Missed Flights are Nothing Compared to What Else Can Happen at the Airport

Preparing for an assignment is always stressful. Research, logistics, contacts, equipment, gear and the proper clothing are just some of the areas I need to get under control. Finally arriving at the airport was always a time for me to relax and regroup before beginning to work. But lately, airport security and delays, coupled with jet lag have created a new kind of stress.

Recently, my friend Mike Yamashita called me from his hotel room in Mexico. He was frantic because his Mac computer, the one he needed for the lecture he was going to give, had been picked up by someone else going through security. Mike had retrieved a Mac identical to his own, as had another passenger.
Luckily, the person with Mike’s computer made contact and both computers were able to be exchanged within a few days.

Another colleague, while going through security in Doha, Qatar in the middle of the night, was so exhausted that he simply forgot to retrieve his computer. He didn’t realize it was missing until he arrived at Dulles International Airport. Again, he was lucky in that security in Doha was able to find his computer and send it to him.

Of course, I thought these were random incidents. There was no way that I would ever forget or lose any equipment, especially in an airport. But jet lag, airport confusion, and distractions can happen to anyone, even me.

I was hit hard with the potentially disastrous consequences of airport stress when I arrived in the Kathmandu airport, after traveling for over 30 hours. I was shooting a last minute assignment for the National Geographic magazine on Lumbini, Nepal, the birth place of The Buddha. The baggage area was total chaos; three planes had arrived at this small airport around the same time. I had changed planes in Doha, Qatar and of course I was concerned whether my baggage would arrive with me in Kathmandu. I was tired, jetlagged and generally out of it, but was ecstatic to see my bags of lights, stands and cold weather gear on the conveyer belt. A colleague from the National Geographic was traveling with me. A local customs fixer from Kathmandu met us with the proper paperwork to get all of my equipment though Nepalese customs. I was carrying a bottle of duty free liquor in a plastic bag, a gift for one of the people I was going to be working with and I was concerned that in all of the confusion it might break. My shoulder bag held my laptop, books, a small camera and lens and reams of paperwork.

We slid through customs and headed out to the parking area which was even more chaotic than baggage claim and customs. My local helper and his assistants quickly loaded our bags into the back of the van and my colleague and I took a seat inside. As we proceeded through heavy traffic to our hotel, I was relieved to finally leave the airport. But my relief was short lived. When we got to the hotel, I stood at the back of the van and supervised the off loading of the equipment and luggage. Everything was there – except my Tenba rolling bag of cameras. It wasn’t in the van and it wasn’t with the hotel bellman. My first thought was that it must have been left at the airport. The last time I remembered seeing it was when I took it out of the overhead on the plane and wheeled it to the baggage area. I assumed one of my helpers had loaded it onto one of the carts and put it in the van with the other luggage.

Panic overtook my jetlag as we headed back to the airport, fighting our way through the traffic, knowing that every minute would be another opportunity for someone to walk off with the bag. I hoped that it was still in the baggage area, but if someone did take it they would be caught going through customs. As we raced through the back streets of Kathmandu, I asked the customs’ fixer to call someone, anyone at the airport to try to find my bag. I was in total shock as I came to grips with my stupidity in losing control of my cameras. Ten minutes from the airport one of the locals’ cell phones rang in the van and another Nepalese conversation ensued. When the call ended, my fixer looked at me and said the bag had been found. My next concern was whether someone might have grabbed something out of the bag, or that the black rolling bag that was found might not have been mine. Since I carried it on the plane, I had neglected to tag it with my identification.

When we arrived at the airport we were faced with another challenge – going backwards through customs into the secure bag area. We were denied permission. But my fixer called his friend inside customs who eventually came out and brought me into the luggage area. He took me to a small counter on the side of the baggage area where there were approximately fifty unclaimed bags. There, chained with a padlock was my Tenba. I showed the counter attendant my passport and boarding pass but since my name wasn’t on the outside of the bag there was nothing to connect me to it. The attendant asked me what was inside: “a lot of cameras and lenses, I hope”. We unzipped the bag and everything was there.

