documentary photographer

Image of the day

This environmental portrait of a dusty grain miller was taken in the old walled city of Harar in Eastern Ethiopia.

For centuries, Harar has been a major commercial centre, linked by the trade routes with the rest of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa and on to the coastal ports and the outside world. Harar Jugol, the old walled city, was included in the World Heritage List in 2006 by UNESCO in recognition of its cultural heritage.  It is also known in Arabic as "the City of Saints" ("Madinat al-Awilya"). According to UNESCO, it is "considered 'the fourth holy city' of Islam" with 82 mosques, three of which date from the 10th century and 102 shrines.

As you walk through the crowded dust laden cobbled streets of Harar you will pass by the grain mills that are a feature of most the city districts.  Inside they are dark and incredibly hot and dusty, the workers covered in a veneer of the finest flour.  I love to shoot images in this sort of environment - it gets you off the street and into a relatively 'quiet' environment in which to make pictures.  Generally people are very happy to have their pictures taken particularly once you take the time to approach them and talk about what you want to do - surprisingly easy even if you have no language in common.

This image was shot on a Canon 5d mk3 with a 24-70mm F2.8 lens.  Exposure was 1/6 at F4.0 at ISO 800.  I lit the image with my standard go to setup of a Canon speedlight on a synch cord with a Westcott 43" double fold umbrella for diffusion held at arms length in my left hand.  I like this particular umbrella not only for the quality of it's light but also for it's size when folded - it folds down to a mere 15", easily small enough to slip into your camera bag.  I generally don't bother to use a lighting stand since I like to be reasonably lightweight with my kit and I can hand hold the flash and umbrella in a variety of positions.  My camera exposures are generally manual - frequently monitoring the exposure with live view on the LCD display.  Flash exposures are sometimes ETTL if the subject is moving and varying distance from me, however if the subject to flash distance remains fairly constant then setting the flash manually will result in greater consistency in exposures.

Looking through my lightroom catalog  I see I only shot maybe half a dozen frames of this guy - one to nail background exposure, one to sort out flash and then a couple of frames to get a composition I'm happy with.  Then it was umbrella down, a floury handshake and off to find the next subject.

Ganges - something for everyone

The banks of the river Ganges is a wonderful place for a travelling photojournalist - there are seemingly endless documentary images to be made and stories to be told wherever you look.  At last years Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad this was the case even more so than normal.  Wherever you looked there were people - literally millions of people - doing something in or alongside the river, whether bathing, making offerings or simply trying to make a living.  While people were throwing small coins into the river as offerings - children were there with their trousers rolled up towing powerful magnets through the shallow waters in the hope of catching any small coins they could attract.  Coconuts bought from vendors on the banks would be gently placed in the river and prayers given by devotees as they floated away downstream - only to be netted from strategic vantage points 100 yards away and sold back to the vendors in order that they could then be sold back to worshippers at a profit.  In many respects this fits perfectly with many of the beliefs of Hinduism - endless cycles of creation, preservation and reincarnation.


Iphone 5s as a valid documentary photography tool

I've always been a great fan of the Iphone for day to day personal photography.  The apps that are available make image manipulation very straight forward and the creative options are pretty much limitless and improving week by week. Images out of the new Iphone 5s are a very respectable 3264x2448px and given the right shooting conditions and light, images can really be very good.

Processed with VSCOcam

Straight up images from the standard camera app are ok, but nothing special.  Shoot via an app such a VSCO and suddenly you have independent control of exposure and focus point - something currently not available with the standard camera.  Images take/processed with apps such as Hipstamatic or Snapseed suddenly take on whole new dimension and have the ability to sometimes make the ordinary image extraordinary. OK, so maybe a client might not look favorably on you turning up on a shoot with just your Iphone in hand, but as a backup or second camera in certain situations it can produce some very printable images.  As a discrete tool for documentary work the iphone is fantastic - everyone these days has a smartphone and no one thinks twice about people shooting images with your phone.  Produce a 5d mklll with a large zoom lens and people immediately know you are meaning business and these days, even in remote areas, that can be met with suspicion.  I now often break the ice with the Iphone camera - showing people the images and developing a rapport.  Once this is established the main camera can be brought out and used.

My current favorite workflow is to use Snapseed for image manipulation and output - having first shot in either VSCO or standard camera mode.

The following show image sequence was shot recently in Java with images processed through the Snapseed app.