Three Reasons You Should Learn More About Photography

(even if you the only camera you have is on your phone.)

Box Brownie and Smart Phone

Not many people in this world work as full time professional photographers. More people than ever are taking photos these days. No matter how much they enjoy taking pictures, either with a camera that can make a phone call or with cameras that can’t do that as well, most people have not taken the time to learn what makes a photo a photo that other people will stop and look at. I’m not going to get deep into that in this blog (but if you’re interested what does check out this article.) Here I am going to give you three encouraging reason why I think it’s good to learn some more about photography.

1. Become More Popular

Photography is super popular these days. More popular than it’s ever been. There are more people taking photos today and more photos will be taken today than were taken during the first one hundred years since Kodak launched the first roll film camera in 1900, the Box Brownie.

The Box Brownie was the first ‘every man’s’ camera. And I bet most people who owned one took at least a little time to learn how to make good photos with it. There were no automatic settings or built in post processing apps or instant social media sharing. You even had to load film into the thing! It was slower and much more limited in what it could do, (but essentially the same as modern cameras in it’s functionality.) It required more dedicated thought and patience to make good photographs with a Box Brownie.

Slowing down a little and taking time to learn a little of how to make better photos will help you create photos that people will stop and look at, (and like, comment on and share.) With gargantuan numbers of photos being shot and shared each day it’s increasingly difficult to have your snapshots noticed. Upping your photo game by learning a little more of how it’s done well will give you a wider, more appreciative audience for the pictures you are sharing.

2. Know Your Camera

I bought a new phone not long ago and it’s bothering me that I have not stopped to learn how to use the camera on it properly. Of course I know how to make photos with it, but I have not taken enough time to learn how to use it well and quickly, (and haven’t practiced with it enough.) I’ve owned my current Nikon for over 5 years. It’s very similar in feel and function as my previous Nikon. I don’t have to think too much about how to use it. It’s become second nature.

Learning how to use your camera, or phone camera, will make the process of taking photographs much more enjoyable for you. Getting to know how the camera handles different lighting conditions and how to control it semi-automatically or in full manual mode with hep you make photos that are more dynamic and interesting than the camera will do on it’s own. The technology in cameras these days makes them pretty smart, but they are not creative – you are.

As you learn your camera and learn to take control of it you will then be able to work on creating your own personal style of photography that will eventually have your friends asking you how you take such awesome photos!

3. Photography Therapy

So, if you learn a little more about what makes a good photo and studied your camera so you can use it with confidence, (instead of fumbling around with it then and missing the shot,) you will be able to enjoy your time making some great shots. You might even come to realize this can be very therapeutic, especially if you do it regularly.

Slowing down to purposefully compose a photo, thinking about the lighting and the best moment to make the photo, can be a wonderful distraction from the busy pace of life many of us lead. Even pausing a little longer as you photograph your lunch or as you snap another selfie will help you make a better photo and enjoy the moment. Adding a little creativity into your day can make it so much more enjoyable.

Recently I read some encouragement directed towards writers and have adapted it to photography. Don’t just take the first photo you think of, because everyone else takes that shot. Don’t just take the second photo you think of, because the smart photographers will take that one. Make a photo of the third thing you think of, because it will be unique!

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How To Make The Most Of Bright Light In The Middle Of The Day

Mid Day Madness

Many photographers avoid going out to make photographs in the middle of the day when the sun is high in the sky, the light is harsh and the shadows are strong. It certainly can be more challenging to make good pictures in these conditions, but it’s not impossible. Sometimes we have limitations and the middle of the day may be the only time we have to shoot in a particular location. While traveling and we know we will not be able to return to the same location in the morning or evening, at the times the light is more friendly, there’s no option than to make photographs in bright sunshine. Recently on our travels in Myanmar we worked within these restrictions at Inle Lake.

Three men fishing on Inle Lake, Myanmar posing for photographsInle Lake is a terrific location for photographers. I was
Cow and pagodas in Myanmar
happy to see the sun bright in the sky as the previous time I had been there (back in 2004) it had rained continuously for two days. We made the most of the morning and evening there and produced some very pleasing photographs of the fishermen in the best light of the day. During the hot part of the day it’s extremely bright out on the lake, however, we were not content to sit at the hotel and set out to make the best of it.

The lake and it’s many small village islands are set up for tourism and have all manner of displays of local craftsmanship. We did photograph some of this, but it’s very staged and crowded with tourists who love to get in the way of a good picture. Dodging the tourists and braving the hard light, we were able to find a few good locations to photograph.

