Friday, August 22, 2008

Anatomy of a travel photography assignment final

My final day in the park dawned without me. Yes folks, for all that talk about professionalism and whatnot - I slept in! I had two alarm clocks set and slept through both of them. The day before I had booked a Yellow Waters cruise for 0645. It wasn't on the list of things to see but it was somewhere I had read about and couldn't imagine not doing so I attempted to squeeze it in.

When I eventually did wake up I had well and truly missed the cruise. I had another tour lined up at 9am so it was looking like I couldn't do both. But I rang the 9am people to see if I could move it a bit later, which they kindly agreed to, and slipped on to the 9am Yellow Waters cruise.

As it turns out it was a blessing in disguise. This was my first overcast, rainy day. The earlier tour would have been too dark to take photos in anyway. A sunny day at 9 would have been a contrasty disaster but on this cloudy day it was perfect and I came away with some shots I was really happy with. Birds in the rain, crocodiles and female jabirus up really close. Even though they weren't specifically mentioned in the piece many of those images made the publication.

Always remember that your photographs are there to complement what either you, or another writer, writes. In other words don't feel you have to photograph what you write about. If anything you want to avoid that so that you get a more complete coverage.

After I got back from the cruise I got an unexpected phone call. I had been trying to organise a scenic flight over the park because no coverage is complete without some aerials. Unfortunately the airline company didn't want to take me up because they had heard that I was connected to Lonely Planet Images, and apparently they'd got a bad review in the latest guidebook. I tried to tell them that I had nothing whatsoever to do with the guidebook side of things, that the images were a totally separate entity but to no avail. Well apparently they had changed their minds. The weather was pretty ordinary for aerials but who was I to look a gift horse in the mouth. So I arranged to go up after my next tour.

Which was the Guluyambi. Indigenous culture is a huge part of this region of Australia and the Guluyambi tour was one of the best I had ever been on. From a writer's perspective it was great. Really funny guide, lots of information and a great tour. From a photographer's perspective it was pretty hopeless. We saw a crocodile with a wallaby in its mouth and I got a shot but you can't really tell there's a roo there. So I concentrated more on photographing the people mixing on the tour and this was the shot that ran.

After the tour it was a mad rush to the airport for my flight over the park. I would like to tell you that the sun miraculously came out and covered the land in beautiful light but....that would be lying! The gloomy weather stayed around and it was very hard to shoot. Whenever you have a lot of fog it's hard to shoot with a long lens because it just compresses the fog and makes it look even thicker. So you have to use shorter lenses. Added to that you need at least 1/500 second shutter speed to get a clear pic in a plane and suddenly you have to bump up your ISO to get hand holdable shots. Not the ideal situation and if I'd had another day I might have tried to re-schedule it but as it was I was late getting back to Darwin.

And this was my final shot of a four day adventure before starting the long drive back to Darwin.

And that folks is it in a nutshell. I needed to leave for Darwin at about lunchtime because the last thing I wanted to be was on the road at sunset. There are a lot of kangaroos around and they have a tendency to jump right out in front of your car at the most inopportune moment and usually at around sunset. During the middle of the day they're usually resting up under a tree so that's when you want to be driving.

By the time I got back to Darwin it was well and truly past dinner time though. I checked in, unloaded my stuff in my room and went through my usual back-up routine. Digital has made a lot of things easier but some things a lot more tedious! Once again I treated myself to a luxurious dinner of canned spaghetti and crashed!

And that's pretty much how a standard assignment goes. It's certainly not all glamour and not all photography but I wouldn't do anything else. Sitting on top of Ubirr Rock is one of those moments where you have to pinch yourself and say Is somebody really paying me to do this? How lucky am I? It's long days and hard work but when you see the images later all the pain is forgotten.

If you'd like to look at a wider selection of images from the shoot head to my Kakadu page and if you'd like to see how the article turned out head to the Backpacker Essentials site.

