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Burma Part 5: Pindaya

Shwe U Min Pagoda sits in a limestone ridge in the Shan State, overlooking the town of Pindaya and giving impressive views of the valley it sits in. The pagoda serves as a gateway to the Pindaya Caves, a well known pligrimage site which contains over 8,000 images of Buddha.

The number of statues in the cave keeps increasing as new ones keep arriving, donated not only by Burmese, but also by people from all over the world. It's a rocky maze with large towering chambers as well as nooks so small that you need to crawl to get inside.

In the valley below, sitting by Pone Ta Lote lake, is the town of Pindaya. In it there's a family workshop which still makes umbrellas and other products using Shan paper in the traditional manner.

The process is long and laborious. The fibers, which are extracted from the mulberry tree, have to be soaked in water, then plastered by a wood fire for over five hours with a mixture of ash. The resulting paste is then beaten with a wooden mallet. After that the pulp is evenly spread by hand on an oiled thin cotton fabric stretched over a bamboo frame. The frame sits inside a water tank, so the pulp is diluted at the same time as it's being spread over the canvas. Once that's done the frame is lifted out of the water and left to dry in the sun for hours, during which the spread pulp slowly becomes a thin but strong sheet of paper.

The bamboo frame for the umbrellas is also fully hand-made, with no metal parts of any kind. The paper is dyed and decorated in various ways, using drawings as well as pressed flowers and leaves. The same process is used for making other things such as notepads, lamp shades and fans. It's a true labour of love and dedication, and one that I hope endures for many generations.

Burma Part 5: The broken stupa and the white temple

The next part of our trip would take us to Mingun. For that he had to head to the banks of the Irrawaddy on the West side of Mandalay, where you can find a boat that will take you upriver. Near the docks there is a large group of bamboo shacks and we could see people busily collecting and splitting bamboo. I decided to go down to take a closer look.

Our guide later referred to them as "river gypsies". Itinerant people that change their location seasonally, and that right now were down here making a living out of bamboo. You could see that entire families, from children to old people, were working away, carrying bamboo and chopping it with machetes. I did notice that these Burmese were not as quick to smile as most other I had met until then, which I must confess can be a little unnerving when you are intruding amongst people many of which are holding sharp machetes. But I kept venturing forward in the hope of getting some interesting pictures, and in the end I even got a smile or two.

Leaving the river nomads behind, we took the 11km boat trip upriver to Mingun, and once there we were met by the impressive sight of the ruins of Mantalagyi (Great Royal Stupa), which are absolutely immense, despite the building actually never being finished.

From what our guide told us, the story goes that in 1790 King Bodawpaya, of the Moksoe dynasty, began the construction of Mantalagyi at Mingun. He commissioned some architects to build what would have been the biggest stupa in the world, 150 metres tall. But once the herculean construction was well underway the architects realised the place they had chosen for its construction was seismically unstable. Afraid they would lose their heads if an earthquake damaged the stupa due to their choice of location, they started spreading the rumour of a prophecy which was coming to people in the kingdom during their sleep. The prophecy went something like this: "Once the great pagoda has been wrought, the Moksoe dynasty will come to nought".

After hearing of this prophecy the king stopped harassing his architects about when the stupa would be finished, and the project was gradually abandoned. Funny that. And surely enough, an earthquake in 1838 caused heavy damage to the structure, including some massive cracks on the outer walls which can be seen today.

While exploring around we run into a group of young monks that were visiting the temple and had a chat with them. They were really charming and good humoured, and seemed happy to allow us to take their picture.

A short walk from Mantalagyi is a very different temple. Mya Thein Tan pagoda is strikingly white by contrast, and it was built to represent Mount Meru, the mythological five-peaked mountain that is considered to be the centre of the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist cosmology.

Thus ended our day at Mingun, so we returned to our boat to head back downriver and have a nights rest before departing for Pindaya, the next part of our journey.

Burma Part 4: Mandalay

Our first stop in Mandalay was the township of Amarapura. Amarapura was the capital of Burma twice in the past, in the 1700's-1800's (Burma has changed capital a number of times in its history). It's quite a large city and it's famed for its traditional silk and cotton weaving, as well as bronze casting. It also houses a number of monasteries, including Mahar Gandar Yone, a large complex housing hundreds of monks and novices. When we arrived the monks had just come back from their food collection throughout the city.

Mahar Gandar Yone monks lining up for lunch

Mahar Gandar Yone monks lining up for lunch

The monastery also houses a school for kids which we had a chance to visit. We got to meet some of the children during recess, and though most were initially a little shy, they soon opened up and were showing us some of their games.

