The camera I travel with is my trusty Canon EOS (which I know only because of the word “Canon” in huge letters emblazoned on the strap), which I bought for $400 from a friend who had himself bought it as part of a starter $800 package from Costco. Over the years, I’ve added two more lenses (both less than $200) and have done some short photography courses. But when people ask me any questions beyond that, I just blink rather dumbly. And when people start asking about focal lengths and lenses, all the numbers become one big blur. (I just got a fixed lens and I think it has a 1.4 on it somewhere, but for all I know, that could mean how many people it took to put it together.)
I’ve been told I have an eye for composition, but that’s probably where my talent ends. Manuals and tutorials are my kryptonite.Unfortunately, as a writer / blogger, great photographs are an essential part of the story. If I’m writing an article for a local magazine, I might have the luxury of having a photographer with me, leaving me blissfully free to focus on just the writing. But when I write about travel, I need to be able to submit publishable photographs or else the article simply doesn’t run.
Professional photographers often say, “It’s not the camera. It’s the photographer.” But then again, I don’t see them using cameras from Costco. More often than not, they’re sporting lenses the size of my arm, costing the equivalent of three months’ rent. Ch-yeah. It’s not the camera. Sure.
As if I haven’t confessed enough, last year, I finally got Adobe Lightroom. And you’re going to laugh, but I got it simply because I walked in the store, asked the clerk which program could make photo collages and he pointed to it. That’s seriously all I used it for. For the pretty collages. When I told another blogger that, she laughed and said, “That’s like using a machine gun to prop open a door.” Yes, I looked up youtube videos, but I found the pace of the lessons excruciatingly slow.Only now, after more than a year, have I begun to experiment with some of its functions. (True story: After I submitted some photos for publication, a photo editor who had previously been rather dismissive of my photos which to that point had all been unedited, commented that I was greatly improving. It just goes to show that everyone in the business post-processes, making blue skies bluer, edges crisper and ramping up colors.)
So on a recent trip to Bangkok, it was with some suspicion that I visited the Photography School Asia, run by Jonathan Taylor. Jonathan comes with an impressive resume, having made two Time magazine covers, and gaining a reputation for social documentary photography. (He once shadowed a Thai special midwife police unit trained to deliver babies whose moms were stuck in Bangkok’s legendary traffic, spent 15 days with Muslim fishermen, lived with hill tribes in China and covered every homicide in Bangkok for a month, 34 in all.)
“A successful course is about teaching the person not the subject,” he opened.
We started off with a very, very basic intro which he does even for intermediate students, to make sure the core elements of photography are understood – compositional awareness and the exposure triangle (ISO, shutter, aperture).
I could already feel my eyes glazing over. What? The “Tv” on the knob doesn’t mean “television”? Live and learn. Live. And. Learn.I usually keep my camera’s setting on the nice green button. Why mess with automatic? Automatic is good. Automatic is safe. Sometimes, when I’m feeling extra adventurous, I might slide the wheel over to the face of the pretty lady (which I’m told is for portraits) or gasp! even the mountain with the cloud.
“Forget the presets. You want to control your camera. You don’t want it controlling you,” Jonathan admonished in a stern tone, the kind usually used by exasperated teachers and aimed at the naughtiest of children.
I couldn’t help but think back to a two month photographic safari I did in Africa a few years back. The photography guide there also implored us to get away from the presets. We dutifully light metered and adjusted shutter speeds and fiddled with ISOs. But when one participant staked out a hippo pool all morning only to come back with multiple shots of a blurry brown splotch (which may have been a hippo, or it could’ve equally been a giant chocolate cookie), the entire group’s quickly motto became: “(Insert expletive here). Leave it on auto,” undoing weeks of enthusiastic photography lessons. We were in an overland truck, not a ship, but it was most definitely a mutiny.Back in Jonathan’s studio, he patiently took out three sheets of paper: one black, one gray, one white. Setting the camera on auto, he took photos of all three. They came out in similar tones of gray which led to a discussion on exposure compensation.
“The camera is a creative implement to get results. It’s a tool that you’ve got to learn how to control. Keep changing your metering as you go along, from sunny to dark and eventually you’ll be doing it without realizing it. It becomes second nature,” he promised.
I didn’t want to admit it, but I was beginning to see the light. My “Auto” wall was slowly coming down.We soon moved into street photography, focusing on taking portraits.
“Some people are so nervous to ask someone for a photo, they stand really far away and then zoom in like they’re at the zoo. But to ask someone for a photograph should be the same as going into a 7-11 and asking for a bag of vinegar crisps. They have the right to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as they want, but there should be no embarrassment.”
I had what Jonathan likes to call a “light bulb moment”. Why should I feel bad about asking to photograph someone? In all my years of traveling, only two negative incidents stand out. One was in the Coptic Quarter of Cairo, where an old couple asked for a tip before I had even attempted to take the photo. (That said, Egypt is legendary for its tip or baksheesh culture.) I just thanked them and walked away as they tried to call me back.
