Monday, May 02, 2011

Your Introduction to Amateur Photography

"Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened"

Burnt Norton (1936) by T.S. Eliot

All photographs used in this post were taken during my recent western Himalayan backpacking trip.

If I was a graduate from the Fall Out Boy school of writing titles, I'd have called this piece Your Introduction to Amateur Photography Written by a Two-Bit Blogger Packing a Point-and-Shoot. Yes, confession time: I am a rube who takes pictures using a compact camera - the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ5/TZ15 to be precise - and the very thought that I could have the presumptuousness and audacity to write anything on the hallowed subject of photography should pop the monocles off the eyeballs of some real photographers.

Photography started off as an auxiliary hobby to my original pastime of writing a weblog, and prior to picking up a camera myself, I was fairly dismissive, even hostile, towards people who insists on documenting every bloody moment on film (and the advent of digital picture storage made such ventures annoyingly affordable). I had the hoity-toity opinion that experiences should be lived, not recorded. "Make memories, not photographs," were my watchwords.

Then, my floor fell away from beneath my feet when I learned just how unreliable, perishable, and mutable human memory can be. In August 2004, Discovery Magazine ran an article entitled Are Recovered Memories Real? In it, experiments are described on how subjects in an experiment were successfully implanted with the false memory of having met - and even shaken the hand of - Bugs Bunny when they were at Disneyland, which is impossible because the wascally wabbit isn't a Disney character. In another experiment, a group of students were persuaded by researchers to "remember" that when they were in first-grade, two of their classmates got into trouble for putting Slime into their teacher's desk, when no such event occurred. Two out of three of them bought the story, and even came up with more details about the fictional scenario. One subject, after being told that it didn't happen, said: "No way! I remembered it! That is so weird!" The annals of memory research is rife with these kind of disconcerting reports.

This is why I have made a vow to write only the truth here because if I lie, I'm pretty much lying to my forgetful, impressionable future self. Committing to that ideal, I also picked up photography to furnish myself with all the corroborative evidence I would need. I'd recommend just about anyone at all to pick up a pen and a camera - it's really the best way to remember anything.

Okay, I've gone dangerously off-topic there.

Anyway, after two cameras and four years of dabbling in shutterbuggery, I've distilled the art into five quick-and-dirty maxims for taking great passably interesting photographs. Now to disclaim: I have not read a single book or instructional website on photography, so these are just some principles I pulled right out of my ass and codified.

Be One with the Camera.

What that means is simply this: always have your gear with you at all times. It's easy when you're armed with a highly-portable compact camera like me - much less so if your piece looks like it has bazooka in its ancestry. I always have my TZ5 either in my messenger bag or in one of the pockets of my cargo pants, even when I'm out doing something completely routine like lunch or shopping for groceries. And I do this on the off-chance I might encounter something like this,

Tibetan Man Riding Dog
That's not a leash, by the way. That's just his rosary.

It's a picture of an old Tibetan vegetable seller at the market square pretending to ride one of the huge, docile strays which populated McLeod Ganj. Why did I take this picture? It's a geezer on a pooch, that's why. Anyway, some of the most incredible photographs taken in history were unplanned and unexpected - like the Tank Man, or the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức - and I wager they wouldn't have existed if some old-timey photographer wasn't lugging their ridiculously clunky, elephantine equipments around at the time.

Snap a Thousand. One of Them is Bound to be Good.

Whenever you want to take a picture of a subject, regardless of whether it's a person, a building or a scenery, it's a good idea to get more than one. Take several from as many angles, vantage points, aspect ratios, and lighting conditions as possible. That way, you'll always end up with a plenteous crop of images to choose from. There were instances when I would return to the same place at different times of day just to see if it would look better with the sun coming from a different direction, for example.

Consider this puppy from a litter I found under a local monument in Dalhousie,

Puppy in Dalhousie
Look at its puppy-dog eyes! Look at its 'ickle paw held up daintily!

The hardest thing about trying to take a picture of a puppy is that it wouldn't stay still, much less pose for you. In fact, it's a pain to even try to get it engaged enough to look into the camera (and when it is, it would usually try to lick the lens). Your best bet is to just keep clicking away until you get a good one.

This next picture was taken on my maiden four-hour hike up to Triund,

The Road to the Eyrie
This put the 'P' in 'precarious' and the pee in pants.

