Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 13, 2017

© Jeremy Ferugson/Global Gypsy

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Into the lenscape

A pro reveals his secrets to spectacular travel photos

Time was, you’d come home from your travels, process your transparencies, set up the carousel in the living room and beguile a rapt audience with a 140-slide tray of wonder on the road. Nowadays if I invite friends over for an evening of travel pictures, you’d think I’d asked them to a dinner of boiled newts. Yet travel photography remains a giddying replay of the journey. At the same time, it seems plain the 21st century belongs to the digital camera, as millions of film-less images are downloaded into computers and pulsed through wires as electronic snapshots. This isn’t even photography any more, it’s imaging.

Taking a picture is something we take for granted, yet what a marvelous alchemy it is. It involves technology, but it is not about technology. It begins with the human eye, but ends with the human heart. It performs the miracle of plucking a moment from the rush of time.

I wonder if Kodak founder George Eastman knew this when he armed ordinary people — we who couldn’t draw or paint or sculpt — with the box camera 115 years ago. Remember, it took Leonardo da Vinci four years to paint the Mona Lisa. You can shoot your SLR in 1/125th of a second.

Over the last three decades, I’ve become a kind of travel photography junkie. The most precious souvenirs I bring back from any journey are the pictures I take. Oddly, they have the effect of justifying my being there in the first place: if I can’t shoot, then what I am doing there to begin with?

LOVE AT FIRST LIGHT

Travel photography is driven by the same impulse as travel itself — the need to discover. The camera has taken me places I never expected to be, led me down alleys to sights I never expected to see. Ultimately, it’s taught me to see in a different way.

Some things don't change. When it comes to taking great pictures, there’s no difference between digital and conventional imaging. I’ve learned to revere the quality of light that makes or breaks the image. But to use light, you have to have it. That means I go places that offer large helpings of sunshine, steering myself to the Tropics rather than maddeningly overcast northern climates. In the hot places I embrace so readily — India, Asia, Africa, the Middle East — life unfolds in the open, in the street. It’s all there for you. It’s so rich, you could practically go blindfolded and shoot a coffee-table book.

Convention says light is at its best — golden-hued and long-shadowed — in early morning and late afternoon. And convention is right. I shoot until last light, until the ball of the sun drops behind the horizon. In the middle of the day, I hang up my cameras and go to lunch.

Desert light is especially riveting in its abundance and beauty; it brought me to Yemen twice in the same year. But the best light of all — the photographer’s grail — happens when the sun penetrates and dances across a stormy sky. Charcoal-bellied clouds are suddenly illuminated. Landscapes and buildings drip with gold. It’s usually my miserable lot to stumble upon such marvellous light in a dreary suburb or industrial park, but every so often, the gods smile on me — as they did in the French port of Honfleur, in the Scottish Highlands and on Burma’s Inle Lake, where the monsoon broke up over my head and blew away.

What you shoot is just as important. Follow personal passions: ruins in late afternoon light, lurid movie billboards the world over, every possible take on a rice terrace. I’m addicted to marketplaces: the souks of North Africa, Paris street markets, Turkish bazaars, China’s flea markets. Here candid photography is a natural. Rarely do I emerge from a market without a shopping bag of images.

It goes without saying that respect is an essential component in taking people pictures. True, some folk are not amused to find themselves confronted by a glass eye with an electronic wink. But most of the time, in most places, a little respect, a smile and some sign language go surprising distances. Ask permission and the answer is rarely no. In turn, when Japanese tourists request snapshots with their instant Canadian best buddy, I try to return the favour.

THINK OUTSIDE THE SHOEBOX

Now what? How do you make the most of your best? This is one of travel imaging’s endless bugaboos. Images are sent off across the wires and prints (er, hard copies) are passed around for oohs and aahs. Then everything goes into the proverbial shoebox, even if it’s become an electronic shoebox.

I’m as guilty as anyone on this score. I’m always looking for ways to keep my images alive. A really artful album is possible if you eschew cheap mass-produced ones and spend money on class acts with solid bindings and archival pages to protect your prints. Major photo retailers keep them in stock.

Decorating with photography means asking yourself practical questions: glossy or matte print surfaces? Do you invest in frames and non-reflective glass, or simply flush-mount the images to the edge so there is no frame? Can a collage of rampantly exotic market shots give new life to a corner in the family room? Will a misty morning on the Seine add a dreamy beauty to a bedroom? Are the safari shots powerful enough to conquer the sterility of an office landscape?

For the impassioned computer user, quality printers and photographic-style papers — they come in sizes from four by six to 13 by 19 inches and finishes from matte to textured, lustrous pearl —literally complete the picture. One of these days, the results ought to match the quality of everyday silver halide photography.

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