When Life Gives You Parasols - Stay Cool and Shoot Smart

 I recently opted for joining  a tour of some of the local industries surrounding Chiang Mai in Thailand, attracted by the potential of getting some interesting shots of people working and seduced by the colourful images to be shot at the parasol and silk weaving factories. Here are few things that I found that benefited the photography results from this trip that I'd like to share. There are no hard and fast rules or particularly magic tips for creating better travel photos. However, one of the most important things that I have learned to do to improve my travel photography is to stop and think!  It's so easy (for me at least) to surrender to that default, trigger- happy response in the excitement of the moment. Easy to say when presented with a kaleidoscope of visual opportunity, a series of potentially once- in- a- lifetime moments, or simply a clear shot through the crowds, or clouds, or whatever obstacle stands between you and that elusive subject.

  Parasols in various stages of completion, Chiang Mai

Parasols in various stages of completion, Chiang Mai

Groundwork in advance

If you are going on this sort of tour - ask when and in what order you will be taken to the various locations? And if you have the luxury of making your tour a tailor-made experience, state your preference of timing to visit specific locations where you particularly want to spend the most time. Make your decision mindful that the golden hours lie at each end of the day and you may not wish to fight with exposure compensation throughout the day if it is strong sunlight overhead.

  Parasol shadows

Parasol shadows

Choose a lens which is going to be able to cope with diverse light conditions. On a tour like this one, we spent a lot of time in either semi-dark interiors, punctuated by strong light from windows creating horrid exposure challenges, or under the intense glare of overhead sun. Working with Aperture Priority setting, and a lens which gives you the biggest aperture range to cope with these sudden lighting transitions,  is going to help. I found my little f1.4 50mm lens really useful.

Think about where you are going. What story can you tell from your record of going to that location? And research the work of others who have been there. Even by having a quick look at postcards on sale, or in the photo pages of a guidebook, to quickly establish what has worked for others, or where iconic shots have been taken. This  doesn't need to drive your decision making either way, but can give you some useful hints about what has been done before, so that you can arrive looking for a fresh take on the experience.

  A cheerful worker at her silk weaving  loom in Chiang Mai

A cheerful worker at her silk weaving  loom in Chiang Mai

Succumb to OCD behaviour

I usually try and set out for the day with a purpose to my shooting. Decide for example that you will only or mainly concern  yourself with seeking:  colour, lines, patterns,  textures,  shadows reflections and contrasts , geometry, motion, people and portraits, for example, or any combination thereof, and then try to stick with that theme.

Next time when you are in the field, ask yourself these three questions:

  • Why am I taking this shot? ( Is it interesting? And what makes it interesting?)
  • What do I want to direct my audience's attention to, by taking it?
  • How can I best direct my audience to what makes this an interesting image?

Before I take every shot during the day I try and get used to going  through that most dastardly of check-lists ( Image size and quality / ISO / White Balance / Aperture Priority or Manual / If using Aperture Priority - Exposure compensation? / Type of focusing?)  with autistic devotion. This should become like a mantra in your head, even as your finger twitches over the shutter release button. Then if that weren't enough -yay! Another check-list! (C'mon you know the score!) And of course, it goes like this: Position: (Point of view, camera angle, (there's nothing wrong with lying on the ground!)) Framing: (what really needs to be inside of the frame and what doesn't? What's cluttering the background? Where are the likely sources of blown-out highlights?) Composition: (set the grid inside your viewfinder to help remember the rule of thirds)

  Parasol painting at a workshop near Chiang Mai

Parasol painting at a workshop near Chiang Mai

Phew! All of that before every shutter click? The answer is of course: "yes" - if  there is time allowing. And if there isn't time?- I hear you ask! Then, upon arriving at your location, spend a few minutes to decide what sort of default setting on your camera is going to work best; so that your camera is ready to shoot and give you a half-decent result, if you are caught by surprise suddenly with a fleeting photographic opportunity.

What is it that you are expecting to see? Be very prepared to view it and shoot it differently

The sausage machine experience of a tour, gives us little time to dally and get creative but it is worth hanging back and getting away from your group, being the last one to leave and waiting for other groups to pass through.

Chat with people and break the ice before taking a shot. Revisit a subject once they have got used to you lingering and make the most of shooting while chatting.

  Workers at the silk weaving workshop, Chiang Mai

Workers at the silk weaving workshop, Chiang Mai

Select and identify something within the frame that tells us: "this shot was almost certainly taken in Chiang Mai / Thailand / South East Asia". It doesn't need to be a big ostentatious thing but its good to provide these small clues for your audience who like to be able to decode and  identify with your work.

  Loom decoration at the silk weaving workshop, Chiang Mai

Loom decoration at the silk weaving workshop, Chiang Mai

When that image that you had in your head; with colourful parasols being held aloft by Apsara-like, graceful Thai beauties doesn't materialise. Get OCD and go through your check-lists! What can I find here instead? Shadows? Geometry? Pattern? And go with it! Too sunny? Then why not get underneath a parasol- literally?

  Hand painted parasols drying in the sun

Hand painted parasols drying in the sun

"Less is more", is a popular response to cluttered or overcrowded situations. Sometimes the devil truly is in the details and a whole experience can be reduced to a few carefully selected close-up shots. The dark densely-packed, nineteenth century feeling  silk weaving workshop was a particularly difficult place to shoot and often the close ups communicated more.

Take a good preliminary scout around a location first.

Use geometry provided by surroundings to guide your composition. 

  Nineteenth Century-style  looms in a traditional silk weaving factory, Chiang Mai

Nineteenth Century-style  looms in a traditional silk weaving factory, Chiang Mai

Change your camera angle to eliminate potentially over-blown highlights or unnecessary mixed light or background / foreground clutter when composing your shot.

  Parasol patterns - stacked parasols drying in the sun at the parasol workshop, Chiang Mai

Parasol patterns - stacked parasols drying in the sun at the parasol workshop, Chiang Mai

Anticipate. When that guy gets off his mobile phone, he's going to get back to painting that spot again- or when the glue has been applied she will throw over the next piece of fabric catching the light again.

  Parasol shadows

Parasol shadows

Work with positive people and don't try to force a situation. If you've got your shot - move on! There's no point in shooting a scene to death once you've got it technically correct. Use your time wisely. There are always other opportunities.

  Traditional silk weaving factory, Chiang Mai. This woman is spinning the silk from cocoons made by silk worms.

Traditional silk weaving factory, Chiang Mai. This woman is spinning the silk from cocoons made by silk worms.

Anything else?

Have a back-up device - a (fully charged) iPhone for example, is a great little camera and deals with those dodgy light conditions in its stride;  letting you concentrate more on composition issues and providing you with a very rapid, candid response in claustrophobic situations and when you are visually exhausted.

I know its stating the 'bleeding-obvious' but charge that camera battery and format your camera SD cards before the trip! Pack spare cards and a charged battery. Decide whether your location is going to present dust or water hazard to your camera  lens and fit a filter accordingly. If you have some kind of light waterproof cover for your camera (even a poly-bag) to hand, as well as a clean cloth to wipe your filter then don't forget it.

  Looms in action at the silk weaving workshop Chiang Mai

Looms in action at the silk weaving workshop Chiang Mai

  Diffused light beneath a parasol

Diffused light beneath a parasol