In one of my recent posts, I talked about the trouble I had getting my camera equipment into South Sudan. With the kind of trouble I had, and the fact that my carry-on bag weighed 32 pounds, you might wonder why I carry so much photo gear. I think the answer is in the picture above. There are times when I become tired of my own work. Then there are times when I look at a picture I’ve taken and just have to sit back and say, “Wow!” The above picture was one of those times. The fact is, I would never have been able to create the picture above had I only had my small camera with me. Furthermore, I wouldn’t have been able to create it had I not brought a totally unnecessary lens with me. I shot it with my canon 135 mm f-2 lens. It falls within the focal length range of the lenses I already had with me, but with the f-2 available, I was able to get that razor thin depth of field I love so much. And it made lugging the extra pounds around for two weeks totally worth it.
Today’s blog is being posted out of order, since I couldn’t post it at the time the events were happening. Tomorrows blog will be the one that was written immediately after it.
I’m writing this in advance, knowing I won’t have Internet for quite a while. I landed in Juba this afternoon, and immediately knew that taking pictures, while already becoming more difficult the last time I came, would be even more tenuous.
We had tried to make arrangements to have proper paperwork for taking pictures in the country, but were told that since I was going for missionary work and not as a journalist, I didn’t need papers so long as I didn’t take pictures of bridges, the military,etc. (see the post on staying out of trouble.) Well, evidently that info was not correct. I should have been told, “you might have a really hard time entering the country if you have a really big camera.”
Fortunately, someone was there from the aid organization we were with who was a South Sudanese citizen who could vouch for me that I was with a church group and not a news organization. I was able to bring my camera into the country, but I’m going to have to be very careful when I use it. Consequently my small camera is getting a lot of use, and I’m glad I upgraded before I came on this trip. Nevertheless, I’m feeling a bit discouraged right now, but still glad I was able to get my camera into the country. Not sure what I would have done otherwise. I’m also unsure as to whether the customs agent was looking for a bribe, but I’m frankly ignorant on this kind of thing.
We took a small plane into our base location today out of Juba. It was about a forty minute flight, and it was a first for me, as I’ve always gone by road before. This, I found out, was very fortunate. The wet season isn’t quite over, and what is normally four hours by road now takes two days. One thing I will tell you, is if you have the chance to fly somewhere as opposed to driving, take it. It’s far safer, and won’t leave you completely beat up afterward.
Today was my first saturday off in about two and a half months. I spent part of it getting a typhoid shot I didn’t know I needed. Oh well. Eight days and I leave for South Sudan. My posts will probably get shorter after I leave and deal mainly with what’s currently going on in as real time as is possible. I’ll also be uploading pictures when internet allows.
My passion is still photography, but I also shoot video. Especially with the kind of missions work I’m doing, it’s really necessary to have moving pictures as well as stills, because while some stories can be told with a single image, others can’t. I’ve done videos on previous trips, and I’ll post a link to the previous finished video after this paragraph. However, video is an entirely different skill set than still photography, and although some things transfer over, such as composition and lighting, adding the element of time changes things.
Another issue to deal with is sound, which obviously I don’t need to deal with in still photography. I’ll probably talk about that another day. The thing I want to deal with today though is taking a stable image. With still photography, you just need to have a fast enough shutter speed. This doesn’t work in video for obvious reasons. You can’t simply hold the camera steady enough, especially if you’re walking. In parts of the above video this is quite obvious, but I did the best with what I had. This time I want to be able to take some epic video.
The limitation is in the equipment I can carry. With my weight limit at 35 pounds for clothing, shelter, backpack, some food, and all my camera equipment. That doesn’t leave much for extras. So with that, I built a steady-cam out of equipment I was already bringing. But let me back up. The reason it’s nearly impossible to shoot steady video is because there is nothing stable to hold the camera in place. Furthermore, the lighter the camera, the more shake, because it has less inertia. The options to take care of this are to mount the camera to something rigid, such as a tripod, or to use something that will counteract the jarring motion of the camera if you’re holding it. This is what a steady-cam does. By using counterweights, it keeps the camera from making sudden, jarring motions.
