Archive for September, 2013

A Keen Eye Is Required With Celebrations

Monday, September 9th, 2013

keYour research can begin by referring to a chapter on “Festivals” or “Special Events” in any guidebook. Magazine articles are another valuable source of data. Finally, Websites from around the world can provide timely information that’s difficult to find elsewhere. Spontaneity can only be cultivated while working in the field.

Once you’ve arrived at your destination, it’s a good idea to check in at the local tourist office–they can often tell you where celebrations are taking place. Most visitors to Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, come to see the death rites that the area is famous for. The Torajans spend a lifetime saving money to be used after their deaths to finance lavish funerals, sometimes attended by as many as 1000 people. These celebrations can last a few days or go on for as long as two weeks, with as many as 100 water buffalo being slaughtered. The hospitable Torajan people consider it an honor to have foreigners at their celebrations and often welcome them as guests.

On a recent visit to Tana Toraja, I went to the tourist office in the city of Rentepao to find out where funerals were taking place. It happened to be the first day of a huge celebration of the death of a Torajan woman. Having come prepared with my camera equipment and a lot of film, I hired one of the guides recommended by the local officials to accompany me, and I was off. The guide helped me find the spot and provided an introduction to the host family. I brought cigarettes as a gift and entered the compound of temporary bamboo housing-constructed just for the occasion-and signed in with the family.

Most tourists and guides spend a couple of hours at the celebrations, but I spent the entire day, and returned for the next four days without the guide. On the third day, the appointed executioners sacrificed the water buffalo. By this time I was photographing an injured animal, who lurched at me, his blood spattering my camera lens. On the fifth day, the family took the body of the deceased through the rice paddies to the burial ground, five kilometers away. By that time the family had accepted me as an honored guest, and I accompanied the spirited procession, photographing the entourage every step of the way.

Knowing that a cultural event is going to take place is only part of the preparation. Next, try to establish when and where it will take place. In much of the developing world, time is not as important as it is in the west. In Bali, the best way to find out when a small festival will take place is to ask the opinion of several local people, trust the information you have been given, be there with all of your camera gear, and hang tough. Often, after a long wait, I would see some activity just as I was about to walk away from the site of a festival I had been told about.

After waiting on one such occasion, musicians appeared with batiked sarongs draped around their waists, carrying their instruments down the dusty paths. Women in their best dress and tall towers of fruit on their heads also arrived. Within minutes the preparations were in full swing, and the waiting was over–the payoff was a series of colorful photos.

Finding the Best Photo Vantage Point

In Bangkok, Thailand, the King’s birthday (December 5) is an annual festival. Businesses erect temporary monuments all over the capital city to the popular regent. City workers set up huge screens on the blocked-off streets for free film viewing. Food vendors wheel their carts around the large movie screens and the throngs of Thais and tourists enjoying the festivities. While trying to figure out a way to photograph this event, I looked up to see a rooftop filled with tripods and photographers. I found the appropriate stairway and used a letter from a stock company I was associated with to gain entrance. An official-looking letter from a local newspaper that states you are a photographer/writer can help gain access to a good vantage point from which to shoot a story.

At the festival in La Paz, Bolivia, I elected to split the day between a position on the street–eye-to-eye with thousands of festival participants–and my reasonably priced hotel room three stories above the procession route. The patterns created by identically dressed dancers in their swirling skirts made for scene-setting photographs. If I hadn’t had a hotel room overlooking the festival route, it would have been worth looking for a building with balconies facing the street, and trying to get access to one of these.

On the morning of the final day of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, I was wandering along the streets surrounding the large mud mosque in Djenne, Mali. Suddenly it became obvious that the local men and boys were all walking in the same direction, wearing the most colorful robes. I followed them through the dusty streets of this hot sub-saharan city to a big field where a prayer ceremony was about to begin. The male members of the community sat in rows on their prayer rugs, waiting. After hundreds of them had gathered, they began praying, which meant they were often prostate on the ground, the colors of their robes making a large patchwork quilt. After shooting photos of rows of men from ground level, I decided to photograph them from above. Nearby there was a mud building where several people were standing on the flat roof, observing the ceremony. I asked permission at the door of the building and was allowed to enter and go up the stairs. After the event, I was asked for a small donation to the community. I gl adly gave more than the amount of money requested, having gotten the photos I wanted.

