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We were only a week into our trip, and yet to realise that the famous Golden Rock at Kyaiktiyo had spawned a series of imitators. In fact, a glimmering collection of balancing boulders make an appearance at pagodas across the country. So when we heard about Nwa-le-bo (just 15 miles north of our Mawlamyine guesthouse) we decided to see what the fuss was about.
Having taken a taxi to Kyonka village we are directed to an open lorry lined with thick wooden slats. A scaffold staircase stands alongside so passengers can access the makeshift seats. Cars pull up, creaking and hissing as engines cool in the shade, and from behind tinted windows a procession of women emerge wearing freshly pressed longyi, traditional double-breasted blouses and heeled sandals.
They seem unfazed by the adventurous ascent to the pagoda – our copy of Lonely Planet describes the journey as a slow crawl, but it turns out to be a full-throttle race to the top – our driver doesn’t seem to register the tight switchbacks and sheer drops.
We pause halfway up as the truck's overheating undercarriage is placated with buckets of water, before lurching forward again and finally arriving bruised and battered at the temple's entrance.
While the men purchase flimsy sheets of gold leaf to add to the boulders, the women enlist the services of the pagoda’s photographer. That’s when it dawns on us – we are not the only tourists visiting today.
Teetering at the edge of a cliff, the three golden rocks shimmer in the sunlight and look strangely surreal against the surrounding green hills. It’s eerily quiet, the only movement is a few swooping swallows. That is until Khin catches up with us.
With a broad smile, she spends the next half an hour directing, positioning and posing us, and we are paraded from one gathering to another. Some are shy and stand stiffly beside us. Others are bolder – placing ours arms around their waists and kissing our cheeks. Instructions are shouted, people swap in and out of pictures and there is a lot of laughter.
The lorry honks its horn and Khin dashes off to purchase her prints. She held this photo aloft on the journey back down, but it was only later when I looked a bit closer that I felt so acutely aware of her gold earrings, glittering wedding band and baby-pink nail polish – painted on the left hand only, the right hand is for day-to-day tasks and not worth adorning.
Khin made us feel like a celebrity for a few minutes but, more importantly, she opened up our eyes to the country’s rapidly emerging middle class. When so many locals are still struggling to survive from one day to the next, it was great to see a group of friends use their leisure time to explore a country that has been overlooked by the outside world for so long.
That evening we sit at a riverside bar and stare at the water, snacking on a plate of deep-fried onions. A young girl wanders between the tables collecting ring pulls from soft drink cans, slipping them on her fingers.
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I am far from a professional photographer. I am just a guy with a camera always looking for an edge to improve my shooting game. Six years ago I had some dodgy point and shoot camera until I planned to leave London and travel back to Australia via three months in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. For that journey I traded up to a Samsung NX100 which was small, light and had all the features to start learning the DSLR basics while on the road.
I loved that camera and still have it but after 4 years mastering a semi-entry level DSLR I was ready to scale up.
I put out a tweet to my followers asking if anyone was upgrading themselves and looking to sell their old body/kit. Luck would have it that a very talented photographer by the name of Melissa Findley got in touch saying that she wanted to upgrade all her kit but wouldn’t do so until someone physically came and took her kit off her hands as she loved it so much. She was looking to go professional – and I figured If I could get even a smidgen of what she could capture then it would be a worthwhile investment. Check out her Instagram and website – I quietly wish I was as good a photographer every time a photo of hers hits my Instagram timeline…
But the question I’m always asking myself and seeking out is – How do I become a better photographer without any real photography experience other than what I'm able to do in my spare time?
The answers I’ve found is that it’s best to be a jack of all trades rather than a master of one. By doing this I have now been asked to shoot events, new menus, restaurant and bar openings, website photography, comissions for titles like Vogue and GQ Magazine through to being invited to international locations to capture the cities and countries with my particular style. Do note that this post isn't chock-full of my best photography - I'm more taking you through a journey of where I was at during my life learnings.
My thing is always about helping the little guys and by giving my time for little or no money in London I’m able to sharpen my photography game on their time. Yes I get stressed each time I’m asked to do a comission as I do this in my spare time and always hope I’m able to capture what the client wants (even when the ‘client’ is a good friend). So I wanted to give you guys looking to up your game some insight as to how I have slowly progressed.
