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Postcard Intellect

Travel photography for the uninitiated….

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Composition

Safari Photography Tips – Etosha National Park, Namibia

On our trip to Namibia, we spent the first two days in Etosha National Park.  This is a large national park in the north of the country, home to many species of African wildlife. This was my second safari; we’d done several while in Tanzania after our summit of Kilimanjaro. We only had two days and the animals were a bit sporadic, but we did have some major sightings that I was really pleased with.

Throughout this post and in line with the main idea of Postcard Intellect, I want to share some of my experiences and give my thoughts on taking photos while on safari; hopefully you’ll get some ideas for taking better wildlife pictures.  At the bottom of the post I have 5 tips for better Safari Photography.

First off, the golden rule of photography (whether you’re on safari or not) is to make sure you get the best light.  We were in Namibia during winter (in the southern hemisphere) so we were fortunate to have access to better light.  The picture above was taken from our camp at sunrise – I underexposed the photo to make the trees a silhouette, and also took some of the clarity out of the photo to create a bit of a hazy image. One problem that I have on trips like this is that I’m not on my own time.  What I mean by this is that we’re on a tour, with other people, and a guide, so it’s not like my wife and I can control our own destiny.  We were up early enough (hence the photo above) but by the time the group was ready to go it was an hour after sunrise.  Not the end of the world, but sometimes frustrating.  I was able to capture a few pictures below on the way to the park that still caught the good light.

I particularly loved seeing zebras.  I find them to be amazing animals for various reasons; their stripes, hugely noticeable to human tourists, tend to confuse predators when the animals are in flight.  And the fact that they’ve stubbornly maintained their “wildness” in light of their highly domesticated cousins is pretty unique.

We also saw other ungulates while on safari – including wildebeest, giraffes, and antelope.  In Namibia the “antelope du jour” is the Springbok, which is very common.  By the end of the trip we had seen so many of them that we sort of drove by and barely glanced at them without taking a picture.  Imagine that – me not taking a picture! 🙂

For all of the pictures above, I generally use the same camera setting – I set the camera to aperture priority mode and maintain an aperture anywhere between f/5.6 and f/8.0 or f/9.0.  This makes sure that I get the bulk of the image in crisp focus but due to the zoom of the lens I also get some blur in the background.  I shoot with the focus in One Shot AF, which means that when I press the shutter button halfway the autofocus kicks in but it doesn’t track.  If you look at the photos above, these animals aren’t moving (at least not moving fast).  So One Shot AF works fine and is my preferred setting for the stationary animals. Later in the day we saw some elephants at a great watering hole near Halali.  They honestly came in droves and it was a beautiful location; we had shaded seats to watch the big guys walking around.

This brings me to another point when doing safari photography, and that’s the challenge with composition.  Unless you’re paying insane amounts of money, you’re generally sitting in a jeep of some sort, with other people, and restricted to certain roads, watering holes or rest stops (if you work for the BBC or are a professional nature photographer, you’re reading the wrong blog!)  This creates a challenge when it comes to composition.  Ideally you’d want to get a picture of an elephant with more than just a natural background – you’d want to be standing close to it, take it from the ground looking upwards (I know, a bit frightening…) or do something else clever. Since I’m limited in situations like this, I focus on getting pictures as sharp as I can and then think a lot about the magic word – CROP.  All of the images above were cropped to create a more interesting composition.  I take full size images with my camera to ensure a relatively high quality when cropping; this isn’t required and requires a bit more diligence (as an example, you have to be willing and almost aggressive in deleting pictures that you’re not going to use, or else your hard drive will fill up too fast).  In the photos above I cropped close on several images to get the elephants skin up close; the wrinkles and texture really add a prehistoric look to these pachyderms.

In addition to the big mammals, we were fortunate enough to see some birds as well.  I love the picture below of the Lilac Breasted Roller – this has to be one of the most beautiful birds in the world, and I love how sharp this picture came out.

We also saw some other birds on our trip, including this “Bustard” walking through the grass.

And this picture of the hornbill – it was kinda funny to see these guys flying around, it’s almost like the huge banana on their bill is so non-aerodynamic that they look out of control as they get airborne! And finally probably my favorite photo of birds, is these two owls that we took at the famous Okaukeujo Watering Hole; I think they’re Cape Eagle Owls.

This picture absolutely required a tripod – I tried numerous times to get the shot but the exposure time was a few seconds and it never failed that the owls would move ever so slightly to create a blurry image.  So I bumped up the ISO and kept trying, eventually capturing one that was satisfactory.  And when I first started shooting I didn’t even realize there were two in the tree!  I just love owls – I really do think they have an aura about them as being wiser than other animals.  For a close up of the image above just click on it. The watering hole where the above picture was taken is incredible – it was walking distance from our camp, so I spent a lot of time there and was able to capture the two images below of these beautiful white rhino’s stopping for a drink.  I particularly like the reflection in the first image.

The picture above was actually taken at an extremely high ISO – 25,600.  My new camera handles noise pretty well, but when jacked up that high it was definitely noticeable.  I used noise reduction through Lightroom and that cleaned the image up nicely. We were also extremely lucky on our safari to see one of the most elusive animals in Africa – the Leopard!  And we saw one in broad daylight, slinking from one shady spot to another.  Here’s an image of him walking, and then he posed very nicely for me to capture the next image.

It’s funny when taking pictures of carnivores, especially the big cats.  I just want to see them hunt SO BADLY.  I picture myself as Jon Attenborough, communicating with a helicopter overhead to co-ordinate the photoshoot in line with the animals hunt.  Instead I sit in a roasting car, waiting for the lazy cat do do anything! 🙂 We also saw a lion on our trip, which is posted in the first photo opening this series.  Did you notice the lion, on the right hand side of the picture?  It’s a male lion with a mane that’s still being developed (similar to a young guy trying to grow a mustache a little too early!)

