Saturday, 29 October 2011

Ancient Culture to Grubby Isolation

Immaculately kept stone age street of Tenganan
Yesterday we had a very pleasant couple of hours in the traditional village of Tenganan over in the Eastern part of the island. The govornment has cleaned the village up to the extent that the locals are not allowed to spread their shops around the main street. Businesses are limited to inside family houses so the main street, that runs for a kilometre up the hillside, looks to all extent original. Running down the centre are various wooden meeting halls and storage sheds. All raised off the ground, looking like they are constructed using rain forest timbers. It's a magical place. Clean, atmospheric and very photogenic (apart from the odd bright red or yellow (dyed) cockerels that wander around the yards.
Keyside at Trunyan in Batur volcano. Note the distinct smell of pig poo?
Today was a little different. We travelled up the main volcano to Kintamani, then dropped over the lip of the massive Batur caldera, into the crater itself to catch a ferry boat across the massive lake that occupies about one third of the caldera floor to the Bali Aga village of Trunyan.
Trunyon, 20 mins boat ride across the lake, like Tenganan, is also a Bali Aga settlement, an original village that, until about five years ago, was cut off from the world. Now a road meanders down the steep volcano side into the village. It was too steep for our bus (thank goodness) so we took the more pleasurable boat option. However, the resemblance to Tenganan stops at the front gate. Our guide described Trunyan as being 'primitive'. I think what he meant, in so many words, was that it was a very poor community. And that meant it was messy, smelly and perhaps not that interesting.
The people, although friendly enough, looked as though they had very little pride in the cleanliness of their village. Very different to Tenganan. And in fact different to the rest of the island, where people seem top be constantly cleaning up, sweeping dirt and burning rubbish. Trunyan desperately needs a "Clean up Trunyon" day.
The real reason for going there was also to visit the cemetery, another ten minutes away in a boat. Deceased bodies are left in the open, covered in palm fronds till their flesh decays and drops away. The skulls and various bones are then removed and placed on display in the graveyard for a few months. Then people seem to lose interest. The place itself was littered with bits of rubbish and human bones. Quite creepy. 
But interesting for a few HDR shots...

More great images from Bali

Tourists posing at Git Git waterfall, Northern Bali by Geoff Driscoll - an awesome slow shutter, telephoto shot...
Too hot to walk? Wendy and Bev heading off to Besakih on the back of a local's motobike
Geoff Driscoll burning rubber in the car park...
On a hideously hot day, our CCE group sings the praises of a family that makes/scrapes a living from salt manufacture, Candidasa, Eastern Bali
Testing the veracity of a Canon sensor. Our knowledgeable tour guide, Kadek, admiring a fighting cockerel in Tenganan. And Yes, that is the correct colour. Amazing what you can do with a small bottle of food dye!

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Bali Photo Trip

Not quite half way through the CCE trip to Bali and yet our participants are producing some really amazing work. We had two separate sessions with dance models and saw some particularly good results from our drive over the island from Lovina, in the North, to Ubud via the rice terraces around Pupuan.
Gusman the Balinese dancer by Tina Brauer
Gusman the Balinese dancer by Geoff Driscoll
HDR picture by Kerrie Dixon
Pic by Steve Mullarkey
Pic by Ann Keniry
Pic by Carolyn Pettigrew
Pic by Wendy Travers
GitGit waterfall by Dianne Clements
GitGit waterfall by Mike Clements

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Rice Terrace Resurrection

As a sunset event, our Tegallallang rice terrace evening visit was a distinct flop. The light was dead and the clouds somewhat indifferent. What to do? I usually go for the HDR option when all else technical fails to prodiuce an exciting visual result. At least this gives you the best chance of extracting tones and detail from a scene that might otherwise have remained invisible. So I shot three frames of everything and thought I'd post some examples of what Photomatix Pro, the HDR software, can do. I was slightly less depressed once I saw with the HDR software produced - although it was still far from an 'arresting' image. Part of the problem in this shot is that the foreground 'interest', the frangapani tree, was merging into the background. I had focussed on the tree so the slightly softer background helped keep it from disappearing entirely. Nevertheless it needed separating more! I used Photoshop's Dodge brush, set to Midtones, to run repeatedly up and down the leaves and stems in the tree. This worked like a charm. I then repeated it using the Highlight setting, being careful not to blow out the lighter tones. Now I was getting somewhere. It took an hour to get the finished image you see at the bottom of this post. But I'm still not convinced that it's going on my wall.
But at least it's an improvement on the flat, uninteresting original...

