Depth of Field: Michael Yamashita

Mike Yamashita

I have been looking forward to talking with Michael Yamashita for years. Yamashita is a National Geographic icon. He has shot more than 30 stories with the magazine, many of which became cover stories. Specializing in Asia, he has shot stories on Marco Polo’s journey to China, the Great Wall, The Age of the Samurai, Korea’s DMZ and much, much more. Many of his stories have been turned into a National Geographic Channel documentary, The Ghost Fleet, won Best Historical Documentary at the 2006 New York International Film Festival.

Yamashita’s prior book, Marco Polo: A Photographer’s Journey , sold over 200,000 copies worldwide in its initial printing .  Marco Polo is also the subject of his award-winning National Geographic Channel documentaries, Marco Polo: The China Mystery Revealed, in which Yamashita retraces the 13th-century Venetian’s epic excursion to China.  His other books include The Great Wall: From Beginning to EndZheng He (Discovery), In the Japanese Garden, New York from Above and Mekong (River): A Journey on the Mother of Waters.

In this interview Mike Yamashita gives us a wonderful look into what it is like to have been a National Geographic photographer for 30+ year. We also talk about what does it take to make a great photo and so much more. Mike is easy going and open. No pretense with this man. By the end of this interview you will believe Mike Yamashita is they guy that lives next door, only with a much cooler job.

Visit Mike’s Website HERE

Follow him on Facebook HERE

Follow him on HERE

You can listen to more Depth of Field podcasts HERE.

Photography: What’s real, what’s not and does it matter?

This may be bad timing as I am preparing to leave tomorrow for a week in Banda Acheh, Sumatra, Indonesia. I’m not sure if I will have Internet access to be able to respond to the comments. But here goes– I want to address some flak I got on Facebook about the previous post. I received a comment from a reader or two stating they felt that what they saw in the produced images was not real. Continue reading

Rickshaw Pullers of Kolkata


I lived in India for thirteen years. In that time I only ever flew through Calcutta, or Kolkata as it is called today. This week I find myself in this amazing place.  It is significantly different than Delhi and other places I have visited or lived in India. For one thing the taxis are not like you find in Delhi, the old black and green striped Ambassadors. They are still Ambassadors, but a solid bright yellow. Yellow like a slick Italian sports car only old and with more dents in the body than… well, a New Delhi taxi.  The streets are more narrow and crowded than Delhi as well. But the biggest visual difference is the “pull rickshaws”. I have heard about them for as long as I have lived in India. People tell me that Calcutta is the last place on earth you can find them. I am not sure that is true, but then I have never checked either.

The pull rickshaws are the classic rickshaw image you think of:  the ones with the driver or puller flanked on each side by long wooden pole-like handles, much like you would see on a horse drawn carriage or chariot. Many of these pullers work barefooted on the fiery hot asphalt roadways, plying their way through dense traffic to get the riders to their destination. It seems inhumane and cruel. In fact, five years ago the local government here made the use of such rickshaws illegal. The pullers union protested and said they are willing to give up this work only if the government provides them with new employment. That has yet to happen and so the pullers continue to work and defy the court order. Interestingly enough, I have seen no young pullers. All seem to be over the age of 45 to 50 years or older, sometimes years older. So, the job might be dying out by itself. These men, and it is only men, often sleep in rented bunks in a crowded bunk houses or on the streets to save what small amount of income they earn. Most of these pullers don’t own their rickshaws, they rent them for around 30 rupees a day. They told me their income can vary from nothing one day to 500 rupees on a great day. Most of these men come from families that live in other cities or even states. They came to Calcutta 20 to 30 years ago to make money to send back home to their families. Yet, they never seem to save much. Like everyone else, they have the expenses of food, lodging, doctor bill and medicine. Two or three of the men n the bunk house I visited were not working that day because they had a relapse of Malaria.

I love the strength I see in these men.

