Friday, May 2, 2008

I am a rock, I am an island...

Well that's what Paul Simon said anyway. But as a travel photographer you can't really afford to work alone - not if you want to get a complete photographic coverage of an area. One that goes beyond the standard cliches.

The main reason is access. Some of the best angles, the best light, the best places to be to photograph are off limits unless you ask. And I'm not talking about high security, off limits to everybody but top personnel type situations either. No Area 51 alien visitations for us travel photographers!

Take the photograph above. It is Castle Hill overlooking the city of Townsville in far north Queensland, Australia. You can photograph it from this angle by standing right next to the harbour. Anybody can do that. But to get a couple of hundred metres higher for a grand view you need to be standing on the roof of a nearby building. And to do that you're going to need permission.

People often say to me, "Yeah but you're a professional of course they're going to let you." Don't kid yourself. A great friend of mine and keen amateur photographer has photographed from the top of pretty much every big building in Cairns. He's a friendly, courteous and polite retired gentlemen who approaches various hotels and buildings and explains what he'd like to do. If he is refused on grounds of public liability (more common these days!) or safety or some other grounds he doesn't get pushy and try to persist. He graciously accepts, thanks them for their time and moves on to the next place.

I guess this kind of feeds on from my last post. A little bit of courtesy will get you a long way. If you want to photograph a street from above try yelling up to the family on the balcony and see if they'll let you in. Want to photograph a museum before opening time? Try calling them up and seeing what they say. Want to photograph a behind-the-scenes shot of a local performance? Try asking somebody. All they can say is no, which of course they are quite in their right to do.

But if they say yes then you've suddenly got a great angle on some unique travel photography. Plus you'll make a heap of extra friends along the way. Try telling as many people as you know the kind of things you like to photograph. When you're travelling tell everybody you come into contact with - the taxi driver, the concierge, the bartender. Somebody is bound to have a cousin who knows somebody who can open a gate for you. And a gift of a photograph afterwards does wonders!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

A bit of courtesy

Every so often, if the Gods are smiling on you, you have the chance to find yourself in a place so remote, so beautiful, so exotic as to take your breath away. Those places where you have to pinch yourself to believe that you're actually there.

Like a beautiful sea of sand dunes in the middle of the Sahara Desert before dawn, where I had just woken up after sleeping out in the open on top of one of these giant dunes.

I was photographing the miles and miles of endless sand, pristine in all its glory with not a single footprint to blemish it. But what's that you say? There are footprints everywhere. That's right, but there weren't about five minutes before I took this photograph. Another member of my travelling party just felt that they weren't going to get any good photographs where I was so, without even a word of morning greeting, he proceeded to walk this way and that right through my composition.

If you look closely you can see said culprit just to the left of the middle of the frame. I've been telling people for years that it's a Mauritanian desert wanderer. Now you know he ain't Mauritanian (let's just keep his nationality a secret as we all have 'em!) but he's certainly wandering.

Now I'm not saying that as photographers we have a right to prevent anybody from going anywhere. I'm just saying that if you're out photographing and there's other people around let's all be aware of the intentions of each other. Let's try not to get in each other's way. It's a big world - hell there were dunes all around us that day - and there's plenty of room for all of us. All it takes is a quick query as to if it's OK to go here or there and problem solved.

Hanging a camera around our necks doesn't give us the right to be obnoxious jerks. We'll leave that to our politicians!

This shot was taken on the outskirts of a little town called Chinguetti in the heart of the Sahara Desert in the West African nation of Mauritania. The town is pretty much deserted now as the encroaching sand threatens to swallow it, but Chinguetti used to be a major town in the Islamic world and its library is home to some of the most ancient Islamic texts known to man. This shot was taken with a 75-300mm zoom on its longest focal length to compress the dunes and get that rolling into each other effect.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A new light

I will be the first to admit I'm not a morning person. I really do wish that the best time for photography was between 10am and 3pm but for many subjects that isn't the case. There's nothing quite like that golden pink glow over the landscape just before the sun comes up.

When you live close to the equator at least you can sleep in to close to 6 or so but when you're travelling closer to either of the poles then photographing sunrise takes on a whole new meaning.

This photograph was taken at the beautiful Lake Mashuuko in the heart of the island of Hokkaido, Japan. It is claimed to be Japan's clearest lake and is absolutely stunning at any time of the year and pretty much at any time of the day.

The day before I had photographed it in the late afternoon under a beautiful blue sky, the air as clear as a bell. But I knew that even though it was beautiful, the 500 other people around me were getting something pretty similar.

To get an image that was different from the rest I needed to get up early. When you're travelling with a 1 year old, your wife and father-in-law the logistics take on a whole new dimension. I was photographing the area for a couple of magazines and the accommodation we'd had arranged for us was about half an hour away from the lake. Sunrise was at about 4am!

