Demand for my Bangkok photo workshops has grown quickly this year and the past week has found me spending a total of four and a half days showing other photographers some of what I consider to be the city’s more photogenic locations. We tend to stay largely off the tourist trail, photographing in places which offer great opportunities to shoot material which can tell a story. It’s invariably a treat and I need little persuasion to pick up a camera and wander through the big, riverside market or the narrow alleyways of Chinatown. The local people are amazingly hospitable and impressively tolerant. The encounters we have with the market traders and street vendors are always a pleasure and we’ve never very far from smiles and laughter. It’s a privilege to be able to photograph in such circumstances and I’m always aware of how fortunate we are to be received so graciously.
I think that it’s important not to take that sort of generosity for granted. There are far too many parts of the world where photographers are treated like mobile ATMs and a visitor with a camera is seen as an opportunity to make a fast buck. There’s no question who’s to blame for that: it’s us. We swoop in with our big cameras and high expectations, hoping to capture a trophy photo of a grinning local with which to impress our family and friends back home and it’s easy to hand out a pocketful of change in exchange for a posed photo. But you have to ask what you’re really capturing in such situations. Are you really enjoying a genuine exchange or simply taking the route of least resistance to get your shot. My linguistic skills are limited at best but I don’t think you need to speak the local language to be able to communicate at some level. If you have a genuine interest in the people you meet, a genuine desire to engage, then you’ll be rewarded with more than enough opportunities to photograph.
I guess it’s a question of priorities. I’m always really keen to get the photo – it’s my job after all – but the reason I’m there in the first place is because I adore that sense of wonder that I feel when meeting people from a place and background so different from my own and yet finding that we have things in common. Without wishing to get too pretentious about it – although that may be unavoidable – it reinforces that sense that we’re all just people in the world, finding our way and doing our thing. Whether your thing is taking photographs, selling chillies or piloting a tuk-tuk, we share a common humanity and that’s what I want to capture.
I’ve got into the habit of occasionally handing my camera over to somebody that I’ve photographed and inviting them to photograph me in return. It’s not that I want a picture of myself – God forbid – it simply that it balances things up. People are sometimes hesitant at first but quickly get in the swing of it, frequently gathering their nearby friends and family for an impromptu portrait session. Whether or not we talk the same language, at some level we’re both saying “Hey, isn’t it remarkable that you and I are both here, in this place, at this time? Let’s capture the moment”.
In my opinion, when you hand over cash you are devaluing the experience, reinforcing the differences in your respective situations rather than the similarities. It’s no wonder that people in popular tourist destinations can quickly become cynical. Now, the obvious argument against my position that it’s simply lacking in generosity not to give money in exchange for photographs but I disagree. There are other ways of making a contribution that are far more positive. Buying produce from a market trader or a cup of chai from a street vendor enables you to make a contribution whilst allowing them to maintain their self-respect. Perhaps more importantly, you are not setting a precedent that the next person to walk by with a camera will be expected to maintain. I’m often taking photographs in areas where poverty is an issue and whether you believe in karma or trust the principles of yin and yang it is, of course, a responsibility to give something back. So if you’re planning a week in Delhi why not commit a day of your time to working for a local charity or helping out at an orphanage? You won’t have to look too hard to find one. Without wishing to preach, if you turn up loaded down with expensive camera gear and expect to walk away with award-winning photographs without making some kind of contribution to the local community then I’d bet you’ll only get away with it once. It’s the natural law of investment and return. You can’t keep taking without giving.
OK, the not preaching thing got away from me. Sorry.
I’m also in the habit of setting some time aside to get prints made and then returning with them as gifts. I got a stack printed when in Nepal earlier in the year and then went in search of the people I’d photographed. I couldn’t find them all of course but I found the majority and got a delightful response. I purposely put my camera away for these return trips although did snap a couple of frames to illustrate this blog post. I knew I’d be tempted to spout off on this subject at some stage!
