Photographing the beauty of Burma
I have been traveling the globe capturing images from amazing countries for as long as I can remember... but it is the beauty of Burma, also known as Myanmar, that stands out more than anywhere else to me. Southeast Asia has always been my home away from home but the jewel of this region at least for me is the eye candy of Burma, which has something for every kind of photographer. Since 2001, I have made numerous pilgrimages, including several photography workshops to this special place and I am so happy to have my new book, Passage to Burma, finally out as of October 23, 2013. This is really a photographers paradise but capturing this one of a kind country requires more than just a little luck to be in the right place at the right time. A guide is a must who knows the country well and a good guide will know where you should be to capture the once in a lifetime images that abound all over. Getting up well before sunrise and knowing where great photo ops will be is key for Burma but knowing how to interact with the people is also just as important, at least for me. Being a stock photographer, I need images of so many things from all over the world and the diversity of this magnificent country is just what the doctor ordered for almost anyone that loves photography.
For so many years, travelers have stayed away from here because of the brutal military regime as this was not the safest place to be. But now, National Geographic has listed Burma as one of the 20 top places to visit in 2013 and they have open arms to the rest of the world. You really need at least two weeks to see even a modest amount of Burma and for your gear arsenal, everything from wide angle to at least a 300mm is a must. Photo ops seem to turn up around every corner, from street scenes in the hustling city of Mandalay to fish markets at dawn in the capital of Yangon. Then of course there are the temples that abound and the incredible monasteries that really seem to take your breath away. In the village like city of Bagan, there are over 2,000 one of a kind temples in every direction and a feast for the eyes. Sunrise or sunset will get you images that you always dreamed of from atop a temple or even inside a massive hot air balloon, that glides along above the slow paced atmosphere below. But the faces of the people, especially the children are what draws me the most as the smiles seem to be non stop. The people just seem to be happy as they know nothing else but a simple life with just the bare essentials.
So much of life in Burma revolves around the water as the Irrawaddy River runs right the country and commerce and every day life means using this river for almost anything. Inle Lake with it’s unique fisherman who paddle the lake with one leg are incredible to photograph as I have no idea where they get the strength to paddle the lake day after day….. but they do. And life on the Ubein Bridge in Mandalay, the worlds longest teak wooden bridge is a non stop feast for the eyes as the foot traffic from one village to the other is like a symphony in motion. As the sun sets in the distance, photo opportunities are endless with the barrage of traffic that create one of a kind silhouettes.
Photographing the faces of Burma is addicting and my favorite part of the women and children is the Thanaka face paint that they put on every day. Part of their culture, Thanaka face paint, which is a combination of sun block and make up, looks different on every face and makes for powerful images in every corner of the country. On little San San, in the sunrise shot above, I wanted to get what I call close focus/wide angle images and using my 16-35mm, I shot her from above on one of my favorite temples at sunrise and shot very wide but also very close to her. This enabled me to put her in her surroundings using the wide angle but also gave me no distortion from shooting so wide. Not a typical portrait lens but thinking outside of the box is what will get you noticed and separate you from the next shooter. Often, I use my 50mm to get in tight to capture the faces of Burma and that is one of the things I talk about in my online class at PPSOP.com called Eye to Eye: Capturing the Face. Using a 50mm allows me to get in tight and really have a up close and personal feeling and I love the interaction it can give you, similar to the close focus wide angle feeling from my wide angle shooting. Shooting with just a telephoto for faces keeps you at a “safe” distance, which is more of a comfort zone for so many people but it can limit you, although there are shots with long lenses that can give you an image like nothing else. The following image of the monk was shot with my Canon 24-105 zoomed all the way to 105mm. This is a great zoom lens for so many types of shooting all over Burma but I also love my 70-200 f/2.8 for so many things as it has always been my favorite portrait lens by far.
A tripod is one piece of gear that is really a must and is so often left at home on far away trips like this and this is one thing that goes with me to every corner of the planet. Using a tripod helps so much with not just composition and sharpness but so much more. This is why you see so many professionals using them as this is the one piece of gear that so many cannot live without. Tripods really make you concentrate much more on each shot and you start to lose the “point and shoot” approach and your images just start to look and feel better. For the images above and below of my little friends, a tripod was a must for me. It is the one piece of gear that I want everyone to use as much as possible on every workshop I do and every class I teach. It will help to to push your photography probably more than anything else and something that should be with you as much as possible.
The diversity for amazing shots is what really sets Burma apart from everything else. Although I love shooting in Vietnam, and Thailand and of course Cambodia and so many other parts of Southeast Asia, the beauty of Burma is so far reaching and so incredibly alive and vivid. As a photographer, or even just a traveler, you don’t feel like an outsider in this place. They welcome you everywhere, with open arms and smiling faces. It really doesn’t get any better than this and now that the military rule has seemingly backed down and started to embrace democracy somewhat, life in this country might get back to where it belongs. And with Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader finally out of years of house arrest, a new hope for this country is more alive than ever. But with these changes, increased tourism is also saturating the landscape much like what happened to Angkor Wat after the Khmer Rouge left years ago. But there is still beauty to found in every direction, around every corner. All you have to do is look.
Travel photography is probably one of the most rewarding ways to use your camera but it also can be one of the most hectic and problematic ways to photograph also. You can sometimes be in the middle of nowhere when your gear breaks or a hard drive fills up. With digital, we gave up the hassles of film but were given a whole new set of challenges like running out of batteries at the wrong time. So many things can mess you up and you have to just suck it up! I have probably encountered just about every kind of problem out there from my backpack falling from atop an elephant in India, breaking 3 lenses to flooding my only camera in the Galapagos Islands, where I was leading a workshop. And when you are far away from a good camera store or repair place, life as a photographer can be pretty tough. But when it goes smoothly…. photographs from far away places are like nothing else. And for an exotic place like Burma, traveling here with a camera is about as good as it gets! Everyone I know that has been to this magnificent place is forever touched. and as Kipling wrote so long ago …..” Burma… a land quite unlike anything you have ever seen….”