Tag Archives: Bhutan

Mandalay Burma temple silhouettes against a frame.

Five Variations on a Theme: Shooting Silhouettes

One of the favorite themes of shooters is the silhouette. Silhouettes are the result of exposing for bright light behind a subject. The camera underexposes anything that is in front of the bright light, resulting in a photo that features a darkened shape—the silhouette.

Silhouettes are one of the creative ways to interpret a scene. With some basic techniques, you can create stunning silhouettes.

1. Look for familiar shapes against a brilliant sky.

 

U Bein Bridge Burma Myanmar sunset

1/350s @ f/6.3 17mm, ISO 125. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

This photo is of one of the most recognizable bridges in Burma, the U Bein Bridge. It is a long bridge made of teak wood, and in the evenings, you can see locals cross it, walking their bikes. The sunset was brilliant on this day, so I decided to include a lot of the amazing sky by using a very wide lens. It’s important to wait until the people in your frame are separate shapes, not ‘stuck together’ because they are passing each other, like in the right side of the image where there is a crowd of people watching the sun set. If they are parts of the same shadow, you will get some unrecognizable lumps in your image which are, needless to say, confusing for the audience.

2. Shoot silhouettes in naturally occurring frames.

 

Mandalay Burma temple silhouettes against a frame.

1/1600s @ f/2.8 55mm ISO 400. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

If you are indoors, you can use doorways and windows to provide back light for your silhouettes, adding a geometric frame to your image. This image in Burma was taken at a temple, and the man and woman who were passing one another looked dynamic framed within the graceful arches of the temple entrance.

3. Stack elements in the image.

 

Inle Lake Burma lightray and temple sillhouette at sunset

1/2000s @ f/11, 200mm ISO 400. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

If you are faced with a landscape of hills overlapping with some structures in front, like in this sunset photo of a temple on Inle Lake in Burma, you can create an image that has scale. I also waited for some light rays to show up when clouds obscured part of the streams of strong light coming from the setting sun, giving the image added drama. Stacking elements in the image works only if there is a gradation in the silhouetted shapes, or that some shapes are lighter than others, and some are darker. With the different intensities of shadows in the silhouette, the image becomes more dramatic because the gradation adds depth to the photo.

4. Partial silhouettes work, too.

 

Bhutanese archer against a brilliant sky

1/1600s @ f/ 8, 55mm ISO 400. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

This partial silhouette of an archer against a brilliant sunset sky in Bhutan is dramatic because even though his identity is obscured by shadow, we see the color of the ribbons of winning archery shots he’s made that day, and the ends of his arrows.

Also notice that I had a low viewpoint. I actually noticed the sky, and then immediately crouched with my camera almost resting on the ground, tilting it at an angle so it would catch the archer and the beautiful sky behind him. Getting a shot from a low angle gives you more brilliant light behind your subject, and makes it easier to create a silhouette.

5. Same principle, opposite effect. Or, breaking the rule.

Most silhouettes are dark shapes against bright light. What if we reversed the exposure and underexposed on the background? The result is that the exposure on the sliver of light on a person can outline them against a very dark background—sort of a reverse silhouette. This is called ‘rim light’ because it traces the rim of a subject.

 

Balinese man smoking black and white rim light

1/5000s @2.8f 170mm, ISO 200. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

In this photo, I decided to create a ‘reverse silhouette’ because the rim light and smoke made for an interesting graphic composition. It’s a ridiculously underexposed image, but I like it.

So there you are, four basic techniques for making silhouettes, and one rule breaker. If you’re looking for an outdoor project that you can do for a couple hours after work but will get your creative juices flowing, why not try a silhouette or two this week?

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A few hours before the first snowfall, Paro, Bhutan.

Photography Doesn’t Fix Everything

for Jodi

I reread this post, about long term travel not being able to fix everything, over at Legalnomads, and thought, that sounds familiar. Last summer I took two months to travel to Burma and then Bali, thinking I needed to get away for some quiet time. Travel for me is a way to get inside my head and de-clutter; I wrote to Jodi the other day, I travel “to get away from my nine to five when it becomes too loud with worry that I can’t hear myself.”

I go away to listen, to remove the white noise that is other people’s needs, and find the voice that’s mine. I need very little really, to be happy, just a lot of silence and space, time to make photographs and write. But sometimes, I get caught up in work that is separate from my passion; more and more of this dislodges me from myself, and I float, an untethered balloon full of nothingness.

That’s when I want to get away. Being away brings a new reality. It reminds me of very early memories when every thing I learned seemed momentous, bright and shiny things I could gather and hold close to examine.