What would I have lost if the bag hadn’t been found?

2 Canon 5D Mark IIs
8 various Canon lenses
1 Canon Strobe
2 500 gb back up drives and cables
2 Battery charges
Many CF and SD cards
My sanity

I have no one to blame for this but myself. I have tried to make excuses in my head: jetlag, worrying about breaking the bottle of liquor and my local assistants taking charge of the luggage. But at the end of the day, it is my responsibility to ensure that I have all of my equipment to do the photos and to complete the assignment. This means making sure that everything I put through security, I retrieve. It means that every piece of luggage and equipment that I check is taken off the conveyor belt. The stress of preparation is for naught if you don’t have the gear to do the job. My colleagues and I were very lucky. These incidents could have ended differently.

Canon and The National Geographic Channel Photography Seminar – Malaysia and Singapore


Ira will be conducting a series of lectures for Canon and The National Geographic Channel in Malaysia and Singapore at the beginning of May in conjunction with The National Geographic Channel Young Photographer Award. He will be talking about his career as a National Geographic photographer and about how his interaction with different cultures around the world have inspired his work.

For more information, please go here

Finally!!! A Replacement for 5D Mark II

All photos were shot handheld at ISO 3200 with Canon 5D Mark III. The only adjustments done in Photoshop were to exposure and contrast; sharpening and noise reduction were not applied.

Fred Blake, right and Matt Karas at Fotocare gallery opening.

35mm Lens, ISO 3200, f3.5, 1/30sec,

Mime at Times Square, NY.

100mm Lens, ISO3200, f2.0, 1/750sec

Times Square, NY.

16-35mm Lens at 16mm, ISO3200, f5.6, 1/125sec

For the last three years I have been shooting with the Canon 5D Mark II. I have tolerated its inconsistent auto focus system, which was never upgraded from the original 5D and its slow frames per second shooting speed. But that was then; this is now. Last week I picked up my 5D Mark III at Fotocare in New York and I am pleased to report that this is a great camera.

The auto focus system is responsive and locks onto the subject. Although it has 61 points, I use the center point 95% of the time; I don’t trust any camera to pick the focus point for me. The Mark III shoots at approximately six frames per second, not as fast as the upcoming 1Dx, but fast enough for me since I don’t regularly photograph wildlife or action sports.

The image quality on the Mark II was fine up to ISO 1600, an improvement over the original 5D. But as newer equpment came out, the Mark II quality fell behind other cameras like Nikon. The Mark III, however has moved ahead. In my tests at ISO 3200, the files resemble the Mark II at ISO 800. This is a two-stop increase in performance. The noise quality is comparable to Nikon’s, which I felt looked more like traditional film grain, rather than electronic noise. I can’t report what the new camera looks like at ISO 10,000 or even 20,000 because as a working photographer testing equipment in real world situations, ISO 3200 is the number where I would max out. Perhaps someday I will need to go higher but for now, I am extremely pleased working with the Mark III at ISO 3200. I think back to the film days when pushing Fuji Provia to ISO 400 was extreme and now we are talking about ISOs of 10,000!!

Because the MARK III is configured like the Mark II, it’s very easy to use. Although the positions of the magnification and info buttons differ, this is a minor inconvenience. The other changes are minimal: the placement of other buttons are similar to the location on the 7D, the menu has eliminated the ”custom function” option although you can find these functions through the various camera and tool menus, the screen is a little larger and the camera now takes both CF and SD cards, to which you can shoot either or both. When using both, the camera offers many options for recording on each card. And according to Canon, the Mark III is better weather proofed than the 5D Mark II, though not sealed as well as the 1D series or the new 1Dx cameras.

The Mark III is now my professional, shooting camera. Although I will keep a Mark II for back-up, I am excited to be working with this up-graded version of equipment. The pictures above illustrate why.

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.

National Geographic Photography Expedition in Bhutan

March 1 – 12, 2012
October 21 – November1, 2012

Ira will be leading a photography expedition to Bhutan, “The Land of the Thunder Dragon” in March and October 2012. This exciting adventure will lend itself to incredible experiences and provocative images.

