Action Filmmaking 101

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Creating a compelling short film is easy, with a little planning and a willingness to stop what you’re doing and position the camera and the action properly. Most motion clips of weekend activities are boring because they’re shot from one vantage point with one focal length so the viewer never gets a feel for visual variety. In this article, we’ll show you how to mix things up to build a film that will entice your audience instead of putting them to sleep. The art of an action film lies in making it look easy to do. In reality, it’s not difficult, but it does take some planning. Have athletes, hikers or skiers, or as in our example, mountain bikers, who are up for doing some stops and starts during the course of your day of shooting.

1 Establishing Shots. These are shots of the big open environment where your action is taking place. An establishing shot sets the stage. For too many would-be filmmakers, the establishing shot becomes the sole perspective. Don’t let that happen to you. When you’re shooting your establishing shot, try some slow pans or tilts to give you something to work with during your edit later. Depending on your establishing shot, it can look like a still frame, and in that case, having a pan across the scene is especially nice.

2 Moving Through The Landscape. Get yourself to a vantage point where you can shoot your main subject moving through the landscape. This serves as a way to transition from your establishing shot to tighter details. You’ve set the stage, now it’s time to bring your players onto it.

3 Dramatic Up-Close Action. Here’s where your audience will really begin to sit up and take notice. Position yourself where you can get dramatic up-close shots, preferably with a wide-angle lens. Many would-be filmmakers rely on longer focal lengths so they can shoot from a distance. Unfortunately, these kinds of shots always look like just that—a little standoffish. When you get in close with a wide-angle, it really shows. Of course, you also need to protect yourself and your camera when doing this kind of shot. Here’s where you can’t just be shooting off the cuff. Stop and discuss the shot with the subjects (bike riders, in our example). Do a couple of dry runs so that everyone is on the same page as to where they will be when you’re actually shooting.

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4 Coming & Going. Tight, wide-angle action shots work particularly well when you can get shots coming and going. Don’t try to do both at the same time! Shoot a few takes with the action coming, then have your athletes do the same thing while you position yourself to get the “going” shot. You’ll edit them together when you’re back at the computer. Having both angles, coming and going, makes for a dramatic effect. It will take you several takes of the same action to get both, but it’s well worth it.

5 Mix In Some POV. Point-of-view shots have become dead-easy thanks to the proliferation of first-person action cameras like the GoPro HEROs and the Sony Action Cam. These small, fixed-focal-length cameras are capable of recording very high-quality images and they’re incredibly robust. There’s no shortage of mounting options, which makes it possible to use them everywhere, from a helmet to your wrist to handlebars or a bike frame. When you’re using a POV cam, set it up such that you have some of what it’s mounted to in the frame. If you’re placing it on a helmet, have some of the helmet in the frame; if it’s on handlebars, have them in the frame. Because any action will be bouncy, having something in the frame that moves in lockstep with the camera helps keep your viewers from getting motion sick. Also, don’t get too crazy with the POV footage. Save it for spectacular action or impressive displays of speed. If you watch auto racing on TV, think of how the coverage constantly cuts back and forth from the POV in-car footage to action shots from around the track.

6 Show The Passage Of Time. Using some time-lapse to show the passage of time is a great transitional element to put into any motion project. Get some action shots with the sun low on the horizon to insert after your time-lapse footage, and you’ll get a great sense of moving through the day.

7 Closing Shots. One thing a lot of people have trouble with is ending their film. It’s okay to leave it all hanging at the end, but with a little planning, you can easily get a shot that gives a sense of ending. In our example of a mountain biker, showing the athlete off the bike silhouetted against the setting sun is perfect. For any action film, showing your athletes out of their gear—skis, surfboard, bike, etc.—will add a sense of finality. And, of course, a sunset always makes it feel like you’ve come to the end of the day.

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The Art Of Travel Photography

Banff Winter Pond, Alberta

Ever since early photographers began capturing images of faraway places in the mid-19th century, travel photography has enthralled people with tantalizing glimpses of distant lands. Even before the dawn of air travel, photography was shrinking our world by transporting us to foreign countries. Thanks to an assortment of intrepid photographers who roamed the globe looking for the unusual and the exotic, magazines like National Geographic brought the outside world to living rooms across America.

Today, many of us travel with cameras in search of evocative images. But as pictures from around the globe flood the Internet and publicize many of the world’s photo hot spots, it’s harder than ever to find unique shots. When was the last time you saw a fresh composition of Yosemite Valley or the Taj Mahal? Are there really any new ways left to depict lions while on a Kenyan safari? How do we find compelling images without slipping into cliché?

As a working travel photographer, my approach to shooting a destination begins even before I pack my bags. My pre-trip planning includes compiling a thorough shot list for the location. Beginning with specific requests from the client, I find more ideas from browsing stock photo sites to see how a location has been covered by others. Bookstores and the library carry photo books covering diverse locales, and tourism websites often feature regional photo galleries. These potential shots become the foundation of my itinerary as I organize them by location, best time of day to shoot and proximity to other shots.

