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Archive | March, 2012

On Interfering with Local Culture

21 Mar

Yesterday was the Equinox. How do I know this? Yesterday evening while I was shooting a 3-hour timelapse for Magic Window, my carefully selected spot was briefly the prime spot for a large effigy burning.

Let me explain.

While traveling for Magic Window, I have a pretty good system worked out for picking locations. Before I even head to a new city, I tend to study Wikipedia, Flickr, and maps to decide what I want to shoot and where best to shoot it from, taking into account angles, where the sun will be setting and at what time, and how busy a location might be. In a tourist city like Prague, this is very important. Once I get there I usually spend a few hours location scouting earlier in the day before I commit to a location for three hours.

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My location today was a small island in the middle of the river with a direct view of the 14th century-built Charles Bridge, also an internationally-known landmark slammed with tourists. Shooting on the bridge itself can only be accomplished at sunrise, and I haven’t done that yet.

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So, at around 4:30pm, I get to my previously scouted spot to find absolutely perfect conditions, and few people in sight. Without too many people around I’m free to relax and not worry about being sold trinkets or being distracted by hustlers and pickpockets, both of which have happened, although I’ve yet to have anything stolen.

The location was quiet, with the occasional couple holding hands and looking at the scenery or a tourist coming by to snap a few photos and leave.

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I set up my camera at the very apex of the island, and noticed a rock with some kind of symbol embedded in it, which i thought nothing of besides “that looks interesting”. Deciding that this was the best location to get the widest shot, I set the timer and sat down under a tree a few yards away.

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A little over an hour later, I noticed a large group of people walking towards me banging drums and singing, a few with dogs and small children. The children and dogs immediately ran towards the water, making me very nervous. For a few long minutes I did nothing, until the children decided to duck under my tripod legs while playing. I lept up and started shouting at them “Too close! Don’t touch it!” over and over again, which meant nothing because they didn’t speak English. One little girl stuck her tongue out at me and ducked under the camera again. Never having dealt with this situation before, I had no idea how to handle somebody else’s misbehaving children that didn’t speak the same language as me. Eventually an adult came over, scolded the children in Czech, and pulled them away. Meanwhile people were coming up to the rock-symbol, rubbing it, and walking away.

I stood by my camera uncomfortably, trying to keep an eye on it as well as my backpack with my other camera, iPad, and a half-dozen lenses in it. I had no idea what was going on but I was in the very center of it. Eventually an adult with a camera came up to me.

“You speak English?” he asked.

“Yes!” I said, thankful that somebody else did.

“Is this a timelapse you’re doing?”

“Yup. Can I… Leave this here?”

“How long are you going to be here?”

“Oh, until it gets dark. 7:15 or so.” (A full hour and a half)

“Oh. Do you suppose you could come back tomorrow?”

“Aaaahhh…  Errmmm… No… I’m only here a few days, and I’ve been here an hour and a half already, I’m kind of committed to this location now. There was nobody here when I got here, and I didn’t know you guys were going to need this spot. It’s too late for me to find another one now. I feel bad though, but this is my work and I came here from California to shoot timelapses in Prague.”

“Okay, okay, I understand. We’re going to burn a large doll and throw it in the river. We do this every year for the equinox to celebrate the end of winter. Is that okay with you? This -is- the prettiest spot in Prague!.”

Now, at this point I had no idea how I had convinced him that he now needed my permission. I felt very weird about it though, after all they were locals, this was their city, not mine, and I was in their yearly equinox spot, literally on top of what appeared to be a sacred symbol, and I had just shouted at their kids. I was keenly aware that the “right” thing to do was to pack up and go, and I was already mentally prepared to do just that. All this was running through my mind, and what came out of my mouth was “Of course! Please do!”

“Okay. We can throw it over that way if you like.” He gesticulated away from the camera. “But we usually throw it over here. I don’t want to ruin your shot,” he said without any trace of sarcasm.

“Oh, that’s fine, no problem!”

“You should take pictures!”

I had just noticed that I had an icy death grip on my second camera, which I had hastily taken out of the bag for protection. The man walked off, talked to someone else, and immediately a large effigy that I hadn’t noticed before was lifted up to loud applause, a surge in drum beating, and some chanting in Czech.

