Friday, March 28, 2008

Compare the pictures you take now...

to those you took last year. Not only does it encourage you to go back and look at the images you've taken in the past (instead of just leaving them to rot on your hard drive!) but it's a great indicator as to how you're improving (or perhaps plateauing) as a photographer.

Many people feel a need to compare their photographs to those of others and either lament the fact that their efforts don't come up to scratch, or rest on their laurels if they feel they've achieved a high standard. While it's very important to be aware of the work of others and be inspired by great artists, I think it's far more valuable to your photography education to compare your own work with what you have created in the past.

I look at the pictures I took in Africa way back when I started photography and often think, "if only I knew then what I know now!". I'm sure we've all been there. I certainly created some images that I am proud of to this day but the vast majority, while they encapsulate fond memories, don't really stand up as great photographs.

But rather than comparing those pictures to the work of say Robert Caputo or any of the other wonderful photographers who have documented Africa, I compare them to the images I shoot now and let that be a judge of how far I have come as an image-maker. And to show me how far I still have to go.
Not many people have heard of Mali. The name Timbuktu conjures up many adventurous images in people's minds but mention Mopti, Bamako or the Dogons and people's faces tend to go blank. I was the same until I visited and discovered this amazing country with a rich, vibrant history and culture.

This image was taken on a three day pirogue (wooden canoe) trip down the Bani River out of Mopti. Three days of lying back under a straw canopy while guides paddled us leisurely downstream, with the great Malian guitar player Ali Farka Toure serenading us from a tinny, mono tape player. I shot this picture with a wide-angle lens to make the river look as wide and grand as it was. A small aperture gives enough depth of field to see the riverbank in the background. Focussing just on the poler's legs, pole and the stern of the boat turns him into a symbol of his profession. Balanced precariously on the back of the boat as he expertly guides us down the river. The carvings on the side of the boat show that we're not in Kansas anymore Dorothy.

In case you hadn't guessed this is one of the pictures I am happy with and would be just as proud to have taken it yesterday as I am to have taken it 14 years ago.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Love what you photograph and it will show.

Long before I was a travel photographer I was a traveller. Just bumming my way round the world. I took up photography as a way to show the folks back home all these amazing things I had seen. The idea to try and make a living at this crazy game didn't come till years later but this image was a major milestone in my transformation to being a professional.

It was the first picture I ever had published and boy was I proud. These are porters in the lower hills of the Himalayas in Nepal. On their heads they are carrying tables (!) so rich white people don't have to get dirty sitting on the ground when they have dinner. And they're all either barefoot or wearing simple thongs. These men and women are absolutely incredible.

My wife and I spent a month trekking from Kathmandu to the base of Everest. No porters or yaks to carry our gear, just the two of us and a couple of daypacks. We stayed in little local guesthouses and lived on lentils and rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

With us for just about the entire month was a fantastic couple from Holland - Toine and Elsa. We met them on the first day and got on like a house on fire. It just so happened that Toine was (still is) an editor at Holland's largest daily newspaper - the DeVolkskrant. He wrote a piece on the effects of tourism on the Nepalese environment and culture and voila - I suddenly had a full page picture in a major European newspaper. Not bad for your first published pic!

I love the way the clouds create a beautiful atmosphere, almost spotlighting the porters. The use of a 300mm zoom compresses the perspective to make the mountains appear big and looming and give a sense of scale of the landscape. Nepal was near the end of our year-long trip travelling round SE Asia and just before I arrived the autofocus on my camera died, so everything I shot in Nepal was totally done on manual focus! And with stock standard lenses off the shelf. Just goes to show that you don't need the best and most expensive equipment (or even equipment that works properly!) to get good photos. Love what you're photographing and the quality will come.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Trouble in Tibet

With all my photographs I have a mission. It's quite a simple one really - I want to engage the viewer in such a way that I encourage them to want to know more about the subject of the photo. To want to visit a landscape , to see for themselves how an animal fits within its environment, and to discover personally how certain people live. Call me idealistic but I really do believe that travel photographers and writers can play a small part in breaking down cultural barriers between people and opening up doors to dialogue and understanding.

Which brings me to my first post. I'm a pretty opinionated bastard as most of my friends will happily attest to, but my opinions rarely make it into my photography. My glass is always half full and I like to show the happy side of life. Which makes this image a bit unusual for me but perhaps timely in the current climate.

My wife and I were in Dharamsala (McLeod Ganj) in northern India. A unique part of the world, McLeod Ganj is home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-In-Exile and attracts Tibet-freaks, Hollywood actors and genuinely concerned activists from all over the world. It really is an amazing place.

During our visit a number of Free Tibet protestors were staging a hunger strike in New Delhi. As the police moved in to break up the demonstration one elderly Tibetan man by the name of Thubten Ngodup made the sacrificial decision to douse his body in petrol and set himself alight. Graphic images and videos made headline news around the world.

What didn't make the news were the memorials held by those who knew him back home. In Buddhist tradition a candelight vigil is held for someone who has passed away, every seven days for forty nine days. We were in town for 3 weeks and had the honour of visiting three vigils.

In this image I used a technique known as slow-shutter flash. Many cameras now call this 'night portrait mode' but basically what it does is tell the camera to use the proper shutter speed (a slow one) for the ambient light and fire the flash at the same time. Instead of getting a gaping black background and a subject caught like a deer in flash headlights, you get a properly exposed background and a combination blurred (where the subject has moved) and static (where the flash has hit them) person.

In this particular image I feel that it makes the monks look almost ghost-like and adds to the atmosphere of the procession. If I hadn't used the flash everything would have been totally blurred. If I had used normal flash (without the slow shutter speed) you would have just seen the central monk and everything around him would have been black.

The trick with this technique is to shoot a lot of pictures because you never know what you're going to get. Digital makes it a lot easier but you don't want to spend all your time looking at the LCD and missing out on pictures.

Monday, March 24, 2008

How did we end up here?

First of all let me put you at ease. This isn't going to be a blog about Paul Dymond. Who the hell cares how many Weet-Bix I have for breakfast ( my 4 year old son Mirai has more!) or what I think about the price of fish. But for those who are just a little curious as to how I ended up doing what I am I thought I would go back a little in time.

I guess it all started here. Well not exactly at the Senso-ji Shrine in Asakusa, Tokyo, but in Japan nonetheless. At the tender age of 17, after having studied Japanese for 2 years I found myself living for a year in Kobe as an exchange student. This was my first taste of solo travel abroad and I was hooked but language study took a front seat for a while. After returning to Australia I continued with my study of Japanese and went on to do a double degree at university in Japanese and Korean with a minor in Japanese studies and general lack of direction.


After finishing my degree I was supposed to go on and do a Masters in Interpreting and Translating but I ended up flitting off to Africa for 9 months or so - as you do! The Sahara Desert, the jungles of Zaire, the game parks of East and Southern Africa, the heights of Mt Kilimanjaro. Somehow I just knew I wasn't going back to do post-grad. 140 rolls of Kodachrome slide film in the backpack and I was on a new journey.

So here I am - 55 countries later. The Kodachrome has given way to digital pixels, the backpack to a suitcase with wheels but the passion for travel and photography is as strong as ever. And that's what this blog is about - the passion.

Every entry I will post one of my favourite photos and talk a little about the technique, a little about the feeling behind the image and a little about the subject itself. Hopefully these posts will be helpful, enlightening and ignite in you the same passions to see the world and photograph it so that others may travel through your pictures.