Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Archive for February 2014

When in Doubt, Improvise

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Cold branding involves using dry ice to cool and then freeze brands on the cattle. I used four speed lights to focus attention on this activity, particularly with the glaring daylight from the open barn door.

Cold branding involves using dry ice to cool and then freeze brands on the cattle. I used four speed lights to focus attention on this activity, particularly with the glaring daylight from the open barn door.

I’m in Myanmar most of this month, leading a National Geographic Photo Expedition and photographing for an NGO. It’s fascinating—I’ve been coming here since 2007 and the country is rapidly changing. I’ll write more about that about in a future post. One thing that hasn’t changed is that in Myanmar, just as in other places, you must often improvise to make good pictures.

Actually, you could make the case that photojournalism is largely about improvising and problem solving. At least, that’s what we photojournalists seem to spend most of our days doing. We find the stories, secure access to people and places, work out logistics; only then do we make pictures. When shooting an assignment, the problems we face depend on the needs of the client for whom we’re making the pictures.

With documentary photography, often the biggest problem is to deliver a publishable memorial picture without influencing the situation. When I began my newspaper career the documentary approach was very influential. You couldn’t move the furniture; you couldn’t tell the subject what to do or where to stand. Artificial lighting was suspect. The idea was to make pictures was with minimal intrusion.

I didn’t quite buy that approach. I always carried a small flash and I’d bounce the light from any available surface to add a bit more needed illumination. I liked what the eminent photojournalist, Eugene Smith said: “My attitude towards available light is that I use whatever light is available.”

These days, much of my work is for magazines and nonprofit organizations. Whether the need is a documentary-style image or something more illustrative, I have to produce the best possible picture that accurately tells the story and I’ll use whatever lighting I can to solve problems.

I had a Smithsonian magazine assignment on breeding cattle for the consumer meat market that was all about improvision. I was told that much of the work would take place in a barn. I anticipated I would have to light the situation to get the necessary pictures

I am not what you’d call a heavy lighter. I prefer to work with whatever ambient sources available— daylight, florescent, incandescent, sodium vapor–and use Speed lights placed strategically around the subject to create emphasis. My lighting kit is four SB-800s, a couple of softboxes and umbrellas, Omini-Bounce domes and a few light stands.

For the Smithsonian job, I flew to Dallas, then drove four hours northwest to a small cattle ranching community. After a quick scout of the ranch, I realized that four Speedlights wouldn’t be enough. I’d imagined the barn to be a wooden structure with light filtering in through doors and windows. In reality it was a huge construction shed, with high ceilings, metal walls and no windows.

Here I again used four Speedlights to brighten the scene, along with a small handheld strobe on the shadowed face of the hat-wearing cowboy in the foreground.

Here I again used four Speedlights to brighten the scene, along with a small handheld strobe on the shadowed face of the hat-wearing cowboy in the foreground.

Maybe daylight would help. The barn had two large double doors opening to the outside and an overcast sky would give me some nice soft light.  Unfortunately the day was bright and sunny, and the open doors admitted a glaring shaft of daylight that cut right across the work area, creating a situation that was impossible to balance with the dark interior.

I ran tests for my original plan to mix Speedlights with the barn’s dim sodium vapor lights, but I wasn’t getting results that I liked and my four Speedlights didn’t have the power to replace the sodium vapor lights.

Well, if the lights won’t suit the original plan, I’d change the plan and work on a smaller scale to get the photos I needed. The cattle would be herded through a series of pens and gates, ending up in a chute that closed like a large clamp around the animals and immobilized them while they were branded and ultrasounds were performed on inseminated females to check the health of their fetuses. I’d photograph the animals while they were in the chutes; that way I’d limit the area I had to light.

I hung two speed lights upside down over the chute to backlight the animals.  The branding irons were cooled with dry ice and the lights emphasized bursts of steam released by the irons as they touched the animals. Away from the scene I set a third light with an OmniBounce on top, on a stand to light up the area where the branding equipment was placed.  I held the fourth SB-800 in my hand, off camera, to light up the cowboy doing the work. This Speedlight triggered the other three SB-800s, as all were set for wireless remote. The situation was a bit tricky since the cowboys naturally wore cowboy hats that shadowed their faces, and I had to continually move my handheld strobe to illuminate them.