I hope you have enjoyed this little interlude and insight into what I do. I would like to thank Janet McGarry from Backpacker Essentials magazine for popping by and giving us a look at things from an editor's perspective and next week I shall return to our regular viewing.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Anatomy of a travel photography assignment part 4

Day 3 arrives bright and early as always. There's cuttlery in the accommodation so no slurping my cereal this morning. :) I was looking forward to today because we were heading over to Arnhemland - aboriginal land over the other side of the East Alligator River.

It's a vast, almost empty wilderness owned by the local indigenous population and the only way in is to get a special permit. To get there you have to cross the East Alligator River - so named because the early explorers thought that the giant reptiles in the water were alligators. Alligators are quite docile, giant saltwater crocodiles are not! I thought I had a great shot of somebody about to get eaten when I watched unbelievably as some tourists walked right down to the water's edge for a better view!

Any photo story requires a wide variety of images so as you can make a spread. Signs are a good thing to photograph, as are landscapes and when you have such an amazing landscape as the Arnhemland escarpments and wetlands then your wide-angle lens tends to get a lot of use. I used a wide-angle lens to have the rocks of the escarpment lead the eye into the frame and out to the expansive wetlands.

You also need to show people. Local people are an important part of any travel photo story but you also need to show the travellers themselves. People experiencing this new environment and their reaction to it. I noticed Peter showing his young son something on the horizon, and as a father myself, really like the interaction and the way the wetlands spread out behind them.

One thing I always try to do is send people a copy of their photos and so I emailed a high res version of this picture straight after I got back. He also sent some of me working which I won't shoot here because I look as you would expect after two days of not much sleep!

After we crossed over the river we headed in to Oenpelli which is an aboriginal community with a famous arts centre. Now the thing about most aboriginal communities is this - they're not exactly photogenic. They're not set up for tourists and they're just regular folks living their lives. It's a very poor town, there are a lot of stray dogs and general state of disrepair. I'm not a news photojournalist. I'm not there to photograph that. I see it, I recognise it and I acknowledge it.

But I'm here to show things in a good light. The postive things. The arts centre has artists who produce this amazingly beautiful work. They are proud of what they do and want to show it to the world and this is how I can contribute something to their community, by helping them get a positive message out.

Some might say that that means I'm not telling the truth. Maybe so but I see my job as to show people positive things about the world we live in. The good and positive. We have enough negative about anything in life that I don't particularly feel a need to contribute to that. That's just me.

At the arts centre one of the women on the tour injures herself so we have to go off to the local medical clinic to patch her up. This puts us behind schedule and by the time we get back to the East Alligator River it's high tide and the river is way up. Nothing to do but sit and wait until the flow of the river slows down a bit so we can attempt a crossing. It may not be photographically inspiring but makes a great story for the article!

As the tide reaches its peak the river slows down and we gingerly make our way across without incident. For lunch we're taken to a beautiful place called Cannon Hill which has an aboriginal cave only visited by this tour group. Here's a bit of a dilemma. It's a vital part of the story because it talks about traditional aboriginal cave paintings. But in terms of getting stock photographs it's a killer because nobody can get here! To sell travel photographs you need to photograph places that a lot of people go.

So while I take a few snaps of the surrounds it's not my main focus. One of the points of the photo brief was that Janet wanted a cover shot. Now Janet is very picky about her front covers (I know she's reading this right now nodding her head!). Backpacker Essentials has a formula for its covers. It's always young people (usually attracive young women) who look like backpackers posing for the camera.

So far on all my tours I had folks older than my parents, or families. Lovely people one and all but not much cover material here. By the time I had reached the aboriginal cave I was a bit frantic. Getting the cover means more exposure and a higher pay cheque so it's definitely something you want to get if you can! Then I took a closer look at the tour guide Kelly. She's perfect for a cover, why hadn't I noticed before? So I work on getting a couple of portraits of Kelly. Remember a portrait for a travel mag isn't just a straight head shot, you want to try and put her in a place visually. There has to be some sort of location clue. Aboriginal paintings anyone?

