BCA News: Spring 2019
A Photographer's Journey
After 38 years as a professional photographer and teacher, you’d think there wasn’t much left to learn about the subject: but you would be so wrong. I’ve studied photography, have a Master’s degree to prove it. I worked as a medical and ophthalmic photographer for 29 years, covering everything from open-heart surgery to public relations, picking up awards and professional recognition along the way. I had a 9 year mid-career adventure teaching and pursuing personal projects, exhibiting in galleries around the UK. So, with a history like that, photographically documenting the work of a small medical charity would be a 'walk-in-the-park.' But this would be in Africa and I had so much to learn.
On my first trip in March 2012 I was well prepared: two DSLRs with mid-range zooms, complimented with a 70-200 zoom; a Speedlite (flash unit) with off-camera triggering cord; spare batteries for cameras and flash; chargers and power adaptors; and a MacBook Air and back-up external drives. All neatly packed into a wheelie Pelicase, the exact dimensions of the maximum aeroplane carry-on allocation. The Pelicase was great for transporting but not good for day-to-day use in the bush, so after a couple of years I bought a LowePro hybrid backpack/wheelie. Again perfect carry-on dimensions.
While everyone is aware of the dimensional restrictions for carry-on luggage, what is less well known is the weight restriction. My kit weighs in at around 15 kgs. Most international carriers have a carry-on weight limit of 7 to 8 kgs. And this is increasingly being applied. One of the issues is the weight of the case itself. The LowePro weighs in at around 4 kgs when it is empty. Solution: reduce the amount you take as carry-on to a bare minimum. It will still come to about 10 to 11 kgs. Put the rest in checked baggage, with the whole bag wrapped using the cellophane wrapping service available at most airports. When you check-in, be up front and say why it may still be overweight (expensive camera gear) and, as one check-in clerk said to me once, "make it look like it isn’t heavy."
Subject Brightness Range
This was one of my favourite topics in my teaching days. Transparency film: 5 stops from detail in the shadows to detail in the highlights (zones 3 through 7). Anticipating bright sunlight and dark African skin I had already thought through my strategy. I know I should over-expose by 1 f-stop for the African skin colour but that might cause me problems with my pale-skinned northern-European medic. So go for no correction on the f-stop and use carefully direction, bounced fill-in flash from the Speedlight. In addition, using flash would allow me to work at a lower ISO and reduce noise. As someone brought up with the traditional restrictions of film speeds, it was always natural to work with the lowest ISO one could.
On our first visit to the Chongwe District Hospital, we were taken on a ward round, where I met and photographed several patients, the most striking of which was Irene cradling her son Charles who had malaria. I had time for just 3 shots. I angled the bounced flash to simulate light coming into the room from a window to the left. It’s a powerful portrait, full of strength, dignity and concern. But the small room filled with light and there is little modelling or sense of the ambience of the room.
I successfully plugged away with this technique over the next couple of years but became increasingly aware that I wasn’t capturing the true nature of the places, especially the light in Africa, which can be amazing. I started pushing the ISO up and not using the Speedlight. Instead I began working around the natural light and working with the subjects in relation to it. But what about SBR? How was I going to maintain the detail at either end of the scale? I went back to that first principle, setting the camera to over-expose by 1 f-stop and using Shutter-Priority metering. Then drawing the detail out in Adobe Lightroom using the Highlights/Shadows/White/Black sliders. It worked brilliantly.
I didn’t abandon flash entirely. The pop-up flash on the DSLR has been very useful on occasion. I photographed Bertha with her two children drawing water from the pump in the rural village of Shiyala. She was strongly backlit so I needed some fill from the front. It still needed work in Lightroom, but the pop-up flash provided the fill-in beautifully.
Re-thinking the Basics
The light in rural Africa can be intense, especially when it is reflected off the sandy earth. Having been brought up with the rule-of-thumb bright sunlight = f-16 when the shutter speed = ISO. One would assume that most of the time one can work with an ISO of around 100 to 200. That’s fine for landscape but people are not static moving from open sun to shade in the blink of an eye. One such event happened with Florence, a nine year old girl standing in the doorway of her grandmother’s house. I had been inside the house capturing an image of how they lived as a family. As I was leaving I glanced back to see Florence standing in the doorway, beautifully lit as the sun bounced of the floor in front of her. I’d set the camera to 200 ISO ready for the brightness outside. With the shutter speed at 1/80th second, the aperture came out at f-4. It’s a beautiful image but slightly front focused and the shallow depth of field means the eyes are very slightly soft. Since then I’ve worked at a minimum of 400 ISO and frequently 800, even in bright conditions, so that I can work at 1/125th of a second and a mid-range f-stop in the varied situations that I face. Obviously this is not hard and fast but a basic starting point.
Extending the Range of Skills
Since that first trip in 2012 the range of work I do has grown considerably, and with it the equipment I take. Small charities and NGOs working in so-called developing countries need more than just good stills to publicise their work. In 2014 I started using a multi-media approach, providing a more in-depth commentary on the work we were doing. The video functionality of modern DSLRs enables this. Add a couple of good microphones (one lapel, one rifle) with a digital audio recorder and you can do so much more. But it isn’t easy managing different media and the danger is, that rather than doing one thing really well, you end up doing all three poorly. Capturing good stills in a setting like this requires patience. You have to let the images come to you. Build your images through quiet observation, looking for that split second that frames the subject in time, space and light, and captures the essence of the story. That is the power of still photography. Video and audio tell their story through time, in a linear progression. All three, stills, video and audio require different mind sets and it isn’t easy to simply flip from one to another.
Over the past seven years I’ve not only learned to adapt my still photography skills, as described above, but I’ve also learnt how to interview, record and edit good quality audio in the field. I generally try to plan my video recording sessions around a rough storyboard developed around an interview, or a list of B-roll footage and audio based on an activity or event. I try not to shoot video and stills simultaneously: the modus-operandi is just too different. After three or four years of working through this, it was reassuring to read an article on the Magnum Photo-Agency website describing exactly this kind of multi-skilled approach and the challenge it presents. The article goes on to describe the cultural shift in the way we capture and consume news following the development of social media. A challenge I’m still getting to grips with.
The last six years have proved stimulating and challenging. Stories have appeared on-line; the BBC featured an audio package on national radio and the charity’s Flickr account recently passed 1M views. Learn more about the charity Mothers of Africa.
Who said 'you can’t teach an old dog new tricks'?
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