Needless to say I went to bed about the same time as my baby son and was snoring before he was. My father-in-law is a keen photographer and he came along to keep me company. And there we were in the freezing pre-dawn light hoping for some magic. We could see in the half-darkness that there weren't any clouds so that was a good sign as we were due for rain. No clouds and not a single other person.

Many people make the mistake of not starting to photograph until the sun has actually come up. As you can see, you get some magic light before the sun actually appears. I had photographed the whole lake with a wide-angle lens but wanted to show the size of the mountains in the background and the small island in the middle of the lake bathed in that gorgeous pink lake. So I put the telephoto lens on and this is what I saw. And I can guarantee the only person who got anything similar on that freezing cold morning was my father-in-law.

Differentiating how you photograph from everybody else, as opposed to what you photograph, can help separate your images from the ordinary. There's not much in the world that hasn't been photographed. Our aim as travel photographers is to show them in a new light.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Wide angle vs telephoto

One of the most important things I do before starting to photograph is to think about what I want to achieve. What emotion I want to provoke in the viewer. What it is about a scene that I find compelling and how I'm going to show that in the best way.

The first decision is pretty much always what focal length lens I'm going to use. Am I going to stick the wide-angle or telephoto lens on the camera.

Keeping in mind that the wide-angle lens opens up the perspective and makes things that might actually be close together, appear far apart from each other. When you use this type of lens in a big crowd of people the effect you get is that, yes there are quite a few people there, but they are spaced out and there's plenty of empty footpath between them. A large group of people but hardly a scene of 'packed like sardines.'

You literally couldn't move for people. At one point I was stuck standing in the one position for five minutes as a giant human traffic jam ensued. Using the wide-angle lens just wasn't showing this perspective at all. It wasn't showing the feelings I was having being in such a mass of people.

So away went the wide-angle (in the photo above a 16-35mm) and out came the telephoto lens.

Right idea, wrong perspective. With the telephoto lens I've now got that compressed perspective. The people look as close together as they feel when you're right in the middle of them.

The interaction of the little girl on her father's head is a nice little moment but the people in the foreground are distracting and it's not really a picture of a crowd anymore. It's more a picture of a little girl and her Dad in a crowd. The emphasis is slightly different to what I was aiming for.

But what do you do when you're only 171 cm tall. Yes I know the Japanese aren't very tall (on average) either, but I'm not tall enough to shoot over the heads of the people in the foreground. So I spent the next half an hour looking for a way to get up higher. I spotted a block of apartments looking down the street which would have been perfect but they wouldn't let me in to take a picture. Back at a fork in the road I found a tree with a low hanging branch which might do the trick.

So up I went. Hanging on to the tree with one hand and cradling the camera with a big 70-200mm f2.8 lens in the other and trying to hold myself steady enough to take a photo.

And this is what I was aiming for. The telephoto lens compressing that perspective to make it look really crowded (as it was - nearly 1 million people packed into a very small park in central Sapporo), and a nice high position so I could shoot down over the heads of the people and really look along the street to fit as many people as possible.

It's vital to have an idea in your head of what you want to achieve in a picture. You usually have to spend a bit of time and thinking to achieve the effect you want but the journey is half the fun. Just remember what your different focal lengths do on your lenses and you'll be taking a big step towards achieving what you want from your pictures.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


Another great place to get photographs of people is at festivals. Everybody's dressed to the nines, having a great time and themselves photographing everything around them.

This shot was taken on the final day of the Sapporo Festival, where a large crowd had gathered in the grounds of Hokkaido Jingu, Sapporo's largest shrine, to watch the priests bless the coming year.

Many of the girls and women were dressed in gaily coloured kimonos and looked fantastic.

I had taken a wide-angle, close up photograph of this little girl a few minutes earlier. I had approached her Mum and asked if I could take a shot, and then asked the little girl, to which she proudly agreed as she posed for me.

After the ceremonies were over I headed outside and was standing on the steps of the shrine with a 70-200mm zoom on the camera just looking for some nice shots. As I was standing there the little girl came down with her Nan and Mum firmly grasping each hand, almost carrying her down the steep stairs as she gripped her blue lollipop tightly.

As they walked past I gave her a big smile and a wave and said bye-bye, to which she replied rather shyly. As I watched them make their way down the stairs she cast a single, furtive glance back at me. I was already waiting there with the camera to my eye. Kids are the same all over the world. I knew mine couldn't resist a look back and figured that she wouldn't be able to either. Lucky for me I was right.

Had I not had some sort of interaction with the family earlier the girl might not have turned around. I often find that the secret to getting good people shots is to have some sort of friendly interaction. Let them see you as more than just a stranger with a big zoom lens. A couple of minutes spent trying to communicate in broken local language makes a world of difference in breaking down barriers and getting people to open up to you.