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.



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