Romania (Transylvania and Salina Turda) by Kenneth Kao

Last November, Marlo and I headed to Romania for photo shoots in Transylvania (yes, it’s a real place!) and Salina Turda.  It was a whirlwind of a trip and was after we’d already been on the road for about two months; it was our ninth country out of twelve.  We’d been planning Romania for a long time.  Between the castles, the forests, and the salt mine, there was just so much that screamed – EPIC photo shoot!  In a little more than 30 hours, we were able to get 5 photoshoots completed in 4 locations, with about 6 hours of driving and 2 hours of sleep before a red-eye flight.  The shots we got turned into this beautiful contrast of the romanticism of an abandoned castle against the sci-fi likeness of the salt mine-turned-museum of Salina Turda.

We were incredibly lucky to get these shots, for many reasons.

Briefly: Romania is as iconic as it gets when you think about the Middle Ages/Romantic Period/ Victorian Period.  Sure, everyone knows Dracula, and most people know that Vlad the Impaler was the inspiration for Dracula--but as much as this is the case, we were surprised that Romania didn't play this up for tourists.  There weren't Dracula-inspired souvenirs everywhere.  In fact, they seemed far more concerned about living their own lives than dealing with tourists.  This was something we appreciated.  Romania has an authenticity to it that makes everything so much COOLER.  Even their castles aren't really suped-up (oh, and a sidenote: Romania has some really great food.  Hardy food.  Yum.  I mention this here because I said, "suped-up".  Get it?), as many countries do with their palaces and "historic" places.  To me, what's the point of seeing an ancient location if it's turned into a laser light-show choreographed to music?  Takes all the awe out of it, if you ask me.

Castle Hunting in Transylvania

 Vlad the Impaler

Vlad the Impaler

We had been trying to find good locations to shoot, and it was already 3 days into our trip with nothing to show.  I was starting to panic (Marlo's always chill), and I was feeling the pressure of finding a location that not only was close and accessible, but something that Marlo could interact with.  See, we look for several things when we shoot, but interactivity is a huge piece. I mean, what's the point of shooting in a location if you don't interact with it?  You might as well print out a nice backdrop and stand in front of it.

This desire almost cut out all the castles we thought would have worked.  There are actually 3-6ish castles that claim title to the "Dracula's castle" ranging from places that Vlad was captured, to places that he used as a fortresses during various stages of his rule.  Regardless, well worth seeing any of them.  Read up on him.  It's surreal that someone like that ever existed.  I mean, dining on people's organs right after you impaled them, while they watch you?  Nasty dude.

 Pelisor Castle in Sinaia, Romania, is privately owned and absolutely iconic to the fairytale castle look.  Just a gorgeous place.  But doing a photoshoot isn't possible here as security is quite attentive, though nice.

Pelisor Castle in Sinaia, Romania, is privately owned and absolutely iconic to the fairytale castle look.  Just a gorgeous place.  But doing a photoshoot isn't possible here as security is quite attentive, though nice.

Anyway, the problem with shooting with a castle is that it's hard to capture the entirety of it because it just looks like a wall if you stand too close, and it's impossible to interact with it if you're far.  If you're inside it, it's difficult to get special permission, and...that pretty much takes all the options away.  So, a little disheartened that we didn’t get those shots we wanted with Marlo and her castle, we moved on to our next big location, the one that this entire Romania trip was planned around.

Salina Turda

Salina Turda is a salt mine that continuously provided salt in the Middle Ages and has been since converted into an...amusement park?  WTF?  And there was a LAKE inside this massive cave thing?

Incredible.  

It's been picked up by so much media, lately, because of how unique it is.  It looks like some sort of sci-fi dreamland.  We had called ahead, and confirmed that it was okay to do photoshoots inside.  They charged something around 50-75 dollars, US.  WOW.  I've never seen a place charge so little for a permit to shoot.  And all you had to do was show up.  It was incredibly reasonable, and it wasn't until Corvin's Castle the next day that I realized that all of Romania has reasonable permit costs for photoshoots.  Unbelievable.  I'm used to seeing $600 dollar price tags that basically make it impossible for me to shoot in a location--cause guess what?  I'm not making money off my shoots.  We do it for fun, and adventure.

This was our last day-ish to get the shots we'd dreamt of.

Somehow, we managed to choose the day we were there on a national holiday.  A big one.  The place was PACKED.  When we got there, we were so disappointed and discouraged.  All this traveling and planning, and we couldn't get a clean shot, anywhere.  And, the location was closing very soon--a couple hours to spare.  I was determined not to lose out on such a crazy location, though, so I ran all the way back to the entrance, up flights and flights of stairs, and tunnels and lines, etc., and found an employee to talk to.  It took like 30 minutes just to get back to the entrance.  The employee's name was Daniel Popa, and to him I owe a huge debt.  Basically, I was told by him that the park was what it was.  There was no way to stay after hours, and of course we couldn't block crowds.  Our permit didn't allow for anything more than whatever was available--and off limit areas are off limits, just as blocking people and paths isn't an option (not that we would consider that).

It's never comfortable shooting in front of people watching, either, especially if the costume Marlo is wearing isn't covering everything--and children and families are walking around.

I kept asking him about ideas--in particular about one location that was, well, off limits.  Why was it off limits?  Because stuff (rocks?  Water?) could fall from the ceiling.  COULD.  Even if unlikely, no one was allowed back there.  I asked him to make an exception, but he refused because he didn't have any right to allow it.  And we couldn't stay after hours; they couldn't hold up the entire park just for us.  It all made sense, but we had come to Romania specifically for this location.  It was so disappointing, and in large part due to the fact that we chose the worst day possible to arrive.

So he gave in to my begging, in order to call the manager/owner, who wasn't around at the time.  After much discussion, Daniel came back to me with a smile, and told me that he could lead me to the off limits area as a personal guide!  That was all he could do, though, and we only had 1 hour total left.  ...it'd taken me 30 minutes to just get upstairs...

I was elated.  But with only 1 hour left.  And with the lines...

 #notme, but you get the idea.

#notme, but you get the idea.

