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How To Shoot It

Capturing Machu Picchu Without People [How You Shot It by Mike Torrey]

By Guest Contributor on May 25th 2015

How You Shot It is a series where you show us how you shot an image. Many who use our presets love to share their special processing recipes. You can join the SLR Lounge Community  group on Facebook and share your favorite images and recipes as well! Or for a chance to have your shoot featured, click here.

Today’s post is from Mike Torrey. Mike is a southern California based architectural photographer and author of the award-winning photography book STONE OFFERINGS – Machu Picchus Terraces of Enlightenment.” He currently has a Kickstarter campaign to help keep this book in print. To learn more about his Machu Picchu work, click here.

From : “STONE OFFERING - Machu Picchu’s Terraces of Enlightenment”

From : “STONE OFFERING – Machu Picchu’s Terraces of Enlightenment”

Vision

With nearly two thousand visitors per day – more during the June and December solstices, when both my trips took place – my desire to have Machu Picchu all to myself quickly became nothing but a dream. My only option really was to photograph as if I were the only person there – to have a singular experience of Machu Picchu through the viewfinder of my camera.

In creating these images, I established a few rules to guide my process:

  • Capture images without all the tourists (to whatever extent possible)
  • Never ask anyone to move out of the way (the integrity of their experience was no less important than mine)
  • Focus on what Machu Picchu was revealing to me

It was in narrow passages of time and space that images without people unfolded. A split second, when someone stepped behind a wall or left the frame completely, was all that I needed.

Torrey_slr-02-diptych

The two images above (unprocessed from two cameras) show people gathered around the Intiwatana stone at the busy time of the June solstice. While you can’t see anyone in the title image above, if you look closely you can see the shadow of a couple that had just walked behind this magnificent carved stone they call “Hitching Post to the Sun”.

Torrey_slr-03-shadows

The Process

I did not remove any people, signs or protective barriers through retouching these images. In some, you can see the top of a person’s head or even a group of people in the distance. I accepted this as part of the privilege to discover Machu Picchu with my own eyes.

As much as possible, I tried to go where people were not congregating in large numbers, and, of course, the early morning and late afternoon hours were the least crowded. I did however photograph all day long over the seven days that I was at the site. I let the sun’s location relative to the structures I wanted to photograph guide me around the site. A good starting point is to look for light that is 90 degrees from where you will be pointing your camera. I was looking for optimal ratios of light and shadows to give depth to the structures. The title image, for example, has a strong sun/shadow line (i.e., light ratio) with the sun angle closer to 120 degrees.

The Gear (two trips in 2007)

Primary Camera: Canon 5D (1 body first trip; 2 bodies second trip)

Secondary Camera: Canon G7 (I kept this around my neck to react quickly to changing light)

Canon Lenses: 20 mm, 24mm Tilt/Shift24-105mm

Tripod: Gitzo carbon fiber (by locking in my camera position with a tripod, I could more easily watch for people coming into and out of the composition. I found that I got more adept at this as I went along)

ISO: almost always 100 (critical to use tripod in low light)

Note: I’ve heard that Machu Picchu has become strict about the use of tripods. As an alternative, consider a telescoping monopod that has feet and can pose as a “walking stick”.

Torrey_slr-04-detail1

Torrey_slr-05-detail2

Image Post-Processing

Post processing was done almost exclusively in Photoshop, although today, I do rely on Lightroom more extensively. My basic workflow for this project was as follows:

I first set the black and white points to the book printer’s specification (005/250). I used a threshold adjustment layer to find the darkest and brightest parts of the image, and then use a levels adjustment to set red/green/blue points to the desired values.

I would then make the overall image cooler or warmer and remove any additional color casts in the mid-tones.

The rest of the work was just a series of overall and local contrast adjustments to make sure everything looked in balance.

I finished off the image by slightly increasing saturation and then applying image sharpening.

Conclusion

I started this process not knowing whether I would be successful in creating images without people at Machu Picchu. I never waited more that 30 minutes and if I couldn’t get the image within that timeframe, I just moved on. In several images in the book, you can see people, but the overall lighting and compositional elements keep your eye on what was important to me at the moment. While I certainly could have retouched the people out, I wanted show my personal experience of this World Wonder site.

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Tosh Cuellar

    great images and some good tips, I appreciate the author’s understanding and acceptance that the other visitors’ experience was as important as his own

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  2. Lakin Jones

    You can also grab a bunch of ND filters and take a long exposure depending on the time of day.

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    • J. Dennis Thomas

      That can also introduce foliage blur which can look cool, but that wouldn’t be my first choice. The ND filter trick is better for urban environments where trees and plants aren’t as prevalent.

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  3. Brandon Dewey

    Great article, I’ve had to use some of these same tips when I was shooting in Rome.

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  4. J. Dennis Thomas

    There’s a real easy way to do this in Photoshop. Take a bunch of photos (preferably with as few people as posible of course), open Photoshop and go to File > Scripts > Statistics. Select “Median” for the stack mode and check “Attempt to Automatically Align Source Images.” Finally, click the “Browse…” button to select your set of photos and hit OK.

    You have to do some touchup depending on the amount of artifacts, but it’s a fairly quick automated process.

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  5. Paddy McDougall

    Thanks for a great article and admire your ethical/ well mannered approach to taking the shots. I found similar challenges when I went to Ankor Wat. Patience, avoiding peak times in the day and a local guide were what helped me.

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