Note:  One of the craziest coincidences I have ever seen, happened with this shoot. As I was talking to the men in the bunk house (there are 80 or so just like it in the city), they told me there was a lady photographer who came by and took photos of them.  I checked with Ami Vitale, and it was, in fact, her when she was working on her story for the National Geographic Magazine.  Small, crazy world!

Depth of Field: Ami Vitale

AmiVThis past September we where fortunate to have Ami Vitale as a guest instructor on our Ladakh Lumen Dei photo workshop. It was a great experience and I deepened a friendship. Hear me when I say, Ami Vitale is the real deal. She is a true, in the trench, get dirty photojournalist; And she’s one of the best out there. She’s tough, street smart and incredibly talented. But she’s also sensitive and very caring about the people she’s around. I don’t mean other photographers, though she is that as well. I mean, to the people she’s in and among photographing. I learned a lot from her over those two weeks. Ami taught me to slow down, and not just photograph the moment but to enjoy and savor.

Our paths first crossed many years at a Any Thing Mac, a local Mac repair shop in New Delhi.  Ami was covering Kashmir and I was living there and we both had Mac issues. I had no idea who she was. I thought to myself, this little lady is going to get her self blown up if she’s not careful. I think she was thinking something similar about me. This last September was the first time we actually got to shoot together. I certainly hope we get to do it again.

Ami’s work has appeared in all the top magazines; National Geographic, Newsweek, Time and more. She was named Magazine Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association, and Photo District News recognized her as one of 30 image makers of the future.

Visit her website and gallery HERE.

I hope you enjoy this interview with photographer Ami Vitale.

Depth of Field: Nevada Wier Pt2

Yesterday we had a great response to part one of the Nevada Wier interview. Today you get the conclusion with part II. In this interview Nevada and I talk about her choice of lenses and as well other aspects of what it takes to get the great shot. Enjoy.

Be sure and check out Nevada’s website HERE and follow her on Twitter HERE.

Don’t forget, there are other interview in this series. You can find the all HERE.


Depth of Field: Robb Kendrick

This is the first in a series of interviews where I hope to speak with photographers about their vision, their craft and yes, even their gear. I have titled this new series Depth of Field. ((pun intended.))

Robb Kendrick was born in Spur, Texas in 1963 and currently lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico with his wife, writer Jeannie Ralston, and their two boys. Robb has traveled to more than 75 countries on assignment and has completed more than a dozen stories for National Geographic. National Geographic used his image of a young Nebraska farm girl for the cover the cover of their book “In Focus“. Some years back Robb found a love for all things tintype.

Click on the images to view larger.

First, I think a little background would be helpful to my readers. How long have you been shooting?

Robb: 24 years professionally

Matt: When did it dawn on you that you could make a living off of photography?

Robb: 26 years ago while at University

Matt: I think many readers assume National Geographic photographers make their sole income off the magazine’s assignments is this true? (if not) What else do you shoot to keep food on the table?

Robb: I shoot a variety of projects, some advertising, some Annual Report, but over the past 18 years I’ve invested in real estate and other areas to where photography is more a supplemental income. This has given me freedom to be more selective with photo projects. It has been a blessing given the current health of the photo industry or lack of it.

Matt: I have already posted an article with links to some of your cowboy images on my blog. The whole tintype thing is fascinating. Growing up I remember being in the darkroom with my Dad, and putting my hands in the chemicals and the slick feeling of the developer and the acid burning in my nose of the fixer, it was all very tactile. But these feelings arel gone today in the digital world. But you seemed to have found them again in your tintype work. Is this important or am I just waxing nostalgic?

Robb: Digital is the reason I went back and found TIntypes. I don’t enjoy the computer and digital has forced many photographers to gather information with a camera and do a lot in post production which as NO interest to me. Tintypes are all one of a kind objects and it really slows you down to where making 4-8 images in a day is a big deal. Unlike the thousands that are made daily by NG digital photogs. That said Digital is a great tool, but one I’m not interested in.