Dan skipped us ahead of people.  Special employee privilege, and not only did he do that, he acted as a tour guide--giving us plenty of information to the history and what we were looking at as we made our way down.  He got us behind the off-limits area, and we, I'm so proud to say--got the shots!  Two locations, inside this ancient salt mine converted to amusement park.  We had about 15 minutes to actually shoot in each location, so I worked faster than I ever have--maybe. 

BUT CHECK THESE OUT!

 This is one of my favorite shots of all time.  It was done in a rush, but we managed to pull it off.  I wish I could've captured the water all around us, something like a cenote underground, but it was impossible to frame.  This is the shot we planned and dreamed of, and I'm thrilled that Salina Turda was able to work with us and help us achieve this dream.  To learn more, read the blog!

This is one of my favorite shots of all time.  It was done in a rush, but we managed to pull it off.  I wish I could've captured the water all around us, something like a cenote underground, but it was impossible to frame.  This is the shot we planned and dreamed of, and I'm thrilled that Salina Turda was able to work with us and help us achieve this dream.  To learn more, read the blog!

 So, I have mixed feelings about this one.  It was even more rushed, and as a result, I don't think we got "THE" shot we were looking for.  We tend towards active and interactive shots, rather than stand-and-look-pretty shots.  We try to show "proof" that we were on location.  But in this case, with the park closing, there wasn't much more time than to set up and take a couple shots, and break down.  I think this one still lends a curious steampunk energy, though--and I definitely want to use this outfit again for another more intense steampunk look.

So, I have mixed feelings about this one.  It was even more rushed, and as a result, I don't think we got "THE" shot we were looking for.  We tend towards active and interactive shots, rather than stand-and-look-pretty shots.  We try to show "proof" that we were on location.  But in this case, with the park closing, there wasn't much more time than to set up and take a couple shots, and break down.  I think this one still lends a curious steampunk energy, though--and I definitely want to use this outfit again for another more intense steampunk look.

Here's the Behind the Scenes Video:

Now, in order to not make this blog too long--the slideshows will have the incidentals, and I'll be brief about the other three locations we shot at.

The Abandoned Mansion of our Dreams

The next morning, we were planning on going to the "most haunted forest in the world."  This was supposed to be the forest with the most documented paranormal activity in the world.  As we were driving toward it, there were definitely a large number of frightening dogs (everywhere, and super aggressive dogs!), but we actually...never found it.  If that counts for paranormal--a large forest we never found, then maybe it really is paranormal :).  Jokes aside, we did run across an abandoned train--which was really cool.  We did a brief photoshoot there, but we weren't really prepared, so I'm not terribly happy with the shots.  Check out the "keeper" shot:

 I have mixed feelings about this shot as well.  The framing isn't quite right, but the natural light is just so beautiful.  I feel like the body angles and the pose in the lower extremities don't really show the same energy as the upper torso--but all that being said, I still really like this one.  Despite any technical issues, it still carries the weight of the environment.  Marlo's post describes this location more--this abandoned train that we found instead of the most haunted forest in the world, so follow her for more info, or read the blog.

I have mixed feelings about this shot as well.  The framing isn't quite right, but the natural light is just so beautiful.  I feel like the body angles and the pose in the lower extremities don't really show the same energy as the upper torso--but all that being said, I still really like this one.  Despite any technical issues, it still carries the weight of the environment.  Marlo's post describes this location more--this abandoned train that we found instead of the most haunted forest in the world, so follow her for more info, or read the blog.

The next location was completely random.  We were driving, and Marlo grabbed me (or verbally jumped.  I don't remember the details to how she got my attention), and she made us turn around to look at this incredible house.  Romania has THE most incredible roofs.  Houses and buildings everywhere look like wizard houses.  I love the architecture so much.  It's definitely one of the most attractive places to me, and I really wish I could live in some of these houses for at least part of each year.  Anyway, this house didn't fit at all.  It was this exquisite mansion that looked straight out of India.  We pulled over, and talked to some neighbors, to which they responded in disdainful tones, "It's a gypsy house.  You can buy it for ______".  I get the impression "gypsies" aren't really seen in a positive light.  But for lack of better term, we'll continue calling it a gypsy home, even though I'm aware it might be an insulting term depending on who you're talking to.

Well, the gypsy home was completely abandoned, and incredibly gorgeous.  There was a single wire holding the door shut--so we let ourselves in.  It was the stuff of dreams, for a photographer.  Sure, there was bird poop everywhere, and leaking roofs and stray cats, but all in all, still extremely beautiful with the peeling paint and the ornate everything.  I loved it.  I wish to go back.  Well, we ended up doing a full on shoot, there, even though we didn't have the costumes for it.  Check out the images here:

 I am ridiculously proud of this shot.  The technical pieces to this, on the photography side, make me so happy.  There are two artificial light sources, and two/three natural light sources.  Both artificial lights are to the right of the image.  They are shot through two different windows.  Behind her is a very soft light, shot through a cloudy window, and the light in front of her is a blue and red gel stacked together, shot through the same kind of window...maybe the red was actually an orangish gel (I can't exactly remember).  Anyway, not only was the light softened significantly, but it has a natural look even though the color of the stacked gels ends up making the light look purple.  The shadows of the window's frame adds an authenticity to this image, and the mixed natural light...I am just over the top with this.  Marlo isn't the most thrilled about the pose--but *I* love it.  I think it fits perfectly.  On the BTS side, you'll have to read the blog to get more info, but we weren't prepare to find this place or shoot here.  It was dumb luck, and Marlo's outfit?  Basically a piece of fabric with jewelry.  But it works, doesn't it?

I am ridiculously proud of this shot.  The technical pieces to this, on the photography side, make me so happy.  There are two artificial light sources, and two/three natural light sources.  Both artificial lights are to the right of the image.  They are shot through two different windows.  Behind her is a very soft light, shot through a cloudy window, and the light in front of her is a blue and red gel stacked together, shot through the same kind of window...maybe the red was actually an orangish gel (I can't exactly remember).  Anyway, not only was the light softened significantly, but it has a natural look even though the color of the stacked gels ends up making the light look purple.  The shadows of the window's frame adds an authenticity to this image, and the mixed natural light...I am just over the top with this.  Marlo isn't the most thrilled about the pose--but *I* love it.  I think it fits perfectly.  On the BTS side, you'll have to read the blog to get more info, but we weren't prepare to find this place or shoot here.  It was dumb luck, and Marlo's outfit?  Basically a piece of fabric with jewelry.  But it works, doesn't it?

