Friday, January 9, 2009

It's all about the subject silly

One of the things I think all professional photographers struggle with is remaining true to their own photographic vision.

When you do it as a hobby you can point the camera at whatever takes your fancy. When you do it as a living you tend to end up pointing your camera at what takes someone else's fancy.

And this can mean that you often end up working in a genre that doesn't suit you. Sure you can make competent, usable images but there's nothing ground breaking there. Nothing that anybody will remember ten years down the track.

As an artist one of the most important things you can do for yourself is to really feel (notice I didn't say think here folks but feel) what it is that you really want to photograph. Because chances are this is the thing that you will see in a unique way and manage to photograph it as only you will know how. This is where truly inspirational photography can start.

Take this image above. This is Matt Gordon, a jellyfish researcher with James Cook University here in Cairns. I went out with Matt and his fellow researcher Theresa Carrette one morning to photograph them catching and tagging box jellyfish. Now these things are deadly. I mean really, really dangerous. And he leaps over the side of the boat and catches them with his bare hands. Or at least he assures me he would have had we actually seen any!

Had this been a purely advertising shoot I would have had Matt made up, every hair in place, lit up by lots of strobes and looking perfect in every way. And I would have been out of my depth visually. I know how to work the lights but apart from that I'm lost. It's not what I do. I capture real life and for me the subject is more important than the photographer.

I love photographing interesting people involved in their own passion. I spent hours talking to Matt about his research and how he did what he did, and what he hoped to discover and then I sat down and thought of how I wanted to portray him.

When I got out on the water the first thing that struck me was how close they cruise to the shore looking for these things. I mean we were literally feet away from little kids paddling in the ocean, looking for deadly jellyfish. Firstly I wanted to scream to the parents to get their kids out of the water, but thought it probably wasn't a good idea as they'd think I was a raving bloody lunatic. As a photographic story teller my first priority was to show how close we were to the shore because that was the first thing that had struck me.

The other thing I wanted to show was the look of concentration on Matt's face as he scanned the clear, shallow waters looking for mostly invisible blobs floating around. I also wanted to show the lovely blue sky and turquoise waters to show what a beautiful office he has, but at the same time he was in a wetsuit so he was sweating up a storm. So it's a really small point but the beads of sweat on the back of his neck tell the story of how hot he is and what he is going through in this apparent paradise.

And it's that last little detail that separates what I do as a photojournalist from an advertising photographer. The ad would have the sweat Photoshopped out. Too real for comfort. And there's no right or wrong in any of this, but it took me a long time to work out who I am as a photographer. And what I would give my left arm to photograph. And how a few tiny beads of sweat can be so important in sticking true to your vision.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Seeing with a telephoto lens

One of the most difficult things I found about photography when I first started was being able to picture how a scene would look when I used a particular lens.

I would have an idea of what I wanted to capture but not know which lens I needed to bring my mind's image to life. So I would stick a lens on, zoom in and out, swap it for another lens and zoom in and out again until I got what I was looking for.

As I got used to the effect of different focal lengths I found that I got to the stage where I could instinctively reach for the lens I wanted to create the effect I could see in my mind.

One of the best ways I found to help me pre-visualise the effect of a lens was to put the lens on the camera and actually look through the viewfinder. Sounds pretty obvious doesn't it but it didn't seem so at the time. I found it worked the best with a telephoto lens. Rather than squinting at the horizon trying to see if there was anything to photograph I would stick a long lens on and scan the distance looking for interesting subjects.

The image above is one such example. It was taken in the tiny pilgrimage town of Pushkar in the state of Rajasthan in India. I was having dinner in a cafe and looked out to see this lovely light. I didn't want to let this light go to waste but couldn't see anything to photograph. So I put the 300mm lens on and started looking around. My eyes settled on the domes of this lovely building spotlit by the afternoon sun and the stunning mountains in the background. The bird flying past was a lucky fluke. :)

Try it yourself. Get yourself into a position where you've got a good view all around you. Tops of mountains or buildings are great choices. Put your longest telephoto lens on and just scan around. Hopefully you won't get arrested for being a pervert and spying on the person sunbaking naked in their back yard, and you'll come away with some interesting compositions and a new understanding of how your telephoto lens sees the world.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Imagine you're somewhere else

Sushi, serious looking chef in traditional sushi chef's uniform, ornate plate. Must be somewhere near downtown Tokyo. Or is it?

One of the best things to photograph when you're travelling is food and restaurants. Whether it's a roadside stall selling cockroaches in Thailand or a five star restaurant selling Duck a l'orange where you eat is often a great entree into the world you're journeying through.

But you don't always have to travel overseas to photograph a foreign eatery. This was taken just up the road from my house in a small ocean-side town with a population not much bigger than your average Japanese apartment block!

