Beyond the Image

Because each image holds a story.

The Road Home

A portrait series shot on the FujiFilm X100T

Towards the end of my last trip to Cambodia, I had the opportunity to shoot a portrait series I'd been thinking about for over a year.  The series is titled 'The Road Home' and was shot in the rural Cambodian village of Kok Thnort.  I've spent a number of years working in this village with Harvest Cambodia and have always been aware of the daily migration of locals into the major centre of Siem Reap for work or study.  The trip takes approximately 45 minutes by motorbike, much longer if you're on a bicycle or on foot.  As there aren't many employment opportunities in rural villages and the level of education is often much lower, villagers will often be employed in labour intensive jobs such as construction work or rice harvesting.

The shoot took place over two hours on a typical mid-week afternoon as locals made their way home. This is a favourite time of mine in the village as it's a time when you see locals relaxing, knowing their long day of labouring is over.  Men are playing volleyball, ladies are catching up with their neighbours. The aim of the shoot was to photograph a cross section of the community, trying to capture the feeling of contentedness they have in knowing that their long journey home had come to an end.

Both my lighting and camera setup were kept as simple (and light) as possible, this was due to the fact that I didn't want to hold people up for to long (I averaged approximately 2 minutes between each portrait) and also because I'd been travelling.

I shot the series on the FujiFilm X100T with the addition of the tcl-x100 tele-conveter.  The primary reason behind shooting the series on the X100T was to utilise its leaf shutter. The tele-converter (which in my opinion is a must have for all x100 shooters) gave me a more traditional portrait focal length and also a shallower depth of field.  The leaf shutter on X100T is fantastic in that it allowed me to sync my flash at 1/1000 sec, this combined with the in-built 3 stop ND filter lets me shoot portraits at f2 in very bright conditions and still overpower the sun using only a speedlight.

To achieve the same result with a traditional camera (DSLR or mirrorless) would require me to have a six to seven stop ND filter combination on the front of my lens (allowing for me to shoot at f2 and 1/200th sec). The problem with this is my speedlight would no longer have the power to illuminate my subject through the heavy ND filter, meaning I'd have to invest in a bigger, heavier and more expensive lighting setup.

The portraits were lit with a LumpPro LP-180 speedlight, shot into a reflective umbrella.  The umbrella was mounted on a tripod with a centre column extension (as I hadn't packed a light stand).

The high flash sync speed of the X100T combined with the built in ND filter gives me greater latitude to adjust for the ambient light of the scene in camera without having to use fiddly screw in ND filters or slower shutter speeds.

Early in the shoot when the sun was at its brightest my camera settings started at ISO 200, F2, 1/1000 sec, ND filter on.  These settings allowed me to under expose my background.  I'd then have my assistant Oun stand in place as I manually set the flash power to properly expose for the subject. As the ambient light levels dropped I would simply drop my shutter speed.  When the shutter speed got down to around 1/125 sec, I turned the ND filter off and dropped the power of my flash by 3 stops.  This let me start the process again at ISO 200, F2, 1/1000 sec with ND filter off.

This simple set up worked extremely well through the shoot, the electronic view finder of the X100T allowed me to continually check my ambient exposure and adjust for it on the fly.  The subject to flash distance in all the portraits remained consistent, meaning once the flash power was correctly set I could forget about it.  This freed me up to focus on interacting with my subjects and keep an eye on framing (something that can easily be overlooked when you've got so many camera/flash settings to concentrate on).

In my opinion the FujiFilm X100T is one of the most versatile travel cameras available.  Its combination of a small, non intimidating form factor, sharp fixed lens (with the ability to add wide and tele converters) and the leaf shutter for use of small speedlights in bright conditions, make it fantastic tool for any travel photographer.

I'd like to thank FujiFilm Australia who supplied me with an X100T for the trip to Cambodia and also to two of my good friends and fantastic local guides Sok So and Lis Oun. Oun's ability to flag down a passing moto is second to none!  I hope you enjoy 'The Road Home' as much as I do.



The Road Home

I used to be a prime guy... FujiFilm XF 50-140

Up until recently I was proud to call myself a 'prime shooter'.  My camera bag was full of sharp, fast, Fuji prime lenses.  The first two lenses I purchased when buying my X-T1 were the 14mm f2.8 and the 35mm f1.4  After a few weeks, I returned to my camera store to pick up the 23mm f1.4 and 56mm f1.2, my set of 'primes' was complete.

These four lenses, along with my trusty Fuji x100s served me well for over a year while living in Cambodia. They were small, light and sharp and suited my style of photography. They allowed me to get up close to and interact with my subjects in a 'non-threatening' manner due to their discrete size when matched with the X-T1

Since returning to Australia I've continued to shoot portraits, however Buddhist monks have been replaced with Brisbane families and rice farmers with fashion bloggers.  In this new environment I've found myself shooting most of my portrait sessions primarily with the Fuji 56mm f1.2

My need to stay discrete had been replaced by the need for 'extra reach' and an ability to isolate my subject from an undesirable background.

Enter the FujiFilm XF 50-140 f2.8

Weighing in at just over 1kg the XF 50-140 is by far Fuji's biggest (and most expensive) lens.  It features weather sealed construction, in lens image stabilisation and constant f2.8 aperture through the focal range. 

