Tag Archives: Philippines

storm approaching batanes copyright Aloha Lavina

10 Practical Ways to Improve Visual Problem Solving

When you are on assignment, often even with extensive research, there are variables you cannot prepare for. Challenges you find on assignment include:

  • Light conditions
  • Having to search for vantage points that work
  • People are always moving around
  • Weather

Also even if you studiously pore over maps of the place you will be photographing, you still have the challenge of composing based on what the layout of the area really looks like when you encounter it with the light, weather, people, etc when you get there. You still have to search for vantage points that work for the story you are shooting.

To be a successful travel photographer, you have to become a successful visual problem solver. A visual problem solver takes the existing conditions of where she is shooting, and finds ways to arrange those conditions into a harmonious image.

Like many artistic skills, visual problem solving is actually made up of a complex subset of skills. Here are 10 practical ways to practice your visual problem solving.

 Ways to practice visual problem solving

1. One lens or focal length.

Making images with one focal length is a limitation, but it is a limitation that allows you to free up your creative problem solving skill of composing with a constraint. Constraints like simply using a 50mm for an entire story is something that can help ‘force’ you to compose in creative ways. You have to zoom with your feet with one focal length. You have to move around. What this does is simply get you into the habits that allow for creative visual interpretations of what’s in front of you. If you have a zoom lens on, like your kit lens, don’t worry. Simply tape the lens to the desired focal length you want to work with for the week, and don’t change it!

2. Tell a story using a theme.

Themes can do wonders for your creativity because it is another constraint that you can impose on your image making that will challenge you to discover ways of solving a visual problem. Interpreting the theme you choose can hone your observation skills, composition skills, and all the other discrete skills demanded of a creative shooter. For example, you could shoot the theme ‘blue’ today! There are many ways to interpret this theme. It could be the color blue, the many hues of blue, or it could be the metaphorical blue, interpreted by images that show abandonment, sorrow, etc.

3. Crop in camera.

If you tell yourself that every frame must contain only what’s necessary to tell the story, you are giving yourself an opportunity to become a great visual problem solver.

fallen birch in pond copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

These days with humungous digital RAW files, it’s easy to just snap away and crop your compositions later. But what this does is make for a lazy visual problem solver. If you ever want to be a photographer on assignment, you want to get the compositions right in camera; often your editor will expect the files as they are when it’s time to submit a story. Practicing this composition in-camera skill will enhance your visual problem solving skill and improve your photos dramatically. You might even find that you don’t need to spend hours in post-processing because your straight-from-camera pictures are already breathtaking as they are. Imagine that: less time on the computer, more time to shoot!

4. Look at things in fresh ways.

Take a page from poetry. Wallace Stevens has a great poem called “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” where he explores how to see in 13 very short stanzas. Looking at things in fresh ways means to move not just your feet, but your mind’s eye—what can you see if you look at a subject in a different way? Given a theme, what would be a list of ways you could look at it? Changing up your point of view not just physically but also mentally can change the way you interpret the subject.

5. Using design principles.

Line, form, color, balance—these are always great themes to shoot. Spending some time composing using graphic design themes can inject freshness into your imagery. These are also elements you can find in every setting, so you will never run out of things to photograph.

6. Photograph the light.

There is no more beautiful way to interpret a place than by recording the way the light falls on it. A tree is a tree is a tree, but a tree in great light is a beautiful photo.

morning mist at Tioga Pass copyright Aloha Lavina.

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

 7. Vary your exposure.

Changing your exposure subjectively is a great way to interpret scenes and give them mood and atmosphere. You can try high-key images, or images that are overexposed to give them a bright, cheerful mood. Or you can underexpose to change the mood and give it a bit of mystery. You can spend a lot of time photographing one scene, and vary the exposures with which you capture it. Then you would have a lot of images to choose from, to tell the story. Making subjective exposures gives you a way to bring emotion into your images.

8. Vary technique.

There are some themes commonly used in travel photography that would work to help you vary the techniques you use to capture a place. Panning, light painting, and slow shutter work are some of the techniques you can use to creatively interpret your vision while on assignment. Practicing these techniques wherever you go can give you a variety of images that might give you more insight into a place.

