Breaking the Ice-Shooting portraits in foreign lands

By Amy Novotny

During a recent photography tour in Mongolia, I was exposed to a wide variety of photographic opportunities–landscapes, wildlife, night, street, event, and portrait.  The first three types of photography were easier to accomplish since we did not have to ask permission or be as concerned with privacy issues.  With street photography, this could be minimized by not focusing on a specific person or groups of persons, as shown below.

Image: Kazak women walk down the street market before it opens in Bayan-Olgii, Mongolia.

When taking photos of events or festivals, part of the price of admissions was a photography permit, so I was assured that I would not offend anyone while firing the shutter.  In these situations, I often nodded my head and held up the camera a little to get approval, as I did in the photos below.

Image: Aisholpan sits on her horse with her golden eagle at the Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan-Olgii, Mongolia.

Image: Kazak woman sits with her grandchildren watching the festivities at the Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan-Olgii, Mongolia.

The difficult and often most meaningful shots came when I wanted to capture a portrait of a random person or family to show part of the culture.  As we found out, Mongolians are a peaceful people with a nomadic lifestyle in the countryside.  The country comprises of approximately 3 million people, of which almost 1 million live in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, and the rest in the countryside or small towns.  They have a quiet demeanor but a calm curiosity.  I wanted to demonstrate this in a photograph but at the same time, respect their culture and way of life.

Image: Mongolian Kazak man enjoys traditional Mongolian tea in a ger in Sagsai, Mongolia

Image: Mongolian man was curious about the camera in Tsengel, Mongolia

A couple strategies worked in my favor and I was able to capture the beauty of these people and their emotions.  Since we had an interpreter with our group, I asked him how to say “Hello,” “My name is…,” and “What is your name?” in Mongolian and Kazak.  Those three simple phrases opened the world to me when the interpreter was not present.  I became a person with a sense of realness instead of just a camera.  I could get closer to the person or even photograph families.

Image: Mongolian Kazak women sits in her ger with her son in Sagsai, Mongolia.

Image: Mongolian girl cares for her younger brother in Tsengel, Mongolia.

I also learned to show the person the image I took of him or her to gain his or her interest.  This sometimes backfired on me if I was trying to capture a serious pose, but I didn’t mind seeing the spark of a smile. Most times, the person wanted more images taken.  Families also gathered around me to see the images of their loved ones.

Image: Mongolian family gathers around me, curious about the camera in Tsengel, Mongolia. Image by Rick Jacobi.

This strategy helped with shy children as well as they realized what a camera could do.  The connection made during these moments made the images even more meaningful.

Image: Mongolian toddler was curious about the camera as his mother washes dishes in Bayan-Olgii, Mongolia.

Although these strategies — a head nod, learning a some foreign phrases, and showing what a camera can capture–were performed in a land where I did not speak the native language, I imagine they would work in our country as well.   Connections are priceless.

Amy Novotny is a Volunteer Trip Leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

Twitter: @amynovotnyaz

Instagram: @anovotn

My Camera: bringing down the walls

Author: Rick Jacobi

This blog is not about the quality of your photos, composition of your image or the brand of a camera.  It’s about what a camera can do for you in the presence of a stranger.  So many times when I’m shooting so called “Street Photography”, I have found that my camera has brought down walls that separate me from that person. Once  you engage  a person by asking if it’s “okay” to take their photo and receive approval, you now have entered into their world and space. You have established a connection, a level of trust between the two of you. It may only last seconds or linger for a few minutes but it is a special time for both of you.  The person holding the camera has now been invited into that stranger’s “house”. I have this aspect of street photography to be exciting and very rewarding. It is a privilege and an invitation that would not happen without my camera. I try to take advantage of that invitation by taking the best photos I can. It doesn’t always come out the way I would like but sometimes it is not about the photo but sharing that moment for that short time.