Intimate slice-of-life shots are another way to bring the viewer closer to a culture or an area. A shopkeeper with her wares, a close-up of flowers or local cuisine, and architectural details enhance the visual story begun by grand panoramas and sweeping cityscape shots.

Arriving on location, I work steadily through my shot list to capture the images that clearly evoke a sense of place. As redundant as they may be, it’s hard to go wrong with classic vistas like the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands parking lot and Yosemite Valley from the Tunnel Overlook. Cliché or not, strong images of the world’s great places are a nice addition to any serious shooter’s portfolio. But to expand our craft, we need to look beyond the obvious and dig deeper.

As I move down my list and tick off the standard shots that identify the destination, I also look for new ways to interpret those icons. Leaving well-trodden routes to wander backstreets, climb hills and search for rooftop views gets me seeing in different ways. Some of my favorite shots happened only because I veered away from the familiar.

Intimate slice-of-life shots are another way to bring the viewer closer to a culture or an area. A shopkeeper with her wares, a close-up of flowers or local cuisine, and architectural details enhance the visual story begun by grand panoramas and sweeping cityscape shots. Every destination has something that distinguishes it from others. Spend time walking the streets or trails, and sooner or later those elements will reveal themselves.

The basic rules of travel photography still guide my approach to shooting on location. I look for the wide shot that captures the overall scene, the medium shot that isolates one or a few features, and the close-up detail shot. Without exception, I’m out shooting during the soft, rich light of early morning and late afternoon into evening. During the hard midday light, I’m scouting the area, photographing people or details in the shade, or shooting with a polarizer to cut down haze in scenics.

While travel to remote regions can result in images that take us far from the ordinary, there are plenty of features near home that evoke the essence of the landscape and culture. While the photos here may be a mix of familiar and unfamiliar, all were taken in North America. None was planned. Each is a combination of light, weather, serendipity and a desire to be in the right place at the right moment.

Banff Winter Pond
A cold winter’s day of shooting around Banff, Alberta, in dreary light had produced little in the way of keeper images. Late in the afternoon, I walked to some half-frozen ponds outside of town and noticed a slender band of clearing sky just above the western horizon. With temperatures hovering around freezing, I decided to stay and see what might happen. Thirty minutes later, the sun broke through, and golden light spilled across the water and surrounding mountains.

Knowing the window of light would be brief, I worked fast using a variety of angles, but I wasn’t satisfied with the results. Switching from medium telephoto to wide-angle lens, I lay down on the frozen pond and crawled toward the water’s edge until the thin ice began crackling beneath me. I started shooting with the aperture adjusted for depth of field, but my camera was unable to expose evenly for both the dark foreground and the bright sky. The solution was a grad ND filter held against my lens, enabling me to balance the difference in light between the two areas and avoid a blown-out sky or lost details in the landscape.

Within 15 minutes, the magical glow faded as abruptly as it had appeared. The rapid shift from gloomy gray to dreamy light was a reminder that patience and watching changing weather conditions can lead to dramatic lighting.
Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF-S 10-22mm ƒ/3.5-4.5 USM, 1⁄15 sec. at ƒ/10, ISO 100

Copper Canyon Sunrise, Mexico

Copper Canyon Sunrise
While traveling in Mexico’s Copper Canyon, I left my hotel before dawn to watch the light as it moved across the rugged barrancas and ridges of this remote region. Since many of the overlooks face east into the rising sun, I anticipated the area would be more of an afternoon shoot and wasn’t expecting much.

Wandering along the canyon rim at sunrise, I noticed a tourist immersed in the serenity of the canyon. Her silhouette framed in the branches of the tree added a human component to the distant ridges bathed in buttery light. Wanting to convey the vastness of the landscape with a human component, I shot tight, adding enough of the receding ridges behind her to place the subject clearly in the environment. The evaluative meter setting in my camera exposed for the canyons and left the person in silhouette. Although the image may look posed, she was captivated by the view and unaware that I was behind her. Being there as the light merged with her private reverie was a privilege.
Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS USM, 1⁄100 sec. at ƒ/11, ISO 100

Bonaventure Island Gannets, Québec

Bonaventure Island Gannets
Large bird colonies are raucous, aromatic and chaotic, and with a little patience they can yield stunning images. Each summer many thousands of northern gannets come to Bonaventure Island in Québec to mate and nest. After a brief boat ride from the mainland and a 30-minute walk across the island, I arrived at a roped-off viewing area. Beyond the rope, hundreds of pairs of gannets crowded together on their nesting grounds.

After photographing the colony with a wide-angle lens, I moved in with a telephoto lens to photograph individual birds. It took me awhile to find a pair that wasn’t stained with guano or dirt, but eventually I spotted these two at the edge of the colony engaged in their intimate bonding ritual. Wanting to isolate them from other birds, I lay down on my stomach, steadied my telephoto lens and began watching the pair. The birds were changing poses constantly, which required fast shooting, and since they weren’t moving toward or away from me, I switched to manual focus to avoid the autofocus lag time and ensure the eyes were in sharp focus.

