Money to Take Their Photo: Trophy Hunter Photography

Indian women in the step well near Kheri Gate, Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. These are local women we met, asked them to pose and paid them. We spoke with them to great length and worked out the details for our group to shoot. Once it was over, they were happy and we were happy.

 

Recently PetaPixel posted an article that created a huge controversy among its readers. So much so that they actually took down the article, though you can still find the original article on the author’s site. The PetaPixel article was entitled, “How to Deal with Locals Who Ask You for Money to Take Their Photo” and created a stir because of its hugely ethnocentric bias. Now, let me stop here and give a caveat. Some of you might feel I have no “dog in this fight”, meaning, I have nothing to add because I myself am a middle (upper middle) aged, white male. Three strikes right there. But let me suggest that I might be able to add a little insight to this debacle as I have over 23 years of living in Asia under this expanding belt of mine.

How Did We Get Here?

First off, the article was written from the perspective of a Westerner rather than a global citizen. I don’t even know where to begin, when every paragraph is headed up with a photo of a white person having their picture taken with a local resident. It just felt creepy from the start. Then with statements like, “For instance, be aware that many middle-aged men who ask for money are planning to buy alcohol”  or “As you may know, developing countries are very money-orientated cultures.” Seriously?  Wow, they just lost any credibility they may have had in two sentences.

Dare I say, we are looking at this through the wrong lens. We are asking the wrong questions. The question isn’t, “Should we pay people for their photos?” The more interesting and maybe a more important question is “How did we get here?”

Before the advent of the ubiquitous digital camera, before the democratization of photography and travel – back when travel was rare and a kitted out SLR or rangefinder was unheard of – people traveled for a different reason. Sure, the uber rich took safaris to the “Dark Continent” to take home a trophy they bagged from the comfort of their Land Rover. Out of that horrible experience grew the rarer still photo safari. As yet, the photographic workshop was something of dreams.

Travel for Travel’s Sake

Back in the early ‘90s when I first moved to India we lead tours. Not photo tours – real honest-to-goodness tours, based in culture and education – my wife and I spend two years in language and culture acquisition before we hung out our shingle (so to speak).

It was during these two years that we learned less about how to say something and more about why Indians say something. It is taking time like this that you learn to view a different culture with an open mind. You learn never to say words like, “They always…” or “ They never…”. Because you learn that the truth is, there is always someone breaking the stereotype. In culture, there are no absolutes.

When people joined our tours, they came to learn and experience this vastly different culture of India, the camera was an afterthought for the most part. It was only there to take home memories, not make a trophy. Locals enjoyed having their photos made and the thought to ask for money for something like a photo was absurd. They would no sooner ask their friend to pay them for a photo then they would their new foreign guest. How rude would that be!

Trophy Hunter Travelers

But then around the turn of the century something happened. It is what sociologists call the democratisation of knowledge and technology. With the digital age and the internet came the ability to travel both virtually and physically and do it cheaply. Cameras became cheaper and more available to the masses. Everyone wanted to be Steve McCurry and photograph their “Afghan Girl.”

Without going into the debate about McCurry’s ethics of setting up photos, the big difference is McCurry was on assignment. He was one of the few and the elite that were charged with telling a story about a culture. The rest of us just dreamed about the opportunity. But now the masses were able to afford a DSLR and a 70-200mm lens and a cheap ticket to the Taj Mahal and now everyone can try be McCurry. And to be honest, with amazing results. Some amazing photos filtered up through the centillion of pixels burned over the years.

On our tours, we had a rule, that you could not take a photo until everyone in the group asked our hosts at least one question. Contrived – but it made sure people interacted with our hosts.

 

The Disillusioned Travel Photographer

But something happened. Everyone (yes, I am now generalizing) has started to become jaded. Both photographer and subject now feel things are due them, entitled. As a photographer, that leads photo workshops myself, I have seen participants lose patience in the exploration of culture and want to simply get the photo and move to the next one.

