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Postcard Intellect

Travel photography for the uninitiated….

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Your first resolution for 2013? Learn how to shoot fireworks with your new DSLR!!

Happy New Year to one and all!

I hope everyone had a great night doing whatever it is you like to do on New Year’s Eve.  Adriana and I went out to watch the fireworks after a nice home made dinner with her parents.  I brought my camera and tripod for the fireworks show and we setup camp like we did two years before.

And it struck me once again how incredibly difficult it can be to get good pictures of fireworks!  I’ve often struggled with this and I feel pretty confident in using my camera, so it got me thinking about the mass of people standing around us pointing their cameras in the air in “auto” mode and wondering why the pictures weren’t coming out.  Yes some cameras have a “Fireworks” mode but I find that it’s often a shot in the dark (no pun intended).  So I’ve created a short tutorial on how to take photos of fireworks; you can find it here in the tutorials section.

This brings me to two other quick points I wanted to make – one of my personal New Year’s resolutions is to keep maintaining this blog more regularly and I’ve set a goal of writing at least one tutorial per month (hopefully two).  I think this is realistic and will keep me focused on learning new things as well.  I’m also slowly branching into video so who knows, maybe as I butcher away my first few videos some of you can learn from my mistakes!

And finally many of you know that my wife is now 9 months pregnant – we’re a week away from the due date.  To document our future as parents (and all the trials and tribulations that go along with that seismic shift) we’ve embarked on a joint 365 Instagram project.  The hashtag is #365Everywhere if you’d like to take a look.  We’ll also be posting the photos to my Flickr page as well if you’d like to check them out.  A few years back I did a series of 365 projects and found them to be invaluable in improving my photography skills and can’t recommend it enough if you’ve got a new DSLR for the holidays.  You can see my previous 365 projects here and here

So here’s to a successful year in 2013 – I wish everyone health and happiness and I hope you take your best photos yet this year!

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London Photo Festival and some general updates

Over a month ago my father-in-law Carlos sent me an email about an amateur photographer exhibition in London called the London Photo Festival.  I checked it out and realized it was an event that I had looked at the year before but wasn’t able to enter because I was travelling. But this year I am around and I decided to give it a try! I went through my photos and thought about what types of images I wanted to display. I narrowed it down to about 15 pictures and then I leveraged social media – I posted those 15 photos to my Facebook account and had friends and family “vote” by using the Like function to decide which photos made the grade.

I got a lot of good feedback, and I ended up using 2 of the 3 winners in the Facebook voting session and I made an “executive decision” on the final photo.  I went with a general “water” theme and had the organizers of the event print my images. I know that printing and framing my own images would be a great way to differentiate but this is my first time through something like this so I decided to keep it simple until I can see what I’m getting myself into.

Here are the three images with a brief description on each:

This image was taken in 2011, when my wife and I travelled to Nepal to hike around the Annapurna Range in the Himalayas. Lake Pokhara has a beautiful island temple and the bright colors of the boats caught my eye.
This beautiful sunset closed out an incredible holiday in Bali at the end of 2011. The clouds were placed perfectly to highlight the rays of the setting sun.
In 2010 my wife and I spent two weeks travelling in Egypt. This photo was taken in the evening sun when a local offered us a ride down the Nile.

The exhibit is located at “The Crypt” on Borough High Street next week, October 25th – 27th; entry is free. For more details check out the link here. I’m really looking forward to the event and to see how some of my images stack up to the others.  One thing I’ll be interested in seeing is the idea of “themes” that people use.  I am already thinking I should have spent more time getting together a collection of images that either tells a story or really have something in common, but this is my first time through this so I’ll see how things go.

In addition to displaying some photos I decided to do something else as well that’s been on my mind for a while.  I created some “business cards” for my photography blog and portfolio.  I went to Moo and put together a 9 piece image (the same pictures used to make my banner, for consistency) and then on the back included my website and contact details.  I’m certainly not a graphic designer but I think it looks pretty cool.  So I’ll have a few of these hanging around my photos so people can grab one if they want, and I think I’ll start carrying a few when I’m on holiday.  Sometimes people come up to me while I’m taking pictures (especially when I have my tripod out) and now I have something to hand them so they can eventually check out my photos.

Anyway, here’s a quick iPhone snap of the business cards.

I’m really happy with the quality and I think they look great.  I’m looking forward to my first exhibition and for those of you in London I hope to see you there!

By the way my wife and I got back from the Maldives a few weeks back, I’ve got many of the photos processed and will try to get a post up shortly!  We had a great time!

The Skeleton Coast of Namibia

Back in June of this year, Adriana and I spent over a week cruising around Namibia.  One of the stops on our journey was the town of Swakopmund, where we spent two days to enjoy the scenery, eat at some nice restaurants, and of course taking pictures! Swakopmund is on the western coast of the country, part of what is known as the Skeleton Coast.

