Our 2018 trip to Cuba is posted and ready for signups. Check out our information page, then send me an email if you have further questions.
Main Tour: October 6-14, 2018
Trinidad Extension: October 14-17, 2018
I received a phone call the other day from a previous workshop attendee named Craig Quartz. He called to tell me a quick story about his last Meetup Group in Portland, Oregon where he was asked to share his top-ten tips for photography. While presenting to the group, he listed off a number of tips on exposure, exposing for the highlights, focus, and composition.
After finishing his tips, everyone in the room room yelled out, “What about Vertizonical!?” For the last number of years, he’s been sharing his favorite tip called Vertizonical to anyone in the club who would listen, but he neglected to mention it to the Portland Meetup group that night, so they all yelled it out in unison! Craig first learned this made-up term from me a few years ago at one of my workshops and now he shares it with anyone who will listen. I was talking about photographic composition and I made up the term vertizonical on the spot during the class. Obviously, the term stuck around!
Vertizonical is simply an approach to help you remember to always take both vertical and horizontal images of each scene you photograph. This discipline of shooting vertical and horizontal allows you the most options when you are editing your images back home after your photo shoot. It is much easier to take another 30 seconds in the field to shoot a different orientation than it is to try and do some industrial Photoshop work on your computer to create a composition that you never produced.
Look at these photo examples from Galapagos in this blog post. Many of the images from this volcanic landscape are austere and dramatic. I love the challenge of creating compelling landscapes in difficult locations. While on the location, I work hard to compose my imagery in the best way possible. Even so, I’ve found over the years that I’m hardly ever the best judge of my compositions while I’m on location because my emotion takes over and due to the thrill of just being there.
Years ago, I was so confident, that I just “knew” that a specific composition was perfect as soon as I saw it. Unfortunately, I’d get home from my shoot and wish I had more options to choose from. Now that I’m older and wiser and more disciplined, I take the time in the field to shoot almost all my scenes vertically and horizontally.
Since I’m a professional photographer, this approach pays off financially for me in various ways.
– My book publishers often need images in a specific orientation for layouts.
– A commercial client needs a specific orientation for their brochures.
– A portrait customer needs a specific orientation for a wall display.
Shooting both verticals and horizontals of all my subjects helps me make more sales and reduces the amount of work I have to do in post-processing.
So, the simple summary is to shoot vertical then shoot horizontal. Vertizonical!
We are headed to the Galapagos again this year and we’d love to have you along on the adventure. Check out our workshop page for more details at Visual Adventures Workshops.
Too Much Weight?
Photographers are a finicky bunch. We want the highest quality images but in the smallest package possible. We know that DSLR cameras and mirrorless cameras provide the best images, so we bring a “big” camera on our trip, but we don’t want to take along a second camera body because of the additional weight.
Since traveling with a lot of gear is a major drag, some travel photographers opt to bring along just one camera and one lens. To be fair, there are some good reasons to bring only one camera on a trip:
– Keeps gear kit simple
– Keeps weight down to a minimum
– Makes air travel easier
– Fewer issues at customs and border crossings
Even though these points might provide a compelling argument, I highly recommend ignoring these thoughts and always traveling with at least two cameras in the same system. When I say, “in the same system,” I mean that use the same lenses, batteries, and cards. Here are my six reasons why it makes sense to always have at least two cameras with you while traveling.
Six Reasons to Travel with Two Cameras
The most obvious reason to bring two cameras on your next trip is redundancy. If one camera fails, you’ll have another camera that you can keep shooting with. On just about every group trip I lead, someone’s camera dies for one reason or another. The last thing you want to happen is to be in the middle of the most beautiful place in the world without a camera.
2. You look like a pro
I know there are a number of schools of thought on how you should dress and what you should look like when traveling. Some travelers want to try to blend in to their surroundings so they don’t stick out like a sore thumb. Other’s go the full tourist route and wear the gaudy tropical shirt with knee-high socks. Since I’ve already decided that I’m going to have multiple cameras with me, I dress in such a way that people assume I’m a professional photographer. People on the street see me coming and already know what I’m doing because of my gear. I’m often able to use that to my advantage as I explain my project and the purpose of my photography. This frequently gets me preferential treatment as business owners allow me to photograph on their premises or property owners allow me onto their roof-tops.
3. Multiple lenses available instantaneously
I usually travel with two cameras out at all times. One will have a medium lens like a 24-70mm and the other will have a telephoto lens like a 70-200mm. I keep the cameras slung over both shoulders so I can quickly pull up either body to get the shot. Having two cameras means I can shoot very quickly and don’t have to spend a lot of time fumbling around with lens swaps.
4. Perspective changes
Having two lenses always mounted on two active cameras means I can quickly get two perspectives on the same scene. Over the years, I’ve discovered that I tell better photo stories when I photograph the same scene from multiple perspectives. Having the two cameras out, “prods” me to move around more. It is easy to get lazy in our photography and shoot all of our images from the same spot. Having two cameras out helps to break that lazy habit.
