Saturday, April 19, 2008

Exploration of the Taj continues

Keeping with the theme of showing the size of the Taj I walked around to the left hand side. As the sun was getting a bit lower in the sky it was starting to glow a warmer colour.

Once again I waited until people walked in front of the giant building to give a sense of scale. I took an exposure reading off the bright, sunlit area of the Taj with the intention of turning the people into an almost-silhouette. This turns the image into more of a graphic design than if the people had been in bright sunlight, and it also leads your eye into the brightest part of the picture which is where you again have the beautifully intricate design engraved in the marble.

The telephoto lens compresses the perspective so that the people look like they are right at the base when in actual fact they are a good 50 to 100 metres away. I like this compressed perspective look that you get from a telephoto, and it's also a great way to make things look big.

So now it was time to get up nice and close to the Taj.

Before you climb the steps to the balcony that goes around the outside edge there is a big communal de-shoeing area. Everybody lines up to take off their shoes and leave them with the helpful shoe attendants.

As I took off my shoes and looked up I was greeted with this amazing sight. Some people don't like the distortion that a wide-angle lens brings to pictures but I personally love it and spend most of my day with a wide-angle on the lens.

As you can see getting up nice and close with the wide-angle certainly presents a distorted view of the Taj but it also gives a sense of enormous size, and the low angle has managed to hide the thousands of people thronging around its base.

Next time we'll enjoy the light getting nicer and move farther forward.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Showing the size

Often when I first come across a scene that blows me away I need to take a few minutes to sit back and take it all in. The temptation is to start photographing away without really taking the time to properly think about what exactly it is that's impressive. This often leads to images that often don't get to the heart of what really impressed you - and lead to that old phrase 'I never seem to be able to get in a photo what I saw.'

Is it the beauty, the light, the intricacy, the whole area? What it is that really stands out will greatly affect how you want to frame an image - in particular which lens you'll reach for.

In this particular case something I really wanted to show was how bloody huge the Taj actually is. Many of the shots you see are taken with wide-angle lenses and show the surroundings, but such lenses tend to make distant objects look small. To make a subject look really big you need to reach for the telephoto lens - the longer the lens the bigger it will look.

The other thing you often need to do is put something in the photo that is instantly recognisable - like a car, house or person - to give people a sense of scale.

So the first thing was to get the long lens on the camera and zoom to its longest focal length. (at that time a 75-300mm zoom) Once I had done that I needed some people to give a sense of scale so I waited until a large group of people were standing on the forecourt balcony. By filling the frame with the Taj (almost squeezing it in there) and having the people looking like ants at the bottom of the frame it really gives a sense of size.

While I had the lens on I started scouting around for other things that really stand out. I often find it easier to actually be looking through the viewfinder when I do this, although some photographers seemingly have the ability to just pull the correct lens out of the bag and hey presto they've got a composition.

Anyway while I was scanning I came across this.

I hadn't yet got close enough to the Taj to see the intricate detail and precious inlaid stones up close but seen from afar with a telephoto lens, the Arabic writing combined with the rounded curves of the Minaret just screamed out at me.

I love the juxtaposition of the almost hard lines and sharp curves of the front square part against the rounded, soft domes behind. I wanted to show the amazing attention to detail and love and care obviously put into the craftsmanship of the construction.

In the next post we'll start to walk closer to see what we can see.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Beyond the cliche

Anyone who's been to the Taj Mahal has one of these in their arsenal. How could you not shoot it? This gorgeous building reflected in the waters of the lake in front of it are a picture postcard personified. The only problem is - it's been done to death and unless you're there on a very special day weather wise you're not going to get anything that a million other people haven't.

For the next little while I want to explore the concept of getting beyond the cliche and exploring photographing a subject in depth. I was considering using something near where I live to show how you can photograph one place in different ways, but I thought it would be much more realistic to show you how I tried to get a deep coverage of somewhere I went as a traveller. With a limited amount of time and totally dependant on what the weather gods threw at me. Also it didn't hurt that this is the biggest cliche travel photo of all time!

So this is what you see when you first walk through the massive gates of the Taj Mahal. I've seen quite a few famous sites around the world and quite a few of them weren't quite as impressive as I had imagined them to be. The Taj lives up to expectations and more.

So my first effort is the obligatory postcard snapshot before I move on to see what I can do. I'll try and follow a bit of a timeline with the following pics to show the thought processes as I photographed the Taj over a few days but I thought I'd start with one of my favourites.

One of the things I'd never really thought about before going here is that the Taj is a HUGE tourist attraction for the local Indians. I can almost hear all the Homer Simpson D'ohs emanating from your computers but all the photos I'd ever seen had the place nearly empty. It's nothing like that - we are talking huge crowds of people from all over the country - mostly rural people dressed in their finery making a once-in-a-lifetime journey.

The elderly couple above were dressed in their finest clothes and posing in front of the main building for a souvenir photo. I used a wide-angle lens to frame them with the Taj in the background to show where they were positioned for the photo. I thought about using a little bit of fill flash to lighten them up but in the end opted for natural light and an almost silhouette. I like the fact that the wive's teeth are almost glowing. It was pretty much a grab shot as I was just walking around looking for different compositions and they came and stood and posed right next to where I was with the camera. SNAP and I got a keeper.