This setup gave me a good picture of the activity, but the background remained dark. I wanted more of a sense of the place, and providing that required more light than I had with me. I asked the ranch manager, “You wouldn’t happen to have any floodlights?”

Luck was with me. The ranch had a couple of large commercial flood, the kind often used for night road construction. I placed one of them behind the chute area, bounced one of its heads off the ceiling to light the background and aimed its other head at the back of the chute to provide just enough rim lighting to make the images interesting. It wasn’t the slickest lighting job, but I liked the drama the floods gave the scene.

Of course, not every photo required an improvised lighting setup.  Here cowboys round up the cattle on the breeding stock ranch.

Of course, not every photo required an improvised lighting setup. Here cowboys round up the cattle on the breeding stock ranch.

I had to guess at my exposures for the floods, but with digital I was able to see the scene immediately and make necessary adjustments to exposure and white balances to handle the mix of flash, glaring daylight, overhead sodium vapor and halogen floodlights that comprised my improvised “available” light

Teamwork

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Fuergo and Atitlan volcanoes in Guatemala.

Fuergo and Atitlan volcanoes in Guatemala.

For most of my career I’ve been a free-lance editorial shooter. I photographed for National Geographic magazine for 20 years, 12 of those as a contract photographer. During my time there I did many of the large picture stories that used to be the signature of the magazine. For most of those assignments I worked alone. I’ve never covered breaking news, press conferences or the kinds of social events where I’d likely encounter other photographers and my schedule rarely matched that of the stories’ writers.

 Most of the stories I cover concern the consequences of events or conditions. I photograph people carrying on with their daily lives in the face of tragedy; fathers living with AIDS, mothers hauling water during a drought, children seeking education under the burden of extreme poverty.

Many of my stories take big themes—migration, aging, radiation— and narrow them down to make them accessible and understandable. Often the people I meet on these stories are poor and live in remote areas. It’s hard to contact them ahead of time and as a result I often find my stories as I travel through them.  I began my career as a newspaper photographer and I’m grateful for the lessons I learned from that job; act like a journalist as well as an image maker, seek out stories, think on your feet, work quickly.

A woman at noon prayer in a Catholic church in Santiago Atitlan Guatemala

A woman at noon prayer in a Catholic church in Santiago Atitlan Guatemala

An earlier assignment tested my journalistic skills and challenged my solitary working style. A former student of mine who I’d taught at the Maine Media Workshops made me an offer I couldn’t refuse; she asked me to be the chief photographer on a project that would take me to Guatemala and Nicaragua to cover the impact of certain environmental conditions on peoples’ health and culture.  With three of my major interests in play—environment, health and culture—I accepted the assignment. Then my former student asked me to find a videographer.  Slowly I began to realize that the project was actually centered on making a video. My former student would be the producer and my role was to shoot still pictures for promotion and an accompanying exhibit.

I had to check my ego at the door.  For the first time in my freelance career I was going to work as part of a time, which represented a pretty big adjustment for me.  When I’m working, even if I’m present for only a day, even just an hour, I try to photograph the people I encounter with an in the moment intimacy. I find the best pictures come from intense, focused interactions.  Now I would have to share those interactions and those relationships with a producer and a videographer.  I had mixed feelings about that. I had heard from other photographers who had worked with videographers that tensions between the needs of still and video seemed to be a given.  So I needed to find someone who would complement my reportage style of shooting and—this was critical—have a sense of humor.

This farmer's child works in the shadow of the Masaya volcano in Nicaragua.

This farmer’s child works in the shadow of the Masaya volcano in Nicaragua.

I turned to a friend, the only person I knew who shot video in a style that I was certain the producer would like, a style best described as journalism mixed with lush dreamy landscapes. We had both worked for National Geographic. He knew my shooting style and I was confident he could contribute to the fast paced reporting we were going to have to do.

