Friday, June 20, 2008

Travel sunrises and sunsets

Now the experts tell us that people are the most popular subject for photography, but I'm willing to take a bet that sunrises and sunsets are pretty high up there in the top rankings.

The thing with a sunrise (or sunset) is - they pretty much look the same all over the world. The sun that is. If all you have in your sunset photo is a bright ball and some sky then you haven't got a travel photo. You've got a nature photo.

There's nothing wrong with that of course, but seeing as this is a blog about travel photography and not nature photography per se I thought I'd run through some things you can do to make a travel sunset.

The clue is what you put in the foreground. Because the sun and the bright orange sky are so bright compared to everything around them, usually anything you put in the foreground will turn into a silhouette. Rather like our frames that we talked about a couple of months ago.

In a sense our silhouettes are frames, although in this case they don't have to be at the edges of the pictures, they can be anywhere. But just like our frames, in order for them to be relevant they have to be travel-related.

In other words they need to tell people exactly where you're watching the sunset from. You could put anything in there - the roof of a temple, profile of a famous statue, unique fishing boat. Whatever, as long as it can be used as a visual location clue.

The photo above is a bit of a tricky one. The birds are a bit hard to see at this small size but they are Marabou Storks which are a species of bird found in Africa. This photo was taken in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. If they'd been in an Umbrella Acacia tree it would have been perfect but alas it was not to be! :)

In terms of exposing a sunrise or sunset you have a number of choices depending on how bright or dark you want everything around the sun. If you take an exposure reading directly off the brightest part of the sun everything else will turn black! Not usually a good look but it will give you a cracker red sun (but not much else!)

The farther away from the sun you take your exposure reading the brighter the rest of the frame will be. In the photo above I locked in an exposure reading of an area of sky about 45 degrees away from the sun. A quick check of your camera's histogram will tell you if you're in the right place. Just be careful not to make the picture so bright that you burn out the sun completely.

Another little hint is to carry a compass with you when you travel and know what time the sun rises and sets in the places you're visiting. That way when you arrive at a destination and you're just walking around and you see somewhere that could make a nice sunset silhouette you can pull out your compass to see if it's facing in the right direction. Aim to get to your destination well before the sun comes up (or goes down as the case may be) and you'll have plenty of time to set up and enjoy the light show.

Oh and before I forget, the longer the telehoto lens, the bigger the sun! I have a mate who figured out a way to stick about four tele-extenders all together on his 300mm lens to give himself some obscene focal length. It was so dark looking through the viewfinder though that the only thing he could ever photograph was the sun. But man did he get some great photos! :)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Using your powers for good

The language of photography often seems to be more about receiving than giving. We shoot people, capture them, take their image. But do we give it back to them?

As travellers we can have a great deal of influence over how our countries are perceived in other parts of the world.

In the days of film I often used to find people photography such a one-sided encounter. I would get their permission, snap, snap, snap away and then move on to the next subject. It sometimes seemed to be such an impersonal thing and was one of the reasons I think I found travel people photography so hard at first.

Then I hit upon an idea and started carrying a little photo book of my own around. It had pictures of my house and my family and my cat. My parents, grandparents and as my family evolved my wife and kids. Now I pull it out all the time whenever I'm travelling and it really helps me to break the ice. Show it to one person and pretty soon you've got the whole neighbourhood around you crowding to have a look - and then their picture taken.

And then digital came along and made it even easier to break down the barriers. Suddenly I could show people how they look on the LCD screen. Complete strangers became enthralled with the picture-taking process and active participants, even going so far as to suggest other people I could photograph.

Suddenly travel portrait photography was a two way street. They got as much out of the encounter as I did and I now find people photography so enjoyable. But I'm looking at taking things a bit farther still. Now that there are little printing booths all over the world how easy would it be to get some prints printed off the same day and take them back a few hours after you've photographed them. It won't cost a fortune for a couple of prints and you'll have made a friend for life. And given them a great impression of your country.

Often people in third world countries don't know their own address, if they even have one sometimes. And you're never sure if pictures you send from home are going to get there in one piece. With instant printing you can see their reaction when you give them a picture. How wonderful is that?

We're all ambassadors for our homes when we travel and our cameras can mean that we're seen as so much more than the idiot politicians who represent what our respective nations supposedly stand for.