And the 360° video here:

Our last location was Corvin's Castle.  We had to get there before sunset, and since we'd burned several hours at this gypsy home, we had to skip lunch and drive straight to it.  We, unfortunately, often miss the tourism part of visiting locations because we're always rushed for time, but we decided to at least walk through the castle and take a look around.  

Now, it was almost sunset, and they would light the castle up after sundown.  So once again, we were rushed to get our shot.  We don't like the artificial lighting, often, and sunset in general is a great time to shoot.  This was one of those locations that couldn't care less if you took pictures outside, so we did!  People were staring and pointing, of course, but in this case there wasn't much other option.  The whole action/interaction piece, plus the character of the image was a tough one to balance.  Marlo loves to be active and move for pictures, but this location and her costume definitely said more of a "princess" or "sorceress" look.  We have a lot of great shots here, but here's the one we ended up with (I DID replace the sky, for drama.  So don't be surprised.):

 Once again, a shot that I'm ridiculously proud of.  It's not generally what we want--active, interactive rather than standing-in-front-of-something, but at the same time it was so fitting.  We walked out with so many great shots that we didn't know how to choose, but ultimately this is the one it came down to.  The image was shot on the 15mm Laowa, macro lens.  I know, this isn't macro, but it was the only lens I owned wide enough to capture this scene in its entirety.  As a result, there is a softness to this image, as I'm using it against design, but sharpness isn't everything and I actually like what happened to the image, like I used some special texture to it.  I also caught, in this shot, a small lens flare right over Marlo's right hand, which we played with a bit and I felt it added to the fantasy/sorceress look we were striving for.  If I get enough encouragement, maybe I'll finish some of the other shots we loved, and share those.  What do you think?  Read the blog to see the cinemagraph and more information about Corvin's Castle, which is in the background, and is one of Dracula's castles.

Once again, a shot that I'm ridiculously proud of.  It's not generally what we want--active, interactive rather than standing-in-front-of-something, but at the same time it was so fitting.  We walked out with so many great shots that we didn't know how to choose, but ultimately this is the one it came down to.  The image was shot on the 15mm Laowa, macro lens.  I know, this isn't macro, but it was the only lens I owned wide enough to capture this scene in its entirety.  As a result, there is a softness to this image, as I'm using it against design, but sharpness isn't everything and I actually like what happened to the image, like I used some special texture to it.  I also caught, in this shot, a small lens flare right over Marlo's right hand, which we played with a bit and I felt it added to the fantasy/sorceress look we were striving for.  If I get enough encouragement, maybe I'll finish some of the other shots we loved, and share those.  What do you think?  Read the blog to see the cinemagraph and more information about Corvin's Castle, which is in the background, and is one of Dracula's castles.

I also made a fun cinemagraph of the shoot.  It rained right as we were packing up after sunset (and right before we started shooting, actually), so once again, incredibly lucky.

Then we had dinner, drove for another 3-5 hours, and got in bed--woke up 2 hours later, and flew to Israel

My final thoughts on Romania? Aside from crazy dogs who harass you and bite you, and the terrible weather, Romania was pretty cool.  Everywhere I looked, I saw evidence of traditional living.  Men riding with pigs on a horse-drawn carriage.  Lots of potatoes.  That kind of stuff.  We didn’t see much of Bucharest but again, that wasn’t our plan.



If you have been enjoying my blogs, please share them!  I want nothing more than to be able to continue to travel and create more of these experiences and photos -- photos that are incredible, dramatic, and uninhibited art. But, these trips add up. I want locations, access, and creativity, without the stress.  If you're interested in partnering with me in this, let me know.  Over-the-top and 100% unique art, with an incredible adventure and experience, is the goal.

Jordan, Part 2: Petra & Wadi Rum by Kenneth Kao

I have been home for over a month, but between other projects and going through footage, it's taken me time to get to part two of our journey through Jordan.  In Part 1, I covered our trip from Israel to Jordan, and then our last moments in Jordan. Part 2 covers the middle portion of our travels.  

In the early planning stages of our Fall Tour, we knew wanted to experience Jordan in as authentic a way as we could, and after some research, we booked the Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp.  A bedouin, in its simplest meaning, refers to tribes that would travel together (or sometimes were stationary) and live off the land in tents and caves.  The backdrop of Jordan against a village of tents drew us in, and we had a memorable experience. 

 Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp in Jordan.

Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp in Jordan.

It was December and the tents weren't heated (or have much electricity), so we froze.  The four heavy blankets provided weren't quite enough, so I slept in all my clothes and sweaters and even, one night, jacket.  If it sounds like I'm whining, I'm not.  I hate being overly-coddled, so this was perfect.  Sometimes the suffering is the experience.  We knew what we signed up for, but it definitely was COLD!  Being off the grid, i.e., no wifi, was nice, although the lack of outlets given three full days of photoshoots, had me a little worried.  I'm glad I had enough batteries and memory cards, and the super useful extra battery pack from Lifepower A2s with solar panels, to recharge (charges a macbook pro!).  Side note: with all my photo gear, we emailed ahead of time to make sure there were locks or a place to lock up belongings and were told yes.  Turns out the locks work  only to lock you INSIDE the tent--something we learned when Marlo went to dinner, locking me inside the tent, only to return three hours later asking where I'd been (thanks, babe ;  )).  The food at Seven Wonders was decent, and stray goats/dogs/cats made up the entertainment.   

Why Jordan Tours (more on them below) picked us up every morning and dropped us off at night with a full debriefing.  They made sure to check on our satisfaction and the next day's plans.  We were given ample opportunity to voice any concerns, and we were well fed during the tour itself, which is actually quite rare based on prior experiences in other countries.  Tour companies often cut corners wherever they can, so food is an important piece for us.  We're both athletes and generally eat more than others, and we seek out quality food, proteins, non fast food, non-sugary options, so it's often we feel under-fed during traveling.  In this case, no problems whatsoever.  The transportation alone made the prices we paid more than reasonable, but at the time of booking, it (admittedly) felt like a gut punch.

