Bride on the Beach

Working with models is always enjoyable, particularly if the model knows their business and is cooperative. Working with brides is a lot more daunting in many ways because the photographer does not get to reshoot the day if something goes wrong. The shoot described here involved a model, not a bride. She is someone I have worked with many times and is very easy to shoot with.

One of the great innovations in photography is powerful small flashes which can be remotely controlled by wireless triggers. Remote triggers using infra-red do not have the same flexibility and must be used in line of sight, which can create many problems in the field. Another great innovation in flash photography is the recent technology that allows the flash to sync at very high shutter speeds. In the case of the Pocket Wizard radio triggers, flash sync can be achieved at speeds as high as 1/8000th of a second, and it is achieved in a way that syncs the flash more accurately with the camera to squeeze more light from the flash at the optimum time and thereby save on battery power as well as giving a stop or more of extra light.

The photograph above was shot on the beach in the late afternoon on the island of Koh Lanta in Southern Thailand. As the sun dropped low in the sky the light changed rapidly. This shot was taken at 1/1000th of a second with a Pocket Wizard triggered flash fired into a small umbrella off to the right of the camera position. The ability to trigger the flash at high shutter speeds allows the sky detail to be retained with a more open f-stop so the power drain on the batteries is lower. This shot was taken at f5.0.

One thing to be careful about in these situations is to set the white balance around 6000K otherwise the auto white balance will drain the natural redness of the setting  sun out of the image. The flash for this shoot was set on TTL auto and the Canon looked after the details. Pocket Wizards are able to do this because they can translate the infra-red signals of the Canon flashes into radio signals that are passed between the remote pocket Wizards being used to accurately control the amount of flash being delivered. The ability to do this with the latest technology of small flash in dynamic shooting situations frees the photographer to worry more about making pictures and worry less about being a technician.

A Walk In Gion

Canal through the back streets of Gion, Kyoto

Bamboo blinds, with their close-knit horizontal slats that make them more like a flexible wall, hang over the windows concealing everything inside the houses, despite their open windows. The air is still, hot and suffocating; it is mid-July and this is summer in Kyoto. The only shade in the narrow lane in the heart of Gion, an area made famous by its geisha and maiko, is close in to the walls of the houses that edge the street. Few people are around. Now and then a maiko, bandaged in a simple kimono and carrying a paper and bamboo umbrella to shield her against the melting sunlight ventures into the street, as maiko have for centuries in these alleyways. Regardless of the summer heat, she must attend the classes that will eventually make her among the most skilled in the land in the ancient rituals of tea ceremonies, floating dances, singing and traditional instruments that are the stock in trade of these women.

As I shelter in the shade close by a wall, the haunting, melodic sounds of a shamisen drift down to the lane from an open upper floor window. I have heard these simple 3 stringed instruments played like a banjo by young men who would otherwise be in a rock band, with the lightning speed of a lead guitar soloist, fingers screaming up and down the fretboard. But this is different, this one is being played as its makers intended. The strings are being slapped slowly or in rhythmic sequences and each note clangs out into the street from a time that has long passed from most of Japan, and drifts off into the shimmering haze.

Kyoto is a very modern place. Walking up into the city from its glass vaulted station one day I was reminded of the wide backstreets of inner city Melbourne in Australia. But by the early evening, Gion, with its kimono clad, milk-white ghosts, teetering on wooden clogs, and wrapped tightly in a dress that can cost as much as a motor car, is home to an ancient tradition that remains mysterious, enticing and largely misunderstood.

Geiko, the Kyoto dialect word for geisha, participating in the Gion Matsura held in July for the past 1200 years.

The State of Photojournalism

This point of view (POV) piece was prompted by the amount of misinformation about the Padaung women that exists, even in some extremely reputable newspapers and magazines. The idea, for example, that the neck of Padaung women will break if they remove the ring is just one of these and is totally wrong; the young woman in the picture below, having the ring put back on her neck, happily walked around the village for a week without the coil and the strength evident in her neck muscles posed no risk or danger to her neck.

Padaung girl having a brass coil put back on her neck after a week without it.

Magazine and newspaper photography covers every topic imaginable. Unfortunately, much of the information that people have about many topics is not backed by the rigorous research and extensive field work that the best photojournalists produce.

The reason for this is simple – money. Only National Geographic can afford to send its photographers and photojournalists into the field for extensive periods of time to prepare material for their magazine stories, although NatGeo is also not above inaccurate reporting. In many cases magazines these days are more likely to source material from iStockphoto than commission a photographer to gather material for photo-essays which will run in magazines and newspapers which must now survive on ever decreasing budgets.

The downside of this is the quality of the story telling suffers, as it must. Travel stories can be written by someone in an apartment in New Your, Sydney or London much more cheaply than they can be by a photojournalist who actually makes the journey to the place they are writing about and photographing.

To establish the authenticity of stories requires the reader to be vigilant about what they are reading. How many times is a conversation reported? How many times is the voice of the people who inhabit the region visited heard in the story? Is it just description and opinion without the voice of the local people ever being heard? These are important questions. And astute readers must demand that magazines and newspapers are producing authentic material that has been properly researched and is not simply some rehash of travel brochures and National Geographic magazines that an author has assimilated.

