Into the Jungle

One of my travel habits is to compare the place I’m visiting to other places I’ve been. Cape Town reminds me a bit of San Francisco and New Orleans. The Oki Islands in Japan are reminiscent of the rugged coastline of Oregon. But when I found myself floating the waters of the Upper Amazon in Peru, I was shocked at where my mind went…..to Disneyland.

Specifically, the sounds of dripping water and calling birds, long sinuous vines, and vegetation that looks like tropical houseplants gone wild reminded me of being on the jungle ride in Disneyland. The allure that the ride hinted at was amplified in person and, to be sure, the humidity and mosquitos made it undeniably real.

During the two weeks I spent cruising the brown, and sometimes black, waters of the headwaters of the Amazon River, I realized that a tropical rainforest is a place of subtle beauty where patience and time are rewarded with sightings of exotic creatures. I saw brief glimpses of the elusive pink river dolphin, was tormented by macaws and toucans who always seemed to keep their distance, reveled in watching wooly monkeys swing from tree to tree, and fell totally in love with sloths, the slow-moving, wiry-haired guardians of the canopy. I learned to appreciate the quiet beauty of the rivers and creeks we explored on daily skiff rides, looking for splashes of color in a riot of green vegetation, staring into reflections as if in a trance, and I secretly loved getting caught in downpours where the rain forced me to do nothing else but enjoy the reason the rainforest gets its name.

As much as I enjoyed the natural beauty of the Amazon, I was absolutely surprised and delighted by our interactions with the local people who live along the river’s edge, the ribereños. The people were generous in giving us a glimpse into their daily lives.

Next year I’m fortunate enough to already be booked on two photography-focused departures in January with National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions on this itinerary. I’d love to explore the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve with you on board the Delfin II.

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On the still waters of the Yanayacu River, I couldn’t get enough of the reflections. Luckily every afternoon seemed to have these gorgeous pile-ups of clouds in the sky.

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We were able to spend time photographing groups of curious woolly monkeys as they swung from limb to limb hanging from their tails.

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Every time we came across the impressive Victoria amazonica giant water lilies, I had to make pictures. The blooms begin as white buds and then unfold into pink splendor before wilting away in a brief two-day life cycle.

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During this expedition, we maneuvered along the river, up creeks, and into flooded forests on skiffs, our reliable metal steeds.

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The tropical rainforest can feel like a verdant dream and one quickly learns that a flash of any other color means a wonderful find. Whether that is the spectacle of a toucan or macaw’s bright feathers or the pop of red from a passionflower bloom hidden below the canopy, it is always worth observing.

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After night fell on el Río Dorado, we used a high-powered light to spot caimans along the river’s edge by looking for the red reflections of their eyes from afar.

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Our local guides took us to a favorite roost of a family of adorable night monkeys.

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The hoatzin, or what I refer to as the prehistoric chicken, was one of the many animal species I came across which I’d been unfamiliar with before.

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I was entranced by the details of the jungle like the gorgeous curtains of bromeliads that adorned many of the trees along the river.

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Most of the sloths we spotted were perched high in the treetops except for this one occasion where we spotted a baby hanging out on a low cecropia tree, snoozing in between nibbles on the leaves.

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As much as it felt that we were far away from civilization during our explorations we often passed by small river communities. We were able to take time to visit San Francisco, a typical river village filled with wooden homes with aluminum roofs.

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During our visit to the community of San Francisco on the Marañon River, we were welcomed with smiles, waves, and curious looks, especially from children.

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I photographed this lovely woman during a dance performance in the community center of San Francisco.

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It was common to see local families living with pet monkeys, macaws, and sloths.

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I love to photograph people when I’m traveling and I try, as often as possible, to find a way to share the images with the people I photograph. On this trip, I knew emailing images wouldn’t be an option so I brought along a Fujifilm Instax printer from B&H Photo Video which enabled me to print and share photos I’d taken with the locals I’d meet. I won over these young girls who chatted with me and stayed by my side during the entire visit.

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In Puerto Miguel, these young boys enjoyed seeing the photos one of the Lindblad guests had taken of them. The boys kept telling him, “otro” and he would humor them by taking another photo and the cycle of giggles and grins would continue. 

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On Supay Creek we met this young boy who was keeping a coati, which is a member of the raccoon family, as a pet.

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Locals all along the river make handicrafts to sell to visitors. Tarantulas and frogs woven out of dyed chambira palm fiber were a popular item.

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The Delfin II was a luxurious home away from home while exploring the Upper Amazon of Peru.

To see more images from this expedition on the Peruvian Amazon, visit my Photoshelter gallery.