This photo above is in that same vein but not a complete stranger. This is my father-in-law and this hero shot of him atop Mt Teine on the outskirts of Sapporo has graced a few newspapers and magazines which now take pride of place in his home. It makes him happy to see himself in print, not so nervous about having a scumbag photographer for a son-in-law and keeps me in good with the in-laws. Did I mention that photos can be used as bribes too? :)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Be prepared

It's a funny thing about photography. Sometimes you have to be in the right frame of mind to get something worthwhile. To be able to see the beauty in front of you.

The difficult thing is you never know when that right frame of mind is going to happen. You can go out and spend a whole day photographing but not really be in tune with what's going on around you, and as a result you come away with not much at all.

And then there are other times when you aren't really thinking of taking pictures at all and suddenly you have a flash of inspiration. A glimpse of what could be, if only you had your camera!

The only way to be prepared for those flashes is to carry your camera around as much as humanly possible. Now I realise that for most of us the idea of lugging a whole kit everywhere we go is less than appealing so I recommend that you choose one body and a zoom lens and try to have it with you as much as possible.

You'll suddenly find yourself able to take pictures you never dreamed of. Take this shot above. It is one of my most-published pictures. It was taken on the beautiful Lake Toya in Hokkaido, Japan. At the time I was working as an English teacher and the head of the school took all the staff on a celebratory weekend away (before he skipped town with all the profits but that's another story!). Anyway it was a weekend of eating and drinking and just having a great old time in this famous hot springs resort.

I woke up on the Sunday morning to find this out the hotel window. It would have been relegated to the depths of my brain had it not been for the fact that I had my camera gear with me. I wasn't planning on taking photos but had it along just in case. I put a 75-300mm zoom on and placed the house boat down in the bottom corner of the picture so that I could place the reflections of the mountains in the top of the frame.

This picture has been run as a double-page spread, cropped to a single full page and run as a cover shot. It just keeps on selling and selling. It was the only photo I took that weekend but I never would have been able to capture it if I hadn't had my gear with me.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The more you edit, the better you look.

I was thinking about this this afternoon as I was driving to school to pick up my 5 year old son (yes that's how obsessed with photography I can get sometimes!). I had just been viewing a photo essay by my hero Steve McCurry of AIDS victims in Vietnam. There was a lot of photos in a slideshow and some of them were very powerful, some of them not so. I felt that the not so amazing images detracted from the effect of the whole.

Now Steve McCurry is my absolute hero. I love pretty much everything he does but it got me to thinking that a lot of the power of really great images is great editing. He mostly only shows his best pictures.

With the advent of digital photography we tend to shoot a lot of pictures and then show people everything we do. When in actual fact we would serve ourselves and our viewers much better to just show the A1 best images.

Take this shot of the cassowary, a large flightless bird found here in North Queensland and in Papua New Guinea. (This photo was only taken a couple of weeks ago while out on assignment). I'd gotten up at 4 in the morning to drive the two hours up to the Daintree National Park - a World Heritage-listed tropical rainforest. As I was driving through the park looking for landscapes to photograph I saw a cassowary about a kilometre up the road, just foraging on the side of the road. I stopped the car and shot a picture through the windscreen. It was crap but it proved to my wife that I saw one of these very rare birds.

I drove farther along and the bird fled into the forest. I pulled my car over on the side of the road and hopped out just to see if I could see it but no luck. But I had the camera with a telephoto zoom set on the tripod and decided to set the camera up to shoot any cars coming along the road through the dense rainforest in the pre-dawn light.

I sat there for about ten minutes or so waiting for a car when all of a sudden I heard a rustle behind me and not one but two cassowaries popped out in succession and ran across the road. It was dark (like 1/60th second at ISO800) and these totally black birds were moving quite quickly across the road. I was trying to move the camera on the tripod, focus and get an interesting shot all at the same time.

I rattled off about 20 frames. Some of them were really blurred, some of them were slightly blurred. Some of them had pretty bad composition, some of them were worse than bad. I deleted every single one of them except for this one picture. The bird's pin sharp, he (she?) has a nice motion in the foot and the crossing of the white line is very symbolic considering that the majority of cassowary deaths in this part of the world are caused by cars. Anybody looking at this picture would (hopefully) think 'what a great photographer.' If they saw any of the other 19 shots they would just think I was a bloody lucky photographer.

Don't be afraid to get rid of the rubbish. The more you can edit your pictures so that just the good ones remain, the better a photographer you will become in the eyes of your audience. Remember that if every shot on your compact flash card is a keeper you're not experimenting enough. Our mistakes lead us to the fantastic stuff. Get rid of the mistakes and just leave the great pictures.

Note to self: Don't tell 1000 readers on your blog that you make mistakes! :)