Monday, 21 April 2008

On Assignment - Travelling light(s)

Most travel assignments present the photographer with something of a packing dilemma. On the one hand the very nature of travel means that you don't quite know what you're going to encounter, so need to be prepared to shoot anything. But on the other hand, travel also means you have to be mobile, and don't want to be loaded down with a ton of gear.

The portrait of this jeweller in Sri Lanka is a case in point. The island is famous for its sapphires, and they are mined, polished and sold near the southern city of Galle. On the day we were in the city I asked our guide the best place to get a shot of one of the gems. It turned out a  friend of his was a jeweller in the city - one quick phone call later and we were on the way to his shop.

I had pre-visualised a shot similar to the one above, with the jeweller peering at a sapphire through a magnifying glass. On arrival at the shop I was presented with two problems.

Firstly the lighting inside the shop was terrible - small windows, necessary for security, meant there was almost no natural light, leaving the overhead fluorescent tubes to do all the work. Secondly, the jeweller was a youngish, slightly overweight chap wearing a dirty t-shirt. Not quite what I had in mind.

I solved the lighting by using two flashguns. It's impossible to travel with studio lighting equipment on assignments like this - there just isn't the space to carry them. But a couple of flashguns, light stands and radio triggers is perfectly manageable.

I set up one 580 EXII with a silver umbrella as a key light on a stand about 2m and 45 degrees camera right and another with a snoot to restrict the light and provide a highlight down the left side of his face 2m camera left, about 30 degrees behind the subject. Both were triggered with Pocket Wizards. By using a shutter speed of 1/250th the ambient exposure was zero, so I didn't have to worry about gelling the flashes to get the colour temperature to match the fluorescent lights above us.

However, solving the second problem required diplomacy rather than technology. I set up and shot several pictures of the shop owner. But while I had been setting up I noticed one of the store assistants looked rather more like the kind of jeweller I had in mind: older, wearing glasses and a clean button up shirt. So after shooting the owner I politely asked if I could take a photo of the assistant. Of course he obliged, and I got the far superior picture above.

So next time you are packing the kitchen sink into your camera bag, remember that a lot of travel photography relies on similar problem solving skills: making do with lightweight equipment, and planning and interacting with people to get the shot you need.

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