We are missing the travel experience. I venture to say there are too many photographers who visit a country or culture and never see it with their naked eye – they only view it with through their camera lens. They don’t stop and drink the tea, or to smoke the hookah. They don’t bother to explore. They don’t ask questions of their host. Heck, they don’t even have a host!

Locals have gone from being hosts to becoming makeshift models. I am not talking about professional or even semi-professional models. At the risk of starting another flame fest, my workshops are known to hire locals to work as a model, we pay them well for their time and their services. What I am talking about is the shopkeeper or tradesman that sits and does their daily routine.

The guest photographer (and that is what we are, a guest) walks up, sticks a camera up, takes a photo and walks away. Often without even an exchange of pleasantries and no knowledge of what is unfolding in front of them. In doing this we, the photographers have treated them as disposable models and so why would they not want to be paid? Photographers doing this do both a great disservice to themselves as well as the culture they visit. They are missing the “story” and they risk portraying a stereotype of the culture they are visiting. I am guilty of this, it is too easy to do. It is hard to take time, to slow down, to talk with someone that might not even speak your language.

2 Steps Forward, 1 Step Back

This is a tension I have lived with for years. I find myself taking one step forward and two steps back. Clients, want a trophy photo, they want to feel their time is well spent. In other words, they are getting what they have paid for. I understand this. But there are bigger forces at play here. As a workshop leader, I need to curate my clients’ experience so they they get what they want and in doing so we respect the culture and society we are a guest in.

So what do we do about it? The genie is out of the bottle and there is no putting him back. We can’t change a cultural revolution or in this case a technological one or the side effects it has had on the world we live in. We can only change ourselves. We can only be responsible for who we are and how we react to the culture we are visiting.

I think we need to structure our workshops as experiences rather than events or hunts. In an experience we take time to participate and to enter into a shared time of discovery. Both by us as well as by the culture we are visiting. The experience is the end, the goal. On the contrary, a hunt is about one thing, the trophy. Whatever it takes to walk away with a trophy and damn the culture, full speed ahead.

Somehow, as a workshop leader, I need to make the experience and the discovery just as much a part of the trip (maybe more) as the trophy. By doing this we lessen the impact we have on our hosts, we educate and promote cross cultural understanding in a time where this is of the utmost importance. Maybe, just maybe, we can start a new revolution or awakening in travel photography.

 

Related links:

DEAR BEGINNER, YOU MAKE RIPPLES!
BE A CULTURAL INSIDER AND GET BETTER PHOTOGRAPHS. (PT.1)
BE A CULTURAL INSIDER AND GET BETTER PHOTOGRAPHS. (PT.2)

 

6 Ways to Improve your Photography Portfolio: The Goldilocks Principle


 

I call it the Goldilocks Principle in editing. Of course, you remember the story of Goldilocks. The little girl who stumbled into a cabin with three bowls of porridge and three beds. One bowl of porridge was too hot, one too cold and one was just right. In the same way, one bed was too hard, one too soft, but one was just right. Apparently, Goldilocks was a ruthless editor. She didn’t settle for anything but what she wanted. She didn’t settle for anything – she knew what she wanted. If Goldilocks were a photographer, she would have a killer portfolio.

Over this past week or so I have been working with a photographic mentee/student. The biggest issue out of the gate has been she has way too many photos in her portfolio. Many of which are not up to the standard of what she is capable of. I get it. Being ruthless to one of your children is hard. As photographers, we have to be disciplined and practice tough love on our portfolio. We want to allow viewers to leave wanting more. Here are six principles (questions) to help you do just that.

1. Is the image technically correct?

 

By “technically correct” I mean is it exposed correctly; is the subject, whatever that might be, in focus or is it soft? Did you push the ISO too far is it grainy?

I love intentionally blurry images. But if an image is blurry because of carelessness then, most of the time it needs to be tossed (there is that happy accident). Soft images are not artistic, they are…well, soft. If a photo is not your best work then it doesn’t need to be in your portfolio. As far as a soft image in your portfolio is concerned, there is one exception, and this brings us to the second point.

