Friday, October 31, 2008

The quiet pictures

Maybe it's because I have two rambunctious little boys that never give me a moment's peace and quiet! But whatever it is I often try to capture quiet little moments.

In photography we're often encouraged to go for the 'hero shots', the ones that make everybody gasp. But often you find that quiet little moments can tell more of a story.

Take this shot here. Nothing particularly 'wow that's amazing' about it whatsoever. But for me it's quite a poignant moment.

I was on a trek through the hills of northern Thailand and we had just spent the night in a tiny village of the Lhisu people. A minority tribe who had escaped persecution from Burma and now lived in the northern hills of Thailand, part of their economy was to put on dance shows for the visitors.

The previous night we had sat and danced and sang around a big bonfire and the local men and women had worn traditional clothing for the show. It was a great time and I'd show you some pictures only I stupidly had my flash pointed upwards into the sky and didn't get a single shot!

Anyway when I woke up the next morning I stumbled out to find the beautiful dance clothes from the night before thrown haphazardly across this pole. The owners were walking around in shorts and t-shirts, their traditional clothes discarded with the night's performance.

For me, more than photographing the dance the night before, this shot of their discarded tradition said more about what had happened and the way these people lived than anything else.

Definitely not a 'hero shot'. It definitely does not scream 'wow look at me, I'm amazing'. But it's a quiet little moment that to me tells a story and has a lot of personal meaning. Don't get so caught up in trying to catch the big moment that you miss the little details that tell the stories of our lives.

Here's hoping you have a quiet weekend. :)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Vertical or horizontal, wide-angle or telephoto?

In yesterday's post, and in quite a few posts I've made over the last year, I've talked about having an image in your head before you take the shot, and then choosing the lens and the composition before you take the photograph.

I realise that that's not always possible, or desirable, in every situation. It's a technique most often used in fast moving situations where you have no control over the elements - such as documentary street photography.

But when it comes to landscape photography that all goes out the window. Sure you'll have an idea of the way in which you want to portray something but once you look through the viewfinder you might find that it isn't quite what you had in mind. Or if you pack up after one shot you might not get the best composition. And sometimes more than one way can work. That's when I'd encourage you to work the subject.

Take the shot above. The foreground is a sand dune that I am sitting halfway up. The top of the frame is the desert floor and in between the two is an old, dead tree. I first spotted this scenario from where I was sitting and used the wide-angle lens.

Just a quick tip about photographing on sand, or snow, or anything else that records footprints - never walk anywhere you think might be in your photograph afterwards! Sure it's easy enough to Photoshop out afterwards but it's a lot easier if you don't have to. :)

Anyway I did this one with the wide-angle lens but I didn't feel that I had covered everything I could so I stuck a longer lens on for a closer look.

What I saw when I looked through the viewfinder is that, unlike the wide-angle shot, it didn't so much emphasise the wide expanse of the desert and sand dune.

What it did do, however, was show the beautiful patterns in the sand at the base of the sand dune. So it became more of an abstract sand pattern shot. The dune is hardly noticeable in the bottom of the frame but still forms a differentiation point between the textures of the two surfaces.

As soon as I'd done that, and was quite happy with the effect and what the photograph was saying, I turned the camera vertically. You often find that many photographers tend to shoot everything in a horizontal format - it's easier to handhold the camera that way and the hand just falls to that position naturally.

So it can often be a good idea to deliberately turn the camera on its side to see what a vertical composition would look like. In this case I was able to get in more of the dune at the bottom of the frame, giving it more emphasis in the composition. It also opened up more of the unusual patterns of the desert floor at the top of the frame.

Which one works best? All 3 have their merits and emphasise slightly different things. There's no particular right or wrong in this case. Which do you like best? I probably still like the first one but if I hadn't shot the other two I wouldn't know. Ask me tomorrow and I'll choose a different picture anyway.

By working the subject and really capturing it from a few different angles with different lenses you have a choice of favourites.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Photographic religion

They say in polite circles you should never talk about politics or religion. Politicians don't do much for me but I love photographing religion in all its forms.

I find it fascinating to be a witness to ceremonies and beliefs that have been a part of a culture for thousands of years. For me it really helps to establish a certain people and tie them to a way of life and tradition, something that I never really had in my own upbringing.

