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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Faces Of Peru

More than just the iconic Machu Picchu, Peru is a wealth of landscape, wildlife and cultural photographic opportunities

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A procession of village women walks from the town hall to the church on a Sunday on Taquile Island on Lake Titicaca.
Nikon D90, Nikkor 16-85mm VR lens

Up To The Andes
Ideally, you would take a few days to work your way gradually up to Cusco, the Incan city and regional capital that sits at about 12,000 feet of altitude. That way, your body would acclimatize gradually to the thin air. But flying up from sea-level Lima in one fell swoop seems to be my fate in visiting Peru, and it’s literally breathtaking to step from the plane into the rarified atmosphere of this gorgeous colonial city.

If you happen to be lucky enough to stumble into one of Cusco’s many festivals, you don’t have to worry about tipping if you’re shooting the action of dancers or people in parades. It’s only if you ask for a pose. On a recent trip, I noticed some fireworks scaffolding being set up in the picturesque main square (a must on your shot list, especially at twilight) one afternoon and returned later to find dancers in front of the cathedral after which the fireworks were set off.

I made the most of the dancers using slow-synch flash with the SB-800 on my D90, panning with a slow shutter speed as the dancers went by me. I started at about ISO 400 in the early twilight, but by late evening, was cranked up to ISO 1600 in order to keep a shutter speed that was slow enough to register some background, but not too slow as to make that background a complete blue (for me, this means working in 1/15 sec., 1/8 sec., but hopefully no slower than 1⁄4 sec.).

There’s plenty to keep you happily shooting in Cusco for a few days, but you’ll inevitably want to head up into the Sacred Valley of the Incas. If you can, I recommend starting out on a Sunday, making your first stop at the town of Chinchero, site of a beautiful old Inca ruin and a lively Sunday market. This market is the real deal, primarily designed for locals and not tourists. But you’re welcome to wander among the food and textile stalls, and if you buy a little something here and there, you’re more than welcome to compose a picture.

Seabirds off the Ballestas Islands, the so-called “Galápagos of Peru,” in Paracas National Reserve.
Nikon D90, Nikkor 70-300mm VR lens
I like to work with two bodies in market situations, one with a wide zoom, one with a tele-zoom. That way, I can get wide establishing shots or environmental portraits, plus tele-detail shots and candids. If you have only one body, you might consider doing a pass through the market with a wide lens, then go back through with your longer lens to look for those different perspectives.

Not far from Chinchero, on the road to Ollantaytambo, are the salt pans of Maras. There are over 3,000 small pools to dry and harvest salt that have been in continuous use since before the Inca times! You’ll get some great pattern shots looking down with a long lens from the windy and treacherous road leading down into the salt pans, and again from the small market area right above the pans. Look for people walking and working among the salt pans to break up the pattern and create a sense of moment. It’s incredible to think that local people have been working this way for thousands of years.

Ollantaytambo is a living Inca town, and you can see the Inca engineering still in use in the narrow cobblestone streets and their drainage trenches. This is where the train to Machu Picchu is picked up (there are no roads; it’s train or hiking to get up there). Most people whiz through here, giving a quick look to the wonderful stonework of the temple and moving forward.

But Ollantaytambo is worth exploring because it’s a transportation hub for a lot of the outlying Quechua villages, and you can catch interesting indigenous faces in colorful garb if you hang out by the market and the bus station, especially near the end of the day when people are making their way back to traditional towns such as Willoq and Patacancha.


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