2. Does the image show emotion?

 

Emotion is a powerful force and can cover a multitude of technical sins.

There is a passage in the Bible that says, “…love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8). In this case, we can broaden the emotion of love to almost any type of visible emotion; anger, sadness, laughter, really any emotion that can appear on a subject’s face can cover or shall we say, override many technical errors. We see this in photojournalism all the time. An image with powerful emotion trumps a technically flawless one without emotion. Some people might argue that John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway, kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller during the Kent State shootings was technically flawed. In the original photo, we see a pole that appears to be sticking up through Vecchio’s head. But the image is so profound and so full of emotion that this isn’t important. Emotion in a picture trumps almost any other compositional or technical aspect.

So all this to say, does your photo have emotion? If it does, then there is a good chance it’s a keeper.

3. Is the subject the subject?

 

Don’t be afraid to move in close to your subject.

Do your photos have clear subjects? Ok, so you have a photo of a village. Why? What’s in it? Is there a person that important? Maybe a building that is unique? Is there an unusual pattern or shadow at play? The viewer’s eyes need to be drawn to something. If we can’t see it pretty quick, then it’s pointless. It just isn’t interesting.

I often see images by students that are shot wide. I love shooting with a wide angle lens, but you have to make sure that in a wide image there is a clear subject for the viewer to focus on. When shooting a wide or ultra wide lens, think about putting the subject off-center, nearer the edge of the frame, this might add a slight amount of distortion, but this could help the subject be more dominant within the frame.

Always remember the famous quote by war photographer, Robert Capa “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

4. Is the image uniquely mine?

 

Look at your image and ask yourself, “Is this my image or am I trying to channel Steve McCurry?” It is ok to be influenced by other photographers or artist, but don’t try to be them. We already have a Steve McCurry or an Amy Vitale. What we need is a [insert your name here] image. If there is one thing I see the most on my workshops is participants trying to be Steve McCurry. Find your style. I have had many people tell me that they can always tell a Matt Brandon image. I am not sure that is entirely true, but it does tell me that I have created a unique style of my own and this is just what you want to achieve. How do you do this?

Honestly, it happens over time. You take influences from those significant photographers and you borrow a little of this and a bit of that. Everyone is influenced by a mentor. That’s kind of the point on a mentor. I doubt anyone’s style is 100% their own, certainly not from the start. But over time you mold it to what you like and who you are and it becomes your photography, your style.

 

5. Does the images have context?

 

This photo is rich with context. A Hindu priest leaves a temple that is adorned with the Indian imagery.

I like my images to tell a story and a good story needs context. Imagine I am telling you a story, but all I did was describe how the main character looked. I don’t say what country the story takes place. I don’t say anything about the weather or if the location is crowded or not (not to mention develop a plot). All I do is describe the person. That is no story. If all you ever make is tight portraits, then your portfolio is going show you are a portrait photographer. Maybe that’s all you want. But if you want to keep people’s interest, mix things up. Shoot wide, medium and close-up and include context. Mix up your lenses. I shoot primarily with a wide-angle, 10-24mm (16-35mm full frame). Why? It includes context.

Many, many years ago, (1985?) I had a National Geographic photographer do a short portfolio review for me. I had two images of two different little Nepali girls. Each image was a tight head and shoulders crop of a shirtless child in black and white. I thought they were stunning. His comment was, “I have no clue as to where this photo was taken; New York? In a studio? India? You need to pull out and give me context!” He was right. If you are taking “travel” imagery, then allow the viewer to travel through the image. Travel images need to transport people to the location of the photo. We do this through context.

Context can be communicated through anything from clothing like a turban or a ratty t-shirt to writing on a wall, or a statue. These give contextual clues to the location, timing, and environment of the photo.