Day 1: Petra

 Final shot

Final shot

Our first day had a certain lack of communication.  We were picked up, but because the tour guide didn't speak English, we had to take it by faith that he knew our objective and purpose (epic photoshoots inside Petra itself).  Though the company briefed us--because of all the unfamiliar names and terms and this being the first day, we couldn't be sure of anything until we got there.  The negative is that we lost out on a wealth of information on Petra, but the positive was that our guide was quite nice, and he brought us to eat with his family at his cave home.  This experience felt unique and very very cool, like meeting a new friend with an entirely different lifestyle.

To be clear, we HAD been warned he didn't speak English, prior to booking, but because we needed to be led the "back way" into Petra to beat the crowds--he was our only option.  Thus we got the absolutely authentic experience, being led by a bedouin who grew up and still lives within Petra itself.  We got to see the way he lived, his family, and we got to experience Petra in a more intimate and personal way than most.  If we had time, we would've wanted a second day within Petra, with a guide who could give us information, but our time was too short.  We never got the iconic shot we'd meant to get, seeing and shooting from up above the Treasure during sunset, but this was our own decision and I guess we'll just have to go back someday!

While there, we ran across several merchants and residents of Petra who were selling artifacts.  It was a strange sensation, seeing and being offering such ancient coins and pieces--not knowing what value anything actually had...if we were being sold counterfeits, not knowing if we were contributing to some kind of problem where people were running away with historic artifacts of a land, but we did walk out with a few rusted coins with roman figures on them.

Petra itself was jam-packed with historic significance (we learned more after visiting and doing some research).  Only 20-25% of it is said to have been excavated.  I remember this distinct moment where I stepped on an unusual rock a little off road, and I realized that it was probably something far more significant with carvings or a man-made structure to it.  It was a surreal sensation knowing I was walking on some kind of 2000 year-old ancient structure I couldn't see.

Since we went from the back end of Petra, the end of our tour was arriving at the "front" of Petra.  At the Treasury.  We decided to re-walk a portion of the experience, of seeing the Treasury appear in front of us, completely hidden for twenty minutes of walking through steep canyon walls on either side.  It is absolutely magical, this moment.  People talk about it all the time for good reason.  If you can experience this, it will be one of the most memorable moments in your entire life. 

Day 2: Wadi Rum

 It's gorgeous here.  The colors and natural light through the canyons is some of the best I've ever seen.

It's gorgeous here.  The colors and natural light through the canyons is some of the best I've ever seen.

Our second day was in Wadi Rum.  It's a gorgeous desert/valley that was about 3 hours drive.  Many recommend staying there overnight, sleeping in the desert, but we had already booked our stay and couldn't modify it.  I wish we had more time.  You could definitely spend weeks there hiking and rappelling and canyoneering alone.  I highly recommend Ali Helalat for this.  It's his specialty.

 No photoshoots planned, but the natural light here was so gorgeous.  Yes, this is all natural light.  No gels at all.

No photoshoots planned, but the natural light here was so gorgeous.  Yes, this is all natural light.  No gels at all.

Anyway, our tour guide on this second trip was quiet, and clearly just doing what needed to be done--driving us around.  He was kind, but I would say I was most disappointed by this part of the experience.  He did open up, and he did share more when we brought up the stigma of muslims due to ISIS (truly frustrated by the reputation against Muslims), but other than than it was mostly a serene experience rather than an information intensive one.  Not complaining, but in this situation where we weren't doing photoshoots, the information about the area would have been nice. 

 Our quiet guide.  Good food.

Our quiet guide.  Good food.

For us, it was a rest day, and the pictures speak for themselves.

Day 3: Little Petra

The second part of Day three is covered in Jordan Part 1.

Our morning was to "little Petra," a place I hadn't known existed prior to coming.  We were told that it was where ancient people, ambassadors from other countries, visitors of all kinds who wanted to visit Petra, were brought instead of the real Petra.  It was a security thing, to show this grand location as if it were the real city.  Hotels and a king's palace and tombs were here, and lots of water collection cisterns.  Really, I almost liked this little Petra better than "big" Petra.  Less people, and densely constructed structures.  Today, under the guidance of Ali, we learned a lot more about how the caves were used, and the local plants, and also quite a bit about Petra itself (when he discovered we'd been guided by a non-English speaking tour guide, he thought to fill in our knowledge).  

There are lots of theories to why the people suddenly left Petra, this secret city.  Some say drought, others say they were nomads to begin with.  Others yet say flooding (if I'm interpreting what we were told, correct).  Whatever the case there is so much yet to be discovered, and everything is extremely well preserved.  Lately, there has been a lot more water to the area, so erosion could increase in rate.  But if you're afraid of terrorism, or danger--please don't let that stop you from visiting.  It's a tiny chance, tinier than the dangers of just the flying part, and letting it affect you lets terrorism win.  Now is probably the best time to visit when everyone else is too afraid to go.

I have attached some audios from our tour guides, once again, if you want to learn more.  Otherwise, enjoy the photos and video throughout this blog.  Next up will be my ventures into Romania.

Soundbites from our tour guides:

Tour Company Info:

Each day we ventured out for photo shoots, and I have to again give my huge thanks to Why Jordan and Desert Eco Tours and especially Ali Helalat, for taking such good care of us throughout our trip.  They are a partnership across the Jordan/Israel border, and the transfer between them was seamless.  As a tourist, not knowing exactly what is going to happen and if you're safe...it's a big relief to be taken care of.  If you're planning on visiting Jordan, I highly recommend them.  We felt very safe.  I would not recommend traveling without a tour company if you're coming or going through Israel.  The rules keep changing, and only tour companies (in many cases) can get you across the borders between the two countries.