The area is named the Skeleton Coast due to the large number of shipwrecks in the region.  The coast is apparently very difficult to navigate, and when a ship does wreck it certainly doesn’t last very long.  Here’s a picture of one of the boats that we saw, an old fishing vessel that apparently wrecked in the 70’s.

But the Skeleton Coast is interesting for another reason; the Namib desert extends straight to the Atlantic in this area of Africa.  This creates some beautiful vistas and images, but is a living nightmare for sailors unfortunate enough to get stranded here.  Imagine swimming for the coast, overjoyed to be out of the water only to realize you now have desert stretching in front of you for over 100 miles!  Not a situation I’d want to be in….and we found the remnants of this guy amidst the sand (this is not a joke).

One afternoon, Adriana and I hired a jeep tour that took us further south past Walvis Bay to an area called Sandwich Harbour.  We basically went four wheel driving across the dunes, taking pictures of the incredibly beautiful formations that the sand makes and admiring how the ocean meets the desert.   On our way out to the area we passed a seal, the only one we saw on the whole trip.  I was only able to snap this one picture before he waddled away to the ocean.

Eventually we got closer to the sand dunes and the beauty was just incredible.  I hope the photos do a good job of capturing what it was like to glide across the sand, and have this incredible sense of timelessness as you see the wind constantly working and molding the sand into these flowing shapes.

Needless to say the area is barren; anytime you can get something other than sand in the frame it tends to give a nice sense of scale.  I took the picture below of this sign that sort of made me chuckle – “No Entry” – which begs the question who would want to enter a desert like this and run the risk of walking past this sign?

An even better sense of scale is provided by this picture of the 4×4 that accompanied us on the trip.  You can really get a sense of how small these vehicles are compared to the shifting sands of the dunes.

I also included a few pictures of … you guessed it … us!  It was pretty windy while we were there, but aside from some crazy looking hair it didn’t stop us from getting some good pictures.  Here’s the two of us together posing for the camera and then a lovely picture of Adriana with her out of control hair!

The other thing that I spent some time focusing on was the shadows.  As it got later in the day the shadows became very pronounced.  Our shadows certainly became longer, but it also worked wonders in changing the look and colors of the dunes themselves.  I tried to capture this in the images below.  

In the following two pictures I tried to take a picture of the wind; you can vaguely make out the sand blowing in the first picture, but you can definitely see the intimate shapes that the wind has created in these ridges.

The picture below I kept at an angle.  Usually I’m pretty meticulous in making sure that my horizon is straight, but in this one I liked the leading line that the coastline made going off into the picture so I decided to keep it at the harsh angle in which it was taken.

A black and white version of the sand draws out the shadows in a way only B&W can do.

Before we went on our jeep journey across the sand I was sweating bullets about whether or not I should change lenses in the desert.  This was a brand new camera and every book in the world says that sand and sea air are the two worst things to expose your camera to.  But you know what?  I changed lenses anyway and I don’t regret it one bit.  To be clear, I was very careful about it – I only changed lenses while I was in the car with the windows closed and my bag ready to accept the lens I was taking off.  I know people have different opinions on this but mine is relatively strong.  If I spend all this money on a good camera and good lenses, only to be too afraid to use them when I’m out taking pictures, then what’s the point?  This is also why I tend to bring my DSLR with me rather than carrying a smaller portable camera.

Hope you enjoyed these pictures; below I have a few of them that I think are worth hanging on a wall.  If you agree with me, feel free to click on the thumbnail which will take you to my portfolio and you can print a copy for yourself!

Until next time, hope you take some great pictures!

Where to photograph London’s Tower Bridge – and a farewell to the Olympics

Well…..

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted.  I know I don’t have a whole lot of readers or followers so it really won’t matter all that much but this is something I set out to do for the year and let’s face it I’ve definitely taken a two month hiatus.  But I do have a really, really good excuse – Adriana’s pregnant!!  We’ve obviously known for a while and it’s led to a bit of a re-prioritization on my part.  I can’t say that because she’s pregnant we’re moving house or jobs or anything else too significant, but it’s just been a little more busy than usual and things that were important to me before haven’t been all that important lately.

For example, I haven’t taken or processed a photo in a long time.  Actually wait – I take that back.  I have been taking some pretty awesome pics of Adriana pregnant (to show the belly grow and make a book) but aside from that I’ve been in a holding pattern with my camera.  I still have a ton of pictures to process from Namibia and I do promise to get some really cool ones out there soon.  We’ve also traveled to a few places over the last month and I’ve taken some snaps so will get those online as soon as I can.  Anyway – enough apologising about not posting, let’s get on with it already.