An astute observer would notice that this picture had in fact been taken with the camera tilted about 20° clockwise to enhance the giddiness factor of the mountain path (not to say that it isn't already hairy enough on its own) - which is a big improvement over the shots I took levelly.

Boldly Go Where No Lens Have Gone Before.

That does not mean that you have to be a trailblazing mutant mashup of Magellan and Frost all the time but sometimes, the best views require a modest bit of legwork to get to. After conquering Triund, I decided to mount the ridge again a couple of days later, but without using the well-travelled shale road. Instead, I went completely off-trail and attempted the climb up the mountain across one of its steeper faces where at times, the incline became near vertical. There were too many moments when I found myself painfully eking out every metre of ascent using my hands, elbows and knees as much as my feet while my heart screams its fevered beats into my eardrums. I'll let you decide if it was worth it,

Climbing to Triund
Seriously, don't do what I did. It was stupid.

I also took the famously perilous bus trip from Chamba to Bharmour, a route which I believe should be closed until it's safe for humanity again. On paper, it should only take me three hours to reach there but it eventually took twice as long because three separate landslides got in the way (I'm not making this up). However, given the choice, I'd gladly do it again for scenery like this,

The Road to Bharmour
That while line running across the mountain on the right? That's actually a road wide enough for two passing trucks.

I rarely back out of going somewhere just because the road is less than ideal, or is actively trying to murder me. A photographer should possess a propulsive desire for discovery and an insatiable appetite for exploration. How else would anyone expect to find new perspectives?

Wait for It.

Patience is a virtue. Good things, as clichéd as this might sound, do come to those who wait - especially if you're trying to photograph wildlife. Animals are notoriously uncooperative and camera-shy and the intrepid photographer must adopt a predatory disposition and insinuate himself into their habitats, meld into his surroundings, and lie in wait for his prey.

When I was in the Tibetan refugee settlement of Majnu ka Tilla in Delhi, I got the idea in my head to try and photograph a pigeon up close. To achieve that end, I made my way onto the rooftops and sat perfectly still with my camera in hand. Pigeons, as we all know, are idiots and before too long, a few of these birdbrains ventured to land around me, some inches away from my waiting lens,

Pigeon Closeup

By simply staying immobile, I was also able to get a macro shot of this familiar-looking black-and-yellow insect,

Hoverfly on Finger
Hint: It's not a bee.

I saw a swarm of these bugs buzzing about a clump of wildflowers on one of my treks, and I decided to tarry awhile to try and photograph them. It delayed my journey for about half an hour, but it paid off when one landed on the tip of my finger for the shot above. Anyway, I learned later after examining the picture that they were actually hoverflies, not the stinging little beasties they were mimicking. You can tell by the stumpy antennae and the mouthparts - which brings me to my next topic,


It's not a stretch to imagine that vigilance is a bankable quality in the field of photography. A photographer must be keen-eyed enough to see things which are invisible to the regular, unobservant masses. Case in point: this deviously-camouflaged praying mantis. It blended so well with into surroundings that I had to move it out into the open because my stupid camera couldn't get a focus on it,

Brown Preying Mantis
Praying mantis asks, "Have you found Jesus?"

And when I say that an enthusiast of photography should be observant, I don't just mean it in the literal sense. A photographer should also cultivate an eye for photogenicity whether it's a subject of human interest, a quirk of architecture, an abstract emotion, or an elderly Tibetan man mucking about with a dog for the amusement of his pals.

For instance, I was at the St. John of the Wilderness church at Dharamsala when I was treated to this scene,

Young Man Helping Old Man
This is the reason why I believe that there's good in everyone.

Pictures are never free of context, and it's essential to learn the circumstances surrounding every one. That decrepit, venerable gentleman you see was barely ambulant. I see him often in the nearby town, shuffling creakily and covering about an inch with every step he takes. Judging from his gait, his poverty of facial expressions, his soft voice, and his manifest tremors, my guess is that he's suffering from advanced Parkinson's disease. The young man supporting him was reading a Biblical passage and a verse from a Rabindranath Tagore poem for his benefit from a sign in the church's courtyard. After that, they had a quiet conversation which I wasn't close enough to eavesdrop on.

They weren't related, by the way - that young man was just a stranger who stopped to help him. On my part, I thought his random act of kindness shouldn't go unrecorded.

