The view through the rain-streaked window of Silkair MI518 is of thick, swirling cloud. Turbulence pummels the jet, causing my teeth to rattle and my hands to grip the armrest.
Jammed into the seat pocket is my Lonely Planet Guide to Myanmar and the itinerary for ASIA2090, the course I will be completing over the coming two weeks. Titled The Political Economy of Myanmar, the course is an intensive study tour which will take us to Yangon, Naypyidaw and the ancient capital of Bagan.
Peering out the window, I eagerly await my first glimpse of the country we now call Myanmar. Following a particularly rough sequence of turbulence, she finally reveals herself. With a flourish of cloud over the wingtip, an expansive landscape of rice fields emerges. Saturated with monsoonal rain, the view is rich and green.
The taxi ride into Yangon’s city centre unnerves me. It’s the rain that causes the most concern: it’s torrential. Was it a mistake to visit Myanmar during the monsoon season? It’s so heavy that the windscreen wipers are struggling to sustain vision of the road. My driver seems unfazed, though. Neither does he seem fazed by driving a right-hand drive car on the right-hand side of the road. This turns out to be a common sight and, as I learn, is a quirk of Myanmar car import law.
The Yangon zoo is not somewhere I had planned to go. I passed it while I was out walking and curiosity got the better of me. Inside, the scene was similar to other zoos that I have visited in developing countries. The zoo grounds are lush and green. Manicured plants line the well-swept pathways. Cartoon-like signs cheerfully direct visitors to the zoo’s various enclosures. The enclosures themselves are dismal. Mostly made of concrete and steel, the cages are sterile and dirty at the same time.
Yangon river on a Saturday afternoon is a hive of activity. Boats buzz to and fro across the river, carting passengers between the port and the village of Dala on the opposite side. Passengers clamber down the river bank to the makeshift jetties where they board. A steady flow of boats arrive to collect them, departing soon thereafter.
The river current is strong. The boats angle sharply into the current as they motor to the opposite shore. Carrying full loads of passengers, the old boat engines labour audibly, creating a clacking symphony across the port. It’s an everyday scene for the Yangon locals but I’m fascinated by the process. It’s a well-oiled machine that allows passengers to commute from Dala, where rent is much cheaper.
Disembarking at Dala, rickshaw drivers crowd around us. Desperate for business, the drivers compete for the lowest rate. We settle on a price and soon are jiggling over the rutted roads out of the port. Dala is an area that has been ravaged by natural disasters. Not only was it decimated by the 2004 tsunami, it was also struck by Cyclone Nargis of 2008.
As our rickshaw wobbles through the village, it’s surprising the area has survived at all. Many houses are constructed from bamboo, sitting above water on stilts. Some lean precariously, perhaps a result of previous disasters.
Despite the lingering devastation, locals appear to be surprisingly positive. We pass a casual game of soccer, where players enthusiastically shout encouragement. Further on we pass young children, leaping off a bridge into the river below. Looking at each face, I wonder what stories they have to tell. I’ve only been in Myanmar for a few days. But I’m already intrigued by this country.
16.12.2014 Shooting in the rain
As I set up for my shoot storm clouds rolled across the city. Distant lightning strikes were followed by the low rumble of thunder. It was ideal light for taking photos. The rain was still far away and the blanket of soft clouds cast soft diffused light through the woods.
As we moved through the woods I photographed Tom in a variety of locations. I was pushing myself outside my comfort zone, attempting compositions that used negative space to draw the eye in. Shooting low, shooting from afar, even shooting through foliage: I was determined to push my photography into new territory.
Shooting in this way was a challenge for me. Being responsive to my surroundings and the changing light is nothing new. It was the deliberate refusal of my natural compositional that posed the challenge.
My experimental style of shooting would unnerve some people. Tom however, was unfazed by my technique. Even so, I wasn’t yet convinced that it was paying off. Although I could see some progress in the images, I hadn’t managed to create anything new.
An impulse to change locations took us to the top of Mt Stromlo. By the time we reached the summit, rain was falling heavily. Tom agreed we should shoot anyway. As the rain came down he stood with the Brindabella ranges as the backdrop. Hastily I snapped off some shots, encouraged to see the risk was paying off.
Tom was now saturated but I had one final idea. With his approval I set up the last shot for the day at a nearby sports ground. My inspiration for this shot came from weekends of playing sport in the rain. This image tries to capture that sensation of finishing a game covered in mud.
Model: Tom Laudenbach
08.12.2014 Chasing storms
There is nothing that compares to being in a good storm. You encounter a natural phenomenon that is immensely powerful and yet incredibly beautiful. It’s an experience that inspires awe.
In spite of my admiration for storms, I’ve never succeeded in capturing an image of lightning. This week, however, an opportunity arose for me to do so. Recent meteorological activity had brought a current of warm air southwards over the country’s eastern states. This front of hot air had caused spectacular storms from Queensland all the way down to Victoria.
