PHOTOWORLD January edition

I have a new article in the excellent Chinese photography magazine Photoworld on storytelling—the first of six on this topic over the coming year for the bi-monthly publication. And there is, of course, my recent book on storytelling through photographs, The Photographer’s Story, available now in several languages—including Chinese Simplified and Complex.

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December News

Lake Inle fishermen

The Myanmar workshop

After a lot of planning by Country Holidays, the Myanmar 2014 workshop started on the 5th December, with people flying in from Singapore, Hong Kong, Washington DC, London, New Zealand and Shanghai. Including trip leader Andy Yeo and myself, there were fifteen of us, for nine days. I want to congratulate Country Holidays, who lived up to their reputation as one of Asia’s premier high-end tour operators, on a seamless organisation. This was my first workshop with them, and it won’t be my last…. Read more

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Raw processing – just to keep things clear

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Raw processing attracts a lot of attention on photo forums, unfortunately not all of it well-informed. As I’m writing about it for a forthcoming issue of the UK magazine N-Photo, where I’ve taken over the Nikopedia section for a year, I thought I’d look and see what photographers tend to think and say about it. To be honest, the most impressive thing was the amount of bad temper and argument displayed. Perhaps it’s a macho thing, the idea that it’s manly to know about software, algorithms and the math behind it, rather as it used to be manly to be able to fix a car engine.

Well, the math is complicated, and there’s no need for pride to be involved unless you’re a software engineer by profession. But the principles are not complicated. At its very simplest, a digital camera, and especially a DSLR, captures much more information about tone and colour than can be displayed in a photograph or seen by the eye. The image as captured has to be processed somewhere to turn it into the JPEG or TIFF that is the usual end-product. You can let the camera’s processor do it by choosing NOT to save the Raw file, and you’ll have a JPEG or TIFF as the result. Or you can choose to save the original data in its raw, unprocessed form (hence the name Raw) and do that processing for yourself later on a computer with processing software like Adobe’s in Photoshop or Lightroom, or DxO Optics Pro, or the camera manufacturer’s own software, or any of dozens of raw processing engines, as they’re called. Here are the main reasons for choosing to do this:-

1. The raw file keeps the full image quality

2. You control what image data to use for the final JPEG or TIFF from the surplus available

3. Better processing is available with software that can be run on a computer than in-camera, especially demosaicing

4. You can often recover exposure ‘loss’ in highlights and shadows

5. The software engineering behind raw processing continues to improve, and you’ll be able to re-visit images saved as Raw

6. It’s impossible to overwrite a Raw file, so it’s safer archivally

The arguments against revolve around time and space. Raw files take up more space than JPEGs, take longer for the camera to save as you shoot, and take time to process on the computer.

Meanwhile, for a clear and comprehensive description of what you can do in processing a raw file, the following link to Adobe is hard to beat:-

http://helpx.adobe.com/creative-suite/using/make-color-tonal-adjustments-camera.html

 

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PHOTOGRAPHER INTERVIEWS: Wei Wei

I’m re-publishing here the Featured Photographer interviews I did for the Open College of the Arts, on their former page The Freeman View. Wei Wei (和平) lx024 Wei Wei is a Chinese photographer based in Hangzhou, the city not far from Shanghai that is famous for West Lake and for growing tea. A graduate of Hangzhou Zhejiang Institute of Technology, Department of Art, she began work as a freelance photographer shooting both editorial and advertising, and has become well-known for her music photography, as one of China’s top artists covering rock stars and rock bands in the country’s exploding music scene. She combines this with a longterm personal project that she has been shooting for a few years on Tibetan Buddhism. Her career offers a fascinating insight into what it takes to be an independent professional photographer in a country where the economic opportunities are large, but where the state maintains control over many aspects of society. We met when I ran her story School of the Living Buddha on the iPad magazine Photographer’s i.

MF: How did you get started?

The restricted Larung Valley college town

The restricted Larung Valley college townMF: How did you get started?