The Last Word.

Now, there's no guarantee of snapping a good photograph even if you buy yourself the most powerful camera in the market, follow every helpful advice, or read every book on the subject (and I certainly didn't do any of that). A great whopping part of taking pictures involves the element of luck, and sometimes it just boils down to being in the right place at the right time,

Paragliding Through Heavenly Scenery at Billing
Billing, an internationally renowned paragliding launch site.

And I think that's part of the appeal and the thrill of photography. If you aren't already into it, I think you should pick it up and give it a shot. Yes, I'm going to end this article on that a horrible pun.

P.S. If you like these pictures, wait till I start blogging about my vacation properly. I saved the best photos for those posts.

Amateur shutterbug,
k0k s3n w4i


Phoebs said...

is that your finger??! thats disgusting T___T i like the 5th picture very much & i wish i could have played with that puppy :(

c3rs3i said...

Your photos are beautiful. They have made me very self-conscious about mine. :\

- That puppy can ask anything of me
- I thought of Eyrie too. If you don't visualise it in 3d, it actually looks scarily verticle.
- The scenery is gorgeous, thanks for sharing and risking your life for it. No need to do it again, though.
- Nail biter?
- Not as chubby as a bee. Not as evil looking as a hornet. It has pretty cool eyes though.

Liz said...

Oh mannnn. That puppy. Such a heartstring-pulling photo of it !!! :D And the pigeon was so cute ! It actually seemed like it was curious !! xD

And yes, beautiful scenery pictures. HM, I always thought that you needed a canggih-died DSLR camera to take such awesome pictures !!! :D

Dr.Vishaal Bhat said...

Am unhappy about the re-design, but then am unhappy about so many things these days :(

k0k s3n w4i said...


c3rs3i: self-conscious about yours? what do you mean? did you recently go on a trip too, or are you also into photography? about my nail, i have a habit of snipping one corner and then pulling the overgrown bit off.

Liz: i guess the pictures would probably look better if i actually took them using a dslr, but i try to make the best of what i got :)

Dr.Vishaal Bhat: the long-suffering girlfriend™ prefers this template, but it's really not that different, isn't it?

c3rs3i said...

Simply that I've recently come off my busy period so been doing some trigger-happy meandering except that my pictures are of exceptionally bad quality - think tiny reso, pixelated and blur. People could be forgiven for thinking I drew them myself although that would be a compliment to my drawing skills.

Interest in photography extends as far as taking a pretty picture. I prefer sticking my face in most of them (proof I've been there and done that!)so probably not a very serious photographer by any standards. Been thinking of buying a new cam for ages though - Since the tz7 but there's since been the tz10 and 20 now. Any thoughts?

Try a manicure? =) Ruining my nicely done up nails is a huge disincentive to me peeling them - lasts about 3 weeks.

~*caryn*~ said...

was happily scrolling down and reading when the picture of the pigeon staring at me popped out. scared me. chis bedebah. i'm afraid of birds. yes i run away at the sight of them.

Liz said...

Oh no. I think they're really awesome as they are already !!! haha Which is why I'm really impressed ! These pictures are golden ! :D

Kelly said...

Great pictures. Love the cute little puppy and the Oh Hai pigeon :D You're damn good in taking pictures with a compact camera somemore! Plan to upgrade a new DSLR?

Rewarp said...

A compact camera?

I need to start practising with mine then.

Jen said...

My fave post here in a long time!! The pigeon completely cracked me up the minute I saw it!

k0k s3n w4i said...

c3rs3i: well, i've nothing but good things to say about lumix's tz line. mine is practically ancient compared to the ones you just named. their zoom is pretty impressive for a compact. the pictures they take tend to be darker around the corners (which i fix using photoshop if they are obvious), but maybe they have ironed that kink out after tz5. and if you can't already tell, i actually know very little about photographic hardware. try asking someone who uses cameras that can't fit into their trouser pockets.

~*caryn*~: there's this alfred hitchcock film called the birds which you absolutely must watch.

Liz: haha, thanks. if you like these, you should stick around then. there's a lot more where that's coming from :)

Kelly: i expect i will get a better camera at some point in the future.

Rewarp: you own a camera? dude, time to add some pictures to your posts!

Jen: seeing as you haven't been around here in a long time... ;)