When most people fly into Cancun, Mexico, they’re only a few steps away from their dream vacations, whether they’re staying in the city or heading further south to Playa del Carmen or Tulum. But for those who find themselves looking to disconnect from the bustling party cities and resorts, there is an island destination resting on the tip of the Yucatan peninsula that was made for the unhurried traveler.
Isla Holbox is a stretch of 26 miles, where some of the only forms of travel are to bike, swim, or walk the sandy roads on foot. Chicago-based photographer Sandy Noto was recently hired by luxury hotel Punta Caliza to capture their beachside property for an upcoming feature on Cool Hunting’s blog.
I’m relatively adventurous and was roughly familiar with that area of Mexico, having been to Tulum and Merida in the past. But I’ve never been to Holbox, which contributed to my interest in the project, so I gave it a go.
Sandy is no stranger to traveling for her work, with destinations such as Iceland, Japan, Taiwan, and Mexico in her arsenal of assets. She was contacted by the PR company for the hotel, My Young Auntie, to see if the project would be of interest and if she had availability in her schedule. With just two days to spare before another assignment in Japan, Sandy was happy to agree to a small stint in Mexico.
I’ve done a pretty wide mix of travel projects for editorial and commercial clients so this fit nicely into my wheelhouse. I tend to travel pretty lightly and try to avoid overly complicated productions.
Upon arrival in Cancun, the journey to Isla Holbox (pronounced Hol-Bush) begins with a two-hour drive from the airport and a ferry ride over the blue waters of the Yalahu Lagoon. Once there, one can take a golf cart, rent bikes, or simply walk to their accommodations depending on the number of bags they carry.
I’ve actually done a couple of trips to Mexico for photo shoots, but they all slightly differed based on the location and client. A few years ago, I went to Cabo with a group of photographers for the Mexican Board of Tourism, and I’d say that was more structured because there was a sizable group of us. Working for a single resort with their PR person and stylist allowed for a lot of flexibility.
Everything came together very quickly, and Sandy received a shot list that would satisfy the Cool Hunting feature and update the menu items, store, and cafe for the hotel’s website. Even with a schedule in place, Sandy had the time to search for the organic moments of sunlight or reflections on the water that only occurs when a photographer has the patience to wait for the timing to align.
There were a few shots I knew were important to get ahead of time, but there was also a fair bit of flexibility. I particularly love travel projects that are a bit less staged and allow me to capture a location as it is.
Because of the quick turnaround, there wasn’t time to scout beforehand, but staying at Punta Caliza made photographing the hotel and its amenities almost as easy as enjoying them, with an intimate look at the bedrooms, beach club, and serene pool. The family-run hotel was built with the traditional Palapas, thatched roofs, which are seen in many of the residences along Meixco’s coastline.
Between the main town, beach, and hotel, Sandy had enough on her schedule to fill two and a half days on the island. As many do in tropical regions, the key to making the most of each day is to start early, pause during the hottest part of the day in the afternoon, and pick up more work in the evening capturing golden hour and the sunset.
Holbox is a pretty small town so it was easy to walk or bike everywhere. I loved taking a walk to the ocean or a swim between shoots, it was honestly pretty idyllic. And thankfully the weather and everything complied!
Working with Oberon, a rep from My Young Auntie, and stylist Timothy Brown, Sandy enjoyed the scaled-back crew and the simplicity of working light.
I worked with Oberon and Timothy on each shoot and then the staff for each location jumped in quite a bit to stand in as models. I was really inspired by how kind Oberon and Timothy were. I’ve experienced terse sets where everyone gets hyper-focused on their specific role/deliverable and doesn’t check-in on each other, which can feel cold or unfriendly. Oberon regularly checked to see if I was overheating, even lending me her hat. Timothy would check-in to see how I was feeling and doing throughout the day. It felt really nice to work with such kind and considerate partners.
While the staff are used to smiling as they welcome guests, they might not always feel comfortable in front of the camera. Sandy always takes into consideration a person’s feelings about being photographed, which can help ease some of the pressure on the subject.
I try to get a sense of the person that I’m photographing. I check in to see if they want to see images as we go or if they prefer not to see photos. In general, I know that people have all sorts of feelings about being photographed and I try to meet them where they’re at and make them as comfortable as I can by providing a lot of encouragement and positive feedback.
Photographing different locations during all hours of the day didn’t seem to affect the cohesiveness of Sandy’s imagery, with the bright beaches, stone structures, and even tropical drinks that speak to the client’s vision of untouched paradise.
Throughout the shoots, I tried to keep in mind the different uses as I was shooting and tried to make sure to get usable images for everything. I think the cohesion happened in the post-processing. I culled quite a bit, sorted, and conferred a lot with Oberon and Timothy to make sure the images felt right for each thing.
Although working on a sandy beach by open water is an ideal setting for any job, let alone a photographer, there always are environmental considerations that pose a risk to equipment.
In general, I’m constantly thinking of contingency plans. Holbox has a warm and slightly humid climate so that was also a consideration. From a previous photo trip to Colombia, I learned to carry around a large ziploc bag with silica packets and lots of microfiber cloths and lens wipes to keep all my gear clear of condensation.
For Sandy, this project also set the tone for her own professionalism, where above all else she seeks to be the type of photographer who is always a joy to work with.
I work pretty hard to be considerate on set or on location but timing pressure, logistic hiccups, and client expectations can build up. This experience really affirmed for me that aside from creating beautiful imagery, I also want to be the sort of photographer that’s a positive presence on a shoot.
With another project wrapped, Sandy recalls her favorite memories of this short return to Mexico,
Every morning I got up a few hours before call time to go watch the sunrise. It was sort of moment that made me feel incredibly grateful to do this slightly bizarre job.
See more of Sandy’s work on her website.
Client Representation: My Young Auntie
Stylist/Designer: Timothy Brown
Read more about Sandy on our published blog.
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