The shoot was three-weeks of frenzied travel.  The videographer and I quickly developed a way of working that we called “Navy Seal” journalism.” It was brutally simple: We arrived without warning and with few preliminaries began shooting stills and video; we got the job done quickly and moved on to the next location.

Despite our pace, we kept looking for stories.  When we found them, both the videographer and I presented a united front to the producer, convincing her to change her logistical schedule. Months later, when I saw the finished video and the exhibit, I was gratified to see that our insistence was not just egos on overdrive.  Most of the more evocative pictures came from situations we found on the run and for which we’d lobbied for more shooting time. I found that working with a team was more fun than I could have anticipated. Being able to review the day’s work and then talk about the next day’s plans and hopes helped me sort out what I was doing and helped me determine that my pictures were going in a direction that was appropriate to the storytelling mission of the project.

Horse drawn carriages are a popular means of transport in the town of Antiqua Guatemala.

Horse drawn carriages are a popular means of transport in the town of Antiqua Guatemala.

I found that the key to working successfully as part of a team is to set up ground rules before anyone gets onto the plane.  Time in the field needs to be parceled out and a hierarchy of need has to be determined. When I’m alone, I’m in charge; everything is according to my agenda.  As part of a team I have to consider the needs of others—and still get the story.

Ultimately this assignment reinforced how much the landscape is changing for photojournalists. Now it’s a web and mobile driven world, a world of images in motion with accompanying soundtracks, and our success as journalists lies in learning to work in that world.

Photo Expeditions

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Vietnamese woman working on a golf course outside of Ho Chi Minh city.

Vietnamese woman working on a golf course outside of Ho Chi Minh city.

I’m on my way to lead an amazing Photo Expedition to Myanmar for National Geographic. With a major snow and ice storm coming up from the south, I feel lucky to be escaping to a warm and beautiful location. While I’m traveling I’ll be uploading a few historical columns I wrote for Nikon Magazine before that publication folded a few months ago.

Here are my other expeditions and classes for this this year:

An additional Photo Expedition to Myanmar for National Geographic on November 11-13, 2014. If you’re interested in improving your photography, this amazing country provides a great place to hone your skills. http://www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com/expeditions/myanmar-photo-tour/experts

Over the Christmas and New Years holidays I will be leading a photo expedition to Antarctica, again for National Geographic.  I’ll do two expeditions back to back: Dec. 18-Dec. 31, 2014 and Dec. 28. 2014 to Jan. 10, 2015.  This will fulfill my dream of visiting Antarctica. I can’t believe that I will be able to spend the holidays in such an amazing place. We will celebrate on ice!! http://www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com/expeditions/antarctica-cruise/experts

Young Vietnamese girl in the Gio Linh district

Young Vietnamese girl in the Gio Linh district

If you’re a college student interested in going to Vietnam and Myanmar and get six college credits at the same time, you should sign up for a travel abroad course that I am teaching for George Mason University called “Visualizing the Post Conflict World, Vietnam and Myanmar.” As a student you’ll participate through experiential learning, interacting with families and communities while traveling through a post war environment. You’ll do a multi-media project for your final grade. I am the academic director for this four-week program, which is sponsored by George Mason University. It’ll be an amazing experience. Travel is May 22 to June 18, 2014. GMU Center For Global Education:  Visualizing a Post Conflict World http://globaled.gmu.edu/programs/facultyled/summerstudy/south-east-asia.html

George Washington University will again offer my two-week photojournalism class for high schoolers as a key feature of their pre-college summer program. I created this program nine years ago and have had a great time teaching it, learning as much from my students as I hope they learn from me. Photojournalism:  Media in Focus introduces students to photojournalism in the DC area, giving them the opportunity to sharpen their photography skills while producing an exhibit and a class photo booklet. The class is scheduled from July 13 to July 25, 2014. https://precollege.gwu.edu/photojournalism-media-focus