Barcelona – Out Of My Comfort Zone

Our friend, Leonardo Carrizo, is a multi-media storyteller who travels around the world capturing the story behind the destination. Read about his journey to break out of his photographic comfort zone in Barcelona!

In addition to leading a National Geographic Student Expedition in Ecuador this summer, I also taught a Travel Photography seminar with Putney Student Travel in Barcelona, Spain.

I was in the Galapagos Islands when I began the voyage to the Old World with a few stops along the way with the students in Guayaquil, Quito, and Miami. Then from the US I took the transatlantic flight to Barcelona so it already felt like an adventure.

This was going to be my first time in Barcelona and my second time in Spain. I was very excited about exploring this region with its own language and culture. Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, one of several autonomous communities in Spain and they speak Catalan (but everybody can speak Spanish). Therefore, the people of Catalonia are not Spaniards and as you probably heard in the news many want independence from Spain. Catalonia is a very important region culturally, think of the surrealist painter Salvador Dali and modernist architect Antoni Guadi, and economically,  think of commerce, industry and tourism, so Spain doesn’t want to lose it. Barcelona is a powerhouse city and cosmopolitan area where all these layers of society mix and tangle on a daily basis. I don’t want to go on a history, cultural and social economical lecture here but let’s just say that if you are going to travel to Barcelona you should do a little research before you arrive. Learning about the place you are traveling is generally good advice for any traveler/photographer.

“Visually breaking from the routine or your comfort zone is always a good exercise if you want to continue to grow and evolve as a photographer.”

Because Barcelona is a popular tourist destination for people from all over the world, I felt it challenging to get close to people actually from Catalonia. The locals are actually a bit fatigued from the tourists that descend on their city, mainly from northern Europe, looking to party all day and night without any respect for the city and its citizens. Of course, there are exceptions on both sides and I was able to meet great people. As photographers, we have to learn to adapt quickly to light, camera settings, lens choices, the environment, the list goes on so this was a new adjustment. I just needed to change my photographic strategy from my typical documentary style to an atypical (for me) architecture and landscape style.

Visually breaking from the routine or your comfort zone is always a good exercise if you want to continue to grow and evolve as a photographer. The challenge of looking at photography and the environment with a new set of eyes can be frightening but also rewarding. It allowed me to explore techniques and subjects that I don’t use all the time and it freed me from my own restrictions. Therefore, on this post, I want to concentrate on those images that are the ones a little out of my comfort zone.

Barcelona beach. Hotel W Barcelona (photo by Leonardo Carrizo)

I’m not a landscape photographer but I have always admired black and white landscapes; particularly the ones with movement in the clouds or silky water. The Hotel W Barcelona is a well know landmark on Barcelona’s beach. It’s a stunning and dominant building with a sail-like shape. I walked around the building and found this facility entrance which I thought most people are going to ignore so I used it in my composition. I was using my Canon 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L lens on a Manfrotto tripod.

After composing the image, I attached a threaded Vü 10-stop Neutral Density filter to dramatically reduce the amount of light forcing a long exposure. You can’t see through the viewfinder once the filter is on the lens. It’s critical to set the focus prior to attaching the ND filter. Having set the lens to manual focus helps to avoid the autofocus to refocus on something else that you can’t detect once the filter is on. Cutting down the light helps you to increase the shutter speed so you can capture the movement of the clouds.  I used a Canon Timer Remote Controller TC-80N3 to trigger the shutter. This remote has multiple functions, it can be used for time-lapse photography or keeping the shutter in Bulb. In this situation, I used it to keep my hands off the camera to prevent camera movement.

After a few attempts, the final exposure on the image above was f/18 @ 30 seconds and ISO 100. The small f-stop gave me long of depth of field so I knew the building was going to be sharp and in focus. I liked the way the image looks in color but the black and white gives it more contrast and impact. I used the same set up in the following images.


Barcelona beach. Hotel W Barcelona (photo by Leonardo Carrizo)

On this image (above), the exposure was f/18 @ 50 seconds and ISO 100. Notice the longer shutter speed needed because more of the sea was included in the frame. I used the remote control to set the shutter speed instead of doing it in-camera. The sail structure really stands apart from the rest of the landscape.