Set out into the lush mountains of Bhutan to shoot images of exquisite temples, villages untouched by time, and towering Himalayas. As you explore, learn photography tips and techniques to help you improve your skills. Capture scenes from a lively market, or saffron-robed monks against the backdrop of white-washed dzongs. Venture into mystical forests where wild moss creates an otherworldly atmosphere, and photograph breathtaking panoramas of snow-clad peaks from a high mountain pass.

For more information please go here.

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.

An Exhibition

Frances Alexander and her daughter Earlyne both worked in Tower 1 on different floors. It wasn't until that evening that they found each other.

FACES of HOPE, my portraits of survivors of the September 11, 2001 World Trade Towers’ attacks is opening as an exhibition in Manhattan this week. Mounting a show is almost as challenging as taking photographs so I thought I would share my experiences – the obstacles and eventual triumph – that went into putting this show together.

The photos were originally shot for the National Geographic Magazine to commemorate the tenth anniversary of September 11. My picture editor and I thought that portraits of the people who made it out of the twin towers on that horrific day would show something positive about the event, as these courageous individuals have now moved on with their lives. And when the writer Luna Shyr interviewed them, we also found how luck and serendipity made the difference between life and death on that day. Faced with such compelling stories and images, I thought that in addition to the National Geographic’s story, an exhibition was a perfect venue for the work. Originally I wanted to mount an outdoor exhibit so it would be more available to the public. My thought was to place large format (6 feet x 3 feet) weatherproof prints in a great, natural setting. I found space at the southern tip of Manhattan, Battery Park with the assistance of The Battery Conservancy. I was able to raise money from a corporate sponsor which I thought would cover the costs of mounting the exhibit. But I was wrong in calculating the costs. Although I had enough money for the printing, I did not have enough to cover the custom built, metal stanchions which were necessary to hold the large prints. These supports were three times the cost of the printing.

My outdoor show, to which I had devoted a great deal of time, energy, and hard work evaporated. After recovering from this disappointment, I decided to hang a private show for my corporate sponsor and their employees. I did the exhibit at no charge, as the corporation covered the costs of prints and mounting. The prints were made in New York by Gotham Imaging, a small but very careful and concerned lab. If I couldn’t make the prints myself, Gotham was the next best thing. I was able to look at the test prints with the printer and to go over all the small details; this lab has no counter person who takes your order and passes it on to some unknown printer in the back.

The images were face mounted on plexiglass which looks great but is very costly. Gotham suggested a high gloss paper so the prints would adhere to the plexi without bubbles. But since I am not a fan of high gloss paper at exhibits, we used a ‘lustre’, non glare plexi glass to bring the gloss down to a more traditional looking surface. The corporate show, although internal was a huge success. The prints were returned to me when the corporate sponsor finished their exhibit.

Now, I needed a venue where the public could view the images. Traditional galleries were out of the question. They are in business to make money and to cover their expenses and I didn’t feel I could sell my images and make a profit from the September 11 event. I got very lucky when Fred Blake at Fotocare Rentals offered me space. He said that they had done one show in the past and were looking to do more.

When I hung the corporate show, the prints were sized for their space. At Fotocare, we had to arrange the space to fit the images. This worked well because the Fotocare space is open and there is a lot of flexibility. I also decided to include four additional images in the show, current scenes depicting the rebirth of Ground Zero that would add impact to and set the stage for the FACES of HOPE. The show will run from October 19 – November 10.

My next issue concerns the ultimate fate of these photographs. Living in New York City limits my storage space but more than that, I don’t want these images hidden away. Perhaps I’ll donate them to a museum. I welcome suggestions.

Ten Years Later

I have been involved in photographing the horrific aftermath of September 11, 2001 since that mind numbing day. I was in New York that morning, having breakfast with my friend David Harvey when the first plane struck. We were in Chelsea, less than two miles from the attack but the overwhelming chaos prevented us from getting close to the site. We were able, however to get close enough to shoot a few frames with a long lens. A few months later I was assigned by the National Geographic to do a small story on the cleanup-up and rebuilding of the area near ground zero. That story was published in September 2002, on the first anniversary.