And that was our last stop before heading back to our hotels. Again I had decided to do a mad rush out to a sunset location - this time the famous Ubirr Rock. I didn't have time to fill up with petrol but had noticed a petrol station (gas stand for you northern hemisphere folks!) at the East Alligator River crossing so I headed out there pretty much on empty. Big mistake! I got out there where the Chinese owner tole me they hadn't had petrol there for about 20 years. Oh-oh, now I had to get all the way out to Ubirr and back with not a lot of petrol. No time to go back and fill up, I'd miss sunset. So off went the air-conditiong, windows down and cruise out there quite slowly!

At Ubirr I was searching for models! I asked one of the park rangers who was there out of uniform (so I didn't know she was a ranger until she asked me for my permit!) and she gladly posed for me. Signed model release, thankyou very much. Then the sunset light show started so I found a spot to watch the spectacle.

And there sitting beside me were a couple of women paramedics from Melbourne who were dressed in odd socks and funky t-shirts and shorts, and perched on a precipitous ledge with Ubirr wetlands stretching out behind them. I got a little bit excited! Here was my cover shot now - I could already see the masthead in the sky above their heads. I politely explained what I was doing and they were realy happy to pose for me. Snap, snap. There's our cover.

All that was left was to sit back and enjoy the sunset.

And, before it got too dark to see, I scampered down the escarpment and cruised back on empty to my hotel. I was staying in the other hotel again so it was a further one hour drive on top of my regular trip. Again another late night of back-ups, more back-ups and more Territorian pizza! Yum. It had been a good day. I was pretty sure I had my cover, some nice landscapes, some aboriginal shots and had covered a lot of the feel of Arnhemland. At just past midnight my head hit the pillow.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Anatomy of a travel photography assignment part 3

The next day shaped up much better! Up at half past five or so for a quick breakfast (NB if you don't bring your own cuttlery you may be forced to slurp your breakfast cereal from the bowl!)

I was on tour with Steve and his Top End Tours and had an early start before a day of waterfalls and swimming holes. Just what the hot weather called for and it was lovely and sunny.

However nice weather and nice photography weather aren't necessarily one and the same thing. Tours by their very nature are designed to please the majority of people - not photographers. As a result they usually happen during the middle of the day at possibly the worst time for photography.

When you're on assignment and you have to follow somebody else's schedule that's something you have to resign yourself to. You will mostly likely be at the most beautiful places at the most horrible time of day.

Take this shot above. Barrimundi Creek is absolutely gorgeous. And a fantastic place to photograph (I imagine) before the sun comes up and the light hits both sides of the gorge. At nearly midday the left hand wall and the little waterfall in front is in shadow. You need to use a bit of trickery to get everything you see with your eye into a photograph.

A straight, single shot would have rendered the left hand wall and waterfall a dark, shadowy mess. So this is a combination of three exposures - one for the highlights, one for the left hand wall and one for the deep shadows. All three were blended in Photoshop to see what we have here - which is exactly what my eye was able to see but the camera would never be able to record.

When you have a high contrast situation that's all you can really do. Ideally what you want to try and do is have your subjects all in shadow or all in sunlight. By using a telephoto lens you can zoom in on the parts of the scene that are in shadow. In the photo here the people crossing the creek are in the shade but just to the right of them is a great big area of ground lit by harsh sunlight. A wide-angle lens shot would have been too uncontrollably contrasty but the telephoto has enabled me to keep all the elements within a narrow light range.

The ant hills however are all in full sunlight. There are lots of shadows here but none that really affect the overall image. When you have harsh sunlight it's often a good idea to look for really strong (often primary) colours. Here the bright blue sky matches the strong reds of the earth to create a visually arresting image.

The perfect example of right place at wrong time was at the end of the day, our last stop at Jim Jim Falls. This is one of the park's most famous waterfalls and an absolute icon. A great photograph of this place will be a sure seller. The only problem was the sun was shining on half the scene, with the falls themselves in deep shadow.

So you end up with an OK general landscape shot but there isn't a waterfall to be seen because it's in the darkest part of the dark shadows. It really is the wrong time of day to be there. So what do you do?

