Posts Tagged ‘Outdoor Photography’

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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Nick Smith’s interview with pinhole photographer Nick Livesey in Outdoor Photography magazine

February 10, 2011

Patagonia through a pinhole

Nick Livesey is best known as an Emmy-nominated maker of short films and documentaries. But he’s also a leading exponent of the art of pinhole photography. Nick Smith hears his story…

nick-livesey-by-nicksmithphoto

Nick Livesey looks up at his pinhole camera. Photo: Nick Smith

A Lancastrian, Nick left school at 16 and went to his local art college in Blackburn. At the age of 19 he was accepted by the Royal College of Art and became on of the youngest ever to graduate with an MA. He moved to New York for a year where he started making moving images, as well as embarking on a career with Ridley Scott Associates that represents him to this day.

Although widely known for his short films, commercials and documentaries, Nick is an avid exponent of the pinhole technique. His camera is ‘a bunch of MDF’ that cost him about £40, put together by a ‘garden shed genius.’ On his extended honeymoon he took this camera around Chile, trekking for days off the beaten track. The result was the intriguing and popular ‘Patagonia through a Pinhole’ exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society.

With pinhole photography ‘you’re at the mercy of the elements’ says Nick. And although he’s equally comfortable with digital technology, there’s something about the stripped-down aspect of using basic wooden boxes with film in them that he likes. ‘It’s such a basic communication and fundamental way of composing images.’

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

Nick Livesey: It was more of a quest. I was frustrated and wanted to understand light while I was making films. I was working with Directors of Photography and was really curious as to what they were doing.

NS: What was your first camera?

NL: Nikon FG-20 that I bought at a flea market in New York in 1993. It felt like an investment. It was something like $130. It’s just a great 35mm camera.

NS: What formal training do you have?

NL: I went to the Royal College of Art where I did an MA in graphic design and art direction. I pretty much lived in the dark room when I was there. At the end of the first year they asked me if there was any reason why I wasn’t working in colour. They said ‘why don’t you work in colour in your second year?’ So I did.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

NL: It’s great to specialise to the extent that you can get a handle on the subject. But I do like working in so many different areas. If you specialise too much you can start to wear blinkers.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

NL: I did a pinhole piece for a fashion magazine in Moscow. That really freaked out the fashion label. They kept saying ‘we need to see stuff’ and we kind of said ‘well we’ll send you a contact sheet.’

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

NL: There’s no downside. There are so many plus factors. Maybe it would be nice to not smell of dark room chemicals. So you do have to wash occasionally.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

NL: They complement each other. I’m looking into ways of cutting the front off an Ixus and replacing it with a pinhole. I think it would be interesting to see what you could get with a digital pinhole.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’re learned from another photographer?

NL: Just stand back from it all. Get close to the subject when you’re shooting it, but when you’re arranging a show, learn to stand back from it all. Try to look at everything in its entirety.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

NL: I feel like a conduit. I love taking photographs, but the only point of that is if people want to see them. I’ve always been hungry for creating images. I also love the quiet world of the dark room.

NS: What makes a great travel photograph?

NL: It’s all about the reaction of the person viewing it. If you can see someone’s reaction to your photo in a detached way – say at a show – then you’ll know what they really think.

In Nick’s gadget bag

Cameras: Wooden pinhole camera, Canon 7D, Arri 435 (movie camera), Red and Sony (digital movie cameras)

To see more of Nick Livesey’s photography visit www.nicklivesey.com

 

 

 

Nick Smith’s interview with Georgina Cranston in April 2010 Outdoor Photography magazine

March 23, 2010

Out of Africa

From gritty reportage on social issues to highly original travel photography, Georgina Cranston has a stunning and diverse portfolio. Nick Smith hears her story…

Women displaced by post election violence in Kenya, including one who fled a torched church where at least 18 people died. Photo: Georgina Cranston

British Photographer Georgina Cranston began her career in 2000, focusing on documentary photography of humanitarian issues. For the past decade she’s travelled the world on assignments for NGOs such as UNICEF and broadsheet newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and the Times.

Working on a diverse range of subjects including slavery, leprosy and communities living in exile, Georgina has a personal interest in women’s issues. Recently working in the Congo’s gold mines she focused on the extreme conditions faced by women working as ‘human mules’ deep inside the disused mines, carrying up to 60kg of rocks on their backs, at times when eight months pregnant.

Georgina became a professional photographer as soon as she graduated from university and has worked in the industry ever since. She is currently based in London having lived in East Africa for the past three years, working across the continent.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

Georgina Cranston: I always had a camera with me when I was younger. After university I had this idea I wanted to work in the charity sector, but I ended up a photographer working in social issues. As I started getting more jobs and I thought maybe I could make a living at this.

NS: What was your first camera?

GC: Other than a point and shoot? It was a Minolta Dynax 500Si 35mm SLR. The first one I got the hang of was a Nikon F100. I took it with me on my first job, and every time something flashed I had to dive behind the sofa to read the manual.

NS: What formal training do you have?

