  Making images of people celebrating their culture, especially when those images convey a sense of place, is my top objective when I shoot, whether I’m halfway around the world or near home.

Culture can be expressed in small everyday elements of dress, gesture, and environment.  But celebrations such as festivals, street fairs, religious observances, arts, and sports show us culture writ large.  It is these outpourings of color, sounds, motion, and ritual that show us how people are different and yet similar all around the world.  And of all the celebrations I shoot regularly, my favorite of all is the annual Carnaval San Francisco.  So in today’s post, we’ll explore how to shoot striking images of cultural celebrations, using Carnaval SF as an example.

This year’s Carnaval was held this past Sunday.  But I was privileged to be “embedded” with several of the comparsas, or Carnaval groups, during the months leading up to the big parade day.  This allowed me the opportunity to get to know the leaders and dancers in these groups, making very special images of the preparations for Carnaval.  While I won’t be including any of those behind-the-scenes images in today’s post, the images of the parade day itself did benefit from my having had the chance to get to know the members of these groups over the months leading up to the day.  We’ll include some discussion of this observation in the post.

I’d like to start with an observation on gear.  I see a lot of fellow photographers shooting at events like Carnaval with way too much gear.  When I say too much gear, I mean more gear than is good for them or for the participants and observers of the festival.  Several photographers had two or three DSLR bodies mounted with enormous zoom lenses and attached to large strobes with huge diffusers.  Some used monopods and a few even tried to set up tripods for this rapidly moving and crowded event.  I brought a single DSLR with two light and fast prime lenses (a 50mm “normal” lens, and an 85mm portrait lens).  That’s it.  I never mounted a zoom lens during the whole day of shooting and I never used any artificial light.  And of course I went handheld the whole day; there’s really no safe or practical way to use a tripod at a crowded and mobile event.  All 2500 images I made that day used just that compact kit, and I’m very happy with the results.

It’s a good idea to arrive well before the scheduled start time.  Often, the best images of the day will be the ones you make during the preparations rather than during the event itself.  For this image of a leader of the Viva la Diva group, who I knew well from working with them over the last few months, I got in close with an 85mm portrait lens and allowed her elaborate headdress to fill the entire frame.  Buy this photo

Try to include some of the elements surrounding the people in the celebration.  A portrait that shows a person or people within their surroundings is called an “environmental portrait,” and often these tell us more about the person and the culture than do close-ups.  Buy this photo

Seek out the key people in a celebration, such as the King of Carnaval shown here.  He has such an amazing presence that all I had to do was find the right vantage point and shoot away.  I always look for uncluttered backgrounds when making portraits, so the background doesn’t distract much from the image.  Buy this photo

Kids make wonderful subjects during celebrations, especially during those moments when they forget the camera is there and are completely uninhibited.  Buy this photo

Try to choose backgrounds that complement your subject without competing with it.  I asked this samba dancer to pose by a street mural whose bright blues complemented her own costume.  Buy this photo

Group portraits can be challenging.  It’s difficult during the chaos of a celebration to get everyone’s eyes on the camera.  Try to find a vantage point that flatters everyone in the image (for full-body portraits, it’s often best to shoot from the level of the middle of the body, not from head level), choose an uncluttered and undistracting background, and select an aperture that gives just enough depth-of-field to keep all the people in focus while softening the background.  Buy this photo

To make close-up portraits during the actual celebration (in this case, a parade), it is not necessary to use a long telephoto lens.  Shooting with a long lens means you’re “taking” the portrait, not “making” the portrait.  You simply can’t interact with your subject while shooting from far away.  I prefer to use a prime normal or portrait lens so that I can interact with my subject and make an image where his personality shines through.  It helped here that I knew the members of this group from our interactions over the last few months.  Buy this photo

Another reason to use a fast prime lens is that you can choose a very wide aperture (here, F/2.0 using an F/1.4 lens) to get tack-sharp focus on the subject’s face while softening the background and sometimes other parts of the body.  Here I wanted to emphasize the pointing gesture by having the fingers so close as to be out of focus, while the dancer’s face and body are in sharp focus.  Buy this photo