As I studied them, I noticed certain behaviors followed in sequence, and I was able to anticipate different poses. This shot is one of those moments, representing the strong bonding that takes place between a species that mates for life. The guano stains on my elbows and knees were a worthwhile price to pay for the privilege of witnessing this intimate moment.
Canon EOS 7D, Canon 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 IS USM, 1⁄1000 sec. at ƒ/6.3, ISO 200

Monument Valley Sand Dune, Utah

Monument Valley Sand Dune
Monument Valley, Utah, is famous for its colorful buttes, spires and towers, but it’s becoming harder to find a unique angle on this iconic landscape. For a more personal experience of the park, I hired a Native American guide to take me away from the usual tour routes. As we hiked along a dry creek bed, this rippled dune with pinnacles in the distance intrigued me, but an overcast sky made for dull lighting so we kept walking.

Two minutes later, the clouds broke and I sprinted back to the scene just as sunlight hit the dune. Crouching down, I moved close with a wide-angle lens to emphasize the ripples in the sand that lead the eye to the distant pinnacles. I had time to shoot only three frames before the cloud shadow returned, and two were blurred due to camera shake as I caught my breath from running, but this one was a keeper. The animal tracks climbing up the dune add an element of mystery to the photo.
Canon EOS 7D, Canon EF-S 10-22mm ƒ/3.5-4.5 USM, 1⁄60 sec. at ƒ/14, ISO 100

Alaska Kayaking, Inside Passage

Alaska Kayaking, Inside Passage
After a soggy week of wet weather and dull light along Alaska’s Inside Passage, the skies cleared one morning and we launched two kayaks from our small expedition ship for a trip into a protected bay. The surrounding mountains reflected perfectly in the still water, and as we approached the shoreline, the lines of sky and land began converging on the mirror-like surface.

Having positioned myself in the stern so I could photograph my kayaking partner as a foreground element, I positioned us so I could capture both kayaks and the landscape with a wide-angle lens. With everyone paddling slowly, I was able to freeze the paddle motion with a fast shutter speed, yet still keep a decent depth of field. With the sun at our backs, the tricky part was keeping my shadow off the kayak. Soon after I took this shot, a breeze rippled the water and the reflection vanished.

Equally spectacular but unseen in this photo are the hundreds of golf ball-sized, white jellyfish swimming gracefully just beneath the surface.
Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF-S 10-22mm ƒ/3.5-4.5 USM, 1⁄125 sec. at ƒ/9, ISO 100

Eric Lindberg is a freelance photographer and writer based in Denver, Colo. He’s the 2011 Society of American Travel Writers Photographer of the Year. You can see more of Lindberg’s photography at

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The Unguarded Moment

Boy in midflight, The Unguarded Moment, 2009

It’s obvious at a glance that the cover of Steve McCurry’s new book, The Unguarded Moment (Phaidon), is a great photograph. The more you look at it, though, the more you find yourself drawn into it. You study it, wondering about the running boy caught midstride, midair. Where is he going? Why is he running? You consider the life he may lead, how he came to live in such a place. You shift your gaze to the handprints at the left of the frame. Who put them there? Are they entirely innocent or slightly sinister? The scene is unquestionably beautiful, but it also somehow raises as many questions as it answers. The moment is pure tension—a coiled spring on the verge of release—a consequence of the decisive moment.

McCurry’s photographs, often portraits that center on people amid their daily lives, tend to feel like the kind of images Henri Cartier-Bresson, pioneer of the “decisive moment,” would have produced had he worked in color. Perhaps that’s the most appropriate way to think about McCurry’s work, too, as it’s built on photography’s inherent ability to capture moments like the cover of his book.

Cluster of women during a dust storm, Rajasthan, India, 1983

“I’ve been in that town many times,” McCurry says of the image from Jodhpur, India, “and I know it very well. That particular street, that alleyway—I recognized all those hands on the wall, and there was a sort of simplicity to the design. It was a very busy alleyway. There were cows and women and workers and people with bicycles and motorcycles coming through that alleyway. I took a number of pictures, many of which are fine. It’s just a question of working and waiting for something to come into your frame that will complete the picture.”

If he makes it sound simple, it’s because, to McCurry, the process is inherently so. He seeks simplicity in every aspect of his photography—from the equipment to the technique to the way he finds and engages with his subjects. Simplicity may be his guiding principle, second only perhaps to human interaction and interpersonal connection.

“When you’re out shooting, it’s not just about the pictures,” McCurry says. “It’s also about enjoying your afternoon, or the people you’re photographing, the places you’re photographing. A lot of times when I’m walking down the street, I’ll talk to people—maybe this seems so obvious—I’ll talk to people that don’t even have anything to do with photography. You’re out trying to experience the place. I guess it’s so fundamental, so basic, but I notice sometimes that gets overlooked. For me, photography is more about wandering and exploring, human stories, unusual serendipitous moments that make some interesting comment about life on this planet.”