Mahar Gandar Yone monastery school kids

Mahar Gandar Yone monastery school kids

Amarapura is also renowned for its traditional silk and cotton weaving workshops. The methods they use are still very manual. As a matter of fact, the clanking of a loom was a fairly common sound I heard when walking through the streets of Amarapura and other Burmese towns and cities, and many times it would be coming out of the windows of private residences, not just established businesses. The Burmese are very skilled and they produce some really beautiful garments, with intricate and colourful patterns.

While in Mandalay I met for the first time some Thilashins, Buddhist nuns. The image of the male Buddhist monk is so prevalent over the world many people are not aware that there is such a thing as Buddhist nuns. One of the ways in which Burmese Thilashins differ from their male counterparts is in their robes, which are not red but bright pink.

Mandalay also has a very busy marble carving industry, most of which seems to be devoted to producing a continuous stream of Buddha statues. If you take a walk through the marble carving market near Mahamuni Buddha temple and try to count the number of Buddha statues displayed or being carved there you'll soon give up, but it's easy to see they number in the thousands. A small legion of sculptors, carvers and polishers work away, covered in marble powder to the point where sometimes they appear to have become the very thing they are making.

So that's a small slice of Mandalay.

Burma part 3: Valley of the temples

Well, once again it's been a really long time without posting. Life has got in the way and I kept putting posting off because I couldn't find time to write elaborate posts. I've recently thought that it's time to try a different approach. Perhaps the way to go is to give more space to the pictures themselves and not worry so much about the writing. This is after all a photography blog, and the images should be able to speak for themselves. So with that in mind, here are some pictures from my time in Bagan, the valley of the temples.

Schwezigon Stupa

Young monk at Sulamuni temple

Bagan is completely littered with thousands of stupas and temples. It's quite an unbelievable view, almost no matter where you are standing. But if you manage to be on high ground for a sunrise or sunset, you are in for a special treat.

Temple
View of the sunrise from Shwe San Daw stupa
Cattle herders
Cattle herders

If you get a chance to see Bagan from the air, get in touch with Balloons Over Bagan, it's well worth it.

BOB (Balloons Over Bagan) crew getting the balloons ready
BOB (Balloons Over Bagan) crew getting the balloons ready

Going for a walk on the banks of the Irrawaddy we run into a group of teenage Baganese girls that collecting sand into sacks and loading it into a truck. It was incredibly hard work, but as usual with the Burmese, they were still all smiles. We spent sometime talking to them (mostly through hand signs) and taking a few pictures, which they seemed to get a kick out of watching in our camera displays.

Efisio showing photos to Baganese sand-carrying girls

Later on in the day we visited Shwesandaw pagoda, which houses a very large reclining Buddha statue, and where we met some young monks that were visiting it as part of on a pilgrimage.

Monk by reclining buddha statue

Burma part 2: A morning at the market

My introduction to Bagan was Nyaung U market. We arrived in the morning, when it was buzzing with activity. At first I was mostly taking pictures of market scenes, mainly looking for interesting people with interesting backgrounds. No shortage of that at Nyaung U!

Bagan, December 2013
Bagan, December 2013

If anything there was such an abundance of amazing colour, texture and subjects it was difficult to make up my mind where to point the camera.

Bagan, December 2013
Bagan, December 2013

Even though Nyaung U is an outside market it's covered, so many areas are fairly dark, which makes photography a little challenging sometimes. But there are parts where the sun breaks through forming dramatic light beams.

Bagan, December 2013
Bagan, December 2013

Although I thought I was getting some good shots, I knew that something was missing. One of the reasons I decided to go on this trip was to force myself to shoot more portraits. Street portraits is something I've wanted to do more of for a long time, but walking up to someone I don't know and asking to take their portrait is something that doesn't come naturally to me. It’s an insecurity that I think a lot of photographers share. You are afraid of inconveniencing people, of being perceived like some random stranger (which, to be fair, I am) that is regarding them as something curious to snatch an image of.

I've always envied photographers that are able to take environmental portraits of strangers where they either are looking at the camera in a way that shows a connection with the photographer, or they are going about their business doing what they do, seemingly having forgotten that someone is right next to them with a camera.

Of course, there are those that will walk up to a person, shove a lens in their face, take the picture and just leave without a gesture or a word exchanged. In my opinion that’s just a way of objectifying people. I don't want to be one of those photographers. This is one of the reasons why I decided to go on a Within the Frame trip. I knew that their philosophy is to be respectful of the subjects and, when taking pictures of someone, try to make it more of a dialogue where the subject feels like he or she is getting something out of the exchange. Sometimes this may be quite literal, like buying something from an artisan you just took a picture of, but in my opinion it shouldn't feel so much like you are paying for the picture. People have a certain pride in what they do, and if you take a genuine interest in in someone’s craft they will generally be able to tell, and they will be more likely to welcome your interest when you lift your camera.

