Saturday, January 4, 2014

An Unofficial Guide to Photographing Atlantis Resort in Paradise Island, Bahamas: Improving Your Tropical Vacation Photographs

My family is just back from a vacation at Atlantis - a wonderful, tropical resort on Paradise Island, in the Bahamas. We've enjoyed several fantastic trips there over the past few years. You can do as little or as much as you like.  You can relax under a coconut tree while sipping a Piña Colada, or you can glide down a water slide, jet ski, walk through a shark tunnel, snorkel, play Black Jack in the casino, stroll through "The Dig" (an aquarium with a tremendous variety of fish and sea life), enjoy fried conch, local lobster or any number of delicious meals, or even swim with dolphins. (Yes, I did all of the above.)

As I am an official photo-nerd, any vacation involves photography.  Many of my pictures are "memory" images - family photographs, shots of my kids and wife on water slides or in front of interesting fish tanks.  In terms of artistic images, Atlantis is truly a photographer's paradise.  Most mornings I wake up very early and explore the Atlantis property with my camera, tripod, and several lenses and filters.  Whether you are a beginner or advanced amateur, capturing the beauty of Atlantis can be intoxicating (or maybe that's just the Piña Coladas and Kalik beer!) I'll list some of the photographic highlights of Atlantis, and then give some general tips to improve your photographs of any tropical resort.

SCENES A PHOTOGRAPHER SHOULD NOT MISS IN ATLANTIS.  You're in Atlantis and you have your camera.  Now what?  To get oriented, here is a map of the entire resort:  ATLANTIS MAP. I would encourage you to explore and photograph as many of the following as you can (in no particular order):

1)  The Royal Towers.  For beautiful front-lit images of this iconic Atlantis structure, get up early!  I took both of these photographs between 7:15 and 7:30 in the morning.   Each of them is an HDR (high dynamic range) image.  For more on HDR, see below.  Three great locations to capture The Royal Towers are a) across the Royal Baths Pool (#16 on map), b) near the Lagoon Bar and Grill (#60 on map), and c) near the Predator Lagoon and rope bridge (between #'s 33 and 62 on map).
Royal Towers reflected in Royal Baths Pool
View of Royal Towers from Predator Lagoon (near rope bridge).

2)  The Dig (#6 on map).  When photographing marine life in aquarium tanks, be mindful of your reflections.  The glass of the tank acts as a mirror.  To achieve a "natural-looking" image, you want to avoid reflections of signs, people, or your flash.  I usually recommend shooting at an angle.  "The Dig" is a fairly dark environment, and you need a relatively fast exposure to capture moving fish, so I increased my ISO to about 2000.

Lion Fish
Jelly Fish


3)  Palm trees and Tropical Plants.  Soft, filtered morning light is perfect for photographing water lilies and other tropical plants and flowers.  If you'd like a silhouette of a palm tree, wait until sunset.  Meter your light on the sky, and the palm tree will be purposefully underexposed.
Water Lilies near The Cove
Palm Tree at Sunset

4) The Royal Baths Pool (#16 on map).  I recommend photographing this beautiful pool in the morning when the sun is high enough to bring out the bright colors of the geometric design and the Royal Towers have nice front-lighting.  I took these images on a December morning at 8 a.m.
The Royal Baths Pool and Royal Towers.
HDR image from 5 exposures
Detail of design in the Royal Baths Pool.
HDR image from 4 exposures

5) The shark tunnel and the Predator Lagoon (near #60 on map). As you walk through the shark tunnel, you are surrounded by sharks, sawfish, rays, and other fish.  Allow some time to take in the experience.  I recommend walking through the shark tunnel during daylight hours.  As this is a bit brighter environment than the dig, but still shaded, you can set your ISO at about 640.  Remember to use a very fast shutter speed (about 1/1000th second) as the marine life here is always moving.
The Shark Tunnel.
Reef Shark in the Shark Tunnel.
Sawfish in the Shark Tunnel.

6) Bahamian Sunrise.  I know you were in the casino until 2 am, but try to catch a sunrise one morning during your vacation!  You will be rewarded with wonderful color. Additionally, if you get up early to photograph the resort, you have a tremendous facility to yourself.  Its a great thing.
Sunrise from balcony of The Reef - 6:20 a.m.
HDR image from 7 different exposures.
Romantic setting, right?  Guess what...I pulled these 
chairs to the water's edge at about 7 a.m. to create this mood.

7) Architecture.  Try capturing the unique, diverse interior architecture throughout Atlantis.  This is often tricky as they are often high contrast situations.  Part of the setting is inside or shaded, while the other part is outside, with direct sunlight. One way to properly represent the way that our eyes see these settings, is to create an HDR (high dynamic range - see below) image. 
This is a hallway in The Cove at 6:30 in the morning.
This is an HDR image from 5 initial exposures.
Royal Towers lobby during the Christmas season.
This is an HDR image from eight different exposures.
Exterior walkway near Casino, with Royal Towers in distance.
HDR image from 5 exposures.

8) The Mayan Temple (#3 on map).  The Mayan Temple is home to the "Leap of Faith" and several other great water slides. It's Mexican-themed architecture makes an interesting photographic subject.  The morning hours are best for front-lit images of the "Leap of Faith" side (shown below).  Use your biggest zoom at about 1/500th second to capture non-blurry images of your family members speeding down this slide.
Mayan Temple showing "Leap of Faith".
HDR image from 4 exposures.

