Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Is your travel photography subject or technique driven?

Have you ever pondered this question? When you try a new technique - a new post-processing move, some fancy flash work, a new view of the world with a new lens - are you doing it because you can or because it tells a story?

The reason I ask is this. I grew up on a diet of photojournalistic style travel photography in the vein of National Geographic. For the most part natural light, fly on the wall type stuff mixed with beautiful portraits where the engagement between the photographer and subject was clear.

Landscapes where the photographer obviously made the effort to be there at the right time of day and the right time of year to capture their vision. And yet in later years when I've seen interviews with the various photographers I've always found it interesting to discover the techniques they used to create the picture - which often times involved flash, graduated neutral density filters and other fancy post-processing footwork.

But when I look at the pictures my first reaction isn't 'wow what a great shot I wonder how they did that?'. It's always' wow what an amazing subject I'd love to go there'. And that's something I'm always conscious of in my own work.

I don't want to be limited to just natural light, or not being able to use HDR or infrared or any of the tools at my disposal. After all we love this art form for the creative freedom it allows us. But I don't want them to overpower the subject itself. I want the techniques I use to support the story and enhance it. Get to the stage where the technique is only relevant in terms of what I wanted to say about the subject.

And I see a lot of photography around where the photographer doesn't really seem to have anything to say about their subjects apart from the fact that they know how to use multiple flashes off-camera, process HDR or convert to black and white.

So I want to suggest that before you decide to experiment with newly-learnt techniques, either at the time of capture or post, ask yourself if what you're doing supports the story you're trying to tell about your subject. Does it more accurately reflect your feelings?

I used this image to illustrate this post because it uses a couple of techniques and yet illustrates what I wanted to say. Firstly the technical side. It's off-camera flash fired with an infrared trigger. The flash had an orange gel over it to match the sodium vapour lights lighting up the parade. I used a slow-synch flash with rear curtain and a reasonably high ISO to let the ambient light burn in in the background.

Now did that increase your appreciation for the subject? Probably not one iota but here's why I used those techniques and what I was trying to achieve.

Firstly I used the flash off camera so that I could zoom it in on the female dancer right in the middle - she is the subject of my photo. I used an orange gel over it because I wanted to retain the atmosphere of the natural light that was all around me during the parade. I used a slow-synch on the flash because I wanted to show the frenetic, excited movement of the dancers almost to the point where they were so blurry you couldn't tell what they were. I used second-synch flash so that after the blurring there would be a sharp blast of flash to highlight the central dancer and make her pretty sharp. I used the high ISO so the background wouldn't go black and you could tell that there were lots of other dancers around her - giving a sense of a large group of happy paraders.

And that was how I took a vision of what I wanted to say about the subject and used the techniques to highlight that. Which is a different concept to just using slow-synch, second-synch, orange gelled off-camera flash just for the sake of it. The essence of good travel photography is showing your subject to your viewers. Be careful to make sure that your photography isn't more 'wow what a great shot' than 'wow what a great subject'.

Monday, February 8, 2010

What's your favourite country?

Of all the questions I get asked about my job, this is the one I get the most? It's kind of like asking the doctor at a Saturday BBQ to take a quick look at something that's bothering you.

And to be perfectly honest there really isn't an answer. I love everywhere I go but speaking to my Mum on the phone this morning, and a Facebook message from a mate reminded me how much I love Nepal.

My parents are planning to go there next year and my friend is getting ready for a trip there in a little while. Just talking to them brings back so many memories of elephant back safaris, long-bearded saddhus and majestic snowy peaks. Not to mention yummy lentils, incredibly friendly people and fascinating Buddhist culture. My wife and I were there for a total of about three months and spent about one month of that trekking in the Himalayas.

It took us three weeks to get this point - Gokyo Peak, high in the Himalayas near the border with Tibet. Down the bottom next to the lake you can see the little town where everybody stays. It's only a few hundred metres above the town to the summit of Gokyo Ri but the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere as well as the steep climb means it takes a long time.

Photographically the area is amazing but for another reason I'm amazed at how the pictures turned out. You see my autofocus in my camera died while I was in the Philippines just before we got here on a one year round-the-world trip. So I did everything on manual focus assuming that if I saw it clearly through the viewfinder than it was sharp! Lucky for me it was.

Everyone who goes to Gokyo climbs the last peak for a glimpse of Everest and so you might find yourself at the top of this 'hill' surrounded by a couple of hundred people. My wife had been suffering from headaches so we were worried about altitude sickness and had thought of going back down. In the end the morning we were to decide she felt better so we went for it.

By the time we left everybody else had come back down so we ended up having the entire summit to ourselves for about four hours. Sitting on top of the world surrounded by 8000 metre peaks, flapping prayer flags and the sound of nothing else but the wind and a friendly bird and it was yet another one of those travel moments where you have to pinch yourself to make sure it's real.

My father-in-law has a giant print of this image on his living room wall. It's always been his dream to see Mt Everest and I doubt he'll get there now, but this is a momento of his daughter getting there and he loves to just stare at the picture. It reminds me and humbles me to think that I have this amazing vocation that allows me to live not only my own dreams but to capture images that help people back home share their dreams vicariously through photography. It's something I never take for granted.

If only he knew that it took about four times to get this one. The camera on the tripod was quite a way away over some rocky gullies and I would push the self-timer and then run like crazy to get into a kneeling position beside my wife. Three times I heard the shutter click when I was three quarters of the way there! Made it on the fourth. :) He doesn't read English so we'll just keep it our little secret!