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Technical

August 2011

Earlier in the year we kept a promise to ourselves by making a 10-day journey through Bhutan. Angie had been dreaming about visiting ‘the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon’ since she was a teenager, but this was also destined to be a working trip to check out this mountain paradise as a venue for a photo workshop we will be hosting in March/April 2012.

© Jonathan and Angela Scott

Flight from Mumbai to Paro with magnificent view of the Himalayas. “We could see Mount Everest in the distance at one point,” explains Jonathan Scott. Shot on the EOS-1D Mark IV with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, the exposure was 1/500sec at f/11, ISO 125.

Talking about photo workshops, there was a feature in Time magazine recently about professional photographers leading workshops in exotic locations around the world, and how popular they are becoming. The demand is there. Leading workshops, and attending them, is a part of our business that we find exciting and challenging. Digital cameras have brought photography within everyone’s reach – whether you click away on your mobile phone or use a pro camera, all of us want to take better pictures.

People live at such a fast pace these days that photography is one way of getting added value from your travels; photography helps you to recall the details of what you experienced years after the event, bringing it alive again. Things are changing so fast in photography, and the processing of images, that there is always something new to learn. A photo workshop is one way to stay current and for professionals to earn additional revenue.

The golden rule for us is: “never try to lead a trip to somewhere you haven’t visited” – you have to do your homework. People won’t forgive you for not knowing the finer details of the comfort of the lodges you are staying in and how photography-friendly the vehicles you’ll be driving around in are. Nor will they want to find they are travelling out of season unless, perhaps, the price is right.

© Jonathan and Angela Scott

Farm workers carrying baskets of dung to be ploughed into the fields as fertiliser before the planting season begins, Bhutan. Shot on the EOS-1D Mark IV with an EF200mm f/2L IS USM lens, the exposure was 1/320sec at f/11, ISO 200.

So what did we know about Bhutan before we went there, besides the government’s reputation for measuring its nation’s wealth in terms of Gross National Happiness rather than GDP? We knew we weren’t there for a trek in the Himalayas. But we did make sure to find out which side of the plane to sit on for the best views of those staggeringly beautiful mountain peaks on our flight from Mumbai to Paro (sit on the left side).

Angie always carries her EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM zoom lens at the ready when we travel, and that is where the Powershot G12 [compact] comes in handy too – it’s compact and user friendly. On arrival we wanted to spend as much time as we could visiting the Dzongs (monastery fortresses) and to meet with the red-robed monks. The Dzongs are often perched on steep mountain slopes high in the sky, so be prepared to climb.

This wasn’t going to be a wildlife adventure – there are tigers in the south of Bhutan but you need a remote camera to have any chance of filming them. And it was the wrong time of year to photograph the spectacular black-necked cranes that migrate from Tibet to Bhutan from the late autumn (they can be seen around Bumthang between November and February).

We were there in March/April just as the rhododendrons were beginning to flower, and the peach trees were in full bloom, adding a welcome touch of colour to the forest-green scenery. So, despite the fact that our EF800mm f/5.6L IS USM telephoto is the sharpest lens we have ever used, we settled on Angie’s EF500mm f/4L IS USM with the Mark III Extenders – the EF2x III and EF1.4x III – for this trip. The 500mm fits easily into a carry-on rucksack for airline travel and is very versatile in the range of shots it offers.

© Jonathan and Angela Scott

Paro Dzong, Bhutan: Young monks laughing and playing in the courtyard of their monastery between lessons and prayers. Shot on the EOS 5D Mark II with an EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens, the exposure was 1/500sec at f/4.5, ISO 1000.

All of Canon’s telephoto lenses feature Image Stabilization [IS] – just try picking up one of the older non-IS lenses to see and feel the difference this has made. Image Stabilization is essential if you don’t want to carry a heavy tripod, and we didn’t. At home in Kenya we are spoiled in this respect – we have our own specially designed vehicles with camera doors and fluid heads mounted on the frame to make life easy when we are using our big lenses on safari. But when we travel out of Africa it’s beanbags and Image Stabilization we rely on, plus a Kirk Sidekick with ball head that can clamp to a vehicle roll bar, or some form of portable bracket to attach to the vehicle to mount a tripod head onto. Check out the Leonard Le Rue bracket for the vehicle with a Really Right Stuff ball head – it’s hard to beat.

In recent years we have concentrated much more on travel photography – not just wildlife – and love to take time to engage with the local people. It makes a refreshing change, and hosting photo workshops allows us to travel to places we love to visit in a cost effective way. With two of us to manage the group it allows us a better chance of picking up some decent shots while still making our visitors the priority. By taking shots ourselves we can encourage our guests to ‘see’ what we are trying to interpret with our photography and how we compose and design our shots. It’s amazing what a difference a week of practical instruction can make.

Most important of all we try and encourage people to become more proactive in their photography, rather than simply being reactive. This is one of the biggest steps forward, progressing from taking snapshots (and we all take those at times!) to learning to visualise the photographs you want to take: to conceive and compose the image in your mind. We do this the whole time – identifying a landscape or situation that has the basic elements of design that we find appealing but that, right now, is missing a crucial element of composition, or perhaps the light isn’t right.