Earlier this week I returned to some of the places I occasionally visit during Bangkok photo workshops. I took a pile of prints, some of my own and many kindly contributed by my clients. The guys selling eels and turtles down by the pier were especially thrilled and walked proudly up and down the street showing off their pictures to their colleagues. These same guys have asked me for money before; something of a rarity in Bangkok, thankfully; and I’ve always declined but I’m pretty sure that I’m treated with more respect as a result.
Perhaps there’s an argument for not doing this but I’ve yet to see it. In all honesty, I can’t really balance up all the generosity I’ve received as a travelling photographer but I can, at least, make some small token effort to give something in return. I’m absolutely sure that doing so has meant that I continue to be met with wonderful photo opportunities.
My picture of a boy cycling, hands-free, along a street in Varanassi appears in this month’s Photo Plus ‘Inspirations” pages and is a good introduction to my top Top Ten Tips for Successful Panning:
Panning, or following a subject with your camera, is a great technique to use of you want to introduce a sense a movement into your pictures. Traditionally, a panned shot will have the subject sharply focussed whilst the background has dissolved into a blur.
The shot above would probably not have conveyed the speed of the boy on the bicycle nearly as well if a fast shutter speed had been used. Freezing the action and the background would have meant that the sense of movement would have been lost.
1. Choose your location carefully. You might be standing in the same place for a while so make sure that it’s out of the way of passing traffic and that you’re not blocking the pavement (sidewalk). Pick a place with regular passing traffic of the sort you wish to photograph and make sure the background is reasonably attractive.
2. Get your stance right. Choose if you’re going to be shooting left to right or right to left. Personally, I get better shots moving from left to right, it feels like a more natural direction for me but go with what feels best to you. Stand facing the point at which your pan movement will end. So, for left to right shots, stand facing towards the right. This helps the body twist naturally to the finish position.
3. Practice a few times without taking a shot. You’re looking for a fluid movement where you pick up your subject at one end and follow all the way through to the other end and your finish position. Keep practising until you feel you have the timing right and you can keep the subject in the frame throughout the panning movement.
5. Pre-focus on a point at which you’re going to shoot your picture. Pick a point in the road and focus on that. Then turn the auto-focus off and be careful not to move the focussing ring again. Alternatively, use the tracking focus function if your camera has one but you’ll need to make sure that you’re focussing on the subject and not the background.
6. Set your exposure manually. Take a reading from a neutral section of the scene and set the aperture to balance with the shutter speed you’ve selected. Using the Shutter Priority mode on your camera is OK but exposure can be thrown out by subjects in very dark or very bright clothing.
7. So, you’re standing facing away from your start position, you have the camera set up with manual exposure, manual focus. Time to test out your technique. Pick out a subject and follow it with your camera as you did when practising. Trip the shutter half-way through your panning movement but – and this is crucial – follow through. Often, photographers trying this technique will stop moving at the moment they trip the shutter and the secret is to keep moving. You should keep following the subject even after you’ve heard the shutter fire. it’s the sporting equivalent of “following through” in a golf or cricket stroke.
8. This is one of those times when it’s OK to check the LCD screen to see what you’ve got. AFTER you’ve looked back down the road to make sure that you’re not about to miss something really eye-catching. Zoom in on the LCD screen image to check the sharpness of your subject. Wheels and feet can be blurred to emphasise the movement but the important things, heads and shoulders for example, should be relatively sharp.
9. Practice. It’s another blessing of the digital age that we can stand in one place and fire 100 frames in order to perfect the technique. It doesn’t matter if they’re all deleted afterwards, the important thing is to get the movement and the timing right.
10. Practice some more. OK, that’s not really a separate tip but whoever heard of a list of Top Nine tips? Seriously, the more you do it, the better you’ll get. And like practising for a big game, you don’t have to wait until you’re on that magical holiday of a lifetime to start working on your panning technique, practice at home so that you’re on top form when it comes to the big match.
OK, wayyyyy too many sporting references in this post.