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.

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.

A Shot in the Dark [Encore Publication]: Night photography opens up a whole new world of image possibilities

The state of the art in photography gear has improved to the point where creating breathtaking nighttime images is now within the range of most enthusiast photographers.  Until recently an expensive and technically complicated ordeal, making images in very low light can now be done quite easily and with reasonably priced gear.  Today’s post discusses what you need and how to do it.

This image was made at the outskirts of Svalbard’s only population center, Longyearbyen, several hours after sunset.  To capture the scene in nearly total darkness, I used a sturdy tripod, a relatively wide aperture (f/4), and a long shutter speed.  Buy this photo

Because nighttime scenes feature very dim lighting (typically coming from the moon or stars, or occasionally from a bit of reflected ambient sunlight or city lights indirectly illuminating the scene), it is usually essential to mount your camera on a sturdy tripod and to use a high ISO setting.  Sometimes a fast lens can be used to obtain a wide aperture (low f-stop number), in order to reduce the length of the required exposure time.  I like to bracket my exposures (shoot multiple images, each with a slightly different exposure) for most night scenes, so as to maximize the chance of obtaining just the right exposure.  You can read more about exposure bracketing in this post: Post on Bracketing.  To minimize camera shake during these long exposures, use a remote shutter release or your camera’s self-timer to trigger the shot.  My go-to shutter release is inexpensive and very reliable:

To make this image of the Milky Way over Yosemite National Park, I used a very long shutter speed and very high ISO setting.  Both long exposures and high ISO sensitivities will tend to introduce digital noise to the image file.  Fortunately, these sources of noise can usually be effectively controlled during post-processing.  Buy this photo

Night photography requires special attention during post-processing.  Because long exposure times and high ISO sensitivity settings tend to introduce digital noise (random errors in the brightness and/or color rendition of pixels in the image), it is important to pay careful attention to these effects while working in Lightroom, Photoshop, or other post-processing software applications.  I find Lightroom’s tools to be very effective in reducing both sources of noise.  In Lightroom’s Develop Module, play with the Luminance slider under the Noise Reduction tools area until the noise is just controlled, but not so far as to cause unrealistic rendition of color or sharpness.  Note that some cameras also allow you to reduce high ISO noise and/or long exposure noise via menu settings in-camera.  I tend not to use these tools because they slow down the shooting process, and their effect can be replicated easily in post-processing.  Post-processing is also the time to adjust the color rendition and sharpness/contrast of the Milky Way or other stars appearing in the image to make these astronomical features really pop.

This image of Pigeon Point Lighthouse in Pescadero, California combines many of the night photography techniques discussed in this post.  The lighting here was tricky because the brightness of the lighthouse beacon was much greater than the available light on the foreground and background objects.  Bracketing exposure helps in these situations.  Buy this photo

I hope this post inspires you to make your own nighttime images.  With a decent DSLR or mirrorless ILC camera, a relatively fast lens, and a tripod, every photographer can now be equipped to shoot in very low light.

Now it’s your turn.  Please share your own experiences with creating low-light images by leaving a comment here.

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

 

The Great American Eclipse [Encore Publication]: How I captured the recent total solar eclipse

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to observe and photograph four total solar eclipses all around the world.   A few weeks ago, I drove with my family to Salem, Oregon to photograph the Great American Eclipse on August 21, 2017.  I delivered a lecture on eclipse photography before an audience of about 400 eclipse chasers and scientists, and I was also interviewed by the New York Times.  But most important, I was able to capture some amazing images of the big event!  In today’s post, I share a few of those images and discuss how they were made.

For tips about how to make close-up portraits of the sun during an eclipse, check out this post: Post on Eclipse Photography.  My best advice is to use a very sturdy tripod, turn off vibration reduction or image stabilization on your longest telephoto lens, manually focus before the start of the eclipse (and use a piece of tape to hold your lens’ focus ring in place), use ISO 400 and f/11, and bracket your exposures to ensure you’ll have some that are well exposed.  Of course, you will need to use a proper solar filter over the front end of your lens for the entire eclipse except during the brief period of totality.  Buy this photo

As totality approaches, the sun becomes much less bright and your exposure will change dramatically.  You may have to boost your ISO setting and/or open your aperture to capture these last partial stages before totality.  Buy this photo

It’s important to know exactly when totality will begin.  Set a timer to be sure you don’t miss it.  I like to remove the solar filters from all my lenses about 1 minute before the start of totality.  Then I am ready and waiting for the diamond ring effect to signal the beginning of totality, and I’m ready to shoot and capture this beautiful moment.  Just be sure you don’t look directly at the sun through your lens after removing your filter until the diamond ring effect has taken place, or you could damage your eyes or your camera’s sensor.  Buy this photo

It is especially important to bracket exposures during totality, because the range of brightness values between the bright inner corona and the dim outer corona is too great for any camera’s sensor to capture in one image.  By shooting a series of several different exposures, you can combine them during post-processing using HDR (high dynamic range) software, allowing for all the subtle beauty of the corona to be captured.  This favorite image of totality shows colorful prominences, ethereal streamers, and the rarely seen “earthshine effect” whereby the surface detail of the moon is lit entirely by sunlight reflecting off the earth.  Buy this photo

The second diamond ring effect occurs moments after the end of totality.  This HDR image combines seven of my bracketed exposures, yielding an image of breathtaking beauty.  Buy this photo

Get creative about displaying your images after you get home.  This montage was made from 15 of my favorite images to show the progression of the eclipse from partial stages through the diamond ring effect, into totality, and back again.  Buy this photo

I used a second camera with a wide-angle lens mounted on a tripod and controlled by an intervalometer (timer) to shoot a bracketed set of exposures every 30 seconds during the whole eclipse.  In post-processing, I combined the images into a time lapse montage showing the movement of the sun across the sky in different stages of the eclipse.  Note that I am standing in the foreground operating my other camera, the LCD screen on which clearly shows a closeup image of the sun during totality.  Buy this photo

Did you observe and/or photograph the Great American Eclipse of 2017?  Please share your experiences here.

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

 

The Great American Eclipse: How I captured the recent total solar eclipse

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to observe and photograph four total solar eclipses all around the world.  This past weekend, I drove with my family to Salem, Oregon to photograph the Great American Eclipse on August 21, 2017.  I delivered a lecture on eclipse photography before an audience of about 400 eclipse chasers and scientists, and I was also interviewed by the New York Times.  But most important, I was able to capture some amazing images of the big event!  In today’s post, I share a few of those images and discuss how they were made.