In 2009 the magazine assigned me to photograph some of the artifacts that were found among the debris at the site. These objects were donated to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. I also did some photography at Hangar 17 at JFK International Airport where the large steel beams from the demolished Trade Towers and the partially destroyed, first responder vehicles were being housed. The magazine ran a collage of some of these images in September , 2010. The Washington Post has many of those photos on its website here.

As a National Geographic Photographer I have developed a specialty in lighting objects, whether from a museum, a tomb, or even underwater treasure. I was not prepared, however for the emotional impact that taking pictures of the personal effects left by the victims would have on me. The eyeglasses, shoes, and billfold were too recent and too personal for me to feel removed. Last year, the National Geographic again asked me to be involved in another 9-11 story. Susan Welchman, a friend and photo editor at the magazine and I wanted to create some kind of positive look for the 10th anniversary. We decided that portraits of the people who escaped the devastation, along with their personal stories of survival and how they have now moved on with their lives would honor the resilience of the human spirit. It wasn’t very easy to find people, but with the help of our writer Luna Shyr we were able to get together a representative group. If I didn’t believe in luck and serendipity before I met these incredible people, I do now. The difference between life and death that day was measured in split second decisions.

The portraits were all shot in a studio using a medium format, Mamyia Camera and 33 megapixel back. I spent a lot of time creating the appropriate lighting style. My friend Cliff Hausner from the MAC GROUP showed me how to best use a sports reflector to obtain the type of catch light I desired in their eyes. It was very important to me to capture the finest detail and feeling from the faces of these survivors.

The photos can be viewed on the National Geographic website here. This was a collaborative effort amongst a lot of people at the National Geographic, friends, and the survivors that took the time to spend with me. It was not a usual assignment and I feel privileged to be a part of it.

White on White

The temperature here in the Arctic Circle north of Svalbard has finally reached 37 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) and the ice hasn’t melted, leaving seals easy prey for hungry Polar Bears. We were fortunate to see eight, healthy bears this day and to get close enough to photograph them. But how do you shoot (with a camera) a white bear against white ice and get a decent exposure?

In the first and last photos there is enough color in the water to average out the camera’s meter reading. Camera meters need to see tone in a standard way – they try to read everything as a neutral gray. In a colorful scene with a large tonal range the meter is able to produce a good, accurate exposure.

The middle photo is a more complicated story. The image is all white except for the shadow and the bear’s nose. The camera meter really wants to make this photo a nice gray, which would make our white Polar Bear angry and you don’t want to piss off a Polar Bear. So for this situation I set the exposure compensation to plus 2/3 s, which overexposes the image enough to give me a nice white scene and still hold the detail.

In the tragic situation of photographing a starving Polar Bear on land, the meter should do okay with the white and brown tones in the scene. If global warming continues and the Polar Bear’s hunting grounds – ocean ice where it finds seals – freeze later in the fall and then melt earlier in the spring, then we will have more to be concerned about than the correct exposure.

National Geographic Weekend Photography Workshop: New York City

Sep 22 – 25, 2011 / Oct 20 – 23, 2011

Brimming with towering skyscrapers, historic parks, vibrant ethnic enclaves, and the colorful bustle of street life, New York City presents photographers with an endless array of subjects. Capture the diverse architecture of fabled Fifth Avenue and the sights of Central Park, and complete a portrait assignment in the lively neighborhoods of Chinatown or Little Italy. Photograph the sunset from the top of Rockefeller Center and the early morning light on the Brooklyn Bridge.

These workshops—each led by a National Geographic photographer and a professional instructor—are designed for amateurs who are interested in improving their digital photography. All participants must bring a digital SLR camera, a laptop computer, and software for organizing and presenting images. Each weekend workshop is limited to 25 students.

For more information please go here.