We paid about 1500 USD for 3 days plus transportation and guidance--6 hours per day guaranteed of experience with a tour guide.  This included the to and from airports at the beginning and end of the tour, and with special requests for unique locations to do photoshoots and tickets and lunch...all quite well-priced. This did not include hotel as we'd booked ourselves.  We don't have that much money for our projects, since we fund it personally, so things like this certainly add up and we have to be decisive about what we put the money towards.  In this case, well worth it.


Jordan and Israel: The Dead Sea (Part I) 360 Immersive Experience! by Kenneth Kao

Marlo at the Dead Sea, Jordan

If you're only interested in the photoshoot, and the BTS of the photoshoot scroll down...but you'll be missing out. I've compiled unique video, audio, text, and 360 degree immersions of our journey to capture the image above.  It began in Israel...

Israel:

We were under the impression that the Dead Sea, coming from Jerusalem, was only thirty or so minutes by bus.  Technically, it is--but it's more like a couple hours before the bus stops.  After much confusion, and a hyper-aggressive bus driver, we finally made it to the town of Ein Gedi, but with only about one hour before sunset.   It was quite cold when we got there, so there was virtually no one else on the beach.

We'd thought, based on pictures we'd seen, that it would be so-so visually. Maybe we'd do a mud spa.  Be normal tourists. But whoa...the view, the colors, and the landscape are all breathtaking.  Once we got there, seeing sunset--we really did wish we brought some costumes and proper photo gear.  

It's so pretty, in fact, that you don't really mind being stabbed by jagged salt crystals as you walk into the water.  Other people had shoes on--we didn't get the memo.  You better not have any open wounds, either (salt, wounds, ow).  We can see why the Dead Sea claims such healing properties, though; we were baby-smooth for days after.  Plus, floating is fun. Your buoyancy makes you feel like a sea otter.   

The Dead Sea, besides being very salty, is also quite oily.  Because of that, colors across the surface of the water are unbelievable.  You think it's hyper-manipulated/saturated.  Except it's your eyeballs you're looking through and it's all real.  Surreal.

We did a quick impromptu photoshoot and swore that we'd come back and spend proper time.  Also, be warned that the water, if it gets on anything at all, never dries.  The oil-salt-water defies any reasonable expectations in drying time.  I hung up the pants I'd gotten wet for a week, and it remained soaking until I finally hand-washed/dried it.  I hope my gear will forgive the abuse.

Here are a few of the impromptu shots we got.

And some fun video with behind the scenes:

Jordan:


It's difficult to get to Petra from Israel without help. 

You need a visa, and the rules keep changing about how or when to get it.  Anything online seemed unofficial.  But we were under the impression that you just show up and if you're American, you can get one.  Turns out there are specifics to this. This was one of our last stops of a 2.5 month long tour; we hadn't had a chance to research it or follow up.  That was a mistake.

I won't get into the complexities too much, but we had to fly from Jerusalem through a tiny airport to Eilat.  The tiny airport seemed to have no foreigners at all -- so we went through an extensive searching and questioning process due to the fact that we were going to visit Dubai later on our trip.  They literally examined our scalps hair by hair and went through my photos, my patient emails (for proof that I was a doctor), my phone, questioned us separately (three times), and handled everything in our luggage.  Thanks to them, we also had a huge detergent explosion in our luggage.  We walked in with three bags, and were sent off with 6 because they couldn't repack in time.

I get it.  Security.  Middle East.  Tension.  I'm not complaining.  They were nice about it all, even if they didn't handle my photography gear in ways I felt good about, but it certainly could've been much worse.

This was all before we'd even crossed the Israeli-Jordan border.  We were not looking forward to the next step.

An amazing tour company rescued us.  The Israel side of this company was Desert Eco Tours.  They picked us up from the airport, and arranged everything for us to get through the security.  We were taken care of and felt safe through the entire process.  Of course, they tried to sell us a tour--and we're glad they did.  We purchased a package from them on the spot because of the reality-check on how difficult things could be.  Definitely the most complex travel situation we've ever had.  The tour wasn't cheap, but taking the tension off of not knowing or being scammed by the taxis, etc. etc., was a huge deal.  Once across, we were handed off to Why Jordan Tours company--the company that actually managed our tour.  Now, I think the price was fair given all that we asked for, and given all they did for us (and the fact that two companies were involved).


Getting pictures of security areas in both Israel and Jordan is kinda a big no-no here.  So this is really all I got of this area:


Oh, and this (you walk 5-10 minutes from one end of the border to the other.  We have way too much gear and costumes, so thankfully there were some (squeaky) carts):

To learn more about the head coverings, listen here:

The quality of our tour guides varied (keep watch for a second blog post on Jordan coming soon, with a full review of the tour company), but we had a unique experience and we are 100% pleased with them. More on Petra as well in the next blog post.

Skipping ahead to our last day in Jordan--we were en route to the Dead Sea (yay, photoshoot).

We ended up with a tour guide that I swear knows all of Jordan inside and out.  He never once looked at a map, and he seemed to know each trail and canyon of everything we passed.  He knew the time and effort each path would take...on foot.  He was ex-military, and super intelligent.  He grew up there, a Bedouin, living in Petra.  This man seemed to know everything there was to know about his country, history-culture-landscape, and he spoke english very well; we finally felt like we were grasping the basics of the culture.  Ali Helalat, with Why Jordan Tours, you MADE our tour.  

BTW, we happened to be doing this trip on Muhammad's Birthday--if you want to learn more about it, you can listen here:

PHOTOSHOOT:


When Ali heard what we wanted--an epic shoot with no tourists, he knew exactly where to go.  We didn't have much time, so we rushed to the location.  We passed numerous security points, and I think his ex-military status made the whole process much easier. 

We ended up on the edge of a cliff.  I know for a fact that I would've never been able to find this place without Ali's help.  He must have explored (walked) the entire coast countless times.

We had only a little time before sunset.  It was illegal to be there after sunset. In fact, the military with their massive machine gun jeeps made us leave right as we were packing up.  But we got our shots in one of the most majestic places we've ever been.  I guess epic locations call for epic endings.

Here are the finished images:

And PLEASE check out the 360 video of the experience.  This is my favorite 360 video yet because you get to share the experience of discovering a new place.  Look around and listen to the audio.  I gotta say, I LOVE Ali's voice.  He sounds so...grandiosely heroic.

