Travel Photography

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.

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
https://www.facebook.com/poleninjaphotography/
https://www.instagram.com/poleninjaphotography/

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.

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:

Bay of Fires, Tasmania by Kenneth Kao

Ah, this image. THIS image...

Taken in Tasmania, near the Bay of Fires. This was our second attempt.

See, the first attempt, I was shooting a model on tripod for the first time, during sunset, and I, um...forgot to focus the camera. I walked away from it that thinking I'd gotten the best images of my life--they were so good...but they weren't in focus!

So, on the drive back, I had to break it to Marlo, that she had posed for 4 hours straight, freezing her butt off, for me to screw up big time. I still can't understand how I did that, except that I'd test shot with the background in mind, and forgot to adjust it later.

She said it sucked, but we should go back the next morning and get it right. She didn't give me a hard time at all. Instead, she said we'd spent the time to get there, the money on hotels and flight, after all, so what was another 4 hours of work?

So, we woke up before dawn, about 3 hours later, and drove an hour to get back to the location, set up...

And my ND filter fell off. Into the freezing water. I freedove into the water, maybe 12 feet deep, after making sure my precariously balanced equipment, camera, lights, etc, were all stable (because obviously I was failing at that), and I managed to retrieve it. When I came out, dripping and even more cold than ever before...I went to dry the ND filter.

Except... It's a variable ND, so it has two glass plates. I couldn't get the water out from between the plates. There's no way to take them apart.

I did the best I could. I really wanted the long exposure, and I'd set up to shoot it, so damn it I'd do it anyway. We took some other images though.

Anyway Marlo had to stay perfectly still so that we'd get the water to blur like this and appear smooth as silk. Trust me though, she was as cold as I was, maybe colder, laying on the rock and trying not to shiver.

Afterwards, this became the winning shot. Sure there were water dropplets all over it. Sure, I tried to correct it, the best I could in post production. But I guess what I'm saying is...

Sometimes, things go terribly wrong, but you still only need to walk out with just one great image.

(Ask me, and I might release the out of focus shots, with a disclaimer, so you can see how epic they were...minus the focus issue)

20mm, ISO 31, F/14, 10s

(If I had to do it again, I'd choose a non-variable ND filter and a lower F stop to make the image sharper, and most importantly, I would have raised the tripod so that there would be a greater separation between the model and the background)

Lessons be learned.

#youngphotographer

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JUMA Amazon Lodge (Brazil) by Kenneth Kao

This was taken in the Amazon forest, through a green screen window. It felt like a perfectly posed shot, and I was so happy I had my camera on me...which actually has become a third arm at this point. If I'm not carrying a camera, or have one nearby, something is wrong with me, fyi.

ISO 800, 300mm, 1/250s handheld, f/5

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Earth Day by Kenneth Kao

Happy Earth Day!

This was taken during "sunset" in the Fjords of Norway. To the right of the image are sheep that look like goats, and perfectly serene farms. We had to hike up a small, but slippery mountain, and hop a little fence that the locals assured us was fine to do. The grass was incredibly soft, and it felt like you were stepping on mattresses. We barely beat a pretty good rain.

This was something around 10pm, btw. Truly a magical place.

Image is HDR, obviously, but I felt like it worked for the image. Natural light. Handheld.

28mm, ISO 250, F/4, 1/60s

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Marlo Fisken in Nevada by Kenneth Kao

This was taken outside of Vegas after a pole event last year. We were near the Valley of Fire, and we saw some great rock structures that we had to explore. An hour later, we found this. At the time, I only had a bare-bulb strobe on me, which in an enclosed space--getting even light is particularly difficult.

Thankfully, the assistance of MRBRPR helped out, and we got the shot.

We are thinking of planning another after pole-expo shoot in Vegas. If you're interested in keeping informed of plans, please fill out the form here: http://goo.gl/forms/lydlpc6eRx

Model: Marlo Fisken.

20mm, f/3.5, 1/80s, ISO 64

Isle of Skye (Scotland) by Kenneth Kao

Taken on the drive around the Isle of Skye, I had to stop when I saw this. I doubt this is actually why it's called the Isle of Skye, but to me it was where the sky and the ocean merged into one--and thus, the name made sense.

The roads are filled with...sheep, everywhere, and most all of the roads are one lane. You have to pull to the side, back up, off-road in order to let the other car pass when you see them, and it happens so often that it's almost a way of saying "hi" to all the neighbors and residents of the area.

There are many magical locations around these Highlands. The people are extremely friendly, and it is easy to see why so many myths of fairies and magic originated here.

