Tales of a Travel Photographer | Chasing the Light Magazine / by Tim Barker

In early 2017 I was asked to write some words about my career for an online Magazine called "Chasing the Light" which is run by renowned travel and landscape photographer David Noton and I've decided to share what I wrote on my blog as well.

   
  
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  Taken at the Ka Htain festival in Hsipaw, Myanmar.  The green wings of this young girls costume caught my eye as she was performing the traditional Kinnara & Kinnari bird dance with three other dancers.  The Kinnari is depicted as a half-bird, half-woman creature with the head, torso, and arms of a woman and the wings, tail and feet of a swan.  Looking for a more interesting angle I circled behind the young girl and then mid dance and for the briefest of moments she leaned back towards me, my instincts kicked in and I framed and focussed and fired one frame before she continued on her way.   Canon 5D Mk II, 35mm f1.4L lens, 1/5000 sec at f1.4, ISO 200.

Taken at the Ka Htain festival in Hsipaw, Myanmar.  The green wings of this young girls costume caught my eye as she was performing the traditional Kinnara & Kinnari bird dance with three other dancers.  The Kinnari is depicted as a half-bird, half-woman creature with the head, torso, and arms of a woman and the wings, tail and feet of a swan.  Looking for a more interesting angle I circled behind the young girl and then mid dance and for the briefest of moments she leaned back towards me, my instincts kicked in and I framed and focussed and fired one frame before she continued on her way.  Canon 5D Mk II, 35mm f1.4L lens, 1/5000 sec at f1.4, ISO 200.

My love affair with the developing world started back in 2003.  I was two years into my photography studies at RMIT University, Melbourne and I decided it was time to explore the world.  What started as a year break turned into two as my adventures in Latin America and South East Asia spurred a yearning for adventure and a life of discovery.

I returned to Melbourne in 2005 to complete my degree and my focus was to build a portfolio of travel images.  My early years were influenced by my RMIT lecturer John Hay and Richard I’Anson from Lonely Planet Images who both encouraged me to pursue my passion.  A friend at the time was based on Thursday Island and a two week trip to the area to develop my portfolio only cemented my ideas.

On completion of my degree I had built up a strong enough portfolio to be accepted as a contributor to Lonely Planet Images and I spent the following years in Melbourne working for suburban newspapers before once again hitting the road in 2009.  My first stop this time was Bangladesh and I spent two months crisscrossing the country and pushing my skills.  I quickly realised that the best images came in the low light and I was often up and walking the streets well before sunrise as I hunted the light.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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    Everywhere I went in Bangladesh I got swamped by locals and it was common for me to walk through a market like this and have 50-100 people stop what they where doing and simply follow me.  On this occasion I found this amazing shaft of light bursting through the market roof in the Nawabganj Bazar in Rangpur.  I had to leave the area twice though as if I spent too long the area became crowded with people staring at me and ruined my composition.  On the third time I returned and found these two boys.  I took one or two frames and a woman in a white coat walked past and the reflection lit up the entire scene.  I ran to a nearby shop and grabbed a a large white bag and had someone hold it for me to reflect the light back onto these boys whom posed for 2 or 3 more frames before we where once again swamped by the crowd of onlookers. This time I knew I had the shot though and there was no need to return.   Canon 1Ds Mk II, 24-70mm f2.8L lens at 24mm, 1/250 sec at f3.2, ISO 400.

Everywhere I went in Bangladesh I got swamped by locals and it was common for me to walk through a market like this and have 50-100 people stop what they where doing and simply follow me.  On this occasion I found this amazing shaft of light bursting through the market roof in the Nawabganj Bazar in Rangpur.  I had to leave the area twice though as if I spent too long the area became crowded with people staring at me and ruined my composition.  On the third time I returned and found these two boys.  I took one or two frames and a woman in a white coat walked past and the reflection lit up the entire scene.  I ran to a nearby shop and grabbed a a large white bag and had someone hold it for me to reflect the light back onto these boys whom posed for 2 or 3 more frames before we where once again swamped by the crowd of onlookers. This time I knew I had the shot though and there was no need to return.  Canon 1Ds Mk II, 24-70mm f2.8L lens at 24mm, 1/250 sec at f3.2, ISO 400.

From Bangladesh I continued on and spent 6 months snapping away as I travelled through Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Iran.  After almost a year on the road I was exhausted and I headed to London where I divided my time between editing my huge collection of travel images and working as an assistant photographer.

 I was lucky enough to visit Syria in 2009 in peaceful times.  Having taken plenty of shots of the ruins of Apamea I was keen to photograph this shepherd with the ruins in the background.  I'd seen him earlier in the afternoon and I'd tried to photograph him a few times but each time I raised my lens he had shied away from the camera.  I didn't give up though and I hoped he warm up to me with time.  I took some shots of his son a few moments earlier and I noticed his attitude change.  The sun was setting fast and I motioned once more to ask if he would pose for me.  This time he stood proudly, I couldn't have posed him better myself.   Canon 1Ds Mk II, 70-200mm f2.8L lens at 85mm, 1/640 sec at f2.8, ISO 400.