Seeing a cow tethered amongst some pagoda ruins provided me with a good opportunity to create a number of high contrast pictures. Knowing the limitations of my camera helps when working in high contrast conditions. When I am working I have a good feel for how much I will be able to carefully manipulate my photos when I post process them, and this is something good to be aware of when making photos.
Cow and pagaodas in Myanmar
Visualizing the end result, knowing how you will want to adjust the image later will help you to make the best exposures.

When photographing the cow and pagodas I had in mind to really push the contrast levels in post processing which would add to the drama. At some angles, when the sun was behind me and the cow and pagodas were well lit, I aimed to get an exposure that would give me a balanced result. With other angles, when the light was from the side or my subjects were in the shade, I opted to make my exposure so the highlights were well
Cow and pagodas in Myanmar
rendered and the shadow areas would fall into darkness. While I was making these pictures I was also thinking in black and white.

Once we were back on the boat I chose to make the most of the bright colors. The sun was high and off to one side, so the shadows were minimal and I found the combination of colors pleasing. Having a small flock of gulls enjoying some bread we were throwing them made some great additional ‘props’.

Reflections are strongest when the light is bright and finding a colorfully painted house made a nice subject to photograph. Waiting for other boats to pass and the water to calm gave us a nice sharp mirror image in the water.

For this image of the pagoda and temple I found and angle, where the white and gold building is mainly shade and the pagoda, is nicely lit from the side. I often look for alternative angle or subject to enhance a temple shot (living in Asia they get a bit samey after a while,) so I used the blue fabric awning that was blowing in the breeze as a foreground and main focus of my image. The Burmese text printed on it provides a sense of location as well as adding extra interest in my composition.

By this time I was sweating buckets, it’s not just the harsh light that is challenging in the middle of the day!

These are not the best shots from the short few days we spent on the lake, but, as I said, we were not content to sit out the heat and hard light in our hotel room. Any time you are faced with having no option but to make photos in the brightness of the middle of the day, treat it as a challenge and time to experiment – both with how you make your exposure
Blue Pole house on Inle Lake, Myanmar
and compositions and also to push your post processing skills to new heights.

temple and pagoda, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Riding in a boat on Inle Lake, Myanmar

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Kayan long neck women

Learn How To Create Effective Photo Essays … and Read The Ongoing Story Of Our Long Neck Friends

It was a special experience to arrive at Baan Thong Luang and see Malu having her neck rings put back on. So when we arrived again a few weeks later taking another workshop there we were amazed to see Malu’s mother having her rings wound around her neck. Masu had just returned the evening before from her journey home to her village in Myanmar and the grandma was at work wrapping the brass coil around the younger woman’s neck.

Chancing upon a juncture like this it’s important to take stock of what’s happening and work quickly to ensure you capture the action as it’s unfolding. The first thing I do is to ascertain if it’s appropriate and polite to take photos. I never like to just assume that it is. Because we have a lovely existing relationship with these people it would be easy to assume taking photos is OK, but it’s always best to ask.

Kayan long neck womenGiven the go ahead I started taking a few initial shots. My immediate thought was to create a series of photographs that would tell the story of this event. I’ll always be looking to get great single images that will stand alone, but I also like to make collections of photographs that provide a record of the situation.

We’d arrived when the old grandma was already a good way through the process so I knew we would not have so much time. I know the light in that particular location is lovely, as we’ve taken many photographs there over the past few years. I also know the background can be a problem as it’s fairly cluttered and has some areas of bright light where you can see the sunshine through the gaps under the house. So, as usual, I moved around and found various points of view so as to avoid most of the distracting bright areas.

I was then looking to capture interactions between Masu and the grandma and anyone else who may enter the scene. Masu’s youngest daughter, Naam Cha, was there, (as usual,) and enjoying having her mother back home. She was quite intrigued by what was happening and this made for some lovely photos. I always like to look for this type of interaction when there’s a main activity taking place as it adds deeper meaning to the photo essay.

It’s important to anticipate the flow of the activity and the likely associated expressions you might see on people’s faces. I aimed to photograph various facial expressions as Masu sat there having her appearance returned to it’s customary state, (she had not had the rings removed for about 5 years prior to this time.) In this situation there’s a number of factors that make it easier for me:

  • Knowing my camera well
  • Knowing the location and lighting well
  • Knowing my subject well enough that she’s comfortable
  • Capturing a number of different expressions of your subject will enhance the narrative you are creating.