Creating a Celebration

pacIf you want to photograph a celebration, but nothing is going on, you can sometimes create a festival. While I was in Northern Thailand a few years ago, I teamed up with a videographer and we hired an experienced, multi-lingual guide with connections to many of the Hill tribes. We went through fields that produced the opium poppy, and came to a circle of raised huts belonging to a group of Lahu Shaleh people. The husband of the Shaman was ill from opium addiction, and the group felt the need for a healing ceremony. Our visit was viewed as an auspicious occasion, especially since we agreed to buy a pig for sacrifice. We photographed the pig’s slaughter, as well as a ceremony in which strings were tied around our wrists, and ate a special dinner of fatty boiled pork. In the evening, the young women danced around the campfire. Our creative guide, afraid that we wouldn’t be able to “get the material,” as he put it, arranged for the headman’s pickup truck to be parked in the appropriate position to shed light on the dancing women and girls. The unusual light source made for some interesting shots, and I did indeed “get the material.”

Nuts and Bolts: The Actual Experience

1 If you are shooting a religious festival, do everything you can to find out if there are any rules. These might include regulations on wearing apparel (a sarong and a temple scarf are required attire to enter a temple festival in Bali), use of a flash or tripod, and what (if any) is appropriate in the way of a donation or gift.

2 Even if there are no specific rules, it helps to attempt to be culturally appropriate. Dress should be generally modest and not too flamboyant. While every photographer wants to get the perfect angle on the shot, try to never block the view of the other onlookers. Get in position, shoot as quickly as possible, and move out of the way whenever possible.

3 Always make eye contact and get permission, even if it’s simply a nod of the head, when taking a close-up photograph. The good news is that most people, when participating in a celebration, are more willing to let their picture be taken than they would be otherwise. This is true in South America where the Andean people usually refuse photographers when they request a photo. But when the local people are masked and costumed, they often perform for the camera.

4 Be conscious of your own safety. During the chaos of festivals and celebrations, there are often people who see an opportunity to take advantage of the situation, and rob visitors. Whenever possible in a big celebration, it’s best not to carry any valuable items with you except your camera equipment. If you have to carry other valuables, do so in a concealed money belt. If you are with another person, watch that person while he or she shoots, and take turns photographing the event. Also, watch the other person while he or she changes film, documents the action, etc. (As for other dangers, beware of wounded water buffalo.)

5 Prepare to shoot very quickly. I often use my camera’s automatic mode if the action in the festival is happening fast and furiously around me. I will often change to a manual mode if one of the participants is willing to pose for a close-up portrait, in which case I may use fill-flash, and will make other adjustments. I also set my camera so it can focus on moving objects (with my Canon SLR, it means using AI Servo, as opposed to the One Shot setting).

Sharpen Your Shots And Come Out Winning

Monday, September 9th, 2013

mcShaking a tripod-mounted camera is a common problem. A cable release prevents the transfer of movement from the shutter finger to the camera body because the shutter is tripped by the release. Mechanical releases screw into the threaded shutter-release button while electronic ones fit into a separate socket. Both types should have an option to lock the shutter open for time exposures. Alternative ways to trip the shutter while keeping the camera steady are by using the self-timer or a remote cable release. The self-timer allows for sharper images because the movement dissipates prior to the shutter opening. A remote release triggered by radio or infrared waves can also trip the shutter button.

Mirror Lock-up

This is a feature I wouldn’t be without. Much of the work I do is either with macro or long lenses. Both greatly magnify the subject, but as magnification increases, so can poor technique. Specific apertures often necessitate shutter speeds between 1/4 and 1/30. These speeds are notorious for causing cameras to vibrate because of mirror “slap.” By locking the mirror in the “up” position, this is eliminated, keeping the camera steady during the exposure.

When you release a camera’s shutter, the mirror flips up and then returns to its set position. This movement–be it ever so slight–sets the camera in motion, causing the image to lose sharpness. Shutter speeds shorter than 1/30 and longer than 1/4 aren’t affected as much because of the brief ratio of time in which the motion occurs, as opposed to the amount of time the shutter is open.

Don’t despair if your camera doesn’t have mirror lock-up. There are still ways to increase the chances of getting sharper pictures (Intenscreen can help). Pressing down on the lens barrel with your hand adds stability by stifling the movement of the tripod-mounted camera. Another alternative is to hang your camera bag over the lens barrel. Just make sure the ball head is fully tightened.


