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).

 

 

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.

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Facing Your Flash Phobia

off-camera flash, Jinbie HB600, Expose for the background

Here is Nayoung being a temporary model so I can adjust the background exposure and the power of the flash.

If you have spent any amount of time on my blog, you know that I have a phobia about off-camera lighting. I love to use on-camera flash and play with dragging the shutter. But off-camera – that’s the kind of stuff that makes my palms sweat and my body break out in hives. I am not sure why it is so befuddling for me. Maybe it has to do with my many learning disabilities or the fact that I waited way too long to learn this trick and now I am an old dog. Whatever the reason, it has been a journey of two steps forward, one step back.

background exposure, test shot, Jinbie HD 600

This is photo is pretty much right out of the camera. This was pretty close to what I wanted for my background exposure.

My off-camera flash mentor is Piet Van den Eynde, my Miyagi of light. You may recall, Piet sold me his Jinbei HD600 strobe. It is a 600-watt monster that competes with the big boys like ProFoto’s B1, only at about a third or less of the cost. It is the Jinbei that I have been using to confront my fears. Why the Jinbei and not a speed light? Well, for one thing, it is entirely manual and believe it or not, shooting manually with a flash is proving easier for me and is giving me a great foundation. Once you learn the fundamentals, only then can one move on. Wax on, wax off. Another reason I chose the Jinbei is because it is so powerful; it can overpower the sun and allow me to use this flash anytime and anywhere.

Whenshooting in manual it really is just a mater of taking a shot and making the adjustments. Here the flash needed more power.

When shooting in manual it is just a matter of making an exposure then adjusting it. In this exposure, the flash needed a lot more power.

For the past few weeks, I have been getting to know a couple of new photographers in my town, Simon Bond, and Pete DeMarco (another Pete). Simon and Pete are both relatively new to the area; they arrived here while I was away in the U.S. over the past year. These guys shoot a very different style than I shoot.. They are more into creative techniques and photo magic such as  light painting.

Simon and Pete invited me to try out light painting.  Simon has a new toy he is still learning to use. They wanted to introduce me to light stick called a Pixelstick.  They suggested we go to the very southern tip of the island to a place called Vanilla Bay and shoot against the sunset. The only real issue is there has not been a significant sunset for many days. It has rained every day here since arriving back to Malaysia in September. But the weather changes here by the minute, so who know? We risked it and drove to Vanilla Bay.

We were a rather large group: Pete and his partner Nayoung, Simon and his wife Jayoung, Vijiakumar Shunmugam from a local Facebook photo group,and Chrysmic Qmin and her boyfriend Yaan Sin Lee. Qmin acted as our model.

Pete, Simon and their respective partners and I arrived early to scout the right location and set up the gear. Sometimes the best moments are serendipitous. As we arrived I noticed two boys flying red balloons from fishing poles. The boys were silhouetted against a late afternoon sky.his was too good to pass up.

I quickly asked Nayoung to stand in as my model while I frantically tried to get the exposure of the sky correct. What I have learned, (wax on) is to first expose your scene for the background. Get it as dark or as light as you want it. Of course, all this is done in manual mode. On my X-Pro2 I needed a flash sync of 1/250 sec. so I simply adjusted the aperture to get the desired exposure.

A side note here: the biggest enemy in my photography and I would wager in yours is panic. I was quickly trying to get the exposure before these boys left or their balloons popped. I kept telling myself, “Slow down!”

 

Jinbei HD 600, Vanilla Bay Balancing ambient light and flash.

Eventually, it all comes together!

 

Jinbei HD 600, Vanilla Bay Balancing ambient light and flash.

Serendipity!

 

It's a good feeling to get it right in the camera.

It’s a good feeling to get it right in the camera.

Once I got the background exposed the way I wanted it I had to set up the flash unit and softbox. “It is still pretty bright out, do I use the grid or not?” Trial and error. I left it off for the time being.  I told myself, “Just set it up and take a few frames to balance the exposure on Nayong (wax off).” It was way too light. I needed to lower the power of this monster. Bam! I got it!

Above are the results of my effort. But it was only after a few frames, and the boys left. Of course not without a portrait of their own.

 

Chrysmic Qmin

Chrysmic Qmin

 

Chrysmic Qmin and her boyfriend. An impromptu couple shot between setups.

Chrysmic Qmin and her boyfriend. They asked for an impromptu couple shot between setups.