McCurry frequently refers to his photographic role as that of the wanderer. While his images represent a perfect storm of composition, lighting, color, human emotion, decisive moment and perhaps any number of additional intangible qualities, he says he’s not particularly conscious of them. His focus is much simpler.

Farmer in front of the Taj Mahal, Agra, India, 1998

“I think my brain is sort of thinking of these different elements simultaneously,” he says, “but the one that’s at the forefront, the one that’s most important to me is the story or the human element or some emotional component that may make some comment on the human condition. We’re all human; we’re all in this experience together. We kind of want to share our experience and compare it to other people. When you’re photographing something that’s purely about design, what’s that about?”

Deliberately eschewing precious style in favor of creating personal connections, simplicity of approach becomes as much a tool as any camera technique might be. For McCurry, obvious technique clouds a successful image rather than enhancing it.

“I’m trying to get beyond some clever artifice,” he explains, “a particular way of printing or black-and-white or the tilt of the camera or something where you think, ‘Well, that’s kind of cool,’ but there’s no substance, it’s totally style. I try and work in a way that’s more about the soul of something. It’s not flashy and gaudy or overproduced. It’s just something simple, something minimal.

“I think it’s important not to draw attention to one’s technique and let the picture speak for itself,” McCurry continues. “Let the viewer get absorbed in the emotion or the story that you’re trying to tell. As soon as you start thinking about the particular lens, particular filter or some clever lighting technique, it takes the attention away from the picture. I’ve never been really interested in the technical side of, well, of anything for that matter, but particularly photography. I know enough about the camera, I know enough about the craft to do my work, but it’s not something I really dwell on. I use a simple camera and a couple of lenses. To light things and all that nonsense, that becomes more like work. Whereas when you’re just working with the light, working with what you have, then it becomes a lot more fun. And I think you get a better sense of life.

Slightly extended exposure of a railway station captures the scene’s ambient lighting.

“Photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and André Kertész would only use one or two lenses and work mostly in available light,” he says. “I think the simplicity creates this timeless quality. There’s a freshness, an offhanded quality to it.

McCurry works primarily with ambient light and he says more than 90 percent of his pictures are made with prime lenses—the 35mm and 50mm especially, although he shoots with zoom lenses now. Technical minimalism is something he doesn’t often see from other photographers, particularly those in his workshops. Students forget the basics of simple equipment, simple technique and simple humanity that are the foundation of McCurry’s entire body of work.

“With students, now and then,” he says, “it’s more about the photography when it should be more about experiencing life and observing. They have all this equipment and they’re trying to take everything they can possibly carry so there’s not anything that can get past their lens. It’s almost a burden. I was out with some people, and they kind of raced up to this person and started clicking and they didn’t say hello. They didn’t say hello, they didn’t say goodbye, there wasn’t any kind of communication or niceties.”

It’s the basic human interaction, the spirit of a pleasant afternoon spent exploring, that really enables McCurry to make the connections he seeks to photograph. These skills, not camera skills, per se, allow him to distill his unguarded moments. He insists a practically leisurely approach is paramount.

There’s little shelter from the dust-laden winds that drive across the bone-dry plains of Rajasthan, India, 1983

“I think you do your best work when you’re in a particular frame of mind,” he says. “If you’re out taking a walk, a leisurely walk, a walk where you aren’t really going anywhere, you’re just kind of there in the moment and appreciating that particular unique city. Maybe as a traveler. As a pilgrim. An explorer. You’re just out. That’s the kind of space you want to be in. You have to be childlike in your fascination or in your curiosity or in your playfulness with things around you and people around you.

“One critical element of all this,” McCurry adds, “is you have to engage your surroundings. As you move through the situation, as you move through those streets of Jodhpur, you have to engage—the people, a dog or a cat or a cow or a child. I think you have to interact with these things and stop and talk with somebody or play with somebody. That’s really important because then you’re inside of your surroundings, you’re inside the situation, you’re not an observer, you’re not on the outside looking in. You’re in it. When you’re inside of it, you’re not separate. You’re one with the thing, with that place. And a lot of it has to do with interacting with the situation.

“Clearly, I’m a foreigner,” he continues. “I might be a foreigner, but I’m still a human and I’m still playful with people, and that commonality can be the point. I’m dressed in a particular way, you’re dressed in a particular way, we don’t speak the same language, but we actually have more in common just because we don’t speak each other’s language. If I come up and put my arm around you and make a joke, you’re going to laugh, and suddenly we’re sharing a moment, even if we don’t understand the language. Then you have that kind of bond, that connectedness.”

McCurry’s wandering approach is fundamental, but on assignment for National Geographic his time on location is finite. These two pressing issues are in direct opposition, which can make settling into the appropriate frame of mind a challenge. It’s made even more complicated because success requires, as much as anything, the patience to wait, or the discipline to return later to find the perfect moment.