For images that really pop, use a large aperture (small F-stop number) to soften the background and separate the subject from the other people and objects around him.  Buy this photo

During the chaos and cacophony of an urban celebration, it’s nice to find those quiet moments, too.  While most festival dances are joyous and boisterous, this Latin American folkloric dance is quiet and mournful.  I wanted the portrait to reflect that mood, so I shot from the side as if walking next to the dancer and caught the quiet gesture of holding the white handkerchief.  Again, a large aperture was used to blur the background and emphasize the subject.  Buy this photo

I look for scenes where participants are just being themselves.  These girls were having a blast, marching and chatting with each other, but they also were interacting with the crowd.  I got down nearly to the ground so as to shoot from their level and framed the image so as to emphasize the color and pattern of their costumes.  Buy this photo

Most images of parades are shot from straight ahead looking backward onto the subjects.  You’ll observe in this post that most of my images are not made from that perspective, but occasionally it does work to frame a great scene, such as this delightful image of a salsa dancing couple.  Buy this photo

It can be challenging to include a whole parade contingent in one shot.  Here I was able to frame the whole group in formation, including some of the lovely San Francisco houses on the steep hill behind, by running ahead to the truck in front of the dancers and getting as much distance as I could between me and them.  I shot with an 85mm lens and selected a small aperture (large F-number) so as to keep all of the dancers and the background in focus.  Buy this photo

With bold and colorful costumes, some subjects cry out for a big striking close-up.  When this dancer stopped to interact with me, I got in close with a portrait lens and captured him full-frame.  Buy this photo

Don’t shy away from using non-standard aspect ratios.  To include the whole Muito Quente contingent, I moved back from the dancers and captured the whole width of the street, then in post-processing I cropped to keep the full width but remove the unwanted foreground and background portions.  Buy this photo

Again, it is helpful to know the participants in advance of the performance.  I had been working with the Muito Quente group for several months before the parade, which made it more natural to interact with each of the dancers and make the best images possible.  Buy this photo

Always shoot in RAW mode for maximum flexibility.  A few words about post-processing: Using Lightroom, I make small adjustments to the color and contrast curves so as to emphasize the subject.  A little boost to the vibrance (but not so much as to make the image appear unnatural) and a touch of post-crop vignetting can really make the image pop.  Buy this photo

Sometimes it’s okay to break the usual rules of composition.  A portrait is not supposed to be cropped at the joints, such as at the knee, but here it works because the dancer’s ornate flowing dress gives a sense of motion and fluidity in the bottom of the frame.  Buy this photo

Even in a fast-moving parade, find the opportunities to have your subject stop for a moment and interact with you.  The resulting images will convey much more personality that way, even if the personage is fully masked.  Buy this photo

We’ll close with this moment of sheer Carnaval magic.  It’s such a wonderful feeling when all the elements come together to make a memorable image.  This portrait uses most of the techniques we’ve discussed in today’s post–careful composition, bright vibrant colors, a perfect moment, sharp subject with soft background–and conveys a strong sense of personality, culture, and place.  And that is what Carnaval, and cultural celebrations in general, are all about!  Buy this photo

What are your favorite cultural celebrations?  How do you make images that capture their essence?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

Focus on How Weird Street Faire [Encore Publication]: A case study on simple techniques to capture winning images of festivals

As a professional travel photographer, I shoot regularly in nearly all genres of photography.  A typical day on the road might include shooting landscapes, wildlife, cityscapes, portraits, action (sports, dance, performance), and nighttime photography.  While I enjoy all types of shooting, my great joy as a photographer is capturing portraits of the people I meet.  Whether close to home or halfway around the world, getting to know the people and learning about their culture through making portraits of them is a wonderful experience.  And there’s no better way to capture images of many amazing people in a short time than by attending local festivals.  People tend to be their best selves at special celebrations like festivals and street fairs.  They dress exuberantly, dance with abandon, make new friends quickly, and (nearly always) are overjoyed to pose for photos.