So after much hesitation I gathered enough courage to try to shoot my first portrait in the market. I saw one of the members of our group talking to an art seller, so I approached to take part in the conversation. She had a really interesting, beautiful face and bright inquisitive eyes so I immediately felt I wanted to shoot her portrait. But instead of just doing that, I put the camera aside and took a bit of time to talk to her. I asked about some beautiful little bowls she was selling. She told me about how they were made bamboo, about the process of lacquering them, and about her little family business where her brother would make them by hand and she would take them to the market to sell them.

I decided to buy a few of the bowls for some friends at home, but before leaving I asked if I could take her picture. At this point, if she had said she preferred me not to I would still have walked away with some cool little bowls, and having had a conversation with someone from an entirely different background and learning about them. In other words, the exchange had already been worth it, and a picture on top of it would just be a bonus. To me, that’s the way street portraits should be approached.

But, as luck would have it she agreed, so I was able to take my first portrait in Bagan! This armed me with a little more confidence for the next time.

Bagan, December 2013
Bagan, December 2013

On my way out of the market I stopped to buy some bananas to share with the rest of my group. The lady selling them was really interesting too and I thought I would love take her picture as well. I lifted my camera and asked "photo?". She said "ok", but I could immediately tell that she wasn't so happy with the idea. I didn't want to do it unless she was really ok with it, so for a moment I just thought of walking away. But then I decided to give it one more try and see if I could get her to change her mind. So I just raised my hand palm up towards her, in a “but look at you!” type of gesture and said "very beautiful!". This immediately cracked her up, and her friends around her all started laughing too. At that point I felt any reservations she may have had of having her picture taken had crumbled down, so I snapped a picture and managed to capture her expression in the middle of the laugh, which was wonderful.

Bagan, December 2013
Bagan, December 2013

This felt so much better than if I had stolen a picture from her when she wasn't really willing. Maybe this is what had happened to her before and that’s why she hadn't been so keen with having her picture taken at first.

I smiled, thanked her, said goodbye and walked away with the laughter of her and her friends still lingering behind me. So by the time I left Nyaung U I had met some new people from very different backgrounds and shared a few nice moments with them, I had taken some pictures to remind me of those moments, and I had some amazing little bamboo bowls and a bag full of delicious bananas. Not bad for a morning at the market!

Burma part 1: Arrival at Yangon

At the start of December I embarked on a photographic trip to Burma organized by Within the Frame. If you don't already know about them I encourage you to check them out. This trip gave me a chance to see a country unlike any other, meet amazing people and learn to push the boundaries of my own photography. For someone like me that loves both travel and photography this was something I was looking forward to all year, and even with all the anticipation it still was better than I expected. The first stop of our trip was Yangon, the old capital. I use "old" loosely, as it stopped being the capital only in 2006, when the government relocated it to Naypyidaw. The city has a great buzz of activity, with all the street food vendors, betel nut sellers, kids running around, unusual smells and bright colours... The colours in Burma are something that would get me every time during my journey. Maybe it's because I had just left behind a grey December in London, but the colours to me seemed really vivid, almost in an unreal way.

Yangon
Yangon

This explosion of colour could be seen pretty much eveywhere. From the way people dressed, to the way they would paint their houses, to even the props and utensils they would use for everyday life.

Betel nut seller
Betel nut seller

One thing that caught my eye on my first day was the yellow paste that some Burmese, mainly women an children, would have applied to their faces. When I asked  about it, our guide said that it was Thanaka, which is made from ground tree bark mixed with water. Other than being cosmetic, it's also fragant (similar to sandalwood), it provides a cooling sensation and it protects from the sun. It's also supposed to help keep the skin smooth and to be good against acne.

Burmese kid wearing thanaka
Burmese kid wearing thanaka

The Burmese are really friendly and in general don't mind having their picture taken. As long as you have a little tact and not take a photo when you feel it wouldn't be welcome, you are normally ok to take a few shots. The few times I sensed that someone would prefer not to have their picture taken I would just have a chat instead (if you could call "chat" the three or four burmese words I know mixed with gesturing and making funny faces). But most times it wasn't an issue. Children proved to be great subjects as they are really curious and many times would be happy to interact, give you a huge smile or just go about their business playing or doing whatever it is they would normally do.

Girl feeding pidgeons outside a temple
Girl feeding pidgeons outside a temple

Even though my stay in Yangon was short and I was quite jetlagged I still had a great time. It also soon became clear that jetlag was fighting a losing battle against how captivated I was quickly becoming by the country and it's people.

I'll be back soon with another post about the next part of my Burmese trip. Next stop... Bagan!