So that's probably one of my favourites and over the next few days I'll post some other pics taken in different light, from different angles and using different lenses. But all of the same subject.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The smiling camel

You know that special moment? The one where you click the shutter at just the right instant and you know you've captured a special moment. In this digital era you tend to just look at the LCD, do a bit of chimping and grin in the knowledge that you got it. In the film days, especially for us long-haul travellers, it could be months before you knew what you had. Months of sweating and hoping that you got what you thought you had.

This shot was taken just outside of the little town of Pushkar in the Indian state of Rajasthan. After having been in India for 3 months or so my wife was coming to the end of her tether. Orderly, systematic Japan was no match for out of control, chaotic India and she was just about to strangle any local who looked at her the wrong way! I think she learnt to swear in her best English while we were in India.

Before heading back to New Delhi and a hurried Aeroflot flight out of the country (that's another tale in itself) we decided to take an afternoon camel safari in the surrounding desert. This part of the world is famous for its camel treks and even more famous for its amorous cameleers, who have been known to put the moves on anything female that breathes.

I took this shot during a short rest break, during which time your bum gets a chance to get a bit of feeling back in it before it gets pounded all the way back to your hotel again. One of our camels decided to have a bit of a roll in the sand, and seemed to be smiling at the guilty pleasure of it all. Framing the shot with a wide-angle lens emphasised the curve of the neck and showed his carer in the background.

So was this one of the shots that I sweated on for a month or so until we got back to Bangkok and processed our films? Not at all. In actual fact I can't even remember taking it! I think I was too busy trying to walk straight and cursing my sore rear end. Which goes to show that there are times when you're pretty sure you've captured a great moment, and other times when you've got no bloody idea. I'll take a nice photo either way.

Monday, April 14, 2008


Before I started doing this professionally, ie when I was just a bum backpacker kicking my way around the globe, I didn't really plan anything. I always had a rough idea of places I wanted to see but I was terrible at actually reading up on places and making sure I knew the not-to-be-missed bits. I dread to think how many wonderful sights I missed out on through simply not knowing.

Now I plan everything meticulously. Mainly because the trips are shorter (and somebody else is paying!) I need to make sure I come back with some nice images. So I get on to google maps and check which direction buildings are facing (so I know what time of day to photograph them). I write up schedules of where to be when, what's open on what days and what I really should get a photo of. I know if there are going to be some fun festivals happening, what time the sun comes up and learn how to say 'can I take your photo' in 20 different languages!

It may sound like a chore but I thorougly enjoy it and love finding out about new places and people and cultures, and the stuff I learn before I go is one of the most important things I do.

But when I hit the streets I still rely on those bumming backpacker instincts and let a little seredipity into what I do. If I walk past a narrow, empty street I can't help but wander down and see where it goes. If I hear music coming from somewhere a few blocks away I have to go and see what it is. And if I see an open gate to a Bangkok temple that my guidebook tells me is only open on a full moon when the stars are aligned perfectly in the heavens and Buddha allows it (ie basically never!) then I'm definitely going in no matter what my schedule says.

That's what happened when I walked past the gates of Wat Bowoniwet in Bangkok, Thailand. To be totally honest I was a bit templed out by this stage but this one particular image is one of my all-time favourites. Something about that combination of cold grey-blue stone juxtaposed against the gorgeous yellow garland of flowers. That in itself would be enough, but the glorious grin on this happy little fellow almost seems to be whispering to me, ' don't forget to listen to those inner instincts and the Gods of serendipity will reward you.'

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Messy nature

In an increasingly urban world it's often hard to find nature that isn't blemished by the man-made rubbish of our city lives. It's OK if you live in beautiful far north Queensland but for those of us who live in the urban centres of the world it's pretty hard to find a bit of untouched nature.

The photo above is the perfect example. This was taken in the heart of Sapporo - a city of 2 million people on the northern island of Hokkaido, Japan. It's my second home and my wife's home city. What you see here is the remains of the festive cherry blossom season. Left over tarps on the round, rubbish strewn all over the place, a feast of crows gorging on the leftovers. Not a pretty sight.

But in the midst of all this ugliness you have a delight little patch of tulips - all yellow with a single pink one right in the middle. And up above you have the ever beautiful cherry blossoms (which all blew down about 10 minutes after I took this photo!).

But how to capture this little bit of beauty amidst the other stuff? Enter the telephoto lens. Whereas the wide-angle lens shows a lot of what surrounds the object you're photographing, the telephoto has a very narrow field of view. As a result you see the subject and a very thin sliver of background behind it....a la this...

I stood about six feet away from the central tulip and got down on my knees to shoot it at head height. I put my 70-200mm zoom on and zoomed it all the way in to 200mm, making sure I shot between the ropes of the ugly fence.

By pointing the camera up slightly I managed to get the out-of-focus cherry blossoms as a colourful background. Even though they're a long way away from the tulips (as you can see above) the compression factor of the telephoto lens makes them look nice and close and form a lovely background. I closed the aperture down just enough to still have them blurry but not so blurry that you can't tell what they are.

Telephoto lens saves the day and rescues what seems like an impossible photographic situation. Now if only it could clean up real rubbish as effectively!

Landscape photographers tend to reach for the wide-angle lens a lot, particular here in Australia where everything is so wide and spacious. But don't forget the possibilities you get with using the longer lens, particularly if you live in a city not noted for it's pristine landscapes.