Peter Eastway writes an almost weekly newsletter from his Better Photography website (www.betterphotography.com). These are some of the more recent posts.
Atsara posing for the camera, Bhutan
Fujifilm X-H2, Fujinon XF 56mm f1.2 R, f1.2 @ 1/1800 second, ISO 125
David Oliver says the only clown in Bhutan is me, but I'm used to his poor and ill-founded attempts at humour. However, in some ways he's correct, because the costumed monks you see wandering around the festivals with masks on their heads and large wooden phalluses in their hands are called atsaras, even though they look like clowns!
Buddhism is fascinating in that it can be engaged with at many different levels. The festivals in Bhutan are generally put on for the local people who, in earlier years, would have had limited education. How do the monks instruct them? The dances are one approach, telling stories that they might not be able to read. The atsaras are another approach to teaching, breaking down the deeply spiritual world into a more accessible and profane flavour. No one is beyond the reach of the atsaras, even the head monks! Wandering around the festival, the atsaras are often making collections for the temple and tapping people on their heads with bright red phalluses. No donation, more taps on the head!
Of course, this is just what we observe when we're there (and yes, I do make donations to the temple). Behind what westerners see as unusual behaviour is a deeply considered approach to communicating the various Buddhist messages.
As with festivals around the world, when everyone is having fun, their guards are down. Photographers these days are very common and nearly everyone in Bhutan has a mobile phone, so taking pictures is commonplace. And while there aren't a lot of western tourists, the monks know that one with a camera is worth cultivating for a generous donation.
At one particular festival just outside Bumthang, access to the changing courtyard behind the festival quadrangle is allowed. At many festivals in the dzongs (fortified monasteries), the monks are getting changed inside where photographers are not welcome, but this courtyard is large enough to entertain a few extra visitors and so it was just a matter of sitting in the corner and wandering out when things looked interesting. I spent three or four hours there and found it far more interesting than the actual dances and presentations themselves.
While it's hard to tell when they are in costume, all the dancers and atsaras are young men and they're having fun. For this photo, a group of them were having a chat as I walked up. My subject happily looked directly at me and you can see his mate give me the victory sign (I am hoping) in the background. A little post-production has added in suitable extra atmosphere - but the costumes and masks are the real deal.
Dancing monk, Phongmey, Eastern Bhutan
Fujifilm X-H2, Fujinon XF 56mm f1.2 R, f2.2 @ 1/4400 second, ISO 125
Over the weekend I saw the blockbuster film Napoleon. I love period pieces. I marvel at the costumes and the way they transform the atmosphere, the mood and the appeal of a scene. We possibly don't give the costume department sufficient credit for the success of a film.
Similarly, I'm not sure if I really appreciate just how magic it is when we travel around Bhutan. Okay, so David Oliver and I have a trip going there in April next year if you're interested, but there must be a reason we keep going back to take more photographs. And part of the reason is the variety of costume worn by most of the Bhutanese, most of the time. Bhutan really is like walking onto a movie set.
On every trip to Bhutan, we make sure it coincides with a religious festival where a dzong (a fortified Buddhist monastery) and its local community spend sometimes several days following a precise routine of dances and pantomimes. The monks wear elaborate costumes and masks so that it's hard to take a photograph that doesn't have appeal. Commonplace for the locals, exotic for us.
This festival was held outside. A huge yellow curtain was hung over the side of the temple building and the monks performed on a stone quadrangle, with a throng of villagers and school children sitting on the hill to one side and spectacular Himalayan mountain views on the other.
For me, it's the silhouette of the monk's head that draws the eye and the continuity of the printed pattern on the huge curtain that makes it such an otherworldly composition. I also like the colour contrast (the monks come in all different hues, so it was just a matter of waiting for one that worked best with the background) and I've washed in a few clouds as an overlay to add to the ethereal atmosphere. I'm sure that will annoy the hell out of David the purist!
Detail, Derby Tidal Flats, Western Australia
Phase One XF 150MP, 110mm Schneider Kreuznach, f4 @ 1/2000 second, ISO 200
The secret is out! The next ‘big thing’ in aerial photography is to be found at Broome and Derby. Okay, so Tony Hewitt has been photographing this area for years, but unfortunately for him, I’m a bit of a blabber-mouth! And it’s hard to contain my excitement about the images I’ve been processing over the past couple of weeks (and posting on Instagram too).
In picking a shot for this newsletter, I had a surfeit of choice. I selected this one because I thought it might translate best into the ridiculously inadequate screens that the majority of people will use to view it – their phones. If it’s an Android, it will be dull and flat. An iPhone way too colourful and contrasty. (I’m looking forward to the hate mail about these comments!) Better results will be on a quality monitor like an Eizo, but I’m only posting a 1000 pixel image, so while the colour and contrast will be great, lost are the nuances of detail and texture I have carefully recorded.