For tips about how to make close-up portraits of the sun during an eclipse, check out this post: Post on Eclipse Photography.  My best advice is to use a very sturdy tripod, turn off vibration reduction or image stabilization on your longest telephoto lens, manually focus before the start of the eclipse (and use a piece of tape to hold your lens’ focus ring in place), use ISO 400 and f/11, and bracket your exposures to ensure you’ll have some that are well exposed.  Buy this photo

As totality approaches, the sun becomes much less bright and your exposure will change dramatically.  You may have to boost your ISO setting and/or open your aperture to capture these last partial stages before totality.  Buy this photo

It’s important to know exactly when totality will begin.  Set a timer to be sure you don’t miss it.  I like to remove the solar filters from all my lenses about 1 minute before the start of totality.  Then I am ready and waiting for the diamond ring effect to signal the beginning of totality, and I’m ready to shoot and capture this beautiful moment.  Just be sure you don’t look directly at the sun through your lens after removing your filter until the diamond ring effect has taken place, or you could damage your eyes or your camera’s sensor.  Buy this photo

It is especially important to bracket exposures during totality, because the range of brightness values between the bright inner corona and the dim outer corona is too great for any camera’s sensor to capture in one image.  By shooting a series of several different exposures, you can combine them during post-processing using HDR (high dynamic range) software, allowing for all the subtle beauty of the corona to be captured.  This favorite image of totality shows colorful prominences, ethereal streamers, and the rarely seen “earthshine effect” whereby the surface detail of the moon is lit entirely by sunlight reflecting off the earth.  Buy this photo

The second diamond ring effect occurs moments after the end of totality.  This HDR image combines seven of my bracketed exposures, yielding an image of breathtaking beauty.  Buy this photo

Get creative about displaying your images after you get home.  This montage was made from 15 of my favorite images to show the progression of the eclipse from partial stages through the diamond ring effect, into totality, and back again.  Buy this photo

I used a second camera with a wide-angle lens mounted on a tripod and controlled by an intervalometer (timer) to shoot a bracketed set of exposures every 30 seconds during the whole eclipse.  In post-processing, I combined the images into a time lapse montage showing the movement of the sun across the sky in different stages of the eclipse.  Note that I am standing in the foreground operating my other camera, the LCD screen on which clearly shows a closeup image of the sun during totality.  Buy this photo

Did you observe and/or photograph the Great American Eclipse of 2017?  Please share your experiences here.

Want to read other 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.

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.

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.

Total Eclipse of the Heart [Encore Publication]: Techniques for photographing solar eclipses

Dear Readers:

With the Great American Eclipse coming up in just a couple of weeks (it’s on August 21, 2017), I am republishing this popular post on how to shoot a total solar eclipse.  If you have not yet booked your trip to a spot along the path of totality, now is the time to do it!

Kyle

Prof. Jay Pasachoff and his student set up scientific gear for observing the total solar eclipse in Svalbard in 2015.  Buy this photo

If there’s a more thrilling experience anywhere on our planet than observing a total solar eclipse, I’ve not yet found it.  The experience of observing the moon slowly move in front of the sun, obscuring our view of the sun one nibble at a time until day turns into night, the temperature drops, the stars come out in the middle of the day, and the delicate corona of the sun is exposed, is like nothing else we earthlings can feel.  An eclipse is a singular event, each a bit different from any other that has ever occurred, and an exclusive event that often can be observed only from a narrow swatch of land and in very remote corners of the planet.  I’ve stood in the umbra (shadow) of the moon during three total solar eclipses thus far in my life: first in Virginia Beach in the USA when I was 7 years old, then in the mountains above Anji in China in 2009, and most recently in 2015 in Svalbard well above the Arctic Circle.  I plan to be in Salem, Oregon in the USA on August 21, 2017 when the next total solar eclipse occurs.  These events are truly life-changing, and once you’ve experienced an eclipse you will want to seek out others.

Photographing an eclipse takes all of the normal challenges of travel photography and throws a few special ones into the mix.  To start with, an eclipse can take place anywhere on the planet, and often the best location from which to view one is very remote with little or no travel infrastructure.  The eclipse I experienced in 2015 in Longyearbyen, high in the Arctic on the island of Svalbard, was a transformative event, but the extreme cold coupled with the lack of infrastructure made getting there and photographing the eclipse a special challenge.  And of course, during an eclipse the already challenging conditions are stressed even further due to the tremendous crush of visitors who rush in from all over the world to try to view the solar event.

I recommend you travel with an expert in managing the complicated logistics required to stage a successful eclipse trip.  I always go with A Classic Tours Collection (https://aclassictour.com/solar-eclipse-tours/).  Run by travel logistics guru Mark Sood and with scientific consulting from Professor Jay Pasachoff, a world expert in eclipses and the human being who has stood in the shadow of the moon more times than any other, this company has delivered an unprecedented track record of successful eclipse trips since 1980.

Special challenges in photographing a total solar eclipse, like this one in Svalbard in 2015, include remoteness, lack of infrastructure, extreme conditions, the risk of poor weather, and the need for specialized photographic gear.  Go with an expert or risk missing the action.  Buy this photo

Assuming you are able to get all the right gear to the best possible location to observe the eclipse, and then the weather cooperates, the actual technique required to capture remarkable images of this phenomenal event is fairly straightforward.  Here’s what you need to do:

Gather the right gear.  You will need at least one (and I prefer to have two) DSLR or mirrorless ILC camera bodies with a long telephoto lens or two.  I use a Nikon D810 with a Sigma 150-500mm super-telephoto zoom lens.  For each lens you will need a specialized solar filter to block 99.999% of the sun’s light to enable you to shoot the sun safely during the partial stages of the eclipse.  The solar filter blocks much more of the sun’s light than a standard photographer’s neutral density filter, so don’t try to find this item at your local camera shop.  Instead, you will need to order it from a specialized astronomy company such as Thousand Oaks Optical (http://www.thousandoaksoptical.com/solar.html).  Be sure to order a black polymer threaded camera filter in the proper diameter for your specific lens.  Without a properly fitted solar filter on each lens you plan to shoot with, it is not safe for your eyes or for your camera’s sensor to attempt to photograph a solar eclipse.  You will also need a heavy-duty professional tripod with a good ball head and mounting plate to hold your camera and lens steady during the eclipse.  Also be sure to pack a remote shutter release with extra batteries (if required), the tripod collar that came with your lens (if included), a mini flashlight for checking your camera’s settings, extra memory cards, and extra batteries and chargers for your camera.

Super-telephoto zoom lens with tripod mounting collar.  Don’t forget to order a solar filter to fit your lens(es).

 

Heavy-duty professional tripod.

 

Remote shutter release.

Test your gear.  Before the trip, test your full setup at home by shooting the sun with your solar filter on the lens, and by shooting the full moon without the solar filter.  These two scenarios will allow you to test your gear in conditions similar to the partial stages of the eclipse and to totality, respectively.