Filters are great assets to photographers, yet they can also be a nemesis. They’re susceptible to fingerprints, smudges, dirt and dust. Before every shoot, it’s a good idea to do a thorough cleaning of both sides of the filter you plan to use. Microfiber cloths or lens-cleaning tissues with lens-cleaning solution work well. You should use canned air or a soft brush before rubbing the surface clean to prevent any dirt or sand particles from scratching the filter.

We photographers sometimes spend hundreds of dollars on a lens, yet we may try to save a few bucks by buying a cheap filter. Cheap glass translates to fuzzy photos and increased chances of flare. Don’t skimp on filters–budget good ones into the price of your lens.

Film Speed

Film speed has a direct impact on the final enlargement’s sharpness. The general rule is the slower the ISO, the sharper the film. Hence, you can make bigger enlargements from lower-speed films. However, the caveat is the slower the film, the more careful the photographer needs to be about eliminating camera shake or controlling depth of field.

Films in the ISO 25-100 range are extremely sharp and have very fine grain. This translates to sharp enlargements of 16×20, and even 20×24, from 35mm film. When using these emulsions, tripods are essential, along with other appropriate camera-handling techniques. Films in the ISO 200-400 range rival the slower emulsions of only a decade ago. These films are great to use when hand-holding your camera is necessary, and they produce nice prints up to 11×14. Faster emulsions are reserved for low-light conditions. Enlargements made from these emulsions begin to reveal much more grain and are not as sharp. But if your goal is to produce 5x7s or smaller, these films are wonderful. Don’t expect to shoot an ISO 1000 film and have it compete in grain structure and sharpness to Velvia or Kodachrome 25. My best advice is to use the slowest possible film for the subject’s action and lighting conditions.

Lens Choices

All lenses have a “sweet” spot at which the highest resolution and edge-to-edge sharpness occur. Typically this is when the lens is set at f/8 or f/ll. Most lenses tend to be their sharpest when stopped down two to three stops from their widest opening. The exception is a macro lens: they’re manufactured to be at their sharpest when fully stopped down, as most macro photography dictates small apertures to maintain depth of field.

With lenses other than macro models, some photographers recommend avoiding apertures of f/22 or f/32 because diffraction becomes a problem. Since much of my scenic work requires foreground-to-background sharpness, I religiously ignore this “rule.” For me, it’s critical to have everything in focus in my picture, and not worry about a small amount of diffraction. Today’s high end lenses are of such high quality that the diffraction factor is barely detectible.

Critical focusing is very important when wide-open apertures are used. With today’s autofocus technology the problem is minimized, but I still find myself using manual focus quite often. I use the focus-assist arrows and lights in the viewfinder, but I often fine-tune the focus to get critical sharpness. Be sure to test all your lenses for focusing accuracy. My 75-300mm lens is definitely sharper when I tweak it, rather than when it indicates that it’s dead-on using autofocus.

Focusing on key parts of the subject and making sure these areas are tack sharp implies greater sharpness. For instance, when photographing people, it’s essential that the eyes are the crispest part of the picture. A photo of a person with a sharp nose but soft eyes fails as a successful image, but sharply focused eyes with a soft nose is acceptable.

The lens quality impacts the quality of the photo–there is no “free lunch.” The more you pay, the better the lens. Those with designations like APO, ED, and L signify the inclusion of high-quality glass elements that increase sharpness throughout the full aperture range, and decrease flaws such as aberrations, coma and astigmatism. These lenses often have elements made of fluorite and other special glass that helps eliminate diffraction and other sharpness-reducing phenomena.

Shutter Speed

When photographing stationary subjects like mountains and buildings, action-freezing shutter speeds aren’t mandatory. But if the subject demonstrates even slight movement, like a flower swaying in a gentle breeze, a poorly chosen shutter speed can ruin the photo. The faster the action, the higher the shutter speed necessary to freeze it. Additionally, the angle at which the subject is moving requires different shutter speeds to freeze it. Action coming toward or moving away from the camera can be frozen with a slower shutter than action at the same speed moving across the film plane.

If you want to freeze the action of a wide receiver snatching a football in midair by using a shutter speed of 1/1000 or faster, then medium-speed film, a fast lens and sunlight are all necessary to capture this frozen moment in time. This reveals an obvious rule of thumb: freezing the action is directly related to the speed of the motion offset by the film speed, the widest aperture of the lens, and the amount of light falling on the subject.