Do note that these aren't all my best photographs - more a journey of where I was at that point of my photographic journey.
Weapon of Choice
My personal set up right now is a Nikon D7000 Digital SLR Camera with a Sigma 24-35mm Art Series Lens. The Nikon body is super sturdy and have never had an issue with any of its components. It has two memory card slots – one which I use to capture RAW shots and the other that is a FlashAir wifi card that shoots in jpeg and transfers easily to my phone for quick uploads. The Sigma Art Series Lens is quite the beast and does make it difficult to lug around sometimes but the clarity of the camera is second to none so I’m more than happy to do so - taking it on all international assignments I'm commissioned for. I’ll go into more detail on lens choice below.
If you’re looking to up your game you need to lose that point and shoot camera (or even worse - that smartphone). All camera makers have an affordable entry level camera that usually comes with a decent lens to get you started. It’s here you’ll start understading the importance of Apeture, Shutter Speed, Manual photography, ISO and everything in between. You’ll be able to change the setting of your camera and even assign buttons on the camera to do different things to your specifications (which I find handy but once I give my camera to someone to take a photo the buttons don’t work as they’d expect).
You need the right lens for the right job. Getting my first camera and knowing I’d be travelling through Asia I went for a longer zoom lens that I knew would be able to capture large vistas, close ups and work decently in low light situations. You tend to get this type of lens as standard when buying a DSLR and is a great one to learn with. You also get to figure out its strengths, weaknesses and limitations – but what you can capture forcing the limits of your equiptment will forever help you become a better photographer.
I’d suggest NOT to upgrade until you can say you’ve mastered your first lens and pushed it to its limits. By doing this you start to understand what you like shooting and in what conditions you’d like your next lens to work in. I found that I was taking food photos in dark restaurants and I wanted to upgrade to a lens that works better in low light – aka a lower f-stop like 1.4 that would allow more light in. But once I bought that lens I realised that I had to be further away from the food/dish to capture it in full frame. I bought too early and soon found that what I really needed was a camera that I could get super close to a dish of food yet would still capture everything I wanted to.
I am first and foremost what I would consider a food and travel photographer. I only sometimes dabble in landscapes, fashion, abstract and arcitecture etc, so you have to get a lens that will work for what you like to capture. Either way you need to take your camera into every camera store you see, chat with the experts, put alternative lenses on your camera and just test, test, test.
Only you have all the answers for you on what lens you need. I like to always just have my one key lens that never leaves my camera and that drives me to research which would be perfect for me. I tend to go to professional photographers I’ve made friends with at workshops, tell them what I like to shoot and then give them the ultimatum – If you were me with a budget up to £xxx what lens would YOU buy? But you need to realise that this changes frequently as they have their finger on the pulse of what’s being developed. Before buying my current lens I asked for a recommendation and got it from the photographer. For a few weeks I poured over every little detail in reviews and compared every different lenses that was an option. Once I was convinced it was the one for me I went back to the same photographer and said thanks for the tip – in which he replied that he changed his mind after a new lens came on the market at the time I was checking out his recommendation.
I am fastidious when I’m researching what to buy – scouring every review site, comments on Amazon, asking on Twitter for recommendations – I literally run myself ragged until I am assured that I have made the exact right decision. And too right – you will be dropping a lot of cash so there’s no point just hoping you made the right decision when there’s so much choice out there.
Get intimate with your camera/lens
To get better you not only need to master framing your shots but you need to know what happens in the back end of your camera body. Whenever you get a chance, keep flicking through the options in your menu settings, take a photo then change the setting back and take another photo. Be scientific. See what changes. Do you like it? Should you change the setting permanently?
After working with a pro photographer I found that I like the way he reassigned some of the buttons on his camera and made the same adjustments to mine. Now I use my thumb on the AF-L button to focus and use the shutter just to shoot (usually it’s the half press of the shutter to focus and then all the way down to get the photo).