Prepare your gear the evening before the eclipse.  Charge all batteries, format all memory cards, make all camera and lens settings (per my instructions below), and check all your equipment.  Remove the UV filter you ordinarily keep on your lens(es), because they will interfere with the solar filter you will use during the partial stages.  On eclipse day, have in your pocket your flashlight, extra camera batteries, extra remote batteries, and extra memory cards.  It will be dark during totality and you will be excited, so best to have everything well planned in advance and within easy reach on eclipse day.

Configure your camera’s and lenses’ settings in advance of the eclipse.  Shoot in RAW mode (or RAW + JPEG mode if you must have JPEG versions of  your images) using the highest quality setting available on your camera.  I recommend using an ISO setting of 400, and be sure to turn your camera’s Auto ISO setting off.  The exposure changes constantly throughout the eclipse, so I do not recommend manual exposure mode; instead, choose aperture priority mode with the aperture set at f/11.  You may want to choose highlight-weighted metering if your camera has this option; otherwise, select center-weighted metering.  Choose single-frame shooting mode.  I recommend using exposure bracketing to shoot bursts of about 7 frames, each 1 stop (or even 1.3 stops) different from the previous one, so as to capture more of the huge dynamic range in a solar eclipse; this is especially important to do during totality.  Turn off vibration reduction (also referred to as image stabilization), as your camera will be on a sturdy tripod throughout the eclipse.  Set your focus mode to manual, because autofocus will not work during or near totality.  Tape your lens’s focus ring to infinity to be sure it won’t move during the eclipse.  Take a deep breath.  You’re almost ready for the eclipse.

Set everything up at the eclipse viewing site.  Place your camera on the heavy-duty tripod and install your remote control.  Remove your regular UV filter and attach your special solar filter.  As the first contact between sun and moon occurs, start to shoot.  Remember to shoot in bursts of 7 (whatever number of exposure levels you have selected) if you have turned on exposure bracketing.  Due to the rotation of the earth, you will have to recenter the sun in your viewfinder periodically (unless you are shooting through a telescope with an equatorial mount).

This image shows the early partial stages of the Svalbard total solar eclipse.  Shoot periodically during all the partial stages, and remember to reposition your shooting angle so the sun remains in the center of your field of view.  Buy this photo

Remove your solar filter only during the period of totality.  When the diamond ring effect signals the start of totality, and the world around you is suddenly plunged into darkness, quickly take off your lens’s solar filter.  You won’t need it during totality.  The brightness of the sun during totality is similar to that of the full moon, so viewing and photographing the sun during totality will not be dangerous.  This is the most exciting time, and it will last for only about 1-4 minutes, so enjoy the spectacle of the sun’s corona revealed!  Remember to spend some of the time just looking and not shooting.  This is an experience you will want to remember not only through your camera!

For the brief but exhilarating period of totality, remove your solar filter.  This image captures the diamond ring effect that ushers in the period of totality.  The sun’s delicate corona can be seen around the edge of the photosphere.  Buy this photo

Put your solar filter back on after totality.  The partial stages that follow the period of totality, just like the partial stages that came before totality, are not safe to view or photograph without the special solar filter.  Keep shooting those later partial stages because you will want a complete record of the eclipse to show a compelling narrative and to create montages of the images.

Shoot some landscapes and people images, too.  Don’t forget to use a second camera–either a second DSLR or mirrorless ILC body you brought for the occasion or your smartphone’s camera–for landscape and people shots during the eclipse.  You don’t want all of your images to be close-up portraits of the sun and moon only.  You will need a solar filter on the second camera, too, if you plan to include the sun itself in these shots.

Remember to shoot some images, with a second camera, of yourself and your travel companions during the eclipse.  Here’s a shot of my family standing in the umbra during totality at the China eclipse of 2009.  Buy this photo

Return all settings to normal after the eclipse.  You will have made quite a few special adjustments in order to capture the eclipse properly.  Don’t forget to restore your usual settings after the eclipse has ended.

Get creative with your eclipse images once you return home.  There are many ways to compile and share your images to give the world a sense of the thrill you experienced while in the shadow of the moon.

Once home from the eclipse trip, get creative about how to share your experience.  Here I have put together a montage of some of my favorite images from each stage of the Svalbard eclipse.  Using Photoshop, I created a composite image showing the sequence of stages from partial to total and back again.  Buy this photo

This image is a composite of three bracketed exposures combined using High Dynamic Range (HDR) software.  Without HDR techniques, it is impossible to capture in a single image the huge variation in brightness between the sun’s inner corona and outer corona during totality. Buy this photo 

Have you experienced a total solar eclipse?  Photographed one?  Please share your tips and tricks.

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

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.

Wildlife and Safari Gear [Encore Publication]: Basic equipment to capture wildlife while traveling or close to home

Wildlife photography is one of the most exciting and rewarding pursuits I know, but it is also very challenging.  Whether on safari in far-flung wilderness regions around the world or in a park or zoo near home, capturing great images of the local fauna requires plenty of patience, a little bit of luck, and some specialized gear.  This post outlines the basic equipment needed for wildlife photography.

Sometimes we get lucky.  This alligator was seeking what little sunshine was available on an overcast winter’s day on the bayou in Louisiana.  He stayed sufficiently still that I was able to capture this image by handholding a medium telephoto lens from our airboat.  Buy this photo

Occasionally, a critter may scamper, fly, or swim right up to where the photographer happens to be standing, but in the vast majority of cases, if we want to capture a really moving and uninhibited portrait of an animal, we need a long telephoto lens.  Working with “big glass” not only fills more of the frame with the main subject, but it has the added benefit of allowing the photographer to shoot from a vantage point far enough away from the animal so as not to frighten it.  It’s also very important when photographing wildlife that we make every effort to keep the wildlife wild, and using a long lens keeps us at a sufficient distance that the creatures we’re observing are less likely to become accustomed to the sight, sound, and smell of humans.

I like to carry both a medium telephoto and a long telephoto when shooting wildlife, so as to be prepared for a variety of situations.  My medium lens of choice is the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR lens.  While this lens is built on aging technology and doesn’t always feel as solid as more professional lenses, it is relatively small and lightweight, fairly inexpensive, and provides a very effective vibration reduction function.  This lens has been a staple in my bag for many years, during which time I’ve used it to capture some of my favorite images.

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.

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

When shooting far-off and often rapidly moving animal subjects with big glass, it is important to have a good means of stabilizing the camera.  Depending on the shooting situation, I use either a lightweight tripod or a beanbag support.

