Friday, September 5, 2008

Being a fly on the wall

The main aim of documentary photography (which travel mostly is) is to come away with pictures where the people in them are acting naturally.

So that when viewers look at your photos they can imagine themselves there and that the scene would look exactly the same.

Take this photo here, taken in the Akihabara electronics district of Tokyo. The shopkeeper is in deep conversation with the buyer and is paying no attention to the camera whatsoever. The scene would have looked exactly the same whether I had a camera or not.

There's a couple of ways of getting this effect. Firstly you could try to surreptitiously snap a shot off. Carry your camera down around your waist and get used to photographing that way. If you don't get caught you're sure to get some unguarded moments. The only problem with this style of shooting though is that all your pictures are taken from the same height, and you really don't have much control over the composition.

A much better way is to be bold and forthright about it all! Let people know that you're photographing them. Most street photography is done with a wide-angle lens so in order to fill the frame you really need to get up and close to people. If you have the camera up to your eye there's no mistaking your intentions.

A quick word of hello before you start and maybe a gesture to ask if photographing is OK will be appreciated but isn't always necessary. For this shot I just wandered up and started photographing. I'm pretty sure the people knew I was there (I'm not sure about the customer because he had his back to me) and at first the shopkeeper was a bit surprised but after a few minutes something interesting happened.

The longer you stay in one place and remain unobtrusive, all the while taking photos, the more people get bored with what you are doing. And it's when they get bored that they start ignoring you. And once they've started ignoring you that's when you'll get the great fly on the wall shots.

So the first couple of shots he's looking at the camera but after a couple of minutes he realises that making the sale is much more important than looking good for the camera. So back he goes to selling and then I can start the serious photography. You need to take those starter shots to warm people up. Most times you'll delete them afterwards but they're like the entree to the main meal. You can't get to the photographs you want to take without going through the preliminaries. Warming people up and hopefully boring them so much that they'll just ignore you!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

New group on Flickr!

I'm pretty excited about this! Ever since I started the blog I have really enjoyed writing about travel and photography, and I've also really enjoyed the emails and comments that I've received (all except those dodgy ones from the Philippines!).

But it's been a bit one-sided. There's a little over 1000 of you reading the blog on a regular basis but I don't really know any of you and don't get to see your photography. So I decided to create a place where we could all get to know each other outside of the blog.

So I put together a little group on Flickr where everybody can post their own photos, ask questions and just generally get to know who else is in the group.

I imagine it's going to take a little while to get some momentum going but I would really appreciate it, if you like the blog, head on over and sign up and get involved. My dream is to make this a worldwide community of people who just love travel photography.

See you on Flickr!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Subject List

Hi there everybody,

I was having a skim through all the posts I've made over the last few months and realised that there was no real way for you guys and girls to go back and find your favourite posts. Sure there's the Search function but it's a bit clumsy.

So I've added a list of all the keywords I have used in my posts. So if you remember reading a post on the Taj Mahal just click on Taj Mahal and all the posts that mention it will come up.

Going through the keywords I noticed there were a few redundancies so hopefully I've got rid of most of them. So have a browse through and maybe find a few posts you didn't read, or re-read a few you enjoyed.

Just scroll down and the keywords come up on the right hand side. Oh and there's another post from today just under this one so don't stop reading yet!



Don't forget to look over your shoulder

Back in April I wrote about photographing famous destinations at sunrise, and used it as an example of how you can get up early to get photos that nobody else has. Basically because the rest of the world is still asleep!

Something I didn't mention in that post that I want to talk about here is not to keep your eyes on the main game alone. When you're somewhere famous it's all too easy just to focus your camera on that one thing and forget about everything else. You need to look over your shoulder.

In fact this is a rule I always use when I'm out and about photographing. Whenever I feel myself always looking forward and what's coming up, I physically remind myself to turn around and look behind me.

April's post showed Lake Mashuuko at sunrise and it was a beautiful sight but when I could wrench myself away from it and turn around I was amazed to see this.

I hadn't even noticed this beautiful snow-capped mountain in the darkness when I first arrived. I love the way the light goes in bands of purple, to red to black where the sun hasn't hit yet. Even though the foreground is a couple of kilometres in front of the distant mountains I used a telephoto lens to compress the scene and make them look like they are nice and close. I also used a small aperture to increase the depth-of-field.