Most aerial images in this genre need to be reproduced as an A3 or A2 print to see their potential. A one metre print (every now and then, I stick one up in the window of my shop for people to view through the tinted glass) looks fantastic and suddenly you can see the tiny ripples of water, the regular pillows of sand and little pieces of seaweed and driftwood.
So I have chosen something simple where an abrupt buttress of sand fights an incoming tide, its shape standing out strongly against the soft, undulating floor of the shallow bay.
I think I can safely say all the photographers who have come on aerial photography workshops with Tony and me have been convinced about the need to print, whether as prints or in a photo book. However, I concede that I get an immense amount of satisfaction simply by editing the photos. During this process, I get to view and enjoy the fine details, to watch as what is invariably a flat, low contrast raw file develops into a rounded, more considered presentation. In many ways, that enjoyment is enough, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit to enjoying the occasional pat on the back (or a like) when I post images on social media as well.
I just wish I could better share the full experience online – and perhaps in the years to come, we will!
If you’re interested in aerial photography, Tony Hewitt and I have two workshops next year, one to Shark Bay and a second to Broome/Derby where this photo was taken. Details on the Better Photography website.
Above Broome, Western Australia, Aerial photo workshop with Tony Hewitt. And we didn't get up particularly early for this shot!
Phase One XF 150MP, 110mm Schneider Kreuznach, 1/2000 second @ f5, ISO 50
For many of us, the purpose of travel photography is to capture and communicate information about a destination. Invariably we find ourselves in a hotel room for the night, often with the early morning free before our travel plans begin. This is the perfect time to take a walk,
Now for most readers, walking around a big city like Sydney, London or New York might be very much like walking around at home, but there will be differences – red buses, yellow cabs, harbour ferries. People are focused on getting to work and today there are so many tourists and travellers, wandering around with our cameras is hardly going to be noticed. We can enjoy being flies on the wall, or we can interact directly with people if we wish. The circumstances usually dictate our approach.
When we travel to exotic locations, or to smaller towns and rural areas, there can be more activity for our cameras. City slickers like me will find these areas very interesting because they are so different to home. Again the locals are usually intent on their chores, making our photography quite easy. Often people are amused that we are interested in their 'boring' morning duties – of course, some don't want to be photographed at all, in which case we should respect their privacy. There's always another subject to photograph around the corner or the next day.
Pre-dawn light can give an otherwise ugly location an interesting beauty – and I just love this time of day for almost any subject. And once the sun rises, there are lots of opportunities to look for areas of light supported by long shadows.
And invariably you can be back to the hotel in time for a well-earned breakfast!
Musician, Khiva, Uzbekistan. Photographing people who are performing for you solves the basic problem of permission when travelling.
Fujifilm X-H2, 8-16mm, f3.6 @ 1/25 second, ISO 3200
Perhaps the best aspect of travel with a camera is photographing the people you see and meet. Different faces, different clothing, different customs – there is a wealth of material for us to capture.
When it comes to photographing people, there are many traditions we can follow. We all know about Henri Cartier-Bresson and how he photographed as a silent observer. Richard Avedon used a more formal approach, inviting his subjects to pose on an improvised set. There's no right or wrong, as long as we are respectful.
My suggestion is to consider how you would feel if you were at home, going for a run or to pick up a coffee, and you saw a tourist sneaking a few photos of you with their phone (or camera). Or you caught someone across the road with a telephoto lens photographing you as you put out the rubbish. Even if the tourist walked up and started talking to you, how would you feel if they then asked if they could take your photograph? Yet this is exactly what most travel photographers do on a regular basis and all I can do is thank the world's population for being so (generally) very accommodating!
So, what should we do? I think the answer is to play it by ear. There will be occasions when life is busy and you can take candid photographs without being noticed. We all have our special techniques for pretending not to be taking a photograph, or shooting from the hip as we walk by. Then there will be other situations where our presence is quite obvious and our subjects not so tolerant – are we better off putting our cameras away and just enjoying the experience.
We can also smile and ask permission to take a photograph. The answer can depend on how you build up to your request. How would you react if someone walked up to you in the street and asked to take your photograph? Compare this with someone asking you for directions, having a conversation and then asking you? And the fact you can't speak their language can often be a benefit as facial expressions and gestures can communicate all that is needed.
We don't have to photograph every person we meet. We don't have to photograph every great character we see, just because we think they would make a great photograph. There will always be other great portraits around the corner.