 

Kayan long neck woman and childI was able to shoot 89 photos in about 15 minutes before grandma indicated to us she preferred to continue without our cameras present, so we thanked them and went on our way. Bringing the photos into Lightroom and working through them to choose five or six for my picture story was fun. I knew I had some interesting photos, some fun interactions with Naam Cha and some good expressions from Masu.

To choose just one image to illustrate an activity like this is very difficult. When I worked for the newspapers this was most often what I had to do. These days it’s great to have the flexibility to share a small series of images giving a clearer account of the experience.

If you’re interested in learning more of my Lightroom workflow and how I go about choosing which images to include and which I discard, please check out our online course on the subject here.

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Young Kayan girl with neck rings

Return of the Rings

Please read our previous blog post, Meeting Malu, before you read this one as it is the beginning of the story.

School holidays had already begun and we waited a few weeks before heading up to Baan Thong Luang village. We had a busy week ahead of us booked, including a Mae Sa workshop, so we decided to visit the village early one morning without customers. As we arrived we had the normal friendly string of conversations with people as we walked amongst the traditionally constructed homes, making our way up to Malu’s house.

She was there on the porch with her father, brother and little sister, having just arrived home the night before. Her mother was away visiting family in Myanmar. We chatted together a while and gave them photos we’d taken of their family and friends when we’d visited their ancestral village in February. Of course by now they had heard we’d been there and it was fun to share with them of the wonderful experience we’d had. Malu’s dad casually mentioned they would be putting her neck rings back on soon and we were welcome to photograph and video the procedure.

Our timing again was wonderful. The previous occasion we’d seen Malu was the day she left to go to school in Mae Hong Son. If we’d visited a day or two before or after, or even arrived half an hour later, we would have missed seeing her. Now, here we were again to see her have the rings put back on.

I had assumed Malu would spend her summer holidays at Baan Thon Luang without the rings. I figured it would be too much hassle to put them on for a short time and that Malu was probably enjoying some freedom from them. It can be difficult to understand or know the ways of another culture at times, especially since, being a New Zealander, we have no deep historic culture of our own to relate it to.

Observing Malu as the old grandma carefully wrapped the coil around this little girl’s neck was an amazing expedience. Not so much because of what they were doing, but because of Malu’s total acceptance of the process being as normal as getting a hair cut. She stood there unflinching, even as a few times the old lady slipped a little and the end of the coil pressed into her neck. It took about 25 minutes. The whole time Malu stood quietly without so much as a single grimace. Once the rings were on, she reached up and behind to feel them and then cheerfully skipped back to her house to put her traditional head scarf on.

7 year old Kayan girl with traditional neck rings

In the west our customs have included many body altering discomforts, usually associated with vanity. Piercings and corsets being some of the older ones and now days with breast implants and all manner of painful plastic surgery and gender reassignment which are becoming more widely practiced, not to forget the wearing of balance and gravity defying stiletto heels! I’ve read and heard too much criticism and judgment of the ‘barbaric’ practices of other cultures, usually by Westerners who have a shallow experience of culture and perceive customs such as the wearing of neck rings to be oppressively enforced. I was thinking about these things as we watched Malu stand so patiently stand as the grandma skillfully adorned her. I was impressed at the lack of wriggling, total absence of any complaint or attitude and her comfortable acceptance as if it were just part of getting dressed for the day. Come to think of it, having her hair cut very short at school was most likely more difficult for her – her mother has never had her hair cut, as per their tradition.

Kayan long neck woman with her hair down

Malu’s mother, Masu, with her hair down.

Kayan lady preparing to put neck rings on a Kayan girl

Using a small tool to shape the rings.

Kayan girl waits to have her neck rings put on

Malu waiting.

Kayan woman puts neck rings on a 7 year old girl

Careful work.

Kayan girl with a tooth missing

Meeting Malu – Learning to Relate to Your Subjects

Kayan hill tribe mother and daughterMalu was by her mother’s side the first time we met her. We often saw her there. Malu lives with her parents and her little sister in Baan Thong Luang in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Her older brother attends a school in Mae Hong Song, up in the north near the Myanmar border. During our first visit to this village Malu befriended us and quickly discovered that our cameras were fun.

Malu’s family are Kayan people, speaking their own language and with their own culture and tradition. They are also known as the ‘Long Neck Tribe’. Originally from Myanmar they make their home in Thailand to work and because they have access to better health care and education than they have in their ancestral village. We were recently in Myanmar and met Malu’s grandfather at their family home, but that’s a whole other story.

Malu is six years old, but she doesn’t like being six, so she tells people she’s seven. She’s a spirited, bright, intelligent little girl who loves life. Malu is everybody’s friend in the village and when she’s not close to her mum, she’s off visiting and playing with the other girls in the village. Kayan long neck girl taking a photo with a dslrShe’s learning to weave. When Malu is sitting with her loom she does not like to be interrupted, she is totally focused. I have not often met six year old children with the ability or desire to concentrate on learning, unless they had a smart phone in their hands or were sitting in front of a computer game.

We’ve enjoyed teaching Malu a little photography. Our cameras are rather too large and cumbersome for her small hands, so we started taking along a smaller camera for her to use, which she was delighted with. The first place she chose to go to photograph with this camera was to the church. Her family are Christian as are a number of other families in the village and there’s a small church at the top of the hill. We gave her instruction on how to use the camera and how to compose her pictures. It’s a wonderful experience to teach a child who loves to learn.

For a number of months we’d not been up to the village and, as we arrived one day with customers on a photo workshop, Malu’s mother greeted us with the news that Malu had been asking after us and wondering why she had not seen us for so long. We’d bought with us some snacks, readers, pens and pencils and some make-up for the kids. The girls love to do their make up, a mix of traditional and western styles.

Kayan long neck girl has her makeup applied by her mother's hand.During the next few months we had quite a number of workshops that took us to the village, so we enjoyed time teaching photography there and building our relationships with the villagers. One day as I walked up the hill towards Malu’s home, I noticed something different. Pansa was already sitting there chatting with Malu’s mother and as I go closer I saw Malu from behind. She was wearing jeans and a tee shirt and her hair was down. I’d never seen her like this before as she is always wearing her traditional Kayan clothing and has her hair up in a scarf.

As she turned around to greet me I saw that she no longer had the rings around her neck. Her smile was somewhat subdued, so I joked with her a little, pretending for a second or two that I did not recognise her. We chatted a little and as I squatted down next to her I asked if I could take her photo today. Normally I wouldn’t ask. She has become so accustomed to being photographed and really enjoys it, but the feeling outside their home on this morning was not normal. She nodded a yes and I shot a few frames. I was using my Nikon D800 with my 35mm f1.4 lens, so to make her portrait I was fairly close to her.

I know this girl loves to see her picture, so I flipped the camera around to show her the images on the monitor. As she looked at them I realised she had not seen herself without the neck rings on. The story was unfolding. Her father had only just taken them off half an hour earlier. A couple of weeks later our customer posted the photo she had shot at this moment on Facebook, I had not known she’d captured the moment, so it was special to see it.

As Malu viewed the photos, she reached behind her head with one hand to pull back her hair. She was showing me her neck. This was my photo.

Portrait of a Kayan young girl wthout neck rings

Having some relationship with your subject affords opportunity at times that is just not possible otherwise. Malu trusts us, she likes the photos we make of her and her family. To teach how to achieve this kind of intimate photo is one of the most challenging aspects we face as we run our workshops. I find teaching composition similarly difficult as both these aspects of our craft are best expressed through your own intuition.

Sure, you can study the rules of composition and work hard to relate to your subjects as best you can, but at the right moment, when your connection with your subject has vitality and meaning, you must have an intuitive sense of how to compose the image and the decisive moment to make it. If you can connect strongly with your subjects and illustrate this in your photos, others will see that connection when they view your images and be drawn to what you have created. Connecting strongly with your subjects does not necessarily take a long time, occasionally it can happen in an instant, but I am cherishing building relationships and photographing many of the same people during our photo workshops here in Chiang Mai.

Malu’s neck rings were removed because she was going to join her brother in school … in Mae Hong Song. This is around six hours drive from her mum and dad and sister. The lack of normal, cheerful feeling that surrounds this family was becoming more evident the more the story unfolded. All the while dad is cuddling the younger daughter in the hammock and trying to comfort her has she screamed and cried. She had just fallen over and bumped her head. Malu’s mother was barely holding it together, as were Pansa and I! So we didn’t linger too long, gave them a small donation towards Malu’s education and continued on with our customer.

I’d often wondered what opportunities Malu would find in her life. There didn’t seem to be too much this little girl had before her, other than staying in the village and living a simple life. She is always hungry to learn. She is quick, witty and intelligent and I am sure she is making the most of her time in school. We are hoping to see her again when she returns to the village during school holidays and looking forward to the stories we are sure she will have to share with us.

Kevin + Pansa Landwer-Johan

Malu’s portrait of Pansa and I

Buddhist monk in a tricycle taxi in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Film – A Different Photography Experience

I put a few rolls of film though a camera recently and it was like meeting an old friend again who I had not seen for a long long time!

In 2006 I bought my first serious DSLR and had not shot a single roll of film since then. A year or so back I was talking to my friend James about my old Nikkormat, the first 35mm camera I owned and which I still have. It’s now over 50 years old and James encouraged me to shoot some with it and create a series of prints to exhibit to celebrate it’s half century. Typical me, I’ve been thinking about it for ages, and even come up with a theme for the series, but still had not loaded a film into the camera.

Recently we had a customer who booked a one day workshop and wanted to learn more about shooting film and Pu said I should shoot film that day also. I picked up a roll of film and put a battery in the camera. Sadly the exposure meter, (the only feature on the Nikkormat that requires a battery,) was non-responsive. Everything else on the camera is purely mechanical, so all was not lost.

We spent a most enjoyable day with our customer, shooting both film and digital. I used my Nikon D800 with a 50mm lens and had a lovely old 55mm micro (‘P’ series for you gear geeks) on the Nikkormat. I used the D800 to make light readings and adjusted the settings on the Nikkormat accordingly. It really is a different practice shooting film, even with the D800 hanging off my other shoulder!

The wait to see the results took an eternity, but it was worth the wait. Our film was very evenly exposed with just one frame of the 36 over exposed. This showed me that using the digital camera to ascertain the correct settings worked, and it also showed me my lovely old Nikkormat was functioning as rock steady as it always had in the past, (I had been concerned that it may not work properly because it has been just sitting on a shelf for so many years.)

Managing two cameras and making the exposure reading the way we did meant we worked more slowly, but this was always the way when I shot film. Taking time to think more carefully, composing more critically and exposing for black and white film was an interesting experience.

Last week I went out twice and shot two more rolls. Getting used to using the two cameras in tandem, and because of the nature of my subjects meant I worked a little more quickly, at times having to grab shots as my subjects were riding away. My black and white film project is of the tricycle taxi riders and their bikes – saamlors.

I’m still waiting on the film to be developed as the darkroom that processed the other roll is now closed for a month and I need to find an alternative, so stay tuned …

Buddhist monk in a tricycle taxi in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

A single frame from the first roll of film I’ve shot in over ten years. (Ilford Delta ISO 400)

Online Photography Course

Woman taking a photo and Photo Workshops Online logoI am loving teaching what I love to do! I’ve also become a better photographer myself since I started teaching. Earning a living doing something I love and am passionate about is something I value greatly because it is rare!

This past year, as we are growing our Chiang Mai Photo Workshops business I have also been very busy building my first comprehensive online photography course. This has held many challenges, even though I have experience teaching and producing video, developing this course has been a challenging learning curve. But, it’s done! It’s online and already receiving good reviews and feedback.

Whenever I start something new, something I’ve never done before, I research and research some more, so that I can be sure my efforts will be worth while. I discovered that while online teaching is relatively a new thing, there was already lots of photography courses available. So I aimed to raise the bar and make mine better … that’s why it took me so long!

Teaching real time with a camera in hand and a real person listening and interacting with me as I teach is in many ways easier, (and certainly more fun,) than producing a video course. Many courses I have viewed I found to be long winded and thin on helpful info. Often the production quality was low too.

I set out to be concise. Time is valuable and we are all busy, so I don’t want to waste any body’s time padding my teaching out with poorly planned lessons and redundant information. My teaching style is to be brief and to the point so students who get it the first time can move on and those who don’t quite grasp the lesson can easily repeat it to pick up what they missed.

There’s also carefully designed assignments with each of the lessons. I searched for examples online to glean ideas from, but didn’t really find what I was looking for. There’s published assignments out the, but not many that have much of a teaching element included and that’s what I knew would be valuable to students. I know it’s always good to practice what you are leaning as this helps immensely with the learning process. I don’t seek to explain everything in minute details, I’d rather teach just enough for my students to want to pick up their cameras and practice so they can discover more and learn their own style of shooting photos.

My aim was to create a course of high production quality. So many online teaching courses and youtube channels I have seen have poor quality production standards. The information they contain is often interesting and valuable, but the video and sound quality leaves a lot to be desired. Audio has always been a challenge for me, (being a photographer I never had to be concerned with audio,) and recording inside a Thai house involves all manner of difficulty. Using photos, graphics and a number of animated sequences I have sought to add quality and clarity to illustrate my teaching.

You can sign up and get a link for the course, (including a discount coupon,) on Photo-Workshops-Online website