Barcelona beach
(photo by Leonardo Carrizo)

There are several piers with breakwater rocks along the coast from where you can do some fishing or set up a tripod and get different views of the Barcelona beach. As the water breaks, there is a lot of water splashing all over the rocks. I wanted to blur all the water so I used an even longer shutter speed of 91 seconds with the aperture set to f/22 and ISO 100 to capture the image above.

The image below shows a different view of the Barcelona beach landscape looking north and including some landmarks on the right such as the Hotel Arts and Mapfre Tower. If you look carefully you can see the tail of the giant gold fish sculpture. I used the rocks as foreground elements and coastal line to take the viewer to the background elements.

Barcelona beach
(photo by Leonardo Carrizo)

One of the most popular destinations to visit within Barcelona is the Gothic Quarter. You can easily get lost in the labyrinth of narrow medieval streets. Visually, it’s stunning. It’s like traveling back in time except for the fact that you are surrounded by hundreds of tourists taking selfies every few steps they take. So, it’s very difficult to take a photograph without people in your shot. If you are doing street photography and you are using the people as subjects there is no problem.  Yet, if you are trying to take architectural landscapes photos you have a big problem!

Of course, there are several solutions to overcome this problem. Option number one, wait for the right moment. Scout a location and wait for that fraction of a second when the streets seem to be empty and take your shot. Option number two, go there very early in the morning when there is less people before 6:00 am or very late in the evening, use a tripod and long exposure to compensate for the lack of light. Option number three, point your camera towards where there are naturally no people; in other words, look up. This is the way I approached it since I was trying to work differently. I’m sure other photographers can come up with additional solutions. I encourage you to share them in the comments.

photo by Leonardo Carrizo

Here you can see how much you can clean up the environment by simply looking up. Notice the vanishing point created by the rooftops lead the eyes to the “Bishop’s Bridge”.

Since all the buildings in the Gothic Quarter feel squeezed together you can use the narrow streets to frame large structures like the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Barcelona without trying to capture the entire building. Other architectural elements like textured reliefs, bell tower, and gargoyles also make great subjects. You can actually compose interesting images shooting up towards the sky and avoid tourists in the streets. These images are going to be more abstract but that’s the point to try something new. I looked for lines, shapes, texture, contrast and patterns.

The next set of images were shot using a Fujifilm X-PRO2 with a f/2 35mm lens equivalent to around 50mm on a full frame camera therefore my space was also compressed.


Framing the Cathedral’s bell tower on Carrer Del Comtes street with the Archive of the Crown of Aragon on the right of the frame.

(photo by Leonardo Carrizo)

Looking up at the bell tower of the Cathedral.

(photo by Leonardo Carrizo)

I was walking around the back of the Cathedral on Carrer de la Pietat street looking up and saw this gargoyle. I used the walls and edges of the building to creates layers and depth around the gargoyle.

(photo by Leonardo Carrizo)

Also, walking behind the Cathedral, I took advantage of the shadows and light falling on the window creating what I call a “pocket of light.” I always look for pockets of light because any subject inside the light becomes the focal point of the image. Typically, I do that with people walking in the light pocket. Another quality of light is the direction of light. When you have light falling from the side it creates texture like in the image above.

One of the most interesting activities I was able to arrange for my students in Barcelona was to have Pol Vila, a local photographer, give us a tour of his city. Walking around Barcelona with Pol was very insightful because he has greater knowledge of the city and its people. Photographically Pol shoots a mixture of lifestyle, urban street, events and tattoo culture which is awesome. He took us to a place where the street and buildings have an unusual layout and by unusual, I mean cool. As you walk this narrow street you get to a point where is opens up and creates a small circular area. The buildings surround this circular space creating interesting negative space once you look up. In design, the space around and between objects is called negative space and it can be as important the subject.

Barcelona Putney travel (photo by Leonardo Carrizo)

The next image is my favorite from this location. I changed the perspective and point of view by placing my camera on the ground in the center of the circle and shot strait up into the sky. The negative space created by the building become the focal point of the image. Since I liked the way the image below looked I tried the same approach of using negative space a few more times with the other building.

(photo by Leonardo Carrizo)
(photo by Leonardo Carrizo)

Interior patio of a building, Barcelona.

(photo by Leonardo Carrizo)

During the seminar, we took a daytrip to the picturesque village of Cadaqués which is about two and a half hours north of Barcelona on the Costa Brava. Cadaqués used to be a fishing village. Today most people visit Cadaqués to unwind and lay down by the beach. You can relax and enjoy the view from a café or bar looking out at the turquoise water and the colorful boats.