9. Use color in various ways.

Color is everywhere, so this is a great way to explore a new place. But making color work for your image is a skill that can help you move beyond just making eye candy, into making expressive images.

Seeing how colors complement each other, or how it affects the mood of an image, is a great skill and can help you in visual problem solving. For instance, a spot of blue in an otherwise all-yellow-and-green landscape might make a better photo.

storm approaching batanes copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

You can also influence color in your images by changing up your white balance settings. (You can change white balance in RAW, so if you shoot in RAW the white balance setting is quite irrelevant. But if you need a visual feedback system for the ‘feeling’ color produces in an image, try shooting in a different white balance just to be able to see the effect on your image on the LCD screen.)

10. Use contrast to add interest to an image.

I’ve discussed some techniques for using contrast in images over at LightStalking. Spotting contrast is another way to add interest to your images. Practicing seeing contrast—in content, color, values, size, lines, texture—hones your observation skills and gives you a whole new way of seeing.

With some patience and perseverance, you can train yourself to be an effective visual problem solver. Practice will make these skills part of your natural workflow, so start on them today!

Which of these 10 have you tried? What have you done to produce an image you loved?

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That!

If you like what’s on the blog, let us know by commenting! Even if you don’t like what’s on the blog, leave a comment any way, but please keep it nice. :) To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage. It would also be cool to be friends with you on Facebook, or connect with you on Twitter.

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one in 365 he said copyright Aloha Lavina

Finding Good Photos where they Hide

We already learned that super saturated color is not going to save a boring photo.

But how do we bury boring and evoke expressiveness? How do we give our imagery a chance to speak instead of mutter?

Where do those good photographs hide?

If we look at paintings that are considered pieces of mastery, we find that the subject of the work isn’t really all that sensational. I mean, look at Van Gogh’s works we admire. A starry night and silhouetted skyline. A vase of sunflowers. A flock of blackbirds wheeling over a wheat field. From the painting masters we can see that subject selection might not be the crux of an effective image. Many beautiful images have been made with content that was everyday and ordinary.

Every day we are surrounded by the ordinary. We rarely have the option of jetting off to an exotic location to photograph exciting subjects that somehow arrange themselves in pleasing harmonies when we point our lenses in their direction. How do we coax good photos from an ordinary life?

1. Change the vantage point.

from the lighthouse copyright Aloha Lavina

I climbed the lighthouse and liked the compo better.

When you’re shooting, move around. Looking at something in a new way begins with a physical reference point, which is probably tied into the way you perceived things. If you moved from the vantage point that felt immediately comfortable, you’ll also be challenging the way you see. Sometimes the best discoveries are made when you take a risk by looking at something in a whole new way.

2. Wait for the right moment.

one in 365 he said copyright Aloha Lavina

My guide said only 10 out of 365 days have great sunsets in that place.

Maybe today isn’t the right day for that shot you wanted. Rarely does a photographer have total control over a situation. Cultivate flexibility. This enables you to set aside your expectations and engage creatively with the subject. You can find beauty even when things don’t go the way you expected them to.

3. Look for shape, value, patterns, design.

You don’t have to walk around with your camera looking for the meaning of life. There are so many more things to love in an image. The way patterns form and repeat, the way light and dark blend and contrast, and the geometry of objects are just a few of the things that could become images.


Stuck at someone's house without a car, I found these forgotten old bottles in the backyard.

4. Use another technique.

Reinterpret the world in a way you haven’t tried. If you’ve never taken slow shutter images before, set up a session with a tripod and the camera on timer mode, and make some images you have never tried to make. The novelty and the learning you experience might spark some inspiration.

Convict Creek copyright Aloha Lavina

I don't do landscapes. But I did. It was a lot of fun.


5. Don’t leave until the magic happens.

It’s easy to give up when the photos don’t seem to hold any luster.

Stick with what you’re trying to do. Focus on composition, technique, perspective, time of day–change it up until the magic begins to happen.

last light huntington beach copyright Aloha Lavina

The beach was cold, windy, crowded. But the sunset made it worth waiting.

