Friday, June 27, 2008

Getting over the excitement

One of the biggest challenges about doing travel photography well is to go beyond the 'Wow I'm in a foreign country!' type pictures. When you first step off the plane everything is vibrant and alive, the smells are exotic, the languages are unknown and it's a photographer's paradise. You just tend to snap at absolutely everything and end up with absolutely nothing of value. It's good exercise, shapes off the photography cobwebs and gets you ready for the really good stuff, which doesn't happen until you've calmed down.

The world is so awash with pictures from around the world these days that even if we've never ventured farther than the corner shop we all know what the Taj Mahal looks like. We know what people being pushed on to a train in Tokyo looks like. We know what a Cape Buffalo looks like.

So once you have your record shot it's time to get creative and look to show the world in your own style, with your own vision. Take the Cape Buffaloes above. I was on a walking safari in the Okavango Delta with a close friend and our guide. Our guide was armed with nothing but a stick with a big knob on the end. Not gonna do us much good if a lion wants to make lunch out of us but he seemed to know what he was doing.

Walking safaris aren't the greatest for photography because the animals are so accustomed to people on foot meaning hunters that they pretty much scamper at the first sign. So we weren't expect too much but a little into our walk we came across a large herd of Cape Buffalo feeding in the late afternoon light.

So as not to alarm them we crept silently to the top of a nearby termite mound and hid ourselves behind it while we watched them. I already had enough photos of pissed off looking buffaloes staring down my camera lens so wanted to do something different. I wanted an image to capture how it felt to be so close to these animals without them knowing we were even there.

The light was beautiful, the scene was peaceful and that's what I aimed for. So I took out the long lens and zoomed in close on the herd until they were just shapes in the high grass. I underexposed the shot deliberately so the buffalo really were just silhouetted shapes and the grass would glow while retaining detail. If it wasn't for the horn sticking up in the buff in the centre of the picture you almost wouldn't know what they were - which wouldn't have worked for what I wanted to do so that central horn is vital. A shallow depth of field (a necessity in the dark light) focuses the viewer's eye on the centre buffalo.

And this image for me carries far more emotion and memories of that lazy afternoon than any of my other more literal buffalo shots. It's never enough just to get the record shot - I came, I saw, I photographed. You need to interpret it in your own way to get an image that will resonate with you long after the trip has finished.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Photographing symbols

A few weeks ago we had a look at how you go about getting beyond the cliche and really photographing something in depth. It's always great to have the time to be able to do that but often when we travel we're only in one place for a limited period and don't have that option.

When that happens we don't necessarily have to photograph just cliches but it can really help our audience relate to the pictures when we photograph symbols. Photographing icons of a certain culture can help place the images geographically, and sometimes much more. They immediately tell people where you are in the world and so help ground the viewer.

Take this picture on the left. It can be read on many different levels but I'm guessing that pretty much all of you knew straight away that it is Japan. Cherry blossoms and a bright blue carp flag give it away. So for those with only a limited knowledge of a country it puts them at ease straight away because they recognise the symbols. Subconsciously they think, 'Ah we're going to see some pictures of Japan.'

But symbols can also work for viewers with more knowledge about certain destinations. For example some readers might know that the carp flags are flown on the 5th of May to celebrate childrens' day. Houses traditionally put out a carp flag for each boy child in the family and cities often hang large numbers of flags in public parks around this special day. So now one simple photograph tells you that it was taken in May in Japan.

And for those with even more knowledge of Japan, there's the cherry blossoms. The cherry blossoms bloom in a wave that starts in the southern part of the country (where it's warmest) and gradually make their way north. They start off in southern Japan in March, hit Tokyo in April or so and continue north.

So we know the photo was taken around the 5th of May which means that it isn't Tokyo because the cherry blossoms are already finished there. So it's a lot farther north. In fact it's all the way up at the northern tip of the country.

So by placing two symbols in a simple graphic design we have a series of clues as to exactly when and pretty close to exactly where the photo was taken. Symbols aren't necessarily cliches but when you're on a limited journey they can be a great mine of information.