Often when you use a telephoto lens to photograph landscapes you find that if there is any fog, smog or just general haze the telephoto really emphasises this and makes photos unclear. Not on this morning though, as it was as clear as a bell.

So just remember that the photos you think you're going to take aren't the only ones you're allowed to. Always be prepared to look back over your shoulder and keep an open mind about what nature presents you with.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A sign of the times

When you're travelling don't forget to photograph the signs. You find all sorts of signs when you're out and about - everything from warnings to street and place names, to funny little things. If you're travelling through the outback of Australia you're likely to find bullet holes in signs. Hell I even found a cut-out kangaroo on a road sign at the entrance to the Caprivi strip just outside of Angola!

This sign here is one that you might not be able to read but it kind of gives you a hint at what it might be on about with the pictures of the yellow bears and a bright pink exclamation mark.

The top writing says breeding ground of grizzly bears. Underneath the bears it reads: the following are strictly prohibited - feeding or getting close to the bears. You don't need a sign to convince me of that!

This is one of the world's most recently World Heritage Listed areas in Shiretoko National Park, in far eastern Hokkaido. It is filled with bears and the Shiretoko Five Lakes is notorious for spottings. Needless to say I was a bit nervous as I walked around the Five Lakes with my wife and baby son. In Japan they recommend you place a bell on your backpack to let the bears know you're coming and give them time to get out of the way. I did the next best thing and took a non-stop chattering father-in-law! Seemed to work a treat.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The ethics of travel photography

On the weekend I had the opportunity to speak on a freelance journalist's forum held here in Cairns at the Tropical Writers' Festival.

It was a fun hour talking about the biz and afterwards I had a chance to catch up with quite a few aspiring travel writers, ex-students and readers of the blog.

One of the readers I had a chance to catch up with was Nikki, who alerted me to a bit of controversy I had stirred up between her and a friend. Well I hadn't necessarily stirred it up but this photo above had.

This is a Photoshopped image - a combination of three separate images taken at three different exposures. It's from my post about Kakadu National Park last week and was taken during the middle of the day - a time when the contrast levels are extreme to say the least.

Nikki's friend argued that by combining three images I wasn't conveying what another visitor to the area would see at that time of the day and I should have shown it how it was - in a single exposure. Nikki argued that I had the right to do whatever I wanted to. (Please correct me if I got the wrong end of the stick Nikki!) Here's my position on it because I think there's been a little bit of misunderstanding as to what I did and why I did it.

Cameras don't have the same ability to capture detail in both the highlights and the shadows at the same time in contrasty situations. Compared to our eyes and brains they are pretty simple instruments to record reality. If I had taken a single shot you would have had the right hand cliff face perfectly exposed and everything else an inky, black shadow. That is how the camera would have recorded it. But that isn't how you would have seen it.

Because your brain has the ability to record an amazing amount of detail in both the highlights and shadows, what I've actually done is combine the three images in an attempt to show what you would actually see if you went there. So rather than me trying to create a fiction I'm actually trying to go beyond the limitations of photography and show reality. This is how the scene appeared to my eye.

I have a good friend here in town who is an award-winning photographer. His art basically involves taking a photograph and manipulating the hell out of it until it looks like a Renaissance-era painting. It is, without a doubt, art. But for me personally it isn't photography.

He is always trying to convince me to fiddle around, combine sunsets with camels and whatnot to create interesting travel pictures. It's not my cup of tea. I want to show the world for what it is. I figure it's beautiful enough without messing around to improve it.

Whenever I think of my photographic inspirations they are the great documentary photographers. That is what I aspire to and I just don't fiddle with stuff. I will certainly combine exposures to overcome the limitations of the digital sensor, I certainly play with curves and levels and saturation to come up with how I remember the scene. But I don't add and subtract things or try to change reality. Any post-production computer work I do is to try and accurately represent reality as much as possible.

So while I agree totally with Nikki's friend that I should show reality, sometimes you have to acknowledge the inability of the camera to show that reality.

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