Friday, January 30, 2009

Smell the sweat

There are no two ways about it. If you want your viewers to really understand what it's like to be at a festival. To feel the atmosphere. To hear the sounds, imagine the surroundings and smell the sweat you've gotta be up close.

No good standing 100 metres away with a telephoto lens for a sanitised view of it all. If you can't smell the sweat of the dancers you're not close enough!

Getting in close to festivals requires a wee bit of gumption. Not for the faint hearted, you need to act like you belong there - even if you don't feel like you do! If you're in the wrong place somebody will tell you to get out of the way (usually a big beefy security guard!) but until they do be bold and get in the action.

A useful trick is to take photographs with both eyes open. It takes a bit of getting used to but when you're in a crowded situation shooting with a wide-angle lens it's all too easy to bump into people, brick walls and other things that can knock you out! When you have both eyes open you're actually looking through the viewfinder but keeping an eye on the world around you at the same time. You can also see things that are about to enter your viewfinder so you can quickly press the shutter to get a shot.

I'd tell you that I always do that but I'd be lying. I'd like to do that but am actually pretty much blind in my right eye so it wouldn't be much good!

For a different view at festivals I know quite a few photographers who carry step ladders around with them. Just small two or three step jobs that let them get up above the crowds to shoot down on the festival for a different view. I've seen them standing in the middle of the street as the parade just goes around them and they get some wonderful bird's eye view shots. Of course a technique like this won't work for a parade with big floats but it works well for those with mostly people just walking.

Probably the biggest tip I can give you in terms of photographing festivals is just to let your hair down and enjoy it as much as everybody around you. If you're running round with a serious look on your face worrying about the next shot people aren't going to take too kindly to you photographing them. But if you've got a big cheesy grin on your face, are greeting everybody in a friendly manner and just having a whale of a time people will line up to get in front of the camera.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Wedding Crashers

A wedding is the ultimate celebration. A private festival usually only open to family and friends. Unless you're a foreign traveller, in which case you always seem to get invited to the wedding of the cousin of your taxi driver's second niece's daughter...

You get the picture. This particular celebration was the wedding of the daughter of the owner of a lodge in Manali, northern India.

We got invited along, as did every other foreigner in the neighbourhood, and it was great fun. One thing you always want to be careful of at events like this is not to get in the way. Sure you want to get some great shots but at the end of the day that's not the most important thing. So I spent most of my time on the periphery just enjoying the spectacle.

The bride was in one of the rooms of the house decked out in finery and we all went to pay our respects to her. Outside was where the real action was though. Musicians, food, fun and frivolity. And then there were these guys. The Energizer Bunnies of the wedding dancer world. They went continuously for five days straight.

Day and night. Night and day. Did they take a break? I'm guessing they must have but never when I was around! And we could hear them from our room every night, all night for five days straight. :)

By the time we arrived it was late in the afternoon and the sun had already gone behind the mountains. If I had used a flash and a slow shutter speed they would have been too blurred. If I had used a flash and a fast shutter speed the background would have been completely black. Neither seemed like a good option so I walked around looking for some inspiration.

It was then that I noticed the interesting clouds in the sky. I got down low to give a sense of the feet and movement and backlit them. To prevent them from being complete silhouettes I fired a flash to lighten them up a bit. Because they were wearing white it really helped them to stand out. As a result I got to use my flash and a pretty fast shutter speed but still get a nice bright background (the sky).

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Shooting festivals

I love festivals. Both as a photographer and just to go along to. They always seem to bring out the best in people and the party atmosphere is always contagious.

It's not long now till I head off to photograph Sapporo's big snow festival so to get into the mood I've decided to post some festival pics over the next few days and talk about what's involved.

The first thing you want to do is see if you can get a Press pass. Even if you're not shooting for a job you can often make enquiries to the organisers and they can see about getting you some access to places the public can't go.

That's what I did for the Yosakoi Festival. It's a giant street party where groups of dancers compete against each other while walking in a big circuit around the main streets of central Sapporo.

Having a press pass meant that I could walk in amongst the dancers, stand in the middle of the street and just about go anywhere to get the angle I wanted which was fantastic. The only thing you had to be careful of was that you didn't get in the way of either the dancers or the other photographers and TV crews.

If you can't get a pass make sure you get to any parade an hour or so before it's due to begin. The dancers will all be there ready to start and you can get lots of portraits before the parade proper starts.

Shooting at night like this you can't really use a tripod. Unless you're going for a blurred motion effect you usually want to freeze the action. In conditions such as this it often means waiting for a lull in the movement. Like this shot here where the dancer held this pose for a couple of seconds. How do you know when there's going to be a lull?

You don't! And that's the beauty of digital. You just shoot and shoot and shoot and see what comes out. You can try and predict peak moments of action, make sure you always have the camera up to your eye so that you can get the shot (if you see it with your naked eye by the time you get the camera up it's too late) and then let her rip. You can rest your arms when the action dies down!

Using a flash also helps freeze the motion. Here's the problem though. You'll be shooting under artificial lighting - usually some sort of yellowish halogen type thing. Your flash pumps out a white light. That means that everything in range of the flash will look a sickly white colour whilst everything outside the range of the flash will be a nice warm orange. The solution is to put a piece of orange cellophane over your flash. That will turn the colour of your flash the same as the surroundings.

Just remember that if your camera is in Idiot Mode it will default to something like 1/60th second. If you're in a place that is darker than that your background will turn out pitch black. So you need to shoot in either Aperture Priority or fully Manual. I usually just put my camera in Manual mode, set the shutter speed for about 1/15th second or so and leave my aperture at f8 and take it from there.

And if you shoot in RAW (which I recommend you always do) you can fine tune the white balance afterwards. Remember you'll need a higher ISO to help freeze the motion and let your background burn in.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Monday's link on Tuesday

Well seeing as yesterday was a public holiday for those of us here down under - Australia Day, I had the day off to play with the kids. So it's a Tuesday link.

I'm sure it's the same for many people starting photography. You see an image that simply amazes you. An art form that you may have never considered before suddenly seems to be something so incredibly powerful that you feel inspired to try it yourself. To emulate the work of a great photographer.

And for each of us that photographer is going to be a different person. For me that first great inspiration, and a continuing gauge for how I see my own work is Steve McCurry. For some of you the name might not be familiar, but I'm sure his most famous image is.

Remember the Afghan girl on the cover of National Geographic? The one with the incredible green eyes, harrowed look on her face and her torn shawl. That's his.

And can I let you in on a little secret? I don't really like his portrait stuff as much as I love his street documentary work where he shows how people live. He mostly works in South Asia - India, Pakistan and Afghanistan - but has recently been working on a body of work photographing Buddhism around the world.

I have always been fascinated by Buddhist culture and feel a great affinity for its practitioners wherever I go so that's probably one reason I love his work so much. Another is his use of natural light and a simple colour palette. The man is a true artist and as long as he keeps on putting out big glossy books Amazon will be getting my dosh! (money for those non-Australians)

If you get just one book of his get South By South East - you will love it.