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I travel the world on assignment for National Geographic Traveler. Although I often have a translator who can also be my photo assistant, I still prefer to travel and shoot with as little equipment as possible; it keeps my mind focused on the subject, not which gadget or lens to pull out of my bag. I use everything I carry with me, except a few back-up items, which I leave in the hotel.
As a travel photojournalist, I have to be very adept at shooting a wide variety of subjects, such as landscapes, food, fast-moving action/events, architecture, close-ups, and of course, all kinds of people in all types of environments. Although I don’t carry a lot of equipment, what I do have is utterly essential for me to be able to express my vision. My cameras and lenses are simple: two Canon 5D Mark II bodies; a Canon 24-70mm F/2.8 lens; and a Canon 16-35mm F/2.8 lens. I keep an extra 24-70mm lens in the hotel room in case something happens to the one I am using. I always have UV filters on the lenses for protection.
Graduated neutral density filters are a critical part of my photo gear. On a recent photo assignment in Transylvania for National Geographic Traveler, I discovered a region so wildly photogenic, there was a photo every time I turned the corner or came around the bend. The light was spectacular. Every day was a drama of changing weather: stormy dark thunder clouds, then a sudden sharp ray of sun; long, deep dusks with skies that lingered as a rich royal blue; perfect sunny days with white, puffy clouds. In order to emphasize the drama of these skies, I often used two graduated neutral density filters to darken the sky when there was both sun and clouds, or for dark skies, to make the scene even more dramatic.
I was on top of a mountain just above Dracula's castle with a shepherd who was tending his sheep. We had walked quite far from the hut, and could see a threatening rain cloud coming our way. To my eye the sky was a fantastic dark grey, but on the LCD screen, it looked washed out. I put on both graduated ND filters, the 2 and the 3, snapped the shutter and the subsequent image took my breath away. The dark clouds emphasized the hugeness of the landscape and the smallness of the shepherd. It was the dark sky that created the drama.
Before digital I shot slide film, and rarely could go above 800 ISO. Now, with my Canon 5D Mark II, I am constantly amazed that I can shoot at ISO's of 3200 and higher. Nevertheless, I often use my Canon 580EX II Speedlite Flash, especially for night life.
As often happens on assignment, I get spontaneously invited to weddings and parties. I found myself at this high society wedding in the town of Sibiu and, as with all foreign cultural events, I was delighted and intrigued by their rituals and many different kinds of dances. In this shot, a pair of startlingly talented kids performed for the bride and groom. In order to freeze the action of their poses, yet maintain both some blur of movement and the ambient light of the place itself, I bounced my Canon 580EX II Speedlite Flash off the ceiling while keeping the plastic white card up on the flash. I didn’t need a lot of light from the flash, so I set it to -2/3. I set my camera at 1200 ISO to be able to shoot at 1/80 of a second at F.5. This gave a tiny blur because the dancers were moving fast, and just enough depth of field to take in the dancers and the bride. Also, I purposely wanted the other photographer's flash to go off to make the whole scene as much of a performance as possible with lights, camera, action.
Because I am obsessed with traveling light, I carry the sturdiest tripod I can find that is also light as a feather. I have to say that I love my Gitzo Explorer Carbon Fiber Tripod. I can carry it on my shoulder, with a Gitzo Tripod Shoulder Strap all day in a city, or even hiking up mountains. Not only is it light, it is also fast. Because I use a Sachtler Touch and Go Quick Release Plate. I can set up my camera and tripod in seconds. This is important for when I am photographing situations that change fast, or people in low light.
I had just photographed inside a church during Sunday mass. Somehow I found myself following the priest as he entered a clergy room behind the church. The light was amazing. He turned and looked at me. I asked him if he would just stay there for a quick portrait. I needed my tripod because I wanted to do a highly controlled shot where I could place him perfectly with the background, be sure of the shallow depth of field, and most importantly make sure that his eyes would be sharp and piercing. I had to get that tripod up super fast, and use the ball head to get the framing before I lost the moment. In a second I was shooting his amazing expression. In three seconds, the look was gone.
I used to carry my strobes around the world, but now I just take two flashes and a 22" Collapsible Soft Gold Photoflex Reflector.That handy disk has helped me out in a lot of situations, especially shooting food.
I admit that I am obsessed by how people eat in foreign countries, so it was particularly exciting to watch the Transylvanian shepherds prepare their lunch of polenta and scrambled eggs. The polenta was a gorgeous deep yellow, but because it was so back lit, it looked washed out. I used the 22" Collapsible Soft Gold Photoflex Reflector to catch the outside sun and reflect it back onto the polenta, and the resulting color just makes you want to take a spoonful right away.
If you would like to learn more about tips and tricks from National Geographic Traveler photographers, sign up for one of the NG Traveler photo seminars at NGTravelerSeminars.com.