Geotagging pictures with an iPhone

It used to be that geotagging required quite a bit if effort, and that to do it you were forced to buy an expensive GPS device that ended up being yet another gadget that you had to carry around all day. But nowadays many of us have smartphones with built-in GPS capabilities, which combined with the right app gives you all you would need out of a GPS unit and then some, and all in a device you already carry in your pocket. This is a small guide on how to (fairly easily) geotag your images with an iPhone, the FollowMe app and Lightroom. But if you have another brand of smartphone and/or image organising software it's highly likely you'll still be able to use a similar workflow .

Fujifilm Finepix X100s and iPhone
Fujifilm Finepix X100s and iPhone

Nowadays I geotag pretty much every picture I take. The first thing I do before I leave the house to take pictures is to make sure to set the time in my camera in sync with the time in my iPhone. Then I fire up my GPS app (I use an app called FollowMe), and I pretty much focus in taking pictures and forget about it until I get back home.

Once I'm back, I import my photos into Lightroom and I email the GPS track from FollowMe to myself. The app records tracklogs in three formats: csv, gpx and kml.  Of those three the one you are interested in is gpx, as it is the one that Lightroom understands. Once I've downloaded the tracklog file from my email, I import my pictures into Lightroom. Then I follow these steps:

  1. Make sure I'm in the folder that contains the newly imported pictures (the Map module will make available the pictures from the folder that is selected at the moment of opening the module).
  2. Open the map module.
  3. Click on the tracklog icon (the squiggly shape next to the lock icon right under the map panel) and select Load Tracklog. Load the gpx tracklog I emailed myself (the tracklog loads should then load in the main map panel).
  4. Select all the new images from the filmstrip at the bottom of the screen, and click on the trackog icon again, then select the option to auto tag all the selected photos (see image below).
Tag photos in the Map module
Tag photos in the Map module

Presto! All the images are now geotagged.

Something to keep in mind is that having a GPS app running on the backroung will drain the iPhone battery quite fast. So if you are going to be out taking pictures for extended periods of time you may want to invest on a battery case that will buy you a few more hours (I have the Mophie Juice Pack Plus, which roughly doubles the battery life of the phone). Having wifi and 3G turned off also helps.

Good shooting!

EDIT: I thought I should point out a couple of things that I've discovered since I wrote this article. One good and one not so good. Read below for more...

THE GOOD:

A few months after uploading this post I starting using a new app called Geotag Photos Pro. It's not free ($4.99 in the US app store at the time of this writing) but works very well. I find it less clunky than FollowMe and well worth the price, so if you are looking for something a bit more polished and with some interesting extra features you may want to take a look at it. I contacted the developers a couple of times with questions and in both instances they replied to me quickly and solved my queries, which is a really good thing in my book.

THE BAD:

I just came back from a trip to Burma and the geotracks that came out of the iPhone for that trip were many times quite inaccurate, sometimes spectacularly so (I was once getting a position that was off by about 2km from my real one). I'm not sure why this happened exactly. I know that if you have roaming turned off the phone can't use mobile phone towers to aid positioning and has to go purely by satellite positioning, which apparently the iPhone is not as good at doing as a conventional GPS unit. But I've used that same method when travelling through Europe (iPhone with roaming disabled), and I've had pretty good GPS tracks with just some occasional "out of position" spikes.

I've scoured the internet trying to figure out why that is, but haven't found a clear answer. But the bottom line seems to be that you can't be sure to get good positioning with an iPhone outside of roaming areas. So I'm afraid I'll have to get a GPS unit for when I'm outside of the UK. Having to carry one more gadget when I travel is something I was hoping to avoid, but I don't want to risk getting GPS data as bad as I got on my last trip. Your mileage may vary, but just be warned.

Cold hands, hot drinks

A couple of weeks ago I went on a short euro trip with a friend. We took the Eurostar to Paris and after a short stay there we hopped on another train and headed to Belgium, where we spent a few days travelling around, mostly by train.

Gare du Nord station in Paris
Gare du Nord station in Paris

Along the way I learned a few things:

  • Belgium is full of amazing places to photograph.
  • Belgium is really cold in February. A good pair of wool fingerless gloves can help keep your hands relatively warm while still allowing you to operate your camera.
  • Belgian beer is really good, and if you are not careful it might go to your head.
  • When beer goes to your head you are more likely to lose things.
  • Belgium feels even colder during February when you are trying to take pictures without gloves, which you left behind in a bar in Brugues.
Brugues
Brugues
Grote Markt by night, Brussels
Grote Markt by night, Brussels

Overall it was a fantastic trip and I was fairly successful at ignoring my freezing fingers and staying focused on the first point of the list. Frequent stops to go inside somewhere warm and have a hot to drink were a big help. There's nothing like the feeling of wrapping your cold hands around a steaming cup of coffee or hot chocolate after being out in the cold.