Treat your lens like an newborn child at all times. Seriously – this is where you spend your money and inside it’s generally just metal, plastic and glass that when put into stressful situations can just implode and stop working. I have lost two f*cking brilliant lenses because I didn’t treat them well. My zoom lens has just taken a beating while travelling and now no longer autofocuses and my amazing portrait lens was accidently dropped and now cannot do much of anything.
I have read many, many opinion pieces from photographers who suggest that there shouldn’t be a manual setting on a camera. What does that mean? It's basically a way to permanently set you aperture, shutter speed and ISO.
I can see there they’re coming from – you should generally always pick either aperture or shutter speed as a main setting. But there’s times I find myself shooting in very low light to near darkness – whether it be for an event in a low lit restautant or at a fishmarket before the break of dawn - where I will put the ISO low, f-stop to 2.0 (or lower) and shutter speed to around 60’. I then rest assured that I can capture a busy place in focus which I can then boost the exposure in Lightroom (which I wil get onto later).
Stay still my child
To expand your skill set you need to change it up every once in a while. I shoot food but I like to take time out to shoot people on the fly as well. When you do this you start to realise how fast paced your actual life is. How often do you just stop somewhere for no reason and just watch and wait? You’ll notice it when you stop.
I suggest finding a corner of a busy street or behind a pole and just wait. Blend into your surroundings until people who are in the space forget you’re there. It’s then you get to capture people unseen. You can use this technique in a bar or pub but I find it works perfectly when travelling and I’m wanting to get everyday life photos in markets. At first you’re the foreigner and everyone’s looking at you and what you might do. But just but waiting it out, they all get back to their everyday life and ignoring you – and it’s then that you get your gold.
Angles and Perspective
I will be eternally grateful to Etienne Bossott – a french photographer in Hoi An, Vietnam. It was my birthday a few years ago and I was in the town and had heard that he did a decent early morning photo tour to the local fishing port. This was at the time I had just bought my first DSLR camera and just the basic tips he gave completely changed the way I was able to photograph. It’s things that pro photographers think are throw away tips but it was like The Matrix was suddenly revealed to me and even now I can see the shift in my photography from that day forward.
He suggested ways to further bring out the clouds in the shots (but as a newbie I was never thinking about the background – just the thing I was trying to capture). But the God moment I had was him telling me to get down and stop shooting front on.
A little bit of conversation
Found a great person you want a photo of but not sure if you should without their permission? Why not go up and chat with them first to ask if you can. If so you might then be able to direct them into a better pose, hold something a different way that you want to feature in the shot or just wait it out to when the perfect photo presents itself.
Get familiar with all aspects of photography
Be a handyman in terms of photography. Shoot everything you can. Look at what you captured. Think about what you would do differently next time. At the time of your photography – make the decision to do it differently immediately. The amount of times I’ve found myself taking photos with rubbish lighting and spotting an empty table with the perfect light streaming through and thought to myself that a) I’d be nuisence getting up and putting my plate there for a photo b) people are going to look at me and think I’m weird. Take the chance and make it a shot that you’d be proud of.
Expand your repertoire buy shooting outside your comfort zone no matter whether it’s food, drink, bars, street scenes, fashion, movement, night time, portraits etc. Every situation you put yourself in will expand your mind and make you think how you could utilise those skills in areas you’re more confortable with.
Once you understand that photography is solely about light and lack of it, you’ll be miles ahead of everyone else. The day you see a friend take a selfie with the sun behind them and you casually mention that they will be completely shrowded in darkness in the photo with the background washed out white and that they just need to shift themselves slightly 180 degrees, that’s the day you’re on your way to shooting everything the correct way.
Do what you did as a kid – read. Starting out? Head to your local newsagent and pick up one of the many photography for beginners magazines. These are great to get an understanding of your camera basics with big photographs to illustrate what happens when you change the settings, reviews of cameras, lenses and a whole bunch else that is worth keeping with you and flicking through when you get a chance.
What I tend to always do is try to master different parts of a book and if there’s something I don’t iunderstand, I don’t come back until later. When I do come back I then focus all my photography on that element to try to get it under control.
My favourite book at the moment that I constantly flick through, turn down pages as to what I can currently do in my photography and other pages where I highlight somehting I want to look further into or attempt is Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs and Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs of People . Trust me – it’s worth every penny.
