Posts Tagged ‘Canon 5D MkII’

Travels without a tripod

August 23, 2011

The first commandment reads that you should never, ever travel anywhere without a tripod and woe betide anyone who does. Nick Smith has just returned from an assignment where he forgot to take his three-legged friend…

Silk spinning in Cambodia. Photo Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Wide-angle floor-shot of woman spinning in a silk workshop in Cambodia (not Vietnam as the article implies). No tripod used, but the camera was set on the floor with a stack of lens caps to create elevation. Canon 5D MkII, Sigma 24mm, f/1.8 set at f/4, 1/10 sec, ISO 200, rear curtain flash, short duration self-timer. Photo: Nick Smith

I was once told by a veteran professional that the best piece of advice he could give any aspiring outdoor photographer was to always have your tripod with you. There wasn’t a single photograph, he insisted, that couldn’t be improved with the assistance of this indispensable stability-providing device. Doesn’t matter how steady you think you are, a tripod will always do it better. In fact, the answer is always: ‘Yes, you will need a tripod. Now, what’s the question?’

I’ve always tried to remember this. And so when a few weeks ago I stepped out of Ho Chi Minh City’s airport and into the solid wall of heat and humidity I was dismayed to find that I was without my faithful three-legged friend. Had I left it in the transit lounge in Kuala Lumpur? Had I somehow become separated from it in one of those interminable security checks that humiliate the innocent without ever uncovering a terrorist? No, it was exactly where I’d left it twenty-four long hours before. In my front room, along with all those other bits and pieces you leave behind because you can only carry 20Kg with you.

I remember now why I left it. My thought process went like this: tripods are big and heavy (even my state-of-the-art carbon fibre one that cost almost as much as a fish-eye lens); even the most well-intentioned of us hardly ever use them; they’re time-consuming and fiddly to set up; they get in the way of the creative process, and to cap it all, whenever you really desperately need to use one, there’s always a sign saying ‘no tripods’ because someone, somewhere has decided that they break health and safety regulations or something stupid like that. So I decided to take my monopod instead. But I forgot that too.

Now, I don’t know if I decided to punish myself for this laziness by looking for shooting opportunities where only a tripod would do, but pretty soon I found myself spending more time rueing its absence than taking photographs. I couldn’t adopt the simple solution of buying a new one because you can’t get a decent tripod in Ho Chi Minh City for love nor money, and even if you could I wasn’t going to lash out because I had a perfectly good one at home.

For anyone who’s not been there, Vietnam is brimming with caves stuffed full of Buddhas, enticing interiors of traditional brick factories, as well as countless museums and cathedrals where tripods are welcomed with open arms. Just about every low-light condition demanding a steady hand for a lengthy exposure rears its head at each turn. I burnt up energy looking for shots I couldn’t take, rather than working out how to improvise with the gear I had on me.

Psychologists will no doubt say that the importance of such shots was amplified in my mind precisely because I didn’t have a tripod and that I’d started to acquire an obsessive-compulsive disorder about it. And I think they’re completely right.

I’ve never liked the aphorism ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ because it hardly ever applies in the real world. After all, you can’t invent a wide-angle lens just because you need one, and a full flash card won’t suddenly invent for itself a few extra gigabytes just because you want it to. But you can, I discovered, with a little patience and practice, jury-rig quite nifty solid platforms for your camera with a little lateral thinking.

I soon became an expert with a big plastic bag full of (uncooked) rice and a self-timer, deftly stacked piles of lens caps and the occasional blob of Blu-Tack. And because in Vietnam there are very few convenient or level pillar-boxes, fence posts or any other sturdy platforms of a reasonable height, I drew the conclusion that the ground beneath my feet was my best friend. Wide-angle floor-shots became the order of the day, and as I reviewed my work on the Mac in the evening I found that I’d invented something of a ‘perspective idiom’ for my assignment in the Far East. Of course, from time to time there were clefts and niches in geological formations I could jam the camera into for – quite literally – a rock solid base, but mostly I lay on the floor, sweaty, dusty, attracting bewildered looks from people with fully automatic point-and-shoots, and thoroughly enjoying myself.

Of course, in the process my camera body got horribly scratched, but I told myself this gave it the ‘lived-in’ air of an instrument that had served its time on the road. As another long-serving travel snapper once told me: ‘you can always tell the real old pros because their gear looks so beaten up.’ Now I know why.

This article first appeared as an ‘Inside Track’ column for Outdoor Photography magazine

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Trigger happy in Antarctica… too many penguins?