I shoot about a hundred festivals and other special events every year, so I’ve learned a few tips about how to make the best images during these occasions.  In today’s post I share some simple but effective techniques for capturing great portraits at festivals and other gatherings, using San Francisco’s recent How Weird Street Faire as a case study.  How Weird is a vibrant and colorful, only-in-SF, annual celebration of individuality, tolerance, music, art, and hula hoops.  Read on to see some of my favorite images from this year’s festival, presented along with some discussion of how they were made.  To view more of my images, or to buy some, check out this gallery: How Weird photo gallery.

I see a lot of fellow photographers at events like How Weird shooting with huge telephotos and even tripods, like they’re after images of wildlife on a Kenyan safari.  In my opinion, they are missing the point.  We’re making portraits of people here, so use a normal or moderate telephoto portrait lens, preferably a fast prime lens, ditch the tripod and monopod at home, and get in close to chat with and get to know the people you’re photographing.  When you interact with people, you get a sense of what makes them special, allowing both you and them to capture that special trait in your photos.  Random sniping from far away with a long telephoto will yield far more bland and generic photos.  All of my images at How Weird Street Faire were made with a single camera body and one lens, my trusty 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens.  Sometimes simple is better, especially when it comes to capturing people at fast-moving events.

Larger groups can be challenging to capture in portraits, particularly in bustling spaces like those of a festival.  When they couple I was chatting with suddenly ran into a friend and they had a group hug, I quickly stepped back a few paces and made this expressive and engaging portrait.  It’s okay to break the rules sometimes–here, one of the subject’s faces is completely obscured and another’s is partially obscured, yet the portrait works because it captures the energy and affection of the moment.

When photographers argue that the “street photography” approach (candidly sneaking images of people who aren’t aware they’re present) is the best for capturing people’s true essence, I show them images like this one.  This wholly genuine and unguarded moment of the girl dancing was made with her full knowledge and permission.  The trick is to chat with the subject and get their permission for photography first, then to lay back for a while and let them go back to what they were doing.  After a few minutes, they’ll nearly forget you’re there and they will reveal their true selves.  But unlike shots you sneak without permission, now you have a subject happy to have you photographing them, and you can take your time and not have to rush your work in order to hide your shooting from them.

Often we see only the most obvious subjects at crowded, chaotic events like festivals.  It’s easy to spend all our time shooting people dancing, partying, and displaying their costumes, but I try always to look for the more hidden people and infrastructure that support the event.  This DJ was partially hidden atop the big dance stage and behind the banks of speakers, but she made a fun subject for this portrait.

Don’t be afraid to get in close.  This portrait really pops because the tight composition allows us to focus our attention on the symmetry and color of the subject’s hair and costume.  

The interactions between people are at least as much fun to observe and capture as the individuals themselves.  I had chatted with and photographed a group of people for a few minutes when I observed this fun interaction, so I stepped back and framed some shots of the two young people together.

While post-processing my images after the shoot, I decided to render this one in monochrome to achieve a gritty urban street scene sort of feel.  Often color can distract from the power of an image, so always consider which of your images could benefit from conversion to black-and-white.

In ordinary daily life, I find that perhaps two-thirds of people are willing to have their portrait made if the photographer spends some time getting to know them first and then asks politely.  But at a festival, nearly everyone is excited about posing for portraits.  The trick is to capture scenes where they show you their underlying personalities a bit, rather than just striking a cliched pose for the camera.  To achieve that here, I spent a few minutes shooting, asking the couple to pose in different styles and have fun with it.

Putting it all together.  Here’s a summary of the basic techniques I use when shooting portraits at festivals:  1) Use a fast prime normal or portrait lens.  2) Set your camera for a fast shutter speed (1/500 second or faster is good for dancing and other fast action), wide aperture (f/2.5 or wider is ideal except for large groups) to isolate the subject, and an ISO appropriate to the lighting of the scene (I used ISO 100 the whole day due to the bright outdoor light).  3) Get to know your subject before shooting, let them relax, and capture them during an authentic moment.  4) Try to compose the portrait with as uncluttered a background as possible; of course, this is often difficult at crowded festivals.  5) During post-processing, crop to clean up the scene and then vignette just a touch to further clean up busy backgrounds.