Julio enjoying a coffee and waffle in Ghent
Julio enjoying a coffee and waffle in Ghent

The overcast weather probably wasn't the best for architectural photography, as it resulted in having a flat and overexposed sky for the backdrop of a lot of the shots I took during daytime. It would have been lot better if I got some blue sky breaks inbetween the clouds, but all things considered I'm still pretty happy with some of the shots I got. In some cases the gloomy weather actually helped bring a certain mood to the shots.

The Courts of Law in Brussels
The Courts of Law in Brussels
The Courts of Law in Brussels
The Courts of Law in Brussels

Ghent was probably the nicest surprise of the whole trip. I have to admit I knew little about it before going there. Now I have to say that even though I would definitely return to all the places I visited during our trip, if I could only choose one to go back to it would be Ghent, hands down.

Bikes by the canal, Ghent
Bikes by the canal, Ghent
Ghent by night
Ghent by night
Ghent by night
Ghent by night

It was a great trip and we had a really good time. It was also good to take my camera somewhere different. I live in London, which is an amazing place to photograph, but after you've lived somewhere for a while your eyes get used to it and sometimes it's a little harder to get inspired. Travelling allows you to see everything with new eyes, making it easier for that inspiration to resurface. Even when you can't feel your fingers anymore.

A day in Richmond Park

Richmond, September 2012
Richmond, September 2012

A few Saturdays ago I headed over to Richmond Park with a mind of taking pictures of some of the more than 600 Red and Fallow deer that inhabit it. It's a huge park and I thought with a little luck there would be opportunity to snap some good images. I got to Richmond pretty early and headed over to the park taking the slightly longer, but much nicer, riverside path by the Thames (picture of Richmond Bridge below).

Once I arrived at the park it didn't take long before I started to see deer. Although they are somewhat used to people by now, they can still be dangerous and it's not a good idea to get too close. Plus, it's good wildlife photography etiquette to keep enough distance so as not to disturb the animals. So I knew I'd be mostly using my longest lens, which is a 70-200mm Nikkor.

Below are some of the images I took throughout the day:

Richmond, September 2012
Richmond, September 2012
Richmond, September 2012
Richmond, September 2012
Richmond, September 2012
Richmond, September 2012

Although there's nothing wrong with the shots above, they are not that different. I kept trying to find something a little more unique. Maybe an unusual moment, or a way to capture an image from a different perspective than what you usually see. Mind you, I'm always looking for that, but it just doesn't happen every time.

After a lot of walking around I saw a group of horse riders approaching a male deer in the shadow of some trees, and I immediately knew what kind of picture I wanted to take:

Richmond, September 2012
Richmond, September 2012

What makes this shot different from your typical deer photos is that the deer is both underexposed and out of focus. This would in most instances be a bad thing, but in this case the effect is that the deer becomes a presence standing at the edge of frame and looking in towards the riders. The area under the trees becomes dark and creates a silhouette for the deer and also for tree branches, which form a frame for the photograph.The feeling I get from the resulting image is that the riders seem to have just arrived at the edge of a domain that the deer is guarding.

One thing is a bit of a shame, and that is the wooden structure in the background that pops behind the head of the deer, which I find a little distracting. If I could have I would have taken a couple of steps to the left, so that the structure would be hidden behind the head of the deer, and then I would have reframed to achieve a similar composition. The problem was that I was already pretty pressed against some bushes on my left side so I couldn't really move in that direction any more. So there wasn't much I could do, but it's a pretty minor gripe.

Overall it was a great day out in Richmond Park. It's a fantastic place to go for a walk and also great for taking pictures. So I know I'll be coming back again with my camera.

A photo boot camp with Jared Polin and Adam Lerner

Froknowsphoto London 2012 Photo Bootcamp
Froknowsphoto London 2012 Photo Bootcamp

Last Saturday I was lucky enough to attend a photo boot camp taught by Jared Polin and Adam Lerner. I've been following Jared for almost two years now. Since the creation of his website, froknowsphoto.com, he has become quite a phenomenon in the online photography circles. If you are a beginner in photography I recommend taking a look at his site as he has tons of great photography content in it. If you are an intermediate or advanced photographer it's still worth keeping an eye on it. With all his photographer interviews, gear reviews, photo editing tips and advice on how to make it into the photography business you are bound to find some useful information in there.

Froknowsphoto London 2012 Photo Bootcamp
Froknowsphoto London 2012 Photo Bootcamp

Adam is a frequent collaborator in Jared's website, and although they both share some common ground in their photography, their style is quite different. So Adam provides an interesting contrast whenever he appears. I also recommend checking out his site: http://adamlerner.net/. He's an awesome photographer as well and, like Jared, freely shares all kinds of advice and insights on photography.

