PDN’s 2016 World in Focus First Place contest winner Lorence Cayabo reveals how she captured the winning shot—a portrait of two women celebrating Dia de Muertos.

© Lorence Cayabo

Portrait photographer Lorence Cayabo didn’t have to travel far to capture her first place-winning image in the World In Focus Travel Photography contest. Los Angeles-based portrait photographer Cayabo shot her winning image, “Art Imitates Death,” a portrait of two women dressed up to celebrate the Mexican holiday Día de Muertos, at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery near her hometown last year.

Her winning portrait showcases elements of traditional Mexican culture—women dressed in corsets painted with the self-portrait of Frida Kahlo and her exposed heart—but on closer inspection, the glitz and glamour of Hollywood culture also come through. The women stand before a marble crypt that reflects a bright magenta light. In the background, other partygoers are seen in costume, and vendor tents can be made out in the distance.

“I developed an interest in Mexican culture while growing up in California… it reminded me of my Filipino heritage,” Cayabo says. However, it wasn’t her interest in the culture that drew her to the event that day, but rather, her love of photography. After receiving an invitation from a friend, she says, “I knew it was going to be a beautiful event to photograph.”

For this image, Cayabo says the lighting and composition were her biggest challenges, but ultimately everything came together like a puzzle: using a fixed 50mm f/1.2 lens, Cayabo couldn’t zoom and had to adjust her position to compensate. She was also shooting in manual and had to tweak her aperture, ISO and shutter speed accordingly as the sun set, and she had to find just the right moment where partygoers and background elements were unobtrusively in the frame. “The timing of all of those elements required that I work fast,” she explains.

Cayabo, says she hasn’t received a formal photography education, but she credits the resources in Los Angeles for fine-tuning her skills and style. As a member of the Los Angeles Center of Photography, Cayabo says she has had the opportunity to “learn from the greats,” such as National Geographic photographer Sam Abell and portrait photographer Greg Gorman, as well as have her work critiqued by fellow photographers.

Cayabo says her winning image represents what she enjoys about the profession: “photographing people and telling a story.” She says, “Making subjects feel comfortable requires practice, but I find that being myself and appreciating the contribution that each subject makes often leads to photographic opportunities that would otherwise not have materialized.”

Her advice for someone interested in cultural photography: “Take lots of pictures, shoot with intention, study the work of portrait and travel photographers you admire, and, when possible, enroll in workshops or online classes that will allow you to continually hone your skills.”

“Art Imitates Death”
© Lorence Cayabo

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