I hope this discussion of techniques to capture portraits during festivals has been helpful.  The best way to learn these techniques and to find your own style is to shoot and shoot some more!

Please leave a comment with your own thoughts and tips about how to make great images of people at celebrations.

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

Please Join Me for a Photo Walk/Workshop in SF’s Mission District: Learn travel photography techniques to capture a sense of place

Dear Readers,

Would you like to learn skills that will significantly improve your travel photography in every genre, while exploring a fascinating San Francisco neighborhood, all in just a few hours?

Next Thursday, December 13, is the only guaranteed remaining date for my highly rated photo walk/workshop in San Francisco’s Mission District.  If you live in or will be visiting the SF Bay Area, please join me for this informative hands-on workshop.  This experience is suitable for photographers of any level from beginner through professional.  We will learn travel photography techniques that cover many photographic genres and can be applied to any location you visit to capture a strong sense of place.  I’m partnering with Airbnb Experiences to offer this series of special photo workshops.  More details can be found here: https://www.airbnb.com/experiences/227047.

=========

Photo Workshop: SF’s Mission District

Duration:3 hours total
Includes:Drinks
Languages:Offered in English
About your host
I’m a professional travel photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. A recent winner of the international competition Travel Photographer of the Year and shortlisted for the National Geographic Travel Photography Awards, I’ve shot in over 100 countries. My work has been published and exhibited widely. My passion is helping fellow photography enthusiasts learn to use their camera as a bridge to the local culture and land wherever we travel. When not traveling and teaching workshops around the world, I can be found capturing photos of the wonderful people and places around SF.
Kyle
Kyle
What we’ll do
Join a professional travel photographer as we explore one of SF’s last remaining true neighborhoods for a fun photo workshop filled with historic, architectural, artistic, and cultural attractions. The Mission District, named for the Spanish mission built there in 1776, is a vibrant Latino neighborhood that in recent years has undergone some gentrification, overlaying a hipster vibe on top of the still strong bedrock community. We approach our exploration as true travel photographers, not as tourists seeking “postcard shots”. I’ll share my award-winning tips and tricks to help you capture amazing images regardless of your experience level. The skills we practice today–covering many photographic genres including architectural, cityscapes, street, and portraiture–will give you a toolkit to draw from during your future travels. We seek a “sense of place” that roots our images to the place and the people we meet. In the middle of our walk, we rest our feet at a local cafe for an included coffee drink and the chance to review some of our photos. Our small group size allows for plenty of interaction and the chance to get your questions answered.
What else you should know
Guests should be prepared to walk about 3 miles, including some hills. Bring your gear (any kind of camera or phone) with a fully charged battery and memory card with room to spare for your photos.
What I’ll provide
One coffee drink up to $5
What to bring
Your camera (DSLR, mirrorless, point-and-shoot, or phone/tablet)
A fully charged battery for your camera
A memory card with plenty of room for your photos
Comfortable walking shoes
A light jacket

5 reviews from people who took this experience

Jim

September, 2018

Kyle is an excellent photographer, instructor and tour guide. I’m looking forward to his next event.
+3
Holden

July, 2018

We got a tour thru the Mission that I had never seen before. Kyle is a great communicator, and knows his stuff. I am a better photographer with a better eye than I was before I met Kyle!
Anne Sofie

July, 2018

Had a wonderful time with Kyle on the photowalk. We where a small group and Kyle inquired before the walk about our photography level so he was prepared on who needed technical assistance and who didn’t. This fits both experienced photographers and t…
悦Yue

May, 2018

Kyle is awesome ,if you just have just one chance to join one Airbnb Experience in San Francisco, choose his.We had a lot of fun to explore the Mission District where is super great for the photography:the colorful walls, the secret spots only Kyle k…
Nipun

September, 2018

Excellent walking tour, some photography instruction/tips, and lots of great information. Thanks.

Where we’ll be

We’ll visit and photograph these Mission District locations:
– Misión San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores)
– Clarion Alley Murals
– The Women’s Building
– Dolores Park
– We stop along the way at a local cafe for a coffee drink and photo review (and restrooms).

