Mexico is one of North America’s favorite destinations. The sandy beaches of the Caribbean coastline and spectacular landscapes of the Baja Peninsula are iconic. But most visitors have no idea about the delights that hide in the interior—and the treasure trove of photographic opportunities—in Chiapas State.
As a travel photographer, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing many exotic places across the globe. It is a big world out there, and not even I can see everything. The goal on this trip was not to take specific photos or complete a magazine assignment. Instead, I went for the annual Adventure Travel Trade Association summit in a country where I’ve only spent time exploring the shoreline in Cozumel or Cancun. Mexico has much more to offer, and it was at the summit in Chiapas State, the southern-most part of the country, that I discovered delightful new photographic opportunities.
Historically, Mexico has been one of North America’s favorite destinations. The sandy beaches of the Caribbean coastline and spectacular landscapes of the Baja Peninsula are iconic. However of the 22 million travelers who visit Mexico annually, most have no idea about the delights that hide in the interior of the country. Chiapas State has majestic archaeological sites, colonial-style cities, amazing forests teeming with wildlife, and, most importantly, a very rich culture. Did you know that twelve indigenous cultures, each speaking their own language, make the mountains and shoreline of this area their home? I didn't either!
Even though I was in this beautiful part of Mexico to attend seminars during the day and festivities at night, I never leave Seattle without some kind of camera equipment. I tend to twitch if someone even suggests not bringing camera gear. At least one camera body, three lenses and a tripod are always ready to go.
What's In My Camera Bag?
I am a Canon shooter. The equipment that never leaves my side includes a pack with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 zoom lens; a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L USM zoom, and the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS telephoto zoom. That’s not to say you may have this specific gear—indeed, you can get equivalent lenses for a Nikon, Pentax, or Sony DSLR system. Besides, by the time this story goes live on the Adorama website, I may have a new Canon EOS 5D Mark III in my hands. What I am saying is that the wide range in lens choices is important to cover me in whatever situation I may find. The other item in my bag most of the time? A flash! It certainly comes in handy for filling in shadows in cultural photography.
Scoping The Sites
One of the nice things about the ATTA Summit was that we could go on a couple of pre-summit familiarization tours. These fast-paced excursions were not really designed for spending quality time at a location for photography. They were more akin to what I have to do when on a magazine assignment. The need to get shots that describe the area no matter what the weather or time of day can get in the way of the visual story telling. So that is exactly the way I treated it.
On my first outing, we started in the charming little village of Tapijulapa, which still preserves its long-standing traditions and architecture. Even though we were only here long enough for lunch, I made time to get some shots showing the flavor of the village and the restaurant where we ate.
Sidewalk and archway were shot with the 24-70 f2/.8 lens at 27mm. ISO 200, 1/125 second at f/5.6. This lens was wide angle enough to capture the charming nature in which the streets and buildings were constructed. The two women were photographed (with their permission) from across the street and through some flowers with the 100-400mm lens at 400mm. ISO 200 1/250 second @ f/5.6.
After that stop, it was on to Palenque, one of the finest Mayan archaeological sites in Mexico. With only two hours, I certainly got my exercise running up and down the steep steps. It was a very rainy day, which definitely made things more challenging, but don’t ever let that stop you from shooting!
Rainy day? Try to use some vegetation to create a frame blocking out as much gray sky as possible. 24-70mm lens, ISO 320, 1/125 second at f/7.1.
I did shoot this location without a person—but it wasn’t nearly as interesting nor did it give a sense of scale. 24-70mm lens, ISO 320, 1/30 second at f/7.1.
Why would I care about this shot? I can’t remember locations and never carry a note pad. This way, I have all the information handy when I return home.
Yes, this image has a lot of gray sky but I did like the misty clouds over the trees at the top. The image also imparts the steepness of the ruins. 24-70mm lens (shot at 33mm), ISO 320, 1/40 second at f/5.6.
The above trio of images demonstrates looking at a subject matter in various ways. Just showing the steps is somewhat boring, but could be used as a background in a magazine layout. The next two images place the human element into the story. Both show the physical nature of climbing these ruins. The 24-70mm lens is perfect for all angles and focuses quite close. ISO 320, 1/60 second at f/5.6.
Don’t forget the details!!! Once again, the 24-70mm lens excels in overall use.