A lightweight travel tripod is perfect for those situations when you have plenty of space and plenty of time in one place.  I like the Manfrotto Be Free travel tripod.  It folds up to an incredibly small size yet affords a surprising amount of stability.  The included ball head works well but is difficult to adjust for sensitivity.  This tripod is designed to fit into a special pouch in my favorite travel photography backpack, also made by Manfrotto.

For situations when you will be on the move much of the time, such as on game drives using safari vehicles, a beanbag support is extremely useful, as you cannot fit a tripod in a safari vehicle and a monopod is awkward.  The bag can be emptied for convenient travel and then filled with “beans” (usually synthetic) upon arrival.   It is placed on top of the safari vehicle while shooting, with the camera and long lens resting on the beanbag.  While the beanbag that I use is no longer available, this one is well reviewed by photographers and represents a good value.

A sleepy leopard yawns in a tree above the Endless Plains of Serengeti National Park.  This image was captured using a 500mm lens resting on a beanbag support placed on the roof of our safari vehicle.  Buy this photo

With a couple of good telephoto lenses, including one long one, and a couple of good options for stabilizing them, you will be armed with the right basic tools for bringing home truly memorable images of the wildlife you encounter on your travels.  Happy hunting!

What are your favorite wildlife subjects and locations, and what gear do you use to capture them?  Please share your experiences here.

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

Total Eclipse of the Heart [Encore Publication]: Techniques for photographing solar eclipses

Dear Readers:

With the Great American Eclipse coming up in just a couple of months (it’s on August 21, 2017), I am republishing this popular post on how to shoot a total solar eclipse.  If you have not yet booked your trip to a spot along the path of totality, now is the time to do it!

Kyle

Prof. Jay Pasachoff and his student set up scientific gear for observing the total solar eclipse in Svalbard in 2015.  Buy this photo

If there’s a more thrilling experience anywhere on our planet than observing a total solar eclipse, I’ve not yet found it.  The experience of observing the moon slowly move in front of the sun, obscuring our view of the sun one nibble at a time until day turns into night, the temperature drops, the stars come out in the middle of the day, and the delicate corona of the sun is exposed, is like nothing else we earthlings can feel.  An eclipse is a singular event, each a bit different from any other that has ever occurred, and an exclusive event that often can be observed only from a narrow swatch of land and in very remote corners of the planet.  I’ve stood in the umbra (shadow) of the moon during three total solar eclipses thus far in my life: first in Virginia Beach in the USA when I was 7 years old, then in the mountains above Anji in China in 2009, and most recently in 2015 in Svalbard well above the Arctic Circle.  I plan to be in Salem, Oregon in the USA on August 21, 2017 when the next total solar eclipse occurs.  These events are truly life-changing, and once you’ve experienced an eclipse you will want to seek out others.

Photographing an eclipse takes all of the normal challenges of travel photography and throws a few special ones into the mix.  To start with, an eclipse can take place anywhere on the planet, and often the best location from which to view one is very remote with little or no travel infrastructure.  The eclipse I experienced in 2015 in Longyearbyen, high in the Arctic on the island of Svalbard, was a transformative event, but the extreme cold coupled with the lack of infrastructure made getting there and photographing the eclipse a special challenge.  And of course, during an eclipse the already challenging conditions are stressed even further due to the tremendous crush of visitors who rush in from all over the world to try to view the solar event.

I recommend you travel with an expert in managing the complicated logistics required to stage a successful eclipse trip.  I always go with A Classic Tours Collection (http://aclassictour.com/travel-company/solar-eclipse-tours-expeditions-total-eclipse/).  Run by travel logistics guru Mark Sood and with scientific consulting from Professor Jay Pasachoff, a world expert in eclipses and the human being who has stood in the shadow of the moon more times than any other, this company has delivered an unprecedented track record of successful eclipse trips since 1980.

Special challenges in photographing a total solar eclipse, like this one in Svalbard in 2015, include remoteness, lack of infrastructure, extreme conditions, the risk of poor weather, and the need for specialized photographic gear.  Go with an expert or risk missing the action.  Buy this photo

Assuming you are able to get all the right gear to the best possible location to observe the eclipse, and then the weather cooperates, the actual technique required to capture remarkable images of this phenomenal event is fairly straightforward.  Here’s what you need to do:

Gather the right gear.  You will need at least one (and I prefer to have two) DSLR or mirrorless ILC camera bodies with a long telephoto lens or two.  I use a Nikon D810 with a Sigma 150-500mm super-telephoto zoom lens.  For each lens you will need a specialized solar filter to block 99.999% of the sun’s light to enable you to shoot the sun safely during the partial stages of the eclipse.  The solar filter blocks much more of the sun’s light than a standard photographer’s neutral density filter, so don’t try to find this item at your local camera shop.  Instead, you will need to order it from a specialized astronomy company such as Thousand Oaks Optical (http://www.thousandoaksoptical.com/solar.html).  Be sure to order a black polymer threaded camera filter in the proper diameter for your specific lens.  Without a properly fitted solar filter on each lens you plan to shoot with, it is not safe for your eyes or for your camera’s sensor to attempt to photograph a solar eclipse.  You will also need a heavy-duty professional tripod with a good ball head and mounting plate to hold your camera and lens steady during the eclipse.  Also be sure to pack a remote shutter release with extra batteries, the tripod collar that came with your lens (if included), a mini flashlight for checking your camera’s settings, extra memory cards, and extra batteries and chargers for your camera.

Super-telephoto zoom lens with tripod mounting collar.  Don’t forget to order a solar filter to fit your lens(es).

 

Heavy-duty professional tripod.

 

Remote shutter release.

Test your gear.  Before the trip, test your full setup at home by shooting the sun with your solar filter on the lens, and by shooting the full moon without the solar filter.  These two scenarios will allow you to test your gear in conditions similar to the partial stages of the eclipse and to totality, respectively.

Prepare your gear the evening before the eclipse.  Charge all batteries, format all memory cards, make all camera and lens settings (per my instructions below), and check all your equipment.  Remove the UV filter you ordinarily keep on your lens(es), because they will interfere with the solar filter you will use during the partial stages.  On eclipse day, have in your pocket your flashlight, extra camera batteries, extra remote batteries, and extra memory cards.  It will be dark during totality and you will be excited, so best to have everything well planned in advance and within easy reach on eclipse day.