Another time, I was in Namibia when I spotted a group of Himba women looking like they had just stepped out of the pages of National Geographic – barefoot, topless, smeared from head to toe with reddish mud and wearing colorful skirts. I was mesmerized as they walked around the grocery store, just shopping like everyone else.So when a group called me over and said, “Photo! Photo!” I should have suspected that they would’ve wanted something in return. But paying them just seemed wrong and what’s more, distasteful. That was the last time I’ve paid anyone to take a photo.
“Have empathy,” Jonathan continued. “Use your legs to zoom. Otherwise it feels like an outsider looking in. You’ve got to get into the zone of awareness. You’ve got to, at least to a certain degree, step into their life for the viewer to feel like they’re participating in the photograph. If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” he added, quoting Robert Capa.
“You need proximity to the person but also to subject matter. Feel the story and all its implications instead of using your own perception and then photographing to fill that niche. Don’t storyboard before taking the photo because the reality may not meet preconceived ideas. For example, when people think of Thailand, it’s all temples, food and sex. But there’s so much more to the country than these preconceived ideas.”
Jonathan then added some more portrait photography tips:
- Get your settings right before you approach the person. If you look semi-professional, then you’re likely to get a good response.
- Most people really really don’t mind having their photo taken. They might even find it a compliment.
- Ask in a confident, pleasant manner.
- Even in countries where you don’t know the language, it’s not a discourse, but you’re using body language, even if it’s just a smile.
- To get various reactions out of people, talk to them while you’re photographing them. Even if they don’t understand, and they’re telling you they don’t understand in their language, it’s still a reaction and that prevents them from looking as stiff as a board.
- In taking portraits, the focal point should be the eyes.
- The more people in the photo, the deeper your depth of field should be.
- Watch your edges. There should be no tangents in the corners that distract from the photo.
For me personally, my training as a teacher and experience working with people who don’t speak English and a rudimentary knowledge of American Sign Language has been incredibly helpful. I find raised eyebrows, a funny expression, a smile or simply eye contact is a good icebreaker. A handshake, if appropriate, also works wonders.For this group of kids in Tanzania, we talked about where their school was, their names and ages, before we ran out of common language. But that was enough to engage them for a photo.
I’ll also watch people before approaching them. Are they super busy? What elements around them do I want in the photo? Where do I want them to be looking – directly at the camera or off to the distance? Where is the best light? Moving myself so that they naturally turn to face me is so much easier than having to ask them to move. Having all that planned out means I’ll get the best shot I can in those few seconds I have their interest.
At times, you may have to physically change the environment. A few members of our group approached these Maasai warriors who were looking after our campsite for a photo, only to be rebuffed with a shake of the head. Earlier, I saw them coming back with wood to heat up the showers. After waiting a few minutes, I asked them to show me where they got the wood, just to get them away from the group. We walked some distance and they pointed in the direction of their village, I mimed “woman” and “baby” to ask if they were married. In no time, we were laughing and when I asked for a photo, they happily agreed.
In Vietnam, people love to talk. So I’ll often have a quick chat before bringing out my camera. I don’t think anyone has ever said ‘no’ to having their photo taken. In other instances, like with kids, I’ve found that it works better if they think I’m a foreigner who doesn’t speak Vietnamese. I find their shyness and curiosity give me a few extra seconds to frame the shot. And when I’m done, I’ll always thank them or make a gesture (like a head bow or hands clasped together, Thai-style) so people don’t feel like I’m a stupid tourist just snapping away at everything.
Since my session with Jonathan, my camera has permanently been in the “Manual” mode. Have I missed some shots because of it? Absolutely. But has my photography improved overall because I’m actually thinking of how much blur I want in the background of a moving object (shutter speed), or how I can take a decent image in low light without resorting to the harshness of the flash (ISO), or how to take an artsy close-up of food (aperture)? You’d better believe it.
If you go:
If you’re in Bangkok, one of Jonathan’s Bangkok Walks is the perfect way to spend the day – an hour in the studio, followed by three hours of street photography and critique.Jonathan’s studio is located on the 4th floor of the DOB Gallery Building, conveniently located opposite the Hua Lamphong MRT. He uses big monitors for videos and slide-shows to illustrate his points and students leave with handouts. Other workshops include elements like using the foreground to give an image a 3-D feel, thinking about man-made vs. natural textures, lines and curves, repetition and patterns. I also found Jonathan very dynamic. The entire session, he was moving about the room, crouching to illustrate adjusting your height for better photos, and had an excellent bedside manner.
For more, visit Photography School Asia or view Jonathan’s work at Jonathan Taylor Photography.
Your turn to share! What are your best photography tips?