Khiva, Uzbekistan. Photographed just as light was discernible on the eastern horizon.
Fujifilm X-H2, 8-16mm lens, f2.8 @ 1/15 second, ISO 3200, no tripod.
With so many people travelling and taking photos with their phones, it can be a struggle to create something that is different about the locations you visit. And while phones are now incredibly good at taking photographs in very low light, shooting at night remains one way to be noticed, simply because most travel photos are still taken in the day (and the preference is with bright blue skies).
The main challenge for shooting at night is avoiding large expanses of black – either the sky or shadow areas. Many photographs have wonderful information along the horizon line (e.g. a city skyline), but above and below are often without purpose. One suggestion is to crop out unwanted black areas. Note, I'm not suggesting you remove all the blacks as we definitely want our viewers to know the photo is taken at night.
With this in mind, look for the light sources in the foreground. If shooting a skyline full of colour, put a courtyard or an old car or something in the foreground, just as you would when shooting in daylight.
Another solution is to cheat, just a little. Rather than shooting in the dead of night, shoot either an hour or so after sunset and an hour or so before sunrise. To the eye, the sky can look black, but to our cameras it can be recorded as a wonderfully deep blue.
If you have a lot of sky, clouds can assist. And if your travel destination is experiencing inclement weather, shooting at night is a great solution because invariably the night lights are reflected on wet roads and puddles.
Do you need a tripod? Modern phones allow you to hand-hold relatively long exposures with image stabilisation and high ISO settings. Modern cameras do the same and so you can probably shoot without a tripod. However, if you are wanting to make a print or feature the photo in a book, then a lower ISO setting will give you a superior technical result, or perhaps you'd be happy with the wonderful noise reduction algorithms now available in Lightroom and Topaz. The choice is yours!
Shepherd, Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan
Fujifilm X-H2, Fujinon XF8-16mmF2.8 R LM WR, f5.6 @ 1/125 second, ISO 160
When travelling, we usually desire good weather, but why? Travel brochures are full of sunny days, blue sky and a few white, puffy clouds, so perhaps our expectations begin here, but after a while, this weather in all our photos becomes either repetitive or boring. Rainy days provide different opportunities. If our intention is to return from a trip with photos that make people notice, then perhaps a rainy day portrait or a landscape under stormy clouds is the way to go?
The thing I keep reminding myself is that rainy days don't necessarily rain all the time. There are intervals when the rain stops and the environment looks clean and shiny. And the periods before and after rain often have great light, but since you don't know when this is going to happen (well, not exactly, but an app like Windy gives remarkably good weather forecasts), it's best to walk out with your camera whether it's raining or not.
When travelling, I always pack both a rain jacket and rain overpants. And while modern cameras are moisture resistant, I usually remember to include a rain cover of some description for my camera (even if it's the shower cap from the last hotel room).
In terms of processing my files, I find two approaches are helpful. First, I go for less overall contrast, opening up the shadows. In heavy rain you're not going to have much contrast anyway. Second, I will push the colour saturation slider a little harder, being sure to have an appropriate white balance setting to begin with. It's true a rainy day photo might not have the crowd-pleasing impact of a late afternoon sunset, but as part of your travel narrative, they can realliy give your portfolio a lift.
Kaindy Lake, Kazakhstan
Fujifilm X-H2, XF56mmF1.2 R WR, f11 @ 1/12 second, ISO 125
Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of digital photography is the way our photographs are named – a faceless, emotionless, camera-generated filename which increments numerically, so that one filename looks much the same as another.
Most photographers rename important photographs to something more recognisable and meaningful. Many photographers rename all their files as part of the import process – as the files are transferred from your memory card to your computer, the photos are given a new file name.
For travel photography, what name do you use? You can be in one location for a few days, or at several locations in a single day. As you ingest your photos, you can ingest all the images together with one filename, ingest your photos location by location, or subject by subject with different filenames, or rename groups of photographs afterwards. There's no right or wrong way, but for me, I like things to be simple.
My approach is based on my overall filing system. I don't use Lightroom to create an overall catalogue of all my images – I'm too lazy to apply keywords etc. Rather I rely on my memory – and perhaps that will be a problem in the future!
Each year, I have a folder. Inside that folder are three folders – Jobs, Work and Projects. The Jobs folder holds all my raw files – and only the raw files. Inside the Jobs folder, I have a sub-folder for every 'job'. So, if I photograph the family gathering at Easter, that's a job. If I visit Kazakhstan, that's another job. The Kazakhstan folder will be named 230919-Kazakhstan.