Well the first thing you do is hope for a little bit of cloud to cover up the sun for a couple of minutes. When that happens your contrast is a bit more controllable. So now we have a really white, washed-out sky but we can see some details in the waterfall itself and have a nice mirror reflection in the billabong.

I also liked the way the trees were reflecting in the water of the billabong. As a stand-alone shot it doesn't tell you that it's Jim Jim but the big crocodile trap tells you that it's somewhere you might not want to swim!

At the end of the day you have to be prepared to compromise on what you can photograph and do the best you can with the lighting conditions presented. Being a professional means coming home with some publishable images no matter the conditions. If you had all the time in the world you would come back when the conditions are perfect, but the assignment photographer never really has that luxury unless you're working in your local area. Travel photographers are usually somewhere away from home base and the time on location is always limited.

After the tour driver had dropped me off at my accommodation I had to pack all my gear up in the car (remember I have to move hotels every night!) and head off to my sunset photo shoot. One of the places I knew I wanted to photograph was Nourlangie Rock and it was pretty close to the hotel I'd been dropped at which meant I could get there reasonably quickly and hopefully make sunset.

Nourlangie Rock is famous for turning a lovely shade of red at sunset. There's a beautiful viewing area which gives you a lovely view over the rock. Or at least I hear there is! I got lost and never made it. I found the carpark but ended up going the wrong way and ended up at a little waterhole called Anbangbang Billabong - an obviously crocodile-infested swamp with, lucky for me, a lovely view up at Nourlangie Rock.

While I waited for sunset I decided to photograph the birds on the billabong. I figured if I tried to make it to the sunset viewing platform I'd probably miss sunset so decided to hedge my bets and stay put.

And this was the light show I was presented with forty five minutes later. Gorgeous gum trees and a bright red rock, with a nice crocodile swamp in the foreground for added interest. Sometimes getting lost can be a good thing!

Of course because the rock was close to my previous night's hotel meant that I had a really long drive to that night's hotel! By the time I pulled in it was dark, I was exhausted and starving. A self-cooked dinner of canned spaghetti (see I told you professional travel photography was glamorous!) and it was time to retire to my room which was a lot bigger and very nice. More backing up of cards on to the portable hard drive and laptop and by the time I got to bed it was close to midnight yet again!

It seems like an easy gig from the outside but professional travel photography is mostly hard work with 15 and 16 hour days. If only the great light for photography was between 10 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon I would get so much more sleep! :)

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Anatomy of a travel photography assignment part 2

It's only a short hop, skip and a jump from my home in Cairns to Darwin. My plane got into Darwin airport late at night and I picked up my hire car from the airport. A flash, black four wheel drive with all the mod cons! Checking up on the map I printed out before I left home I drove into the heart of Darwin and checked into the Darwin YHA at about 10pm.

First problem. The World Cup's on. Italy is playing. There's a lot of very noisy Italian supporters downstairs. Sleep wasn't much of an option. When I got up (had I slept?) at 6 the next morning to get some sunrise shots of the front of the YHA (requested for publicity purposes) there were still drunk revellers stumbling out of the front of the hostel. A few of them even helped me frame my shot which was very helpful!

The other little hiccup was that there were roadworks happening right outside the hostel. Big SLOW DOWN signs everywhere gave me a very narrow window to shoot through. I set myself up in the dark and waited until the sky started to turn a lovely shade of blue. A nice tour bus out the front, streaked lights of a passing car and we have quite a nice shot of the front of the hostel.

Because my National Parks briefing wasn't until later in the morning and no tours had been booked until the next day, I had a morning to wander around Darwin a bit, take some photos and see the sights. I had already got in touch with my stock agency to see what images they needed from the area, brainstormed some things I would like to see and had a short list of places I could walk to. It was a lovely morning so I just wandered off with my camera. When I'm in a city I usually prefer to walk then try and drive and find parking.

When you aren't photographing somewhere instantly recognisable, photographing the local plants can put you in a rough geographic location. Bougainvilleas and palm trees scream 'the tropics'. A slightly telephoto lens makes the background palm tree appear nice and close.