Globalisation means that in most parts of the world you can find foreign restaurants and these can be a great place to practice for when you actually get to a foreign restaurant in a foreign country.

For this shot I wanted to use natural light (as I usually try to do to retain the ambience of the surroundings). Because the chef was so statue-like and the sushi wasn't moving anywhere quickly I didn't need too fast a shutter speed (in this case 1/40 second on a tripod). That meant I was able to get away with an ISO of 200. The chef is actually a couple of feet back from the plate of sushi so I used a telephoto lens to bring him in nice and close and juxtapose him with his creation.

I always shoot in RAW for the far superior quality I get from the images, but even for those who shoot Jpeg I always recommend you shoot RAW in artificial lighting situations. Afterwards you can fine tune your colour balance until you get just the look you're after. As you can see here I have deliberately retained the lovely golden glow you get under tungsten lighting without flash, but haven't left it so yellow as to be ugly looking. Shooting RAW gives you a lot of flexibility in the look of your image.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

So I'm sticking close to home....

There's a saying in Japanese that goes something along the lines of 'The lighthouse doesn't light the base of the tower'. Of course I probably totally murdered the saying but what it means is this.

We don't tend to notice what's right at our feet and I am probably more guilty of this than anybody. My whole photographic life has involved trying to get to the farthest corners of the earth to document the most difficult places to get to.

The farther away I was from home the better. The more off the beaten track the happier I was. A year on the road was nothing unusual. But then you get married and you have children and your perspective on life changes. And you find yourself sticking close to home.

I'm betting a lot of stay-at-home Mums can relate to this. You have a couple of little ones to look after and no time for photography. Well I'm here to tell you I can relate. For the last twelve months I've been a stay at home Dad looking after a 5 and 3 year old and fitting in my business around that and my wife's work. She works for a major international airline and spends 3 or 4 days of the week overseas during which time I look after the two little munchkins.

At first it was a major shock to the system. I was totally lost and at sea. I suddenly went from being Paul Dymond the peripatetic snapper to get breakfast, change the nappies, drop 'em off at school Dad. Of course I was concerned about what would happen to my work but these are the things you do to keep both partners in a marriage happy.

Anyway to cut a long story short, heading into another year at home and I'm loving it. I have photographed my local area more in the last 12 months than in the last 10 years of living here! I've come across cassowaries in the rainforest, beautiful sunrises silhouetting palm trees and scenes of natural beauty that up until now I'd just driven by. And I've re-discovered my passion for photography because I have to make the most of limited time.

So heading into 2009 and another year of blogging you'll be hearing from me on how I manage to fit travel photography into a busy stay-at-home Dad schedule. It's not easy as I'm sure many of you know but hopefully you'll be able to relate as I try to find a balance. Last year was one of finding my way to a certain extent and working out which way I wanted to take my business and how I was going to make it work. This year is going to be about making the most of local opportunities and actively looking for great stories and subjects to photograph.

For many of us trying to balance photography with a working life is a real challenge and we tend to ignore our local surroundings to our own peril. So what I'd like to impart this year is a little inspiration and a few tips on how to get inspired by where you live and to realise that you don't have to get on a plane every month to be a travel photographer.

Although big discounts on plane tickets means I won't be home every weekend. :) Sorry honey seeya in a couple of days.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Happy New Year!

I hope you all had a great festive season and a chance to relax with family and friends. I managed to have some time away from both the lens and computer screen and now I'm looking forward to gettng back to another year of sharing and talking about travel photography with you all.

This year I'm going to post a link every Monday to some great resources I think you might all be interested in. They'll range from the websites of photographers I really admire to sites teaching photography, Photoshop tricks. The whole gamut of stuff that relates to photography.

To kick off the year I want to introduce you to one of my addictions. I think most people with any creative bones whatsoever are drawn to a multitude of art forms. Obviously I love photography but my other big passion is music. I play a lousy jazz guitar but I can listen to the best of them.

I live for my MP3 player. I have my entire CD collection on it and it ranges from everything from The Doors to the Village People, from Concrete Blonde to Mr. Children (Japanese Pop). But another thing it contains is my collection of Podcasts.

Now I hate to be boring here but all my podcasts are interviews with photographers I admire. And the place I get most of them from is The Candid Frame. Run by famous photographer Ibarionex Perello, the blurb reads "A photography podcast where you meet some of the world's best established and emerging photographers in the world of photojournalism, fashion, landscape, documentary, sports, wildlife, travel and commercial photography."

Think people like Moose Peterson, Jim Zuckerman, Reza, Rick Sammon, Rick Smolan, Brenda Tharp. You name it they've probably been interviewed.

So to kick off 2009 head over to the Candid Frame and download some really great interviews.