Within moments it was on fire. Another man waded out into the water, shouted something in Czech, and threw it as far as he could. There was much loud applause as the smoldering mannequin drifted down the river and under the bridge.

I’ve synced the timestamp metadata from my two cameras (one was on an intervalometer, the other handheld) on the photos below and put them in order:

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15 minutes later the group had broken up without anyone else speaking to me, and I was left alone again for another hour and a half as daylight melted away on the last day of winter.

I think there is a lesson to be learned here. I’m not sure if it’s “be more respectful to local cultures” or if it’s “be assertive and people will respect you”.

Either way, I felt like kind of an asshole for most of yesterday evening.

…That is, until I downloaded the photos and realized that the kids had indeed bumped my tripod and I had to spend 40 minutes lining everything up in post.

More photos from London

13 Mar

Yesterday I posted photos from the countryside, but in between shooting time lapses I’ve been racking up some nice shots from around London I thought I’d share.

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Tilt-shift shot of Big Ben.

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A street near Holborn that I thought looked visually interesting.

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#63 bus outside of St. Pancras Station

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Travelers inside St. Pancras Station

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Had to get this one out of the way.

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Commuters waiting for a London Overground train at Highbury & Islington

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Soho, view from my friend Peter’s living room window.

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Another tilt-shift view from the same window.

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The Eye.

London Countryside

13 Mar

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I landed in London a few days ago. I’m a huge fan of London, and the UK in general. In a lot of ways it feels like a far-flung older European extension of America, and in so many others I’m constantly reminded that it’s still an entirely different country a world away.

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This is my third visit to the United Kingdom, but up until now I’d never been outside of London. On Sunday, I rented a car and met up with my friend Peter and his girlfriend Sakura to head out into the countryside. Since it was my rental car and I was supposed to be the driver, I gave it a good effort.  I made it about a block and a half before I encountered my first right turn, and, of course, wound up driving on the wrong side of the road. Between trying to shift with my left hand, keeping the car centered in the road when I’m used to sitting on the left side of the car, and not hitting pedestrians, keeping the car on the right (left) side of the road was too much. Less than a mile later we did the ‘ol Chinese fire drill at a stoplight and I gave the driving over to Peter.

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We stopped at a lovely 16th century-era restaurant for Sunday Roast, which is not really “a thing” in America, although I wouldn’t mind if it was. (Sooo much meat!)

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The restaurant abutted the Grand Union Canal, another centuries-old piece of English infrastructure. We didn’t see any boats go by, but there were plenty of ducks, and I shot my first experimental tilt-shift time-lapse. It came out pretty good, here’s a frame:

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We spent the rest of the day wandering around the countryside, first stopping to shoot a scene at the Berkhampted Castle Ruins:

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Then making our way over to the Stocks and Pond in Aldbury:

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Then to the Monument in Ashridge:

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And finally culminating in a 3-hour long stretch of shooting the sunset from Ivinghoe Beacon, the flagship shot of the day:

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After returning the car, I decided that I’m permanently opting out of driving in countries that drive on the left. I don’t much care for driving in general, especially in cities, but flipping left and right around and trying to keep two tons of steel from hitting other cars and crushing bicyclists is too much.

I’ll stick to the double-decker bus.

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Un Poquito San Francisco

12 Mar

The other day, I went out and bought a Tilt-Shift lens. I’ve borrowed or rented them on several occasions before, but I’ve always wanted to own one. They’re designed specifically for architecture use, and allow you to correct angular perspective, as well as change the direction of the depth of field plane.  I get enough regular architecture work to justify the purchase as I tend to rent one for every gig, but more than that, since I’ve been shooting a lot of timelapse work for Magic Window lately, I wanted to experiment with using a tilt-shift lens for that.

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When used “incorrectly”, changing the depth of field plane to create out-of-focus areas at the top and bottom of the image tricks the human brain to think that they’re looking at models… kind of the opposite effect of the miniature model making used for visual effects in films like Star Wars.  When coupled with the jerky, non-fluid motion of timelapse photography, the result is amplified. Several years ago, I was inspired partially by the work of Australian photographer Keith Loutit. His video “Metal Heart” is one of my favorites.

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Armed with my new lens, I set out to wander around San Francisco and get comfortable enough to use it professionally.

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I’m pretty happy with the results.