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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Over the last year, I’ve been working with CreativeLive to teach a wide variety of classes aimed at helping photographers become proficient shooters. The topics range from panoramas to studio photography to Nikon wireless flash and autofocus. CreativeLive is one of the premiere educational platforms available today and I’m proud to be a part of their team of high-caliber professional educators.
Here are links to the current classes posted at CreativeLive.com. Be sure to check out classes from their other instructors as well!
Here are the classes and links.
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.
A few weeks ago I was shooting a how-to video at a local park and came across this young squirrel on a branch. As quickly as I could, I pulled out my D750 and 70-200mm f/2.8 to try and grab a shot of the cute guy, but it took off behind a tree. Mildly disappointed, I lowered my camera and started to hike back to the trailhead. Before I made it five feet, a little voice in my head chided me that a “real” photographer would stick around and try harder. Since the light was soft and the squirrel was super cute, I decided to stick around and at least attempt to get a nice image of the critter.
While scoping out the scene to find a spot to wait, I spotted a large pile of pinecone scales at the base of a tree. These scales were a tell-tale that this tree served as one of the squirrel’s favorite spots for feeding. In fact, upon closer inspection, I noticed a small branch above the pile of scales must be where the squirrel perched when feeding. So, I set up my camera gear at that location and waited.
After a couple of minutes, the young squirrel poked its head around the side of the tree to see if the area was safe. I stood motionless with my camera at the ready and the squirrel slowly made his way over the the branch. It picked up right where it left off, munching away on seeds while allowing me to photograph it to my heart’s content. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, scampered about, but always returned to the spot to check on me before consuming more seeds. What fun! I’m very happy I stuck around and committed to making the image.
Photography is like that. Whether you photograph wildlife or children or buildings, you have to operate with equal amounts patience and diligence. Patience to be able to wait for the right moment. Diligence to not give up when the situation doesn’t initially go your way
I’ve been shooting with the Nikon D500 for a couple weeks and have to say that Nikon has truly created a beautiful camera. I’ll write up a more-detailed review in our next newsletter, but so far, I am exceedingly impressed. The things I’m liking are:
1. Autofocus performance is top-notch
2. Frame rate at 10 FPS is addictive
3. High ISO performance is excellent
4. Ergonomics are best in class
5. Rear flip-screen is very useful
6. Image quality is excellent
The camera “only” costs about $2,000, so I consider it a true bargain. It fundamentally has all the professional tools of the Nikon D5, packed into the smaller body of the D500. The size of the D500 is almost identical to the FX format Nikon D750 and the ergonomics/handling are excellent. I can guarantee you are going to love this camera for sports, action and wildlife. It is a killer camera.
I just received notice from Adorama that the D500 (and D5) are in stock and ready for sale. Here are my affiliate links:
Nikon D5 FX-Format Digital SLR Camera Body (CF Version)
$6,496.95 with free shipping
Nikon D5 FX-Format DSLR Camera Body (XQD Version)
$6,496.95 with free shipping
Nikon D500 DX-format DSLR Body
$1,996.95 with free shipping
Nikon D500 DX-format Digital SLR Body with AF-S DX Nikkor 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR Lens
$3,066.95 with free shipping
Here are a few more photo samples from the D500.
Photographs combined with a story truly have the power to engage, influence and potentially compel people to action. Whether it is as simple as improving your ability to convey your message or as complicated as trying to convince people to change their way of thinking, combining your images with a great story is a powerful tool.
Recently, I was asked to share my images with a private school in my hometown (http://lcschool.org/). They often bring in guest speakers to help teach core principles, and the week I spoke, they were teaching about temptation.
In response, I created a story from my images to help reinforce their curriculum. In this case, I used a series of images I took in Africa demonstrating how lions were tempted to kill a tawny eagle. They wisely didn’t because they knew the eagle could very easily gouge out their eyes with its talons. The lions resisted temptation and literally lived to see another day.
During the presentation, I had the schoolchildren roar like lions and fight like the eagle. We laughed and oohed and aahed at the photos together. It was great fun, but more importantly, I was able to help reinforce the lesson that the school was working to convey.
Over the years, I’ve been asked to share my images at all kids of events, meetings, and conventions. In each case, I always adjust my presentation so it reinforces the main topic that organization is trying to broadcast. Some recent examples of my talks include:
– Community groups. A non-profit group was focused on keeping members challenged and active, so I told stories of travel photography.
– Middle school writing class. I talked about the writing process and working with editors. I used images and props that reinforced the instructor’s teaching plan.
– Rotary International. The focus was on service, so I showed images taken in developing countries.
– Camera clubs. Obviously, the focus was on photography, but since I always try to go one step deeper, I tell the story surrounding the images. This created context while simultaneously teaching technique and philosophy.
Here’s my general approach when speaking for an organization:
1. Talk to their leadership to understand their current focus and theme.
2. Ask for resources from which they are currently teaching, such as articles, books, scripture, websites, etc.
3. Gather images from my image library that resonate with their story.
4. Tell the story of my images in a way that reinforces their organizational purpose or goal.
You’d be amazed at how receptive organizations are to having you speak for them. Schools, teachers, clubs, colleges, and libraries – everyone wants content and is eager to have you provide it for them. If you are able to share your images, then work hard at adding value to their organization and they’ll have you coming back every year.
People really appreciate it when you support their cause. Want proof? Just wait until you start getting thank you letters from the attendees. Check out these thank you letters from students who attended my talk last week. Their artwork was endearing and their heartfelt words of thanks meant the world to me.
I encourage you to join me in sharing your story with the world. Just get out there and do it!