Village of Cadeques (photo by Leonardo Carrizo)

“From now on, wherever I travel, I’m going to make an effort to capture at least one nice panoramic image.”

To capture the image above, I used the same set up as I did for the Hotel W Barcelona – the Sail (I actually took this image before the Sail images). It’s a long exposure shot with the camera on a tripod and the 10 ND filter one a wide-angle lens. The exposure was f/22 @ 25 second with ISO 100.

Cadaqués is overwhelming beautiful and difficult fit it all in one frame so I went panoramic. I typically don’t consider doing panoramic images but I wish I would. There are many wonderful places I visited where having a panoramic image would have enhanced the visual narrative of my trip. From now on, wherever I travel, I’m going to make an effort to capture at least one nice panoramic image. There are eight images stitched together to create the panoramic view of the Village of Cadaqués.

Village of Cadeques (photo by Leonardo Carrizo)

I’m not trying to compete with photographers who specialize in panoramic photography and use specific gear, software and devote time to learn the proper skills to make their wonderful images. I want to include this style and technique to add to my visual archive. Therefore, my approach was very easy to create these images. I placed my camera on a tripod and took several images making sure there was sufficient overlap between the images to stitch them together in post-production. The software Adobe Lightroom did all the work for me.

The next panoramic image is in Barcelona. I took the cable car from the port up towards Mountjiuc and walked on the Passeig de Miramar from where you have wonderful panoramic views of the city Barcelona.


Panoramic view of Barcelona (photo by Leonardo Carrizo)

“I enjoyed being challenged even though it was uncomfortable but it’s the only way to get better in photography and in life.”

My last adventure before returning home was sort of a “visual” pilgrimage to Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey. It is a Benedictine monastery on the mountain Monserrat. It’s a little over an hour away by train from Barcelona. You have to take another small train from the town up to the actual monastery but you can buy a ticket that includes the transfer. The structure of the monastery is stunning and the mountain background leaves you in awe wondering how was this built. I spent more time looking and exploring it than photographing it.

Montserrat is a very popular destination so it was full of people either visiting the monastery or going on some of the many hiking trails. I walked away from the crowds not only to get away but also because the distance allowed me to capture the building and the mountains in one frame. As you can tell from the image below, both elements are enormous. Unfortunately, there were no clouds that day and the time of day didn’t create any interesting light.

(photo by Leonardo Carrizo)

Then, I decided to hike to the summit of Montserrat mountain called Sant Jeroni (Saint Jerome) at an altitude of 1236 meters or 4,055 feet above sea level. It’s a four hours hike roundtrip plus the time you spend looking around the beautiful scenery but it’s definitely worth it.

(photo by Leonardo Carrizo)

For me it is still difficult to think of photography without people in my images. I believe I do my best work when I’m documenting people and cultures while doing travel photography. I have immersed myself in the realm of photojournalism since grad school and it’s what I teach at OSU. It’s my style of photography and my passion. Yet in Barcelona, I was reminded that photography can so much more and that was liberating. I enjoyed being challenged even though it was uncomfortable but it’s the only way to get better in photography and in life.

I hope you enjoyed my journey and feel free to leave a comment.

I also want to thank Midwest Photo for letting me borrow the Fujifilm X-Pro2 and DJI Osmo Plus for the summer. The Pro2 is awesome for street photography and the DJI Osmo captures great video on the go.

(photo by Leonardo Carrizo)

That’s me taking a self-portrait with the Fujifilm X-Pro2 in the streets of Barcelona!

Check out Leonardo’s work at his website and Instagram!

Also, check out this interview of Leonardo from the MPEX Blog!

What’s the story behind your photo? Share your photo and story on Instagram and Facebook  using the hashtag #MPEXSTORY. Visit to see our photos and the stories behind them-We might choose your photo and story to feature on the site!

Midwest Photo

One thought on “Barcelona – Out Of My Comfort Zone

  1. My friend,
    your view about the history and politics of Barcelona, and the current political situation in Spain, are messed up by propaganda. I friendly recommend you to listen and reading more, it is a complex, millennial old, issue and you are not even scratching the
    paint in the surface. I understand you are a photographer, not an expert in history, and that’s fine. But you shouldn’t make your mind and write such an statement so fast without telling that… well… you actually do not know much about what you are writing.

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