I also popped over to parliament house to have a wander through and take a few shots. This is a natural light shot taken with the camera on a tripod. I always shoot RAW anyway but even if you shoot Jpeg I recommend you shoot RAW in indoor situations like this just so you can adjust your white balance easily.

While I was wandering around I got a frantic call from my contact in Darwin.

They had stuffed up my accommodation in Kakadu and were asking if I could stay in a dorm. I try not to think of myself as an inflexible person but when I'm travelling with over $10,000 worth of gear and having to work at night in my room there's no way I can stay in a dorm.

So I politely refused and asked her to see what she could do. She called back a few minutes later and said that I could get my own room but I'd be in a different town each of the three nights. (there are only two towns in the whole national park!) So I would have an 80km drive at the end of every night to get back to my room and I'd have to pack up my gear every morning! Not ideal but what can you do?

I quickly went back to my Darwin room and checked out my tour schedule, confirming where each tour left from. I knew that the tours picked up at both towns but they picked up one later than the other. I then completely changed my schedule around so I would be at the right accommodation house every night to get a bit of a later start each day and hopefully avoid as much driving as possible. Always know as much about your itinerary as you can because often you will be the one responsible for making changes.

At about 11 I headed off for my National Parks briefing (which basically involved the woman reading out to me the paperwork I'd already signed - word for word!) and started the 4 hour drive down to Kakadu. There wasn't much to photograph on the way down and my time was pretty tight so I just made a quick frame of the entrance of the park. Place name signs are always a good thing to photograph.

I knew what time sunset was and also that my first night's accommodation at Cooinda was right next to beautiful Yellow Waters, not on my list of tours but something I really wanted to photograph. So I had timed my arrival so that I could check in and then wander down for sunset. Murphy and his law had other plans...

When I got there the hotel had never heard of me, or had any vouchers for all the tours I was supposed to take part in over the next few days. I couldn't get through on the phone to the Darwin office so I sent a fax off. Still not having checked in, and with sunset rapidly approaching, I left the hotel to figure it out and went off.

It had already been a long, frustrating day and I needed some shutter action to get me feeling good again. And Yellow Waters didn't let me down.

The first thing you learn about photographing in the tropics is not to set your tripod up too close to the water! Yellow Waters has approximately 180 crocodiles in a 5km stretch of waterhole. Unless you want to become a saltie's next meal stay well back!

I got about an hour or so of sunset pics from the moment I arrived till the moment the sky went dark. I started off using a 400mm lens to concentrate on all the birds perched in the trees around the billabong.

Because most of the birds were too far away even for the reach of that long zoom I switched to a wide-angle zoom and concentrated on the sky as it changed colours and started to light up a bright band of clouds above.

By about 7pm the sun had gone down, I stumbled my way back to the car with the aid of my little torch and headed back to see whether I had a place to stay that night! As luck would have it I got a donga (Australian slang for a tiny cubicle not big enough to swing a cat around!) and settled in.

On travel photography assignments I stay in everything from $1500 a night suites to little cubicles like the one in Kakadu. To tell you the truth I spend so little time in the room that a nice one is kind of a waste on me. (Although I do have to admit the $1500 one was pretty flash!) At the end of the day all I need is a place to lay down and I'm happy.

My diary tells me that after a dinner of a Territorian Pizza (kangaroo fillet, tomatoes, roasted capsicum, sour cream and Cajun spices) I went back to my room, backed up my cards, made a second back-up to my laptop and went to bed about 11. Ready for day 2!

Not always a lot of photography involved in professional travel photography is there? :)

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Anatomy of a travel photography assignment part 1

I hope everybody had a great weekend and last Friday's post whet your appetite for what's coming up this week. As promised I'm going to spend the next five days going through in detail what's involved in a professional travel photography assignment. I'll talk about the equipment I took, the hurdles I jumped through, the logistics of organising everything and show some pictures along the way.

