Postcard Intellect

Travel photography for the uninitiated….



Paparazzi for a day – and catching Secret Service staring at Joan Collins butt….

I know I’m a wannabe “travel photographer” but the truth is I just like to take photos.  I take photos of pretty much anything.  So yesterday as I was coming home from work, I saw an opportunity and decided to roll with it.

There were a bunch of people hanging out around the “back entrance” to Waterloo, and this is normally how I walk home.  When I asked what was going on, there was an event at the Old Vic Tunnels where Bill Clinton and some other celebs were attending a party hosted by Gwyneth Paltrow.  There were tons of people around, lots with big cameras, and of course I felt a need to fit in.  I ran home, grabbed my camera and ran back up.  I waited patiently for a while, anxiously looking forward to these people showing up so I could shove my camera in their face and take pictures of them.  Should be easy, right?

First things first, I don’t really “know” famous people.  Adriana watches E News and I can’t stand it.  Half of the people seem famous for no reason other than they’re on TV, which has to be one of the biggest dichotomies of all time.  So I just sorta started snapping pictures of random people in the hope they were famous.  Most of them weren’t, but I thought for a split second that I got this picture below of the Princess (Kate Middleton) until I realized of course it’s not Kate and just some random chick with a guy hoping to get lucky.

The big celeb everyone was waiting for was Bill Clinton.  There were secret service officers everywhere, and you could sense the tension mounting a little bit as the cops stood at attention. Bill stepped out of a black minivan and promptly walked straight into the Old Vic Tunnels.  And I got this great picture of the back of his head below.  What’s that?  You can’t see it?  Look closely – to the left of the door man.  Yeah, the guy that looks like he should be a caretaker at Hogwarts…..

But I have to say my favorite picture had to be Joan Collins.  This lady has been around for ages, and is actually a celebrity that I legitimately recognize.  Like everyone else, I tried to take some pictures of her. When I was reviewing them late last night I had a real chuckle.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that secret service guy in the back is staring at her 80 year old butt.  And I would even say he’s got a sly smile on his face!! 🙂

Even at 80, if you’ve got it, flaunt it!

On an entirely separate topic, I’m also posting a new page (which doesn’t generate an email, so I’m telling you here) on how I manage my photos.  Now this isn’t a terribly exciting topic if you don’t take a ton of photos, but I wanted to share my system.  I take LOTS of pictures when I go on holiday, and this is my method to sort through them, clean out the bad ones, and organize them according to which ones go to Flickr, Blog, etc.

Anyway, you can check out the page above under tutorials or simply click here.


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!

The Churches of Kiev – Beautiful Sites of Ukrainian Orthodox Christianity

While Adriana and I were in Kiev, Ukraine over the Easter weekend we focused on two things – getting some brilliant pictures of the beautiful churches and spending the day in Chernobyl to capture the history and desolation of what happened there.  This post will focus on the former, as I’ve already shared the incredible images from the latter.

In Kiev, the locals are generally Ukrainian Orthodox, of which there are various Patriarchates, like the Kiev Patriarchate or the Moscow Patriarchate.  I’m not going to focus on any sort of Christian history or try to explain the differences between Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant, but I will focus on how I captured some of the images that I took below to give you an idea on where to go if you get an opportunity to visit.  As a general rule of thumb the churches of Kiev don’t allow photography inside.  If you’re particularly aggressive in planning ahead, you could potentially work something out but generally speaking it’s a no no.  There is one place in Pechersk Lavra that you can take indoor photos, as you’ll see below.

There are many, many churches in the area surrounding the city but I’m going to focus on five of the more famous ones.  Yep – this will be a bit of a long post.

1) St. Sophia Cathedral

This church is primarily green and white, with a beautiful bell tower standing over the wall that leads into the church.  The bell tower is blue and white with a golden dome on the top.  The first photo is my favorite of the bunch, taken on the first night just as the sun was setting (our apartment was pretty much right behind this church).  That first picture is an HDR photo that after processing I had to do a free transform on the tower to straighten it out a little bit.  I like the color of the sun setting below the building.  The second picture is taken from the Hyatt hotel – there’s a rooftop bar where we spent some time having a few drinks and taking some snaps of the churches (and also to take a few timelapses, as you’ll see below).  The next photo is of the interior of the church yard (once you’re through the wall).  As stated above, most of the churches don’t allow you to take pictures inside.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check them out – they’re absolutely stunning and well worth any wait (which there usually isn’t).  Finally I posted a pic that I took just after sunrise in the morning – again I had to do a free transform on the church tower so it didn’t look so crooked.