WW: As I was growing up, Polaroid cameras were quite common, and travelling with my parents it was natural to have many taken. As a child, I always thought of the photographer each time as a magician. Then at school there was a singing contest, and the teacher gave me a Polaroid camera for me to shoot it, so I became a magician! I was fascinated by how it made me look at details an moments in a new, concentrated way. My first photography gained me unexpectedly high marks, and when our teacher asked us to choose what we wanted to do for our professions, I hesitated hardly a moment before saying photography. Not surprisingly, that’s what I chose for university. As a professional for a number of years now, I have numerous film and digital cameras, but my favorite is my childhood love, the Polaroid camera. The first camera I bought was a Polaroid SX-70, and it remains my most cherished. 03

MF: And your first job?

WW: When I graduated, a local maufacturer, Wahaha, asked the college to recommend a photography student, and the department recommended me. I think this was because I was very active shooting records of college activities, so became quite well known for that reason. I should explain that Hangzhou Wahaha Group (the name means ‘laughing child’) is both private and the largest beverage manufacturer in the whole of China. And it is largely controlled on a day to day basis by one man, the owner. A total of four candidates were competing for this post, but finally I got the job. I began by shooting children’s fashion showing Wahaha company activities. I think the reason for my success with this was that a took a simple approach that treated the children very innocently, and also because if immersed myself in every detail of preparation. For instance, the parents who accompany children to a shoot can have an influence on their mood, often causing stress, so things like that have to be anticipated and managed. But since then, I’ve photographed for Wahaha fro the last six years. And then editorially I began shooting for regional publications like Chengdu Business Daily, City Express, Young Times, Search City, and The City.

MF: Here in the West, photography has become more difficult over the last several years financially as a career, and whatever else we want to do creatively, it’s important to be able to make a living. In China, has the continued economic growth meant that photo assignments are plentiful?

WW: Yes, there are a lot of job opportunities, but it is still very competitive. As the economic conditions improve, so there are more and more photographers. Of course, it is a very popular career, but many people just see the glamorous side of it and fail to think what it takes to succeed. I’ve been fortunate, but actually there are fewer opportunties than you might think for large numbers of photographers just starting. As the market improves, there has become a clearer division of labour, just like in the West. Wedding photography is one example, and is a very big market in China because marriage is expected and is a big event in every family’s life, not just for the couple getting married. I don’t do this myself, but you see it everywhere, and competition among photographers within every speciality like this is very strong. Many who want to have a career in photography get stuck as assistants, or start undercutting on price, let alone having the opportunity to shoot their favorite things. WW0_0818

MF: But would you say there is plenty of work in China for photographers who are ambitious and prepared to work hard?

WW: I think in China, if you are willing to work hard, you have many opportunities. But your work needs to be sufficiently convincing, and you have to be very serious and dedicated. My clients are generally in fashion photography, in the music business, and humanistic documentary photography. After a few years, I have my own client relationships, of course.  The commercial clients make it possible for me to shoot my own favourite projects that I really enjoy.

MF: Do you keep your different types of shooting separate from each other?

WW: Yes. I have my own studio in Hangzhou, because this is my home town, and I like it also. So my commercial work is mainly fashion photography of my commercial customers, basically in the studio in Hangzhou. But at the same time, I am also a rock photographer, so I need to follow rock bands and rock stars to performances, which involve multi-city tours. In addition to these two working arrangements, as long as there is enough free time I go to Ganzi County in Sichuan, to continue my project involving the Tibetan Kham peoples, shooting their lives and culture. This last is my favorite project, and I am referring to Tibetan culture as religion, which is Tibetan Buddhism. Several topics unrelated and with a great difference; commercial photography is generally done in my studio; at the same time, I’m a minority female photographer shooting rock, whether it is a small music festival or a large concert. IMG_7617v2Baisha villageBaisha villageBaisha village

MF: Tell me something about your rock photography

WW: Currently in China, rock music is on the rise. At first, we heard only foreign bands, but now there are many very good bands and performers. I also like rock personally, and it started when I went to see the concert of Xu Wei, my favorite musician, and I was shooting throughout the entire concert. From what I hear, it’s not at all easy now in the west simply to take photographs at concerts…