I was lucky enough to visit Syria in 2009 in peaceful times.  Having taken plenty of shots of the ruins of Apamea I was keen to photograph this shepherd with the ruins in the background.  I'd seen him earlier in the afternoon and I'd tried to photograph him a few times but each time I raised my lens he had shied away from the camera.  I didn't give up though and I hoped he warm up to me with time.  I took some shots of his son a few moments earlier and I noticed his attitude change.  The sun was setting fast and I motioned once more to ask if he would pose for me.  This time he stood proudly, I couldn't have posed him better myself.  Canon 1Ds Mk II, 70-200mm f2.8L lens at 85mm, 1/640 sec at f2.8, ISO 400.

After 18 months in London though I’d had enough of the cold and I was lusting again for the charms of the tropics and the way of life in the developing nations that I had grown so fond of on my travels.  I decided my next trip would be more of a permanent move. 

I was keen to broaden my experience and work on more meaningful imagery.  Inspired by an experience that I had back in 2003 while working at a wildlife refuge in Bolivia and also Patrick Brown’s Trading to Extinction series I was interested in working on stories related to the wildlife trade.

With this in mind I headed to move onto Hanoi, Vietnam, as it seemed like the perfect destination to start my investigations.  After talking to NGOs working on the issues, I started to concentrate on the bear bile trade.   Over the next few months I visited bear farms in the region and also a number of restaurants in Hanoi known for selling the bile.  The images that I produced at this time awakened me as a photographer: they were not only artistically strong but they were also powerful and I was proud of them.  The series is one that remains unfinished and it certainly deserves a lot more time and I hope to get back into it soon.

 The entire body of an Asiatic Black Bear is infused in a vat of rice wine at a restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam.  The large tank containing the bear was in full view of anyone entering the restaurant and it seemed that the owners cared very little about the laws put in place to protect the bears.  On entering this restaurant I was invited to join a group of young Vietnamese students whom were drinking shots of bear bile mixed with vodka during a meal. One of students told me that he does not eat dog because he likes dogs, he believed that bears were dangerous though and this was his justification for consuming the bile.  It is a common myth amongst men that drinking both the bile and the infused rice wine will make them strong and enhance their sexual virility. Today bear bile is completely unnecessary as there are over 50 herbal alternatives and many widely used synthetic substitutes that are equally effective, easily accessible and inexpensive. It seems like one of the only ways to curb the trade is to educate future generations about the alternatives and to counter outdated and false beliefs.    Canon 5D Mk II, 16-35mm f2.8L lens at 21mm, 1.6 sec at f5.6, ISO 400.

The entire body of an Asiatic Black Bear is infused in a vat of rice wine at a restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam.  The large tank containing the bear was in full view of anyone entering the restaurant and it seemed that the owners cared very little about the laws put in place to protect the bears.  On entering this restaurant I was invited to join a group of young Vietnamese students whom were drinking shots of bear bile mixed with vodka during a meal. One of students told me that he does not eat dog because he likes dogs, he believed that bears were dangerous though and this was his justification for consuming the bile.  It is a common myth amongst men that drinking both the bile and the infused rice wine will make them strong and enhance their sexual virility. Today bear bile is completely unnecessary as there are over 50 herbal alternatives and many widely used synthetic substitutes that are equally effective, easily accessible and inexpensive. It seems like one of the only ways to curb the trade is to educate future generations about the alternatives and to counter outdated and false beliefs.   Canon 5D Mk II, 16-35mm f2.8L lens at 21mm, 1.6 sec at f5.6, ISO 400.

Vietnam grabbed me for many reasons, I loved being in the tropics again and I quickly fell in love with the mountainous northern Vietnam region. The remainder of South East Asia was also on my doorstep and ready to be explored.  I also connected with some fantastic Vietnam-based photographers in Justin Mott, Aaron Joel Santos and Quinn Ryan Mattingly who had all been living and working in the region for a long time before me.  Through meeting them, and listening to their experiences, I soon realised that Vietnam was a location where I could push my documentary, travel and landscape work and where I could use this background to push into the world of destination weddings and also commercial photography and video.

 Taken on one of my many motorbike adventures in the mountains of Northern Vietnam.  The weather hadn't been kind to me on this afternoon as I drove towards the town of Cao Son in Lao Cai District.  Luckily I was in the right spot when the clouds did part, I halted my bike and with no time to grab my tripod I choose a fast shutter speed and hoped for the best as a few rays of sunshine dappled across the magnificent rice paddies below.  Moments later the show was over and I went on my way.   Canon 5D Mk III, 24-70mm f2.8L II lens at 50mm, 1/250 sec at f4, ISO 100.