GC: I’ve got a degree in psychology, but as for photography I’m self-taught. I learned on the job and also did assisting to get an insight into different types of photography.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

GC: I do think it’s important, but in order to survive in the industry as it is at the moment you need other strings to your bow to earn a living. But I am going to specialise in women’s social issues.

NS: What is the best assignment you have been and so far?

GC: I went with a newspaper to see the gorillas in the Virunga National Park in the Congo – tourists don’t get to go to the Congo at the moment, so to see the gorillas there was pretty special. The millennium celebrations in Ethiopia was special too – it was bizarre to celebrate a second millennium in my lifetime.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

GC: The thing I probably struggle most with is spending a lot of time on my own – airports, computer and so on. I don’t think that’s healthy. Having a balance is probably the essence – if you’re always doing assignment photography you’re always on the move.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

GC: I use digital and it helps in the work I do – transmitting images to newspapers from overseas. Logistically it makes life easier. When I taught photography in Kenya I used film. I miss the way of working with film, not knowing what’s in the camera at the end of the day.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from another photographer?

GC: A friend of mine once encouraged me to show my work to him. It took me a while to pluck up the courage, but once I’d done this I realised how beneficial it was. It makes you look at your work in different ways.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

GC: I’ve always been fascinated with people and cultures and photography has been a great way to learn about them. Maybe that’s why I did psychology at university. An important thing for me is to capture emotions or the essence of where you are. But it’s also about transmitting these things and evoking emotion in the person who’s looking at it.

NS: What makes great travel photograph?

GC: The thing that I think that makes a good travel photograph is the energy of people or places – peaceful, highly excited, whatever. The great ones are the ones that give me that feeling.

Georgina’s golden rules

1) photograph what you’re fascinated in

2) establish relationship with subject

3) shoot RAW files

4) research your subject

5) don’t be afraid to have fun

Georgina’s kit

Cameras: Nikon D3, Nikon D700

Lenses: 17-35mm f/2.8, 28-70mm f/2.8, 80-200mm f/2.8, 85mm f/1.8

Check out Georgina’s work at www.georginacranston.com

Nick Smith’s column ‘A shot in the dark’ – Outdoor Photography, February 2010 edition

January 22, 2010

A shot in the dark

When he was asked to report on night kayaking on a phosphorescent lake in November, photojournalist Nick Smith thought that someone was pulling his leg…

One of the great things about being a photojournalist is you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. One minute you’re embroiled in a public spat over the latest Arctic ice-thickness statistics and the next you’re being flown to Ireland to take photographs of people kayaking in pitch darkness.

Let me explain. The phone call went like this. ‘We’re looking for a photographer to cover one of our tourism attractions’, chimed the mellifluous tones of a sophisticated West End PR lady called Kath. It turns our her client, Tourism Ireland, was flying a gang of UK newspaper journos to do some kayaking in Lough Hyne, a marine lagoon west of Cork. Would I like to take the photos?

Well, when anyone asks me if I’d ‘like to take the photos’, I tend to answer in the affirmative without so much as a second thought. But this sounded like it could be a poisoned chalice. I asked Kath to tell me more, and after a long conversation it boiled down to this. She was asking me to take photographs in the middle of November, in the dark, in Ireland where you could wager the shirt on your back that it would be raining. ‘But the good thing’ said Kath, ‘is that the lake is naturally phosphorescent, which should make your photos even more special.’

There’s something magical about arriving at Cork airport in the late afternoon with the autumnal sun setting in the west. The almost horizontal rays skimmed across the idyllic countryside and instinctively I started to write stuff in my notebook along the lines of ‘it’s not called the Emerald Isle for nothing’. But, by the time I’d got off the plane the coppery sun had given way to a ‘soft day’, which roughly translates as a slate grey sky with precipitation in the form of stair rods.

As we drove west to Skibereen – famous for its famine burial pits – I started to realise the magnitude of my task. To add to the rain, it was now very dark, and I was beginning to entertain no hope of getting any photographs at all. Rubbish, I said to myself. As my mentor Martin Hartley tells me – there’s always something a professional photographer can shoot. But what if he’s wrong?

Feeling that I was sliding into the photographic equivalent of the valley of the shadow of death, I decided to cheer myself up by getting my brand spanking Canon 5D II out of the bag. I reasoned these babies can take photos in the dark, and since this is exactly what I was commissioned to do, I’d obviously bought the right tool for the job. Although I’d never ramped it up that far, the 5D II has an ISO upper limit of 6400, which lifted my spirits. I rootled around in my gadget bag for the lens with the widest aperture (Sigma 24mm f1.8) and screwing it onto the body thought life couldn’t be that bad after all. What with a little noise reduction here and a tad of sharpening there, we’d be in business.

Lough Hyne, as I later found out, is one of the most beautiful places on earth. But when I arrived in the bible black darkness and thick drizzle that penetrated every layer of clothing, I was too miserable to care. We strapped on our headlamps, got in our kayaks and paddled out onto a phosphorescent lake that refused to phosphoresce. I took my first look through the viewfinder. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Big fat zero.