Inside these job folders, there might be no need for sub-folders (the family at Easter), but for travel locations, I create one or two folders for each day. For instance, when in Kazakhstan, we visited the Assy Plateau, so I created a folder 230924-AssyPlateau. Then, when transferring the images into that folder, I renamed them Assy-0001, Assy-0002 etc. The numbers increment. The file name is more meaningful – for me.
In fact, for a travel job, I increment the file number for the entire trip, so the files I imported were actually Assy-1755, Assy-1756 – because I had already imported 1754 photos from earlier days on the same trip.
If this makes sense, use it! If not, look around for other options that make sense to you - so you don't end up with folders and folders or meaningless filenames.
Sheep at Middlehurst. Yes, I obviously have a problem with sheep - in this case, I have processed the image with additional sharpening to bring out the texture and detail in the fleeces. Still doesn't translate quite as required for web viewing. Fujifilm X-H2, 150-600mm, 1/500 second @ f8, ISO 1600.
In many ways, backing up our images and safe shooting practices should be much the same whether we're travelling or shooting a project at home. The question becomes, what can you afford to lose? And given how rarely we lose our images, do we restrict other opportunities so we are without risk? Everyone will have their own views on this.
Let's begin with the camera and your storage cards. If you have a two card camera, you can set it to capture a copy of every photograph to both cards, so if one card fails, the image is safely stored on the other card. However, an advantage of a two card camera is expanding how many photos you can capture. The counter argument to this is that you simply buy two memory cards with greater capacity and have the best of both worlds.
Personally, I only shoot to one card at a time and the second card is sitting there for when I forget to load a fresh card. That for me is a more likely problem than storage failure. (Unless I'm shooting a wedding - then I back up as I go! I'm not usually shooting weddings when i travel!)
However, if you have a large capacity card and it fails, you risk losing a lot of images. But when I'm travelling, I don't want a box of memory cards I can potentially lose. My approach is to download the shoots every evening onto my laptop and a separate back-up drive. I don't delete them from the memory card (assuming I have sufficient cards for the trip). So, at the end of each day, I have three copies of my photos.
Eventually, my memory card fills up, so I change cards. I usually have sufficient cards so I won't need to delete photos at any time, the exception being when shooting aerials and wildlife. So, if I do have to re-use a memory card, I will use a second back-up drive so I still have three copies of every file.
I'm sure this process could be strengthened further, but to date (touch wood) it has served me very well. And when I look back to the days when we shot Kodachrome film and posted it back to Melbourne for processing, and then Kodak posted it to your home, how much safer am I already!
Shark Bay, 2023
Phase One XF 150MP, 110mm lens, 1/2000 second @ f4, ISO 100
How much time do you spend editing photographs? I'm going to guess not enough! But how much is enough?
Over the last fortnight, I've been working through the Shark Bay photographs taken earlier this year on our workshop (which, by the way, is being repeated next year if you're interested). While I haven't photographed Shark Bay as many times as my partner in crime, Tony Hewitt, I've probably clocked up 30, maybe 40 hours in the air above one of the most amazing aerial locations in the world.
So, what has this to do with editing? Although from year to year the Shark Bay aerials have a degree of similarity to them, the time of day, the tides, the wind and the clouds all conspire to ensure that every flight you discover something new. However, there's another ingredient to consider: me - or you! The other ingredient is the photographer and how he or she approaches the photograph in post-production - and hence the need to spend time editing your photographs.
While I love reviewing my work on location (usually in the evening with a glass of red wine not too far away), I often find that a subsequent review of the shoot a few months later reveals forgotten or unnoticed gems. The image with this newsletter is one I consider to be a bit of a gem and I'm very happy with it!
So, now the honesty bit: when and how do I find the time to edit a shoot? Like many men my age, I enjoy sitting in front of the box and watching sport, whether it's cricket, cycling, surfing or football. However, there's a lot of downtime in these sports and I find it very hard to sit still with nothing else to do, so I grab my laptop and open up either Lightroom or Capture One and review my work.
Two points of clarity. If you're a woman who loves sport, you're not excluded, but my wife has very little interest in sport and prefers to read a book or potter in the garden. However, we both happily read and edit when watching Netflix as well (as long as it's not a foreign language movie which requires you to read the subtitles)! There are time management opportunities for all of us.
The second point is that the work I do on my laptop remains 'preliminary'. As much as I love Capture One and Lightroom, the result on the laptop is just a step in the process. The way I've taught myself to edit brings me back to Photoshop and the Auto Curves dialog. Invariably I export my images as 16-bit TIFFs and do the final colour and contrast tweak on my EIZO monitor, not the spectacularly colourful and contrasty MacBook Pro!
Hopefully Manly isn't going to lose this afternoon after being so far ahead, but who knows!