I’m not a sophisticated traveler. I don’t have the brave body of someone who climbs volcanoes or rides on rooftops of buses. Yes, I’ve been stuck in Europe because of an ashcloud, but hey, I was in Paris. Being stuck in Paris did not make me suffer. True, I was caught in a flashflood in the Philippines, but I was ten or eleven years old; it was an adventure full of floating refrigerators, bamboo rafts afloat above city streets, and ignorance about water born diseases. And yes, I live in Bangkok, the center of several coups d’etat and colorful politics. But last May, the closest I got to the burning of Bangkok was through Twitter apart from the days when the redshirts were still partying at Rachadamnoen. No, I’m not the Indiana Jones type of traveler.

What I do have, though, is a camera. I lug sixteen kilograms of equipment across all sorts of terrain, and I build my travel day around making photos. When I’m with my camera, composing images that tell stories of places, nothing can touch me. Words cease. You could speak a whole dissertation to me and think I am the rudest companion; the act of making an image fills me, engages me beyond any other experience.

This is flow, a state when a person is so engaged in something that time and space seem to disappear.

The problem is, you can’t stay in flow indefinitely. When I return to reality, I realize a few things.

Cold and dusty in Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan.

1.     Not everything is beautiful.

With the camera in front of my face, everything is a matter of design. The chaos of lines can be organized into a composition using other things, like point of view, values of light and dark, framing. As a photographer, I can move and things get a little bit more harmonious in the frame. Not so in life. Moving around a problem, I can’t recompose a better image, I only postpone dealing with a mess. I can’t freeze moments that are beautiful and take them out when things get ugly.

2.     Light doesn’t change the way things are, just the way they look.

If the light is bad one day, I can always pack up and go somewhere else, then go back to the landscape when the light is ‘right.’ But in life, things don’t always look better in the morning light, or at sundown. Sometimes things look the same for days, weeks.

A few hours before the first snowfall, Paro, Bhutan.

3.     You can’t Photoshop it out.

In Photoshop there’s a Clone Tool, and it helps the photographer get rid of distracting spots and other things in the image. You just sample one area of the photo, then click over the area you want gone.  If only it were that easy for the little things that distract us in our lives. Countless times I’ve wished for a clone tool to stamp out the little demands that keep me away from my photography.

The closest I’ve come to complete irresponsibility is traveling, especially alone. I love to wake up earlier than the sun, feel the nip of dawn air as I hurry out to Kusumba to catch the sun rising over the fishing village. There is no schedule, there are only images to make, people to study, expressions to savor through a viewfinder.

4.     You can’t just crop.

Similarly, I can’t just crop. Things in my life crowd into my focal point and want to be in the line of sight. No matter how messy, how utterly unphotogenic something is, life doesn’t have selective framing. Unwanted elements seem to find their way into the experience, and I just have to deal with them.

Holding down the roof with stones, Punakha, Bhutan.

5.     Your batteries run out at some point.

Nothing frustrates a photographer more than being unprepared with extra batteries, and there’re lots of pictures left to make. On very good days, I shoot thousands of photos and have to change the camera battery once or twice (especially with the early digital Nikons, whose batteries lasted less than a thousand shutter clicks when I used a Vibration Reduction lens on them).

I work a lot, seven days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day. I have to; if I don’t I can’t do this photography thing and the other things I have to do. So I plod along, and most of the time, I get enough sleep and have time to watch a movie or read a book from cover to cover, for pleasure.

Other times, I feel like I’m standing on a barbed wire fence, looking out over a vague landscape, and although my hands hurt from clinging to the barbed wire, I can’t let go or I’ll fall off.

Hanging on a barbed wire fence, near Thimphu, Bhutan.

It’s not that I’m into self-inflicted pain though others would argue; I just have obligations to fulfill, and I also have a passion that feeds my soul. I cannot run out of batteries, because I must always find strength for one or the other.

When I wrote to Jodi the other day, I said, “the Balinese are so talented at balance, and that was something you needed, and something I craved. So here you are again, ready for more surprises. I hope the basket stays on the head, even when you’re dancing.”

Maybe I was also talking to myself.

 

 

 

70mm @ f/5.0, ISO 200, 1/160s

Solitude

70mm @ f/5.0, ISO 200, 1/160s

Some days you feel like the bare apple trees after harvest, waving their arms to the sky, the wind snaking around their ankles like a lover or a beggar. Solitude can be lonely or it can just be alone. It can be a memory, sepia and semi-toned, tempered with discontent, or brimming with anticipation.

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Sunrise and mist, Bhutan.

Beginner’s Guide to Light

At some point in their journey, people with cameras begin to photograph light instead of “look what I saw.” Light is the main ingredient in the mix of elements that make an image. Content, composition, technique will all pale if the light isn’t “right.” But is there a “right” light? Here are some common lighting situations that could help you create compelling shots. Practice looking for them, and you will see your images increase their wow factor.

