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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Anatomy of a travel photography assignment part 3

The next day shaped up much better! Up at half past five or so for a quick breakfast (NB if you don't bring your own cuttlery you may be forced to slurp your breakfast cereal from the bowl!)

I was on tour with Steve and his Top End Tours and had an early start before a day of waterfalls and swimming holes. Just what the hot weather called for and it was lovely and sunny.

However nice weather and nice photography weather aren't necessarily one and the same thing. Tours by their very nature are designed to please the majority of people - not photographers. As a result they usually happen during the middle of the day at possibly the worst time for photography.

When you're on assignment and you have to follow somebody else's schedule that's something you have to resign yourself to. You will mostly likely be at the most beautiful places at the most horrible time of day.

Take this shot above. Barrimundi Creek is absolutely gorgeous. And a fantastic place to photograph (I imagine) before the sun comes up and the light hits both sides of the gorge. At nearly midday the left hand wall and the little waterfall in front is in shadow. You need to use a bit of trickery to get everything you see with your eye into a photograph.

A straight, single shot would have rendered the left hand wall and waterfall a dark, shadowy mess. So this is a combination of three exposures - one for the highlights, one for the left hand wall and one for the deep shadows. All three were blended in Photoshop to see what we have here - which is exactly what my eye was able to see but the camera would never be able to record.

When you have a high contrast situation that's all you can really do. Ideally what you want to try and do is have your subjects all in shadow or all in sunlight. By using a telephoto lens you can zoom in on the parts of the scene that are in shadow. In the photo here the people crossing the creek are in the shade but just to the right of them is a great big area of ground lit by harsh sunlight. A wide-angle lens shot would have been too uncontrollably contrasty but the telephoto has enabled me to keep all the elements within a narrow light range.

The ant hills however are all in full sunlight. There are lots of shadows here but none that really affect the overall image. When you have harsh sunlight it's often a good idea to look for really strong (often primary) colours. Here the bright blue sky matches the strong reds of the earth to create a visually arresting image.

The perfect example of right place at wrong time was at the end of the day, our last stop at Jim Jim Falls. This is one of the park's most famous waterfalls and an absolute icon. A great photograph of this place will be a sure seller. The only problem was the sun was shining on half the scene, with the falls themselves in deep shadow.

So you end up with an OK general landscape shot but there isn't a waterfall to be seen because it's in the darkest part of the dark shadows. It really is the wrong time of day to be there. So what do you do?

Well the first thing you do is hope for a little bit of cloud to cover up the sun for a couple of minutes. When that happens your contrast is a bit more controllable. So now we have a really white, washed-out sky but we can see some details in the waterfall itself and have a nice mirror reflection in the billabong.

I also liked the way the trees were reflecting in the water of the billabong. As a stand-alone shot it doesn't tell you that it's Jim Jim but the big crocodile trap tells you that it's somewhere you might not want to swim!

At the end of the day you have to be prepared to compromise on what you can photograph and do the best you can with the lighting conditions presented. Being a professional means coming home with some publishable images no matter the conditions. If you had all the time in the world you would come back when the conditions are perfect, but the assignment photographer never really has that luxury unless you're working in your local area. Travel photographers are usually somewhere away from home base and the time on location is always limited.

After the tour driver had dropped me off at my accommodation I had to pack all my gear up in the car (remember I have to move hotels every night!) and head off to my sunset photo shoot. One of the places I knew I wanted to photograph was Nourlangie Rock and it was pretty close to the hotel I'd been dropped at which meant I could get there reasonably quickly and hopefully make sunset.

Nourlangie Rock is famous for turning a lovely shade of red at sunset. There's a beautiful viewing area which gives you a lovely view over the rock. Or at least I hear there is! I got lost and never made it. I found the carpark but ended up going the wrong way and ended up at a little waterhole called Anbangbang Billabong - an obviously crocodile-infested swamp with, lucky for me, a lovely view up at Nourlangie Rock.

While I waited for sunset I decided to photograph the birds on the billabong. I figured if I tried to make it to the sunset viewing platform I'd probably miss sunset so decided to hedge my bets and stay put.

And this was the light show I was presented with forty five minutes later. Gorgeous gum trees and a bright red rock, with a nice crocodile swamp in the foreground for added interest. Sometimes getting lost can be a good thing!

Of course because the rock was close to my previous night's hotel meant that I had a really long drive to that night's hotel! By the time I pulled in it was dark, I was exhausted and starving. A self-cooked dinner of canned spaghetti (see I told you professional travel photography was glamorous!) and it was time to retire to my room which was a lot bigger and very nice. More backing up of cards on to the portable hard drive and laptop and by the time I got to bed it was close to midnight yet again!

It seems like an easy gig from the outside but professional travel photography is mostly hard work with 15 and 16 hour days. If only the great light for photography was between 10 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon I would get so much more sleep! :)

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