When you want to place two objects like this in the same image, and have them appear close together reach for the telephoto lens. The compressed perspective makes them appear closer than they actually are. A hint with using a telephoto lens - walk away from your subject when you use one. The farther you are away the more you need to zoom in and the more you get that compressed look. It feels like you're walking in the wrong direction sometimes but just remember to walk closer to something when using the wide-angle and away from something when you're using the telephoto.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Just walking

Something I love to do whenever I'm travelling is put on my walking shoes and give them a workout. Just head on out the front door of the hotel and wander. I can spend hours just bimbling around discovering the back streets and alleys of wherever I'm visiting.

I usually rip out a city map from my guidebook, fold it up and put it in my pocket. Rather than follow it slavishly though I just use it to glance at every so often to make sure I'm not getting totally lost.

On these little wanderings there really is no destination, just the enjoyment of the journey. And the journey is made all the more enjoyable when you're not carrying every single piece of photographic equipment you own.

If I was doing that I would be so bogged down I'd never make it more than 50 metres down the street! This photo was taken on the back streets of Kathmandu. There was a big festival going on and there were garlands of bright yellow flowers for sale everywhere. I had my usual walk around 28-70mm zoom on and I framed the bright yellow against the drab colours of the wall and muddy streets. Then I just waited for someone to walk into the frame and snapped a quick shot. I used a slower shutter speed to put a bit of blur and motion into the man.

When I'm street walking I don't carry my cameras in my usual backpack. Just as my wife likes to collect handbags I like a different camera bag for every occasion! When I'm on one of my wanders I like to limit myself to one camera and two or three zoom lenses. I usually take an extreme wide-angle (10-22mm), a 28-70mm standard zoom and sometimes I take my 70-200mm zoom. I carry these in a small bumbag. I used to use one called the Lowepro Photorunner which was really brilliant. Then when my gear got a bit big for that my wife bought me a Lowepro Orion for Christmas one year.

So I carry the minimal amount of gear, plus sometimes a flash in an external pocket and just wander. This is an exercise you can do in your own home town as well and I like to do that regularly. Just park the car somewhere in town and start walking. Try and see it as a tourist would and photograph little details. It gets you into the habit of looking for photos, trains your eye when you carry a minimum of gear and just helps you to see things better.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Crocodile Adventures

Living in far north Queensland means living with crocodiles. The little blighters are everywhere! (don't let the tourism people know I told you though)

During the wet season they show up in drains near people's houses, at the beach, in jellyfish nets, even crossing the main road out to the airport. If it's wet they'll find a way in. So you live with it.

When this photo was taken though, I certainly wasn't too familiar with our big-teethed friends. This was before I moved to Cairns and the closest I had ever come to such a big crocodile was seeing one on TV.

This was taken at South Luangwa National Park, Zambia. Well just across the river from the park. We were camped there for a few nights while we took safaris. We were staying at a bankrupt crocodile farm and the crocs were still in their holding pens. This is a large number of very big crocodiles chewing on a hippo carcass. An amazing sight as they grunted and growled at each other as they tore strips off the meat. Who knew crocodiles vocalised?

That night some friends and I decided to unroll our sleeping bags on the ground and sleep out. When we awoke in the morning our bags were surrounded by elephant footprints. They came all the way up to the edge of where we were sleeping and then veered around our bodies. Good thing elephants can sense their way in the dark!

While we were eating breakfast the worried owner of the crocodile farm came running up to us. Assuming he was concerned about the elephants we assured him we were fine. But he was more concerned about something else. "When the farm went bankrupt we let the biggest crocs out into the river (about 30m down a steep embankment from the campsite). At night the biggest ones often walk back into camp looking for a feed. You are very lucky not to have been eaten!"

Well that'll remind me to ask a local before sleeping out in the open. While we were there there was a couple filming leopards for a National Geographic special. They had been there for 6 months and only spotted a leopard twice.

Note to Self: unless you're photographing crocodiles in a pen nature photography takes a lot of time and patience!