9) The Rope Bridge.  The rope bridge is at the end of Atlantis near the Predator's Lagoon and the Coral Towers (between #33 and #62 on map). It's reminiscent of old-time action movies. The bridge is above hammerhead shark-filled water.  On one side there's a waterfall and palm trees, and on the other side there's a vista that includes the Predator Lagoon and the Royal Towers.  The bridge wobbles a little as you cross over, but don't worry - it won't collapse! Exploring this area of the resort offers many opportunities of exotic images.
The Rope Bridge - End view in morning
looking toward Coral Towers.
HDR image from 7 exposures
Rope View - Morning Side View with Palm Trees
HDR image from 5 exposures
Rope Bridge Detail with morning back-light.

10) Birds.  Unlike fish, sharks and other marine life, the birds in Atlantis are not confined by a tank.  You'll see seagulls all around you.  If you're patient and a bit lucky, you'll come across other interesting birds.  To "freeze" a seagull in flight, you'll need a very fast shutter speed (I captured the seagull image below at 1/800th of a second.) If you want a portrait of a bird with a purposefully blurry background, make sure nothing distracting is immediately behind it.  Also, you should use an aperture with a shallow depth of field (about f/5.6).
Seagull in flight.
White Heron with fresh catch.
Brown bird on Rope Bridge

11) Marina Village (#31 on map).  In addition to having some great restaurants and shops, Marina Village is a fun place to photograph because of its colorful, Bahamian-themed buildings.

Window in Marina Village
View of Marina Village from the Cove.

12) Waterfalls.  There are a variety of waterfalls throughout Atlantis.  One of the larger falls is right next to the rope bridge.  If you want to create the soft, wispy quality of the moving water, you will need to use a low ISO (i.e. 100), and as slow a shutter speed as possible - usually about 1/4 of a second or slower.  Ideally, you will use a tripod to prevent the camera from shaking (which would result in a blurry image).  Its best to take these shots in the early morning or evening, when there is less light. This will allow a slower shutter speed.  Also, you may want to use a polarizing filter to further slow your shutter speed.
Waterfall seen from rope bridge.
Waterfall seen from rope bridge.

13) Beaches and the Ocean.  The beach offers many interesting photographic possibilities.  You can portray the peacefulness of the early morning, the crest of a wave, and the solitude of a lone palm tree.
Morning light on breaking wave.
ISO 400, f/11, 1/2000th second
Morning Palm Tree with cruise ship.
Morning Palm Tree at Cove Beach.
HDR image from 5 exposures.

GENERAL TIPS FOR IMPROVING YOUR TROPICAL VACATION PHOTOGRAPHS:  
1)  Try to simplify your composition.  Usually, including too much "stuff" in your image creates clutter.  Often, the phrase "less is more" really applies to photography.  When possible, make sure that your background does not distract the viewer from the primary subject.

Three palm trees.

2)  Look for patterns.  Sometimes an image doesn't have one single focus, but the repetition of a theme or element creates visual interest.

Beach chairs in "Cain at the Cove."
Collection of back-lit palm trees.
Morning water tubes waiting to be used.

3) Reflections.  In Atlantis (and other tropical resorts), you are surrounded by water, which often acts like a mirror.  A reflection can add visual interest as an echo to the primary subject.  Alternatively, photographing only a reflection can create an interesting abstract image.
The Cove Reflected in The Baths pool.
HDR image from 5 exposures.
Abstract reflection of Royal Towers.
.
The Cove, palm trees and blue sky reflected in a stream.
HDR image from 5 exposures.

4)  Freeze the action.  This can apply to people gliding down "Leap of Faith" or other water slides, to seagulls flying overhead, or to capturing the crest of a wave (giving new meaning to the Beach Boys' song "Catch a Wave").  For my "freeze the action" images, I shoot  between 1/400th and 1/2000th of a second.  If your camera does not allow manual settings, at least make sure you are in "sports" mode.
Snorkeling is fun, but jumping off the 
Snorkel boat might be even better!
ISO 400.  f/8.  1/1250th second
Early morning waves
ISO 500, f/9, 1/400th second

5)  Be patient.  For me, capturing images can be a zen-like, thought-provoking, creative process.  It should not be like running into a convenience store to pick up a gallon of milk. Patience enhances both your experience and your photographs. When possible, allow a few moments to watch and explore a subject. The still bird that you are watching might be on the verge of catching a fish.  The initially frustrating clouds might add a wonderful visual element as they begin to move away (perhaps you've seen Ansel Adams' iconic Yosemite photograph "Clearing Winter Storm").

6)  Try HDR (High Dynamic Range) for high contrast situations. To create an HDR image, the camera is usually placed on a tripod. You then take a series of exposures (holding constant the "aperture" - the size of the opening of the shutter), and changing the exposure speed in regular increments.  You then have a number of separate images (I have created HDR images using upto ten exposures).  Using special computer software (I use "Photomatix") you merge the different exposures into one image. This final image has the correct exposure for each part of the picture.

Atlantis is such a visually diverse setting with wonderful color, sea and plant-life, patterns, and architecture.  Grab you camera explore, and enjoy the ride.  While the Black Jack tables or slot machines may or may not be lucky, bringing your camera to Atlantis is a sure bet!

If you have any questions, email me at: Joshfriedmanphoto@gmail.com

If you'd like to purchase a print of one of my images, click here to visit my ETSY SHOP.

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