Debating monks at Bylakuppe, Karnataka, India, 2001

“When you’re on assignment but you do have time constraints,” he explains, “you just have to try to relax. If you’re out shooting from early morning until the sun goes down, you can’t do better than that. Nobody can. You’re seeking out situations and places and light that are going to work for your pictures. You intentionally go to a particular location based in large part on the light; a lot of your routine is based on those kinds of variables. And when you’re wandering around, you can see one thing and decide, well, the light’s not right, the moment’s not right, whatever, and you can continue walking down the street and find another situation.

“There are times when you go back five, 10, 15, 20 times to the same street or the same location,” McCurry continues, “because you’re seeking something out, you’re looking for something or waiting for something to happen. Every day, there’s different light and you’re in a different mood, it rains, it’s sunny, your frame of mind is different, so you go back, and magically things happen. And sometimes they don’t. But you go back.”

The place to which McCurry has continually returned more than any other throughout his career is Asia—India, in particular. The vibrancy, the ornament, the people—all are a draw to the photographer who wants nothing more than to explore and experience. India has continually provided the ideal subject.

“India has been one of the most important places that I’ve worked and photographed over the past 30 years,” he says. “It was the first country that I traveled to as a young photographer, and I found it so unique with its varied cultures and customs and regions. The mix of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity—and to see how they all intermingled—was a constant source of fascination. I was in Ladakh, India, recently living with some nomadic shepherds. I was struck by how little their life had changed. With the exception of some solar panels to create light and their Jeeps parked next to their tent, life seemed the same as it may have been hundreds of years ago.”

Being able to travel the world and explore exotic locales, interacting with a diversity of people and cultures, seems to be at the root of McCurry’s motivation. The camera is the vehicle that has allowed him to lead such an enriching life, and his appreciative approach is one from which he suggests many photographers could benefit.

“I think what keeps you motivated and keeps you going,” he says, “what sustains you… The idea is to enjoy your life, to be fascinated, to be curious, to experience the world and learn. To have it be all these things.”

The Importance Of Color

Looking at The Unguarded Moment, it’s clear that color is important in Steve McCurry’s work. Just how important, though, is up for debate. “Like Cartier-Bresson in color,” is how he describes it, assuming that color was at the forefront of his photographic approach.

“I never really think of color when I’m working,” McCurry clarifies. “That’s not my primary interest. Often, I don’t think too much about the use of color other than trying to avoid a color palette that may be distracting or garish. Of course, I notice colors and how they fit together, but I don’t really consciously go out to make color photographs. Obviously, there are times when you’re confronted with a situation that has a strong color component and, of course, you work with that, but it’s not my main motivation. There’s something I’m trying to distill down to, some essence. I’m trying to get a certain balance that’s not about the color.”

Though his work isn’t about color, McCurry doesn’t ignore it. In fact, he seeks situations with particular tonalities and he deals with them deliberately—as long as the image doesn’t become about color.

“When you’re cruising around, you can’t control what colors are out there,” he says, “but you can control what you photograph. For me, color photography works best in muted, soft-lighting situations with low contrast. I gravitate toward low-light situations. Dark, cloudy days are my favorite situation to shoot in. I get the best results from muted, low-contrast, even light. My eyes are extremely sensitive to light anyway, and with or without a camera, I don’t really enjoy walking around on a bright, sunny day. I much prefer, even without a camera, a cloudy day.

“It was the vibrant color of Asia that taught me to write in light,” McCurry adds. “Still, color alone, or structure for structure’s sake, are not, for me, what finally make a good picture. What makes a powerful image—much like Asia itself—is the confluence of all these elements. More than 20 years later, I still keep shooting in Asia because the place—like the light and the belief that powers life—is inexhaustible.”

McCurry’s Equipment

Nikon D3X with 28-70mm zoom, and prime 28mm, 35mm and 50mm lenses

Hasselblad H3 with 80mm and 150mm lenses

See more of Steve McCurry’s work on his website at

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New Perspective On Iconic Subjects

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Shooting The Bean at twilight and getting the Chicago skyline in its reflection makes for a colorful rendition of the icon—the two girls posing in front give it a sense of scale.

Travel photographers working in tourist destinations face a dilemma: the iconic view, skyline or structure of a place often is so well known and photographed that it’s almost impossible to come up with anything new. But you can’t ignore the icon either—people want to see an angle on Big Ben in a London story, the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Close-up of part of the icon with the skyline reflected.

I faced this dilemma for the umpteenth time on a recent city story assignment in Chicago. True, the huge reflective sculpture by Anish Kapoor—located in downtown Millennium Park and called Cloud Gate, but better known as “The Bean”—is younger and not quite as done to death as many well-known landmarks, but it’s quickly becoming the signature shot of Chicago. I had to give it my best shot while I was there for my coverage.