Thing brings me to another point of advice while doing safari photography, and that’s the zoom reach of your lens.  You MUST have a whopping zoom, or you’re constantly going to struggle in getting “close” enough to the animals.  I’m fortunate in that my friend Alan let me borrow his lens, a 100-400 mm f/4.5-5.6 L series with IS.  This lens is absolutely perfect for safari.  I also have my own lens, a 70-200 f/4 L IS, but I chose not to bring it because the 200 mm simply isn’t long enough.  I’m also shooting on a full frame camera, so I’m really only getting 400 mm.  When I used to shoot with my Canon 50D, which is an APS-C size, I would be getting closer to 640 mm because it automatically “crops” due to sensor size by a factor of 1.6.  I try not to change lenses; if I want to take a wide angle photo I use my S100.

I’ll close out this post with some other pictures that I took and I thought were worth sharing.  There’s then a summary of best practices for successful safari photography, and finally some links to my favorite images in case you’d like to purchase a print.

The two pictures above were taken at watering holes during our various camps.  The one above is one of my favorites as you can see the incredible night sky that Namibia is famous for.  I took a TON of photos of the night sky, trying to perfect some star trail photography so I’ll be sharing that in another post.

Five Photography Tips while on Safari

  1. Use a long zoom lens – I believe that at least 400 mm is required, although some will get by with 200 or 300 mm.  Image Stabilization or Vibration reduction will help a lot.
  2. Shoot in Av or A mode (Aperture Priority) and keep the aperture around f/5.6 up to f/9.0.  As with anything it depends on what you’re shooting, but generally on an African Safari you’ll have sunny conditions and won’t need to open up your lens all the way.  Keeping the aperture at a middle range also ensures that you get more of the animal in focus.
  3. For stationary shots, keep the camera in one-shot mode.  If you’re fortunate enough to capture a Cheetah running or something like that then by all means switch to AI Servo, but for the conditions I’ve been in on safari I find that those situations are pretty rare.
  4. To stabilize the camera, I DON’T use a tripod.  In a car or jeep the tripod is too bulky. Generally you’ll either be standing in a jeep where the top gets moved up, or you’ll be in a car shooting out an open window.  Either way you’ll be able to support your camera from the car, on the windowsill for example.  The one thing some people suggest is a bean bag, to act as a cushion between the car and the camera.  I think this is yet another thing to bring and add to your bag – instead use a sock or a t-shirt that you wore the day before.  Does the same thing and it’s one less thing that you need to pack.  Some people do use a monopod; again I think this is a bit much but if you can find out in advance what kind of car you’ll be in you can make your own choice.
  5. As mentioned above, composition can be a challenge.  While taking pictures, think about not just the image that you’re seeing in the frame but also the possibility of how you could crop that image for a more interesting composition.  Taking pictures of the animals is easy enough, but getting pictures of them doing interesting things or an image that draws the viewer in is a real challenge in safari photography.

Finally I’ll close with a few images that I think are the better ones.  If you click on any of these it will take you to my SmugMug portfolio where you can purchase the image.  I hope you like this first write-up on Namibia – we did a TON of stuff so I’m sure this trip will keep me writing for quite some time (as I process the photos that is!)

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Travel Photography at the Great Wall of China

When we were planning our trip to China (including stops in Singapore and Bali) we had a lot of new and amazing sites to see.  But for me, they all paled in comparison to the Great Wall of China.  My anticipation throughout the entire trip was palpable; it was indeed a case of saving the best for last.

There are various areas of the Great Wall that I’d expect you to research before planning a visit; we wanted to make sure we got some good pictures of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, so we went to two different sections of the wall – the North Pass section near Badaling, which is arguably the most famous part of the wall, and also an area known as Mutianyu, which is east of Badaling.  At the bottom of this post I’m including a very general map that I found along with a link to the agency that describes the areas in a bit more detail if you’re planning a trip.  The Great Wall is ancient, and it’s true that what you’re seeing at Badaling and Mutianyu are reconstructions.  For those of you that are gung ho and have the time, you can explore some very remote areas of the wall where you can see how nature is slowly overtaking the ancient stone.

Before I get to the photos, I have to mention very briefly the adventure we had in getting there.  We wanted to take a train to Badaling from Beijing on our own.  Yes, that’s right – no tour guide, no nothing.  We arrived at the Beijing North train station at crazy o’clock in the morning, trying to figure out how to buy a train ticket to Badaling.  No one spoke a word of English, we waited in a confusing line that didn’t move – I truly felt like an alien on the planet Earth.

After hours of frustrating failure, we didn’t want to lose the day so we hired a driver at the last minute to take us to Mutianyu first.  It was less than 2 hours from Beijing and when we arrived it was a bit strange.  First of all we were the only ones there – I’m not kidding.  There was no one around.  And for some reason it also didn’t “feel” like the Great Wall of China. I guess when you spend 30 years of your life hearing about the place and then arrive to an empty parking lot, the brain does a bit of a double-take.  Is this really the Great Wall of China?  Like, THE Great Wall, the thing that’s supposedly visible from space?  (It’s not by the way).

We got over this strange feeling and proceeded to walk the wall, taking some great pictures of the emptiness and vast expanse of the Chinese countryside.  And after being there for a while, we were thrilled to have the entire wall to ourselves.

The area around Mutianyu is mountainous, so I tried to make sure the background scenery showed in the photos.  In the picture below I leaned outside the wall to get a glimpse of it as it rounded the corner.  It gave a little different perspective than some of the other shots.

You can walk for maybe a mile and a half on the wall.  At the western end of Mutianyu there’s a massive hill.  You can see a glimpse of it in the background of some pictures below.

Can you see what I mean by the steep gradient in the back of the pictures above?  Here’s a zoom of two poor souls hoofing their way up to the top.

Don’t get me wrong – we’re not lazy, and I debated walking up there to get a shot back of the wall.  However it was getting to be late morning and I would have been shooting straight into the sun.  So we decided to not go all the way to the top.  Looking back I took a few pictures directly into the sun.  The one below is the first shot in the panorama that I put together.