Monday, 24 October 2011

Balinese Dancers

Like the Japanese, the Balinese absolutely live their culture from day to day. The resort that we are staying at is also part of the Arma museum complex and, as such, offers a broad range of cultural activities. These include painting, batik and learning to play the gamelan, an amazingly-noisy sort of heavy-duty xylophone. These instruments, when assembled into an orchestra that includes 15 of these gamelan instruments, produces the haunting music that you can hear played in almost every small village and hamlet across the country. What's interesting is that, even though last night we attended a Legong dance specifically held for tourists, this is still very much a part of the Balinese culture and as such is taught to kids at a very early age
Yesterday we hired two of these dancers to use as models for a portrait workshop. Here are some examples. Our first image critique session will include two of the best 'dancer' portraits from each student. We have organised another model workshop so I'll post the results on Wednesday. Stay tuned.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Postcard from Bali

Here are some very simple shots taken on my first day in Bali. I arrived a day earlier than the rest of the CCE Study Tour students so that I could spend some time reconnecting with the way things work in his near neighbor of ours.
The heat, humidity and tropical lushness I remember. The traffic I don't. The driver that picked me up at the airport told me that Bali had 1 million motorcycles. It didn't take me long to realize that this was no exaggeration, the island really seems to have 1 million motorcycles. The main road in Ubud is one continuous stream of vehicles. I guess this is the price the Balinese have to pay for being a popular tourist destination.
What seems to have changed the most, aside from vehicular congestion in villages too small to merit such snarl ups, is the staggering variety of cross cultural cuisines and activities now available to all-comers. Last time I was on the island there was one cool new café in Ubud that catered for alternative Western food styles. These included vegetarian meals that were far superior to the 'banana pancake' menus so prevalent in many other Asian destinations. You can now buy Mexican tacos, Turkish kebabs, Italian pizzas, Texan ribs, Indian curries and New World vegetarian foods in any number of cafés that litter the somewhat cluttered padi fields surrounding Ubud. And if it's not vegetarian, it must be herbal. The amount of natural remedy shops, herbal beauty products and spa-based activities is quite staggering. We must be an ailing civilization to require repair on such a scale. The Balinese have certainly focused on the requirements of a burgeoning Western market. Nevertheless, even though development seems to have smothered this island to an alarming depth, once you find your little piece of backyard solitude (which always seems to come with a view of a padi field somewhere) you can still imagine yourself experiencing a time that's quite different to the reality of the present day.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Wedding Video

Here are a few clips I put together while shooting a wedding in Japan. Most of the images were shot as stills but I managed to grab a few motion clips when no one was looking. No tripod, no stabiliser and no slider.
Note that because these are clip grabs, the speech might appear clipped. I make no excuses for this as I just wanted to catch a bit of the vision from the day. The chap singing at the end of the video is performing verses from a Noh play. It's quite a haunting sound, even for those that have no experience of the Noh theatre.

The Shrine Video

This was shot on day two of our recent Japan trip - before we left the Kansai region for the Tokyo wedding (see seperate posting). Day was fine, hot and contrasty - but the shrine was an amazing burst of colour. It was first time I've had to test my new 20-inch Glidetrack slider...

Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Wedding

Though I spent nearly eight years shooting weddings I have never had the experience of shooting a Japanese wedding - at least not a real one that was held in Japan! Our friend Hiromi, who came to live with us more than ten years ago as an English language student, finally got married. To a Swiss banker (well, why not?).

They got married in Zurich back in August and decided to do the traditional thing in Tokyo with her family. I was dying to go and offered to shoot the family shots. As it happened I was allowed into places no one else could see. Japanese would normally be allowed - the changing rooms for example. The wedding was small, only 30 or so in the family group, including eight Westerners, friends of the bride and groom from Australia. The service in the Shinto shrine lasted for about 30 mins. The priests were very efficient and incredibly tolerant of me with all my camera gear. I think one priest was put in charge of me (probably the junior novice) and indicated every time it was OK for me to shoot and when not to snap away. Hiromi's father, Tom was also issuing instructions (in a stage whisper) so I didn't miss shooting the important bits.
 The really fun part was when all the guests were ushered into the formal shine photo studio - the photographer's job there is to record the entire group, in the studio using film. Good job, I tried to persuade him that digital was the way to go but he just laughed. He had a twin 6x9 camera set up on a massive rolling studio tripod. Quite a cool setup. It costs around $2000 for the family shots. That's quite a lot for about five pictures! 