Configure your camera’s and lenses’ settings in advance of the eclipse.  Shoot in RAW mode (or RAW + JPEG mode if you must have JPEG versions of  your images) using the highest quality setting available on your camera.  I recommend using an ISO setting of 400, and be sure to turn your camera’s Auto ISO setting off.  The exposure changes constantly throughout the eclipse, so I do not recommend manual exposure mode; instead, choose aperture priority mode with the aperture set at f/11.  You may want to choose highlight-weighted metering if your camera has this option; otherwise, select center-weighted metering.  Choose single-frame shooting mode.  I like to turn on exposure bracketing to shoot bursts of 3 frames, each 1 stop different from the previous one, so as to have higher likelihood of getting proper exposure on each series of shots.  Turn your focus mode to manual, because autofocus will not work during or near totality.  Tape your lens’s focus ring to infinity to be sure it won’t move during the eclipse.  Take a deep breath.  You’re almost ready for the eclipse.

Set everything up at the eclipse viewing site.  Place your camera on the heavy-duty tripod and install your remote control.  Remove your regular UV filter and attach your special solar filter.  As the first contact between sun and moon occurs, start to shoot.  Remember to shoot in bursts of 3 (or 5 or 7) if you have turned on exposure bracketing.  Due to the rotation of the earth, you will have to recenter the sun in your viewfinder periodically (unless you are shooting through a telescope with an equatorial mount).

This image shows the early partial stages of the Svalbard total solar eclipse.  Shoot periodically during all the partial stages, and remember to reposition your shooting angle so the sun remains in the center of your field of view.  Buy this photo

Remove your solar filter only during the period of totality.  When the diamond ring effect signals the start of totality, and the world around you is suddenly plunged into darkness, quickly take off your lens’s solar filter.  You won’t need it during totality.  The brightness of the sun during totality is similar to that of the full moon, so viewing and photographing the sun during totality will not be dangerous.  This is the most exciting time, and it will last for only about 1-4 minutes, so enjoy the spectacle of the sun’s corona revealed!  Remember to spend some of the time just looking and not shooting.  This is an experience you will want to remember not only through your camera!

For the brief but exhilarating period of totality, remove your solar filter.  This image captures the diamond ring effect that ushers in the period of totality.  The sun’s delicate corona can be seen around the edge of the photosphere.  Buy this photo

Put your solar filter back on after totality.  The partial stages that follow the period of totality, just like the partial stages that came before totality, are not safe to view or photograph without the special solar filter.  Keep shooting those later partial stages because you will want a complete record of the eclipse to show a compelling narrative and to create montages of the images.

Shoot some landscapes and people images, too.  Don’t forget to use a second camera–either a second DSLR or mirrorless ILC body you brought for the occasion or your smartphone’s camera–for landscape and people shots during the eclipse.  You don’t want all of your images to be close-up portraits of the sun and moon only.  You will need a solar filter on the second camera, too, if you plan to include the sun itself in these shots.

Remember to shoot some images, with a second camera, of yourself and your travel companions during the eclipse.  Here’s a shot of my family standing in the umbra during totality at the China eclipse of 2009.  Buy this photo

Return all settings to normal after the eclipse.  You will have made quite a few special adjustments in order to capture the eclipse properly.  Don’t forget to restore your usual settings after the eclipse has ended.

Get creative with your eclipse images once you return home.  There are many ways to compile and share your images to give the world a sense of the thrill you experienced while in the shadow of the moon.

Once home from the eclipse trip, get creative about how to share your experience.  Here I have put together a montage of some of my favorite images from each stage of the Svalbard eclipse.  Using Photoshop, I created a composite image showing the sequence of stages from partial to total and back again.  Buy this photo

Have you experienced a total solar eclipse?  Photographed one?  Please share your tips and tricks.

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.

 

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.

Celebration Time, Come On: 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.

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.

A Shot in the Dark [Encore Publication]: Night photography opens up a whole new world of image possibilities

The state of the art in photography gear has improved to the point where creating breathtaking nighttime images is now within the range of most enthusiast photographers.  Until recently an expensive and technically complicated ordeal, making images in very low light can now be done quite easily and with reasonably priced gear.  Today’s post discusses what you need and how to do it.

This image was made at the outskirts of Svalbard’s only population center, Longyearbyen, several hours after sunset.  To capture the scene in nearly total darkness, I used a sturdy tripod, a relatively wide aperture (f/4), and a long shutter speed.  Buy this photo

Because nighttime scenes feature very dim lighting (typically coming from the moon or stars, or occasionally from a bit of reflected ambient sunlight or city lights indirectly illuminating the scene), it is usually essential to mount your camera on a sturdy tripod and to use a high ISO setting.  Sometimes a fast lens can be used to obtain a wide aperture (low f-stop number), in order to reduce the length of the required exposure time.  I like to bracket my exposures (shoot multiple images, each with a slightly different exposure) for most night scenes, so as to maximize the chance of obtaining just the right exposure.  You can read more about exposure bracketing in this post: Post on Bracketing.  To minimize camera shake during these long exposures, use a remote shutter release or your camera’s self-timer to trigger the shot.  My go-to shutter release is inexpensive and very reliable:

To make this image of the Milky Way over Yosemite National Park, I used a very long shutter speed and very high ISO setting.  Both long exposures and high ISO sensitivities will tend to introduce digital noise to the image file.  Fortunately, these sources of noise can usually be effectively controlled during post-processing.  Buy this photo

Night photography requires special attention during post-processing.  Because long exposure times and high ISO sensitivity settings tend to introduce digital noise (random errors in the brightness and/or color rendition of pixels in the image), it is important to pay careful attention to these effects while working in Lightroom, Photoshop, or other post-processing software applications.  I find Lightroom’s tools to be very effective in reducing both sources of noise.  In Lightroom’s Develop Module, play with the Luminance slider under the Noise Reduction tools area until the noise is just controlled, but not so far as to cause unrealistic rendition of color or sharpness.  Note that some cameras also allow you to reduce high ISO noise and/or long exposure noise via menu settings in-camera.  I tend not to use these tools because they slow down the shooting process, and their effect can be replicated easily in post-processing.  Post-processing is also the time to adjust the color rendition and sharpness/contrast of the Milky Way or other stars appearing in the image to make these astronomical features really pop.

This image of Pigeon Point Lighthouse in Pescadero, California combines many of the night photography techniques discussed in this post.  The lighting here was tricky because the brightness of the lighthouse beacon was much greater than the available light on the foreground and background objects.  Bracketing exposure helps in these situations.  Buy this photo

I hope this post inspires you to make your own nighttime images.  With a decent DSLR or mirrorless ILC camera, a relatively fast lens, and a tripod, every photographer can now be equipped to shoot in very low light.

Now it’s your turn.  Please share your own experiences with creating low-light images by leaving a comment here.

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

Photographic Blasphemy: 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: 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.

A Shot in the Dark [Encore Publication]: Night photography opens up a whole new world of image possibilities

The state of the art in photography gear has improved to the point where creating breathtaking nighttime images is now within the range of most enthusiast photographers.  Until recently an expensive and technically complicated ordeal, making images in very low light can now be done quite easily and with reasonably priced gear.  Today’s post discusses what you need and how to do it.

