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Photographing the Soul of Baja

by Hugh O. Smith

We live in Baja California near Rosarito Beach, Mexico. It is full of stories and my wife and I find ourselves every week photographing some aspect of life here. The first thing I always tell photographers is look at everything with fresh eyes. REALLY look! Stare if you have to. Photograph your neighborhood. You would be surprised what “strange eyes” see.

These images are taken from my latest book published: 'Popotla, A Baja Fishing Village'.
Popotla in particular was originally built in the mid 90’s to help feed the people on the Fox Studio set just next door. Here they filmed Master and Commander Far Side of the World, Titanic and several other notable Hollywood films. Today, the studio is closed but Popotla lives on and is a Mecca for locals and tourists who come to either buy fish for home or eat local seafood right on the beach.

It’s been said that shooting color is like shooting clothes but black and white is like shooting souls. Being a photojournalist and old school darkroom addict who has only in the last 10 years converted to digital, I still believed that (the National Geographic notwithstanding).  Notice I phrased that in the past tense. I don’t believe that any longer.

Steve McCurry once observed that “The world is color.” And he made me rethink much of my documentary work. So I shot this little feature from “around the corner” from our house in Baja California.

I documented the fishing village near Rosarito, Baja California in Northern Mexico called Popotla. The problem I faced was that Mexicans in general love brilliant colors and it would be a shame to lose that brilliance. Further, to “complicate” things, I wanted to capture the grit and grime of the fishermen and the village without losing the “souls” of the inhabitants.

I had to give up preconceptions that I had for color and find a solution that would allow me to interpret what I saw and experienced in Popotla.  Ah sweet digital to the rescue.

I have spent many hours photographing in this tiny village and getting to know the people as well as a gringo can. Once I showed them some of the photographs, they really loosened up. My two favorites (Geronimo and Martin) were so enthusiastic it was almost embarrassing to watch them run all over the village showing their pictures to anyone who would look.

I have included two images of each capture to give the reader an idea of the before and after of how I tried to preserve the look, feel and smell of Popotla. I have also given you the work flow of what I did to achieve the final images that appear in my little book, “Popotla. A fishing village in Baja.”

I always try to tell a story in one photograph so that individually and together they reveal a dynamic. My advice to most photographers is a.) tell a story and b.) don’t overcook the photos. It’s too easy to add HDR and, in my opinion, detract from the story with fancy technology.  Duncan, Smith, HCB and the famous photojournalists of the past told it simply and well.


A view of the Lighthouse at Fox Studios Baja photographed from Las Gaviotas Restaurant in Popotala.  
The second image is the post processed photo. I gave it a more dramatic sky and tried
to enhance the colors of the rock and sea.


A view looking south along the beach in Popotla. 
The second image is the post processed photo.  I dramatically enhanced the sky.


The original image of Martin and Geronimo sorting their day's catch of warm water crab.  Ugly critters! 
In the second image I dramatized their features and increased the look of grittiness.


This older fellow sells sea shells at the entrance to the village.
In the second image I added the Topaz plug in increasing the color saturation.

Technical information
All of these were shot with a FujiFilm X-100. I like it for the fixed (35mm equivalent) lens and it is a very unintimidating camera. People don’t seem to think you’re a serious photographer so they ignore you.

All images are uncropped. Each of the images was post processed using a Topaz plug in “Adjust” and “Spicify or Vibrance.” This added the grit I was looking for as well as giving each image an almost 3D effect. (Until the advent of Topaz, I would have had to post process these images quite a bit.) Fortunately, Topaz plug ins are inexpensive and allow the photographer a huge range of variations to suit my needs.

My book “Popotla. A Baja Fishing Village” can be purchased from our website 
Even though I still love (and think) in black and white, I have a new reverence for color:
Steve McCurry is right. The world is color.