I also took a few other photos and processed them slightly differently, giving them an older, darker look.  I particularly like the one below where I used a wider aperture to blur the background a bit.

Although it didn’t feel right when we first arrived, Mutianyu definitely delivered!  I’m very happy with the pictures that we took and it was great to be the only ones there!

Our second day we made another attempt to take a train to Badaling, and this time with the help of some friendly Japanese girls we were able to get a ticket and take a train to Badaling.  This is not for the feint of heart.  In hindsight taking the train was probably more trouble than it’s worth but Adriana in particular was determined to do it, and we ultimately succeeded!

Once there – it “felt” like the Great Wall!  Tourists were everywhere, people out selling a wide assortment of souvenirs, and family photographers were hugely abundant.  The structure of the wall at Badaling is slightly different than at Mutianyu.  The stone seemed a little more grey than the earthen toned wall at Mutianyu.  But both sites were worth visiting and after going to Badaling I was really pleased that we’d also seen Mutianyu.

Upon arriving at Badaling, the image below is the first you can take as you step off the chairlift.  You then walk to the right and proceed down the steps that you’re looking at here.

You may or may not notice that I’ve processed these photos above a bit differently. While looking them over on my computer I started to experiment with giving these pictures a dreamy look. So instead of bumping the clarity slider to the right, which I normally do for most of my photos, I moved it to the left on a lot of the Badaling photos. This creates an ever so slight “glow” for the pictures and I quite like the effect.

I also took several pictures sort of “hanging over” the side of the wall; this seemed to be more effective at Badaling for me, I think the wall twists and turns a little bit more and has a slightly more interesting formation than the wall at Mutianyu.

Finally, I took the picture above which I processed differently again.  I put the picture in Photoshop, used a saturation slider to take out all of the color and then masked over the people walking on the wall.  I was trying to accentuate the size and magnitude of the wall and yet still highlight the tourists.  Popping color can be really overdone but on occasion it’s a nice effect.

And of course I needed to include a good old fashioned HDR.  Actually several of these photos are HDR but I’m purposely processing them a bit differently so it’s not incredibly obvious.  Lately I’m getting a little tired of the look in the photo above but I did like the way this one turned out.

So what did I learn?  Here’s a few thoughts and tips on photography at the Great Wall of China.

  1. Get there early or stay late.  Light is always key.  For us we were fortunate to be there in winter, so the sun is always a little less harsh and the shadows are a bit longer.  At both locations we were there fairly early in the morning and had beautiful days.  But only Mutianyu was void of people.  There are of course other areas of the Great Wall; we only saw two.
  2. Be ready to walk.  Particularly at Badaling the wall is almost slippery in some places.  If it was raining or snowing it would be downright treacherous.
  3. UV and Polarizing filters.  I didn’t have these with me and I wish I had.  The blue skies really were beautiful and using a polarizer would have really strengthened the contrast of the pictures.
  4. Capture scale.  From a composition perspective I tried to do two things.  I wanted to always show the size and length of the Great Wall.  This structure is infamous for being “visible from Space” so people looking at these photos will want to see you prove it.  I tried to do this by making sure I used the wall as a leading line to show the length and scale.  I also, on occasion, used people to make this point.  This is especially true in the B&W photo with the color pop and the picture of the couple climbing up the massive incline.
  5. Foreground interest.  This is a tough one and honestly it’s not something I did well. Hence I want to mention it.  Lots of people go the great wall and do their best to capture the overall scene (basically my point above).  However if there’s not a focal point to the image, lots of those pictures will be quickly glossed over.  So do your best to include a watchtower, tree, or friend/family in the pictures composition to differentiate it from one of the many “normal snapshots” that are taken everyday.
There are a few photos from my trip that I’m selling on SmugMug. You can choose the print size and format, pricing information can be found by clicking on each individual thumbnail.
Below I’m including a map that I found; clicking will link to the website where it’s used.  It gives some additional information on the locations that we visited.  Note that we didn’t use this group or agency or whatever they are so I have no idea if they’re good at what they do….I just liked the map.  

I hope you find this write-up both entertaining and useful.  Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll do my best to respond!

Travel Photography in Beijing – Beihai Park and the Temple of Heaven

I’m closing in on finishing the series of posts on China, with Beijing being our final destination.  I’ve already given a description and some thoughts on photography in the Forbidden City, and my closing post will be on the Great Wall of China.  But there are some other sites to see in Beijing, so I wanted to have an interim post to discuss two of the other famous photo-worthy locations in China – Beihai Park and the Temple of Heaven.

Beihai Park is located north-west of the Forbidden City; it’s essentially a Chinese garden, famous for it’s white Dagoba sitting atop an island in the middle of a lake.  We went to Beihai park in the late afternoon.  Although the overall park is open till 8:00, the White Pagoda closes at 5:00 and as a result we were really rushed to get some good pictures from the top (in fact we got kicked out as I was frantically setting up my tripod!)

As you enter the Jade Flowery Islet (by crossing this bridge) you can see the White Dagoba in the distance.  Upon entering through the gate we were confronted by an enormous collection of red ornaments, hanging in the trees.  There was writing on these but I’m afraid to say my ability to read Chinese is not what it used to be, so I have no idea what they said.  I took numerous pictures here as there were so many options.  I wanted to give a sense of place but also create a repeating pattern to show the sheer number of ornaments.

As we came through the red ornaments you walk up another flight of stairs heading towards the famous White Dagoba.  In the image below I framed the stairs with the gate and the overhanging tree canopy.

As I said, we unfortunately ran out of time when we got to the top as they were just closing the Dagoba.  They do have some repeating patterns of these praying monks that I took below – this is a basic composition of repeating figures with a leading line fading into the distance.  Finally you can see a snap that I took the of the White Dagoba itself.  The sun was setting and the light was nice, but once you get up there you’re smack on top of the thing so it’s not easy to get a good picture.