Unfortunately, the Dead Sea has been retreating for several years, for a variety of reasons.  Listen here for more info:

Other Content:

Here are some other images and info we got that day:

Now for a fun one:  The largest cistern in the area has a creepy story.  You can listen to it here in the 360 Video:

And here's the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George -- it's got an ancient mosaic map that's pretty interesting.  I recommend listening to the audio at the same time for this one, as you look around:

I've also included some audio recordings of him explaining some fun things.  Hidden treasure stories, religion, culture, history.  If you're into that, enjoy these raw audio files.

The Future:

We will definitely be working with Ali again.  I am excited to arrange a photoshoot with many of the locations he mentioned to us.  I trust that he knows the land better than anyone, and he knows exactly what I'd want as a photographer.  I would shoot at that same location a hundred times, so I can only imagine what else is available.  If you're interested in doing this with us, let me know.  We can only manage 3...maaaybe 4 models total.

On the safety side: it is pretty safe there.  Tourism has plummeted due to fears, but Jordan itself is safer than people think.  Their economy really needs the support of tourists.  Full disclosure--about 4 days after we left, for the first time in 10 years, there was a terrorist attack at a popular tourist castle, the Karak Castle.  We almost visited it, but we chose not to go because we had to get to the Dead Sea by sunset.  I'm against people letting terrorists control them with fear, but it would be irresponsible for me to say that nothing can happen.  But this is the case with any country you go to, including your home.  Clearly, by the military presence alone, you can tell the state of alert.  The good news is that if you want to do a photoshoot with me, in Jordan, we won't be going to the popular tourist spots. 

Hope you enjoyed this journey with us!  L  It'll be Petra photoshoot, Bedouins, and some additional impromptu shots in Wadi Musa!  Here's a preview image, and support this page if you want to see more content!

A Day in the Life of a Photographer: Korea Location Scouting by Kenneth Kao

One of my goals in finding a location is choosing something that's entirely unique to the location.  Sometimes that means finding a plant, a style of architecture, the color of sand, to represent the uniqueness of a place.  I've found, however, that this is particularly difficult in cities.  Not because the architecture or the culture isn't strong in various cities, but because anything that is particularly unique doesn't allow random photoshoots, or, there are way too many people around.  The trick, then, is to find a location that is "overlooked" by the community.  A place that isn't special.  This Seoul, Korea album has some touristy photos, but they were all taken during the scouting phase prior to my photoshoot.

Paris by Kenneth Kao

This is a special video from 2 days ago.

It's the behind the scenes of a photo shoot inside the Catacombs - -the real ones, not the tourist ones.

It was a 5 hour trip, from 10pm-4am. We had to crawl through holes smaller than our shoulders, work our way through thigh-high muddy waters, explore abandoned war bunkers and sub-cultural phenomenons (Did you know the Catacombs has a secret movie theater in it? And 3 breweries that you have to be acrobatic enough to get to?)

Anyway, it's not easy setting these things up, much less accomplishing it. We may be the first people ever to do a full out photoshoot with a team for lights and equipment, models, and costumes, all on location in the catacombs of Paris. This is about 75lbs of gear and costumes. By the time we got to our first photoshoot destination at a hidden "Throne of Bones" -- we were exhausted. There wasn't time to do more than a single location for the shoot.

Quick history: The early harvesting of rocks to build Paris left the underground unstable and dangerous, leading to many collapses and deaths. Construction to rebuild the underground's stability took priority. But later, with the black death, the underground was used as a burial site for 6-7 million bodies that had no place to go. It was condemned. Only about a hundred years ago have people begun using it again, and for some time it was used as war bunkers as well as criminal activity for drug trade. Most recently, it is simply a place of lost history, where only a few wander and make efforts to preserve it, or create new art, while evading the police tasked to keeping people out. Most the skeletons, the "good" ones, have been harvested for the museums, and the rest of the skeletons are completely abandoned. Obviously, this is a lot of history that is forgotten, but for those who wander the catacombs, their goal is to find ways to remember.

There is an intricate community protecting the catacombs, and they are very closed. They have their own rules, and we did our best to abide by them and respect what they have tasked themselves with. It wasn't easy to find someone to help us accomplish this goal, of creating something new and rich and authentic within the catacombs, and it took months of planning. Please, though I'm tagging our guides, they've requested not to be reached out to. They won't answer (but you can follow their Instagrams, linked below).

That being said, since it's over 300km of mazes, without a guide and a certain fitness level, it's a really bad idea to go alone. This is a world you can't just walk in. Well, you could if you knew the entrances, but you'd get lost or stuck. Even our guides went the wrong direction and discovered new places many times during our trip, though they'd already spent so much time there.

Anyway, lighting the catacombs is incredibly difficult. There is no natural light to work with, (obviously) and options are limited as the spaces are all very small. Most photographs of the catacombs are long exposures, but I tried to do something different. Hopefully it gives something magical to the images. I can't wait to go back, someday, and create new images with the many ideas I have and the many wondrous things that exist there.

Enjoy the video.

Huge huge huge thanks to our guides:
Frederic "Freed" (https://www.instagram.com/freed_o_gram/) and Melina "LaPC" (https://www.instagram.com/melinawrn/)

Models:
Marlo Fisken
LaPC

www.PoleNinjaPhotography.com
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Photo Experiments with Marlo by Kenneth Kao

 One model, three images, zero PhotoShop.

One model, three images, zero PhotoShop.

The other day I had an idea I want to try.  I asked Marlo to stand in front of the camera and look at the lens, then look right, then left.  While she was turning, I ran around in the dark like a maniac blindly operating the flash and switching gels twice. This is in fact one image that took 13 seconds, not a product of PhotoShop. With all that is possible in post-processing, it's often hard to recognize when things are done "in-camera."   

Slums of Manila (WARNING--May Affect Sensitivities) by Kenneth Kao

This is a very special album to me, for many reasons. I hope you take the time to read and join me in this experience.