The first chance I had to shoot this lens was at a sunset, family portrait session, firmware 4.0 had yet to be released.  The session started well, the conditions were bright and the images on the back of my screen appeared to be sharp. However as the sun began to drop towards the horizon, so did my faith in this new lens.  I was struggling to focus.  One missed shot, two missed shots... come on.  I was attempting to shoot some silhouettes with the setting sun directly behind my subjects and I could not grab focus.  It was time to bring out the 56mm and finish the session with a familiar combination.

I was pretty disappointed after my first experience with the lens. This was not the Canon and Nikon 70-200 killer I was expecting. Having said that, the images that were in focus were fantastic.  The bokhe was smooth and creamy and my subjects were tac-sharp.  I wanted to love this lens, like I did my other Fuji lenses.  I just couldn't trust it to perform when I needed it to.  

The 50-140 went back in my bag, to be brought out a few weeks later for another family portrait session.  Again the shoot started mid-afternoon and the lens performed well.  In good light, focus was not an issue, as the light dropped, disappointment set in and again I switched to my primes.

Was this lens a fair-weather lens only?  I couldn't justify the investment in a lens that only worked in perfect conditions.

Firmware 4.0 was just around the corner, and on the advice I was given by Warwick from FuijFilm Australia, I decided to wait for the update and give the lens a second chance.

I'm glad I did.

After completing the firmware update, the 50-140 was the first of my lenses I tested.  The difference was like day and night - a night that I was now able to focus quickly and accurately in.  It was as if I had a completely different lens attached to my camera. My confidence had been restored.  My love of Fuji glass was to continue. So much so that I knew I could no longer claim to be a 'prime shooter'.

If you're a wedding, portrait or fashion photographer shooting on the X-T1 this lens is for you.

Very quickly the 50-140 has become my lens of choice for portrait work. Its already gotten me out of a few tricky situations in which I've had very limited options in terms of backgrounds.  Given the space, I'm able to shoot at 140mm and f2.8 allowing me to isolate my subjects, no matter how distracting the background.

At the end of the year I'll be heading back to Cambodia to lead a photography tour and to spend some time working on other projects.  I've already made a permanent space in my bag to take the 50-140.  While it won't be coming out every day for my travel photography, there are some photographs I have in mind that I'm already looking forward to making with this lens.

Panoramic stitch of 18 Images shot at f2.8

Panoramic stitch of 18 Images shot at f2.8

Panoramic stitch of 22 Images shot at f2.8 

Panoramic stitch of 22 Images shot at f2.8 

Overpowering the sun

One of my favourite features of the Fuji x100s is it's leaf shutter.  A leaf shutter allows for extremely high speed sync with a flash.  When using flash a traditional DSLR is usually limited to a shutter speed of below 1/250sec.  The leaf shutter on the x100s allows for flash sync at speeds in excess of 1/1000sec.

While this might not sound like much, when you combine this with the x100s's built in 3 stop Neutral Density filter, all of a sudden you have a compact camera that can overpower the sun with a small handheld flash unit while still allowing you to shoot at a shallow depth of field.

The shot below of Shelley was taken in middle of the day when the sun was at it's brightest.  My camera settings were 1/1000sec, ISO 200, f4.0 with the ND filter on.

I lit the scene with a handheld LumoPro LP180 flash, trigged with 2 x pocket wizard x's, at full power shot through a Metz 40-40 pop up soft box.

The softbox is small enough for me to be able to hold in one hand and shoot my x100s with the other.  The compact size makes it perfect for travel portraits.

The Metz 40-40 is a really well built, quick to assemble, portable softbox.  The flash unit attaches via a plastic bracket on the rear of the softbox.  This bracket is probably the weakest part of the unit and I fear over time may give way, particularly when using the softbox handheld on location.

When used in close to the subject the Metz 40-40 gives a very flattering soft light that can be controlled much more than when working with an umbrella.  It's ideal for single subject portraits and small enough to travel easily with.  For group portraits or wider, full length shots, I'd look at using an umbrella instead.

The light of 1000 candles

Each year Buddhist Monks and Nuns from across Cambodia make a pilgrimage to worship at Angkor Wat.  It's a magical sight to see and one that few Westerners get to experience as the temple complex is closed to outsiders after dark.  Luckily for me, I have great friends such as my mate So, who was able to sneak me inside the ancient temple complex.

We witnessed a procession of chanting Buddhist Monks and Nuns walk through the night, circling Angkor Wat.  Lit only by candlelight, they weaved their way through the temple, through the terrace of one thousand Buddhas before holding a mass prayer vigil.

I will always hold close the memory of the sight and sound of 1ooo Monks chanting as they passed by my camera.

Panoramic Portraits

A technique that I often use is what I refer to as a Panoramic Portrait.  Put simply, I take a series of photos and stitch them together like you would a Panorama to produce a single medium format looking image.  There are a few benefits to this approach;  it allows me to create an image with an extremely shallow depth of field and it also gives me the ability to shoot a wider format image if I'm stuck with a single focal length lens.

The technique is fairly simple.

1. Set your camera to manual mode and expose correctly for your subject making sure you are using the widest aperture possible (lowest f-stop).

2. Manually focus on your subject.

3. Shoot a series of images with the first being of your subject and the rest photographing what is around them.  Make sure you don't change your focus - you want to capture a number of out of focus images to create depth in your final image.

4. Import your images into Adobe Lightroom and apply the same edit to them all, making sure you have a consistant look across the series of images.

5.  Still in Lightroom use the photo > edit in > merge into panorama in photoshop command.

6.  Crop and you're done.