Part of any travel portfolio are city and town images of places you visit. Cityscapes are often iconic reminders of where your shoot is taking place, and quickly set the stage for other supporting images in your story. Think about how many iconic skylines you know…..New York, London, Paris, Seattle, Rio, Moscow…the list is long. There are two important things I try to do when photographing city scapes. First, shoot at twilight. Twilight shooting allows you to capture both sky and city lights in a nice exposure. Shoot at night, and the sky has no detail (or a little from city lights). Shoot during the day and no city lights render in your shot. Of course you can create great images of cities at many times during the day, but twilight city shooting creates a nice mood in your shot. The second thing I try to do is find a high point. Photographing from a high point near your city allows the middle ground to expand in your image, creating more depth in the shot. Shoot at ground level and you can’t capture middle ground when you are surrounded by tall buildings.
With all the amazing technology and new equipment, it is easy to get lost in a sea of tech. New cameras, lenses, lights…I love getting new gear! But when it comes to image making, I always try to remember that these new tools help me pursue my creative vision….they do what I tell them to do, I need to supply the creativity. One of the best things I did starting out as a photographer was read books on design. The elements of design…line, shape, form, texture, pattern and color are the variables we use in creating images. Learning how aspects of design affect the viewer is the first step in mastering visual literacy and fulfilling your creative ideas.
One of the most basic design elements, and powerful, is line. Horizontal lines imply a lack of movement and stability, while diagonal lines imply movement and tension. The eyes uses lines to move through an image, and creates flow and order in a cluttered image. Look for line when composing an image, and use it to draw the viewer through your image. These two images both use line to draw the viewer through the image; they provide a ‘visual sidewalk’ for the viewer to stroll through the image and enjoy the ride.
As every photographer knows, photographs only happen with light. No light, no picture…it doesn’t matter how cool the subject is. So it makes sense that bringing a tool that can change or create light is very important to any photographer. During workshops I see a lot of hesitation on the part of photographers on using a speedlight. Today’s flashes are incredibly powerful, yet simple to use. I was in Costa Rica recently photographing monkeys and birds; if we weren’t using a speedlight, we would have missed many shots. The jungle canopy is dark; adding some fill flash is just what our subjects needed. I use my trusty Nikon SB900. All I have to do for simple fill flash is to put it in TTL mode and dial down the flash about 1-2 stops depending on the subject. That is all there is to it. If I want to get more creative, I use a wireless transmitter and shoot the flash off camera for more creative lighting effects.
I just returned from Peru. The local people are very friendly, and great subjects for portraits. The woman in this image was selling various items at a park above Cusco. I could have photographed her using available light, but the background would have been over exposed. The simple solution here was to use a speedlight. In this case, I manually set the background exposure 1 spot underexposed, and had the speedlight illuminating her from the right to cast some shadow on her face. All told, this shot took about 1 minute to set the exposure and shoot. In post I desaturated the color for a vintage look. Bring a flash on your travels!
If anyone is looking to experience some of Colorado’s beautiful landscapes and interesting historical mining towns, check out the Mentor Series trip this June. The schedule includes visiting both the high country around Mt Evans and the stunning sandstone formations of Garden of the Gods, as well as photographing models with speed lights. Right now the trip is being discounted $150 if you use code RAF150 when signing up. Hope to see you there!
We have all heard this before. The demise of the travel photographer is having to photograph iconic scenes from the same place where hordes of tourists have photographed the same scene. To separate yourself from the masses, and catch the eye of editors and viewers, you have to find a fresh perspective. And even though this might seem almost impossible, I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a shot from a classic overlook that is different from the others. Maybe the photographer shot on the ground. Or photographed through a tourist’s legs. Or brought a ladder to get a high perspective. There are ways, you just have to get create. Don’t stand there and shoot, everyone sees the scene this way.
The above shot is a good example. Traveling through Greenland I wanted to photograph the native kids in small villages. I did the mandatory kids smiling at camera shots. These are nice. But what was really interesting was all the trampolines in this village, and the constant laughter of kids jumping on the tramp. You could shoot the kids on the tramp at eye level. But did you know when you shoot through a tramp from below it is almost transparent (we have a tramp at home so I knew how this worked)? The ‘below the tramp angle’ is fresh and eye catching, something a little out of the box for a ‘portrait’. But this better captures these kids and their lives in a small Greenland village.
I shoot a lot of travel photography, and at presentations folks are always interested in how ‘you got that shot’. My first answer is you just have to get out and shoot. It doesn’t matter if you are at your local park or on the other side of the globe, you won’t have great chances of getting ‘the shot’ if you don’t get out and shoot. Sleep optional.
But’s let say you are on a trip, and you are looking for some guidelines on how to produce better travel imagery. I’ll be posting some of the techniques I use on the road to create better travel in my next series of blog posts. But to start things off, I’d say just wait for it….