There are no shortcuts to good photographs. There is only hard work, patience, perseverance, and commitment. And you can’t just Photoshop those things in.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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early morning light in Batanes copyright Aloha Lavina.

Three Simple Tips for Sharper Handheld Photography

I was on a mountaintop last week, trying to take these shots without a tripod. The strong winds in the Batanes archipelago, in the Northernmost tip of the Philippine Islands, just knock tripods down, so I didn’t have much of a choice.

In situations where you have to take shots handheld, there are a few techniques you can practice to make your shots as sharp as possible.

1. Watch how you breathe.

Breathing can cause slight camera shake. But you can apply a rhythm in the way you breathe while you’re shooting that helps you keep your cam steady. It’s always best to finish exhaling before pressing the shutter. Practicing this breathing technique can seem distracting at first, but mastering it will help you get those handheld shots sharper.

batanes storm coming copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

2. Watch how you hold your camera.

Combined with your new breathing technique, you can stabilize your camera using your body. Digital Photography School has an excellent illustrated roundup about various positions you can adopt to hold your camera steady with your whole body, instead of just your hands. The bottom line is, use your body to steady the camera, and the closer you hold the camera to the core of your body, the more stable it becomes for you to take that sharp shot.

early morning light in Batanes copyright Aloha Lavina.

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

3. Watch how your eyes move.

This is a tip I learned from golf. Even after you have picked a focal point and locked on it, you need to keep your eyes on that focal point while you are taking the shot. Moving your eyes to a new focal point on the viewfinder means your hands will move.  Keeping your eyes locked on target will make sure your shot is sharp.

What are your techniques for handheld photography?

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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A Small Place to Meander

I wrote this piece for @getoutmysuit, who will be starting her RTW soon and asked about the “off the beaten path” places I’ve been. Thanks for inspiring this post!

Dumaguete is officially labeled “The City of Gentle People” and has been described as a “sleepy little town” and also often called a university town by people who’ve been. Sightly bigger than Luang Prabang, and much calmer than Siem Reap, for me, it’s the best place to meander.

How to get there

If there were a way of getting to Dumaguete without passing through chaotic, noisy Manila, I would take it.  Cathay Pacific has a flight that leaves Singapore for Cebu, the island next to Negros Island, where Dumaguete is.  From Cebu International Airport you can take a Ceres bus all the way to the jetty that services Maayo Shipping, the regular ferry service between Cebu and Negros islands, docking at a place called Tampi. From Tampi, it’s a short bus ride to Dumaguete.  The downside of this route is that the flight from Singapore to Cebu is expensive (around $1000) and the whole journey takes a day and a half.

There are two direct flights from Manila to Dumaguete, one early in the morning and one at midday. Cebu Pacific and Air Philippines both fly to Dumaguete. Cost is variable, but plan on spending around more or less $300 for a round trip ticket.

Walkabout Number 1: The old and famous

Dumaguete grew around Silliman University, established by Americans in 1901, and remains an institution with one of the most sought after diplomas in Philippine education. It’s worth taking a walk around the campus, at the gate of which you have to exchange a picture ID for a visitor’s pass. While on campus, check out the huge acacia trees, a signature feature of the sprawling campus. Walk up the slight hill from the base of Hibbard Avenue where it begins in the Piapi district, and meander through tree-lined Hibbard Avenue, stopping at old wooden bungalows which house some university faculty.

Also check out the small kiosks where students hang out to eat their snacks in between classes. I would recommend tasting the “banana cue,” a trio of sugar coated ripe bananas on a barbecue stick, which remains one of the favorite cheap snacks in the city.

If you are in the city on August 28th, you might witness Founders Day, a few days worth of fair, shows, beauty pageants, and cheering contests. I suggest catching the cheering contests. It’s basically a large group of people chanting and cheering in unison, with clapping and other choreographed sequences, complete with acrobatic cheerleaders! And groups win trophies and prestige, so they are very competitive and do a phenomenal job.