Fall is for Photography

I’ve noticed recently that the days seemed to have already grown shorter and the mornings are crisper. That can only mean fall is right around the corner. Luckily, the changing of seasons brings about the opportunity to join photographer Jennifer Davidson and myself on two photo workshops in Texas and Virginia.

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On October 13th through the 16th, join us in Texas’ quirky state capital for round two of Picture Austin. We had so much fun last year that we are doing it again!

During this workshop, we will pack the days to the brim with photographic learning. Time spent shooting in the field will be balanced with classroom sessions where we give students immediate feedback on their images and prepare them for more photographic exploration.

Come ready to rub elbows with politicos near the capitol building, tap your feet to live music along South Congress Avenue,  and rise early as the sun soaks the skyline, all while making captivating images that tell the story of this unique American city.

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This October 20th through 23rd, you can join us in Virginia for Picture Williamsburg. During this four-day workshop, we will base in Colonial Williamsburg where you will learn how to make compelling images of this unique living history experience. Honing our people photography skills, we will make portraits of reenactors and learn how to translate those skills into everyday portrait situations in downtown Williamsburg.

We will also venture to Historic Jamestowne and the Yorktown Battlefield to round out our exploration of Virginia’s Historic Triangle and practice more photographic skills such as landscape photography. Come prepared to improve your photography where the past meets present.

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The students of Picture Austin 2015 with Jennifer and Krista.

Enrollment is limited to allow students maximum time with both instructors. We’d love to see you this fall!

Please visit the Picture Austin and Picture Williamsburg websites for more information. Or email me directly if you have any questions: krista(at)kristarossow.com.

Picture of young sanskrit students at sunrise in Varanasi

Photographing People Part V: The Long (Lens) & Short of It

I started my photo tip series on photographing people with a post that briefly mentioned the usage of long (telephoto) lenses. I wanted to make sure that photographers knew how to approach people, getting up close with wide-angle lenses, instead of relying on shooting from afar with telephoto lenses. But now that everyone is up to speed, let’s not forget the benefits of all of the tools in the camera bag.

Creative, not Creepy
If you’re drawn to pull out your long lens to photograph people, just make sure you are using it for creative or practical usages instead of as a crutch out of fear of speaking to a stranger. You don’t want to be the photographer across the street aiming a huge lens at someone and then running away when you’ve been spotted.

Isolate the Subject
Compared to wide angle lenses, telephoto lenses naturally give us less depth of field in our photographs. This helps to isolate our subject and lessens a distracting background. But be aware that this also makes locking focus on your subject even more critical.

Picture of tubing in New Braunfels, Texas

I was able to isolate the girls amidst the chaos of a busy tubing river in New Braunfels, Texas, by using a 400mm lens set at f/5.6.

Gets You Closer

Long lenses are a godsend when you simply can’t get physically closer to the subject like at performances, events, and parades. They are also helpful when it isn’t practical or polite to intrude on private moments.

Picture of a roper at a Texas rodeo and women in Basque costumes at a parade

At events like a rodeo (left) in Bastrop, Texas, or a parade (right) in Sun Valley, Idaho, a telephoto lens can be one of the only ways to get “closer” to the action.

Wide or Long?

Why not both? Given my druthers, I’d pack along my 24-70mm any day, but if I’m also toting a long lens, I’ll shoot with both. The more I’ve used long lenses in the last few years for wildlife photography, the more I enjoy also using it for landscapes and people.

Picture of hikers on Vigur Island in Iceland

On a Lindblad/National Geographic Expeditions voyage on Vigur Island in Iceland, I used a long lens to compress the space of our group as we walked through nesting grounds for Arctic terns. The dive-bombing birds would attack the stick instead of our heads.

Picture of people distracting Arctic terns in Icleand

With my own stick cleverly lodged in the back of my coat as protection, I used my wide-angle lens to photograph these guests warding off their visitors. I like both photographs and how different they feel because of the equipment used.

The beautiful thing about photography is that it is subjective. I don’t believe there are rules, only guidelines which can be learned and then pushed, allowing for pure creative exploration. I hope that these posts have given you insight into my creative photographic process with photographing people and inspires you to pick up your camera and start shooting.

Photographing People Part IV: Payment and Model Releases

In this photographing people series, I’ve discussed the golden rule, the approach, and putting your subject at ease. Now I’ll cover the sometimes sticky subject of payment and the hot topic of model releases.

To Pay or Not to Pay

We’ve all come across the situation where a very photogenic local is perfectly happy to pose for a photograph….in exchange for money. To me, these situations are transactions rather than interactions.

This isn’t to say that I don’t “pay” people in other ways, the most important of which is to give respect. Sharing an image on the back of my camera is a nice way to show people what I am seeing in them. As often as possible I get contact information so that I can send copies of images to people. And I do follow through on my promises, even if it takes me a year.