May 24, 2011

Let loose in one of the last pristine wildernesses with an open brief can lead to an embarrassment of riches. But you can take too many photos, says Nick Smith

Chinstrap penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Chinstrap penguins in Antarctica

When I told a photographer friend of mine in a pub in London last November that I was heading off on assignment to Antarctica he was suitably impressed. Why wouldn’t he be? After all, for many of us outdoor photographers, the chance to visit the White Continent, to see what the likes of Shackleton and Scott saw only a century ago, is the stuff of dreams. The chance to tick off my sixth continent was also alluring, leaving a relatively pipsy Australasia last on my list. ‘Don’t forget to take plenty of pictures of penguins,’ was his considered advice.

I won’t bore you with how far away Antarctica is. Two days flying – London, Madrid, Buenos Aires, Ushuaia – followed by three days sailing in a converted Argentine navy ship across the fearsome Drake Passage. But it would all be worth it, I told myself, as my three cabin mates vomited their way to the South Shetlands, when I see my first penguin. Not that I’d been commissioned to photograph penguins specifically: my helpful editor on the national newspaper I was on assignment for had merely told me to ‘get some nice shots.’

gentoo penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Well the news is, for anyone who’s not been there, in Antarctica you can get ‘nice shots’ a-plenty. To be honest, it’s hard to go wrong. Once you’ve passed the Convergence (where the Southern Ocean and the Atlantic meet) it’s pretty much plain sailing: cobalt blue skies, lagoons as smooth as glass and smoked salmon skies. I’m not going to say that it’s warm, but I was there in the Austral summer, and chilly though it may have been at times, it beat the pants off winter in London, camping at Heathrow and the Eastenders Christmas Day special.

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Ever mindful of my friend’s advice, when I finally got ashore at Aitcho Island, I decided that penguins were the order of the day. At the South Shetlands you’ll be lucky to see anything other than chinstraps, gentoos and adelies, so I considered myself lucky indeed to find all three in the first rookery I visited. The light wasn’t great, but it was my first landfall in Antarctica and so… bang. Eight gigabytes in one hour. As I was shooting RAW images on a full frame sensor camera, that’s not too bad I told myself, but I knew that not one of the 250 shots would be a keeper. Safely back on the mother ship I duly downloaded and tagged the whole lot. I was right: there were no keepers, but these might be my only sightings.

In Antarctica there are strict rules when it comes to interacting with the wildlife. The penguins effectively have a 5-metre force field around them. You don’t enter their personal space or you risk negatively modifying their behaviour and causing stress that could ultimately lead to parents abandoning their young. However, they are inquisitive birds and if you sit still for long enough, as they have no fear of humans, they will simply come to you. And they did. And for first and perhaps the only time in my career I used my pride and joy 135mm f/2 prime for photographing birds. Seeing the results on my laptop later, I was amazed by just how well what’s fundamentally a portrait lens performed in such circumstances. You won’t find the manufacturer recommending this lens for penguin photography, but part of the fun is making your own decisions about kit.

penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

A week into my voyage around the Antarctic Peninsular I found myself sick of bloody penguins. Not because I don’t like them – I think they’re tough, gutsy little animals that command the respect of all of us – but because I’d got 2,000 of the buggers in my laptop and I was getting extremely bored with editing, night after night (except it never got dark) what were essentially the same photos. And then it happened. Error message ‘Start-up disc almost full’, which if you are a Mac user (and I suspect that’s nearly all Outdoor Photography readers) is the one error message you don’t want to read. It means your computer has reached its capacity. Warning: your laptop is full of penguins, icebergs, clouds, reflections, mountain range silhouettes… all the ‘nice shots’ my editor had asked for.

Given that no photographer’s computer should ever each this point, something was going seriously wrong. I was, to put it simply, taking too many photographs and not spending enough time considering the lilies. I’d made a basic schoolboy error of being trigger happy, seduced by the beauty of my surroundings into taking so many trivial variations on the theme that I’d become over indulgent.

gentoo penguins in Antarctica by Nick Smith nicksmithphoto

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica

On the leg home from Buenos Aires to Madrid, I opened for the first time, as I so often do, the guidebook to the place I’d just visited. ‘Leave nothing but footprints’ it intoned with environmental piety, before reminding me to ‘take nothing but photographs.’ Perhaps it should have said: ‘before taking any more photographs, ask yourself if you’ve already met the editor’s brief. Do you really need more?’

This article first appeared in Outdoor Photography magazine… without Nick’s photos of penguins

gentoo penguins in Antarctica

Gentoo penguins in Antarctica