Sunrise at Silliman University. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

When you’ve walked the length of Hibbard Avenue, the long street that flanks departments of the University, head south along Perdices Street, the downtown, where you will see a movie theater, some boutiques, a bookstore, and a smattering of restaurants including the popular McDonald’s near Quezon Park. At the intersection of Perdices Street with Colon Street, turn right and follow the street to the main market area. Here you will see the fresh market. Check out activity in the fresh market early in the morning, before the heat picks up.

On the very short Sta. Rosa street, there is a corner bakery making some heavenly things—try the “star bread” which is a star shaped bread with a sugared top and aniseed baked inside. Star bread goes really well with some coffee. Which leads us to…

…Walkabout Number 2: Coffee and cake

Speaking of coffee, if you’re in the mood to hang out creatively, head out to a coffee shop with your journal or laptop or a good book. Some coffee that’s worth your walk is at the following cafes.

  1. Cafe Antonio is on the second floor of the Spanish Heritage Bldg, San Juan Street corner Sta. Catalina St. When I went, I ordered a latte and sat around reading a textbook on curriculum. The staff were very friendly, and around the area where you sit are some paintings and other art to look at. They even have a blog! From Café Antonio, you can walk east toward Rizal Boulevard.
  2. Sans Rival Pastry and Coffee Shop is a little café on Rizal Boulevard which makes the sans rival dessert. This is a cream log filled with custard and other good things dessert devils like. A slice of sans rival cake is about a gazillion calories, so I never have it any more when I visit Dumaguete, but I think if you are a first time traveler in these here parts you should partake of this even just once. Trust me, you will not forget the experience. Oh, and the coffee is just an excuse to get to the cake.
  3. Ana Maria Bakeshoppe is the home of the chocolate monster. That is, a chocolate cake that is rumored to “simply melt” in your mouth. Again, here the coffee loses its potency with the sugary goodness you encounter with every chocolate bite.

Author’s NOTE: I would not go to all these cafes all on the same day, especially if you are trying to read and write afterwards. Just sayin’.

Walkabout Number 3: Don’t blink or you’ll miss it

For this walkabout, I recommend a printed copy of the FREE Dumaguete Map.

Since you are full of sugar and caffeine, you can seriously get into a walkabout that burns all those calories and that nervous energy. This walk starts at Rizal Boulevard and ends at the Angtay Golf facility on Rovira Road. At meandering speed, it will take at most 2 hours.

It’s best to see Rizal Boulevard at sunrise, around 6.15 am, so start at the southernmost point of the street, where you might see fishermen come in from the night’s fishing, their small bancas or outriggers, loaded with mackerel, bangus and tiny fish fry which the locals make into ginamos, a dip made from pickled fish, vinegar and salt. Walk North along the boulevard and you will see a statue of Paulinian nuns, who came in 1907 and established their mission

Statue of Paulinian Nuns, Dumaguete. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

in Dumaguete including a university at your destination, Rovira Drive. On the other side of the street, you will pass Don Atilano’s, a well appointed café where upper middle class residents are often found dining on its Italian and fusion dishes. At the end of the boulevard before it curves right into a dodgy area known as Barangay Looc, you will see the end of Silliman Avenue. Turn left at this street, and walk until you see the intersection with Silliman University. Cross the street so that you have National Bookstore on your right, and continue walking west until you come to a large intersection and the North Road highway. Turn right on North Road.

On North Road, you will see on your left just beside the Provincial Capitol building and park, the Negros Oriental State University. If you want, you can walk in and around the U shaped road that leads you to the provincial capitol building. If you are walking on a Saturday, you’ll see the Negros Oriental High School marching band practicing just past the capitol building, and another of those ubiquitous banana-cue vendors. Follow the road out onto North Road and keep going.

You will pass Barangay Daro. Daro is a village where most of the clay work is done in Dumaguete, so you will see stacks and stacks of baked clay pots along the Daro strip of North Road. You will also see some interesting sari-sari stores, or stores selling all kinds of retail items such as bags of Tide detergent hanging on a string alongside chicharon, or pork rinds. There are also some very picturesque old wooden houses in Daro, especially in morning light. You may, like me, be distracted into taking photographs here.