When do you want to go?

Availability for Thu, Dec 13
2:00 PM − 5:00 PM
$79 per person

Keep these in mind

Cancellation policy
Any experience can be canceled and fully refunded within 24 hours of purchase. See cancellation policy.
Group size
There are 8 spots available on this experience.
Who can come
Guests ages 12 and up can attend. Guests should be able to comfortably walk about 3 miles including some hills.

The Raw Truth [Encore Publication]: Why you should always shoot in RAW mode

Editor’s Note: Since publishing the original version of this post several months ago, I have made a major change to my workflow and now shoot in RAW format only (i.e., with no JPEG version saved in addition to the RAW version of each image).  Shooting RAW+JPEG was a crutch that I used for a couple of years as I transitioned from JPEG to RAW format, but I realized I never use the JPEG files right out of the camera, and saving duplicate JPEG files takes a lot of disk space and time.  Please read my update in this recent post: Post on RAW vs. RAW+JPEG.  The original post on RAW mode follows:

======================

For many years after I took the plunge into digital photography, I had my camera set to store image files in the JPEG format only.  I now realize that during those years I was throwing away a lot of very valuable information with every photo I made.  There are two main reasons for this information loss.  First, the JPEG format does not store the detailed data for each pixel in the camera’s sensor but instead does some processing according to your settings and then saves only stripped-down information from each area of your image.  Second, the JPEG standard is what’s referred to as a “lossy” format; every time it is opened and resaved, the image loses more detailed data.  Once your image data is thrown away, you cannot retrieve it.

By contrast, the RAW file format keeps all the data your camera’s sensor “sees” for every pixel in the image.  Yes, RAW files are bigger and take a bit longer to store on your camera’s memory card than JPEG files, and yes, they take up more space on the memory card and on your PC’s hard drive later.  For those early years of digital photography, I avoided shooting in RAW mode because I was concerned about having reduced shooting speed and storage space for these monster-sized files.  I also was concerned that it would be too much work to shoot in RAW mode because RAW images require post-processing in order to look their best.  I now realize that I had been making a big mistake.  Shooting in RAW all the time, even when high speed is needed for action shots, ensures that you’ll always have the most image data to work with later.  You will be able to crop your images more tightly, print them to larger sizes, and especially important, refine the exposure and color with far more control if they were shot in RAW format rather than in JPEG or other compressed formats.

I now shoot nearly exclusively using my camera’s setting to save files as both RAW and JPEG.  Having the JPEG version of each image can be helpful if I want to share the photo right out of the camera.  It will look pretty decent without any post-processing because the JPEG file is stored with all of the camera’s settings for white balance, sharpening, and so on.  But when I come home from a trip, I always do my post-processing on the best images using RAW files exclusively.  Because the RAW format stores so much more information about the color and brightness of every single pixel of the image, I have much more freedom in how I choose to develop the image using my editing software (typically Adobe Lightroom, but occasionally I also use Adobe Photoshop).

Below, I show two files of the same image of my wife and me by a “fairy chimney” rock formation in Cappadocia, Turkey, both processed in exactly same the same way in Lightroom, but the first one was originally saved by the camera as a JPEG while the second was originally saved in RAW mode.  While the differences may be subtle at the size and resolution shown in this post, you can still make out more details in the RAW file, especially in areas shrouded in shadow.  The color of the sky is deeper.  Colors and shapes are rendered with more accuracy.  And of course, if we needed to crop or enlarge these images to a much bigger size, the quality of the JPEG file would deteriorate much sooner than would the RAW file.

 The JPEG version of this image.

 The RAW version of the same image.

I recommend shooting in RAW+JPEG all the time, unless you know you will need the slightly faster shooting speed or extra storage space of JPEG alone.  Doing so will give you the best of both worlds: a quick and easy JPEG to share right out of the camera, and the much more detailed data in the RAW file from which to bring out the nuances in color, texture, and exposure later during post-processing.  If you use JPEG alone, you’ll be throwing away image information you may wish you had later.

