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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Oaxaca


This Mexico jewel is like photographic candy


The colors of Oaxaca, Mexico, seen here in the Zócalo, or square, are a cornucopia for any traveling photographer.

If you wanted to spec out the ideal travel photography destination, you'd specify some of the following things: an ancient and still vibrant culture; beautiful, distinctive architecture; warm, moderate weather; colorful local dress; a thriving crafts scene; friendly, welcoming people; delicious food and photogenic markets. It's a tall order, and Oaxaca, Mexico fills it all, and then some.

Location, Location. Located in southcentral Mexico, Oaxaca is a beautiful colonial city that has long been a favorite with photographers. Its cobblestoned streets and colorful traditional architecture, as well as the surrounding villages, are perfect backdrops for portraits, street scenes and slices of life. In 2006, civil unrest due to a teachers' strike shook Oaxaca's tourist business for a year or two, but a recent trip back there showed me that it's back and better than ever.

The Zócalo, or square, is the heart of the city. Balloon vendors, wandering musicians, shoeshine stands and strolling pedestrians provide plenty of fodder for people pictures. One of my favorite strategies is to take a table at one of the many cafés that surround the park, order up a tasty hot chocolate (a specialty in these parts; chocolate is the basis for the area's "mole" sauce), and look for slices of life with a long 70-300mm zoom. If you sit in a Zócalo café long enough, it seems like the entire population of the city will stroll by.

A stroll up the pedestrian street Alcalá is rewarding at any time of day; in midday, look to shoot on the shaded side of the street (the buildings across the street catch the sun and act as giant reflectors, giving a beautiful, soft-light quality to the shady side). Early or late in the day, you get some great raking shadows from passing pedestrians. The street is always lively, and there are vendors selling everything from masks to brooms to cold drinks. The strong influences of the old Zapotec and Mixtec cultures live on in the faces of many of these vendors, and they're great photo subjects. I try to buy a little something from them in return for posing for me.

Fans of cathedral architecture won't be disappointed. Right on the Alcalá is the beautiful Church of Santo Domingo de Guzman. The big draw here is the beautiful multistory golden altar area, a stunning site. Several times a day, they will switch the floodlights on, and that's the time to take the picture, as it really makes the gold "pop."

Ask at the church when that occurs, as I don't think I've ever seen it happen at the same time twice! But it's worth the extra effort. You can use a tripod, but be discreet.

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