MF:…Right, but it used to be here like the way you describe, at least when I started photography…

WW: …OK, right, but we don’t yet have that much of a problem in China. Anyway, that’s how it began, and I’ve deliberately made it part of my work. What I love is that all the musicians are so passionate. By the end of any concert shoot, I always have severe dehydration, but that doesn’t affect my love of rock. With some of the less well-known rock bands, they can’t really afford to pay me a lot, but I’m willing to help them, and sometimes even shoot free. I was very lucky to have worked with top groups, and become friends with them, so it’s good to return the favours to up and coming bands. In a sense, I think I’ve been successful because, as a female photographer, I’m better at bringing some delicate sense and warmth to the shooting. There are only a handful of female rock photographers in China. There’s an increasing openness that music is bringing to our society, with more and more shows each year. I was just in Dali at the Labour Day holiday, shooting a big music festival held on Erhai Lake, with the country’s most famous rock star. I worked for the festival for seven days, and although the fee was not very high, I’m happy because I could combine my two greatest interests, photography and music. WW0_0154WW0_0396

MF: What first motivated you to go to Tibet and start recording Tibetan Buddhist culture?

WW: I would go to Tibet every year when I was a student in University, and live with the locals -  so different from my normal modern city life – but the most important thing is, I saw a form of sincerity there, and the reason for the way they deal with life and death and the people around them comes from unreserved religious beliefs. It shocked me, so I wanted to photograph them and their beliefs, and make a record of their lives. It’s important that the Tibetans keep their faith and culture, because it is a very valuable asset that we all can learn from.

MF: Buddhism is a popular topic for Western photographers also, to the point where there seems to be a lot of similar shooting in the same places like Thailand, and now Myanmar. Do you have a specific subject?

WW: At the beginning I had a magazine assignment in Tibet, and stayed there for some time. I was surprised and moved at the depth of Buddhism in Tibetan life, and their faith, and wanted to learn more and photograph more of it. For three consecutive years now, I’ve been following one of the youngest Rinpoches, a Living Buddha, as he established a Hope Primary School near Ganzi in western Sichuan for more than 80 children from poor families, and recording the progress. This is located not far from the Serthar Institute in the Larung Valley – very remote, and the world’s largest Buddhist Institute. The Rinpoche introduced me to this college in the high grasslands. Foreigners are completely banned from entering the college, where there are more than 30,000 monks and nuns, living in tens of thousands of simple wooden cabins gathered together. In fact, earlier this year I concluded a winter shooting. I wanted to enrich the shooting with photos of winter Tibetan life, which is very tough.

MF: Is there a worthwhile magazine market in China for stories like these Buddhist ones?

WW: Chinese magazines are interested in Tibet for content, but they are less willing to cover too many things about Buddhism, which you can appreciate. The Buddhism is more of a personal project, but I can still get published landscapes of Tibet and Tibetan festivals, such as horse racing.

MF: In general, is the magazine market for photography healthy in China? Here it isn’t, and it’s difficult to get interesting assignments.

WW: There are some very good magazines in China, and they are interested in stories on culture as well as the usual fashion and lifestyle subjects that you would expect. Generally though, magazines draw up their own plans in advance and set up a special shoot when they want an in-depth story on specific cultures. Of course, there are not many such opportunities, but I certainly do what I can.

MF: In your commercial work in Hangzhou, what kind of clients do you have and what is a typical day’s assignment?

WW: I have two major commercial customers, both well-known large companies; in fact, in their respective fields, they are the best. One is Whaha, which I already mentioned, and the owner and I have maintained a very good cooperative friendship. There is also the cosmetics company Proya. I have a long-term relationship with both and have a couple of assignments a year for each. Usually with such clients the campaign will involve a well-known celebrity, for example, Lee Hom, a  pop star in Asia. We’ll discuss the style of shooting, and the fashion style also, which could be sporty or elegant, depending on the product. Generally the celebrities have their own make-up artist and costume designer, so I don’t need to worry about this. After shooting, we have a photo screening with the celebrity as well as the client, and if it all looks good to everyone, we make the selection for processing and post-production. The workload is quite big, but it’s well paid. If you buy Wahaha’s bottled mineral water, you’ll be able to see my photographs.

