Shooting Cultures — The Specifics…

In January, 2014, I wrote a blog about shooting culture – an article in which I treated the subject generally; not very heavy on the specifics. The wrap-up was “..get into the subject’s life a little…” but I didn’t offer any advice on how to do that.

(Now I realize that I’m getting dangerously close to proclaiming myself an anthropologist. I’m not – had to look up how to spell it.)

The remainder of this article is going to be ONLY about things that have worked for me in being allowed to get a little into someone else’s culture. You’ll probably have ways I haven’t even considered.

Before leaving home…

1. My first step is study/research. I won’t spend a lot of time and space here on how to do that but the short message is this: Get on the internet. There are thousands of pages written by others who have traveled to your destination. In learning a little about the customs, economy, or political situation you will be perceived less like an interloper and more like a visitor.

2. Learn a few words or phrases. While on the net, check out sites such as this one for the pronunciation of typical words of greeting, etc.:

This is VERY important if you have any hope of being accepted by another culture.

Once in country…

3. Travel solo (or with a very small group). It is almost too much to expect that you can bond with the natives – even a little – from within a large group.

4. Avoid hotels. We ALWAYS stay in B&B’s – even in large cities. By definition you are in the company of someone who lives there, is in the culture and who wants you to have a satisfying experience in their town/country. Over breakfast I’ll ask something like “where is your favorite restaurant and bear in mind we’re on a budget?” It’s almost a sure thing that you will be steered to a local pub or mom & pop restaurant where the natives hang out. And while you are there, strike up a conversation with the people at the next table. I start with “Is this your home?”. They’ll ask your home country and then you are off to the races. We’ve even been invited to visit a home from such a small beginning.

untitled_44585. Ask for help. The picture is of me asking for map help from some locals in Antalya, Turkey. The guy in the plaid shirt actually guided us on his bicycle – and we followed in our rental car – to the little inn we were seeking. This courtesy was duplicated in many forms and in many cultures but I think Turkey is right up near the top when it comes to most welcoming to strangers.

6. You MUST get your nerve up and mix with the locals. You’re the guest. You’re the person of interest. Take advantage of that. Local people will go out of their way to talk with you and help you enjoy your visit.

DSC_60837. Do your part to be a good guest. I’m reminded of an occasion in Rome when we were visiting the catacombs. While below ground the official guide noticed that The Bride picked up some trash left by an earlier tour group. At the conclusion of the tour the guide dismissed everyone else but asked us to stay for a few minutes. To show her appreciation she gave us a little memento of the catacombs and shared coffee with us before her next tour group started.

8. I take trinkets for the kids and photos of our offspring to show the adults.

9. Be interested in the other person and they will almost always open up. Admire their house, pet their dog, point out how wonderful their children are, smile at them. Greet them with the polite phrases you learned before leaving home. And ask questions. I hasten to point out that this is not meant to be manipulative – think of it as enabling.

Each of the items above is a small thing but, taken together, could be your entree to the people and their culture. Getting close to the people of a foreign country will improve your chances of making culture specific photos and — possible more important — you are going to find your trip richer and more meaningful.

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People in landscapes?

I learned a lesson a few weeks ago. The Bride and I wanted to photograph a pretty waterfall up in the mountains near where we live. The waterfall is unique — water rushes from between massive rock outcroppings at the upper end of a wooded valley. We knew the area would likely be crowded because it was one of the last Saturdays of summer.

When we arrived at the parking lot at the trail head we found all forty parking places taken. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. But…just as we were leaving a car pulled out so we filled his spot.

OK, here is where we decide to walk to the waterfall or to head home. The trail to the waterfall covers two and one-half miles. Surely five miles of trail would have a large percentage of the forty groups in route – coming or going – with only a few at the waterfall itself. So…off we went.

20 Raven Cliff FallsIt turned out to be pretty sound reasoning. There were just three families there. The kids were climbing into and out of a little pool near the bottom of the falls while the parents shouted caution about not slipping on the rocks. Over time new groups arrived while other groups left. Only a teenage girl in a blue shirt remained throughout. I took some location shots and then set up my tripod to get the image I wanted after the girl left. But the blue shirt girl stayed.

And stayed. She had a GoPro on a head band and was making video as she climbed around in the waterfall. She had as much right to be there as I did but I wanted her out of my picture.

We waited. She stayed. The Bride was getting a little testy. It was getting late in the day and we had to consider walking two and a half miles back to the car in the dark.

I decided to make my shots as if she were not there. I’d take her out in Photoshop.

And therein is the lesson learned. I FAR prefer the image with the blue shirt girl in it. Conventional wisdom is – and the guru’s of photography say – that a landscape is often improved with a person in the frame. And, in this case, the blue shirt girl was perfect. I could not have asked for a better splash of color (her shirt) and a better pose (her eyes directing the viewer’s eyes to the incoming water). Even her immersion in the scene reminds me of my own appreciation of the beauty of this place.

