Portrait of a Tibetan man, originally shot in color but changed to black and white (technically, duotone since it’s tinted slightly, but you’ll give me a pass on our discussion of black and white now, won’t you?). Although a strong portrait when viewed in color, the photo takes on an added poignancy by eliminating distractions and focusing on the man’s kind visage and the lifetime of events seemingly etched on his face. Naturally, as discussed in a previous blog, I focused on the eyes.
There’s simply some times when an image feels stronger in black and white. Not everyone feels this way. Some feel it’s limiting.
But there are times in which a black and white photo can be more captivating, poignant, and emotional than its color counterpart. Black and white photos can refocus the attention on the subject by eliminating colors that may serve to distract more than enhance. By eliminating colors, black and white photography can place added emphasis on shape, form, texture, contrast or pattern.
With digital photography, one may not even have to “think” in black and white when photographing, although I do feel this is a fantastic exercise in strengthening one’s awareness and appreciation of shape, form, texture, contrast or patterns. Or even lighting. Try experimenting with the monochrome settings in your camera so you can receive instant feedback in your LCD screen. If you shoot in RAW, you can even switch your image back to color.
Or if working in an image editor such as Photoshop, try viewing the image in black and white. As with all photography, lighting and composition and attention to form all still matter, and in some instances, perhaps more so.
Good portraits can be taken with modest or small cameras, such as the one with a Brazilian girl, taken with a Leica D-Lux 4 (the same as a Panasonic DMC-LX3) compact camera, which fits in a pocket. This allows us to take a camera anywhere. But unlike most camera phones, we can take fantastic looking photos suitable for magazines or gallery shows.
An amazing sunset. Fascinating looking people. Vibrant landscapes. Whether traveling abroad or exploring our own neighborhood, we want to take great photos without busting the bank. Is this possible? I get asked for recommendations for good bang-for-the-buck cameras more often than any other question, so I’ll start here.
When film cameras were king, camera technology didn’t change that much. Sure, cameras got smaller as they went along, but a good camera made in the 1960s wasn’t all that different from a good camera made twenty years later. Not so with digital cameras, which are continuing to evolve at a breakneck pace. What does this mean for us? We can get great cameras that have features that didn’t exist at that price point – if at all – even a few years ago. We have, for example, the Sony Alpha A55 or A75 interchangeable lens cameras, with their groundbreaking translucent mirror technology, allowing light to pass straight through to the sensor without needing to move the mirror away to allow exposure. What does that mean? Less bulk, and fast continuous shooting rates previously unthinkable at this price. Mirrorless cameras such as the Panasonic G2 also cut down on the size and weight, removing the optical viewfinder and the swinging mirror. Cool. Better cameras for less money. I like it. Oh, and it has a touch-screen. Even among more “normal” DSLRs, you have major bang-for-the-buck cameras like the Canon T3i or even a Nikon D3100, which you can grab for under $600 with a kit lens. Even these last two DSLRs are still lighter and smaller than professional DSLR cameras, such as the venerable Nikon D3s, an incredible full-frame camera which is amazing for low-light photography, although the $5000 you spend for it may lighten your wallet enough to compensate for its weight.
But, you say, that’s fantastic, but some of us still can’t afford the new Sonys or Canons or Nikons. But these enormous leaps in new technology can often drive the price of cameras that are just a few years old down. Buying used cameras such as the Nikon D50 DSLR for under $200 can get our foot in the door. This is a camera that I owned for years, and I used it to take photos that appeared in books, encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines, the Huffington Post, photo assignments for Jimmy Page and Jack White, and even winning photo contests. While not state of the art, it’s good enough that you can’t really blame the camera if you aren’t getting great looking shots. And there’s always film cameras. You can get amazing deals on film cameras that people are virtually giving away.
What kind of lens would you use with a DSLR? Depends. You need to start thinking about how you like to shoot. What’s your photography personality? Do you tend to prefer wide-angle? Telephoto? Portraits? Something else? As I fell in love with photography more and more, I explored this with what I call a “walkabout lens”, an 18-200mm AF-S VR Nikkor telephoto, which is extremely flexible for many sorts of situations, which is why I love it for travel photography. It’s not without its drawbacks, though. It’s a little heavier than many fixed-length lens (prime), has lens creep, alters its aperture as you change the zoom, and isn’t quite as sharp as a prime lens. For prime lens, a good choice is a high-speed 50mm lens, such as a the AF F/1.4D 50mm prime, or what must be one of the best bargains in DSLR photography, the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D from Nikon, which sells for under $125. New. Brand new. They’re a good travel lens, and are outstanding for portraits and low-light photography. And at 8 ounces, they’re light.
And there’s always compact cameras to consider. Fuji X100 makes a good lightweight camera, although at about $1200, it’s not cheap. The Panasonic Lumix LX3 is physically identical to the Leica D-Lux 4, a fantastic camera that does surprisingly well in low light situations, at a little over $500. I own the D-Lux 4, and can assure you that it takes vibrant, sharp photos. The Panasonic G2, Canon G11 or G12, and other compact cameras are quality cameras worth looking into. They’re lightweight and small. I like that. In a later post, I’ll discuss why I never leave on a trip without a compact camera.
