Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Learning to see creatively - book review

A friend recently told my wife that creativity is not something that could be learnt, it’s something that’s within you and that you are born with! (unfortunately, I was not around at that time). The ironic thing is that the statement was made about the book “Learning to See Creatively” by Bryan Peterson – the very book that has dispelled this misconception quite effectively. In his own words, the reason he first wrote the book was “to dispel the myth that the art of image making was for the chosen few”. After selling hundreds of thousand copies, the book being in existence for the past 20 years (original version was published in 1988) and going through so many reprints and revised editions, we can safely assume that he has been successful in doing this at least for those capable of grasping it.

Whilst I can admit that people are born with talent and creativity, to say that another person cannot “learn” to see creativity is very…. well…. silly! Do all those who are successful in art, fashion, design, etc inbuilt with talent only? Do they not go and “learn” their craft from schools, institutes and colleges? Even those who claim to have made it on their own talent are actually “self-taught” – they look at their idols and mentors, “learn” from their style and keep improving based on the feedback they get. This is true for any of the art forms out there. Yes there are people born creative – but the majority of the successful artists (be it art, photography, design, etc) have “learnt” to be creative. The fact is that in order to make a “creative” composition of a painting or photograph, you need to follow several rules (or you need to break the rules…. and to do that you need to know what the rules are…). These rules have been developed over centuries and even artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo have used these rules in their paintings – does that mean that “they” were not creative?

Well having got that out of the way, let’s get down to the review. For those who do not know who Bryan Peterson is (and if you are photographer you surely should know him) – he is a very successful photographer with a highly profitable image stock library, some of which have been sold for thousands of dollars on a repetitive basis. He has been photographing for over 30 years and has been teaching photography for over 20 years. He is also the author of several highly successful books including “Understanding Exposure”, which many consider to be the “bible” of photography (I have this book as well but it does not need a separate review – just a single sentence – “If you want to understand photography, just get Understanding Exposure”).

“Learning to see creatively” has the very laid back and easy to understand style that Bryan used in “Understanding Exposure”. He quickly puts us at ease that we CAN learn to see creatively and then explains how to do this by changing the way we see things around us and expanding our vision. He then discusses the elements of design (line, shape, form, texture, pattern and colour) in detail and then goes on to give the rules like the Golden section, rule of thirds, etc and explains how all these elements come together to make a creative composition. Photography is all about light and a separate chapter has been dedicated to show how light affects composition.

The book is an excellent read and I highly recommend it. Its easy to understand and you quickly grasp the essentials. Design and rules of composition can be highly technical (as shown in Michael Freeman’s book The Photographer’s Eye) but Bryan has kept it all simple so that any beginner or amateur photographer reading it is able to understand. He uses a lot of examples and his own images to illustrate the point. To me, Bryan is like the cool high school teacher who makes things very interesting without trying too hard, so you end up learning without really knowing it. 

Monday, November 9, 2009

Dancing Damsels

Some of the pictures from this shoot were featured in the Sunday Observer Magazine on 1st November 2009 (online version here and here).

One of our dear friends, Chathu, is a dancer of extra ordinary talent and experience. She has been dancing professionally for more than 14 years and has performed in over 20 countries worldwide. She has her own dance troupe, Ethnic Dance Studio, who perform at corporate events and shows but this year she wanted to do her own show to showcase the troupe’s talents. 

As part of the promotional material for the event, she wanted a few shots to be taken of troupe and herself and as luck would have it, I was in Sri Lanka at that time to help out. I was quite nervous about doing a “professional” shoot – it would be the first time that I will be “directing” live models (other than for my wife) and I had to ensure that I had at least a few “winners” that they can use for their newspaper articles, promotional leaflets, souvenirs and website. So the pressure was on - I was not sure whether I was going to be able to do it but I was sure going to try.