In all of the ruins, tripods are not allowed – UNLESS you want to pay very expensive fees for commercial photography. Why? I’m not sure of the rationale but those are the rules. Here, I used the 24-70mm lens, and steadied myself against the wall. ISO 320, 1.3 seconds at f/5.6-very slow!!!
After a night at the lodge, Valle Escondido, we prepared for an adventure into the Lacandon Jungle. This involved more ruins at Bonampak, then hiking through the very watery rainforest to find the Lost City of Lacanja. It was quite the trek, lasting some five hours. Definitely a good thing I had my Lowepro pack with its very own rain cover!
Don’t fight a very dark forest—and yes it was raining. I increased my ISO to a rating that I normally wouldn’t use but thought I’d experiment. A slow shutter speed combined with the high ISO of 6400 captured the motion blur of our troop slogging through the drenched forest. 16—35mm lens, 1/13 second at f/5.6.
Here I went back to a more reasonable ISO rating of 200. That’s because I had my tripod. The plan for this shot was to capture the heavy water flow at a slow shutter speed to add a silky look to it. I also framed in the hikers to the left to add a sense of scale and adventure. 16-35mm lens, 0.4 seconds at f/10.
From scarlet macaws and a male curassow in the bird realm to the smallest leaf cutter ant, Chiapas State is a wonderland of wildlife. I used my 100-400 telephoto zoom with image stabilization for the birds. The ant was captured using my 100mm macro with a flash. ISO 200, 1/60 second at f/10.
The next day, we made our way to San Cristobal De Las Casas, the actual town hosting the summit. On the way, we stopped at Agua Azul National Park. All I can say is wow! This is a site with more waterfalls than I could ever photograph. They aren’t steep vertical drops, but beautiful cascades of water nonetheless. The image below certainly doesn’t reflect the name, Agua Azul (blue water). That’s because it was the rainy season, and there was no way I was going to capture any of the iridescent blue that is normally there in the dry season. So what would I say about this image? It’s a visual story of the powerful and life-sustaining water that keeps the forests of the entire region rich and green.
No turquoise water here, but what the image depicts is a sense of power and awe. 24-70mm lens, ISO 100, 1/13 second at f/22 for depth of field, shot on a tripod.
Finally, we arrived in San Cristobal. Would I be exchanging the camera equipment only to take pen and paper in hand? Absolutely not! Before all the seminars started we had one last chance to visit a small village, one even more steeped in culture and tradition than those seen on previous days. San Juan Chamula is a place I could spend an entire week photographing. A word of caution in this Mayan community: Be as respectful as you can about photographing the people. They are private and take pride in keeping many of their traditions sacred. Yes, I know. It is difficult to keep the camera down but I believe in asking permission and finding out where the photo restricted areas are. When I return to this magical little village, I will certainly enlist a guide to help me communicate and to make sure I am not being disrespectful.
One of the most protected locations is the interior of the cathedral. No photos were allowed, which was painful when I toured the inside. It was rich with tradition and wonderful faces. Sometimes you just have to concentrate on making memories. I captured the exterior in a variety of ways, including focusing on the vibrant colors and interesting people surrounding it. 24-70mm lens.
Don’t forget to capture the details in the local markets. 24-70mm lens, ISO 320, 1/60 second at f/8.
These were very challenging locations. Both had extremely low light, so my only option with the image to left was to bump the ISO to 3200. It still required a slow shutter speed, so a little fill flash to stop some of the motion helped. The weaver was a little easier. I was able to lower the ISO to 320 but still needed the help of the strobe to freeze some of the motion.
In between the scheduled events, I scoped out areas of interest in San Cristobal De Las Casas. The architecture was beautiful, and once specific locations were identified, I made my plan of attack. Twilight is magic light time and perfect for showcasing the design and lighting on these spectacular buildings.
Same building, different time. What a difference it makes if you have a little patience. I knew this shot would not be as interesting with the really flat overcast light. By waiting until dusk, even gray skies give way to a blue cast, and the lights on the building provide a magical touch. Of course, the trusty tripod is a must!
In the end, the ATTA Summit was a huge success. We learned a lot about travel trends and listened to inspirational speakers. We ate incredible local cuisine and strolled the town meeting many new friends. However, the best part of my short time there was to discover a magical, fascinating and very photogenic place just a short hop away in Mexico. Chiapas State begs to be photographed.
The wonderful town of San Cristobal De Las Casas in evening light. What a nice way to end a conference. 24-70mm lens, ISO 100, f/7.1 at very slow shutter speeds with the use of a tripod.