Now, if you’re blessed with an unlimited budget, unbelievable luck or a boundless imagination, maybe you can be the one-in-a-million shooter to come up with something “fresh.” Personally, I’d love to hire a big cherry picker and shoot straight down on The Bean with a wide-angle lens. But the equipment rental and permit problems would make that far too expensive a proposition for me or any of my current clients. I also wouldn’t mind being the guy lucky enough to shoot The Bean during a special lighting occurrence, with a rainbow soaring over it or a spectacular sunset behind it. Or, I’d love to be gifted with a flash of inspiration or an eye so original that I could come up with something that the legions of shooters before me overlooked. Alas, barring divine intervention, that’s not in my cards either.

A midday view showing the icon in its surroundings.

So what do I do when faced with such an icon? I give it the 360-degree treatment, which is to say, I simply work it to death! That’s right, when talent leaves you short, your budget is limited and luck is in short supply, there’s always hard work and shoe leather.

Following is my checklist for working an icon. Try to apply it the next time you’re facing a well-known symbol to see if you can spruce up the freshness of your photographs.

Time Of Day. Never be satisfied with shooting your icon once. Most have placement that favors morning, say, over afternoon, but even if you’ve done it once in the “right” light, go back at least twice.

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The Bean is so highly reflective that there only are several times of day to shoot, but I found that twilight, that 30 to 45 minutes after sunset, gave me my most interesting results, and the rich blue of the sky (that makes up so much of any shot of the round, highly polished structure) looked better than the daylight sky. The warm lights of the skyline reflected in that surface also looked good.

Weather Conditions. If you happen to be around when there’s an unusual weather condition, say, fog, a driving snowstorm, pouring rain or howling wind, don’t miss going out to shoot your icon in these special circumstances. That’s why, when I hear the weather might be turning bad, I hope it turns really bad because those extreme conditions provide a rare view of your icon. Mildly bad weather, on the other hand, a little haze or a nondescript sky, usually won’t give you the drama you need to make a striking shot.

Just Shoot A Part Of The Icon. Some icons are so, well, iconic that all you need is a part of them for your viewer to infer the whole. So, if you can find a great little café scene with one tower of Tower Bridge soaring in the background, you’ve placed your shot in London. In the case of The Bean, I came in close with a tele-zoom and shot the reflection of the Chicago skyline in just a part of the sculpture’s shiny surface.

Using the icon as a backdrop for prom kids having fun.

Juxtapose An Action In Front Of The Icon. Another way to get a new look at an icon is to use it as a background for some other, perhaps more common activity. A lot of photographers, for instance, shoot the skateboarders on La Place de l’Etoile with the Eiffel Tower behind them to give that Parisian icon a fresh look and a sense of moment.

I was in Chicago in May, prom season, and I noticed a lot of gussied-up high-school kids in tuxes and gowns coming down in the evening to shoot pictures of each other in front of The Bean. So, of course, I did the same thing, often hanging back with a long lens so all I’d see were the kids with this huge mirror surface reflecting the skyline behind them. It was fun to see how creatively these kids would pose and horse around in front of this giant mirror.

Use Extreme Optics. If you own a really long tele or an extreme wide-angle or fisheye, try using it on your icon. The extreme rendition of perspective with these lenses can help you come up with fresh angles and juxtapositions.

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Super close-up of the underside of The Bean
using a fisheye lens.

When National Geographic did its special issue on France, staff photographer James Stanfield used a 400mm lens to shoot the Eiffel Tower. What he created was an extremely compressed view of lanes and lanes of traffic, with their taillights glowing, pouring underneath the lower sections of the Tower legs. You never saw more of the Tower than the very bottoms of the leg, but it dominated the scene the way no overall shot could.

I took along my 10.5mm fisheye to Chicago and used it extensively right up next to and even inside The Bean. The fisheye’s unique curvature created a lot of interesting perspectives, and the shot looking straight up inside created a multifaceted look with a variety of planes that made it look like a shot from a psychedelic ’60s movie.

Play Peekaboo! This is a related technique to showing just a part of the icon. The “peekaboo” approach (for lack of a better descriptive term) involves seeing how many ways you can work the icon into the background of other pictures. In the case of The Bean, which is relatively small and low compared to other city icons, it was more or less impossible for me to do this.

But a few years ago, I shot a city story on Toronto for National Geographic Traveler. Of course, that city’s icon is the very tall, and hence ubiquitous, CN Tower. At first, it started showing up by accident in the backgrounds of street scenes, park scenics and café shots, and it would immediately place the shot in Toronto. After a while, I made a little game of seeing how many ways I could work that distinctive tower silhouette into the background of more generic shopping and street-scene shots to give it the Toronto treatment.

Another twilight beauty shot of The Bean in its surroundings.

Look For Reflections, Miniatures And Souvenirs. Another way to photograph your icon is to look for its reflection in surrounding windows, building facades and even rain puddles or fountains. The reflection often has an impressionistic quality that puts that different spin on the shot.