The shoot was challenging for me on many fronts
1)     There were 5 dancers for the group shots and I had to ensure that ALL their faces could be seen properly. This was a bit difficult with all the arms and heads twisting around the frame while they went in to their dance poses! More often then not, by the time I had positioned them and taken a shot, the models would have moved ever so slightly to a position where the face was in shadow or was covered by another hand. So I had to take several frames quite quickly and I had to keep moving around or moving them around to get the proper shot

2)     As you can see from the pictures, the poses were not the “run of the mill” ones you get in normal portraits. In order to show them in their element, they had to be in certain dance poses which required quite an effort on their part. It was quite difficult for them to stand still when they were half bent or had one leg in the air and I had to take my shots quickly before the moment was lost or one of the dancers moved.

3)     Even though I had read up quite a bit on lighting, it’s altogether a different ball game when it comes to doing it for real!!! The shoot was done at the Hilton Hotel and balancing the lighting in some of the indoor shots was a pretty big challenge. Even trying to get the out door lighting, especially the ones against the sun, were quite difficult.

As stated above lighting was a pretty big challenge and even though I was using a shoot through umbrella and a voice activated light stand (my wife Michelle) it was quite difficult to get some of the shots without hard shadows which I really hated doing.

The final part of the shoot was this particular dancer in a peacock costume. After taking some shots to be used for the promotion, I used a nearby chair to give a bit of a different “fashion shoot” look to the image.

With all the challenges, the whole shoot turned out to be quite fun. Highlight for my wife was when I lay down on the ground near the stairs to try and get a shot with a different view point – she found that quite hilarious. We had a few strange looks from the guests and one of the guests actually wanted to take a shot with the dancers :D We also came across another photographer (together with 3 – yes three – voice activated stands and full bridal retinue) doing a wedding shoot.

Had good fun doing it and it was a good learning experience. 

These and a few other pics of  the shoot can be found here 

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Yala Safari – everything other than the leopard

The previous post was all about our primary objective in going to Yala -  to photograph leopards. In pursuing this objective, we saw a lot of other interesting sights and had a few "adventures" along the way. 

The first “adventure” was trying to do two things in one trip with two completely different people
1) to have a serious educational wildlife trip - with Jerome, our wildlife expert and guru
2) to have fun - with Damith, our dear friend and clown whom we always take on our trips
Having these two conflicting personalities in the same vehicle was not pleasant at the best of times even though they got on better than we expected. Right in the middle was the calm, reflective personality of Rajive, providing a balance between the two.

We made use of a Montero to make the trip as we did not want to hire open vehicles to go in to the park. The Montero was quite comfortable and there was an endless stream of banter and jokes from Jerome and Damith until we got to our destination. One eventful incident on the way was when we were overtaken by a TATA jeep which was going at breakneck speed around the curved roads (quite a considerable speed as we were going pretty fast as well). After overtaking us, the jeep stopped quite suddenly by the side of the road a hundred metres ahead of us.  Without warning, out popped a skinny guy with long hair from the driver’s side and without looking to check for any vehicles, crossed the main Kataragama road quite casually. I had to brake quite hard to avoid hitting him but what was more shocking was that he jumped from my side of the road to the path of an oncoming bus which barely missed him. It was amazing that he didn’t get knocked down by either the bus or our vehicle. He quickly disappeared inside a house and even though we felt like giving the guy a good talking to, we continued our journey without any further incident.

Yala is a hot, dry, dusty and a tiring place during the drought season. We arrived in the afternoon and settled ourselves in a little place that Rajive had booked for us. The meals were fantastic here and we thoroughly enjoyed the food. Living quarters were not great but for that price and time frame it was the best we could do. The best times to see animals and birds are at dawn (the few hours after sunrise) and dusk (the few hours before sunset). However, getting away at the “crack of dawn” was inevitably delayed as we had to get the “baby” of our group (Damith) out of bed, in to the shower and to the vehicle as he was incapable of doing it by himself.

