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The Festa da Nossa Senhora da Piedade, or the Feast of our Lady of Mercy, is a defining cultural event for the village of Caniça on Madeira Island. (Photograph by Jeanne Hale)

Photo Lesson: Setting the Scene

In addition to being longtime contributing photographers for Traveler magazine, my wife Sisse and I are frequently invited to join National Geographic Expeditions trips as photography experts, interacting with guests aboard the National Geographic Explorer

On a recent trip to the Macaronesia Islands—composed of the Azores and Madeira (both belonging to Portugal), the Canaries (which is under Spanish rule), and the independent country of Cape Verde—we had 25 passengers sign up for a photo workshop with us. We gave them assignments, or themes, to explore throughout our journey—including how to recognize and use light, how to interact with strangers and convey personalities through portraiture, how to tell a story and capture a sense of place through photography, and more.

Each day, we met to discuss the results of their efforts, with Sisse and I providing feedback and suggestions on how to improve. And each day there was a standout photograph that seemed to illustrate the lesson we had intended to teach—so much so that we thought it was worth sharing with the rest of the Nat Geo Travel community.

> Assignment: Setting the Scene

Each time we go out on assignment for National Geographic, we are always focused on capturing a lead shot—some might call it a scene-setter—that conveys a strong sense of place. On Madeira Island, we challenged our students to compose an image that strives to do just that, as having the ability to deliver on this category when covering any destination is of vital importance to the travel photographer.

Very often we will make this picture toward the end of our assignment, after we have become throughly immersed in the culture and people. By that time, we know which subjects have more editorial significance than others.

We were in the small fishing village of Caniçal, one of the oldest religious parishes on the island. In the mid-1950s, director John Huston came here to shoot the opening sequence of Moby Dick—set in an open boat with giant waves, fierce winds, and saturating sea spray—but his star, Gregory Peck, became so seasick that he was forced to finish the scene on a Hollywood set.

Here, photographer Jeanne Hale captures the pink and blue flowers that decorate the town as it celebrates the Festa da Nossa Senhora da Piedade, a yearly celebration of the patron saint of fishermen, or Our Lady of Mercy. The magenta plastic flowers criss-crossing the sky set off the red Maltese crosses that adorn the banners strung around the village. There is also a lot of blue in the image—flowers, sky, and gazebo—which lends visual cohesion to a defining cultural event for the villagers.

> Camera Settings:

  • ISO: 100
  • Lens: 27mm (35mm format)
  • Aperture: f/7.1
  • Shutter Speed: 1/200th second

Cotton Coulson and Sisse Brimberg are contributing photographers for National Geographic Traveler magazine. They are based in Glasgow, Scotland.

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