This image was made at the outskirts of Svalbard’s only population center, Longyearbyen, several hours after sunset.  To capture the scene in nearly total darkness, I used a sturdy tripod, a relatively wide aperture (f/4), and a long shutter speed.  Buy this photo

Because nighttime scenes feature very dim lighting (typically coming from the moon or stars, or occasionally from a bit of reflected ambient sunlight or city lights indirectly illuminating the scene), it is usually essential to mount your camera on a sturdy tripod and to use a high ISO setting.  Sometimes a fast lens can be used to obtain a wide aperture (low f-stop number), in order to reduce the length of the required exposure time.  I like to bracket my exposures (shoot multiple images, each with a slightly different exposure) for most night scenes, so as to maximize the chance of obtaining just the right exposure.  You can read more about exposure bracketing in this post: Post on Bracketing.  To minimize camera shake during these long exposures, use a remote shutter release or your camera’s self-timer to trigger the shot.  My go-to shutter release is inexpensive and very reliable:

To make this image of the Milky Way over Yosemite National Park, I used a very long shutter speed and very high ISO setting.  Both long exposures and high ISO sensitivities will tend to introduce digital noise to the image file.  Fortunately, these sources of noise can usually be effectively controlled during post-processing.  Buy this photo

Night photography requires special attention during post-processing.  Because long exposure times and high ISO sensitivity settings tend to introduce digital noise (random errors in the brightness and/or color rendition of pixels in the image), it is important to pay careful attention to these effects while working in Lightroom, Photoshop, or other post-processing software applications.  I find Lightroom’s tools to be very effective in reducing both sources of noise.  In Lightroom’s Develop Module, play with the Luminance slider under the Noise Reduction tools area until the noise is just controlled, but not so far as to cause unrealistic rendition of color or sharpness.  Note that some cameras also allow you to reduce high ISO noise and/or long exposure noise via menu settings in-camera.  I tend not to use these tools because they slow down the shooting process, and their effect can be replicated easily in post-processing.  Post-processing is also the time to adjust the color rendition and sharpness/contrast of the Milky Way or other stars appearing in the image to make these astronomical features really pop.

This image of Pigeon Point Lighthouse in Pescadero, California combines many of the night photography techniques discussed in this post.  The lighting here was tricky because the brightness of the lighthouse beacon was much greater than the available light on the foreground and background objects.  Bracketing exposure helps in these situations.  Buy this photo

I hope this post inspires you to make your own nighttime images.  With a decent DSLR or mirrorless ILC camera, a relatively fast lens, and a tripod, every photographer can now be equipped to shoot in very low light.

Now it’s your turn.  Please share your own experiences with creating low-light images by leaving a comment here.

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

 

Wildlife and Safari Gear [Encore Publication]: Basic equipment to capture wildlife while traveling or close to home

Wildlife photography is one of the most exciting and rewarding pursuits I know, but it is also very challenging.  Whether on safari in far-flung wilderness regions around the world or in a park or zoo near home, capturing great images of the local fauna requires plenty of patience, a little bit of luck, and some specialized gear.  This post outlines the basic equipment needed for wildlife photography.

Sometimes we get lucky.  This alligator was seeking what little sunshine was available on an overcast winter’s day on the bayou in Louisiana.  He stayed sufficiently still that I was able to capture this image by handholding a medium telephoto lens from our airboat.  Buy this photo

Occasionally, a critter may scamper, fly, or swim right up to where the photographer happens to be standing, but in the vast majority of cases, if we want to capture a really moving and uninhibited portrait of an animal, we need a long telephoto lens.  Working with “big glass” not only fills more of the frame with the main subject, but it has the added benefit of allowing the photographer to shoot from a vantage point far enough away from the animal so as not to frighten it.  It’s also very important when photographing wildlife that we make every effort to keep the wildlife wild, and using a long lens keeps us at a sufficient distance that the creatures we’re observing are less likely to become accustomed to the sight, sound, and smell of humans.

I like to carry both a medium telephoto and a long telephoto when shooting wildlife, so as to be prepared for a variety of situations.  My medium lens of choice is the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR lens.  While this lens is built on aging technology and doesn’t always feel as solid as more professional lenses, it is relatively small and lightweight, fairly inexpensive, and provides a very effective vibration reduction function.  This lens has been a staple in my bag for many years, during which time I’ve used it to capture some of my favorite images.

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.

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

When shooting far-off and often rapidly moving animal subjects with big glass, it is important to have a good means of stabilizing the camera.  Depending on the shooting situation, I use either a lightweight tripod or a beanbag support.

A lightweight travel tripod is perfect for those situations when you have plenty of space and plenty of time in one place.  I like the Manfrotto Be Free travel tripod.  It folds up to an incredibly small size yet affords a surprising amount of stability.  The included ball head works well but is difficult to adjust for sensitivity.  This tripod is designed to fit into a special pouch in my favorite travel photography backpack, also made by Manfrotto.

For situations when you will be on the move much of the time, such as on game drives using safari vehicles, a beanbag support is extremely useful, as you cannot fit a tripod in a safari vehicle and a monopod is awkward.  The bag can be emptied for convenient travel and then filled with “beans” (usually synthetic) upon arrival.   It is placed on top of the safari vehicle while shooting, with the camera and long lens resting on the beanbag.  While the beanbag that I use is no longer available, this one is well reviewed by photographers and represents a good value.

A sleepy leopard yawns in a tree above the Endless Plains of Serengeti National Park.  This image was captured using a 500mm lens resting on a beanbag support placed on the roof of our safari vehicle.  Buy this photo

With a couple of good telephoto lenses, including one long one, and a couple of good options for stabilizing them, you will be armed with the right basic tools for bringing home truly memorable images of the wildlife you encounter on your travels.  Happy hunting!

What are your favorite wildlife subjects and locations, and what gear do you use to capture them?  Please share your experiences here.

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

A Shot in the Dark: Night photography opens up a whole new world of image possibilities

The state of the art in photography gear has improved to the point where creating breathtaking nighttime images is now within the range of most enthusiast photographers.  Until recently an expensive and technically complicated ordeal, making images in very low light can now be done quite easily and with reasonably priced gear.  Today’s post discusses what you need and how to do it.