MF: What does this year’s schedule look like for you?

WW: Very busy. Apart from my studio work, this year I need to follow China’s most famous rock star, Xu Wei, shooting concerts in many cities, from May until January next year, every month at least one concert, which means for me 10 days that each month. In addition, in order to continue shooting my Tibetan Buddhist topic. 未标题-20

MF: What next?

WW: I am currently putting together a book on the Buddhism project, and it will be my first book,  so I’m being very careful in the selection. Of course I know there are a lot of photographic books about Buddhism, and a lot of photographers have good Buddhist imagery, but I have a different perspective. I also have that special access to the Institute in the Larung Valley. I’ve learned a little Tibetan, and I live in the homes of Tibetan people. This is my advantage. In these years of shooting, I came to understand more and more, and I became a Buddhist.

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UPDATE on the ONLINE PHOTOGRAPHY FOUNDATION COURSE

The course notes for the first lesson are now available FREE! Just click below to download them:
https://s3.amazonaws.com/michael_freeman_foundation_course/Documents/Foundation+Course+Lesson+1+%28FREE%29.pdf

This will give you a taster for the actual eight-week course, which will start on the 6th of September. it actually does run over a specific tie, rather than people just beginning whenever they want, and there’s a good reason for this. There’s an assignment that I give at the end of each week, and as well as my giving a critique on this, I want to share everyone’s. We’ll all get more out of it if every participant gets to see everyone else’s—and can comment.

We haven’t yet set the dates for the second run of the course, but it will be shortly after the first ends, so probably in November.

My website for the course: http://bit.ly/1nCFWk7

COURSE BOOKS: THE PHOTOGRAPHER'S EYE & THE PHOTOGRAPHER'S EYE: GRAPHIC GUIDE

COURSE BOOKS: THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE & THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE: GRAPHIC GUID

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New Online Photography Foundation Course

THE ONLINE PHOTOGRAPHY FOUNDATION COURSE
Well, after a lot of work, we’re now launching one of the biggest projects for me this year—the Foundation Course, on Composition in Photography. It starts on the 6th of September and lasts eight weeks. I’ll be writing more about this over the next few weeks, but for now, why not take a look here:-

 

Orange pearls

 

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Barclays Bank Photo Workshop, Singapore

In the second week of June, I flew over to Singapore (just ten days after the previous trip, when I was shooting Singapore Colonial Style) to run a workshop for Barclays Bank. The background was that Barclays support a couple of charities—not-for-profit organisations—that offer guidance to young Singaporeans who are in some, various, ways disadvantaged. The idea was to to take a dozen of these young people, aged between 17 and 25, and teach them photography to a sufficient level to be able to produce next year’s Barclays calendar. An interesting, and ultimately highly rewarding challenge for me, and I really enjoyed the week. I probably learned more than they did, though about different things!. We made a short video, 12 minutes, about the workshop, and it’s here:-

barclays-sing

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Annual STARK Magazine competition

I’ll be a judge for the annual Stark Magazine photography competition, as usual. The standards are high and it’s a very worthwhile publication. See this link for the Call for Entries: http://www.starkawards.com/

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Talk at Bournemouth Electric Camera Club

As usual when things get really busy, I have the bad habit of neglecting other duties, like writing this blog and doing the Facebook page. After two almost back-to-back shoots in Singapore, from where I just returned at the weekend, I can now get back to tidying up things back here in the UK. First announcement is that on Sunday 6th July, ay 2:00pm I’m giving a talk to Bournemouth Electric Camera Club. It’s open to non-members also, and here’s the Club’s poster, so if you’re in the area, I look forward to seeing you.