As is usually the case when out traveling in a foreign city, you live and learn.  Beihai Park is a nice little park; a great environment to walk around and enjoy the scenery.  I do think that if we’d had more time you can get some good images from the top of the pagoda of the surrounding area.  To the east is Jingshan Hill, another location where you can get some good pictures overlooking the Forbidden City.  If you’re going solely to get a better view of the Forbidden City, I think Jingshan Hill is a better option than Beihai Park.

On another day in the evening we went to the Temple of Heaven.  This place is just beautiful, and we had great, great light in the late afternoon.  It was pretty busy while we were there, but we hung around long enough for the majority of people to leave and get some good pics.

While arriving at the site, they had these big, red hanging lanterns in preparation for the Chinese New Year celebration.  They provided a great opportunity for different compositions, in many ways similar to the red ornaments hanging in the entry to Beihai Park.

As I said the light was really good; I’m particularly pleased with the picture at the top of the post but I took a few others that you can see below.  The first was taken with the dragon engraving in the foreground; this is located on the middle of the stairway as you head up to the main landing.  The second photo is taken on the platform so that I was level with the Temple.

While we were there we wanted to get the all important picture of us!  So as we usually do we exchanged cameras, took a few shots and then eventually setup the tripod to get a picture of the two of us in front of the famous landmark.  I know I don’t spend enough time discussing this but I think it’s absolutely critical to take pictures of you and your family while you’re there.  I love taking pictures and capturing these incredible landmarks from all over the world, but at the end of the day it’s great to have pictures of you and your loved ones.  As you grow older these are the pictures that will remind you not just what it was like to be there, but also what YOU were like when you were there.

As always, a few select images (non watermarked of course) from this trip are for sale. If you’d like to take a look and purchase you can click on the thumbnails below.

Exploring Tunisia – Sidi Bou Said and Ancient Carthage

As usual, Adriana made sure we took advantage of the long weekend in the UK.  We had Monday off, so flew out Friday evening for a holiday in Tunisia.  We had tickets for a trip last year, but ended up having to cancel just as the Arab Spring was getting started.  So it’s been on our list for quite some time and I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint!

We had three major objectives – we first wanted to see Sidi Bou Said, the famous blue and white city in northern Tunisia, about 20 km out from Tunis.  Then, being fanatics for ancient ruins, we wanted to see the remains of Carthage which is right down the road.  And our third objective was to simply relax.  I’m happy to say that all three objectives were met, but I only took pictures of the first two 🙂

We started with Sidi Bou Said – we took a bus from our hotel (which was it’s own adventure) and walked through the main area of the city, heading towards Cafe des Nattes, shown below.  I was fortunate to capture this image as a girl was getting her picture taken; she was dressed perfectly for the occasion.  The pink is a great compliment to the blue, I only wish I had more time to compose the image more effectively.

The city is incredible – the walls are stark white stucco, with all trim, windows and doors painted in a bright blue.  We had a day with white clouds and blue skies, perfectly complimenting the colors of the city.

When we first arrived in the main area of the town, I was greeted by this incredible blue door with this local man sitting beside it, shown above.  I asked if I could take his picture and he simply smiled and nodded.

As we walked throughout the city I was obviously struck by the doors – they’re such a bright blue and the color scheme is striking.  I tried to capture the doors with the white clouds and blue skies as much as possible.

I also wanted to capture the stairs and footpaths of the city that lead to the doors; I did this in the images above and below.  Compositionally it captures a little bit of that “wonder what’s around the next corner” thought.  The picture below also has a birdcage; this is one of those strange things the city is also known for.  Apparently canaries are held in high regard and there were a great many souvenir birdcages for sale throughout the city.

While walking around the place, I also took several pictures of the various markets with the vendors selling their goods. I just love markets in North Africa and the Middle East – they are so full of unique trinkets including jewellery, plates, hookahs, and everything else you can think of.  I particularly like the picture below of the merchant smiling – this was taken as he was trying to sell a piece of jewellery to a passing tourist – judging by the smile, I think he succeeded.  In my opinion this picture is made by the shallow depth of field; the foreground trinkets are blurred and the focus is squarely on the man smiling, drawing your eye into the image.

We also found a small house where you can pay to go in and walk around; we paid like 3 dinars to enter and spent some time checking out the small complex and garden.  I love the picture that I took of this door through the dark hallway.  Again I think it draws the viewer into the frame and the darkness accentuates the blue door on the white wall.  Darkness can be used as a great negative space and I cropped it with this purpose in mind.

This little house tour was also where I captured my opening image at the start of the post – we were allowed to go on the roof of the building and get a good picture of the surrounding rooftops.

Finally it was time to eat; after talking to some locals we figured out where this cafe was, pictured below.  It’s a bit difficult to find, it’s essentially behind the more famous Cafe des Nattes.  It’s called the Cafe des Delices and the view is pretty awesome (although the food and prices leave something to be desired).  At the bottom of the hill you get a view of the marina.

After visiting Sidi Bou Said, the next day we spent a few hours in Carthage, the ancient Phoenician city that challenged Rome for dominance of the Mediterranean 2000 years ago.  The city had been sacked numerous times, so unfortunately the ruins weren’t as impressive as I’d hoped.  Furthermore most of what exists today is Roman, and not Phoenician or Punic.

There are two primary sites to see (although there are others).  We spent time at the Roman Villas and the Antonine Baths, the latter being the most famous ruin there.  The Roman Villas have some great mosaics that are well preserved, including a dark hallway where they’ve safely stored many of the mosaics.  I took the image below with a shallow depth of field and used the hallway as a leading line.

When we left the Roman villas our next stop was the Antonine Baths, or what’s left of them.  These were pretty impressive to see but I really struggled with composition (and it didn’t help that we there in the noon day sun, so the light wasn’t great).