Also, if I’m photographing in a market, for example, I’ll buy something small from the vendors I’m photographing because I need to eat or pick up a few souvenirs anyway. I want people to have a favorable interaction with me and hopefully this will set a good precedent for whoever comes along next with a camera.

Picture of women at their sewing stall in Takoradi

I found that people in Ghana often refused to have their photo taken or alternatively wanted to be paid. These women at a stall in the Takoradi Market Circle first had asked for money, but after I put my camera down and chatted with them for a while they then allowed me to photograph.  They had realized I didn’t simply want a snapshot, I actually wanted to get to know them. I later mailed a packet of photos to Ghana for them.

Model Releases

One of the most frequently asked questions I get when I’m teaching is

Picture of people at Afro's Chicken in Durban

It isn’t practical to get releases from everyone in many of the shots I take, like in this scene at Afro’s Chicken in Durban, South Africa.

about model releases. Do you need to get a model release? Well, be warned, I am no lawyer, but for editorial work (newspapers and magazines) you do not need a model release, nor for personal portfolios. You do need a model release (and usually property releases) for any image that you hope to use for advertising or commercial work.

Although not required for my work, I do try to get releases when I can. I’ve found that in situations where I have time and there aren’t too many people involved, there is a natural time to ask for a release to be signed. This also gives me the opportunity to get people’s contact info so that I can send them a few photos. I carry around a stack of model releases binder-clipped together, but have also used an app on my phone called Easy Release.

Picture of two South African women in Durban

I spent some time making pictures of these two friends (who were in the foreground of the above shot) and they were willing to sign model releases. When I later found out that the group shot would run in Traveler magazine, I was able to share with them the exciting news.

For the last series in this post, I’ll resurface the subject of gear and give the telephoto lens its just deserts.

Photographing People Part III: Putting Your Subject at Ease

In my previous post I mentioned how I ask for permission when photographing people and in my first post I discussed lens selection. Today I’ll discuss how to work with the subject to put them at ease and make the best photographs possible.

Become a Fly on the Wall

Once you’ve received permission and are “in” don’t just stop after you’ve clicked a few photos! As long as your subject seems willing, hang around and keep taking pictures. Eventually people will get bored with you and you’ll become like a fly on the wall, able to observe and photograph people as they act naturally.

Picture of cowboys at a rodeo in Texas

I had been hanging around behind the scenes at the Bastrop Rodeo for long enough that the cowboys had forgotten about me. And it didn’t hurt that all their attention shifted to some poor bull rider getting bucked when I took this picture.

Make a Connection

To make a connection with the people I meet, I find it helpful to talk with them, whether that is before, after, or during taking photos. It is amazing what folks will share with me just because I’m willing to listen. I’m always grateful for having these windows into the other amazing lives being lived out in the world. Many times strangers not only turn into photographic subjects, but into friends.

Picture of a woman dressed as Marie Antoinette at Mardi Gras

I shared a laugh with this woman at the start of the St Anne Parade on Mardi Gras Day many years ago and we’ve kept in touch ever since.

Tricks of the Trade

Picture of a waitress in Marseille, France

At le Bar des 13 Coins in Marseille, I took this shot of the waitress during a moment when she was talking with some customers.

If the above two tips haven’t gotten your subject to relax, try photographing your subject while they are talking to somebody else. Often this simple technique provides just enough distraction to make the subject less camera aware.

While taking photos a simple reassurance of, “What you are doing is great,” can help to keep people relaxed.

Know When to Fold ‘Em

Occasionally I’ll see someone, get their permission, start shooting and then realize that the person just can’t quite forget about the camera. Some people are never able to completely relax, so I move on.

Also, I never want to wear out my welcome as a photographer, so I pay attention to physical cues that tell me the person is ready to be done with their photo being taken. Wrap up your shooting before you are asked to.

In the next posts I will discuss model releases and paying for photographs, lens choice, and much more. If there is anything else you are curious to know about how I work when photographing people, please leave a comment below.

Portrait of a man on Chitemba Beach in Malawi.

Photographing People Part II: It’s All in the Approach

In my first post on photographing people I discussed what kind of lens I usually use and what my general philosophy is on approaching strangers. Today I’ll cover when I ask for permission, how to communicate with body language, and the approach.

To Ask or Not to Ask….Permission

In most situations where I’m photographing people, if possible I prefer to ask permission (verbally or non verbally). Now this doesn’t mean I stop everybody who passes in front of my lens, but it is useful when I know I want to spend time making pictures of somebody. And of course there are moments that would be missed if I stopped to ask permission, so I take the picture! Then if I’d like to continue to shoot, I’ll ask permission.

People will occasionally tell me no, which is always disappointing, but I move on. I figure that if someone isn’t up for it, I won’t make a good picture anyway.