So what do you do if you have a severe weight limit on your equipment? You use your camera, a monopod, and two empty water bottles, (which can be filled in the field.) I personally use a giottos monopod with latching locks rather than twist locks. It’s bulletproof even if it gets dirty, and it rises to a height taller than myself. I also have a giottos ball head which has fluid action, so if I want to actually use the monopod as a monopod, I can take smooth, panning video. For my counterweights, I use two camelback water bottles. The reason I use these is because they have a loop in the hard plastic lid that fits on the bottom of the monopod if I first remove the rubber foot from the monopod and then put it back on after the water bottles are attached. Following are a few pictures of the setup. I apologize for the picture of the whole rig. I didn’t take it. It’s quite out of focus, and just as a side, I have pictures of me from all over the world where I’m out of focus for the same reason. The monopod, ball head, and water bottles cost somewhere around $200.
The other thing about the loops on the camelback water bottles is that they hold the weight out to the side a bit, which is more effective for counteracting twisting motion. By having the weights on the bottom of a monopod, you are able to balance the weight of your camera by extending or compressing the length of the monopod rather than adding or reducing weight. I tried this out over the last couple of days, and it is very effective at taking shake out of your videos. Also, if I need to quickly use the monopod, I can just slide the water bottles up, and plant the base of the monopod on the ground. If I want to go back to using it as a steady-cam, all I have to do is lift it up and the bottles slide back down. I will probably post a couple video clips in a subsequent blog.
Sometimes I have to get off my soapbox, stop pontificating, and give some practical, easy to use advice. Sometimes some of the best pictures can be obtained from a moving vehicle, whether it’s wildlife if you’re on safari, or the everyday goings on of the people you’re passing as you travel from one place to another. In the developed world, you’re flying by at 100 kph, and the problem is horizontal motion. In Africa, the problem is exactly the opposite, the up and down motion. For those who haven’t been to Africa, it’s probably impossible to express exactly how much up and down motion there is, so I’m not even going to try, except to say that sometimes it’s hard to even get the camera lens out the window without damaging either the lens or yourself. However, it’s an easier problem to remedy than the problem of moving too fast, and here’s why. When you are traveling at a high rate of speed, the perspective is constantly changing, meaning that the closer an object is to where you’re shooting from, the faster it appears to be going relative to you. It’s therefore hard to get a good picture where the foreground elements of the photo do not exhibit motion blur.
On the other hand, when you are moving relatively slowly but have lots of jarring, your only problem is to try to freeze your own motion because the perspective outside the vehicle is changing relatively slowly. Now I’m writing this assuming that the reader has at least some knowledge of camera functions. There are several ways to freeze motion when traveling in a rocking, jarring vehicle.
The first is to shoot with image-stabilized lenses. These lenses have floating elements inside them that counteract the motion of the person shooting the picture. This is where a lot of confusion comes in. Many people think that an image-stabilized lens freezes the motion of the subject. This is absolutely not true. If you take a picture with too slow a shutter speed and your subject is moving too fast, it’s going to be a blurry picture. It does, however, take some of the blur out caused by your own motion.
Another method is to shoot with a high ISO setting on your camera, even in bright daylight. I often shoot in bright tropical sunlight with an ISO of 640 or 800. High ISO pictures can have some additional noise (grain to some people) in the photo, but I’d rather have a noisy picture than a blurry one any day. Along this same line, if you shoot with a larger aperture (smaller aperture number), you will also achieve a higher shutter speed, which will in turn freeze motion. When shooting from a moving vehicle, I try to shoot at shutter speeds of between 1/2000 and 1/8000 of a second. Speeds like this will stop almost any motion, no matter how awful the road is.
Using these methods, some of my favorite pictures from Kenya and South Sudan have been taken from the window of a vehicle.
Oh, one other thing. If you want to get any pictures, you’re going to have to use an slr camera. Point-and-shoot cameras have come a long way, but they still tend to have limited controls, large amounts of noise at high ISO’s , and annoyingly, still a bit of shutter lag. This means you’ll press the shutter button, and in the time between when you press the button and when the picture is taken, you find you’ve taken a picture of something entirely unintended.
Finally, take lots and lots of pictures, because no matter how good you are, there are going to be a lot of rejects. But in that pile of rejects, there will be those few gems that totally make up for them. So keep shooting.