Other books I've recently read include
In Camera: Perfect Pictures Straight Out of the Camera by Gordon Laing and for those looking to take the leap into freelance I can't recommend David DuChemin's VisionMongers: Making a Life and a Living in Photography (Voices That Matter) enough.
Meetup with Meetup.com
While this site is huge and has many helpful communities that meet up in real life not many amature photographers have heard about it. Meetup is an online social networking portal that facilitates offline group meetings in various localities around the world. Meetup allows members to find and join groups unified by a common interest.
I subscibe to a bunch of groups which then pings me an email each time that a new event is in the works. Many of the events are free but some are ticketed but are generally worth considering. I have done a free night shoot in which a group of about twenty of us all met in a park. Pros brought better equiptment, some lighting and tripods, others bought lights, flame and glowsticks (all of which I didn’t have or even know where to buy). As the night progressed we split into groups, shatred sharing equiptment, shooters become the subject and all learnt sometihng new while surrounded by people who knew what they were doing and teaching me while I was also able to school a few fresh people in what settings might work best.
You also find people who have their own photo studios and do their own classes with models. I did this shoot with a small group where we paired off with a model and then rotated models with the other teams. It’s great because the models are looking for photos for their portfolio which they will get from the professionals who attend while we watched, learned and implemented what they were doing. I loved it because the models were quite amature as well so were open to mistakes and trying to figure out what was being asked of them.
Stop, Collaborate and Listen
If you find someome you like’s photography find out more about them, where they shot, give up your time and offer to be an assistant or do coverage photography for them. You’ll learn so much just by standing out of their way and helping them out. You need someone who you can call on when you’re stumped at a shoot. A prime example is doing an original shoot, the client calling up asking you to do it again but giving you no feedback as to what to change and you pretty much shooting the exact same coverage as the first time. You need someome you can tap to help you out, assist or change the way you’re looking at things.
Where's the Story?
When you’re out and about in public, whether it’s in your home city or somewhere you’ve never been – don’t just look for that perfect instagram photo (or what I like to call the postcard shot) – Look For The Story.
If I’m in a crowded area with hustle ane bustle I always like to think I’m on some sort of assignment where I need the best 3-5 photographs that will be able to translate exactly what the situation is to someone who wasn’t there. Push yourself and try to create some sort of narrative. If you put the selected photos next to each other – do they convey the story of what you’re in the middle of? It’s difficult – but that brings me to my next point.
Where isn't everyone?
Sometimes youre trying to get an understanding of a story but there’s locals busting about, tourists in your way and swarming around a particular area that you think you should go and check out for fear of missing out.
But what you sould do is take a step back from the madess – physically. Find a quiet corner out of everyone’s way, scope out the scene and make an assessment. Look at what people are actually doing. Most times movemnt is repetitive – that fisherman keeps going back to his boat where he’s handed a fish to be carried to get weighed. You can then look at where best to position yourself to get that perfect shot. You generally can’t do this while looking every which way, wondering what to photograph that exact second.
Kill Every Shot
Every photo you post in public should be the absoulte best
I’m going to find the photographer I follow who’s blog post stated exactly this. Every photo you put out there will be judged. Maybe someone is considering asking you to do a shoot or become a regular client. If you put a phot out there that isn’t your absolute best then there’s a very good chance they might pass you over.
You have to kill it. Every time.
Even I’m not at that stage yet but I should be. I put up photos I like but may not be perfect and once I press ‘load’ I know I shouldn't have. But I know it's something I need to work on.
Jeez that was a hell of a lot to write and I just hope I made it all make sense for you. I am in no way an expert but these are just a few things I’ve picked up along the way that isn’t all useful had I just been starting out – but a few things that are worth thinking about how to adapt and become a better photographer.
This post was inspired by someone I somehow stumbled upon on Twitter. Nicholas Gooden's posts are an inspiration - sign up to his site to get great posts such as Culling photos and street photography tips and techniques.
If there’s anything you want more information about or want me to go into more detail get in touch in the comments or just drop me an email from our About Page.
I’m also open to doing one on one sesssions for those starting out with a new camera or want help getting your head around Lightroom. Again just get in touch.