MF Poster 1 001+1

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Start of the tea season on Longjing Mountain

Longjing Tea Mountain

China’s most famous tea, fresh picked in the Spring on the hills above West Lake

Just an hour these days on the high-speed train southwest from Shanghai, Hangzhou has for at least a thousand years been one of China’s cultural centres, with a rich history of poetry, painting and philosophy. The city, capital of the province of Zhejiang, is famous for two things in particular: the tranquil and atmospheric West Lake, and the Spring-fresh, spear-bladed Longjing tea. The two are intimately connected, for the most notable variety of this famous green tea is grown in the hills bordering the west of the lake and called, not surprisingly, Xi Hu (West Lake) Longjing. It’s four characteristic virtues are the jade colour of the leaves, the yellow-green or lime-green colour in the cup, a warm, toasty aroma with notes of chestnut or hazelnut, and a fresh vegetal flavour with a slight malty or savoury aftertaste. The name, meaning Dragon Well, comes from an old well deep in the hills. Stirring the water is supposed to cause denser underground water below to briefly rise and  swirl just visibly in sinuous curves.

Green tea, most of which comes from China and which makes up three-quarters of the nation’s production, is all about freshness and timing. Longjing is tea that is freshly picked, immediately processed, and drunk as soon as possible after that. Here in the hills west of the lake, the most highly regarded picking is in early April, just before the Qingming Festival, also known as Pure Brightness Festival, which marks the beginning of Spring, around the 5th of April. Timing is critical, as is the weather. The local pickers’ saying is “three days before, it’s treasure, three days after it’s trash”. This is followed two weeks later by another important picking before the ‘Grain Rains’. After this comes Spring Tea (Gu Yu) before May the 6th, and Late Spring Tea (Li Xia) before May the 21st.

This is hand-picked tea with an important pedigree (important enough to be the tea served to President Nixon and Zhou En Lai on the famous 1972 state visit), and is graded and classified down to the smallest detail. And priced accordingly, so buyers take great care in sourcing, paying great attention to the plucking standards. The top three standards are bud only, bud and one leaf, and bud and two leaves. The proportion of these defines the top three grades, and there are many below these. Indeed, much Longjing tea on the market is grown outside this special area. Zhejiang Longjing means just that—grown elsewhere in the province—and less reputably there are ‘Longjing’ teas from other provinces entirely. A measure of the importance of Longjing tea and its city is that both the National Tea Museum and the Tea Research Institute are here.

Tea-picking,

Longjing gained its reputation early, written about in the 8th century by Lu Yu in his famous book The Classic of Tea. In the Song Dynasty, one of Hangzhou’s governors was the poet and statesman Su Shi (1037-1101), who also took the name Su Dongpo. He celebrated this tea in his poem White Cloud Tea (the name Longjing came later), writing “The tea sprouts are fresh at the foot of White Cloud Mountain. It is always lush during the Spring Grain Rains.” Its reputation was finally sealed when Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) of the Qing Dynasty was served it on a visit. Reputedly, he was so taken with the elegant movement of the tea-picking girls that he joined in, tucking the plucked leaves in his sleeve. He was suddenly recalled to Beijing where his mother had fallen ill, forgot about the leaves in his sleeve, but the Queen Mother smelt the fragrance and asked. He found the leaves, now flattened, had tea prepared, and his mother recovered. After that, he named the 18 tea trees in front of Hugong Temple ‘Royal Tea’.

This story is also held to explain the flatness of the dried leaves, which is achieved skillfully during the processing. This always has to be done on the same day as picking, however late, and involves pan-frying in a wok, which halts the oxidation and removes water from the leaf cells that would speed fermentation. Great care goes into shaping the leaves, which are flattened and blade-like, with tapering ends.

This fresh tea needs to be drunk as soon as possible after picking, which explains why green teas as a whole are much less known in the West. There is no better way to enjoy the full fresh intensity of Longjing than sitting by the lake shore in the first week of April, under the peach blossoms, or on one of the small boats. A local recommendation is to use clear glass tea-ware, so that you can watch the leaves unfurl. If you bought the top quality, you’ll see what’s called ‘flagged spear’ as the bud floats like a flag and the single leaf hangs suspended like a spear. With bud-and-two-leaves this is called ‘sparrow’s tongue’.

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