The boot camp was great. I would say it was mainly geared towards beginner photographers, specially those that don't have a clear understanding of the exposure triangle and that would like to get out of auto modes and start using their camera in manual. It was actually quite amazing to see how people that had never shot in manual were by the end of the day so comfortable with it, and saying that they would be leaving their cameras set to manual from now on.

Jared Polin
Jared Polin
Froknowsphoto London 2012 Photo Bootcamp
Froknowsphoto London 2012 Photo Bootcamp

As for me, even though I was already pretty comfortable shooting in manual mode, the boot camp was still really worth it. I got to brush up on my skills and get some questions answered directly from two real photo pros. I also got to meet some other people interested in photography, and had a lot of fun in the process. Both Adam and Jared were really engaging and they had a very hands-on approach of "teaching by doing" that I really liked. They both were patient and always tried to make sure that everyone was following before moving on to the next concept. And even though at the end of the day we run into some "overtime" at no point did I feel like they were rushing to get us out. Which I would have totally understood considering they had just come in from the US a couple of days before, and in that time they had already done another boot camp (Manchester), and two photo walks (Manchester & London). Not to mention the fact that in about 24 hours they would both have to get on a plane again to go to Photokina in Germany. If at any point in the day they were starting to run low on energy it certainly didn't show.

Jared Polin & Adam Lerner
Jared Polin & Adam Lerner

In short, it was a great day and I'm glad I signed up for the boot camp. If you are into photography I really recommend checking out Adam and Jared's websites and if you ever have the chance to attend one of their boot camps I'd say go for it. You won't be sorry.

PS: If you'd like to see more pictures from the boot camp you can check them out in my flickr page.

Waiting for the planets to align

It's been quite a while since my last post. In the last month I had a bunch of shenanigans happen all at the same time which set me back quite a bit. But I feel like I'm finally starting to catch up, so hopefully I'll be able to go back to posting more regularly. Anyway, enough of that and on to photographic matters! One of the places I visited during my last trip was the city of Girona, in Cataluña. It was only a short stop, about a day long. I'd been to the province of Girona before, but I'd never been to its capital city. Now that I have I definitely want to go back again with more time to spare.

Most of my time in Girona was spent walking around the old town. It's a labyrinth of narrow old streets, and it's full of amazing scenes awaiting discovery around every corner. So it's a great place for a photographer armed with a camera and a little persistence. One of the scenes I run into while snooping around was a passageway interconnecting two streets.

Spain, July 2012
Spain, July 2012

The arch of the tunnel provided a frame within the photo frame, and the pool of light hitting the street by the mouth of the tunnel could be used to highlight a subject that would hopefully wander into the scene, walking past the mouth of the passage. I had a few technical points to consider. They mainly came down to three:

  1. How to make sure the subject was in focus.
  2. How to properly expose for the subject.
  3. How to freeze the motion of the subject.

Focus

To make sure my subject was in focus I had to set my aperture so that anyone that walked down the street across frame would be in focus. I set the camera on autofocus and aimed at a point on the ground about half way between the two sides of the street, then I switched to manual focus to keep that focal distance fixed. I then set the aperture to f4.0, estimating that that would give me enough focal range to get anyone walking down the street in focus.

Exposure

Now that I had the aperture locked to f4.0, I had to figure out what shutter speed to set to get the proper exposure. To do that I metered for the wall at the other side of the street (the one with the little sign framed in red), which exposed properly at a speed of 1/250s. I then brought the speed down to 1/200s. My reasoning was that the tone of the wall seemed a bit darker than the average skin tone, but not too far off. So by metering for the wall and then compensating with a slight shutter speed decrease, which would let in less light, I would probably be in the right zone. I also knew that exposing for the lighter area of the scene would make the inside of the tunnel go very dark and I would most likely lose detail there. But I didn't care about that as the tunnel was going to be used as a framing device, and the lack of detail there would actually help bring the eye to the lit street, where my subject was going to be.

Freezing motion

Since I intended to take a picture of someone walking across frame I needed to check that my shutter speed would be high enough to freeze a walking person. I estimated that my current shutter speed of 1/200s should be enough to do that.

As usual, I had started out with the lowest ISO setting I could get with my camera, which is ISO 200. Now, if after estimating the shutter speed for a correct exposure I had ended up with a speed too slow to freeze the subject in motion (say, 1/80s), I would not have decreased the aperture to compensate for that. Doing so would have decreased the depth of field, and would have run the risk of getting the subject out of focus. So what I would have done instead in a case like that would be to set my shutter speed to 1/200s and then increase the ISO to what would be needed to get the subject properly exposed.

Sometimes taking the ISO past a certain limit (depending on the camera) may introduce noise in the image. But I'll take a noisy image over a blurry one any day.

I should also clarify that even after estimating each of these parameters in my head, I still took some test shots of people walking across frame. I looked at them in the camera display, checking exposure, focus and sharpness until I was satisfied. In other words, if you have the chance to do some tests before taking the important shots, do it, now matter how experienced you are.