Electronic flash can create action-stopping, razor-sharp photos. Even though most camera’s flashes sync between 1/60 and 1/250, the duration of the flash that illuminates the subject ranges from 1/1000 to 1/50,000. Because of this, a hummingbird’s wings can be frozen in time. But flash has limitations in stopping action, especially when it comes to flash-to-subject distance. When seated in a stadium, don’t expect flash to freeze the action on the field.

Depth of Field

lpAs you stop down a lens from f/4 to f/22, the range of sharpness increases. This creates tremendous impact in separating the main subject from the background. In portraiture, it’s common to use long lenses at wide-open apertures. The subject stands out from a blurred background, making the subject appear tack sharp. Conversely, in landscape photography, an image is more successful when everything from the foreground to the background is in focus. This often dictates the use of wide-angle lenses with apertures of f/122 or smaller.

Minimizing depth of field is simple. Choose the longest lens suitable for the shoot, set it at its widest aperture, and position the subject in a location so you can focus the lens at its closest point. For greater depth of field, begin by stopping the lens down to a smaller aperture, use a wider-angle lens, or move farther away from the subject.

Maximizing depth of field requires more understanding. Getting the greatest depth of field depends on where the point of focus is in a scene. Focusing about a third of the way into the scene gives the greatest focusing range, since depth of field is maximized with approximately 1/3 sharp focus falling in front of the subject, with falling behind. This is known as the hyperfocal distance. There are commercial charts available that indicate hyperfocal settings for many focal-length lenses.

Another way to increase apparent sharpness is to make sure the subject is parallel to the film plane. Let’s say that a butterfly with open wings fills the frame. The ambient light indicates an aperture of f/8. Someone is next to you and directly above the butterfly with a camera parallel to its wings. Your camera gear is set up at your friend’s side. Your friend gets wing to wing sharpness because his/her film plane is parallel to the butterfly. Because you’re shooting the butterfly from an angle, parts of the wings will be sharp while other sections are soft. The larger the f-stop, the more apparent this becomes.

Image-Stabilizing Lenses

Lens stabilization technology is resulting in a greater number of sharp images. A rule of thumb dictates that you should never hand-hold a lens at a shutter speed that’s slower than the reciprocal of its focal length. For example, a 200 mm lens should only be handheld at a shutter speed of 1/200 or faster. Image stabilization reduces that number up to three shutter speed settings. Therefore, a 500 mm lens can be handheld at 1/60 and still deliver a sharp image.

High Magnification

When working with magnification–whether it’s macro or telephoto–you must use careful camera-handling techniques to decrease the number of throwaway images. Camera vibration is a problem, as is narrow depth of field. The means by which the image is magnified is also thrown into the recipe.

Camera vibration can be eliminated first by using a sturdy tripod. With high magnification, depth of field can be as narrow as a few millimeters, so accurate focusing is critical. In telephoto work, autofocusing is a great asset. I make sure one of the autofocus sensors is placed over the exact spot I want sharp, then I recompose the image with the focus locked. If the focus isn’t locked, the focusing point will change when I recompose the shot. For macro work, I have an attachment that fits over the eyepiece to manify what I’m photographing.

To get a longer reach out of a telephoto lens, you can use a teleconverter: the most common of these are 1.4X and 2X. These converters vary in quality and are often matched to a given focal length. Better-quality converters tend to be pricey, but are much cheaper than buying a longer focal-length lens. For macro work, I suggest you stay away from close-up filters unless they’re the two-element, high-end types.

Telephoto lenses present an additional problem. The long distance between the camera and subject means shooting through large expanses of air that can be filled with moisture, pollutants, dirt and dust. All of these degrade the image by lowering the contrast impacting sharpness. In hot areas, the shimmer radiating from the ground has the same effect. If possible, get closer to the subject.

Finally, differing types of light affect apparent sharpness. Contrasty, harsh, or directional light is sharper than light that’s soft, lacks shadows, or comes from the front. A wider tonal range exists between the shadow and highlight areas with contrasty light, so the areas between these sections appear sharper. Conversely, when the contrast range is lower or the subject is lit from the front, the area appears flatter in tone.

Because contrast conveys sharpness, many printers prefer glossy paper. This is especially true of negatives shot in fog or on overcast days. “Snappy” is a term often used when describing why glossy paper appears sharper.


Make your picture-taking more rewarding. Don’t say, “I wish I had used a tripod for that shot.” Simply use it. Don’t say, “I should have changed rolls and used a faster ISO.” Next time, do it! Incorporate the techniques on these pages that will net sharper images into your repertoire.