Back light

Dancer with rim light, Bali.

Back light is when the light source is behind the subject. This means that it is directly in front of the camera, with the subject in between. The photo of the dancer sitting was lit with two windows behind him, lighting him like a halo around his head and body. This line of light around a subject is called “rim light,” as it creates a rim of light outlining the subject. To shoot this kind of shot, I had to use exposure compensation, overexposing to making sure I had a balance between the bright light I wanted to capture, and the man’s features.

Backlit spools of thread at a weaver's shop in Burma.

In cases of really bright light behind the subject, like in this shot of colorful spools of thread in by a window, the patterns created by the light and shadow make for an interesting picture.

Front light

When the light is right in front of the subject, it is easier photograph, but if the light is directly in front of the subject, it may result in a ‘flat’ photo. ‘Flat’ lighting is light that evenly spreads on the subject. I try to avoid this because it makes a photo look two-dimensional; it is the shadows in a photo that create a three-dimensional effect.

Dancers putting on makeup, Bali.

In the photo of the dancers putting on makeup, their light source is directly in front of their faces. I could have taken the shot with the light behind me, but I broke away from that and instead focused on the mirror one of the dancers was holding. My thinking was, the composition was more interesting with the dancers echoing each other’s postures. But most importantly, the light from the window was reflected on their faces into the mirror, and the mirror’s image was thus well lit for my camera to capture.

Top light

Light from above of course is quite common. When you travel, mostly the sun is your light source, and most of the day the sun is right above your subjects. So it’s important to know how the light from above will affect your images, and what you can do to minimize the shadows that the sun from above will invariably create in your subjects.

Early mornings and late afternoons are great because the sunlight is more orange; the angle of the light is also more from the side, especially at sunrise and sunset. But also in the hours right after sunrise and the hours just before sunset, the light is not as harsh as in midday.

Man asleep in his ox cart at midday, Burma.

Having said that, though, one of my favorite shots from Burma was taken at around 11 am. This man was sleeping in his cart while his oxen were grazing. The shadows were harsh, but it worked because the content of the photo made for a good contrast. To get this shot, I had to close my aperture to f8 and used exposure compensation to get details in the sky and the immediate subjects in front of me.

When there is harsh light, like in midday, I look for subjects who are under a sort of shelter. When there is a covering above the subject, the harsh light does not create equally harsh shadows on their faces.

Girl in pink hat, Burma.

Shan woman at a temple, Burma.

Both the photos of the woman in the turban and the little girl in the pink hat were made around midday, but both were under a kind of shelter–the temple roof for the turbaned woman and her pink hat for the little girl.

Side light

This is my all-time favorite kind of light. Side light is light coming from the left or right of the subject. It was used by the masters of painting–Rembrandt used side light in his paintings to give the picture a three dimensional effect. When the light falls on one side of the subject, the other side is in shadow. The shadows are what give the picture a 3D look.

Monk at old wooden temple, Burma.

The monk walking past old wooden doors shows how shadow and light can create the contours that make the subject seem three-dimensional.

Sunrise and mist, Bhutan.

In the early morning shot of a misty scene in Bhutan, the side lighting created by the sunrise gives us a sense of the overlapping hills and the thickness of the mist.

Like every skill, seeing the light–its direction and quality–takes practice. But with some basic knowledge of lighting situations, any person with a camera can practice the right skill and do what photographers do: capture the light, and make it look fantastic.

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IMG_6998

Absolutely Alive

A dog with laryngitis wakes me up before dawn in Thimpu, barking in hoarse, half-hearted spurts. The light rises over the rooftops of the capital city, catching a large Buddha statue in profile against the misty hills.

On the drive to the central states, we pass a small valley choked with mist. The characteristic square roofs of the Bhutanese buildings peek out of the mist, and orange light adds a tinge of color to the scene.

The road to the central states, like all Bhutanese roads, hug the hills and the mountainsides. Wide enough for two cars, and often without a guardrail separating the road from the sheer drop of cliff, the roads of Bhutan are not for the faint. Thankfully I have experience riding shotgun in the crazy traffic of Bangkok and Bombay and the highways of Vietnam, where in the middle of the night, you could be on a highway speeding toward a cargo truck while overtaking a slower vehicle on your lane, only to veer into safety and continued well being at the last minute. I was prepared; I could stare through the windshield of the vehicle looking for images and considerably ignore that there was nothing much separating me from a fall to certain death at elevations of hundreds of feet.

Love is like this: you feel like dying, but you are absolutely alive.