So I was set and ready. All that was needed now was for a good subject to be kind enough to step into frame.

I was there for about 15 minutes and took multiple shots, some of which worked better than others. In the end this is the one I liked the most:

Spain, July 2012
Spain, July 2012

The little girl was walking a few steps ahead of her mother, which was lucky as it allowed me to capture her without the distraction of another person in the same focal plane. I love the way the light falls on her hair creating a halo, which really makes her stand out from the darker background. Still, there are a few ways the image could have been improved. It's always good to critique your own images to figure out what could have been done better, and keep those things in mind for the next time. These are a few things I would have wanted to be different:

  • I would have preferred not to have that lady walking away in the far background. Not much I could do about that, other than waiting for a longer time for another subject (or to go into Photoshop to remove her, which is something I don't normally do with my images).
  • When I was able to check the picture full size I noticed that the girl was almost imperceptibly out of focus. So even after all the testing it seems I still misjudged my aperture setting. In hindsight it would have been better to set it to f5.6 to get a bit of a wider depth of field, even if that meant having to bump up the ISO a little. Note to self for the next time.
  • To enhance the sense of motion of the girl it would have been better to have pressed the shutter a fraction of a second earlier, before her left foot touched the ground. When shooting people walking it's generally better to capture an instant where both feet are not touching the ground as that enhances the sense of motion.

If it had been alone at the time I would have probably stayed longer at that spot "waiting for the planets to align", so to speak. But as it happened I was with my dad, and although he wasn't complaining I didn't want to keep him waiting any longer. Sometimes I've had to stay still for much longer than 15 minutes to get the picture I want. It can be a little tiresome when you are doing it, but those times when in the end you get a good picture all the waiting, sore arms and strained neck that come with it are well worth the effort.

Lightroom tip: Vibrance vs Saturation

When most new Lightroom users want to make the colour of an image “pop” more (or mute it down), they normally think of changing the saturation and will therefore intuitively go to the Saturation slider to do it. But when they see that Vibrance slider next to it and they give it a try they also see changes in the intensity of the colours. So what are the differences between the two? Understanding them can be critical in getting the look you want for your images.

Vibrance and Saturation sliders
Vibrance and Saturation sliders

NOTE: The snapshot above is taken from Lightroom 4.1, so those using another version may see some differences.

There are two main differences between the vibrance and saturation sliders:

  1. The Saturation slider affects the image linearly, by applying a uniform adjustment to the saturation of all its colours. The Vibrance slider affects it nonlinearly, so if you increase vibrance the colours that are more muted get more of a saturation increase than those that were more saturated to begin with. This is good for increasing the colour intensity of the more subdued areas in your image without overcranking those areas that already start with a good amount of saturation.
  2. The Vibrance slider tries to leave skin tones unaffected. This is ideal for portrait situations where you want to intensify the colour of the image but don’t want your model to end up looking like a pumpkin (it should be noted that this aspect works best with Caucasian skin tones or similar).

As a case in point, here are two edits of the same image side by side, the one on the left with values Saturation +70 / Vibrance 0, and the one on the right with values Saturation 0 / Vibrance +70.

Vibrance and saturation comparison
Vibrance and saturation comparison

It's pretty plain to see that the skin tones on the left image, where the saturation was cranked up, have gone quite out of whack. But the ones on the right, where an increase of vibrance was used,  have retained a much more natural look.

Now, I normally wouldn't necessarily edit the colour an image like the one above just by increasing the vibrance. I was merely trying to illustrate the differences between what happens when you use one or the other slider. I'd probably use a small amount of saturation to bring the general colour up, and then finish the job with vibrance.

How much to use of each slider is entirely dependent on what you particularly want for each image, what your editing style is, and how the image looks as a starting point when you bring it into Lightroom. The RAW images out of my camera normally come out a little muted by default, so to achieve a punchy colourful image many times I’ll bring up the base saturation conservatively, maybe to +5 or +6, and then bring it the rest of the way up with vibrance, which often goes up to the +20 or +25 (sometimes quite a bit more).

Of course, there are no magic numbers and the values can end up being very different from picture to picture. But regardless of whether you are trying to achieve a punchy look or a muted one, understanding the differences between vibrance and saturation will help you get there.