This image was made at the outskirts of Svalbard’s only population center, Longyearbyen, several hours after sunset.  To capture the scene in nearly total darkness, I used a sturdy tripod, a relatively wide aperture (f/4), and a long shutter speed.  Buy this photo

Because nighttime scenes feature very dim lighting (typically coming from the moon or stars, or occasionally from a bit of reflected ambient sunlight or city lights indirectly illuminating the scene), it is usually essential to mount your camera on a sturdy tripod and to use a high ISO setting.  Sometimes a fast lens can be used to obtain a wide aperture (low f-stop number), in order to reduce the length of the required exposure time.  I like to bracket my exposures (shoot multiple images, each with a slightly different exposure) for most night scenes, so as to maximize the chance of obtaining just the right exposure.  You can read more about exposure bracketing in this post: Post on Bracketing.  To minimize camera shake during these long exposures, use a remote shutter release or your camera’s self-timer to trigger the shot.  My go-to shutter release is inexpensive and very reliable:

To make this image of the Milky Way over Yosemite National Park, I used a very long shutter speed and very high ISO setting.  Both long exposures and high ISO sensitivities will tend to introduce digital noise to the image file.  Fortunately, these sources of noise can usually be effectively controlled during post-processing.  Buy this photo

Night photography requires special attention during post-processing.  Because long exposure times and high ISO sensitivity settings tend to introduce digital noise (random errors in the brightness and/or color rendition of pixels in the image), it is important to pay careful attention to these effects while working in Lightroom, Photoshop, or other post-processing software applications.  I find Lightroom’s tools to be very effective in reducing both sources of noise.  In Lightroom’s Develop Module, play with the Luminance slider under the Noise Reduction tools area until the noise is just controlled, but not so far as to cause unrealistic rendition of color or sharpness.  Note that some cameras also allow you to reduce high ISO noise and/or long exposure noise via menu settings in-camera.  I tend not to use these tools because they slow down the shooting process, and their effect can be replicated easily in post-processing.  Post-processing is also the time to adjust the color rendition and sharpness/contrast of the Milky Way or other stars appearing in the image to make these astronomical features really pop.

This image of Pigeon Point Lighthouse in Pescadero, California combines many of the night photography techniques discussed in this post.  The lighting here was tricky because the brightness of the lighthouse beacon was much greater than the available light on the foreground and background objects.  Bracketing exposure helps in these situations.  Buy this photo

I hope this post inspires you to make your own nighttime images.  With a decent DSLR or mirrorless ILC camera, a relatively fast lens, and a tripod, every photographer can now be equipped to shoot in very low light.

Now it’s your turn.  Please share your own experiences with creating low-light images by leaving a comment here.

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

Rock Solid [Encore Publication]: Why you should always have a tripod with you

Tripods have had their ups and down, so to speak.  When photography was in its infancy, the wet plates used to make the images were very slow, so extremely long exposures were required and the cameras were big and bulky, so use of a big, heavy wooden tripod was essential.  It’s all the more remarkable when looking at the incomparable work of Ansel Adams to realize that in order to make these images he had to hike miles up steep mountain trails with a heavy view camera, several big and fragile plates, and an enormous tree trunk of a tripod.  As cameras became smaller and film faster, tripods went out of style except for certain low-light situations for professionals.  Now, more and more enthusiast photographers are recognizing the value of a sturdy tripod for capturing the best possible quality images of landscapes, buildings, and of course night scenes.  In some iconic travel spots, it’s hard to find space to shoot amidst the ocean of tripods.

Sure, they’re heavy and bulky, particularly when we’re hiking or walking for long stretches.  But a good solid tripod is essential for so many types of shots that I now carry one with me at nearly all times.

An example of a technique requiring a tripod even in bright light is high dynamic range (HDR) photography.  To make an HDR image, you shoot a series of photos of the exact same scene in rapid succession, varying the exposure by a little bit between each frame, and then use special software during post-processing to bring out all brightness levels in the image, from the dark shadows to the brilliant highlights.  But if the camera moves at all between the shots, it becomes harder to stitch the shots together into a beautiful HDR image.  I’ve been known to handhold some HDR shots, but I strongly recommend shooting them using a tripod.  Of course, you’ll also want a tripod for low-light and nighttime photography, and they’re very useful for landscape images where the high resolution of your camera’s sensor is called upon to render extremely fine detail throughout the scene.  And let’s not forget that to include yourself in a scene, use of a tripod makes life a lot easier.

Although I was shooting in bright sunlight, I needed a tripod to make this HDR image of Yosemite Valley peaks reflected in the Merced River.  If the camera moves at all between frames, it is harder to combine them into the final photo.  Buy this photo

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

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

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

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

To be sure, if you know 100 photographers, you’ll hear 110 different opinions about tripods and the heads and plates that go with them.  The products listed above are my recommendations only, but I’ve had good experiences using them.  For those with a lot more money to spend, tripods and heads made by Really Right Stuff are much beloved by professional and well-heeled enthusiast photographers.

What combination of tripod, head, and plate do you use, and why?  Please share your recommendations here.  Tripods are one piece of gear with which we’re constantly experimenting, so bring it on!

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

 

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.

Total Eclipse of the Heart [Encore Publication]: Techniques for photographing solar eclipses

Prof. Jay Pasachoff and his student set up scientific gear for observing the total solar eclipse in Svalbard in 2015.  Buy this photo

If there’s a more thrilling experience anywhere on our planet than observing a total solar eclipse, I’ve not yet found it.  The experience of observing the moon slowly move in front of the sun, obscuring our view of the sun one nibble at a time until day turns into night, the temperature drops, the stars come out in the middle of the day, and the delicate corona of the sun is exposed, is like nothing else we earthlings can feel.  An eclipse is a singular event, each a bit different from any other that has ever occurred, and an exclusive event that often can be observed only from a narrow swatch of land and in very remote corners of the planet.  I’ve stood in the umbra (shadow) of the moon during three total solar eclipses thus far in my life: first in Virginia Beach in the USA when I was 7 years old, then in the mountains above Anji in China in 2009, and most recently in 2015 in Svalbard well above the Arctic Circle.  I plan to be in Salem, Oregon in the USA in 2017 when the next total solar eclipse occurs.  These events are truly life-changing, and once you’ve experienced an eclipse you will want to seek out others.

Photographing an eclipse takes all of the normal challenges of travel photography and throws a few special ones into the mix.  To start with, an eclipse can take place anywhere on the planet, and often the best location from which to view one is very remote with little or no travel infrastructure.  The eclipse I experienced last year in Longyearbyen, high in the Arctic on the island of Svalbard, was a transformative event, but the extreme cold coupled with the lack of infrastructure made getting there and photographing the eclipse a special challenge.  And of course, during an eclipse the already challenging conditions are stressed even further due to the tremendous crush of visitors who rush in from all over the world to try to view the solar event.

