I am a terrible photographer.
At least I was before I went to Mongolia, but I didn’t realise it until I got there.
It was pretty shocking, this revelation. I mean I’d never considered myself any Steve McCurry, but I’d received my fair share of Facebook likes and nice comments about my travel snaps (mainly from family and friends now I come to think of it), and I’d invested in a small but capable camera earlier in the year.
So when the chance to spend twelve days on a photography trip travelling through the wilds of Mongolia with creative holiday company Frui arose, I jumped at it. Why not brush up on my skills, I thought?
Turns out I didn’t really have any skills to brush up on. I’d never shot off automatic, I had zero idea about what “ISO”, “shutter speed” and “aperture” meant, and I was pretty lazy too, snapping away at whatever was in front of me and telling myself I could always edit the image later – straighten out, lighten up, thank Shiva for digital!
Thankfully the Frui trip was a wild success that taught me, in language I could actually understand and with the help of a healthy dose of Chinggis Khan vodka, as much about photography as it did about Mongolia itself.
Et voila (or whatever that is in Mongolian), the five most important photography lessons I learnt there.
USE FOREGROUND INTEREST
Landscapes – even the spectacularly epic kind you get in Mongolia – can turn out embarrassingly flat and lacklustre if you just shoot them as is. Simon Tupper, the wonderful photography tutor who rolled with us on the trip, taught us about a fabulous concept called “foreground interest”.
This basically means putting something (a person, a tree, a bottle of vodka) in the foreground to give your images a sense of scale. You can also use “leading lines” – things like tyre tracks and rivers – to lead people’s eyes into the image so they know what your focal point us.
DON’T BE SCARED OF BLACK & WHITE
I’ve always shied away from using black and white mode for some reason – maybe because it reminds me of newspaper images so I think my subject has to be serious and intense in order to use it.
But black and white can really give you a sense of texture in nature, especially with the sky, which can become full of mood and atmosphere when the colour’s stripped out of it.
WAIT FOR A ‘DECISIVE MOMENT’
Sad but true: most great images don’t just come along and present themselves. You have to actively go out looking for the right set up, camp out there for a while and wait for the right thing to cross your path. You can think of the set up as a stage, and you’re just waiting for the actors to come in (I stole that analogy from Simon). We did this at the horse festival we spent a day at, waiting by the arena filled with a whinnying, stomping mass of wild horses, until the perfect moment caught our eye.
GET COMFORTABLE WITH PORTRAITURE
While I’m not exactly what you’d call a shy person, I’ve never felt comfortable lobbing up to strangers on the street and shoving a camera in their face. But Simon taught us the importance of taking your time getting to know your subject, and developing a relationship with them before getting snap happy. Have a conversation, ask some questions, have a laugh, maybe a cup of yak milk tea. Then once your subject feels comfortable with you, they’ll share parts of themselves with you and your camera, which make for much more rich and honest portraits. This way you’ll also feel more comfortable about giving them directions about where you want them to stand to get the best light and background.
AVOID ‘POPCORN PHOTOGRAPHY’
When it comes to travel photography, there’s a big risk of ending up shooting what Frui calls “popcorn photography”, or images that simply perpetuate the stereotypes of the country you’re in rather than giving an honest portrayal of what it actually looks like.
So no, I didn’t get the quintessential Jimmy Nelson image of a Mongolian man standing on top of a mountain with an eagle perched on his arm as I’d been hoping to, but I did get some honest moments that I felt distilled the real life I witnessed in Mongolia. And in the end that’s what really matters.
CHECK OUT THE BELOW VIDEO FROM FRUI’S DIRECTOR JAMES LOCKETT FOR HIS TOP PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS FROM OUR MONGOLIAN TRIP!