India – Does Close Count?

Nepali Border Police Officer, me and Neil Gelinas. Photo by Suraj Shakya

As a National Geographic Photographer, one of the first questions I’m asked when I meet someone new is, what countries have you been to? For years, my standard answer has been that it would be easier for me to name the countries where I haven’t been. Everyone is surprised to hear that India is one of those places. I just have never had an assignment there. Currently I am in Lumbini, Nepal, about 13 kilometers from the Indian border. Today I decided that it would be a good time to at least step across the border and maybe even get an Indian stamp in my passport.

In preparation, I consulted some local Nepalese who told me that this particular border crossing was so small that I couldn’t get a visa. The closest crossing where I could apply for one was an hour away and it would take at least a day for the visa to be processed. Neither having the time nor the inclination to wait 24 hours for a visa, I decided to take my chances at crossing the border at New Buddha Nagar, Kalidaha, Nepal.

My local assistant Suraj Shakya and Neil Gelinas, the producer/camerman from National Geographic Television who is working on the same project with me in Nepal, were going to accompany me on crossing into India. As we got closer to the border, the villages began looking extremely poor. Trash in the street, skinny dogs and oxen, dirt roads and profound odors. When we finally arrived at the Nepali border, we could see Siddhartha Nagar, India fifty meters away. Neil, Suraj and I walked towards the border police. We were ordered to stop and since Neil and I were Americans who didn’t have Indian visas, we were forbidden to proceed towards the Indian border station. We were also admonished not to take photos in the direction of the Indian border. Suraj didn’t have this problem. As a Nepalese citizen, he doesn’t need a visa or a passport to travel between Nepal and India.

Although I tired my best to convince the police to let me cross, nothing worked. So when people ask to what countries I’ve been, I still have to answer that I’ve never been to India.

Focusing on Vision

Teaching a National Geographic NY Workshop on the High Line -- Photo by Louise Pedneault

Regardless of the type of camera and lens you are using, producing a good photograph requires creative vision and deliberate thought. These skills can be learned and enhanced by participating in a photo workshop. With the advent of digital photography, there are a plethora of workshops to choose from. Some focus on software programs like Photoshop and Lightroom, others deal with digital workflow, while advanced courses emphasize the intricacies of color management. Beginner workshops will teach the basics of how to operate and use your camera.

Learning basic photographic principles and how to operate your camera beyond the “program” setting will help you implement your vision. Most of these technical courses are offered through local camera clubs, colleges and community centers. The School of Visual Arts in New York City offers a Masters Program in Digital Photography. Hand books, on-line research and equipment reviews will also supply the basic information on how to operate your camera. The technical aspect of photography is a science; an f stop is a mathematical calculation which ties into the shutter speed and ISO. With patience and concentration, you can learn the technical basics.

I have been teaching a different type of photo workshop – one where the emphasis is on “vision”. Participants in my workshops learn how to “see” photos, how to think about photos, and how to conceptualize photo projects and stories. Whether we are shooting on the High Line in New York City, at a temple in Bangkok, or in a game preserve in Abu Dhabi, the objective is the same: tap into your creative vision to make a great image.

At times I will tell my students not to use a zoom lens (which can be difficult as most people don’t have fixed, focal length lenses) or in the alternative, require them to set their zoon on a specific length and not to change it. This forces you, as the photographer to make the image fit into your vision. I continually tell my students: “zoom with your feet, not the lens”. When you are forced to walk up to your subject and even walk around it, you may discover a better angle or better light than had you been just standing in one spot, twisting the zoom dial.

The creative use of light to enhance your vision cannot be understated. Photographers who do not take light into consideration are not really “seeing” their subject. I do a lot of lighting on my assignments and I often use non-traditional methods. In addition to large strobes, on camera flash units and reflectors I have found flashlights and car headlights useful to recreate light. Although lighting does require technical knowledge, I stress to my students that “seeing” the light and taking advantage of it will make interesting photos that help to tell a story.

After a day of shooting, my students are required to participate in critique sessions. Taking a lot of photos and discussing these images with other workshop members is invaluable. We all learn from each other. Explaining your image, approach and technique forces you to examine your thought process when you took the picture.

Digital photography is a great equalizer. Anyone can point their smart phone at a person, object or scene and take a picture. But thinking about your subject and learning how to “see” your image will make the difference between merely taking a picture and making a great image.

Maine Photographic Workshop 2011

September 4-10, 2011

Learn to effectively see and use light to turn the ordinary image into exceptional. As digital cameras now have the capabilities to capture files with seemingly limitless possibilities in terms of tonal adjustments and layering, it becomes easy to lose oneself in the processing of images as opposed to the act of capturing images. Light can visually shape a story, enhancing the ability for the viewer to “read” a series of photographs. For more information please go here.

Fourth of July in New York

Fireworks in NYC. Panasonic GH2, 14-140mm lens at 17mm. ISO 160 f/13 at 45 seconds.

Here is my image from last night’s Macy’s fireworks’ display. I positioned myself on the sundeck at my gym, Chelsea Piers and shot north and west up the Hudson River. This fireworks display was incredible and very bright. I stopped down to f/14 and left the shutter open a little longer between the bursts so the adjacent pier would show detail. For this image the shutter was open for 45 seconds using the black card technique I described in my previous blog.. I included the pier because it gives the fireworks size perspective and a sense of location.