Do you shoot in RAW mode?  If so, what do you like about it?  If not, why not?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

Please Join Me for a Photo Walk/Workshop in SF’s Mission District: Learn travel photography techniques to capture a sense of place

Dear Readers,

This coming Thursday, November 29, is the only guaranteed remaining date for my highly rated photo walk/workshop in San Francisco’s Mission District.  If you live in or will be visiting the SF Bay Area, please join me for this informative hands-on workshop.  This experience is suitable for photographers of any level from beginner through professional.  We will learn travel photography techniques that cover many photographic genres and can be applied to any location you visit to capture a strong sense of place.  I’m partnering with Airbnb Experiences to offer this series of special photo workshops.  More details can be found here: https://www.airbnb.com/experiences/227047.

=========

Photo Workshop: SF’s Mission District

Duration:3 hours total
Includes:Drinks
Languages:Offered in English
About your host
I’m a professional travel photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. A recent winner of the international competition Travel Photographer of the Year and shortlisted for the National Geographic Travel Photography Awards, I’ve shot in over 100 countries. My work has been published and exhibited widely. My passion is helping fellow photography enthusiasts learn to use their camera as a bridge to the local culture and land wherever we travel. When not traveling and teaching workshops around the world, I can be found capturing photos of the wonderful people and places around SF.
Kyle
Kyle

What we’ll do
Join a professional travel photographer as we explore one of SF’s last remaining true neighborhoods for a fun photo workshop filled with historic, architectural, artistic, and cultural attractions. The Mission District, named for the Spanish mission built there in 1776, is a vibrant Latino neighborhood that in recent years has undergone some gentrification, overlaying a hipster vibe on top of the still strong bedrock community. We approach our exploration as true travel photographers, not as tourists seeking “postcard shots”. I’ll share my award-winning tips and tricks to help you capture amazing images regardless of your experience level. The skills we practice today–covering many photographic genres including architectural, cityscapes, street, and portraiture–will give you a toolkit to draw from during your future travels. We seek a “sense of place” that roots our images to the place and the people we meet. In the middle of our walk, we rest our feet at a local cafe for an included coffee drink and the chance to review some of our photos. Our small group size allows for plenty of interaction and the chance to get your questions answered.
What else you should know
Guests should be prepared to walk about 3 miles, including some hills. Bring your gear (any kind of camera or phone) with a fully charged battery and memory card with room to spare for your photos.
What I’ll provide
One coffee drink up to $5
What to bring
Your camera (DSLR, mirrorless, point-and-shoot, or phone/tablet)
A fully charged battery for your camera
A memory card with plenty of room for your photos
Comfortable walking shoes
A light jacket

5 reviews from people who took this experience

Jim

September, 2018

Kyle is an excellent photographer, instructor and tour guide. I’m looking forward to his next event.
+3
Holden

July, 2018

We got a tour thru the Mission that I had never seen before. Kyle is a great communicator, and knows his stuff. I am a better photographer with a better eye than I was before I met Kyle!
Anne Sofie

July, 2018

Had a wonderful time with Kyle on the photowalk. We where a small group and Kyle inquired before the walk about our photography level so he was prepared on who needed technical assistance and who didn’t. This fits both experienced photographers and t…
悦Yue

May, 2018

Kyle is awesome ,if you just have just one chance to join one Airbnb Experience in San Francisco, choose his.We had a lot of fun to explore the Mission District where is super great for the photography:the colorful walls, the secret spots only Kyle k…
Nipun

September, 2018

Excellent walking tour, some photography instruction/tips, and lots of great information. Thanks.

Where we’ll be

We’ll visit and photograph these Mission District locations: – Misión San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores) – Clarion Alley Murals – The Women’s Building – Dolores Park We stop along the way at a local cafe for a coffee drink and photo review (and restrooms).

When do you want to go?

Availability for Thu, Nov 29
2:00 PM − 5:00 PM
$79 per person

Keep these in mind

Cancellation policy
Any experience can be canceled and fully refunded within 24 hours of purchase. See cancellation policy.
Group size
There are 8 spots available on this experience.
Who can come
Guests ages 12 and up can attend. Guests should be able to comfortably walk about 3 miles including some hills.