5. One for video, one for stills
Having two cameras also means you can dedicate one for video work and the other for still photos. On some trips, I like to pre-configure one of my DSLRs to that it is optimized for HD video capture. For the camera shooting video, I set everything up in full manual mode including ISO, shutter, aperture, and focus. I also mount an accessory microphone on this body so I can capture great ambient sound. For the other body shooting still photos, I generally configure it for aperture priority, auto-ISO, and autofocus.
6. One for timelapse, the other for singles
I love creating timelapse photo sequences when I travel and do this quite often. However, the problem with shooting timelapses is that it takes one camera out of commission for the total duration of each location. For example, when shooting a sunrise, creating a timelapse requires one camera to be continuously shooting pictures for about 45 minutes to an hour. If I bring along a second camera, then I can use it to create different images in the area. I use my second camera to shoot macro, landscapes, telephoto shots of birds, and whatever strikes my fancy.
1. If you do shoot with two cameras, make sure you synchronize their clocks. This will make sorting your photos on your computer much easier later on.
2. You’ll need a way to simultaneously carry both cameras over your shoulders. I highly recommend the camera straps and mounts from Peak Design as these are what I personally use. There are also quite a few other options from companies like Black Rapid, Op/Tech, and SpiderHolster.
I hope I’ve convinced you to make the weight sacrifice and bring along a second camera body on your next trip. Having two cameras gives you lots of options, and most importantly, you’ll come home with better photographs.
Keep on shooting!
Lots of times in photography we want to compose the scene we’re photographing so that it appears as if it is from a specific era. Professional photographers often want our images to appear timeless. This approach gives our images more staying power and therefore allows them to be used in any decade. As I travel the world, I make sure to compose a good percentage of my images so they don’t include elements from vastly different eras in the same scene. This is often easier to do in nature photography, but it can be very difficult in urban environments.
During a recent trip to Cuba, I was constantly struggling with this approach. Much of Cuba is stuck in 1959 but their nation is also struggling to fit into the modern world. For example, many of the cars are pre-1960 American vehicles, while the many of the buildings are from the 1700s and 1800s. Couple that with the modern imported cars from Asia and all the people with cellphones walking the streets and you have an amazingly diverse visual setting.
Trying to isolate a visual element while eliminating elements from different eras takes quite a bit of effort and patience! At some point during my trip, I decided that I would embrace the juxtaposition between old and new and use that as a thematic element in my story telling. Rather than fight it, I decided to embrace it! I set about tell Cuba’s story in a way that would show how the modern era is quickly emerging.
That’s a lesson I have to learn over and over again in photography. I go into a scenario with a certain mindset and find that reality is different than I expected. Rather than trying to impose my will on my surroundings, I find I get better images when I adapt to the scene. Next time you go out photographing on a trip, I encourage you to adapt to your scene as well. Your photographs will thank you.
Skepticism vs. Luis The Wheelbarrow Poet
I think a healthy dose of skepticism is good for everyone. Being skeptical prevents us from blindly following an ideology without researching details for ourselves. Skepticism often helps protect us from deals that are too good to be true.
In Cuba, I used a healthy dose of skepticism to stay away from street scams. For example, one of the most common scams is the guy who walks up to you and tells you that he has a bunch of Cohibas (high end Cuban cigars) in his pocket for sale at a special price. Right. I’m sure they’re legit.
On the other hand, sometimes being skeptical gets in the way of creating great images. Case in point, I was walking through the streets of Trinidad Cuba one evening and noticed a gentleman sitting on a wooden wheelbarrow with sign that read Taxi. It was an obvious attempt at humor, but my first reaction was that this guy was trying to earn a buck from camera-toting tourists. So, I took a quick (blurry) grab shot, and kept on walking.
Before I got more than a few steps, the gentleman said, “Where are you from?” I thought to myself, “Oh great, here comes the sales pitch.” But, as I looked at him a bit closer, I could see he was genuinely interested. So, I told him I was from the USA.
He asked, “What state?”
“Washington,” I answered.
He then started telling me all kinds of facts about Washington. Details about the geography. Rivers. Proximity to Oregon and Canada. Information about Seattle, Tacoma, the state capital Olympia, the Puget Sound, the Pacific Ocean, conifer trees, giant forests, and lots more. I asked him if he’s been to Washington, and he said, “No, but I’ve written a poem about Washington.”
“Hold on,” he said. He held his index finger up in the air and began rifling through a box sitting on the cart with his other hand. He pulled out 20 notebooks filled with his hand-written prose. He leafed through multiple notebooks until he found his poem on Washington and the Northwest. Then, he proceeded to read me the poem in Spanish.