6. Was the image premeditated?

 

 

What do I mean by that? So many photos I see in carelessly or quickly edited portfolios are images that were taken on the fly. Photo walks can be fun but in my opinion, rarely provide the photographer with images that are well thought through and executed. I can almost always pick out a photo that was “snapped” on the fly. These images feel like a stolen moment and often convey a sense of voyeurism. Your images need to be premeditated, thought through and executed. What angle will communicate the best context? Do I want the subject camera aware or not? What you leave out of the frame is just as important as what you put in, and if you are grabbing an image on the fly, then you are, in the words of Ansel Adams, not making a photograph, you are taking it.

In the image above I saw the yak butter lamps and the light and I knew I wanted to photograph them. But the lamps by themselves were not very interesting, at least not to me. I knew it needed more to make a story. So I waited for the human element; people lighting the lamps. I shot the photo with one hand lighting the candles. It was, OK. But, then another person entered the frame and added symmetry. This was the shot.

There are more points I can add to this list, but if you will just concentrate on these six points and not be satisfied with cold porridge and hard beds, you will have upped the quality of your portfolio several times over. Go be Goldilocks!

Feb 2017 Varanasi Lighting Workshop

Here is a quick look at the recent Master Class in Lighting and Portraiture that Piet Van den Eynde and I led in Delhi and Varanasi, India, this past February.  I gotta say, the workshop went off close as planned, and that’s pretty good for a workshop ran in India. In India, anything can happen and usually does. There are always a few hiccups and bumps along the way in any field-based photographic workshop. In spite of that, I feel that I walked away with some really stellar shots and I saw some amazing photos by participants as well.

 

Varsha Dasgupta poses as the god Ganesh.

 

Era Dogra looks through the veil in this kathak pose.

We started the trip off with two days in Delhi. This gave us just enough time to visit some of our favorite haunts.  But the highlight of our Delhi time for me was the model shoot we worked out. A few years back while visiting Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi, we met some very fun and quirky young ladies. They asked us to take their photos and of course “friend” them on Facebook. I soon came to know that one of the young ladies was a traditional kathak dancer. One thing led to another and soon we had a photo shoot of beautiful Indian dancers for our New Delhi portion of the workshop. What a great way to start the trip!

After our time in Delhi, we took the night train to the holy city of  Varanasi. Here we had previously arraigned photo opportunities as well as models for the group to photograph. To call a few of eccentric holy men models, might be a stretch. But we did work it out with several to be our photographic subjects aka model. Together, we photographed them on the river bank, in buildings, around temples and even on boats.

Below is a set of a few images from this trip. I hope you enjoy them.

 

 

Of course, we didn’t set everything up. You can tell from the selection of photos above, we did a lot of walking around flower markets, fish markets and even visited a traditional Indian wrestling club where everything was spontaneous. We were lucky, this time at the wrestling club, they didn’t have Piet and I strip down to our skivvies like the last time we visited.

When is the next workshop?

 

 

Overall it was an amazing time and one that stretched all of us to try new things and come up with new and exciting images. If you want to join us for the next workshop, we will be offering it this coming Nov 26th through Dec 3rd. But this time we will be replacing Delhi with Kolkata! What an amazing city. Did you know that Kolkata is the last remaining place on the planet where you can still find and photograph hand-pulled rickshaws? It’s true! If you are interested in joining us, be sure to sign up so you know when registration for the workshop goes live. Last time the workshop sold out in an hour. You don’t want to just check your blog feed and hope you time it right. We will be letting subscribers to our newsletter know in advance the day and time when registration will go live. This past workshop I asked participants who they got in on the registration so quick. almsot every one of them said they set their alarms. As such I will give you a hint, we move the timing so folks from the U.S. all they way to Asia will not have to wake up in the middle of the night. But you will need to sign up now so we can let you know the timing. You know what they say, “Timing is everything!”

Don’t miss the next Master Class because you were sleeping. Want to know in advance when registration will go live? Then, remember to sign up for my newsletter if you want to be notified first. 

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.

Subscribe here:

   


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.