The wedding kimono was hired for the event. That costs $750, but curiously there's an additional $750 charge to wear it(?). I'm not sure if something got lost in translation but the total was $1,500 for about three hours' use. It weighed about 20kg and was attached so tightly that Hiromi had to walk as if she was carrying two sacks of flour around her shoulders. Which effectively was what she was doing.
Unfortunately we were not allowed into the formal Japanese garden part of the shrine to take pictures as the insurance on the kimono rental alone would have skyrocketed, even if Hiromi could have walked that far. So most of the photography had to be done indoors, in a very dark shrine, or just ten metres outside in the pathway into the complex. Everything was more or less shot at f2.8 using a Canon EOS 5D MkII and a 24-70mm lens. I hope to have a very short video from the day up soon. Watch this space!

Saturday, 8 October 2011

The Shrine


Day one in Osaka. To find interesting places to photograph I usually scour all the literature you can pick up in hotels, or tourist offices. One Osaka map I grabbed had a photo of an interesting crimson half-moon bridge in a park so we headed off to find it. It turned out to be easy to find: five stops on the local train line towards Kansai airport on the Nankai line and we were there: walk out of the station and turn right to go into the shrine. In fact the station is in the middle of a large park so it almost felt like being in the countryside. Quite a surprise so close to the centre of Japan's second largest city.
HDR image, Canon EOS 60D
HDR image, Canon EOS 60D
HDR image, Canon EOS 60D
HDR image, Canon EOS 60D
HDR image, Canon EOS 60D
The following shots were all taken by Saima Morel (aka The Image Doctor from Australian Photography magazine) using the new Panasonic Lumix GF3 - she had never used this camera before. The results were pretty good. Images were post-processed in Photoshop with minimal tonal changes.
The exposure on a bright sunny day was hard to get right as the contrast level was beyond the reach of the camera sensor. The only alternatives were to shoot triple exposures and put them together using HDR software like Photomatix Pro or, as with the majority of the mages seen here, simply to underexpose dramatically to retain highlight details - at the expense of the deep shadows. At any rate this really did not matter because doing this produced a good impression of what it was really like on the day. 


How to Shoot HDR
Any scene has a certain dynamic range - the number of tones between black and white. Cameras can record only a limited dynamic range, usually seven to nine f-stops of exposure. A typical sunny day has a wider dynamic range than a sensor so a DSLR fails to record highlight and/or shadow details. But, if you record several different exposures of the same scene (on a tripod) you can cover all of the extended scene dynamic range. The trick then is to 'squeeze' them into the more limited gamut, or range, provided by our viewing and printing devices (i.e. the monitor and desktop or commercial print press). HDR software helps us do this by literally discarding the under and over-exposed parts of the bracketed images to leave a range of tones that no DSLR can capture in one shot alone.
Interestingly many HDR shots do look a little odd. This is because we know that we often can't see all the tones at once as the human eye only focuses on one point in the scene at a time. So when all the tones are presented in a two -dimensional print as a 'fait accompli', it looks slightly surreal. HDR software can be used to make this effect more realistic or, in some cases, to exaggerate the surreal nature of the visuals to produce an image that's more illustration than photograph.
The technique is to shoot in the camera's AEB (auto exposure bracketing) mode to get three or more different exposures that cover the dynamic range of the scene. Typically one to two f-stops apart from each other (i.e. '+ two', 'normal' and '- two'). High-end Nikons can capture three, five, seven and in some models, nine images in one long bracket. The closer each bracketed frame is in terms of exposure, the more accurate the result and the better its quality. Canon cameras only create three frame brackets. If you want best quality (by 'best' I mean less noise) then it's better to make the exposure adjustments one f-stop apart in manual metering mode.
Note that RAW files produce better, 'cleaner' results than JPEGs, although I always shoot both at the same time. The humble JPEG is much faster to process, especially on a laptop. If I get a good result from the JPEG version, then I repeat the process on the RAW files.