After he read me his poem, I asked if I could take a picture. He said, “Of course!” What a beautiful trade. He shared his art with me and I was able to use the opportunity to create a lasting memory with a fun picture.
My lesson in all this? Don’t let skepticism prevent you from participating in a beautiful moment. I’m happy I stayed to listen and engage with my new friend Luis, The Wheelbarrow Poet.
Portrait of a young boxer. Havana, Cuba. Nikon D800, 70-200mm f/2.8, Profoto white 32″ umbrella.
Portable Lighting Kit
Creating unique images while traveling to popular destinations like Cuba is always difficult. One of the easiest ways you can step up your photography game while traveling is to bring along a simple location lighting kit.
As lots of other photographers have noted throughout the years (i.e. Strobist), one of the easiest lighting kits for traveling is a foldable light stand, a white umbrella, and a small off-camera flash (speedlight). This little kit fits in most luggage and doesn’t weigh much at all. The extra pop of light you get with this setup will make a big difference in the overall impact of your travel images.
Behind the Scenes
During our photo workshop to Cuba this year, I wanted to spend some time at a boxing gym taking portraits of athletes in training. I knew that a boxing venue would be a prime location to create compelling images, so I brought along a Manfrotto 6-foot light stand, a Profoto White 32” umbrella and a couple of small Nikon flashes. When we arrived at the boxing training center in Havana, I found a beautiful blue wall to serve as a backdrop and set up the lighting kit about 6 feet from the wall.
Since I was guiding a group of photographers, I set up my remote flash so that it would trigger as a simple slave. The workshop participants used a wide variety of Canon, Fuji, Leica and Nikon cameras, so I couldn’t use any brand-specific wireless triggering technology. Each photographer would be able to trigger the remote flash with their own on-camera flash set to manual output. I placed my remote flash on the light stand and set the power to manual output at about 1/8 energy. Again, I programmed the remote flash to work as a slave unit, so it would trigger as soon as it sensed a pulse of light from the photographer’s on-camera flash.
After snapping a few test shots to dial in the exposure, we set about creating portraits of the young boxers. Since the lighting kit was so simple and light, we could quickly change location, power, and height as our creative energy took over.
Try it Yourself
This was a really fun photo shoot and it was very easy to set up. I encourage you to consider bringing a small lighting kit along on your future travels. A kit like this is inexpensive and doesn’t take much extra space at all. I guarantee your images will stand out from all the other tourist’s photographs!
Here are some more pics from the boxing training center in Havana, Cuba.
The next time you are out photographing wildlife, I encourage you to look for behaviors and poses that imply human emotion. We are naturally drawn to imagery that mirrors our own emotions. Sadness. Happiness. Shyness. Joy. Anger. If your photograph implies any of these, then viewers will respond very positively to your pictures.
In the example above, we arrived on scene to find a giraffe resting in the shade of an acacia tree. My first instinct was to position our vehicle to photograph the giraffe from the front so we could have a better view of its body. After thinking about the image for a minute, I realized that the giraffe was rubbing its head against the tree. This behavior made it appear as if it was shy or timid. Rather than snapping a standard full-length grab-shot of the giraffe, I worked a bit harder to find a way to show emotion.
Maybe the image of the giraffe’s head poking out from behind a tree implies a game of peek-a-boo with a young child. Or, perhaps it implies an adult looking around the corner to see who might be there before coming out into the open. Either way, it is a much stronger image.
Sometimes, the most important parts of a photo story are the images showing details that might otherwise be forgotten. This photo of a buffalo skull and rib cage help fill in the larger story of a safari without showing the obvious fight between predator and prey. It graphically demonstrates the harsh reality of life on the African Plains in a very graphic way.
This buffalo was killed by a pride of lions, then hyenas and vultures came in to finish off the job. Days later, all that remained were the rib cage and the skull. They serve as a stark reminder of the dangers to wildlife in the wilds of Tanzania.
The next time you are on a photo trip, work hard to find additional elements of the scene that fill in details of the grand story.
One of the best ways to create better images is to work harder at finding connections. In this image, the connection between the mother zebra and her baby is real. This image goes much beyond a shot that records the existence of the zebra and shows a mother’s bond with her newborn baby.
When taking images on your next adventure, try to find ways that connect the main subjects in a meaningful way. Show a bird in context with its nest. Show a boat in context with the harbor. Show a can in context with the curvy road.
Our January 2016 Newsletter is posted. We have a great series of articles covering everything from book reviews, to backpacks, to new products.
In This Month’s Newsletter
– Stuff I Like This Month
– Workshop Updates
– Our Newest Book: The Nikon Autofocus System
– Book Review: The Digital Negative, 2nd Edition
– Book Review: Jay Maisel, Light, Gesture & Color
– Long Term Gear Report: Naneu K5 v2 80L Backpack
– Workshop and Business Updates
Check it out here: Visual Adventures January 2016 Newsletter