One of the biggest challenges about photographing religious events is being respectful, and overcoming the inherent shyness of photographing people. If your knees quiver at the thought of pointing your camera at a living, breathing person then the thought is probably multiplied tenfold when that person is involved in something so serious and important.

You know what the trick is? To be seen. Let people know that you're there and photographing. Have that camera wide out and in the open. Sit for a while and observe what's going on. Show an interest. When people can see that you are honestly interested in what's going on, they then understand that you would like to make an honest picture of them.

If you rush in like a bull at a gate and just start snapping away well...put yourself in the reverse situation. How would you like it if somebody rushed into your place of worship and just started photographing willy-nilly?

I had been sitting in front of this cauldron for about 10 minutes or so just waiting and watching as people came and went. I wanted to see what they did and to understand a little bit about the significance of the actions. I could see that they would place themselves in line of the smoke and then use their hands to wave the smoke over themselves, before heading off to pray at the temple.

So I knew my photo was going to need to show the hands in a reverent position with a hint of temple in the background to give a sense of place. So I had the correct lens on, the right aperture set and all I needed was the right subject and to bring the camera up quietly to my eye and take a photo. This gentleman came up to the cauldron and we made eye contact and smiled - a very important people photography tool and not as expensive as a new lens! He knew I was going to take a photo because he could see the great big camera around my neck, and his smile meant that he was OK with it.

And that's how an image taken in the blink of an eye actually takes quite a bit of time to set up. Time to digest what's happening. Time to work out what you want to convey. Time to work out how you're going to convey it. And then time to give a smile, a nod or a hand wave just to let everybody know your intentions.

Try these simple tricks and you'll find photographing religious events one of the most interesting and rewarding subjects in the world.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The early bird...

catches the photographic opportunity. This image was featured in the Australian Society of Travel Writers' book One Foot Forward.

It was taken with quite a bit of reluctance on my part. I wasn't reluctant to push the shutter, it was nearly impossible to get me out of the door in the first place.

You see it was early, and I'm really not a morning person by nature. In fact I'd probably be a lot happier soul if the best light happened between 10 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon!

It was my last day in Nepal, my flight was due to leave Kathmandu that afternoon and I was planning to spend the morning sleeping in, maybe a leisurely breakfast, a stroll down to my favourite bookstore. You get the picture.

Well my wife had other ideas as she forced me out of bed at some ungodly hour to go and have a look at the city of Patan, on the other side of the Kathmandu Valley. In particular she wanted to go to Durbar Square. When we got there there was this gorgeous mist covering the whole square and locals were out and about doing their shopping, taking a walk and just going about their business.

It was literally photographic paradise. There were no other tourists there (one of my favoured ways of getting unique images as you know), life was going on as it had for thousands of years and there was this gorgeous mist over everything. These women above were doing their fruit and vegetable shopping and putting the produce in these large wicker baskets. The blue cast is caused by the pre-dawn light and the mist combined.

I always knew that getting up early led to better pictures but this case just reinforced that belief. That and the fact that your travel photography is never over until you're actually on the plane! And even then there might be a nice view out the window. :) I can thank my wife Chiharu for this pic.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Waiting, waiting, waiting...

This is one of those situations where I already had the image in my head and just had to wait a little while for it to happen in reality.

This combines a few of the things we've been talking about over the last few weeks. The first is to always look back. This scene was behind me and I wouldn't have noticed how amazing it was if I hadn't bothered to turn around every so often while trudging along the path.

When I did turn around this view took my breath away. As anybody who's been up high in the Himalayas will tell you, everything about it takes your breath away.

What it was about this scene that really inspired me was the way this path was so close to the edge of a huge cliff, with the towering mountains in the background. I firstly chose the telephoto lens to compress the perspective and have the background mountains appear nice and big and close.

Once I had my composition all sorted out I just had to wait for somebody to walk around the corner. I know it's hard to sit in one place and wait for any length of time when you're with other people. I've lost a fair few shots because I just couldn't sit around and wait for a good shot to present itself but if you can increase the number of times you wait for something special to happen you'll increase the number of memorable shots you come back with.

Put your finger over the man in the picture and see how boring it is without him in it. Anyway, as luck would happen, he actually walked along a few minutes after I turned around. To tell you the truth I have no idea if he noticed me standing there with a long lens on but he stopped right in the perfect place and posed brilliantly. Luck or a willing participant? I'm not sure but if I hadn't waited around to find out I never would have got the shot.