Matt: You use a new box camera with some really old lenses, right? So how much of the end effect is the lens verses the tintype. I love the shallow depth of field, the tack sharp center and how it just drops of quickly to the side of the image.

Robb: For me it is impossible to separate the two. The old lenses in combination with the tintype and shooting contemporary images makes a sum total that all work together. I do not use modern lenses, because I feel the imperfections of the old glass works well with the imperfections of hand made tintypes.

Matt: How many of these old lenses do you have and where do you find them?

Robb: 80 lenses, but I primarily use 4 of them. Ebay is the place to locate them. I have many that will cover 20X24 and I hope to start making 14X17″ tintypes next year so some of the lenses I have will be dusted off and used for the larger images.

Matt: I guess the flaws in a piece of old glass like that help the aged look of a new tintype?

Robb: Exactly

Matt: Do these lenses have fixed apertures? Are your exposures a matter of trial and error?

Robb: They have waterhouse stops, so the range is f 2.5- 32. Trial and error yes, but after the number of images I’ve made I can get pretty close on the first plate.

Matt: The tintype was in many ways the Polaroid of the Old West wasn’t it?

Robb: Yes, because it was nearly instant and the photographers traveled from town to town and shot them, processed and delivered immediately compared to a portrait studio shooting glass plate negs or dags.

Matt: I read somewhere that you learned this technique from someone else, do you every give workshops in tintype?

Robb: I do not. John Coffer was my teacher. is his website and he is a tremendous resource and a very sharing person.

Matt: I know you travel the world shooting with National Geographic, I could imagine some fantastic portraits in India of old shepherds or in Indonesia or Malaysia of some tribal people. Have you done this?

Robb: Not on tintype. The chemicals necessary are not easily transported to foreign countries these days. Silver nitrate, potassium cyanide etc. Showing up to customs with bottles of crushed white powder is not anything I have done. Would love to someday though I have a lot of projects in tintype on going in Mexico and USA.

Matt: In this last issue of National Geographic, you shot images of the Tarahumara people of Northern Mexico. What was your vision going into this assignment?

Robb: I had photographed the Tarahumara in 1997 and found them fascinating and their world is under a lot of pressure these days so I proposed the story using a large format and color negative film. Again, not a very NG approach, but for me I have done 17 stories for NG and these days I want to concentrate on different approaches so I do NOT shoot 35mm digital for them any longer. The Tarahumara are very shy and not trusting of outsiders (they have been abused for 4 + centuries) So my thought was to do portraits with their consent. This proved to be the most productive way to work and the project in the end worked out well.

Matt: The images have some of the same feel of your cowboy shots, yet you shot them with a film camera and what looks like a ring flash.

Robb: These were 4X5 color negative with a ringflash.

Matt: Speaking of vision; do you go into an assignment knowing how you want to shoot it or does that develop once you arrive on site?

Robb: I think it develops to some degree as the project evolves. I have ideas, but want to be open to new possibilities as the project grows.

Matt: How heavily to you rely on a fixer when you’re going into an area or country you don’t know? So how do you find them?

Robb: I use local help of course because of language barriers and their connections, so they are invaluable to produce the most thorough coverage. Having been to 76 countries I have a list I’ve developed, but I use help from my colleagues when going into new areas.

Matt: People are always asking me if I desire to shoot for National Geographic. I tell them, heck yeah, but I would rather have a family. It seems to me covering assignments for the magazine can keep you away from your family for months, and this can’t be good for a marriage and raising kids. I read you moved your family to Mexico for just this reason. How do you balance family and work?

Robb: Prior to kids my travel schedule kept me on the road for 300+ days per year, after having kids I reduced it to 250 the first year and now have it down to about 100 days per year. For me family is the most important thing I have going on in my life today. The other investments I’ve made have given me the freedom to have steady reliable income coming in and moving to Mexico where cost of living is about 1/3 the cost has also contributed to more freedom and now I can focus on my personal work and publishing more books and also get into sculpture and painting.

