Seattle Washington skyline at twilight with Space Needle.

Photographing the Blue Hour

My favorite time of day to photograph cities is the blue hour. Now, the blue hour really isn’t an hour at all, but a much shorter span of time that occurs before sunrise or after sunset.

In the morning, it is the transition time where the sun is inching closer to the horizon and the sky turns from inky black to an electric blue; with the opposite occurring in the evening. Depending on cloud cover, this lighting scenario happens approximately twenty to thirty minutes before sunrise or after sunset.

During this window of time, the ambient light balances with the artificial lights of buildings and monuments in urban scenes and you can easily capture the entire dynamic range of the scene. No need to take multiple exposures and stitch together an HDR (high-dynamic range) shot!

Dinner party scene in the Woodstock neighborhood of Cape Town with Table Mountain in background.

When I was invited to a dinner at Side Street Studios, I arrived early to scout out an angle that would include Cape Town’s iconic Table Mountain. Shortly after sunset, the timing was right and I captured both the activity of guests mingling and the mountain silhouetted against a dark blue sky.

Tech Talk

To capture the electric blue sky, it is optimal to use a tripod which will allow you to shoot with a lower ISO such as 400 or 800 and a wider depth of field like f/11 while keeping steady at slow shutter speeds. Because slow shutter speeds can easily be achieved at this time of day, I also love to play with motion blur from vehicles and other moving objects to add interest to my compositions.

But if you are tripod averse, as I often am, the solution is simple: turn up your ISO, shoot at your shallowest aperture, and do your best to reduce camera shake by bracing yourself or your camera against something solid. You won’t get to play with motion blur, but you’ll capture this vibrant time of day nonetheless.

The Arc de Triomphe at dusk in the Place Charles de Gaulle in Paris, France.

The Arc de Triomphe already looks gorgeous with a stunning blue sky behind it, but by using a tripod and a slow shutter speed, the vehicle lights add another dynamic visual element and also fill the empty space of pavement surrounding the monument.

Be Prepared

I have to admit that I prefer photographing the blue hour after sunset rather than before sunrise. This is simply because I can easily scout out the scene I want to capture in the daylight instead of having to scout the day prior or finding myself fumbling around in the dark with a flashlight and hoping I’ve found a good position.

Once in position, take test shots and get ready for the light to change quickly. I like to take test shots and check my histogram as I go to not only adjust exposure but to also see when the scene is getting more similar in tone. I find that the optimal time for the best photograph is actually when the scene is looking a bit too dark to my eyes.

Examples of changing light at Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar at dawn.

The light changes very quickly at dawn, as you can see from these shots which were taken at 6:31am, 6:39am, and 6:45am at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.

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.

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.

Durban and Kwa-Zulu Natal in National Geographic Traveler magazine

On Newsstands: Durban for National Geographic Traveler

In January, I went Into the Zulu Kingdom with travel writer extraordinaire, George W. Stone, for National Geographic Traveler magazine. The folks at Traveler already knew I was in love with South Africa from a piece I shot for them a few years ago and I was more than happy to return to explore a different area of the country.

George and I, with the unfailing support of our fixer Rhys, made it our mission to discover the highlights of the province of KwaZulu-Natal. We ventured to the near unpronounceable iSimangaliso Wetland Park and were rendered speechless by the wildlife we spotted. We explored Zulu culture in the beautiful rolling hills outside of Durban. And while in the Northern Drakensberg Mountains, we went in search of the world’s second tallest waterfall only to be foiled by fog and spoiled by other gorgeous vistas.

And then there was Durban. We got to explore this breezy city on the banks of the Indian Ocean and its rainbow of cultures, flavors, and activities. We sniffed out the up-and-coming scenes and visited old classics.

I gauge the real success of an assignment on how badly I want to return to a place. This assignment has done nothing to abate my desire to return to South Africa and catch a wave in a pastel sunrise on Durban’s waterfront.

Click on a photo below to see it larger. Bonus: Can you find my cameo?

Head to a newsstand to read the full story in the current May 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine and see more photos in an online gallery here.

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Thanks to the team at Traveler for a great story, especially Dan, Christine, and Jerry. And kudos to George for being such a wonderful travel companion and collaborator!

Editor’s Note: The recent xenophobic attacks in Durban and other parts of South Africa are shocking and tragic. If I’ve learned anything from my visits to the country, it is that South Africans are proud, strong and resilient. I hope that this dark, passing cloud is brief over the sun of South Africa. I encourage you to visit this amazing country to see the beauty of its people and culture firsthand.

Woodstock on the Rise

Dramatic view from the top of the Old Biscuit Mill of the surrounding neighborhood of Woodstock and the mountains of Cape Town at sunset.

Dramatic view from the top of the Old Biscuit Mill of the surrounding neighborhood of Woodstock and the mountains of Cape Town at sunset.

One of the perks of working on assignment for a travel magazine is getting to explore such wonderful places. I recently had two of my images published in the latest National Geographic Traveler magazine for a small article about the Woodstock neighborhood of Cape Town, but there were many other images made that have yet to see the light of day. Take a peek at the gallery of outtakes below from my time exploring this neighborhood home to artists and innovators, great food, and fabulous design.

And if you’ve missed my ravings about how wonderful Cape Town is, check out my travel blog entries including a photo gallery here, more delicious food here, my obsession with the Cape Floral Kingdom, and the funky neighborhood that I briefly called home.

On Newsstands: Cape Town in National Geographic Traveler

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Artists Dani Le Roy (left) and Laura Summs (right) work on one of their signature crochet rugs in the studio of Moonbasket. They create pendant lights, stiffened bowls, jewelry, and motif carpets using crochet and they hire and empower women from the Khayalitsha township to produce the bulk of their materials.

Last November while I was visiting Cape Town, I was given a short assignment by my friend and former colleague Carol Enquist to photograph the Woodstock neighborhood of Cape Town for National Geographic Traveler magazine. With Cape Town being named World Design Capital for 2014, it was the perfect time to explore Woodstock, a neighborhood filled with designers, artists, and innovation tucked at the foot of Devils Peak. I roamed the colorful streets and popped into old warehouses turned new, looking for subjects for my lens, falling more in love with this South African city by the minute. Along the way I was also lucky enough to get to meet up with the writer of the piece, the talented Sarah Khan who is now living in Cape Town.

Go grab the April 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler off of newsstands and stay tuned here for a blog post of some outtakes from the shoot. Then be prepared to want to book a one-way ticket to the Mother City.

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The article on Woodstock ran in National Geographic Traveler‘s Best of the World section and a photo from the artist DALeast‘s studio at Side Street Studios ran on the contents pages of the April 2014 issue.