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J. E. Bark - I couldn’t agree with you more. The punch and contrast of the blue shirt with the greens and greys of the rocks and water really makes the image in my opinion. Her pose (looking up) couldn’t have been better if you had asked her to look up.

I, too, suffer when people get in my planned compositions. I have waited and sometimes been forced to do the same as you planned, that is, remove them in PS. However, from your example maybe I will look for the people to complete the image rather than taint it.

I enjoy your blogs as they are practical and usually thought provoking. Keep up the good work!

skeeter - Thanks for being a reader, J.E..

Isn’t it curious that we learn and then have to re-learn the obvious?


Guy Davies - I agree that in this case the blue shirt really makes the picture. But if you do want to get rid of a person in Photoshop, the easy way is to take two shots with the camera on the tripod while the person moves around (they need to do that, but they usually do). Put the two images together in PS on separate layers and then just rub out the person in the top layer to show that part of the bottom layer without them. Easy, so long as nothing else moves in the rubbed out bit. I’ve used the same trick to get rapidly changing light in the right places in a landscape.

Agree with J E Bark about the blogs!

skeeter - I don’t use PS much anymore but I agree that that is a very good way to remove distractions. Frankly, I never thought about that technique in lights/shadows in landscapes. Sounds like something I will try.


Is digital free?

Changing of the Guard

Changing of the Guard

I wonder how many millions (billions?) of pictures are made each day.  Without doubt the advent of digital technology has caused that number to explode.  A friend returned recently from a cruise around the Mediterranean.  “We were gone ten days and I made over three thousand pictures.”  (I hope she does some serious culling before inviting friends to see them!)

Digital is free, after all.  Except…maybe it isn’t.

I can buy the argument that, once the camera, batteries and a memory card are paid for, the incremental cost of the next photo requires no outlay of money.  But is money the only commodity here?

The old timers used to say that they were satisfied if they got one “keeper” out of roll of film.  I expect that number is now more like one out of a hundred exposures.  A baseball player named Woodie Held is credited with the saying, “Don’t forget to swing hard, in case you hit the ball.”  We are getting sloppy if that’s our photography approach.  And when we get sloppy the quality suffers.  In this sense, digital isn’t free. If we simply click away with snapshots we are paying dearly in lost opportunity to make quality images.

Of course there are times when – for a purpose – we want to fire off many exposures.  Take, for example, a fast moving sporting event requiring rapid fire exposures.  Or the group portrait.  If more than a few people are involved someone is going to have his eyes closed. And if you are experimenting, perhaps different exposures, different depths-of-field, or different angles, then, I would say, shoot away.  There is a purpose and you are learning something.

So…here is my point:  Shoot fewer, shoot slower, shoot with purpose, shoot smarter and bring home better pictures.

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Jim Camelford - “You can take all the digital pictures you want for free; it’s only keeping them that costs you money.”


Don’t forget to keep multiple, redundant backups, one of which must be offsite.

skeeter - ABSOLUTELY true, Jim. My wife said something similar: “If digital is free, why do you spend so much money?”

Andrew H - I would have agreed with you, but I saw this technique severely backfire with technophobes, with talent to take great compositions, and clueless with the technology. I tried to teach them to bracket everything, at +/-3EV and always shoot raw. They have no idea of how to expose selectively either.
Because they don’t look at contact sheets. The old way, and the darkroom, made you think things through. Digitals they blame the camera.

Ken - My college professor for the Digital Photography course required us to spend the first 4 weeks of the class shooting, developing and printing film (they supplied the camera if you did not have one). This was to teach us to think about the shot before blazing away. Not only did it improve our composition and use of light it saved tons of time later in post production of digital photos.

David Laurence - Yea, you can take as many as you want for free, but the more you take with your DSLR the quicker you up your shutter count and the moves you that much closer to replacement.

skeeter - Yes, the marvelous pieces of craftsmanship DO wear out in time – probably something that most of us don’t consider. Seems, though, that the development curve is so steep that we upgrade to the latest and greatest before it breaks.

skeeter - Smart fellow, that professor of yours. The school I attended still has film processing equipment but I think they have abandoned the requirement that students become proficient in its use – probably because there is so much to teach (commercial emphasis) and so little time. Still…I think it would be good in the long run.

Guy Davies - A case FOR tripods perhaps? Tripods slow you down, help you fine tune your composition, and as a result you think more clearly about what you want to photograph. AND, you end up taking fewer shots!

skeeter - Your comment, Guy, (and others) give me the idea to write a blog posting that will explore the ways in which we can force our selves to slow down and be more purposeful. I’m thinking tripods, filters, HDR, reflectors, shades, you-name-it.

Guy Madden - The best camera I ever had was a fixed, non-zoom twin lens reflex. You zoomed in by walking forwards and out by walking backwards. With only twelve frames available it made me think about what I was doing. Also it was usually mounted on a tripod.
I still use those techniques to-day but, I also subscribe to the notion “If you don’t press the shutter button you don’t have a picture.”

skeeter - I don’t suppose you had auto focus with that zoom system! Isn’t it interesting how modern methods cause us to forget the valuable processes of the old way?