Matt: Let’s talk Gear: When your on assignment, what kind of gear do you normally take along.

Robb: Digital jobs (commercial in nature) 2 Canon 5D’s, 24-70mm lens, 70-200 lens, no lighting, tripod that is rarely used. Apple MacBOOK Pro.

Matt: Do you do onsite back up while in the field? What do you uses?

Robb: Yes, Lacie Portable HD’s.

Matt: Typically what does your workflow in the field look like?

Robb: Very archaic. Download, edit in bridge, convert to tiff, slight sharpen to all files, deliver in a catalog.

Matt: What does your kit look like on any given assignment?

Robb: Tintype gear, 8X10 camera, 8 lenses, 4, 9, 16 Lens cameras from the 19th Century, 6’X12′ darkroom trailer, Reis tripod, and about 600 lbs of miscellaneous gear, and my Dodge 2500 truck to pull the darkroom trailer.

Matt: In closing, what are you working on now? Any images you can share with us?

Robb: Working on a book of the Tarahumara work that includes my journal pages and some tintypes that I took of the Tarahumara. Also, a personal project on Death in Mexico that is in a new artbook called Changelings.

Matt: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. I know you are busy and this kind of thing doesn’t help get the work done.

Be sure and check out the links below. Visit Robb’s personal website HERE. You will find tons of great links to his work around the net and some great audio of the cowboys he’s photographed.

Mummies of Guanajuato: An Interview

New York Times Article

NPR Multi-Media

Tintype Cowboy – Robb Kendrick

Robb Kendrick has a new fan in me. The guys stuff is amazing. I am embarrassed to say I had not heard of him till this past issue of National Geographic Magazine came out. He photographed a story on the Tarahumara people of Mexico. More on that in the days to come.

That story of the Tarahumara people was so impressive that I looked up his website and was floored to see that Robb has been working in wet plate technology for the past several years. “Wet plate technology”, that is rather euphemistic for tintype. You know, images shot directly onto tin plates. It is a complicated process that involves some rather potent chemicals like potassium cyanide. Robb has been photographing cowboys in this method and getting images that take the viewer back 150 years. I can’t get over how timeless the images look. Do yourself a huge favor and checkout the links below. Spend the time viewing the videos and the slideshows. It is well worth your time.

A video on the tintype process.

Cowboy Portraits.

NPR Modern-Day Cowboys Frozen in Time.

NY Times Multimedia Show

Robb’s Website

I am please to say that I will be interviewing Robb in the days to come in a new series of interviews call “Depth of Field”. So be watching for that interview and others.

In other news: It has been really crazy for me. Monday a 20 container filled with all my worldly goods from India was supposed to arrive. Well, needless to say, it didn’t. Nor on Tuesday. It is now Wednesday and it should arrive by 5pm tonight. Lets see.

This morning my wife nearly got arrested. She was suppose to fly off to London to see some friends but got to the airport and found out that her visa had expired. The school where Jessie goes was suppose to have her guardian visa in the works thus allowing her to travel. But someone, somewhere dropped the proverbial ball. Now we have to pay a lot of fines and a penalty on her air ticket.

So you can see, I have been busy.

A Conversation With Ami Vitale

I first met Ami a few years back in New Delhi. We both were getting our Macs worked on at, what was then the only Mac repair place in North India. Not sure how we started chatting but I found out that she had just returned from Kashmir. I told her I lived up there and ran a trekking company. I think she found it hard to believe. Continue reading

Ami Vitale’s Kolkata’s Rickshaws

One of my favorite photographers is Ami Vitale. We met in a small shop in Delhi. I did not know who she was at the time and wondered what this petite American girl was doing in Delhi at an out of the way Anything Mac store. Later when I wrote her about her website, she made the connection. What a missed opportunity on my part. Ami is a rising star in photojournalism today. She has the eye and the guts. Continue reading