So, unless you’ve been living in a cave you’ve noticed that the Olympics have come and gone through London.  Wow, what a time to have an aversion to my camera.  I was thinking about making a big effort to do some street photography while all of the visitors were here; opportunities like that don’t come across all that often but alas it wasn’t meant to be.  Adriana and I were fortunate enough to go to a few events, and I took some pictures of men’s volleyball and the women’s gold medal football (soccer) match (which the USA won I might add!)

One of the things that I did have the determination to photograph during the Olympics were the Olympic Rings hanging on Tower Bridge.  These were put in place a month or so before the Olympics and were taken down on the 19th.  I finally dusted off my camera and got down on the evening of the 17th to make sure I got a few pics.  I was fortunate that the weather was cooperative, but the sunset wasn’t quite as outstanding as I’ve seen in the past.  So I wanted to write a brief post on where to take pictures of Tower Bridge.

The photos: 

I’m going to post four of the pictures that I took – as far as I’m concerned they’re your pretty “standard” Tower Bridge photos.

The picture above is taken on the north-east side of Tower Bridge; the same side of the river as the actual Tower of London.  I’ve seen this picture taken many times, it’s very popular on Flickr.  Sunset was scheduled for 8:18 pm so I was down there by 7:30 to walk around and take some pics.  This is a 5 picture HDR – it’s taken very wide (17 mm on a full frame camera) so the original picture was skewed.  I had to adjust the photo in Photoshop using the transform function to straighten the bridge and the flag on the right.  As you can see I didn’t fully straighten the flag; it made the transform too obvious.

This picture I quite like – this is a 7 shot HDR.  My 5d mark III can do anywhere from 3-7 bracketed photos so I wanted to flex it’s muscles a bit; can’t say I can tell much of a difference from a 3 shot HDR but maybe it’s just me.  This is taken from the exact opposite side of the river from the picture above; so the south east side of Tower Bridge.  You’ll also notice in the foreground a slick looking sidewalk with rocks – this is actually the river bed of the Thames.  Many people don’t appreciate how tidal the Thames river is.  This was taken at low tide, so I was able to walk down the stairs and essentially out into the river (obviously there’s no water).  Several hours later and where this picture was taken from would be filled with water.  I like this photo for the clouds; there’s a nice pink tinge to the clouds but unfortunately shortly after this was taken the clouds were blown away and the rest of the sky became rather boring.

I love this pic above.  This is Tower Bridge taken from a very standard location (at least for me and many visitors).  This is the south west side of the bridge, basically taken while standing in front of City Hall.  At the time I took this picture the sun was really going down (the sun would obviously be behind me here) but there were few clouds and after I processed the photo I thought it would look better in B&W.  One of the things that was really interesting about Tower Bridge during the Olympics was that the lighting was a bit different.  Apparently GE, in partnership with the City of London, has upgraded the lighting on the bridge with some LED lights.  This creates an incredible effect and I think this B&W picture brings it out better than many of the others.  Funny how a black and white photo seems to show light better than a color one…

And finally my closing image.  This is taken from roughly the same location as the one above, just further west.  By this time the sun had definitely set and the lights were coming on, so you can see the brighter cables and the Olympic Rings are well lit.  Tower Bridge really is beautiful and I believe it’s the most iconic sight in London, possibly second only to Big Ben.  Many people mistake Tower Bridge for London Bridge, which is further west along the Thames (and is also lit in a cool fluorescent orange at night; possibly an interesting picture waiting to be taken).

For all of these photos I used my tripod.  I’ve heard that there are “guards” on the south west side of the Thames that sometimes slap you on the wrist for using a tripod, but this has never happened to me.  I’m really happy that I was able to get out and take these pictures; I think they’re timeless photos of my years in London and it was a great experience to witness the Olympics firsthand.  In some future posts I hope to share some of the photos I took while attending events.  I’m not promising much as it was my first attempt at sports photography but hopefully we’ll all learn something from it!

Hope you enjoyed the post and I look forward to sharing more photos in the future.  And of course, if you’re interested in purchasing a photo for a low price (I have a baby on the way now!) you can click on the links below which will take you to a full res non-watermarked image in SmugMug.  Enjoy and keep snapping away!

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!)

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!

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!

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!

A walk along Nanjing Road Shopping District in Shanghai, China

While spending a few days in Shanghai we spent one evening walking down Nanjing Road, which is the primary shopping street of Shanghai.  We had strolled down the street during the day but after walking for a while we decided it would be a great photography walk at night.  The buildings are lit up in fluorescent lights, reminding me of Macau (or Vegas for that matter).  But more interesting for me was checking out what they had for sale in some of the stores.  Despite all the places we’ve traveled, China was still a country capable of giving me a significant jolt of culture shock to make me feel like an alien on my own planet.