Passing Daro, you will arrive at the Provincial Nursery and agriculture office, then Negros Oriental Provincial Hospital. Across the hospital, you will find some stalls selling steamed rice and common dishes.

On North Road, past the hospital, you will see a sign pointing you to a bowling alley. This may be the only bowling alley in the entire province. It’s open until late.

Main street, Dumaguete, with McD's. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

Passing the bowling alley, you come to a short bridge spanning a canal, at the intersection with Rovira Drive. Turn right at Rovira Drive. On Rovira Drive, you will have St. Paul’s University on your left. Past the north gate to the uni that is almost always closed, you will see a clearing with trees and a small road that leads to what a sign calls the “Angtay Golf” facility.

The Angtay Golf area has a flat nine holes with an interesting layout. There are numerous water hazards and sand traps in this not so easy course, and it’s very affordable if you want to play. They also have a driving range, at which you can hang out and order food. The restaurant at Angtay has some mean fried chicken and Chinese style dumplings.

After your break, you might want to meander some more down Rovira Drive, but this is a mainly residential area and there is not much to see. After this walk, you might want to take a pedicab, actually a small four seater cab attached to a motorbike, and go back to the city center.  Fare from Angtay to the city center is 7.5 Pesos.

Top Five Excursions Outside Dumaguete

With Negros Island not being as popular a tourist destination as Cebu, Bohol or Boracay, you can travel around relatively inexpensively. Here are some highlights around Negros Oriental Province.

1. Twin Lakes, Balinsasayao, Sibulan

Sibulan is the town north of Dumaguete and is only a few kilometers away from Rovira Drive. In fact, as soon as you pass the airport, you are already in Sibulan town. AT the center of town is St. Anthony’s Church and a park. The lakes are around 45 minutes from Sibulan town through tropical jungle, and ideal for a day trip out of Dumaguete.

2. Bais Dolphin Watch

Another day trip from Dumaguete, the town of Bais is around an hour away. The city itself organizes these trips and it includes a seafood meal on the boat.

3. Near Bais: Manjuyod Sand Bar

Manjuyod is close to Bais. On the white sand bar, some cottages on stilts are for rent for the day or overnight. Picturesque, it’s a great place to wake up and watch the sun rise over clear, clean water.

4. Bacong Town

Bacong is south from Dumaguete. You can take a bus there from the central market area near Santa Rosa St, or you can hire a pedicab to take you there for a minimal fee for which you have to bargain. (Recommended: ask your hotel for what it would take to go from Dumaguete to Bacong on a pedicab.)

Bacong is definitely out of the way, but it’s a delightful day trip from Dumaguete. Get off at the market and meander through small streets toward the beach, passing the Bacong Church, a very old, very beautiful stone structure with moss on the walls. Also check out what is reputedly the oldest altar in the province, inside.

On the way back from Bacong, you may want to pass by Santa Monica Beach Resort, where you can have a Filipino lunch to the music of the surf. Highly recommended is the “boneless bangus” (milk fish) dish with carrot and radish pickle, steamed rice and a mango shake without sugar (tell them not to add sugar).

5. Apo Island

Further down from Bacong, you will get to a town called Zamboangita. From its central market, you can buy a boat trip to Apo Island. All the prices are posted on a notice board, so you do not have to haggle for the price. Apo Island is best for snorkeling and sunning for a day trip, or if you have more time, you can explore more of the island on a two-day trip.

A warning though: the trip to Apo is wet, so if you have electronic gear, it’s best to keep it in a waterproof bag. My solution for traveling with a camera to Apo is wrapping all my gear including bag in a strong, industrial grade plastic garbage bag tied tightly with rubber bands. It works and can be reused.

On Apo, you have to pay the fees that go toward keeping this marine sanctuary clean and well maintained not only for its human inhabitants but especially for its marine ones. For a more comprehensive look at Apo Island, visit the Dumaguete Info site.

If you are looking for a place “off the beaten path,” Dumaguete is not a tourist destination and is perfect for you. Most of the expats who visit Dumaguete, though, end up staying, so be careful.  Don’t fall in love with the place. Well, maybe just a little.


Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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