2) Mykhailivsky Cathedral

This is the beautiful Mykhailivsky Cathedral (I think it’s also known as St. Michael’s in English) – blue in color and facing opposite the St. Sofia church.   I think this is the prettiest of the churches that we saw in the main area of Kiev.  The wall surrounding it is the same beautiful “baby blue” color and the design of the bell tower is simple and well structured.  

During the day (particularly on Saturday and Sunday) we found the locals buying various plants and flowers to bring into church with them.  I took this picture of the row of plants being sold for the locals and thought it created a nice leading line to the Monastery in the background.  I used a small aperture (big number) to make sure I had both the flowers and also the bell tower in focus throughout the frame.

3) St. Andrews

Above is a picture of St. Andrews – this is one of the smaller churches that we saw but unfortunately while we were there the entire area around the church was under construction.  The road was all torn up, and there was a huge crane in front of the cathedral so I wasn’t really happy with the other pictures.  But I wanted to post this one to give you an idea of what it looks like.  Like the other’s, it’s very impressive.

4) St. Volodymyr’s Church

The above picture is St. Volodymyr’s church – this was pretty unique as the color scheme was very different from the others.  I have to say the inside of this church was absolutely stunning – unfortunately you can’t take any pictures.  I respected their wishes, but the artwork inside and the feeling of medieval mystery permeates the interior.

Below I’m also including this street shot I took, of a few local people selling some flowers and plants to take into the church.  I like the way this image turned out; I’m not normally one to be aggressive about street photography but I’m trying to expand my horizons a bit so wanted to share this with you.

5) Pechersk Lavra (Caves of the Monastery)

This is the big one – the famous compound of churches that pretty much every visitor to Kiev should visit.  There are many churches around the area and when you first walk into the main gate you can see a beautiful church in front of you (the first picture above, in more detail in the second shot).  I found the paintings on the outside of the buildings to be absolutely beautiful, and I highlighted these very slightly in the photos above.

Pechersk Lavra is one of the few places where you can visit the interior of one of the churches; below are a few pics of the interior of the church next to the main gate (I’m sorry but I don’t know the name of the church).  The interiors are beautiful and I had full reign of the place, but only in limited spurts of time.  I struggled a little bit with the composition on many of the shots; the area is exceptionally small and even with a wide angle lens it was tough to really capture the essence of the place.

Finally, we captured a few photos of several of the priests while they were getting ready for the service.  I love this picture of the priest solemnly walking down the stairs while his colleague is getting prepped in the dark doorway to the right.  I also captured the image of the cross with the multi-domed gold cathedral in the background.  The lead picture above is also an image from the Pechersk Lavra.  I loved the leading lines that the crosses of the cemetery played to the beautiful gold domed church on the background.  We were fortunate to have lovely weather while in Kiev and it always helps with the photography!

This about wraps it up for the trip to Kiev.  The churches are incredible, the people were wonderful and it’s one of the places that not many people have spent time.  Before going on this trip I struggled to get some real research on the churches and understand where we could get some good images and whether or not we could photograph inside.  Hopefully this post will now serve as a way for others to get clarity on what the place is like and which churches are worth seeing.

I leave you with a time-lapse shot that I took while I was there; the first one that I’ve ever taken.  I’ve produced a time-lapse tutorial for beginners over on the tutorials pages to walk you through how I did this if you’re interested in creating your own.

Below is a map of Kiev, including the primary photos of the churches and where I captured most of my images.  You can also check out my Kiev set on Flickr to see a wider collection of pics.

Enjoy!  And until next time I hope you can capture some great images!

Witness to decay – the road to Chernobyl

Last weekend, over the Easter break, Adriana and I took a trip to Kiev, Ukraine.  It was one of the major cities in Europe that we still hadn’t visited and we had heard great things about the Orthodox churches in the area.  But as we started doing research for the trip, my wife mentioned that we could also take a day trip to Chernobyl and I was sold.  I’m one of those guys that watches the Discovery channel pretty regularly, and they have these shows with bad special effects on “The World without Humans.”  Well that’s pretty much the story with Chernobyl, and I was looking forward to taking my new 5d Mark III out for a real test drive!