This was just before I found that you can’t direct a torch, use an off-camera flash cord and press the shutter at the same time. The idea was that I’d illuminate another kayak, get a fix on the autofocus and get shooting. By now you’ll realise that this was a bad idea for so many reasons but the main one is that if the autofocus can’t see anything it can’t autofocus. In desperation I switched to manual focus, shoved the aperture on F8, set the focal length at infinity, and blindly accepted whatever shutter speed the camera decided to give me while in aperture priority. Please don’t write in and say I’m an idiot. I knew that the moment I got on the plane to Cork.

But then I broke what for me is a cardinal rule. My first commandment is, if you don’t know what you’re doing, stop and think. But I didn’t and I carried on regardless and over the next hour I blasted away and filled an 8GB card. Back in the hotel, after several much needed restorative glasses of Jamesons I reviewed the evening’s carnage. I’m not proud of this at all, but there were enough salvageable shots to put a small set together, and the results have already appeared on several national newspaper websites.

And the moral of the tale? Well I’m not sure, but talking the PR boss of Tourism Ireland on the flight home to London I tried to manage his expectations. ‘You see the thing is’ I explained gently, ‘cameras can’t really take photographs in the dark.’ Of course not, said John. That would be silly.

Visit Tourism Ireland at www.tourismireland.com

Nick Smith’s ’10 Questions’ with adventure travel photographer Aldo Pavan as published in Outdoor Photography magazine February 2010 edition

January 22, 2010

10 Questions – Aldo Pavan

With his experimental style and background in philosophy, Aldo Pavan is the ‘thinking man’s’ outdoor photographer. Nick Smith hears his story…

Aldo Pavan is a journalist and freelance photographer specializing in travel reportage. He’s been on hundreds of assignments in five continents, publishing books and working with magazines. He has taught photo-reportage in Milan and is dedicated to photographic experimentation, crossing over into the role of artist.

Born in 1954 in Treviso, Aldo has been a painter since he was young, becoming interested in aesthetics and experimenting in the dark room. After graduating in philosophy, he began writing for the local newspaper Tribuna di Treviso. Since then he’s worked on countless magazine and book projects.

In 2003 he began working on a series of hugely popular photographic books about the rivers of the world. The Ganges, The Nile and The Yellow River are published by Thames and Hudson, with The Mekong and The Danube, lined up for the near future. Another project he is preparing is entitled The Routes of Man, a series of books dedicated to the great trade routes of the world.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

Aldo Pavan: I have always been interested in visual media. I used to paint and draw a lot. My parents had many cameras and I started taking pictures for fun. After my university degree, I began writing for a local newspaper and using my photographs to illustrate my words.

NS: What was your first camera?

AP: With the money I got from my first job I bought a Canon FT 35mm film SLR. I remember that the first reportage I did was about a gypsy camp, but it has never been published because it was too strong. After that I photographed and interviewed a doctor who carried out abortion, which was illegal at that time in Italy. It was a small scoop.

NS: What formal training do you have?

AP: I have a degree in philosophy and I am self-taught in photography. I never took a specific course about it. I studied aesthetics, attending semiotics courses by Umberto Eco at the University of Bologna. I think that to be a good photographer you need to study a lot, as well as working on the field. Studying Roland Barthes is not wasted time.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

AP: I should say that it is very important, but I never did. I had to adapt to what my clients were asking for and sometimes keep my passions quiet to make them happy.

NS: What is the best assignment you have been and so far?

AP: I am doing a series of books about the big rivers of the world. It’s a huge work, first at home and then on the field. To photograph each river I needed from 5 to 8 trips, at least two weeks long. And after shooting I spend two months writing and laying out the book.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

AP: I’d like to answer ‘nothing’. It’s a big game for adults… it’s fun. How can we compare this to some really hard jobs, such as miners, surgeons, judges. I spend too much time away from my family.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

AP: Digital, of course. We don’t use horse carriages to go from Venice to London any more because there are faster, better, more modern means available. There is no competition between film and digital. Digital has endless benefits that give more space to creativity.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from another photographer?

AP: I spent hours studying the forms of Chagall, the colours of Matisse and the portraits of Francis Bacon. I love the shadows of Caravaggio, Titian’s reds and the backdrops of Giorgione. Photography has taken the place of the paintings that illustrated the history of man.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

AP: Photography is a language that works along with traditional media like text and words to form the human being and the society we live in. Working with it is a great privilege.

NS: What makes great travel photograph?

AP: Walking and walking. Good photographs do not come out alone, you have to look for them, chase them. You can get there with patience and research, plus a lot of obstinacy.

Aldo’s Golden Rules

1) Avoid cliché and break aesthetic rules

2) Always look for new ideas while you are shooting

3) Don’t be satisfied – you can always do better

4) Establish good relationships with your subjects

5) Don’t ask your subject to pose – look for a spontaneity

Aldo’s Kit

Cameras: Nikon D300 and Nikon D700

Lenses: 12-24mm, 24-120mm, 35-70mm, 35mm f2.8, zoom 70-200mm, 300mm

Flash: Nikon SB800

Tripod: Manfrotto

Notebook and pen

Check out Aldo Pavan’s work at  www.aldopavan.it