One of the stores that we walked into was sort of like a dry goods grocery store.  They had all kinds of things that looked … foreign.  Things that looked like taffy, various animals that almost looked like they were “candied” (see the pig face below) and some things that were less appetising – yes, that’s right, less appetising than a candied pigs face.  They were also selling what looked like petrified meal worms, but in reality are called cordyceps and are actually sold for huge amounts of money.  While researching for this post I found a great write-up of some of the stuff I was seeing, you can read about it here.

I took a few pictures in these stores but didn’t go crazy; I know some people will think I’m overly careful but I’m still a bit hesitant to just snap away in someone’s store with my DSLR.

The other thing I found for sale in some of the stores were calligraphy sets.  I find calligraphy a very interesting aspect of Asian history and culture.  While we were there we got a little sign made up for the “Millers” by this gentlemen below.  He did it right in front of us and charged us a few bucks.  I like the picture with him blow drying the finished product; it really was interesting to watch him do it and I think we even took some video of it (which I’ll eventually post).  To be clear the picture below wasn’t taken in Nanjing Road but rather on the illustrious “Bund Sightseeing Tunnel” which I’ll write about in my next post.

The store below was on Nanjing road and was super cool – it had a huge selection of calligraphy and painting brushes, stamps, inks, and all the material to take up and learn this ancient art.  It was fascinating to walk through and see all of these interesting things for sale.

Aside from the stores, we really enjoyed the street itself, particularly at night.  Nanjing road is largely pedestrianized, so you don’t have to worry about cars (although there’s a little blue train which you can see below that you do need to watch out for!)  The picture below is a 3 exposure HDR that I took with my tripod.  Yep, that’s right – I carried my tripod down Nanjing road and it was absolutely fine.  I never felt in danger or that we were getting too many strange looks, and I’m glad I had it because I don’t think as many of these pictures would have turned out without it.

As you can see the lights are just amazing.  And I like the movement of the blue train in the picture to offset the largely pink/red colors of the lights.

While we were walking down the road we took a few pictures of each other, on occasion setting up the tripod.  To take a picture like the one below I would first understand what settings provide the proper exposure for the scene in general, without Adriana.  Then I remember those settings (in this situation they were aperture of 6.3, shutter speed came out to 1/25 sec, and an ISO setting of 800).  So I set the camera to Manual, enter all of those settings, and turn on the flash (to manual) and set it to 1/8 as a start.  I snap the photo, check to see how she looks compared to the background light, and generally need to take one or two more to make sure I nailed it.  Once you get used to practicing it’s fairly easy, but I have to tell you it sure helps to have a patient wife (or partner) because photo’s like this used to take me 20 minutes each!

Notice the Radisson in the back that sort of looks like a flying saucer ready to take off?  Remember that – I took some other photos from there you’ll be seeing below!

Here’s another picture of my beautiful wife – in this one I zoomed in closer to her face for a tighter picture.  I think people often underestimate how effective a tight crop is – don’t be afraid to show a person’s face!  Sometimes I see people taking pictures from like 300 yards away – the end result is a human shaped ant that’s completely lost amongst the background.  Like all my little rants there are certainly times that this is very effective, for example to show the insignificance of man or to show scale.  But here it’s not what I wanted to do.

We walked around for quite a while, taking some pretty cool pictures of the lights, the people walking, and trying to capture the general ambiance of the place.

Now – remember the Radisson in the background of the Adriana picture?  Well we went up there to have a few drinks before our dinner that evening and …. you guessed it!  We took some pictures from the top!  It’s a rotating bar and at night that creates a challenge in taking anything that resembles a long exposure.  So I had to crank up the ISO and take at a much larger aperture (smaller number) than I wanted.  The two pictures below are the two best ones that I got.  It made me really wish that I had gotten a better viewpoint to try and capture a quality image.  One of the things they do in Shanghai is light their roads – you can see it below in the eerie blue light and after looking at some of the images on 500px or Flickr from Shanghai you can see how beautiful the lights look.

After having a few drinks we left and went to Mr. and Mrs. Bund for dinner.  This is a rather upscale modern French eatery, we honestly went for the view over the Bund but didn’t realize that the lights on the famous Pearl Tower turn off after 10:00!  So we focused instead on having a wonderful meal and good conversation – it wasn’t terribly difficult!  Below is one picture that I did take of the Bund (you can see the large walkway on the right) from the terrace of the restaurant.  It’s a nice teaser for the next post!

That’s it for Nanjing Road.  I definitely recommend taking a walk to check out the stores and the view from the Radisson Blu is pretty amazing.  Next post will be my final for Shanghai; I’ll detail the Bund and how we took some incredible pictures of the Pudong skyline.

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