We store up a library of ideas, knowing at some point in the future everything will come together. Examples might be a wonderful dead tree, but without the leopard or lion reclining on it to make the shot complete, or a flight of steps with an open doorway at the top, but without the defining element of a person walking through it. There are times when you can just pick up the camera and shoot, but there is nothing more satisfying than working on an assignment of your own creation and then making it happen.

We add a few days – sometimes weeks – before and after our workshops for our own photography. This gives us time to try and complete some of those images we have dreamt up. It may mean going back again and again to the same location and may involve designing a special camera mount or a remote, or the use of a specialist lens, to complete the shot. They say you make your own luck – we believe it is just a question of being ready to take advantage of the ‘decisive moment’.

Having the best guides can make all the difference to your trip. You soon discover that there are all kinds of events and festivals going on in places like Bhutan that you may not have been aware of. If you have the right person guiding you they can draw on a network of contacts, among the local people, who can open doors for you that someone else might say was impossible. We wanted to photograph the Buddhist monks in their many guises – at prayer, attending school for novice monks, debating, preparing for ceremonies, eating their food, and relaxing. We soon discovered that anything was possible if you had the right guide; someone who knew how to approach the senior monks and could facilitate. If you don’t tap into the local network you won’t get the result you are looking for.

In Bhutan we needed to be mobile. We rarely needed the 500mm [lens]. Most of the time we worked with two camera bodies each (EOS 7Ds and EOS-1D Mark IVs) and the EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, the EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM, the EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, and the EF200mm f/2L IS USM. We sometimes used the 1.4x extender with the 70-200mm zoom and the 200mm. When we were shooting indoors the 16-35mm and 24-105mm zooms were particularly useful if there was some ambient light.

We try not to use flash – we prefer natural light and find that flash is often intrusive. We could have brought faster fixed focal lenses, for use in these circumstances, but generally preferred the overall flexibility of the zoom lenses. Zoom lenses are ideal for when you need to compose and shoot quickly, with the added benefit of cutting down on the number of lenses you need to carry. These days zooms make sense and the latest Canon L-series zooms are incredibly sharp and, with the added benefit of Image Stabilization, are easy to use. 

© Jonathan and Angela Scott

Thimphu Dzong, Bhutan: Novice monk feeding rice to the pigeons at the monastery. Buddhism teaches a reverence for all of life. Shot on the EOS-1D Mark IV with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, the exposure was 1/500sec at f/9, ISO 100.

There was a lot of activity in the cobble-stoned courtyards at the Dzongs with monks rushing around on some errand or other, sometimes alone but more often in small groups. The white walls and brightly coloured wooden panels and beams made a striking contrast to the red-robed monks: there was a mix of austerity and laughter; of energy and stoicism that we found fascinating.

We often only had one day at each location so, to get the most out of each venue, we would often split up, each of us following a pictorial story as it unfolded in front of our eyes or focusing on capturing the one we had been working on in our heads. People often find Angie’s presence as a woman – she is small and quiet – less intrusive or threatening; a beefy bloke with a bunch of cameras and lenses slung over his shoulders can stand out and be quite intimidating in a way that a woman doesn’t. But teamwork helps too. Angie often concentrates on close-ups and the more intimate shots, while I work away on the wider view and the landscape. The fun is in surprising each other in what we are seeing.  

© Jonathan and Angela Scott

Amankora Thimphu, Bhutan: Dancers performing Bhutanese cultural dances including the wonderfully named 'dance of the four stags'. Shot on the EOS-1D Mark IV with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, the exposure was 1/10sec at f/5.6, ISO 100.

A major challenge when photographing people is trying to get them to carry on with their daily lives, rather than engaging with the camera and the person behind it. In this respect, the appearance of one’s partner can sometimes act as a distraction to the people that you are trying to photograph, directing their attention away from yourself and making for more intimate images for your partner. The male-female dynamic works well for us – it defines the way we take photographs at times and there are certain situations that are easier for either a man or a woman to photograph.

We left Bhutan with a strong desire to return. Festivals and ceremonies in Bhutan are colourful and exciting, and are an important part of peoples’ lives. On this occasion we arrived too late for the Paro festival – one of the most important ceremonies in the annual calendar. But next year we will be ready and better prepared for what that event may offer us as photographers with a deep respect for the Buddhist way of life.

Biography: Jonathan and Angela Scott

Jonathan and Angela Scott

Jonathan and Angela Scott are multi award-winning wildlife photographers based in Kenya. They are the only couple to have won, individually, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award. They write, illustrate, teach and are TV presenters, most famously known for the ‘Big Cat Diary’ series for BBC television. They have written numerous best-selling books including Jonathan’s ‘The Marsh Lions’ (1982) and their co-authored, ‘Antarctica: Exploring a Fragile Eden’. Their book, ‘Stars of Big Cat Diary’, was published in 2009. Jonathan and Angela Scott recently filmed the project 'Lions: The Truth' for the BBC and they hold regular wildlife and travel photography workshops in Africa and Asia.



Showcase

Paro Dzong, Bhutan: Young monks getting ready to assemble for prayers and instruction. Shot on the EOS-1D Mark IV with an EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, the exposure was 1/1000sec at f/3.2, ISO 3200.