Recently, I was in a “take out” pizza place in Connecticut waiting to pick up my pizza. I asked the person making the pizza if I could take his picture. He said sure (very few times have I had someone say no).  After a couple of photos, he asked if I wanted to see how he cooked the pizza and invited me to come behind the counter.  In just an instance, I was learning how the coal oven worked and how he could tell if the pizza was done. Without my camera I would never had the opportunity to be invited into his “house”.   Right away the wall between the two of us came down and we shared that moment. The photos did not turn out the way I had hoped but again it is not always about the photos but the bonding a camera can bring between two people for a second or two.L1007037

Rick Jacobi is a Trip Leader and the Board President for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

See it, Feel it, Take the Shot

Author: Rick Jacobi

When doing street photography you cannot go looking for a photo, it has to come to you. You have to see it and feel it in a split second. That means your camera has to be ready at all times.  I don’t always  know when a photo opportunity  is going to happen, it just happens.
I was sitting at a bar and all of sudden three glasses appeared. I was not looking for three glasses to shoot. They came to me. My camera was ready and was able to get the shot.
In this next  image, I was admiring the beauty of the bar, but wasn’t compelled to take the shot until the bartender showed up in the middle of the bar. The scene came to me, not me to the scene.  My camera was ready and I got the shot.   With most street photography, I saw it, felt it and took the shot.
Rick Jacobi is a trip leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

Street Photography

by Rick Jacobi

Street photography is a very fun, interesting and different type of photography. Instead of a tripod, you’re hand-holding your camera. Sometimes you have just a split second to take the shot; other times you can take time to work a scene, waiting for just the right gesture or movement. Instead of a mountain or lake that stands still, you are often dealing with people on the move. You don’t have to shoot at sunrise or sunset. Instead, you can get a good night’s sleep without wondering what time the sun will rise.

Light and shadows will be cast by the surrounding buildings throughout the area you are shooting. You can catch reflected light from these buildings’ walls. In street photography, you don’t set out looking for a particular shot like you might in landscape photography. Instead, potential images come your way in the form of a young man walking down the street or a woman smoking a cigarette. When the subject appears, you have to be ready. You must always keep the lens cap off and your camera ready to shoot. You also have to be conscious of your presence. If your camera is sporting a long lens, it will be more intimidating to passersby. If you are having a bad day and are sad or upset, your mood may affect your interactions with potential subjects and make it hard to see a good shot. Try to be in a happy mood when engaging in street photography. This is more about a “feel good shot” rather than a planned shot.

There are three ways to take a photo of a person as you walk the streets:

1. From a distance

In these shots, the subject doesn’t know you are taking their photo. You will want to shoot with a longer lens, such as a 70-300mm or 24-240mm.

2. Close by

Here, the subject knows what you are doing. Close by is the hardest type of street photography because you must enter into a stranger’s personal space for a brief while. These images are often the most rewarding. When I want to take a close-up I have two ways of asking. Either I ask straight-forward if it is OK for me to take someone’s photo, or I jester, pointing to my camera and the person. Very few people say no.

Once given consent, you have a chance to develop a relationship with the person for a short period of time. It may be for just a second or a few minutes. You might need to talk with them in order to ensure they feel comfortable if you are going to take more than one or two shots. This is called “working your shoot.” Take time to get what you want. The goal is not to take a staged photo, but rather to capture a natural depiction of who the subject is at that time and place.

3. At a stationary location

I like to find a great background—possibly a wall or window in a building—and then just wait for the right person to walk by. I usually stand across the street to get this shot. It can take a couple of minutes or half an hour before that right person passes by.

With street photography you will never be able to capture the same moment again. In landscape photography you can go back to a spot repeatedly to capture the right light if need be. In street photography you have only the one shot.

My equipment is a Canon 5D Mark lll with either 24-70mm or 70-300mm lens. I am changing over to mirrorless cameras because they weigh much less and the quality is just as good. I am going to start carrying two light cameras—one with a short 35mm lens in order to not intimidate people, and a second one with 24-240mm for the distance shots. I saw Peter Turnley, a famous photojournalist use two cameras and it seems to work for every situation.

If I am close to a subject and taking my time to get their photograph, I like to shoot one shot at a time. If I am at a distance from a subject I set my camera to high-speed continuous. Then I will take about 4-7 shots of that person, no matter if they are standing still or moving. By shooting continuously I can get the right expression I am looking for. Out of every one hundred images I shoot, I might find one to three that I truly like. If you are close to the subject, remember the eyes tell the story of that person. Make sure to have their eyes in sharp focus.