For this assignment I chose a trip I took to Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia. I chose this one for a a couple of reasons. It was reasonably short at only 4 1/2 days (which is often typical of these kinds of assignments) and I wanted to show you how much work you need to cram into a tiny space.

The second reason is that it was for one of my all time favourite editors, Janet McGarry of Backpacker Essentials magazine. Janet gave me my first big break when she published not one, but two of my first ever travel article packages. One on trekking in Nepal and the other on Travel Photography. Doesn't seem like nearly 10 years ago does it Janet?

Originally Janet gave me a call in January to see if I wanted to go up there in April. However a giant cyclone came through in February and wiped out half the national park and a week before I was due to head out the accommodation still hadn't been rebuilt! So it got put off until June. Always be prepared to change plans at the drop of a hat.

The magazine had given me a list of tours they definitely wanted me to go on and cover. So I had a rough itinerary of stuff I definitely need to photograph in my four days in the park. It involved a tour (or two) on every day and had meout and about from roughly half past six in the morning till five in the afternoon.

As is often the case with magazine assignments you really need to plan your photography down to the last minute. With all these tours planned I knew I needed to work out what I could photograph before and after the tours. I needed to find out what there was to see in the park that I didn't go to on tour and whether they faced east or west (to determine whether it was a sunrise or sunset shot). So started the research on the web and in various books from the library.

When you get an assignment you always want to look at ways you can go above and beyond what is asked of you. Sure I could have just gone on the tours and photographed that and would have come back with a nice story. But by working a little harder you can make sure you get images that, while not necessarily requested directly, will make a stand-out article, as opposed to something run of the mill.

One of the best ways of finding what there is to photograph is to look at other photographs of the area. Picture books are great because you can bet that the photographer has timed their arrival for the perfect time of day. When you arrive on location head to the local postcard racks. They might be cliched but they can show you the must-photograph sites.

The research took a few days and I roughed out an itinerary which I completely needed to change within the first few hours! But at least I had it. :)

In terms of equipment I took my standard travel kit (minus lighting). I took a Canon EOS 20D, a Canon EF-S 10-22mm f3.4-4.5, a Canon 28-70mm f2.8 L series zoom, a Canon 70-200mm f2.8 L Series zoom, a Canon 400mm f5.6 L series zoom, a couple of Canon extenders - 1.4x and 2x, a macro extender, a complete set of polarising filters (one for each lens), a Cokin filter set containing a couple of ND filters and a couple of half ND filters. I also threw in a 580EX flash, a flash extender cord, cable release and my trusty Manfrotto tripod. And this all fit into my Lowepro Mini Trekker backpack. Oh and a bunch of model releases in the front pocket! You'll see why in a couple of days.

For storage of the digital files I took an 80GB portable hard drive (pd70x) and, unusually for me, a laptop to back stuff up. I don't usually carry a laptop because I find them too bulky and annoying but because I knew I'd be coming back to a hotel every night, and had a hire car, I took one with me. Add to that various rechargers, cords and cables and my paraphernalia was complete.

So equipment and itinerary taken care of I then had to organise permissions. Getting the right permits is often the biggest, most time consuming part of the job. Most states in Australia require professional photographers to obtain a permit for any photography in National Parks. Kakadu is no different and I had to submit various forms, including a letter from my assigning editor, outlining where I intended to go and what I intended to photograph. Once all that was submitted I then had to attend a one hour national parks briefing once I had arrived on-site.

I also knew I would be visiting an aboriginal community in Arnhem Land so I contacted them in advance to make sure I would have permission to photograph there. Often indigenous peoples like to know when their pictures are intended to be published, and how they are to be portrayed. When you visit as a tourist you don't need to think about stuff like permits but when you do this for a living it becomes a major part of the job.

So, as you can see, a lot of the work happens before you even leave. I had worked out what time I would have to get out on my own and photograph. I had a map in my head of the layout of the park so I knew how to get where I needed to. I had my equipment all sorted, and the permissions all OK. The magazine had already organised my plane, hire car and accommodation for me so all I needed to do was hand over my boarding pass, kiss the wife and kids goodbye and head off...

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