After several days of violent storms across Canberra, the weather cleared for an afternoon, leaving large clouds rolling across the sky. Seeing this, I thought it would be a good afternoon for time-lapse photography.
Positioned on the top of Mount Ainslie, I captured two time-lapses as the sun set over the Brindabella Ranges. Just as I was packing up to leave, a storm cell emerged to the north, with occasional strikes of lightning. I decided to stay a while longer and photograph the storm. Over the next hour the sky darkened. As it did so the contrast between the lightning and the surrounding clouds increased.
I soon realised that capturing lightning was more difficult than I thought. My responses were too slow and pre-empting the strikes was impossible. After many failed attempts, I managed to capture a few images with the lighting bolt in the image.
Posted here is my favourite image from the sequence. It is, by no means, an impressive storm photo. It is a starting point, though. And I’m already looking forward to my next opportunity to go chasing storms with my camera.
25.08.2014 Time-lapses in Berchtesgadener Land
I was recently in Germany to photograph a wedding. I flew into Frankfurt five days prior to the wedding, leaving just enough time for some travel. After meeting up with my travel buddy, Sonia, we made for Berchtesgadener Land in the German Alps.
As we approached the Alps we were greeted with dense cloud and heavy rain. Travelling up the valley into Berchtesgaden, mountains towered on either side, the peaks shrouded in mist. With rich green forests and lush farmlands, the scenery was as beautiful as it was wet.
We had neither a car nor a bike.
Berchtesgaden would be our base for the two nights we stayed there. Having booked our accommodation rather hastily, I hadn't checked its location nor it's reviews. If I had researched Pension Hochödlehen I would have read that it's difficult to reach. One review reads, "You would need a car - unless you can cycle up a steep hill!"
Standing at the bus stop in the rain, this problem immediately became apparent. With the rain falling steadily, we dragged our suitcases up the hill. Following the vague directions of some local people, we trudged up the steep incline, surrounded by tall pines and heavy mist. After a few long kilometres the forest opened up to reveal Pension Hochödlehen, perched on a ridge, surrounded by farmland and forest.
The view was spectacular. From our room we could look out over the valley. Below us was farmland and villages; above there were magnificent peaks, with mist and cloud swirling about them. Over the next few days, I set my camera up to capture time lapses of the landscape and the cloud moving about it. With sequences of up to sixty minutes, I tried to capture the drama and the beauty of this place.
Looking back, there's a lesson to be learned here. Small details like the location of accommodation can make a huge difference to the final images that you capture. Had we been staying low in the valley, these images would have been much harder to get. On this occasion it was a lucky coincidence. For my next trip I'll be making sure that I pay more attention to where I stay – and why.
10.07.2014 The missing players
This week Thom Hogan raises the current dilemma that Canon and Nikon face with his article The Canon/Nikon problem (July 7th 2014). As he points out, the question on everyone's lips is whether these two digital imaging heavyweights will assert their authority in the mirrorless camera market; and if so, when?Central to Hogan's argument is that both Nikon and Canon have the resources and the ability to build a competitive mirrorless camera. The dilemma, then, lies in how to design a mirrorless system won't steal sales away from the brands' own DSLR cameras.
Hogan states that Canon and Nikon's decision to stand back in the mirrorless race is strategic. As he points out, there's no doubt that both Nikon and Canon have the ability to design class leading mirrorless cameras. After all, Canon and Nikon clearly dominate the DSLR market.So what are we to make of the two companies' mediocre mirrorless camera offerings? It seems like the current models from Canon and Nikon are deliberately under-engineered.
Take for example the Nikon 1 series. On the one hand the camera excels in a number of fields. The system's autofocus tracking and continuous shooting ability place it amongst the best performing cameras on the market, irrespective of price. On the other hand the 1 series is crippled with a small sensor that leaves it far behind its competitors in low-light and in subject isolation. Once you factor in the high price of the 1 series cameras, it's hard to understand how this system would ever succeed.
The Canon EOS M system is also hamstrung by a feature set that is uncompetitive with the market leaders. Unlike Nikon, Canon designed the EOS M with a large APS-C sensor, putting it on a level playing field with the Sony E-mount and Fujifilm X-series. Unfortunately the system is struck down by slow autofocus and a pitiful selection of lenses. Mercifully the M is now being sold at drastically reduced prices. Even so, this isn't enough to raise the appeal of this system.
If indeed Canon and Nikon are deliberately positioning their mirrorless systems as inferior products to their DSLRs, then they have definitely fulfilled their objective. A discerning photographer will soon realize that the Nikon 1 series or the Canon EOS M systems are highly compromised when compared to their DSLR counterparts. Their dilemma lies in whether they want their mirrorless system to be competitive with their DSLRs.
While Canon and Nikon ruminate over the positioning of their various camera models, other brands are competing fiercely with one another to offer the best mirrorless cameras they possibly can. Photographers are able choose from an exciting array of options. Sadly, Canon and Nikon aren't amongst them.