 

Later that night I became the VALS or Voice Activated Light Stand ;-).  In other words, I held the light all night. But it gave me a chance to observe Simon and his Pixelstick in action. I began watching how he maneuvered it. I had to try. I had an idea. Could I make angel wings? If I turned on the stick while standing behind her and moving the stick to form a wing then turning it off and repeating the same move on the other side it should make wings. In theory. The problem is, I can’t stand behind her when the flash is popped. So I have to run out and after the flash goes off start drawing my wings. Easier said than done on coral rock at night with a 5 foot Pixelstick  in your hand.

 

My first attempt at angel wings looked more like a peacock tail!

My first attempt at angel wings looked more like a peacock tail!

 

After thinking it through , this was a much better attempt. Not bad for two tries.

After thinking it through , this was a much better attempt. Not bad for two tries.

 

On my first try I just about broke my ankle (actually cut it on the coral) Oh well, the show must go on. The second try was better. Maybe the blood loss slowed me down. By this time of night, everyone was exhausted and frankly, it was time to go home.

 

 

A good night of inspiration and hard work using new tech. It was also a night of relearning old lessons: don’t panic, slow down, be purposeful.

Tomorrow I am off to some pretty fun places with my piece of tech, my Fujifilm X-T2. Be looking for new photos and some thoughts on this amazing little camera in the days to come.

Announcing the 2nd Location Portraiture & Lighting Masterclass in Varanasi, India

banner Masterclass

 

I am pleased to announce the second Location Portraiture and Lighting Masterclass in Varanasi, India. Well, ok it’s really the second time we’ve run the class, but the first time we’ve used this name. I am teaming up again with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Guru and Wizard of Light Piet Van den Eynde. We will be releasing full details in the days to come. But let me assure you this will be an amazing class! Piet and I have been working all winter hammering out the details to make this class one that will be both highly educational, exciting, challenging and memorable and I think we have succeeded. We will be covering techniques and skills that are often skipped over on other workshops of this price or length. We will be covering the broad topics of: Continue reading

Layer Your Image for Narrative Depth

Most of the time when photographers talk about layers in a photo, they speaking about postprocessing in Photoshop. In this post, I am talking about visual and narrative depth in an image. To make a photo visually appealing, you need to create a sense of depth both physically as well as narratively.

Given that most cameras do not have stereo vision and so by default shoot a two-dimensional image, creating a sense of depth has always been an issue for photographers. We are always struggling how to translate depth into only two dimensions. So we have to suggest at depth. We do this in a very simple way.

  • Example of lack of depth
    This valley is certainly dramatic and the side of the valley leading up to the edge of the frame does give it some depth. But look at the next image...

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A Photographic Growth Spurt

Someone once told me, a photographer, not to take a photo of them but a video instead. This statement was not to be taken literally; it was more of a metaphor for how we look at people and form opinions. The idea is we all change. What she was trying to say was she is not the same person she was ten years back as she is today, don’t view her by her past. Take a video, because we all change. If someone was to form an opinion of who she is, view her for who she is today, not a static image of her from 10 years ago. Continue reading

What camera should a beginner buy?

Stident on old collage chum George Neal had never picked up a camera till I got him shooting a Fujifilm X-20. Later he ugraded his camera to a X-T1. Here is George on the left with both camera next to Piet Van den Eynde on a recent trip to India.

Student and old college chum, George Neill, had never picked up a camera till I got him shooting a Fujifilm X-20. Later he added an X-T1 to his kit. Here is George on the left with both cameras next to Piet Van den Eynde on a recent trip to India.

One of the more frequent questions I get asked, is “What is the best camera I should buy if I am a beginner?” Honestly, these days there are so many choices, which can make it confusing and overwhelming. But the reality is it doesn’t have to be. I tell newbies to step back, take a breath and answer a quick question or two. Then I give them usually one, possibly two answers. They are almost always happy if they follow my advice. Continue reading

New Video: So who is OFMP.ORG?

Introduction to The On Field Media Project from On Field Media Project on Vimeo.

The On Field Media Project is an organization I started a couple of years ago that provides training in photography, videography and social media for small non profits so that they are better prepared to tell the ongoing story of the good work they are doing in the field. In the modern day, building a continual digital relationship between the organization and their supporters is essential. OFMP bridges that gap to give these organization the storytelling tools they need to continually share with backers, donors and allies. We also strive to see these organizations become self sufficient and non-reliant on pro photographers. Not to take any work away from the pro (there will always be work for the pro), but to empower these organization to begin to tell their own story in a powerful and timely way when they can. Continue reading