I took the picture above of Adriana at the end of this tunnel.  This is a picture that’s rather difficult to expose for and one of the few times that I’ll use something called Spot metering.  This basically lets the camera use a very small area (a.k.a. a spot) to determine what settings will properly expose for that “spot”.  If I didn’t use spot metering here, the tunnel would be properly exposed but Adriana, the blue sky and the columns would be completely blown out.

The pictures below were also taken at the Antonine Baths.  The first I used again a relatively shallow DoF (Depth of Field) to get the stone in focus in the front and then a slight blur of the columns in the back.  The second I captured the natural marble texture of the fallen column.

That’s it for the Tunisia pics!  I will note that this was also a trip that I started experimentation with video on my DSLR.  I’ve got a long way to go (and apparently a stabilizer to buy, as everything is so jittery you’d get nauseous watching it) but I’ll probably try to post a video soon to share what I learn.  I also have a few tutorials in the works but I wanted to share these pictures from Sidi Abu Said in particular as soon as possible.

I’ve also posted the whole range of pictures from the trip on Flickr if you’d like to get a wider view of what images I took.  I hope that you get some ideas for your own photography from this and use this write-up as a tool to take some great pictures while on holiday in Tunisia!

Photography in the Forbidden City – Beijing, China

Ah!!  Beijing!!

What a great, great city!  Adriana and I arrived in Beijing after visiting the terracotta warriors in Xian.  We were fortunate with good weather while we were there, albeit cold. The Forbidden City, also known as the Forbidden Palace, was built in the early 15th century.  The buildings are incredible – and it’s just the kind of place that I really enjoy taking pictures.  Once I’m in a closed off area like this (there’s a small admission fee) I feel like I’m in my element.  It’s just great to walk around and have the freedom to take pictures of whatever you want in such a unique environment.

We begin with the main gate and entry at Tiananmen Square.  This is where the Chinese soldiers are guarding the entry to the Forbidden Palace, with a large photo of Chairman Mao hanging on the gate.  The photo below is a pretty classic and basic composition – guard in focus in the foreground with the background giving a sense of place.  Aperture was set to f/6.3 to create enough blur but plenty of detail to recognize Mao.

As you enter, this is the site you see:

This is an 11 picture panorama.  I set my camera to manual, set the exposure (meaning the aperture, shutter speed and ISO) as well as the white balance, and took 11 vertical shots from left to right.  No tripod, no nothing.  When I got back I put the photo into Photoshop and it merged the image, which I then cropped and adjusted.  It came out pretty well for a handheld shot.  Click here for a larger version.

As I entered the site I was really struck by the architecture.  The curving lines of the buildings, the circular, repeating structures on the roofs and the exquisite carvings all created an incredible atmosphere.  Instead of taking standard clicks of the buildings I found myself trying to get more interesting compositions of these aspects.

I chose to process the last picture here slightly different from the others.  Instead of adding a little vibrance and saturation, I did the opposite.  I took away some of the color to give it a more ancient look.  While many photographers strive to create their own style, I prefer to mix things up and keep people guessing!

In addition to being struck by the flowing architecture, there were also a lot of guards around.  These guys were standing stoically, watching the crowds with barely a move.

When shooting photos in a place like this I also like to get a variety of images.  Instead of just getting the buildings, I like to make sure I capture the detail of the place.  Taking close up pictures of the incredible sculptures and carvings can really give a sense of place. And for me personally, it helps me to remember what it was like to actually be there.  We’ve all seen pictures of the Forbidden Palace, but the pictures below strive to be different from the norm to give the viewer a more personal sense of the place.

In line with the details, I wanted to make sure I also captured the interior of some of the more famous buildings that are on the “main drag” of the complex.  These were challenging to take – there were people everywhere, crowding in to take a picture.  When I confront a situation like this I make sure that my camera is set appropriately (right lens, Av mode) and then wait patiently until I get a center spot.  Once I get that center spot I’ll take a few quick snaps and then get out of the way so that others can have a look. These pictures are HDR, due to the tricky interior lighting and the fact that …. well, I like to take some HDR pics!

The above is the throne in the Palace of Heavenly Purity, one of the larger and more important buildings in the Forbidden City.

The picture above is another famous building, the Hall of Preserving Harmony.

I also wanted to ensure I got whole buildings, so you could get a sense of scale and understand their overall shape and how large they are compared to their surroundings.  Of course my favorites of this group are the ones with my beautiful wife!

The picture below I edited in Silver Efex and made it completely black and white.  I really like the couple walking together with the buildings in the background – it gives an excellent sense of scale and tranquility.

I also like this one – it gives that same strong sense of Asian architecture with the tubular roofs and flowing gables, but also includes the beautiful white Stupa in the background.  This is known as the Miaoying Temple and yes, we visited it as well!  Pictures to come in a future post!

 The next photos I have to guess, I’m not entirely sure which building this is but I think it’s the Hall of Supreme Harmony.  I really like the picture of the building as the colors complement each other very well.

On the photo above you’ll notice at the edges how the gables flare out to the sides.  On top of them there’s a collection of figurines, or charms.  One of the things we learned while reading about the site was that the more figurines a building has, the more important the building.  I snapped a picture of these as well, shown below.

To the north of the Forbidden Palace is Jingshan Hill.  Below you see a picture of the building on top of the hill; the view down on the Palace is one of the best views in the city, which is the opening picture of this post.

All in all, we had a wonderful time in the Forbidden City.  If you get a chance to go, I would say you need over half a day to really get to see everything and not feel like you’re rushing through it.  If you’re a history buff or architecture junkie, you could probably spend more than a day on site.

Below is a Google Satellite image of the site.  We entered from the south and then walked north, which is what you pretty much have to do.  We were there in winter and I can honestly say the light was pretty good the whole time; the shadows weren’t too harsh.