The quality of real photojournalism in the future is going to depend as much on demanding readers as it will on writers and photographers being serious about their work and devoting sufficient time to really learn something significant about the places they visit and the stories they tell.

Tibet – Opening the Door of Hell

Debate at Sera Monastery

In the early 1900’s the Japanese monk Ekai Kawaguchi disguised himself and entered the forbidden land of Tibet. After arriving in Lhasa on his eventful journey Kawaguchi visited the debating courtyard of Sera Monastery, one of Tibet’s most important monasteries even to this day. The ritual he describes, which he witnessed shortly after the turn of the 20th century, has not changed much, apart from the number of visitors who now come to see it. Sera Monastery is about 5 kilometres from central Lhasa and retains the shady courtyard Kawaguchi describes in his “Three Years in Tibet”, which describes the journey he undertook between 1897 and 1903.

During the debate the inquisitor stands above his student and assails him with a stream of questions. Although the tone may start reasonably subdued, it quickly escalates in energy and frenzy with the questioner aggressively and threateningly clapping his hands above the head of the student while simultaneously stamping his foot on the ground. Kawaguchi explains that the teachers tell the monks: “… the foot must come down so strongly that the door of hell may be broken open, and the hands must make so great a noise that the voice of knowledge may frighten the devils all over the world …”. The debates remain good-humored, despite the apparent aggressiveness in the exchange with the verbal battle lasting around 3 hours on most afternoons.

Opening the doors of hell

Although the future of Tibet remains an open question, Tibetans hold tenaciously to traditions that have endured for centuries. One old monk in Lhasa told me many years ago: “We are the last, when we die Tibetan Buddhism, true Tibetan Buddhism, will die with us”. What I find amazing, is that 20 years after he told me this, despite the enormous and perhaps troubling changes that Tibet has undergone, many traditions remain, seemingly intact, at least for the moment.

Buddhist debates can be seen in many monasteries across the territory once held by Tibet, even in areas that have been part of Chinese territory since 1913, such as the great Labrang Monastery in Xiahe, in China’s Gansu Province. Wherever it is seen, the debate is a tradition that reaches back centuries to a time when the world, and Tibet, were very different places.

The Voice of Knowledge

Off Camera Flash

Venetian Nights

One of the big quests for a photographer is to use flash in a way that creates interesting images and doesn’t have that normal dull on camera look about it.

This image, one of a series done for an ongoing project called “Venetian Nights”, was done with two Canon 580ExII flash units. The trick involved in getting some atmosphere into the shot, apart from the location, model and mask, was to use the on-camera flash as a fill to get some light into the eyes and lift the shadows and to use an off-camera flash as the key light rated  a couple of stops higher than the on-camera unit.

This technique and many related to it are all the rage at the current time and one of the advances that has made this approach easy and reliable is the birth of devices like the radio slaves produced by Pocket Wizard, notably the Mini TT1 and Flex TT5. The shot above used a TT1 on the camera, through which the on-camera flash was fired, and a Flex TT5 attached to the off-camera flash.

Whilst the USA version of the Pocket Wizard has suffered from radio interference problems when used with the Canon 580EXII units, the European version, which uses a different frequency to communicate with the flash units, seems to have avoided these problems.  One of the really great advances of this system is that it allows full TTL flash performance to be maintained as well as allowing very high speed sync rates which suddenly makes dramatic outdoor shots in full daylight possible  provided you remember you are dealing with a small flash unit and keep it relatively close to your subject. We will look at a bridal beach shoot in the next post which used exactly this approach.

The short story here is to get the flash off the camera to allow greater creativity in flash photography. This can be done in the ‘old way’ by using cables but the recent technological additions of Pocket Wizard radio slaves make a fantastic addition to the arsenal of photographers looking for an edge.

Basic Technique – Contra Jour

Scattered early morning sunlight through incense smoke

Here is an image shot for a magazine story on Singapore some years ago. The film used was 35mm Fuji 1600 pushed two stops.

In the early morning in Chinatown, an area that has undergone massive refurbishment in recent years, local people wander in to one of the oldest temples in Singapore to pay their respects and seek good fortune. The temple was filled with the smoke from the large number of incense sticks that had been lit by devotees but the true atmosphere did not become apparent until the first rays of sunlight started to filter in over the roof tops and light the internal courtyard of the temple.

Shooting with the sun behind me, as is often the advice given to beginning photographers, revealed none of the atmosphere I could see in that small courtyard. A simple shift in location, which meant deliberately breaking the “sun over the shoulder” rule changed this dramatically. With the sun now positioned in the upper right hand corner of the shot the light was filtered by the smoke which scattered the light in all directions giving a closer approximation to the feeling that was apparent at the time.

Rules are made to be broken but there is the need to be careful in the breaking. Putting the sun more directly in the picture would have led to an unacceptable level of flare as well as multiple internal reflections in the lens which would have become visible in the image as a series of multicolored circles.