The backstory:
To get these photos, we had to jump through a few hoops. The government isn't thrilled about photographers documenting this area, and even visitors are carefully regulated; it took some work to learn what we were dealing with. To summarize, Jennifer Kim had posted some time ago about her visit to a place called "Happyland". The slums. The people she described were extremely poor, and yet they seemed so happy and friendly. She said it gave her a lot of perspective--that seeing the slums was the highlight of her trip.

We had to visit for ourselves.

Marlo and I managed to, after several days of figuring out the system, hire (bribe) a local authority of the slums who had some "connections" (more bribing) to allow us access...with a camera.

General info:
The area is occupied by around 33,000 people, 2/3rds of which are children (thus the many kid pics). Birth control is not allowed due to religious organizations influencing the government. The people here earn perhaps a dollar a day (more details in the photos). They do have facilities for education, but often don't take advantage of it. Electricity here is more expensive than most places in the world, particularly because stealing electricity is very common so the companies continue to raise the prices, thus--there isn't much electricity minus a few intriguing exceptions. There isn't much running water, mostly still water which is quite dirty. They make efforts to acquire purified water. They do bathe frequently, though, even if the water they bathe in often is the water they also eliminate in. Honestly, if you saw most of them in the mall, you wouldn't be able to tell them apart from the average citizen, despite the huge income gap.

Happyland is an entire economy built on a trash dump. People primarily scavenge to create a living. It is extremely dense and hot, yet the smell seems mostly contained to the trash itself. Everything about Happyland encompasses the very meaning of the word, "resourceful".

While you walk through the warehouses that were built by the government, or the shanties thrown together by scavenged trash, the light changes dramatically and it is like walking through sudden tunnels and tunnels of some maze made out of trash and ruin and light--.

The people:
So happy. These people were indeed friendly, and I never once felt threatened. Perhaps it was because of our guide that we were so safe, but I felt as if no one had anything beyond curiosity behind their eyes. I'd like to think that the innocence and simplicity of the community was the cause of their general joy. Sure, they had parasites, diseases, starvation, poverty, and lack of basic needs, but the happiness somehow made more profound the idea that we "civilized" are the bankrupt. I'm happy to admit that I cannot judge on a cursory note, though, so I don't want to make any claims. That being said, this was just the beginning of the internalization of what I was seeing.

The most surprising thing, though, was that we weren't asked for money once. Perhaps it was because it was their home, and not the streets where most begging happens, but I WAS walking in there with a camera that quite possibly was worth more than they'd earn in a lifetime. Everywhere I looked were people working, trying to feed themselves, and yet they didn't beg or look at me with envy or spite.

We learned that drugs really aren't a problem--after all, they can't afford it, however GLUE addiction is a real issue. This was one of the most interesting things I learned. There are interventions to reduce glue addiction in adults as well as children.

One other interesting thing is that you will hear pop songs being sung and hummed by many of the inhabitants all around you as you walk the slums. Many of them watch youtube, and they hear and learn all the most popular songs. Just the same, you might see an antique that is probably worth quite a bit of money. A nintendo or old mac computer. But you are watching them break down these machines in order to pull what materials they can out.

The photography:
This was tough. Not only because of my own experiences and thoughts, the realization of simultaneous privilege, discomfort, and desire to help as well as the realization of being absolutely ignorant--there was also a strange bit of jealousy... The purity of struggling for survival and making the best of what you had. Though I am not actually envious, nor would I choose the life they live, I had to appreciate the beauty of spirit that I was seeing. The strong community.

Anyway, on the photography side, this was also difficult. Both in the shooting of (such dramatic changes of light, and extreme ranges of exposure everywhere I looked), but also in the sensitivity part. I don't want these people to be put on display. My mission is not to say shallowly and without thought, "Oh look at the poor pathetic people! Let's do something!" I wanted to document what I saw, and try to understand more about this culture that was so foreign to me. So please, don't say, "this is so sad." Please respect what you see here, and respect the people and the hard work, and despite the simple lives, respect their complex emotions. Lastly, respect all the people already trying to make a difference. The problem isn't as easy as sending them a bunch of money. There ARE organizations actively trying to improve the situation, and if you truly desire to help, you should reach out to them, first.

Lastly, I always shoot in a style that is "artsy". That being said, I've also wanted to do something journalistic and extremely real; I'm one that wouldn't mind, honestly, putting myself in positions of danger in order to document something. I'm not a purist in believing that completely unedited photos are the best expression of journalism, and I won't go into it, but I tried to be careful not to put MY impression of the events in the photos as much as to represent WHAT I SAW.

I hope it worked.

On-Location Modeling Tips with Marlo Fisken by Kenneth Kao

By Kenneth Kao and Marlo Fisken

Slovenia

One thing I frequently hear from fans of my photography (Pole Ninja Photography) is that I'm lucky to work so frequently with a model like Marlo.  "Your images are incredible!  Of course, your model is Marlo," is the typical phrase.  It sounds like an excuse for poor photography, though I know (hope) no one means that -- but the fact is they are right: a model can make or break an image.

Working with her from the beginning of my career has definitively taught me about posing and angles and lighting, and I thought I'd ask her in an interview-style blog exactly what makes her modeling so on-point.

Costume

 Mexico

Mexico

KEN: How do you come up with your costumes for a photo shoot?

MARLO: Costume is a very important part of creating a character.  You cannot look like a mythical forest-dweller if you're wearing a sports bra. So, if I'm simply wearing a sports bra, I make a pose that suits -- I focus on the "shape."  But, if I want to create character, the first thing I think about is location. I research and visualize it. I ask, what clothing suits the landscape?  Am I from a particular era?  That being said, a huge number of my "dresses" are pieces of fabric safety-pinned to my body.  When in a natural setting, the strongest choice is often an airy, solid-colored fabric.

From my experience, skin is also an important part of costuming.  Thus, what should be exposed? How does my particular skin-tone look and how will it contrast with the landscape? When costuming, both contrast (such as being flowy in a harsh place) and blending (such as wearing green in a green place) can work--but the wrong outfit can be confusing or off-putting to the viewer. I think about what textural contrast my outfit has and if the materials will pick up light. If I have no idea where I'm shooting, my outfit has to be so strong that it is a place of its own, like a fashion editorial, or so minimal/basic that it will just show me as I am, such as a black or nude leotard.