ISO 64, 28mm, f/5.0, 1/80s

Bolivian Salt Flats by Kenneth Kao

The salt flats in Bolivia are crazy. Miles and miles and miles of white, as far as the eye can see--from the plane. Even though this year it didn't rain very much, they still had certain areas of reflection. There is a place where international flags are put in the ground, and another with salt piles mixed into the layer of water. I wanted to see them all, but unfortunately, there wasn't time (or money, at least) for us to do so.

I thought I'd create a minor composite with this one.

Hope you like it.

ISO 1600, 20mm, 2.2, 30s

Isla de las Munecas (Mexico) by Kenneth Kao


This picture was taken in the Isla de las Munecas, the Island of the Dolls.

We had to drift down a river to reach this property, not so much an island as a riverfront property, where dolls like this hung strung up over everywhere. Many were mutilated, or had heads switched, breasts cut off, and eyes gouged out. We paid the owner 5 pesos (I think), to have access to the island, where two white cats roamed and dolls were nailed to run down and rotting cabins.

The story goes that the original owner was haunted by the ghost of a little girl who he failed to save from drowning--he only found her doll. He hung it up out of respect, but apparently she haunted him until he went crazy. He tried to scare her or please her by hanging up these many dolls over the years, and it became an obsession. The story goes that he died where the girl had originally drowned.

ISO 100, 1.8, 35mm, 1/1600

Fjords (Norway) by Kenneth Kao

To get this shot, we hired a driver to drop us off at the trail head. Turns out, a storm was coming in. It was already supposed to be an intense hike, and no one in this season hiked it because of mud, but we figured we'd give it a try, anyway.

So up the mountain we went. And we quickly got lost as there was ice and snow covering large portions of the trail. The hike was tough not only because it was slippery and muddy, and the rain weighing all our clothes and gear, but because the plants straight up bit us. Some of the leaves had razor edges that after you brushed past them, maybe five minutes later, you would wonder what was biting you. It took us quite some time to figure out why we felt like we were covered in venomous splintery sensations. I'm Colorado raised and I'm used to intense hikes. I hike trails all over the world. These slippery slopes did a number on my toes. This is one of the only hikes that I've ever stopped, most of the way up, and turned around on due to time, hunger, and discomfort.

But this scene, so near the very top...well, it was worth it.

I love hiking. I love getting lost. I love nature and adventure and seeing the strange and new everywhere you look, and also, I love that I can capture a little of it and share it with others.

Thank you for following my adventures.

ISO 160, F/6.3, 1/125s, Panorama. Subtle HDR.

Norway (July 2015) by Kenneth Kao

Taken July 7th, 2015:
This won me a finalist badge in the international photography contest: "Travel photographer of the year, 2015". "A moment in light" category.

I took this in Norway, on the way to Bergen, from the Fjords--around a 5 hour bus ride.

This is one of my favorite images. It is not photoshop, not a composite. It is a single shot taken over 3 seconds.

It was taken after we'd entered a tunnel and escaped some sprinkling rain, and we are exiting the tunnel as the shutter is open. That is why it looks brighter in the distance, and you can see the streak of tunnel lights above. The road happened to be perfectly straight, and the driver perfectly still, and the bumps, relatively minor, for the open shutter to collect such unblurred image inside the bus.

I'm sitting right behind the bus driver, and I must've spent the entire trip trying to time this shot just right.
I love the video-game feel of it.

A photograph may be seen in just a second, but sometimes we can capture TIME in that second, and I love that about photography.

ISO 64, 28mm, F/14, 3 sec exposure, Variable ND filter.

Iceland (2015) by Kenneth Kao

iceland

This is from the Glacier Lagoon in Iceland. I am currently standing on one of these iceberg pieces, shooting as low as I can get over the perfectly still, mirror water. This was about a 6 hour drive south from Reykjavik, near sunset. For some reason, glaciers just drift into this lagoon and get stuck here. The water is perfectly clear, and it's wondrous to imagine just how old some of this water is. How untouched. What mysteries might be found in these glaciers.

The scene does have a ton of photographers and tourists here, but I would take photographers over tourists any day. Photographers at least try to stay out of each other's shots.

Handheld, 28mm prime, 125/s, f/13, ISO 64.

If I had to do it again, I probably wouldn't have gone to f/13, especially at 125th of a second, and this dark, it was unnecessary to soften the image by shooting at such narrow aperture. I'd probably frame to the right a little, and take advantage of the line that the ice block provides--but then again, I have no recollection of where I was standing and framing it differently might have put me into the water.