I hope you enjoyed looking at these pics and it gives you a better idea of how you can capture some memorable images from your visit.  We really had a wonderful time exploring the site, taking pictures, and soaking in the history from one of China’s great historical locations.  Any comments and constructive criticism is welcome and if you’re interested in purchasing any of these photos as postcards or prints, you can do so here.  And if you’d like to see more images of our visit to the Forbidden Palace, you can check out my Flickr photostream where I post a wider collection of photos.

Until next time, hope you get some good pictures and for my UK friends enjoy the long weekend!

3 Tips for Family Photography – Round 2

In one of my recent posts I shared some pictures that I took with my friends Grant and Nicky and gave 5 tips for a family photoshoot.  A couple weekends ago I went out for “round two” and took some new images with my friends Gavin and Sophie.  Their son, let’s call him B, is a bit younger than Grant and Nicky’s son so although there were many similarities to my last outing, there were also some significant differences.

Before I continue writing, I feel the need to tell you something about myself – I’m not a parent.  I’m sure that time will come some day but I wanted to get that out there, because I’m sure there will be mother’s and father’s reading my revelations on child behaviour and they’ll be rolling their eyes thinking “is this guy an idiot?”  Well, when it comes to real life experience with kids, the answer is yes.  For example, one of the things that became obvious is that age can make a pretty big difference.  If B is a year old and A is 18 months, those additional six months can have an impact on the types of photos you’ll be able to take as far as what they’ll be doing, how long they’ll be doing it, etc.

Anyway, back to the actual shoot.  On Sunday I went to meet Gavin and Sophie with my lovely assistant (and wife) Adriana.  B was just up from his nap, a little grumpy but was soon smiling as we started walking outside and went to the park.  He was just getting close to being able to walk, so he was constantly walking around pushing this little toy – looked to me like he was practicing mowing the lawn!  He also really enjoyed pushing a little toy truck that he had, so I made sure to get some pictures of that.

I’ll share with you a few things I learned from this shoot, in addition of course to what I picked up in my previous one.

1) Smile, smile, smile – If there was one thing that I wanted to make sure I got a picture of, it was B smiling.  He had a habit of sticking his tongue out when he was happy; not sticking it all the way out but sort of licking his lips in excitement.  I succeeded in getting several of these, but wish that I had captured more.  While I may be thinking a lot about composition, aperture and all kinds of other things the most important without a doubt is to capture the moments in time that will put a smile on faces in the years to come.  Take photos of happiness.

2) Don’t disrupt the flow – I also got some good pictures of the family spending time together; without a doubt the pictures that are keepers are the ones that are more natural.  If B is having fun and enjoying his day, then it’s best to just get the parents involved in whatever he’s doing and include them in the action, instead of dragging him to a sitting position and trying to pose a shot.  I don’t like being dragged away from my toys for no good reason – he doesn’t either!  Here are some group shots – you can see what worked and what didn’t, but my favorite is the opening shot at the top of the post.  I included the bottom shot taken with a wide angle lens to give you a taste of the good and the bad – in that instance B didn’t really want to sit on the bench and his temporary grumpiness was beginning to show!

3) Get to his level – I tried on a few occasions to get down to B’s level.  To get his view of the world and have the camera capture the day through his eyes.  This is challenging, and as usual some pictures were better than others.  I particularly like this first one with the out of focus grass in the foreground that leads the eye into the frame, with B at the center.  Some of the others I like the composition but failed in achieving sharp focus, something that will improve in time.

Overall it was a successful day, albeit much shorter than my first family shoot.  We spent less than two hours on the whole day taking pictures, and half that time was grabbing a bite to eat for lunch.  So there was definitely more time pressure, and again that has to do with the age of the child.  Younger kids tend to get grumpier quicker and need to be fed and take naps more often, so it’s important to make use of the time you have.  Compared to my first shoot I took less than half the pictures.

Hope you find this useful when taking some photos of your own family, next post we’ll be heading back to China (finally) for the Forbidden Palace!

Freezing cold at the Summer Palace in Beijing

We arrived in Beijing from Xian in the morning, and chose to spend our first day checking out the Summer Palace.  We took the underground (which was it’s own adventure) and arrived at the Summer Palace on a brisk, winter morning.

Unlike Xian, we were fortunate with some blue skys (well, pretty blue) while we were in Beijing.  But it was cold – and I mean freezing cold.  We were bundled up and still freezing our butts off, with camera batteries going dead in no time flat.  It didn’t stop us from enjoying the beautiful sites and gardens though of the Summer Palace.

There are several different sites to see while you’re in the Summer Palace.  I was absolutely blown away by the Long Corridor which is … wait for it … a long corridor.  It’s basically a covered walkway that extends for several hundred meters, and the photographic opportunities are significant.  When I see something like this the first thing I think about is the compositional technique of receding parallel lines, and the simple leading line that the corridor presents.  Below are a few pictures that I took of the long corridor where you can see what I mean.

I like all three of these pictures, but I really like the first and the third the best; the first gives a perfect example of a leading line and the eye is drawn into the frame, just making out the person at the end of the line.  But the one above is slightly different, with the “line” slowly turning to the right, leading the eye around the picture.  I also like the contrast between the vertical lines of the corridor with the horizontal cross beams above.

In addition to the Long Corridor, there are some other interesting sites at the Summer Palace.  There’s Longevity Hill, which is arguably the most famous site.  It’s where the Tower of Buddhist Incense sits, which is the largest building on the entire compound.  In the picture below you can see it to the left.

The lake, known as Kunming Lake, was completely frozen over while we were there.  It made for an interesting scene with many visitors either trying to ice skate or sitting chairs that were built to have ‘blades’ on them so they could effectively skate while sitting down.

Since it was winter the light was beautiful as the sun set and we were able to get some nice pictures with some good light on the Tower of Buddhist Incense.

While there I also wanted to get some shots that were a bit more abstract.  I think it’s important to get some detail pictures while you’re there to mix up the portfolio a little bit.  Below is a picture that’s trying to capture the lines that are common in Asian architecture; we saw these same lines time and again in the Forbidden Palace the next day as well; they’re very representative of Asian architecture.