Taken on one of my many motorbike adventures in the mountains of Northern Vietnam.  The weather hadn't been kind to me on this afternoon as I drove towards the town of Cao Son in Lao Cai District.  Luckily I was in the right spot when the clouds did part, I halted my bike and with no time to grab my tripod I choose a fast shutter speed and hoped for the best as a few rays of sunshine dappled across the magnificent rice paddies below.  Moments later the show was over and I went on my way.  Canon 5D Mk III, 24-70mm f2.8L II lens at 50mm, 1/250 sec at f4, ISO 100.

It’s now been 4 and half years since I arrived in Vietnam.  I’ve developed so much as a photographer and video has also become a huge part of what I do. I’ve worked and travelled in almost every country in the region.  My most memorable trips include documenting the rice Harvest in Northern Vietnam, the Songkran Buddhist New Year Water Festival in Chaing Mai, Cockfighting in Bali and photographing the many festivals and gorgeous temples of Myanmar.

 I met Pune while working on a cockfighting story in Ubud, Bali.  He was a strong man, he walked and talked like a fighter and I wanted a portrait to suit.  I'm usually a fan of natural light but for this shot I chose to light him with flash.  I had my translator hold up a wicker basket in front of the flash and I felt the light that this created suited his personality and his trade perfectly.   Canon 5D Mk III, 35mm f1.4L lens, 1/800 sec at f1.4, ISO 1600.

I met Pune while working on a cockfighting story in Ubud, Bali.  He was a strong man, he walked and talked like a fighter and I wanted a portrait to suit.  I'm usually a fan of natural light but for this shot I chose to light him with flash.  I had my translator hold up a wicker basket in front of the flash and I felt the light that this created suited his personality and his trade perfectly.  Canon 5D Mk III, 35mm f1.4L lens, 1/800 sec at f1.4, ISO 1600.

My philosophy with my imagery doesn’t change no matter what I am shooting.  I favor strong compositions and I love to shoot from interesting angles.  I work hard to fill the frame with what is important and I think as much about what is in the background as to what it in the foreground.  I try to frame my images so that the eye leads naturally to what I want the viewer to be looking at and I’m careful to watch out for stray objects at the edge of frame.

 Local teens play on the rope swing at Kuang Si falls in Luang Prabang, Laos.  This was my third visit to the falls and I'd clambered up that tree and flung myself in many times.  With the sun blasting through and the waterfall raging these scene was perfect for a great photo.  These boys turned up and they where having a blast so I waded in and framed the scene up and then waited for the decisive moment.   Canon 5D Mk II, 16-35mm f2.8L lens at 23mm, 1/320 sec at f5.6, ISO 400.

Local teens play on the rope swing at Kuang Si falls in Luang Prabang, Laos.  This was my third visit to the falls and I'd clambered up that tree and flung myself in many times.  With the sun blasting through and the waterfall raging these scene was perfect for a great photo.  These boys turned up and they where having a blast so I waded in and framed the scene up and then waited for the decisive moment.  Canon 5D Mk II, 16-35mm f2.8L lens at 23mm, 1/320 sec at f5.6, ISO 400.

I’m also constantly looking for decisive moments and I’m after images that evoke emotion.  I’m always looking for subjects that are emotive through facial expressions or body language.  If it’s a landscape that I am photographing then emotion comes through the way that light passes over my scene.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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    A young boy takes a flying leap into the Chiang Mai moat during the Songkran New Years water festival in Thailand.  I'd photographed boys jumping into the water a number of times but I wanted something more dynamic.  With me camera in a Ewa Marine housing I didn't have to worry about it getting wet so I decided to put on my widest lens and get into the water.  Each time a boy jumped in a fired off the motor drive and this time I got lucky.   Canon 5D Mk III, 16-35mm f2.8L lens at 19mm, 1/1600 sec at f5.6, ISO 400.

A young boy takes a flying leap into the Chiang Mai moat during the Songkran New Years water festival in Thailand.  I'd photographed boys jumping into the water a number of times but I wanted something more dynamic.  With me camera in a Ewa Marine housing I didn't have to worry about it getting wet so I decided to put on my widest lens and get into the water.  Each time a boy jumped in a fired off the motor drive and this time I got lucky.  Canon 5D Mk III, 16-35mm f2.8L lens at 19mm, 1/1600 sec at f5.6, ISO 400.

No matter what conditions I am working in I will always walk around my subject and location and look at how the light is hitting my subject from different angles.  I love to shoot with sun or my main light source in the background as this creates drama and bring things like silhouettes or shadows into play. 