Recently I was traveling through Maras, Peru, noted for the salt ponds locals use to harvest salt. The colors and shapes of the salt ponds are a photographic dream come true; graphic shapes and colors packed into a narrow valley. Just shooting the shapes resulted in strong graphic images. But the shot needed something else. In this case, pattern is interesting, but pattern interrupted in more interesting. Some local workers were in the ponds, but just not in a great spot for a photograph. If these workers would just line up with a good section of the ponds, their shapes would add perspective to the shot, and break up the pattern of rectangles and draw the viewer into the image. So travel technique number one, just be patient. Many situations you can’t control (like directing your subject where to stand), so be patient and anticipate where your subject might go. Look for interesting compositions, and imagine what they would look like if a subject came through that incredible composition. And your subject might be a person, or it might be wildlife, cars, planes, boats…any subject matter that adds to the shot.
Lucky for us these workers decided to walk through the salt ponds to another location. We tracked their movement, and saw they would walk through a terrific composition. Using a 70-200mm F4 to compress the scene vertically, all I had to do was wait….and hit the shutter at the right moment.
I’m in Peru right now on a Strabo photo tour, and I have to say Peru has become one of my favorite countries to visit. The people are warm and friendly, the Andean landscape is dramatic, and seeing Machu Picchu for the first time is almost a religious experience. And did I mention the food is incredible.
One goal I had on this trip was bringing my Elinchrom Quadra so our group could shoot some stylized portraits of the colorful local people. Not your typical travel photography portraits, but images using different studio lighting setups. The Quadra with a lithium battery is very small and lightweight, and matched with an Octabank, the light is beautiful soft wrap around light for portraits. The image above is one shot using this set up.
As the folks at Elincrhom know, I have abused my lighting gear a lot. I’ve hauled Rangers up cliff faces to shoot rock climbers, dropped them onto rocks in the middle of rapids to photograph kayakers, and used Quadras in blizzards and zero degree weather to photograph skiers. But I added a new Quadra experience on this trip, “gnarly odiferous yellow rotten potato water emersion.”
We were photographing a local family way up in the mountains, and the shooting was incredible. The family was wearing typical clothes and hats of the region, and our backdrop was huge mountain valleys. After shooting some great images, rain started to fall so we moved our gear into a shed. While packing up, I went to grab my Quadra, which was perched on the lid of a bucket. At this point I should have been wary, since buckets are for carrying water and other liquids. As I reached for the Quadra, the lid flipped sideways and I heard a ‘plop’ as my Quadra completely disappeared underwater. Except this wasn’t water, but instead some unidentified chunky yellow fluid. For a split second I debated sticking my hand into the unknown substance, but in I went for my Quadra. Of course this was totally my fault, and I was due for something to go south on a shoot using a Quadra. Let’s just say the smell will be with me for a long time.
How did the Quadra do? After a day of drying out, we hooked everything back up. The good news….the pack is fine….the bad news…my battery is dead. But in the end, the pictures were worth it!
I recently shot a story for Digital Photo magazine on portable power solutions for the photographer. How do you charge up that D4 battery when you are in woods? Hands down Goal Zero has been the answer for me. Goal Zero offers a large line of portable power packs and matching solar panels to power your gear in the field. Their power sources range from my favorite, the Sherpa 50, to the massive Yeti 1250 which can run your refrigerator. But here is the really handy thing; most of their large power supplies have inverters, which means you can plug in your camera charger just like you are plugging it into the wall. I use the Sherpa 50 to power up my batteries all the time, and recharge the battery during the day using the Nomad 13 solar panel. Better yet, this little pack can power Goal Zero Light-a-Life light for 16 hours, plenty of light to do work in camp at night. If you are looking for portable power, check out Goal Zero.
I regularly teach a class on composition during my workshops, and one topic we discuss is how the eye moves through an image. What attracts the eye (i.e. viewer), what causes confusion, why do some photographs just look so good? Being able to articulate these concepts is critical in visual literacy, and is fundamental in creating better photographs. If you don’t know why a shot is good, then how can you create another good image except by luck alone?
Let’s review a few principles. First, viewers go to what is sharp in an area before they go to the blurry sections. Next, high saturation of color attracts the eye and draws the viewer into the image. The same can be said for areas of high contrast.
And bright areas in the image attract the viewer’s eye before dark areas. Light advances, dark recedes….or does it? Nothing kills a good image more quickly than some bright object in the background that distracts the viewer from the subject. But the one exception to this rule is when you have mist and foggy conditions; then dark advances, and light recedes. Take a look at the image above. We were staying in a lodge in the rainforest, and mornings consisted of misty clouds blowing through the jungle. This presented a great opportunity to use the ‘dark advances’ concept. The Costa Rican jungle is dense, with mysterious sounds and animals moving through it. I liked the way this image captured this magical place.
I’ve just added two new workshops for this summer, both for the Mentor Series. I’ve worked for years with the Mentor Series, and their trips are always loaded with fantastic shooting and lots of fun. I also really like the fact I get to work with other Nikon Pros (Dave Black and I can’t keep a straight face!); participants benefit from hearing multiple views on technique and style. This summer I am teaching in two very familiar places for me, Colorado and Montana. Both trips combine landscape and wildlife shooting with speedlight portrait work, along with image reviews. This workshop format works great, and packs in a ton of shooting and learning. If you have some time this summer, join me on one of these terrific workshops.