Few people, including myself, have the luxury of staying in each travel destination long enough to feel that there was nothing more to shoot. To compensate for the brief time spent in any one place, your photographic eye must be constantly scanning the environment for images that offer strong compositions, good lighting and that communicate–without words–the feeling of the culture.
There are basically two categories of pictures that I focus on for each location. The first is the establishing shot. This could be the skyline of Frankfurt, the Grand Canal in Venice or a wide-angle view of the Pushkar Fair in India. These kinds of pictures quickly identify a place and provide a segue into the rest of the pictures–either in a slide show or a magazine layout. The second category is the detail photography. This could be an intimate portrait of a child, a flower-framed window, a woman handmaking a doll, inlaid jewels on a Buddha or thousands of other pictures that allow us to know another place.
The picture you see reproduced here is a detail I found in a monastery near Mandalay in Myanmar. The hand-carved wooden building was beautiful and unique, but it just didn’t make a good picture. Good lighting and strong composition were lacking. No photography was possible without a massive lighting setup. The young monks were willing to be photographed, but finding a location that worked was tough. I wanted to incorporate both the artistry of the building as well as one of the young Buddhist initiates. Trying to accomplish this with spontaneity was virtually impossible–unless perhaps I lived here for a few weeks.
I chose the side of the wooden monastery away from the sun for the shoot. Most photographers would opt for the sunny side, where the bright light guaranteed a reasonable shutter speed and a sensible amount of depth of field. But the midday lighting was harsh and casting unattractive shadows. I didn’t like it. Instead, I asked one of the monks–through an interpreter–if he would position himself in one of the shaded doors. This was actually a double door, but I kept one closed to show the ornate detail of the carving.
The challenge in photographing people who are not professional models is that they just don’t know how to look natural in front of a camera. No one knows where to put their hands, how to stand or where to look. This is especially true for self-conscious and shy people encountered in traveling.
When this young boy stood before my lens, he was very stiff, stared straight ahead and looked like a lifeless mummy. Realizing that kind of picture would not be the “timeless image” I referred to earlier, I patiently guided him into assuming a more natural pose. I told him where to place his foot, how to hold the edge of the door frame (I even spread his fingers apart), and where to look. When all this was done, his body was not quite out far enough in the light, so with a simple hand gesture and a smile I communicated what I wanted and he obliged by pressing forward a few inches.
I wouldn’t have trusted a TTL meter to read the light in a situation like this. The dark brown wood of the doorway would adversely affect the meter reading. The reflective meter, seeking to neutralize the scene to mid-gray (or Zone V), would indicate a reading to lighten the brown color. The effect would be a loss in the richness of the tones in the picture. In other words, it would become overexposed.
A reading could have been taken from the young monk’s face, but instead I used the Minolta Flash Meter IV that is also capable of providing very accurate incident ambient-light readings. I held the meter in front of the model and pointed the front of it toward the camera. In this way, the light that fell on the monk was identical to the light falling on the white hemisphere of the meter. At ISO 50, the reading was 1/30 at f/4.
My lens choice was limited, because the second-story balcony on which I was standing was about 12 feet wide. Since I couldn’t use a telephoto, and didn’t want any type of distortion with a wide-angle, I selected the standard normal lens for the 6×7 cm format–the 110mm. Through the interpreter, I asked the monk to remain perfectly still while I made several exposures without bracketing. A few of the frames were soft, due to the long shutter speed, but most were sharp.