My advice to you: Walk the streets and start photographing people.  At first it will feel uncomfortable and as if everyone is watching you, but they are not.  Begin by shooting at a distance and as you feel more comfortable, move closer and closer to your subject as time goes on. After a while you will be talking to them with ease and building a relationship in that moment. Show them the photo(s) you take of them and ask for their e-mail address so you can send them the photo. When initiating conversation in order to take a close-up of a person, talk to them in the same way you would like to be approached.

Street photography is a fun experience and a realm of photography in which you don’t need to wake up before the sun rises in order to capture amazing images.

Life in Black & White

by Rick Jacobi

The more I photograph the world around me, the more I am drawn to street photography. For me, it’s images about our humanity that draws my attention.  It fascinates me, how I can capture a moment in someone’s life that will never be replicated exactly the same way again.  I’m allowed just a glimpse into their world that makes me ponder their existence.  What kind of life they have led?  Where did they come from? Where are they going?  What brought them to this place and time at the moment I captured their image.  It is the mystique of these questions that continues to perpetuate my interest in street photography. I like working in black and white as it seems to tell their story in the purest form.  I find color can become a distraction.  So I have created a streamlined workflow for processing my images in black and white that only takes about 4-5 minutes per image.  I use Adobe Lightroom to process my images; however, these same steps can be taken in Adobe Photoshop Raw.

White Balance:  Adjust the slider to your liking.

White Point and Black Point: Start by setting the White Point by holding down the “option or alt key” and move the White slider in either direction until the picture is black. Then move the slider just a little until a point of color comes unto the screen.  Repeat this step with the “Black Slider”.    If the picture never turns completely black, it’s okay.

Clarity:  Don’t over due this.  Most of the time, I keep mine below 10 on the slider.

Contrast:  Do this to your desired look.  It usually doesn’t require much.  I usually keep mine between 5 and 10 on the contrast slider.

Exposure:  Adjust only if you need to.

At this point I take my image into Adobe Photoshop and make a Duplicate layer.

Next I go to Nik Collection and open Silver Efx Pro 2.  I often will use a preset, which are located on the left side of the window.  The ones I like the best are “High Structure Smooth and High Structure Harsh.”  I generally will go through all of the presets before making my final selection.  Then if the image still needs a small tweak, I will make some small adjustments with the sliders and controls on the right panel.

After this step, I Save my image which takes me back into Photoshop.  Again, I will make a Duplicate Layer.

I will reopen the Nik Collection and Color Efex Pro and go to preset on the left called “Darken Lighten Center”.  On the right side of the screen you will see an icon “Place Center”.  I typically place the center of that over a person’s face or area I want to highlight.  Above the icon are the additional sliders “Center Luminosity, Boarder Luminosity and Center Size”.  I adjust those until I get the effect I want. Select Save and return into Photoshop.

One last time, I will make a Duplicate Layer and go to Filter – Sharpen – Unsharp Mask.  Set the Amount to 60;  Radius to 60; and Threshold to 0. This will appear over sharpen but don’t worry about that now.

Save file before continuing with the final steps.

In Photoshop, go to the layer panel on right and click on “Add Layer Mask” located on the bottom of that panel.   Holding down the “option or alt key” click on the icon to add a layer mask.  This will turn the photo back to the way it was before you sharpened it.  Make sure that the foreground color on the left panel is white.  Now I can paint in the areas using the brush tool to sharpen areas that I want.  I typically will do the hair and other detail areas.   How much you do this is your personal taste.  I try not to overdo this.  To see the changes click the layer button on and off to view the before and after results.  If there is a portion you would like to erase, simply turn the foreground color to black and make your brush strokes.

Flatten Layer, Exit and Save.  This puts me back into Adobe Lightroom for a touch of Noise Reduction, a slight tweak of Contrast between 5 and 10 and Exposure if the image is slightly too light or dark.

Save. This completes the process I use for converting images into Black and White. I hope you like your results.