The park, especially the main visitor center, is full of Gray Langurs. It is quite interesting to see how much they look like humans. This guy was trying to relax and tried out many positions similar to us.

One of the highlights of the trip was being able to see a bask (group) of crocodiles feasting on a buffalo carcass in the water. They were too far to capture while doing this but these were the participants of this spectacle
Pic by Rajive 

Bee-eaters and deer were quite common as well and we saw plenty of these

Elephants are of course a favourite of any safari trip in Yala and we had our fair share of adventures with them. We had a good sighting of a large bull elephant which is supposedly rare in Yala. We were making our way to another leopard stop, when we saw some vehicles parked on the road and a lot of rustling noise from our left. We stopped for a couple of minutes and out walked a massive elephant with very long tusks. He walked right in front of our vehicle as he crossed the road and made his way in to the thick jungle on the other side

We also witnessed how protective elephants are of their young. We came upon a water hole where a group of  elephants had come to drink. Among them was a very young one, maybe about 3 months or so who seemed to be wanting to get in to the water. The adults of the group were very protective especially when several other jeeps came to look at them. All the little one wanted to do was get in the water and play but the adults kept pushing him between their legs to keep him protected. It was quite a sight. Once they had finished drinking their fill, they left with plenty of protecting adults around the little guy, with one of the elephants turning to give a warning trumpet as if ordering us not to follow them.

We came across another family of elephants which were in the undergrowth. Our presence made the head female nervous and she made a warning charge towards us. We decided not to disturb them further and went on our way.

The best elephant “adventure” of the trip was when Jerome decided to educate our young guide on the “Elephant Graveyard” myth. The myth is that all elephants of a group go to one particular place near a water hole to die because of sentimental reasons. This is not the case – as explained by Jerome, when an elephant becomes old, he finds it harder and harder to find food which he can chew on. So he makes his way to river banks where the plants are more succulent and easier to eat. At this point, since the elephant does not travel much due to its ill health, he dies around the same area. As time goes on, other elephants do the same thing and try to find areas where there is food which is easier to eat. They are eventually led to the same place and they too pass away in that area. So it is not a matter of these elephants finding a place to die – it’s a case of them finding food and dying due to old age. Of course, Damith couldn’t keep his mouth shut while Jerome was narrating this in all seriousness and he made a joke that Jerome should tell the story properly. This angered Jerome and led to an argument. Damith as usual had to  listen to a lot of harsh words. 

We were also amazed by the vehicles that came to Yala - one of which was a huge, old TATA bus full of people. They complained about not seeing a single animal and this did not surprise us the animals would have run away from the park itself with all the noise the bus and the crowd in it were making. Jerome narrated the funny story of how one group which had come to Yala in a bus had stopped off in the middle of the park to plant wickets and play a game of cricket - this was right in the middle of area where wild elephants and leopards roam :D 

The jeep all dusty and dirty, working its way across the rocks

The "kolla" Jerome - looking quite "elegant" 

Rajive - the "normal" one of the group

I got some very funny shots of Damith bathing in his underwear - unfortunately he found out about them and was rude enough to delete them from the camera. As revenge, I am not including any of his shots here :D

This is a huge rock that we saw near the beach area 

A Ruddy Mongoose drinking at the waterhole 

Found a great spot for dragonflies near the lunch area - but unfortunately, even though I had the necessary patience to photograph them, I was constantly disturbed by the impatience of the others in the group who were keen to move on 

A Serpent Eagle - I tracked this guy to another tree which gave me a clear shot but just as soon as I had set the camera and was about to press the shutter button he flew off 

Crocodile lunch? Not really - the heron is actually a bit further away from the croc. It looks like they are very close here because of the forced perspective

And finally, a very rare sighting of the endemic Sri Lankan River Hippopotamus :D

All these shots and a few more can be found in this album
Another funny story towards the end of the trip was when I our wildlife expert and tracker was unable to "track" the route back to his own house and we had to find it for him 

Overall a fun trip even though it had its moments!