One of the other highlights of the Summer Palace is the 17 arch bridge – this thing is pretty interesting but a little smaller than I thought.  Later in the day as the sun went down it gave some opportunities to capture some nice silhouettes as well.

There’s also the famous (infamous?) marble boat.  This was built in the 18th century and is not actually made out of marble, but rather wood painted to imitate marble.  The boat just sits there and there’s a bit of a conspiracy about the money spent to build it in the first place.

Anyway, back to some of my favorite pictures taken on the day.  I really liked the color associated with both the Long Corridor and the Tower of Buddhist Incense.  I used HDR in some instances to bring out the color and really make the photo pop, as this is the way I remember seeing it when I was there.

I also really like this photo below with the 17 arch bridge in the distance, and the pavilion in the foreground.  I was fortunate to capture this with the individual in silhouette inside the pavilion, looking up at the interior of the pavilion.   It really creates a sense of scale and the light was pretty incredible at this time of day.

Finally I took this last photo on the way out, again the leading line of the bridge into the small pavilion creates a nice composition.  The light from the sun hitting the bridge with the two individuals in silhouette walking adds to the atmosphere of the picture.

Below is a map so you know where to take pictures when you visit the Summer Palace.  This will give you an idea of how the place is laid out, where everything is, etc.  Remember the picture tags below show where the photos were taken from, not actually what is at that location.  I’ve also included a “sun line” to give you an idea of where the sun was setting while we were there.

Next up will be another palace, this one a little more famous – the Forbidden Palace!  At first glance I’m really happy with the photos that I captured so I can’t wait to get them processed and online!  Until then, happy shooting!

My first family photo shoot – 5 lessons learned amongst friends

A few months ago, Adriana and I had some of our friends over for a get together.  My friends Grant and Nicky attended with their son, we’ll call him A.  While we were catching up they asked if I would be open to the idea of doing a family photo shoot for them.  Pros are too expensive and they just wanted to get some quality pictures to hang in their house.  Needless to say I jumped at the chance – these are the sorts of things that turn into real learning opportunities.  So I took them up on the offer and away we went!

This was a first for me.  I’d never done any formal portrait work so I did a lot of research beforehand.  I spent a lot of time reading tutorials online and watching some guys on YouTube talk about outdoor portraiture.  I have a shoot through umbrella that I bought a year or two ago when I was learning about off camera flash, and also some cheap wireless triggers that I bought through ebay.  So I bought extra batteries, cleaned my lenses, packed all my stuff and was off to meet them Saturday morning.  We decided to go to a nearby park to get the photos; I wanted them out of the sun with a nice background (forest/trees) for the photos.  We tried a few different poses and ways of sitting, crossing our fingers that A was in the mood to play.

The first round of pictures we took while sitting on top of a log – I thought it would be a nice place but A was still tired from his nap, as you can see below.

For the beginning of the shoot, I had the umbrella setup camera left to throw some extra light on the family.  I used a CTO gel as well to give a little glow to their faces.

I wanted to make sure we tried lots of different setups, but I was also conscious of the fact that with a little kid it’s really about spur of the moment photography.  It’s difficult to get a toddler to look at the camera, smile, etc.  And what I also learned is that it’s sometimes hard to even get the parents to look at the camera!  Seriously, I have a ton of photos where A is finally looking at me and smiling but either Nicky or Grant were looking elsewhere or not smiling.  If I had to do it over again I would have tried to communicate this up front (but of course I didn’t know and wasn’t really aware of it until looking at the photos later).

The last set of photos with the shoot through umbrella were pretty entertaining, as A threw leaves at Mom and Dad while they laid on the ground.

When that was done, I took down the umbrella and we began a more informal session.  A was really into his ball, running around all over the place and playing with it.  It was so funny to watch but really hard to photograph as well.  I set my camera to AF servo and did my best to track the little guy as he ran this way and that, kicking the ball, and generally having a blast.

I took a picture of the ball with A running towards it in the background.  I thought this was a fitting shot, because the ball really played a central role in the day and I wanted to make sure it was remembered.

All in all it was a great, great day.  I learned a ton.

Here are the top 5 things I learned from my first family portrait session –

  1. Prepare – yeah, I know.  It’s not rocket science.  But I spent a lot of time researching online, reading some of my old books and making sure that all of my techniques were clear in my head.  I bought new batteries, cleaned my lenses, tested my equipment before the shoot, etc.
  2. It’s all about the kid – similar to shooting a wedding, when you do a family portrait like this you’re pretty much going to live and die by the kid (or the bride in the wedding of course).  When A was in a good mood, the parents were happy, I was happy and we were off and running.  When he was aloof and not really in the mood for photos, the entire thing sorta stalled.  One of our friends was there and did a tremendous job in entertaining A.  That was a colossal help and in hindsight is something that really saved my bacon, because it’s really tough to focus on your photography while trying to entertain a toddler!
  3. Shoot with an appropriate aperture – I wanted to get the background out of focus so I was shooting with a pretty tight depth of field; my aperture was like f/4.5 or f/5.0 for a lot of the shots.  And it wasn’t quite enough – I wish I’d set it to f/7.1 or f/8.0 to ensure I had focus throughout the frame.  There’s a few photos where A and Nicky were in perfect focus but Grant is just a teeny bit out.  Lesson learned for next time.
  4. Editing matters – I had to wait for the new LR 4.1 update so I could work with my RAW files; once this came I edited the photos and spent a fair amount of time on each one.  In particular I whitened the eyes in many of the pictures and made sure that they were sharp on the edges but overall soft so as not to be too harsh on the faces.
  5. Think – Finally my last lesson learned is to remain calm and think.  While I was there I felt like I was the photographer so I had to keep shooting.  In hindsight I wish I’d spent a little more time making sure that my aperture was set accurately; I went back and forth between shooting in Manual and Aperture priority mode and I could have done a better job in having a mental focus on the exact picture I was trying to take at the moment.  Again I think this will come with time.