Environment

Santorini

KEN: When you're on location, how do you make the location more than just a backdrop? 

MARLO: The first thing I look at is the environment.  When I enter a place, I'm either a creature (even if human) in its natural habitat, or I'm a stranger discovering it. To create a striking image, it's important to touch the environment: I play with the ground, seek things to lean on, hang from, or gaze at.  By being photographed, I am demonstrating a relationship with the environment. I use the opportunity to show how I feel about the place. 

Interaction also provides "proof" I was there.  The wind in my hair, dirt on the bottom of my dress, the goosebumps of wet skin.  This creates engagement because people can see it's real.  After all, if there's no interaction with the environment, why shoot on-location?  I always try to feature the most unique elements of the environment I'm in, which sometimes does means suffering more.

Posing

Tasmania

KEN: Do you come prepared with specific poses?

MARLO: I don't think about a specific pose, because it makes the image exactly that, "posed."  In most cases -- even if it's subtle --motion photographs better than posed (though some locations ask for statuesque shapes). Muscles do engage differently in movement.  Unnecessary or unnatural tension can be seen in the image when things are held rather than moved through.

I also move a little slower than usual, even when "not posing", because Ken might see something and whip up the camera at any second.  It is also usually best to "cheat" the face toward the camera, just a little.  In this sense, the tiniest shifts in the head and chest can make all the difference.

Using Space

Milos

KEN: What's in frame is very important to me as a photographer.  How do you utilize space as a model?

MARLO: First, I look at a test picture (or several), for angles alone, and I decide how to fill the space.  It's not "filling" as in covering the image, but I look for where the "blank spaces" are and how I can position my body within those blank spaces while not obstructing important features.  What lines don't I want to interfere with?  For example, if a shot has the bottom 2/3rds in shadow, and the upper in light, it's probably better to stay within the dark portion so the impact of my body and outfit creates a stronger contrast.

Knowing what spaces I'm filling gives me ideas for body orientations.  I try to maintain negative space to "see through" and define me. For example, I maintain the space between my chin and the top of my shoulder, or my arm and the side body.  I put space between my fingers or toes.  And my base--whatever part of me is in contact with the ground--is really important.  If I'm in a lunge, and my heel comes off the ground, I lift it as high as possible.  In-betweens (so to speak) don't work when talking about the contact points with the ground.  If there's a possibility of creating negative space, I apply it.

A photo is a two dimensional image, but generally I want to create three dimensionality.  This is another type of negative space: the space in front of me (toward the camera) and behind me (further from the camera).  I have to think about my shape and energy projecting toward (or intentionally away) from the camera.

Much of this is also up to the photographer.  I work with the photographer by staying aware of lines and space, but while negative space comes in the form of my body lines, there is a global negative space that's just as important and up to them.  I try to give the photographer time to move around to find the best framing for the environment, body, and lighting.

Tension

Cabo

KEN:  How do choose where to put energy in your body during a photo shoot?

MARLO: I think about how much tension is appropriate for each character. Does softness or hardness make more sense?  Is it just one part of the body that's strong while the others are supple?  Tension makes a statement.  Sometimes positions I'm holding require a great deal of muscular energy, but most images need me to display ease in my face, neck, and hands (you can't really Photoshop away strain). In other situations, I need to energize parts of my body.  This is called "projection" in the movement world.  If I'm too soft, it doesn't carry energy into the spaces around me. 

The truth is that most often, the simplest of poses look best.  If I can't control the tension of a pose, then the chances of getting a usable photo are much less.

Lighting

Atacama

KEN: Do you have any tips for working with lighting?

MARLO: Striking pictures are often striking because of contrast between light and shadow.  As the model, I use the light as something to interact with.  In a natural setting, much depends on available light (which rapidly changes), so adaptability is important.  I pretend the light sources are second cameras.  If I angle my face towards the light, it can eliminate (often unflattering) shadows.  If I turn away, more shadows hide my face. I may not know all the precise ways the light affects the image, but playing with it rather than blocking the light is most important.

Hair placement is also important.  Hair often blocks light and creates shadows across the face.  There are rare times where hair and its shadows on my face enhance the image, but usually not. This is difficult to manage in windy conditions.  I'm constantly battling with hair and costume on location, but it's worth it because if important parts of my body are blocked, the image loses impact.


KEN: Lastly, where did you learn all this?

MARLO: I didn't really have training in modeling, but I think that as a lifetime dancer, these are the same questions you confront when creating movement and choreography.  In a sense, being a self-directed model is like choreographing a photo.  Even in my professional modeling experiences, there was an art director on set, but they left it to me to make the shapes.

Thanks for reading, and I hope to shoot with you soon!

-- Pole Ninja Photography

 

Amazon Rain Forest (Brazil) by Kenneth Kao

The Amazon is filled with magic. I can see why so many books have been written, set in this location. Some of the craziest stories and memories, for the rest of my life, will be from visiting here. Maybe it's because I've dreamt of coming here since I was a child that it feels so magical. My very own first short story, written in the 6th grade, took place here. But with people getting shot in the back with arrows.

For me land and nature and untouched, uncorrupted landscapes hold the most impact. I love being "lost" in the wild and appreciating the little things of nature, unmolested by the bump and grind of tourists. So many amazing places have been "spoiled" by tourists, 

and though I am also a tourist, it's one of those necessary evils: to have a place appreciated, people visit it. I do love historic buildings and locations with stories spanning time, but I am definitely one that would rather avoid the tourists and see the lesser known, the harder to reach.

We stayed at JUMA Amazon Lodge, which was particularly cool because most people there, the tourists, seemed of similar mindset. There's a sensation of danger when people talk about the Amazon because nature in the Amazon is NATURE. It is powerful and large and raw and deadly. Even though we were perfectly safe, I think that sense of possible danger keeps people at a distance.

I'm totally okay with that.

I did a video interview with some locals, and it was with the same trepidation that they spoke about the city of Manaus. It was something so dangerous that if they entered, they may never come out. The city, cliche's aside, really was their jungle. Interview here: