A Tribute to Phyllis Brandon, My Mother


 

My mother is what Christian’s refer to as a “Godly woman.” To take that out of Christianese and put it in plain English, would be, she was a woman that mirrored the teachings of Jesus Christ in her life. She loved things that were good; she hated that which was evil. She was concerned for the unfortunate and the downtrodden. She “lived in peace with all men in so far as it was possible” and more. She brought up her children with these morals and ethics as well.

This past week on March 21st, after a running battle with kidney disease she passed away. She went to be with her loving Lord and those of whom she love that went before her.

It was a struggle to be here. Not because I had other things to do – but, because I had to watch my mother die. She passed under the care of my sister Terry Brandon who lived with her for the past eight plus years. Terry devoted her life to Mom, and I am sure extended her life by many years. But in the end, after only eight months of dialysis Mom couldn’t take the pain and suffering of the treatment. So, on the 3rd of March, she stopped her treatment.

I was in India running my workshop knowing she was planning this decision. I prayed I would be able to make it back in time to see her before she slipped into a toxic sleep. In fact, Alou and I did, and Mom defied all odds and lasted for three weeks off dialysis.

In tribute to her, her life and what she meant to her family and friends I was asked to make a short video of her life. The video will be played at her memorial service today. This project has been an excellent way to grieve and process this time with my family. I even was able to interview Mom for the video before she lost the ability to speak near the end.

As you can imagine this has been a hugely personal project for me. I want to thank my sister Mindy Brandon Hamm for many of the photos and her creative collaboration.
Music by:

Song: Quiet City
Artist: Aaron Copland, London Symphony Orchestra & New Philharmonia Orchestra
Album: A Copland Celebration, Vol. I

Song: Nonet for Strings: Slow and Solemn
Artist: Aaron Copland, London Symphony Orchestra & New Philharmonia Orchestra
Album: A Copland Celebration, Vol. I

Matt Brandon Vlog 13: Photographing Iconic Scenes

In this video I look at my struggle to photograph the iconic Tak Bat, alms giving ceremony that takes place every morning in Luang Prabang, Laos. The inherent problem with photographing something that has been photographed millions of times is there is very little chance of making a unique photo.

In this video, I explore my struggles at photographing an event that has been happening every day for who knows how long? This was not an easy task, and frankly, one that I think I failed at. But we learn from our failure, and this is why I am sharing the experience. The big difficulty is the culturally sensitive limitations that are put on the visitor during the Tak Bat, and rightly so. Here are just a few are:

  • Keep your head below that of the monks.
  • Don’t touch a monk.
  • Don’t use flash
  • Keep a distance from the monks.
  • Be respectful of the devotees.
  • And a few more.

 

This was my first time to watch this event. We choose to go out where there were not tourists. It was an area that my host knew and had relationships with the devotees. We check with the devotees if we could sit where we sat. They granted us permission. Honestly, I was extremely tempted to use flash, but I resisted and did not use it. Granted, I did push the boundaries on proximity to the monks and in looking back, I probably wouldn’t do that again. But in my defense, we asked, and we got the locals devotees approved. I sat on the ground, so I was never above even the smallest monk. I say all to help you understand the extent we went to be both culturally sensitive and still get the photo.

In this video, I also give photographers a quick tip on how to better view your vertical (portrait) images on the back of your camera’s LCD.

Below are the images that appear in this week’s video.

 

Here I was literally sitting in a drainage culvert to get this angle.

 

This was close to what I imagined. But without using a flash, the morning clouds proved why too bright and overpowered the scene. My attempt to burn in some sky was useless and did more harm than good.

 

By switching locations and shooting across from the procession I focused on the devotees rather than the monks. This was better but I don’t like her hand in front of her eyes.

 

This is perhaps the best image as I manage to arrange all the element close to what I want.

 

Later that same day we stumbled on a gathering of monks. It was like a school assembly.

 

Children get bored with assemblies no matter what the culture.

 

This photo is my favorite image of the trip. So much emotion and life in this photo.

 

Here is one of those images that you see a setting and you wait for someone or something to enter the frame. That is just what I did here.

 

Early the next day we went back out to my host’s neighborhood and saw a group of local monks leaving the local Wat (temple). Knowing they would return in 30 minutes or so I set up across the street and got this.

 

 

Interestingly enough, this image was taken at the precise moment the florescent light in the archway was going off. Thus the yellow glow and the lack of light. It also gave it the best look and feel. The only real issue I have with either of these photos is that I have lost the story. These pictures don’t tell the story of the Tak Bat. These are just images of monks walking through a gate in the early morning.

 

Kuang Si Falls, another location that is practically impossible to get a unique photo of.

 

Downriver of the falls is this water wheel. I used off camera flash to light the wheel. Alou acted as my VALS (Voice Activated Light Stand).

 

 

Matt Brandon Vlog 12: Fujifilm GFX Review and more.

Currently, I am in Laos, once again. If you recall, I was in Laos back in late November shooting my first ever video for a client. I shot the whole video on the X-T2. I was amazed at the quality. The learning curve to use the X-T2 for shooting basic video was surprisingly short. Not that I know everything, not at all. It just seems more intuitive than when I had my Canon 5D MKIII. But, this post is not about the X-T2. It is, however about the video posted above, the Fujifilm GFX medium format camera first look.

Piet Van den Eynde had a chance to use the Fuji GFX in the field in India. In this video, I speak with Piet about his thoughts and impressions of this new ground breaking camera.

I am not going to reiterate all the information in the video. You can watch it. I will, however, give you the links to the products and the video we shot.

You can visit Piet’s blog to see the GFX’s specs on paper, so to speak. Even more exciting he shows you the actual images this beast can make: Visit his blog HERE.

GFX Challenges Video

Product Links:

GFX Medium Format Camera

GF110mmF2 R LM WR

GF63mmF2.8 R WR

GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR

f-Stop Loka UL

SMDV SpeedBox Review

SMDV BRiHT-360 Compact Monolight

WD My Passport Pro 3TB
WD My Passport Pro 2TB

Lastolite Non-Rotating Extending Handle

3 Legged Thing Albert Tripod

Sirui P-324S Carbon Photo/Video Monopod

Want to hear about upcoming workshops even before they are announced on the blog? Then, remember to sign up for my newsletter if you want to be notified first. 

The Coal Haulers of Varanasi, India & the Fuji GFX

The face of a coal hauler from Bihar, India. (Click to view larger)

(Note: All these photos are taken with the Fujifilm X-T2, NOT the GFX.)

Late last month, Piet Van Den Eynde asked if I could help him produce a video. Piet was one of 20 photographers in the world who was invited to use the new, as yet unreleased, Fujifilm GFX medium format camera in their workflow. Piet, Serge Van Cauwenbergh, Alou and I snuck off to India to film him using this amazing camera in the wilds of India. As you will see, Piet certainly put the GFX through its paces, using it in places and on occasions where you would never think of bringing a medium format camera. It was all hush, hush till today. As you can see, Fujifilm has released our video to the world, so now we can talk about it. In fact, we will be doing a lot of talking about it in the weeks to come.

We needed some very special images for this video, and I believe we got them. One of the most interesting places we visited was this train yard. Piet made some amazing images, which you will see in the video and later on his blog. Our time there was very short, yet the scene we uncovered really deserved more than just a few images for the video. So I moved quickly to capture these images. I hope you can get a feel of the intensity of the work these men do on a daily basis.

Varanasi, like most cities in India, runs on both electricity and coal. The coal arrives from the mines by freight trains. Car after car of coal arrives in a half mile long train filled with raw coal. Each car needs to be unloaded and then loaded back into lorries for delivery. The problem is this process of transferring a ton or more of coal from a train car to a lorry is all done by hand, literally. Five to six men are assigned to each train car. It takes an average of 8 to 10 hours for the men to remove all the coal from the car. It is dumped next to the car ready to be reloaded into the lorry the next day by the same men. Then the whole process starts over again. The men wear flip flops or even go barefooted throughout the day. The coal dust is everywhere, including their lungs. Each man makes an average of 300 Rupees or $5 USD a day. I asked them if any of them get sick or have a cough. None of them seemed to want to answer me. I think they were suspicious. Frankly, they need the work. Most of them were from the next state over, Bihar. All their earnings go home to their family. A family that they may never get to see again.

After visiting these men and photographing them, we felt that our workshops need to me more than about taking amazing photos. We need to get involved with the places we photograph. As such, Piet and I are researching organizations that we might donate a percentage of our profit. We are in search of organizations that help people like these men and others we photograph to rise above their circumstances to a better life. If you know of an organization like this let us know.

Note: If you want to join Piet and me on our next workshop to Varanasi, India in late 2017, be sure to sign up for our newsletter to be notified when the registration goes live. We announce open registration first to our newsletter subscribers. This is one of the perks of subscribing to the newsletter. Then only after 24 hours will we make registration public. The last workshop sold out in 1 hour.  When you subscribe, be sure to check your email for confirmation.

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A laborer has to break up the larger pieces of coal so they can be loaded by hand into the lorries.

 

 

 

 

After unloading the coal from the train, they workers have to clear it from under the car it arrived in. No coal can be wasted.

 

Roll after roll of lorries wait to be loaded up with coal for delivery into the city.

 

This and the photo below are of drivers waiting for the coal to be loaded into their lorries.

 

 

 

A Requiem to a Rickshaw Puller

 

Subhas, a hand pull rickshaw walla.

Subhas, a hand pull rickshaw walla.

Alou and I have traveled to Kolkata to visit with friends for a few days. I had some time yesterday to walk the streets with the Jenbei HD 600. I love Kolkata’s uniqueness, even within India. This city’s taxis are a different color (yellow) than other parts of India, it’s the last place in the world you will find hand pulled rickshaws, and the buildings have a turn of the century (19th century) colonial feel. Overall, it is a lovely city covered in years of patina.

One of the biggest shocks for me was that since my last visit here three years ago, there seems to be a massive decline in the number of pulled rickshaws. If you recall, I did a story on them a few years back. With my new found love of off-camera flash, I thought it would be fun to make a nicely lit portrait of a rickshaw puller.

This is the result. This is Subhas, a hand pull rickshaw walla from West Bengal. At least, I think that is his name. It was hard to tell, he mumbled, and I think he had a mouthful of paan. We hired him for an hour and paid him some extra. He was extremely cooperative and very willing to be photographed. In the end we had many people walk by and enter the frame. Some walked into the frame by accident, others on purpose. It was all fine by me. I wanted more than just a portrait. I wanted this to be a something special. I wanted the image to have the uniqueness of Kolkata. I hope I achieved that.

 

NA

 

f/6.4, 1/250 sec, at 16mm, 200 ISO, on a X-T2

 

f/11, 1/320 sec, at 16mm, 200 ISO, on a X-T2

Saffron Coffee Shoot

From Mountain to Cup – The Journey of Saffron Coffee from Matt Brandon on Vimeo.

This last week I traveled to Luang Prabang, Laos. There’s a small but very significant social enterprise based there called, Saffron Coffee, that benefits both Laotian and tourist alike. Saffron Coffee is Lao-owned, Western managed and Lao staffed. The team that runs Saffron Coffee is a mix of Lao, American and Australian (I don’t think I left anyone out.)

Flying my borrowed DJI Inspire drone to shoot the footage for the video above.

Flying my borrowed DJI Inspire drone to shoot the footage for the video above.

Saffron Coffee contacted me a couple of months back and asked me to bid on a photo job. The company needed some new photos for an upcoming promotional campaign. I made a passing comment how I think that I might have a drone by the time they wanted to shoot in November. Apparently, the thought of drone footage sealed the deal; I got the job. The only problem was I didn’t have a drone yet. I wanted a small drone that was easy to fly and had a good camera. DJI just announced their new Mavic Pro and compact portable drone just days before. As it’s only the size of a water bottle, it fits perfectly in a backpack! Two weeks before I was to arrive in Laos, I received an email informing me the drone I ordered was back ordered for 6 to 8 weeks! What was I going to do? Penang is not like the U.S.; we don’t have places to rent drones or even camera gear. Luckily, Max, the guy I ordered the drone from was reluctantly (I don’t blame him) willing to rent me his personal DJI Inspire. The Inspire is massive and costly! He requested I not check it in the hold of the aircraft, so I schlepped this beast all the way from Penang to Luang Prabang as an unauthorized second-hand carry.

Here I am shooting video of a long black. I was very pleased with the focus of the 35 mm f/1,4 lens.

Here I am shooting video of a long black. I was very pleased with the focus of the 35 mm f/1,4 lens.

I was also shooting the new Fuji X-T2 as both a still camera and a video camera. Frankly, I was just as scared of using the X-T2 as a video camera as I was this borrowed drone. I knew the X-T2 would perform flawlessly as a still camera. I had just used it in Europe, and it was incredible. In the past, Fuji x-series cameras have never had a good reputation for their video, but everyone was telling me how the X-T2 can now shoot 4K video and was far more intuitive.

Well, they were right. The video function of the Fujifilm X-T2 was very impressive. It handled low light and high ISO like a champ. The manual focusing was easy and swift. Everything about it was close to perfect. I do need to clarify; I am NOT a videographer. So I can not speak to this as a pro, but as a newbie videographer it was easy to use, and I was very pleased with the results.

One of the many hill tribes farmers partnering with Saffron Coffee.

One of the many hill tribes farmers partnering with Saffron Coffee.

The coffee cherry is high in sugars and thus becomes quite sticky and will often cause the picker's hands to become covered in whatever it touches.

The coffee cherry is high in sugars and thus becomes quite sticky and will often cause the picker’s hands to become covered in whatever it touches.

The camera performed unbelievable as a still camera, though I never had any doubts about this. The focusing is faster than the X-T1, and the high ISO is very usable. My only issue was remembering that there is now a “un”-lock on the ISO and shutter speed dials. I would keep forgetting to relock it after changing the ISO or shutter speed, and the dial moves quite easily when not locked. So I found myself shooting at 800 ISO when I needed to be shooting more like 200 or 400. But since the X-T2 handles high ISO so well, it wasn’t really a problem. But I have yet developed that muscle memory to remember to relock the dials after I unlock them.

Som Phet inspecting the freshly pluped coffee beans.

Saffron Coffee employee Som Phet, inspecting the freshly pulped coffee beans.

 

Thongsai, shoveling the cherry husk. This will be dried and sold to make cascara tea.

Thongsai, shoveling the cherry husk. These husks will be dried and sold to make cascara tea.

 

I love my job. I get to work with amazing people from all around the world. The staff at Saffron Coffee are an amazing work for and with the Lao hill tribe farmers. A few years back the cash crop of Laos was poppies for opium. The Lao government shut down all the poppy farms and the farmers were left without any income. Illegal logging filled the income void for some farmers. The farmers can cut down trees and make some good money. They also grow rice as a cash crop, but that is seasonal. In the southern part of Laos people have been growing robusta and sub-standard Arabica coffee for years. The folks at Saffron Coffee saw all this as both an opportunity to help the farmers.

Som Phet, is a master roaster for Saffron Coffee.

Som Phet, is a master roaster for Saffron Coffee.

They knew that shade grown highland Arabica coffee could provide a constant income for Northern Lao hill tribes. The altitude and climate around Luang Prabang was perfect, and the people needed a new crop. Today Saffron Coffee is partnering with 784 farming families in 18 villages in growing their coffee. They make specialty coffees with the highest quality Arabica beans.

Coffee and it's lovely crema being extracted through a bottomless or naked portafilter.

Coffee and it’s lovely crema being extracted through a bottomless or naked portafilter.

The traditional Lao brew has been an important part of the country’s coffee culture for years – but Saffron Coffee doesn’t see why specialty coffee can’t find a home in Northern Laos as well.

24 Free Desktop Wallpaper and a Podcast

So even as I write this, things are winding down with the 5 Day Deal. This was the deal that offered $2,500 worth of Lightroom presets, Photoshop actions, ebooks and video tutorials and more, all for $97. This offer is good until Oct 19th at 12 pm Pacific time U.S. All this marketing and screaming about this deal (and it really is a good deal) started me thinking it’s time to give back. So here is what I want to do.

I am going to give you an option of two gifts if you will. One is really for the serious photographer who wants to have a website the other is for the follower of my work that just really enjoys the photos.

dan_carr_bonusOption A

A few months back I did a Depth of Field with an action/adventure photographer whose name is Dan Carr. Dan lives and works in Whistler, Canada. I met Dan years back when we wrote a blog together. Dan has become an expert on marketing techniques for photographers such as Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) for websites. This is a fancy way to describe how to get your website ranked high on Google. Our interview ran long, really long. Dan had a lot of great information. So I made a 20 min bonus podcast with the remaining interview. This has been locked away in the archives and now I have made it available to you is made available to you.

If you are a photographer who wants to up your game with your website this 20 mins is very helpful for clearing up a lot of misconceptions about web traffic, .com verses .net hot to get better rankings in Google and more.

wallpaper-ad-horz

Option B

I have traveled the world accompanied always with my camera. Photography is what I do. As a result, I have a lot of incredibly stunning images from all over Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa and Europe. I have taken the time to carefully select some of my best images and have created 24 high-quality desktop images. These don’t have a calendar on them. They are not dated in any way. You can use them for a lifetime. I made these high resolution so you can use them on Retina (HD) screens and see all the details. I also made sure that these images were not visually busy and in fact, they give you a great relaxing workspace.

So what’s the catch? They say nothing is free, right? But this is as close to free as I can make it without.. well, actually being  free. In order to receive either Option A or B, all you have to do is to sign up for my newsletter. I only give away premium material like these to my newsletter subscribers. It’s a perk for them.

So sign up. Download. Enjoy!

 

 

Learning to be a good photographer

Everyone has a camera. Learning what to do with it is the challenge.

Everyone has a camera. Learning what to do with it is the challenge. Photo by Matt Gillooley

Learning to be good at photography is a lot harder than most people let on. We’ve all heard it countless times how nowadays everyone’s a photographer. That may be true, however when I was first learning I never had the guts to call myself a photographer. I never felt my images were good enough to claim this skill. I may have owned a camera, but did that make me a photographer? So how does one improve?

I went to a brick and mortar school. But if I would be honest, I don’t think it help me that much. I didn’t really start growing in my photography till after the digital era began. I could browse the net looking for classes or website that might help.

Enter e-books.

Over the past several years photographers have started coming out with how-to photography e-books.  Just as the digital world made cameras accessible to everyone, e-publishing has done the same with knowledge. But let’s not stop there: video. YouTube and Vimeo have changed the way we learn.

Continue reading

9 Emperor Gods Festival – Pt 4

A medium cracks the serpent whip to begin the ceremony.

A medium cracks the serpent whip to begin the ceremony.

This is the last in a four-part series on the 9 Emperor Gods Festival that took place at the Tow Boo Kong Temple in Butterworth, Penang, Malaysia.  You might find it helpful if you read the FIRST,  SECOND and THIRD parts of this story before continuing.

On this the final night of the nine-day festival Taoists gather to pay homage to the nine gods and send them back to heaven. More people gather on this one night than any of the previous nights. This is special. The evening started with my crew arriving at an already packed temple. Everyone was standing in the courtyard holding three or four long joss sticks. If you don’t know what a joss stick is, think large incense sticks. These are usually lit and then placed in a sand laden urn as a prayer offering. But tonight they will be carried in the procession of the gods to the sea.

After we had waited for some time, the mediums, who by now we know by sight, come out and sit on their stools to ready themselves to be possessed by the spirits of the children and the monkeys.

I want to pause here. I have heard people criticize other reports of this and other festivals for being inaccurate. Let me say; this information is straight from the participant’s mouths. Every night I would ask questions of devotees and record their answers when I could. These are stories that these followers have lived with for their whole life, yet everyone I asked seems to give me a different response. So to be clear, these are not my words, but theirs.

Back to the mediums. They sit and readied themselves and then the leader again, cracks the serpent whip. Each of the nine mediums starts to sway and move and then eventually stand up and take on the attributes of a child or often a monkey.

  • Each of the nine mediums starts to sway and move and then eventually stand up and take on the attributes of a child or often a monkey.
  • Cracking the whip to start the ceremony.
  • All the mediums seem to be energized by the cracking of the whip.
  • Another medium cracks the whip. Note the pacifier in the mediums mouth.

They ready themselves and the crowd to meet the veiled gods. Each god is removed from the inner sanctum of the temple and brought ceremoniously to a waiting float in the shape of a boat. After they are loaded onto the boat no time is wasted, the floats proceed out the temple and onto the route of the procession. A huge crowd follows each float always holding up the burning joss sticks. The route wanders around and then ends at the ocean side.

The boat/float that contains the gods is met by a huge crane that is quickly attached to it.  The crane then lifts the boat from the transport and slowly swings it over to the shoreline. Here after some effort, the boat is eventually disconnected from the crane and attached to another boat by a cable.

 

  • A medium makes a pathway for the gods.
  • Note the pacifier.
  • The gods are removed from the temple under a cover. Here a flag is used to create a barrier.
  • The gods are moved through the crowds.
  • The under cover the gods make their way to the boat where they will ride to the sea.
  • The dragon figurehead of float as it leave with the gods to the sea.
  • The crowds of devotee following the floats.
  • The crowds of devotee following the floats.
  • Alway eager to have their photos made.
  • Even the mediums want their photo made by Simon Bond.
  • This medium blessing a devotee whiel waiting for the boat/float to arrive.
  • Riding atop the float.

 

At this point we were told the ship with the gods would be pulled out to sea and set on fire and that would be the end of the festival. But to our surprise, they lit the vessel on fire right there on the beach. It went up in flames in a matter of seconds. The gods were released back to where they came from as the crowd prayed and worshiped.

  • The boat waits to be hoisted to the beach.
  • A crane hoists the boat with the gods to the seaside.
  • Floating through the air like something out of Peter Pan.
  • Easing the boat to the shoreline.
  • One of the lead mediums giving direction.
  • Securing the boat.
  • Last minute blessings.
  • Fighting the surf while trying to tie the two boats together. The motorboat will pull the other out to sea.
  • The fire being lit.
  • It only takes seconds for the boat to be consumed in flames.
  • It only takes seconds for the boat to be consumed in flames.
  • Clearing he debris so the boat can leave.
  • Saying farewell to the 9 Emperors.

 

After some time the flames had died down, and the smoldering craft was pulled out to the open sea. The festival ended, and we were left to walk back to the temple and our car sandy and wet.

In closing, this festival was one of the most spectacular festivals of the year. We covered the events from one temple. But there were dozens if not more temples in the area that were doing all of the same events but on different nights.