I’ll be doing another photoshoot with a different friend of mine who’s son will be celebrating a one year birthday pretty soon.  After I get a few of these under my belt who knows?  Maybe I’ll get to a point where I can charge some money for the work and have people just buy the photos directly from Smugmug.  Until then I’ll continue to take advantage of my friend’s for free learning opportunities!  Thanks Grant and Nicky!

Xian – Ancient warriors in 21st century smog

After our adventures in Shanghai we took a flight to Xian; we meant to take a sleeper train to get an element of real adventure but it ended up that the agency we were working with weren’t able to secure us a ticket.  So instead we bought a last minute flight (which wasn’t too painful) and flew to Xian.  When we arrived I thought something was wrong – it smelled like the plane’s tires were on fire or something.  We calmly grabbed our bags and walked out the jetway into the airport, and that’s when I realized the smell wasn’t going away.  Well it turns out the “smell” was the pollution in the city.  It was nuts.  I don’t smoke, but I wanted to buy a pack of cigs just to get some fresh air.  Yep, it was that bad.

We took a taxi from the airport to our hotel in the middle of the city; the taxi ride was pretty crazy.  It was night time and with all of the pollution and smog (call it what you will) I don’t know how the driver knew where the road was.

In the morning we got up early and had a guide take us to the Terracotta warriors.  One piece of advice when travelling in China – you need to be VERY CLEAR on what it is you want to do and see.  We got in the car in the morning, agreed that we wanted to see the Terracotta army, and they proceeded to drive us to the site.  Three times they offered to stop – at a Jade Museum, a Terracotta Army “factory” and some other god forsaken place that I forget.  They get commission for taking you to these sites, so you need to very clear if you don’t want to go.  They’re basically tourist traps and will do anything in their power to sell you anything that catches your eye.  This is where I become sort of a dick when I travel.  I fully appreciate these people are trying to make a living like everyone else, but when I have one day to see a site I really don’t want to have to sit for two hours to some guy trying to sell me a Jade trinket – I just have no interest.  Anyway, rant over.  We succeeded in getting to the right museum, and it was well worth the minor frustrations.

The museum gives you some background on what they’ve uncovered so far and has some of the highest quality pottery warriors.  They’re covered within glass cases but I was still able to get some decent pictures.  I took some close-ups to try and capture the detail in the pottery work; each one is unique.

After walking through this initial museum you then walk into one of the three primary dig sites.  The first one is in it’s early stages, and is not quite as big as the main one.  It’s covered and sort of resembles a big warehouse as you can see below.

It was a bit tough to take pictures here because of the low light, and needless to say flash was frowned upon.  I used my 70-200 f4 IS lens.  It was perfect for the scenario; I set the ISO to anywhere between 1600 and 3200, then let the IS (Image Stabilization) do the rest of the work.  I kept the aperture set to f4 the whole time, letting in as much light as I possibly could.  My 50D does fairly well with noise but many of the images shot at 3200 required some noise correction.  For this I use one of two programs, either Lightroom (which in LR 3 really improved their capability around noise reduction) or a program called Dfine.  The latter probably does a better job but I only use it on occasion as it tends to lengthen my workflow.  I’m pretty pleased with the way the pics turned out, I think the one below is my favorite from this particular dig site.

All of the pottery warriors look like this when they dig them out – I was surprised to find of the thousands of warriors that they’ve found so far, only a few of them were found in one piece.

When we entered the main chamber it’s pretty awe inspiring.  It’s vast and has hundreds and hundreds of the warriors in various levels of completeness.  I also saw a group of archaeologists working on their latest discovery.

Now – our guide stated that there were possibly as many as 200,000 warriors buried throughout the area.  Yep, that’s right – 200,000.  Now if you read (and believe) Wikipedia it’s stating more in the range of 8000.  Who knows, I leave it up for debate.  But I did find it interesting that they haven’t opened the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China for whom all of this is for.  Must’ve been a pretty popular guy.

When taking the pictures in the exhibit I tried to create a sense of repetition, to give the viewer an idea that the number of warriors is vast if not infinite.  Using the f/4 aperture helps by ensuring the depth of field is shortened and creates a more intriguing picture, having the eye immediately focus on one warrior and then extending out to the others.

After the Terracotta warriors, we went back home and walked around the city a bit.  Xian is a small city by Chinese standards – only 8.5 million people.  🙂  The pollution remained, and created a pretty surreal environment for us as we tried to check out the famous Bell Tower towards the middle of the old city.  You can vaguely see it through the smog below.

Here’s a pic from the Bell Tower – I like the composition here as there’s obvious symmetry, and the smog actually creates some interest as the eye looks down the central line.  And the biker in the forefront shows that China still has some steps to take towards modernization.

Finally, we walked along the famous Xian wall.  Honestly this is pretty cool – it’s an ancient medieval wall that’s been up for a long time, with it’s current incarnation dating from the 14th century.  It’s wide, and quite honestly blows away most of the medieval walls I’ve seen in Europe (particularly in England – sorry York).   We walked around for a bit and took a few pictures, the entrance to the area was rather cool as they had these red banners flying in the wind that created a pretty cool tunnel like image.

And finally as we were atop the wall, the smog provided an excellent atmosphere.  Not that I’m promoting pollution, but I do like the way these images turned out as it sort of captures that de-saturated, ancient, foggy look.  We don’t need to know that the fog is actually created by millions of tons of coal burning throughout the country.  Just keep that to yourself.

This wraps it up for our trip through Xian!  It definitely gave us a different view of China; getting out of the big tourist hotspots of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing and instead getting a view of what a “normal” Chinese city is like.  The Terracotta warriors were pretty amazing and something I’d always wanted to see, and I’m happy with many of the images and memories I captured as part of the trip.

Next will be the final stop on our Asian trip – we go to Beijing to see the Forbidden Palace and of course the Great Wall!  Until next time I hope you get to take some great pics….

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