I recommend you travel with an expert in managing the complicated logistics required to stage a successful eclipse trip.  I always go with A Classic Tours Collection (http://aclassictour.com/travel-company/solar-eclipse-tours-expeditions-total-eclipse/).  Run by travel logistics guru Mark Sood and with scientific consulting from Professor Jay Pasachoff, a world expert in eclipses and the human being who has stood in the shadow of the moon more times than any other, this company has delivered an unprecedented track record of successful eclipse trips since 1980.

Special challenges in photographing a total solar eclipse, like this one in Svalbard in 2015, include remoteness, lack of infrastructure, extreme conditions, the risk of poor weather, and the need for specialized photographic gear.  Go with an expert or risk missing the action.  Buy this photo

Assuming you are able to get all the right gear to the best possible location to observe the eclipse, and then the weather cooperates, the actual technique required to capture remarkable images of this phenomenal event is fairly straightforward.  Here’s what you need to do:

Gather the right gear.  You will need at least one (and I prefer to have two) DSLR or ILC camera bodies with a long telephoto lens or two.  I use a Nikon D810 with a Sigma 150-500mm super-telephoto zoom lens.  For each lens you will need a specialized solar filter to block 99.999% of the sun’s light to enable you to shoot the sun safely during the partial stages of the eclipse.  The solar filter blocks much more of the sun’s light than a standard photographer’s neutral density filter, so don’t try to find this item at your local camera shop.  Instead, you will need to order it from a specialized astronomy company such as Thousand Oaks Optical (http://www.thousandoaksoptical.com/solar.html).  Be sure to order a black polymer threaded camera filter in the proper diameter for your specific lens.  Without a properly fitted solar filter on each lens you plan to shoot with, it is not safe for your eyes or for your camera’s sensor to attempt to photograph a solar eclipse.  You will also need a heavy-duty professional tripod with a good ball head and mounting plate to hold your camera and lens steady during the eclipse.  Also be sure to pack a remote shutter release with extra batteries, the tripod collar that came with your lens (if included), a mini flashlight for checking your camera’s settings, extra memory cards, and extra batteries and chargers for your camera.

Super-telephoto zoom lens with tripod mounting collar.  Don’t forget to order a solar filter to fit your lens(es).

 

Heavy-duty professional tripod.

 

Remote shutter release.

Test your gear.  Before the trip, test your full setup at home by shooting the sun with your solar filter on the lens, and by shooting the full moon without the solar filter.  These two scenarios will allow you to test your gear in conditions similar to the partial stages of the eclipse and to totality, respectively.

Prepare your gear the evening before the eclipse.  Charge all batteries, format all memory cards, make all camera and lens settings (per my instructions below), and check all your equipment.  Remove the UV filter you ordinarily keep on your lens(es), because they will interfere with the solar filter you will use during the partial stages.  On eclipse day, have in your pocket your flashlight, extra camera batteries, extra remote batteries, and extra memory cards.  It will be dark during totality and you will be excited, so best to have everything well planned in advance and within easy reach on eclipse day.

Configure your camera’s and lenses’ settings in advance of the eclipse.  Shoot in RAW + JPEG mode using the highest quality setting available on your camera.  I recommend using an ISO setting of 400, and be sure to turn your camera’s Auto ISO setting off.  The exposure changes constantly throughout the eclipse, so I do not recommend manual exposure mode; instead, choose aperture priority mode with the aperture set at f/11.  You may want to choose highlight-weighted metering if your camera has this option; otherwise, select center-weighted metering.  Choose single-frame shooting mode.  I like to turn on exposure bracketing to shoot bursts of 3 frames, each 1 stop different from the previous one, so as to have higher likelihood of getting proper exposure on each series of shots.  Turn your focus mode to manual, because autofocus will not work during or near totality.  Tape your lens’s focus ring to infinity to be sure it won’t move during the eclipse.  Take a deep breath.  You’re almost ready for the eclipse.

Set everything up at the eclipse viewing site.  Place your camera on the heavy-duty tripod and install your remote control.  Remove your regular UV filter and attach your special solar filter.  As the first contact between sun and moon occurs, start to shoot.  Remember to shoot in bursts of 3 (or 5 or 7) if you have turned on exposure bracketing.  Due to the rotation of the earth, you will have to recenter the sun in your viewfinder periodically (unless you are shooting through a telescope with an equatorial mount).

This image shows the early partial stages of the Svalbard total solar eclipse.  Shoot periodically during all the partial stages, and remember to reposition your shooting angle so the sun remains in the center of your field of view.  Buy this photo

Remove your solar filter only during the period of totality.  When the diamond ring effect signals the start of totality, and the world around you is suddenly plunged into darkness, quickly take off your lens’s solar filter.  You won’t need it during totality.  The brightness of the sun during totality is similar to that of the full moon, so viewing and photographing the sun during totality will not be dangerous.  This is the most exciting time, and it will last for only about 1-4 minutes, so enjoy the spectacle of the sun’s corona revealed!  Remember to spend some of the time just looking and not shooting.  This is an experience you will want to remember not only through your camera!

For the brief but exhilarating period of totality, remove your solar filter.  This image captures the diamond ring effect that ushers in the period of totality.  The sun’s delicate corona can be seen around the edge of the photosphere.  Buy this photo

Put your solar filter back on after totality.  The partial stages that follow the period of totality, just like the partial stages that came before totality, are not safe to view or photograph without the special solar filter.  Keep shooting those later partial stages because you will want a complete record of the eclipse to show a compelling narrative and to create montages of the images.

Shoot some landscapes and people images, too.  Don’t forget to use a second camera–either a second DSLR or ILC body you brought for the occasion or your smartphone’s camera–for landscape and people shots during the eclipse.  You don’t want all of your images to be close-up portraits of the sun and moon only.  You will need a solar filter on the second camera, too, if you plan to include the sun itself in these shots.

Remember to shoot some images, with a second camera, of yourself and your travel companions during the eclipse.  Here’s a shot of my family standing in the umbra during totality at the China eclipse of 2009.  Buy this photo

Return all settings to normal after the eclipse.  You will have made quite a few special adjustments in order to capture the eclipse properly.  Don’t forget to restore your usual settings after the eclipse has ended.

Get creative with your eclipse images once you return home.  There are many ways to compile and share your images to give the world a sense of the thrill you experienced while in the shadow of the moon.

Once home from the eclipse trip, get creative about how to share your experience.  Here I have put together a montage of some of my favorite images from each stage of the Svalbard eclipse.  Using Photoshop, I created a composite image showing the sequence of stages from partial to total and back again.  Buy this photo

Have you experienced a total solar eclipse?  Photographed one?  Please share your tips and tricks.

Coming soon: Information about a photography tour I will be leading during and after the upcoming Great American Eclipse this coming summer.  Please join us for this once in a lifetime opportunity!