Going black and white

Sometimes I take a picture where I feel I’ve captured a moment well, I’m happy with the composition and depth of field, the exposure is right... but there’s something about the colour that doesn’t really work. It could be many things:

  • A heavy undesirable tint caused by coloured lights (as it may happen when shooting a concert)
  • A brightly coloured element that distracts from the main subject
  • Colour noise caused by poor lighting conditions

Or it could be something else. Whatever the case I’m left with an otherwise good image what is let down by poor colour. When this happens I often resort to black and white. This is what happened with the next image, which I captured over the weekend in Brick Lane. This is what it looked like unedited:

Street chess game at Brick Lane (colour)
Street chess game at Brick Lane (colour)

While the picture in itself is ok the the colour doesn’t really give me anything too interesting. However, by converting to black and white and doing some tweaks to contrast, black levels and tone curves I can get something like this:

Street chess game at Brick Lane (B&W)
Street chess game at Brick Lane (B&W)

I also did a little quick dodging and burning, but nothing too extreme or time consuming.

To me the black and white version works much better. The colours in the original capture where, in a way, distracting, while going black and white makes the image much more “to the point”. It’s like you can tell the story more clearly. It's not something that works with every image, but I feel in this case it does.

Another example is this picture I took of a friends daugther last year at Centre Pompidou, in Paris. The lighting situation was not the best, and the hue of the floor was quite similar to the hue of her skin. So she blended into the background which is the opposite of what I wanted. As you can see by the unedited image the colours were not very interesting either.

Little girl at Centre Pompidou (colour)
Little girl at Centre Pompidou (colour)

By going into black and white I was able to separate her from the background much more.

Little girl at Centre Pompidou (B&W)
Little girl at Centre Pompidou (B&W)

If it sounds like I use black and white purely to rescue images that don’t work otherwise, well, that’s not entirely true. Sometimes when I take the picture I don’t necessarily intend for it to end up as B&W, and that decision comes later when I’m editing. Other times I know the moment I take the shot.

It's also true that black and white won't save a colour photo that was bad from the start. A badly composed image taken from an uninteresting angle at the wrong moment is not going to be saved by any amount of editing, so the base elements of a good picture need to be there still. So the most important thing remains thinking before taking the shot.

But if you have a colour image that you think has good potential, yet you can't seem to make it work in colour, maybe you should try going black and white and see where that takes you.

Getting out there

Last weekend I was at home thinking about taking some pictures for my first Light And Flow post. To be honest I wasn't feeling particularly inspired, but I thought I'd step out of the house and try my luck. I do that sometimes: I just grab my camera and go for a walk to see if anything will catch my eye. I find doing this is, stealing an expression from Forrest Gump, like a box of chocolates: you never know what you are going to get. Sometimes I have an off day and I come back home with nothing, normally having taken at least a few pictures but not really being happy with any of them. Other times, luckily, it's a different story. I decided to seek inspiration by taking a walk in Regent's Canal. So I set out from Hampstead towards Warwick Avenue, with the idea of walking the canal from there until Camden Lock. On the way over there I took a few pictures but I was happiest with a couple of them.

I took the first one while still in Hampstead. I was walking past St Stephen's Church, as I've done many times in the past. It's a beautiful building but I had never taken a picture of it before for some reason. This time I liked the light and the backdrop the clouds gave the church tower, so I looked for a good angle where I could use foreground trees to help frame the building and took the shot.

St Stephen's church
St Stephen's church

Later, near Primrose Hill I saw some foxglove with a bumblebee that kept going from one flower to another. I tried to take a picture of it in mid air approaching one of the flowers, but it was moving really fast and quite unpredictably, and I didn't manage to get any usable shots before the bumblebee left. The only picture that turned out well was one of just the flowers.

So it seems the final score was Bumblebee 1, Jorge 0. I shook my fist at the bumblebee before walking away. There'll be other opportunities. Still, I'm pretty happy with how the picture of the flowers turned out (even with its glaring lack of bumblebees).

Foxglove
Foxglove

I finally made my way to Regent's Canal. I had actually never walked it before and it ended up being a really nice walk. I took some pictures of boats...

Regent's Canal
Regent's Canal

boat crews...

Regent's Canal cat
Regent's Canal cat

and unusual flower pots.

Regent's Canal
Regent's Canal

Towards the end of the walk I even got to witness some drama, as a couple of coots got a little too close to a common moorhen nest. A female moorhen was sitting in the nest and the male was gathering branches when the coots appeared. Mr Moorhen was obviously in quite a territorial mood, so he decided to expel the intruders from his property.

Common moorhen fighting coots
Common moorhen fighting coots

For a moment it seemed that the coots were willing to put up a fight, but in the end they changed their mind and decided to put some space between them and the irate moorhen.

Common moorhen fighting coots
Common moorhen fighting coots

So all in all it wasn't a bad day out. Well, maybe it was for the coots, but I came back with a few pictures that I'm pretty happy with. Of course, it could have been one of those off days when I come back with nothing good, but even in those cases I can usually learn something from the failed shots.

One thing is for sure. I never improved my photography by letting my camera sit in a corner collecting dust. So when in doubt, get out there and take some pictures.