Another clever approach is to shoot displays of souvenirs, usually miniature versions, of the icon. I’ve seen very clever shots of stacks of the Arc de Triomphe on souvenir tables on the Champs Élysées with the real structure in the background. Then there’s the classic shot of a cute little tourist child wearing a big Nerf version of the crown of the Statue of Liberty, emulating the famous stance in front of the real deal. Or somebody holding a postcard of a famous skyline view in front of the camera with the actual view in the background—you get the picture.

Using this humorous approach, or any of these other tips, can save your icon shot from the purgatory of being a total cliché. So the next time you face one of these icons, give it the 360-degree shoe-leather treatment, and who knows, in the midst of all your hard work, you may just uncover an original masterpiece!

For a schedule of Bob Krist’s workshops and seminars, check his website,, under the “Teach and Talk” heading.

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Scouting Report: Papua New Guinea

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Huli warriors, Mt. Hagen Cultural Show, Papua New Guinea.

It’s a hot, sunny afternoon on this tropical island in the Pacific, and it appears as though I’m in trouble. I’ve been sitting peacefully on the ground in a field near Mt. Hagen, loading new cards and doing a bit of “chimping,” when a marching phalanx of native warriors, warming up for a cultural show, wheel around and head right for me. Linked arm in arm and carrying large stone axes, they let out a bloodcurdling series of strange war whoops that sound like those old Tarzan yodels. But I’m stuck sitting down, smack in the path of this jungle juggernaut, and there’s no way I’m going to get out of their way in time.

As the bellicose crew bears down on me, the first row of painted warriors raise their axes and I, in turn, raise my camera and then…their lines part slightly as they march around me, lifting their arms to pass over my head like square dancers. As I shoot away with my wide-angle zoom, I catch the eye of one of the warriors passing right over me and, yes, he throws me a little smile and a wink!

As recent as 40 years ago, a similar scenario might have ended tragically, with me possibly being the main course of the midday meal for these highland warriors. But Papua New Guinea, one of the most remote and exotic cultures in the world, has gradually opened its doors. Today, a growing number of visitors travel thousands and thousands of miles to witness one of the world’s most interesting and colorful cultures and certainly one of the prime destinations for travel photographers.

Papua New Guinea is located on the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, about 100 miles north of Australia. Irian Jaya, the western half of the island, is a province of Indonesia. Papua New Guinea is made up of the main island and more than 600 smaller, offshore islands.

Although Papua New Guinea isn’t quite as wild and remote as it once was, travel within the country can be difficult and expensive. For that reason, it’s best to go with an organized tour. Most tours offer segments that bring you to the most interesting regions of the island: the highlands of Tari and Mt. Hagen, and a journey along the Sepik River. If you’re lucky, your trip will coincide with one of the semiannual Highland Cultural Shows, where tribes from all over the island assemble to parade in their fantastic costumes and makeup (and occasionally scare the living daylights out of visiting photographers!).

There are a few key points to keep in mind when preparing for a trip to Papua New Guinea. On many domestic flights, there are strict weight limitations for baggage. On some flights, this can be as little as 18 pounds! So pack as lightly as possible.

First, pare your clothing down to an absolute minimum. If you haven’t already discovered the wonders of high-tech, quick-dry “performance” clothing, now is the time. I got by for three weeks with only two sets of pants, shirts and underwear, which I’d wash out every other night. A windbreaker and photo vest were the only other clothes I brought.

I have several equipment “modules” that I can resort to, depending on the demands and restrictions of the assignment. For a trip like this, where luggage weight is important, my current “lightweight” module includes two Nikon D90 bodies, 16-85mm and 70-300mm VR Nikkors, a 35mm ƒ/1.8 Nikkor for available light situations, as well as an 18-200mm VR Nikkor as a backup. I picked my lightest tripod, a Gitzo with a Really Right Stuff ballhead, Nikon SB-800 Speedlight and 32-inch, five-surface folding reflector.

As for the computer, well, there is none, just two Epson P-7000s, a 320 GB WiebeTech hard drive with an AC adapter, a few Nikon battery chargers and AA lithiums for the flash. With my camera bag, clothes bag and “computer,” my outfit tilts the scales at about 30 pounds, still too high, but manageably over the limit.

The Tari Highlands, smack in the center of mainland New Guinea, are a must-see. Here, the concept of payback exists to this day, and the “eye for an eye” mentality often sets villages at one another’s throats to extract payback for someone accidentally killed in a road accident or other incidents.

The main draw here are the Huli Wigmen. The Hulis, indeed most Papua New Guineans, are very amenable to being photographed, and it doesn’t take much to persuade a warrior to sit for a tight face portrait. Although I often use fill-flash shooting portraits in harsh lighting conditions, I prefer the big, broad source that the reflector can provide, and I’m able to enlist the aid of one of my fellow visitors to act as “reflector jockey” while I make portraits of these proud warriors with a short telephoto lens.