Alaska through the lens of Panasonic’s Compact System Cameras

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I have been editing and processing the photos I shot two weeks ago on my ‘workshop/cruise’ through Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage. On that trip I took no Canon equipment; I only had the Lumix cameras that were loaned to me by Panasonic. Although I was impressed by their autofocus and the lack of shutter delay, it took me awhile to get used to viewing through the Electronic Viewfinder because the highlights appear to look blown out. I also needed to adjust to the ergonomics of the Panasonic bodies which differ from Canons. Eventually however the cameras started to feel good in my hands and I was able to have fun shooting photos from the ship and in the bouncing, Zodiac boats.

I had three Panasonic cameras with me: the GF2 which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, the GH2 and a prototype of the recently announced G3. One thing is certain – these cameras and their lenses are all very small, light and compact. I use the GF2 as a walk around camera with the 20mm f1.7 pancake lens. Many of the images I shot on this trip were with the longer zoom lenses, the 14-140, 45-200 and 100-300. Since the sensor on these cameras is half the size of a ‘full sized’ sensor, the focal lengths of the lenses can effectively be doubled. Consequently, I’m working with varied length optics that are much smaller than what I’m used to carrying. The downside is that the lenses are a bit slow, usually varying between f4-5.6, but still usable by boosting the ISO and keeping the stabilizers on.

The experience of working with any new cameras, whether going large to medium format ( as I did a couple of months ago) or going small with the Panasonics is like being a kid with new toys!. It’s exhilarating. Although the G3 is slightly larger than my “GF2 walk around camera” it acts like a grownup camera. It has the same sensor as the GH2 and is just as responsive and as fast. Panasonic addressed some of the issues I’ve had with the GH2 in the G3, specifically the inability to turn off the focus point on the LED screen so that it cannot change position if you accidentally touch it. The battery life in the G3 is much improved over the battery life in the GH2, even though it’s using the smaller battery found in the GF2.

The quality of the raw files from the GH2 and the GF2 cameras was beyond what I expected. I processed the files using Lightroom and used its fabulous noise reduction when I was working at above ISO 800. The raw files were running slightly red which was easily fixed. Unfortunately I can’t address the G3 raw files at this time. The camera is so new that neither my Adobe nor Capture 1 products will process them. I did get a disk with a new version of Panasonic’s raw processor but it currently only works on a windows platform, which is not in my Mac workflow. I shot full size JPEGS+ Raw on the G3 with the intention of processing the raw files in the immediate future. However the G3 jpegs looked very good, once I added some sharpening and clarity to them. As this was a prototype and I rarely shoot jpegs, I was at the whim of the camera’s processing algorithm.

Many of the photo enthusiasts on the ship were working with much larger Nikons and Canons and were intrigued by my new set of equipment and my initial fumbling through various buttons. They wanted to play with my “new toys”. By the second day I was handling the equipment like a pro.

A Cooler Full of Strobes

Pack and spare battery in the hotel

Keeping warm in the snow

In an earlier blog, I mentioned a trip to the Arctic that ultimately had to be postponed due to adverse weather conditions. I needed snow but in November and December it rained. In January I was traveling to the bottom of the globe in Antarctica but now in April, I am finally shooting outside of Iqaluit, Nunavut in the northernmost reaches of Canada. The temperature has been hovering around -22C with winds blowing at 20-30 kph. Although keeping personally warm is paramount, my bigger concern is keeping my battery operated gear from freezing. Fortunately my Canon 5D Mark IIs have been operating really well, although I do warm a few extra batteries with my body heat inside of my coat, in the event I need to change them. My biggest concern however has been my battery operated strobes, essential pieces of equipment that I need for the photo I am here to shoot.

I am using the Profoto Acute Bs, a six hundred watt second pack that has always been reliable. But in this extreme climate I worry that the cold may quickly drain the batteries. Fortunately I brought along Alex Stricker, my friend and fellow photographer to lend a hand. Dragging Alex from the warmth of Phoenix to the cold of the Arctic took some creative coaxing and it was well worth it. Besides his photographic abilities Alex is incredibly talented when it comes to building and prepping anything needed for a complicated shot. In this case, we needed to find a way to keep the Profoto batteries warm and Alex as usually came up with a creative solution.

We bought a midsized, styrofoam cooler (rather ironic for our geographical location) and lined the insides with the eight hour, hand warmer packets I had brought from New York. We placed the strobe unit and two spare batteries inside of the cooler, notched out a hole on the lid, and ran the cable through it to the strobe head. To provide additional insulation, we lined the bottom of the cooler with a silver, space blanket. Before I took the cooler into the cold I walked fifty feet down my hotel corridor with my pocket wizard radio tripper to ensure the strobe would fire. It did.

We felt like we were setting up for a tailgate party when we finally brought the cooler outside only instead of fall football weather, it was -23 C, dog sledging weather. But our heated cooler worked great. We were able to get approximately 150 full power shots off each battery and when we finished shooting, the inside of the cooler was still nice and warm; a lot warmer in fact than either Alex or I.