The Chernobyl disaster occurred in 1986.  If you want to read about it in depth you can click on the Wiki link, but suffice it to say the place was evacuated on April 27, 1986.  Since then, there haven’t been any humans living in the immediate area or the city of Prypiat since.  You have to get permission a few weeks in advance to go, there are various tour groups that will give you access and of course they make a pretty penny in the process.  But the radiation levels have decreased to levels that are okay for human exposure for limited periods of time.  They equate being in the area to taking a long haul flight, but suffice to say I wasn’t rolling around on the ground, picking flowers or anything else that would improve my chances of growing a 3rd arm.

One of our first stops was an abandoned kindergarten on the way to the reactor.  It’s a very powerful site, to think that one day there were 5 year olds in here, learning and playing with one another and then another day the entire facility was abandoned.  Now I have to say I went HDR crazy while I was in the area; I know that some people don’t like that type of photography but I thought it fit the scene.  The first picture I took was of the abandoned bunk beds – it’s shocking to see the amount of dust and collected debris when a place has been abandoned for as long as this.  I love the texture in the room, the debris sitting around and the rusted look of the bunks.  There was a shoe left behind on the floor of the room that I also captured, using a large aperture to blur the background.

I then took a photo of another room – here there was a small collection of toys sitting around and I captured this picture of a little doll’s chair, covered in dust and cobwebs.  Sitting beside this chair were little books and coloring magazines that really made you think – what happened to these kids?  What was the evacuation like?

Another room had a bottle, crusted over with dirt and debris, sitting on the floor.  In the background is a blue chalkboard, with crusted paint hanging from the walls.

Finally I walked into this room, which housed the remnants of what looked like a book shelf.  I really like the way this picture turned out, with incredible texture and almost a story book feeling to it.

The next stop on our journey was the actual reactor itself – I was a bit shocked (and nervous?) about how close we got to the 4th reactor, which is the one that blew up back in 1986.  Here you can see a picture of the Geiger counter that our guide carried around to show us the radiation readings.

Next stop for the day was the village of Prypiat.  This was incredible.  The city used to be home for over 40,000 people, many of them working at the power plant.  When the disaster occurred they were evacuated 36 hours later, never to return.  The city is now in a state of complete disrepair (actually the word “disrepair” doesn’t really do it justice).  Everything is condemned, and although we walked around and took plenty of pictures you absolutely cannot go in any buildings.

We learned that the moss is particularly radioactive, meaning it has a tendency to attract and retain the radioactive particles in the area so we were told not to step on it or get too close.  You can see a collection of the photos below.  These two are from the city’s central square – I like the first one with the red nuclear radiation symbol.  I really wish we’d been able to go inside the buildings to get a view of what they look like, but you could see it obviously wasn’t safe and one of the schools actually collapsed just under 6 months prior to our visit.

I snapped this picture below of an abandoned building with an old table saw sitting outside – I thought the picture really captured the feeling of decay and idea of nature conquering technology.  Nearby there was what looked like an old mailbox of some sort; I liked the way the blue color contrasted the natural tones of the forest.

One of the more interesting things to see was an abandoned amusement park, where they had a set of bumper cars and a ferris wheel that supposedly was never used.  It’s only a matter of time until it falls over and crashes to the ground.

It really made me think – this place is “only” 26 years old.  In the grand scheme of things it’s not a terribly long time.  To appreciate the power or nature, and seeing the weeds and trees growing up through the concrete is an amazing sight.  For me, being not only a history buff but also a science freak, I have to say that visiting Chernobyl was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life.  I can’t recommend it enough and I would encourage you to go, particularly if you’re a photographer.  It’s a genuine playground for those of you with cameras, the only challenge I had was keeping up with the tour group as I frantically snapped pictures throughout the trip!

To take a closer look at the pictures above and to see the rest of my Ukrainian set, check them out here on SmugMug.  You can also view a slideshow in my portfolio section above.

Next post I’ll share some of the beautiful Ukrainian Orthodox churches that we saw while we there.  Until then, happy shooting!

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!

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