Nearby Kara is a Huli bachelor’s village where young unmarried men spend time growing their hair for the fantastic wig headdresses the warriors wear festooned with bird-of-paradise feathers. I was in deep woods in this small village, and the light levels are low and overcast. Here, for added mobility and to make sure I got detail in shots of the bachelors tending to their growing hair, I boosted the ISO to 400, sometimes 800, and used the SB-800 in Balanced TTL mode. The resulting pictures have a natural look with plenty of color and detail.

Not everything goes on in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. The Sepik River, back at sea level, is another major draw. It’s reached via a short flight on a small airplane. Whenever you’re on a small plane for a domestic flight in Papua New Guinea, it pays to try for a window seat in front of or behind the wing. Although heavy airplane window glass isn’t the most optically clear, you’d be surprised at what you can get through a relatively clean airplane window.

I got some good views of the highlands as we climbed out of the area, but the best aerials came as we descended into the steamy lowland jungles near Timbunke on the middle Sepik River. For this, a lens in the normal range (like the 35mm ƒ/1.8 Nikkor on the APS-sized chip in the D90) will allow you to get interesting compositions of the serpentine river wending its way through the dense, low forest.

Although the Sepik is about 700 miles long and starts in the mountains of central New Guinea, it only covers about 200 miles as the crow flies, so that gives you an idea of how serpentine it is. Traditional dugout canoes travel the river, as people trade in the villages lining its banks. The architecture here, the tamburan, or spirit house, is unique with its soaring gables and carved posts, and the area is also known for the great carved wooden masks, statues, story boards and basket hangers.

Most tours will base on a river-going ship like the Sepik Spirit. As it cruises down the river of this remote region, stand on deck with a telephoto zoom and be ready to capture the scenes of river life—carved dugout canoes gliding past, women preparing manioc on the banks, children frolicking outside straw houses on stands. Try to be out on deck for sunset and the next morning’s sunrise as well.

There’s something a little incongruous about traveling one of the most remote rivers in the world in an air-conditioned boat, but I confess that I don’t miss sleeping in the steamy conditions. Ordinarily, coming from a cool, air-conditioned cabin into a steamy jungle river environment wreaks havoc on your equipment in the form of moisture condensation, and many of my fellow passengers wait for 15 minutes or more for their cameras to defog when they bring them outside.

If you’re lucky, your trip will coincide with one of the semiannual Highland Cultural Shows, where tribes from all over the island assemble to parade in their fantastic costumes and makeup (and occasionally scare the living daylights out of visiting photographers!).

But I learned a long time ago to travel with a mini-hairdryer (mine weighs less than six ounces) in the tropics. If you spend a minute or two going over your equipment with a hairdryer before you leave your air-conditioned room, you’ll warm it up to the point where condensation isn’t a problem. You’re able to start shooting the minute you hit the top deck and make the most of the beautiful early-morning light.

You’ll spend a few days on the Sepik visiting villages, touring spirit houses and buying crafts. The latter make for great detail shots, and you can isolate a series of masks using the long end of your telephoto zoom. The interiors of the spirit houses are pitch dark, and rather than lose the ambiance by using a big pop of direct flash, hang the 32-inch reflector on a wall, white side out, (or ask one of your group to hold it) and bounce the strobe for a more natural-looking light.

Another must-see occurs in August and September, when all the clans gather for a large show, or “sing-sing,” in Mt. Hagen or Goroka. The Highland Cultural Show remains my most memorable as a travel shooter—I’ve never made more exposures in one four-hour period!

Besides taking plenty of cards and batteries (there are no camera stores up here!), there are a few other things to keep in mind should you be lucky enough to attend a Highland Show. (If you can’t make one of the main two, there are several smaller ones throughout the year.)

A tripod will only slow you down, but take the folding reflector. The 32-inch size folds down to a third of that diameter and slips in the back pocket of many camera bags. If you travel with a companion, he or she can be the reflector jockey, providing much needed fill light in the tropical sun. You also can recruit other visitors and even other tribesmen as “instant assistants.” If no one is around to hold a reflector, you always have your Speedlight to do some fill-flash.

You’ll be out for hours in the hot tropical sun, so sunscreen and a hat are needed, as is a bottle of water (there are soft drinks for sale at the event if you need more). Arrive several hours before the actual show time because that’s when the groups apply makeup and rehearse, and are at their most approachable.

You can shoot during the show, of course, but I found my most successful pictures were taken during the makeup and rehearsal period, when the groups are more relaxed and approachable.

Photographing the Highland Cultural Show is guaranteed to be one of the highlights of your traveling career. You’ll expend more pixels and energy here in one day than you would have thought possible. But one final tip: Even though you’ll be on your feet for hours on end, avoid the temptation to sit down on the job to relax and reload. As I learned firsthand, you don’t want to be sitting in between a group of Papua New Guinea warriors and their adoring public!

Scouting Report is an occasional series to appear in Photo Traveler, covering popular destinations for outdoor and travel photographers and how to plan and photograph a trip.

Visit Bob Krist’s website at For more information on planning a trip to Papua New Guinea, visit Trans Niugini Tours at

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