Friday, July 11, 2008

Choosing your background 2

A few posts back I talked about how it's often a good idea to choose your background first, and then wait for somebody interesting to walk into the frame. This shot is similar in style to that concept only in this case I didn't wait for somebody to walk into the frame.

The monk was meditatings in front of the Bodnath stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal. My job was not merely to show a monk meditating but to frame the picture so that you could tell something about where he was. An environmental portrait.

So the background was very important because it had to tell the story. If I had stood directly in front of the monk the background would be the stupa, or more to the point the white painted wall of the stupa. All white, no shape, no context. Unless you knew the place personally you wouldn't know what it was. So I needed the curved edge of the stupa.

Once I had found an angle that would show the curved edge of the stupa I then had to make sure that the big empty gap in the top left hand frame wasn't just blank space. Well I guess it could have been, but I wanted to fill it with another story-telling element. So I walked around the base of the stupa until you could see brightly colored prayer flags running through the sky.

And so I took an ordinary portrait of a monk, and with a bit of thought and walking managed to create a portrait that shows the environment in which the monk has decided to place himself for his afternoon meditation.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Watch me pull a baby out of my hat

Now I'm not one to carry a cute baby with a pink vest around in my back pocket for photographic opportunities. And even if I did I don't think I'd have the cultural chutzpah to put it on a statue of the venerable Buddha. And then leave the kid there while she bawled her eyes out.

But if somebody else wants to do it, well who am I to deny a photographic opportunity?

This was taken at the foot of the Swayambunath stupa on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal. I was just about to start the long walk up the stairs and was photographing the Buddha statues when a young Asian couple plonked their little girl on the statue.

This is one of those times when you have to be quick and predict what is going to happen. I often like to photograph other tourists photographing themselves, it adds an extra bit of interest to the otherwise typical tourist icon shot.

So I could see this couple coming up and thought it might be a nice opportunity for a photo. I couldn't believe my luck when they put their daughter on the statue. SNAP Thankyou very much. Usually the best shots are totally unplanned.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

People with a difference

Yesterday I showed you a picture where it was obviously a perfect situation for a silhouette. There was a very bright mountain in the background. Here's one that's maybe not so obvious. The ground is bright, but not so bright that you would think of it as a background for a silhouette.

But it works perfectly well as a background because the late afternoon sun is providing such great shadows. This was one of those grab shots that I just saw and had to take it. I was climbing Mt Kilimanjaro with my three good friends Wolfram, Kristof and Mark. We were taking a break and I had stuck my walking stick in the ground while we chatted.

I looked down and there were the four of us all lined up by the sun. If I'd been really tricky I would have held the camera down at my waist so you couldn't tell which one was me, but alas I'm not that clever so it's pretty obvious where I am.

The stick is a very important part of the story. Before we set off to climb the mountain we were given the sticks by an elderly lady who lived at the base of the mountain and traditionally said her goodbyes to people before they went up. So it was important to have in the frame. To get both the stick and our silhouettes in I used a wide-angle. There's a small depth of field to have everything in focus and voila you have people with a difference.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Usually when people think of silhouettes they think of sunsets. But a silhouette happens any time you have a contrasty situation and the foreground object is in shade and the background object is in bright sunlight.

The reason you get a silhouette is because of the inability of film (and digital) to show details in both the highlights and the shadows at the same time. When I looked at this scene with my eyes I could see detail in all of the foreground landscape.

The trick to getting a good silhouette is to be careful of where you take an exposure reading from. In this particular image if I had taken an exposure reading from the foreground, it would have been well exposed while the background mountain would have been totally white and burnt out.

So the trick is to take an exposure lock of a nice grey part of the mountain in the background or that lovely blue sky (which is roughly 18% grey). That will send your foreground nice and dark.

Keep an eye on your histogram and see how dark those silhouettes really are. If your histogram is still quite a way to the right hand side you might need to darken things a bit so dial in a bit of exposure compensation (the one with the +/- on it) until your histogram moves back to the left.

This picture was taken in the high Himalayas of Nepal. We were in the little town of Namche and this shot was taken with a 400mm lens with a 1.4x converter on it. I used quite a small aperture to get as much depth of field as possible with such a long lens.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Critters doing something

I'm probably the last person in the world to be giving advice about wildlife photography! I mean, as a generalist travel photographer, I just tend to point at whatever moves with a long lens when I see it. OK, maybe I'm oversimplifying it a bit but wildlife photography really is an incredibly difficult specialty all to itself.

That being said I often find that pictures of animals are a lot more interesting if they're actually doing something. Straight portraits become a bit tedious after the 50th shot of an otherwise undistinguished giraffe.

Unless she's bending down to drink. By the time I took this photograph I had been in Africa for about 8 months and had not seen a single giraffe drinking.

It was late evening at Etosha National Park in Namibia and it was getting towards pack up and go home time (the campsite gates close at sundown). A couple of giraffes wandered up to this waterhole and I was quite excited because obvious they were coming for a drink.

So I sat there and waited while they looked around for any predators before nervously making their way down to take a sip. And there was my giraffe perfectly reflected in the still water of the waterhole. It was worth the 8 months wait. Very ungainly, but at the same time graceful. No special technique here, just a 75-300mm zoom, focus and wait.