This father and daughter in the Atacama Desert of Chile were joking, having fun, goofing around. I chuckled, and they smiled at me. After a while, we had developed a rapport, and they were only to happy to continue the clowning while I took their photo. Nikon D90 with an 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens, 18mm, 1/125 second, f/3.5.
If you make a connection with people, you’re likely to have them agree to have their photos taken. You’re likely to get really great photos. And you just may make a friend or have memories you’ll treasure, whether you take their photo or not. And much of this is almost a “how-to” on how to have more fun when you travel or even explore your own area!
Smile and Ask First
Sneaky shots and far away shots don’t always come out so well. If you are exploring a market, at an athletic event or concert, walking around a city, and you see someone that you’d like to photograph, it’s better to smile, make eye contact, and ask first. It’s more respectful, and people usually respond to that. And if they don’t, then they wouldn’t have wanted their photo taken anyway. If you want to photograph their kids, who are often more willing to pose for photos at first, ask permission first. If you don’t speak their language, that’s okay. The universal pointing to your camera and a smile does the trick. Show them the photo if you have a digital camera. Some photographers will offer to send them a photo or bring a camera that allows them to print photos, such as the Polaroid PoGo, a digital camera with a built-in printer. Great ice-breaker. Consider shooting with a compact camera first. Some people find these less intimidating. Then if you wish, you can move to an SLR or DSLR later.
Show An Interest In People and Their Culture
Good manners and respect for people and their culture goes a long way. When people see that you are respectful of their culture, they know that you put in the time to learn some of their ways. That shows respect. That shows understanding. It shows interest in who they are. If I don’t know about a certain routine, ritual, custom, or whatever, I find out in a guidebook, ask a local, or stand and watch for a while so I can see what others are doing. This also allows me to enjoy the moment and not rush through everything as if it were simply a display.
A sure ice-breaker is to join in on the fun. What’s going on? Attend a local church or temple service. Join a game. Go shopping at a market. Watch a local football match in person. Go rafting, take lessons, do something. I’ve gotten some of my best people photos when I’ve joined in. I’ve made friends with sadhus in the Himalayas when I we hiked up to a temple together for three hours. I’ve met people while getting a shave on the streets of New Delhi. I’ve helped plant tomatoes and dry food on rooftops in Kashmir. I’ve tried to learn local dances in a small village in Peru. I couldn’t speak more than a few words with any of these people, but that was okay.
Don’t be afraid to look silly. If anything, that only helps break the ice. People don’t expect you to do everything well or be able to dance their traditional dances perfectly. But joining in and trying can create memories that will last a life time and make for fascinating stories to tell your friends or family. And those interesting photos that you take back will remind you of those amazing times.
Going to temple or a concert or standing in line or wishing someone happy birthday when they are celebrating or eating at a restaurant are all enjoyable, and all are further opportunities to establish rapport. I was waiting for food at a budget restaurant in the Atacama Desert in Chile. I saw a father playing and joking around with his young daughter, making funny faces and having fun. I chuckled, and they looked up and smiled. That was fun. We had also ordered similar food, and asked each other how it was. We started a conversation. I took photos of them together, still joking around, still having fun. This photo still brings back great memories. I’m not always looking to take photos of people, but I don’t like to pass up great opportunities either!
Learn a Few Words in Their Language
Learn the language of the country you are visiting, or at least a few words. This will often earn respect of people, particularly if it’s a more obscure language, and serves as a wonderful ice-breaker, helping you to connect. I’ve had people invite me to their homes, their temples, or their place of work simply because I learned a few words in their native language and they were touched. Making these connections will help you capture the spirit of the people, achieving far better photos…and maybe making a friend.
Think, Know, Plan (Okay, This Is Basically a Sixth Tip!) You need to work quickly to be spontaneous. Therefore, you need to know your camera and equipment well. If you fiddle faddle with your equipment, adjusting settings, messing with this and that, you risk losing the spontaneity of your subject.
Before you approach your subject, think about what you’re going to do. Plan your shot. Think about the lighting at hand, your composition, focal length, viewpoint, and the position you wish to shoot from based on how the light falls on your subject.
Equipment used for photo: Nikon D90, 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens
It’s that time of year!! We’re going to kick off our Featured Photo series with a photo taken at Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Los Angeles in October 2011!!
I was moved by the haunting sadness on the woman’s face. Later, I felt that a vintage, timeless appearance would accentuate the emotion of the image further, so I created an antique look and sloppy borders. In fact, the very next Tip of the Month is a how-to on how this very thing!!!
Equipment used: Nikon D90 DSLR with a Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens. I also used a Nikon SB-600 speedlight off-camera (wireless), holding this with my left hand to better illuminate the woman, using it largely as a fill light because she was in the shade. Photoshop CS4 for processing. The Tip of the Month for November 2011 is a double-shot how to create an antique look and how to create a sloppy border!