 A woman shades herself with an umbrella while working in the rice fields of Yen Minh in Ha Giang Province, Vietnam.   This is another image that was taken during one of my motorbike adventures in Northern Vietnam.   Getting down low as this woman worked and using the backlight to bring life to scene made for a spectacular shot.   Canon 5D Mk II, 24-70mm f2.8L lens at 66mm, 1/320 sec at f2.8, ISO 200.

A woman shades herself with an umbrella while working in the rice fields of Yen Minh in Ha Giang Province, Vietnam.   This is another image that was taken during one of my motorbike adventures in Northern Vietnam.   Getting down low as this woman worked and using the backlight to bring life to scene made for a spectacular shot.  Canon 5D Mk II, 24-70mm f2.8L lens at 66mm, 1/320 sec at f2.8, ISO 200.

When photographing people I like to work with wide lenses and I love to get in close.  This means that my subjects have to be comfortable with me and this can take some time.  I don’t like to stage my images and I instead prefer to spend time with people and watch and develop my picture and my composition as things get interesting.

 

Finally I try to be creative with my equipment.  When shooting landscapes or architecture, I’ll always carry a tripod and shoot them on mirror lock up mode so as to ensure my image is as sharp as possible.  I also carry Lee Big and Little Stopper filter, Lee Soft Graduated filters and Circular Polarisers so that I can control my exposure and create blur when desired.  If there’s a chance that I’ll want to be under water then I’ll carry an underwater case. I’ve work with Ewa Marine and Outex underwater cases which have allowed me to capture some of my favorite images.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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  Rush hour on the Yen Vi river as boats paddle pilgrims back from a visit to the Perfume Pagoda (also known as the Huong Pagoda), a vast complex of Buddhist temples and shrines built into the Huong Tich mountains near Hanoi, Vietnam.  I visited the Perfume Pagoda during absolute high season this year and on the way back home I stopped at a bridge so as to gain a high vantage point.  My first few shots where taken at a fast shutter speed but the shot seemed a little messy with so many details in focus.  I put on a polariser and a 1.4x extender to slow the exposure and shut down to my smallest aperture.  I was without a tripod but I used the tripod bracket on my 70-200 to steady the camera and then a shutter release to fire the camera.   Canon 5D Mk III, 70-200mm f2.8L II lens with 1.4x extender at 98mm, 1.3 sec at f45, ISO 50.

Rush hour on the Yen Vi river as boats paddle pilgrims back from a visit to the Perfume Pagoda (also known as the Huong Pagoda), a vast complex of Buddhist temples and shrines built into the Huong Tich mountains near Hanoi, Vietnam.  I visited the Perfume Pagoda during absolute high season this year and on the way back home I stopped at a bridge so as to gain a high vantage point.  My first few shots where taken at a fast shutter speed but the shot seemed a little messy with so many details in focus.  I put on a polariser and a 1.4x extender to slow the exposure and shut down to my smallest aperture.  I was without a tripod but I used the tripod bracket on my 70-200 to steady the camera and then a shutter release to fire the camera.  Canon 5D Mk III, 70-200mm f2.8L II lens with 1.4x extender at 98mm, 1.3 sec at f45, ISO 50.

 

At the moment I am in a transition phase from Canon to Sony mirrorless cameras.  I’m currently working with a Sony A7RII and a Canon 5D MK III.  My Canon lens kit consists of a 16-35mm F2.8L, a 24mm F3.5L II Tilt Shift, a 24-70mm F2.8L II, a 50mm F1.4 and 70-200mm F2.8L IS II.  Since purchasing the Sony I’ve sold off some old Canon lenses and I’m now shooting with the Sigma 35mm F1.4 Art (with the Sigma MC-11 adapter) and the Sony 90mm F2.8 Macro G OSS.  I use a Gitzo leveling tripod which is great for both photography and video work.  

 Taken during a five day cruise between Coron Island and El Nido in Palawan, Phillipines.  I woke early and went snorkelling with my camera in my Ewa Marine housing and I discovered this beautiful light.  I was travelling with my girlfriend Nga and she happily modelled for me.  When shooting underwater I'll usually shoot in Aperture Priority mode as it can be quite complicated to change too many settings under the water.   Canon 5D Mk III, 16-35mm f2.8L lens at 16mm, 1/250 sec at f5.6, ISO 200.

Taken during a five day cruise between Coron Island and El Nido in Palawan, Phillipines.  I woke early and went snorkelling with my camera in my Ewa Marine housing and I discovered this beautiful light.  I was travelling with my girlfriend Nga and she happily modelled for me.  When shooting underwater I'll usually shoot in Aperture Priority mode as it can be quite complicated to change too many settings under the water.  Canon 5D Mk III, 16-35mm f2.8L lens at 16mm, 1/250 sec at f5.6, ISO 200.