Two couples outside of a crepe stand in Paris

When I walked pass this crepe stand in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, I had to click my shutter immediately or the moment between the couple on the right would’ve vanished.

Body Language

Permission doesn’t need to be verbal and in fact, it can’t be if there isn’t a shared language. This is where a simple smile or a point to the camera works wonders. Or I’ll start shooting, as with the situation in the photo above, and when I’m noticed I lower my camera and give a smile or wave. I’ve gotten very few ambiguous answers with these techniques. It is usually as clear as night and day whether somebody is keen for their photo to be taken.

Krista Rossow and South African women on beach in Kwa-Zulu Natal.

Although we didn’t share a language in this “discussion,” these South African women understood that I wanted to take their photos while I was on assignment in Kwa-Zulu Natal and later delighted in hamming in front of my lens. Photo by George W. Stone.

The Approach

I find that if I go into a situation nervous and unsure, people can sense the unease in my approach and will react similarly. I’m not always in the right state when approaching strangers, so I might need to give myself a pep talk. It is uncanny how people pick up on unspoken cues.

Portrait of a young monk studying at a monastery in Myanmar.

While photographing at this monastery in the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar, I moved quietly, watched with interest, made eye contact, and exchanged smiles.

In the upcoming posts I’ll cover putting your subject at ease, model releases and paying for photographs, lens choice, and much more. Please leave your own tips on photographing people in the comments below.

People dancing in front of the Marseille Cathedral at sunset.

Photographing People Part I: Gear and the Golden Rule

Photographing a stranger can instill terror in some photographers. Ten years ago I was one of those photographers. It took the simple act of watching a friend ask to take a stranger’s picture (and the stranger saying yes) that made me realize how easy it could be….I just needed to ask. Since that epiphany I’ve come to love taking photos of people.

In this post and the series to follow, I’ll be discussing the kind of people photography that I love to shoot. It is closer to street photography than it is to traditional portrait photography; a mix of the two that involves meeting strangers, making friends, and hopefully coming away with a good picture.

These posts are for photographers already comfortable at approaching strangers and especially for those of you who haven’t photographed people before but want to try. I know this kind of photography isn’t for everyone, but if it tickles your curiosity, I encourage you to try taking a photo of a stranger.

Gear: Wide or Long?

When I write about photographing people in these posts, unless mentioned, I’m exclusively referring to situations where I’m using a wide-angle lens and am close to my subject (from a few feet to sometimes even inches away). I’ve not only come to love the interaction gained by getting closer, but I like the way wide-angle images make the viewer actually feel like they are in the situation themselves.

Wide-angle shot of people at an outdoor bar in Marseille, France.

Don’t you feel like you can almost hear the conversation, the laughter, and the buzz? This photo takes you straight to a chill evening in Marseille, France. As a photographer I achieved that effect by actually being close to the subjects and using a wide-angle lens.

Telephoto lenses are great for getting the subject closer in the frame. They can make beautiful portraits that soften the background or can be used to isolate a subject in busy scenes. But when photographers are using a telephoto lens as a crutch because they are too afraid to actually get themselves closer to the subject, then I’m no longer a fan of these kinds of lenses. Please don’t think that the person across the street won’t notice a huge lens pointed in their direction! I’ll discuss more uses for long lenses in people photography in another post, but for now let’s pull out the wide-angle and get closer.

Telephoto shot of people collecting debris on a Hawaiian beach.

A telephoto lens is useful for compressing space and isolating an individual like in this image taken at 200mm in Hawaii during a beach clean-up during my voyage with Semester at Sea.

The Golden Rule

My philosophy with taking pictures of people is as simple as the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I figure that if someone were taking a photo of me I’d at least like to know why. And to dovetail with the sentiment above, it is much easier for someone to react suspiciously and act uncomfortably when a long lens is aimed at them rather than by being close enough to say hello.

Assuming we have a shared language, I’ll tell people what interests me in taking their picture, whether that is the colors or clothes they are wearing, the light they are standing in, or the interesting thing they are doing. Also consider telling people what the photos are for. I often have the reason that I’m working on a travel story, but it can just as easily be to build my portfolio or work on my people photography. The key here is to be genuine.

Diptych of people photos from San Francisco

While on assignment in San Francisco, I knew I wanted to photograph both of these people the moment I saw them. Although the shot on the left is taken at 70mm from some distance, I had already spoken with the woman so she knew what I was doing. When this man on the right crossed my path at a food truck event at Fort Mason, I chased him down and told him how fabulous he looked with all of his colors and patterns. Then I took this portrait at 50mm on my 24-70mm lens.

In the coming posts I’ll cover how I approach people, putting your subject at ease, model releases and paying for photographs, lens choice, and much more. Please leave your own tips on photographing people in the comments below.