Category: China, 2012

Reflections on Travel and Photography in Guizhou

November 12

After an early breakfast, we set off for the Guiyang airport at 7:30, expecting to arrive by 10 AM. Evelyn had an early morning flight, so left to stay in Guiyang after dinner last night. All of the rest, except for Sheilah, are on the same flight to Beijing. Sheilah and I fly to Guangzhou, she then on to Hong Kong and me to Singapore. It’s going to be a very long travel day as I have a 4-hour layover, then a 4-hour flight to Singapore, arriving at 9:50 PM. So, I hope to use part of that time to reflect on the trip. Sorry, no photos today.

Arrive at the Guiyang airport in plenty of time, but find that my baggage is overweight. They do not take either credit cards or dollars, and the bank that a nice young woman leads me to will not change dollars. Fortunately our guides are at the airport and change money for me, so I am able to pay the (considerable) fine.

I’ve been the principle consumer of peanut butter on the trip, so I was presented the remaining jar, with some crackers. Going through security, the jar of peanut butter is confiscated, much to the amusement of the rest of the group.

Okay, so, the trip. There are really two separate, but related, aspects–travel around Guizhou and photography.

First, travel. Wonderful. A different experience than I’ve had, seeing tribes in this remote area of China through visiting their villages and festivals. The diversity and richness of our experiences was quite amazing.

Great credit goes to Nevada and her team of Xue Biao, Lee and our driver, Lao Weng. All of them were focused on the needs of each member of the group at all times and often went out of their way to satisfy them. Nevada is a real pro, not only as a photographer, but as a trip planner, as well.

Nevada did a terrific job of setting (lowering) expectations in us from the outset, stating clearly and repeatedly in her materials that this was not a trip for everyone. That is true. It was not an easy trip. By the end of the trip, the group was something of a walking infirmary, with most suffering some sort of cold, cough, sore throat, respiratory ailment or some combination thereof. Slogging continually through mud, often in chilly, damp and rainy conditions, hiking up, down and around, packing and/or unpacking most days, riding in a less than roomy bus, sometimes for long stretches over bumpy roads–all of this was not a walk in the park. But I think every of of us would say that the trip was well worth the tribulations.

We covered a lot of ground, traveling about 1500 kilometers. While that does not sound like a huge distance for two weeks, when you factor in the poor condition of many of the roads, it amounts to a lot of travel. Our maximum altitude was over 4200 feet, and we went up or down some 80,000 feet on the trip. (Nevada has a gadget that tracks those things, so I felt I had to report them.)

A word about the group. We had a very congenial, fun-loving group of ten people, all of whom were experienced travelers and, at one level or another, photographers. In any group of ten, one is bound to like some more than others, but there were none of the losers one often encounters in group travel. Once again, I think that Nevada deserves credit for helping the group gel, because of her infectious and upbeat manner.

Second, the photography. A number of you have written, wanting to know more about that aspect of the trip, so here goes more than at least some of you may wish for. Feel free to skip or skim; this won’t be on the final exam.

Over the years, I’ve been to many places and taken many thousands of photos. Along the way, I like to think that I’ve improved some. But this trip was transformational from a photographic standpoint. I began to glimpse how much I did not know and to sort out in my own mind what I might like to do going forward.

Quantitatively, I took more photos by a factor of three than on any trip I’d ever taken. Part of that was simply because photography was the heart and purpose of the trip. Part of it was because, unlike other trips, I never had to be concerned that I would be holding others up by taking photographs. And, finally, it was because I routinely took many photos of the same setting, because I left the camera in drive mode, so that when I held the button down, the shutter would continue to shoot in fractions of a second until I released it. This allows you to capture subtle changes in a subject and, for example, to avoid a photo with the subjects’ eyes closed.

For those of you who may be experienced photographers, much of what follows may evoke a, “Well, duh” response, but I suspect that many of you will be surprised that some truisms turn out not to be true. A few examples:

The ideal situation for taking a good photograph is a bright, sunny day.
2. When you go into a place with poor light, you use your flash to illuminate the subject.
3. A photograph that is not sharp is a poor photograph.
4. If you have somebody in your photo who is not part of the main subject, you’ve made a mistake.
5. The best way to photograph somebody is straight on, at eye level.
6. When you are taking a photo of one individual, the best picture is a vertical one.

My concept of what is a good photograph has changed dramatically. Most all of this is due to listening to and/or watching Nevada. I now understand that I am doing more than “taking” a photograph, I am “making” a photograph. Through the way I choose to take the photo, I can transform a scene that is not inherently interesting into a good photograph and, conversely, I can take a subject that could be great and transform it into something dull or uninteresting. In other words, it takes more than an interesting subject to make an interesting photo.

There are four, perhaps five, possible elements to a photo: color, light, action and composition (and the fifth would be gesture). For me, I think my strength is composition, and I think I get and can practice capturing gesture. Light is something I need to understand much better and work on, but at least I now “get” the importance of light. Action may or may not be present in a situation, though there are times when I can enhance the sense of action by choices I make. To the extent that color is related to light, I need to work on that, too.

Nevada says that she likes problems, because solving those problems leads to creativity. In any situation, she looks for the problems. That would be a good thing for me to do, too, but I’m certainly not there yet.

Here are some other things I learned.

Background is much more important than I’d thought. It can either enhance the photo, or distract.

I need to move around much more, both around a particular subject and, for example in the festivals we went to, all around the festival.

You need to try to relate to your subject. Smiling is good, as is speaking even a few words of the language. Showing the subject the photo you’ve taken may warm her up for a better follow-up photo.

You want to capture moments. That’s not easy to understand in the abstract, but when you look at a photo and Nevada says, “that was a nice moment,” you know what it means.

In some situations, it may be possible to layer a photo, by showing people doing different things in the same photo, perhaps cooking in the foreground and eating in the background. That is one way to tell a story, another aim of a photo.

Shooting at different angles, panning (moving the camera as you shoot), getting people to look directly at you and even to shift their position, framing subjects horizontally (I was doing too much vertical) and taking photos in low light are all creative choices available to you.

I have not talked about technical proficiency and equipment. These are areas in which I’m going to tread very lightly. I do need to understand more technically, but I just don’t have the interest in plunging deeply into that area. I recognize that this will limit what potentially I can do, but that’s okay.

I have a similar attitude towards equipment. A month before going on this trip, I bought a Sony NEX 7. (I was introduced to the camera by a professional photographer friend, Dave Jordano. If you want to see some amazing images at a level to which I do not remotely aspire, take a look at The camera is a high quality digital SLR that is very light and versatile. I have an18-55mm lens and an 18-200mm. I watched my fellow group member lug multiple cameras and heavy lenses and I was very happy to have made the choice I did. At least for now, I intend to stick with that.

One thing I’ve mused on is whether the new sense I have of what I want to accomplish in a photo will be shared by friends, family and others who see my photos. Not having been through the experience I have, they may prefer the types of images I used to capture. I suppose time will tell, but I’d be interested in any of your thoughts on this.

Well, I’m in Guangzhou and about to head towards my gate for the flight to Singapore. I am looking forward greatly to time I’ll be spending there, but I’ll save that story for a post from Singapore. As we say in China, hasta luego.

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