Production Notes

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Pilgrims about to cross the 15,000 foot Chola Pass on their 2500 kilometer pilgrimage to Lhasa, prostrating the entire way. The devotion of the Tibetan people is unbelievable.

As I travel through the Eastern Tibetan Plateau, one thing has become very apparent. Tibetan Buddhism is enjoying a strong resurgence.  Almost every Monastery I visit is building a new temple.  

World’s largest stupa – 8 stories high near the remote Miwa Monastery on the Tibetan Plateau.

Evidently the funds for all this building is coming from the local Tibetan communities along with some support from Western organizations.  The omnipresent prayer flags cover entire hillsides and mountain tops.  

 Monk walking the kora at the Temple of Princess Wencheng, near Yushu.

My guide said that this proliferation of prayer flags has just happened in the last 5 years.  I just purchased a few flags and can’t imagine the resources that have gone into covering these hillsides.  I am reminded of the work of the French artist Christo.

World’s largest Mani wall in Hongyan, Tibet. A Mani wall is composed of millions of individual rocks carved with the Tibetan mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum.

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We met Choqhua, a monk from the small and remote Trakkar Monastery near Labrang in Gansu Province.  We spent 3 days staying with him in his little cottage.  He took us to the tiny remote village where he grew up and to a nearby cave where the 9th Panchen Lama was said to have meditated. 

However, the highlight of our time with him was a visit to a ninety-year-old Ani (a nun named Sadia Tsomo) who went to a cave in a mountain side to meditate when she was twelve.  Choqhua and other members of his monastery and the local villagers have provided her with food water and firewood over the years.  Choqhua told us they consider her to be the manifestation of the ‘great mother’ protective deity Green Tara.  He also told us she had never seen a foreigner before.


The thoughts of meeting this woman who had spent 78 years meditating in a cave inspired me to climb the mountain to her 13,000 ft retreat.  Choqhua said that she does come down from her cave once a year to visit the monastery, but that she had never seen a foreigner


As we approached the entrance to her cave Choqhua had us stay back as he went in to meet her.  Twenty minutes later he came out to let us know that she was too frightened to see a foreigner.  I gave my camera to my guide Trashi Dhondrup who was able to go in and meet her and take a few photos.  Tashi is from Yushu where the April earthquake hit and destroyed the town and the guest house he was building.  He asked her to pray for the friends and relatives that he had lost in that tragedy.

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News sent from Phil while working on a second book in Tibet:

I’m in Gansu Province on the Eastern Tibetan Plateau adding to my collection of stories of people who live on the plateau.  I’m traveling with Stevan from North Carolina and Inigo who is currently living in Singapore — Both are photographers that I met in my workshops.  Vincent, our Tibetan guide pointed out this group of monks camping out in the middle of nowhere.  Monks camping!?!  There were six monks that were on a 129 day pilgrimage moving their campsite every two days.  They would retire to their tent and chant for two hours praying for a good growing season and health for the livestock of farmers and nomads in the area.   They did this six times a day!

We watched as they joked with each other, carved mani stones and fed the ants.

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As I have mentioned the digital revolution in photography has made my work easier in many ways.  One of the greatest benefits is being able to capture images in low light.  With the release of the new cameras like the Nikon D3s and the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV this is just getting better.

However, the media revolution brought about by the internet is nudging all of us still photographers toward multimedia.  Now the space in my backpack that opened up because of the lighting equipment I have been able to get rid of has been more than replaced by audio and video equipment.

On the trip to the Tarahamara in Mexico I brought my Mark II 5D and the Sony PNW-EX1 to shoot video.  Betsy Hershey who is collaborating with me on the project brought her Canon Vixia HF S11 camcorder.  After spending time with all three cameras I’ve come to this conclusion.  The Mark II 5D is not ergonomically built to shoot video.  Even with the Z-Finder it is hard to focus on the move.  The add-ons that you need to purchase to make it somewhat ergonomically efficient make the 5D cost and weigh more than the Sony EX1.  The one advantage it has is being able to use all the Canon lenses and obtain a short depth of field.  From now on I’ll use the 5D for selected shots and usually on a tripod when I need to isolate my subject with a shallow depth of field.

Sony PNW-EX1

Mark II 5D with all the add-ons

The other thing I learned is that the HF S11 does a remarkable job for a consumer grade camera and has many advantages.  There were many times that Betsy was getting the shot while I was still getting my EX1 out of the pack and getting it fired up.  Also, the palm sized HFS11 camera is so unobtrusive!!  This was important in the area we working where there have been many drug related killings and journalists are not especially liked.

Canon Vixia HF S11

Here is some edited footage from the fiesta that alternately cuts between the EX1 and the HF S11.  I see a little less crispness in the image but all in all it isn’t bad!!  Can you see much difference? 

It was just 2 years ago the Panasonic DVX 100 mini DV standard definition was the standard for documentary film makers.  The 1920 x 1080 file from the tiny HF S11 is also a big improvement.

When it comes to catching an intimate moment and getting the shot I don’t mind a slight loss in dynamic range. I’m going to look at the next iteration of the HF S11 (HF S21) which will evidently have a touch and track sensitive LED screen that will allow you to focus by touching the screen on the area you want to focus.

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In my last blog I talked about the equipment I am using for multimedia.  Sound is such a critical part of multimedia production that I would like to elaborate on the sound equipment I use.

In multimedia you can get away with mediocre images much easier than poor sound.  To get good sound you need to go to an external DAT recorder like the Marantz 661 ($600) or the popular Zoom H4N ($350).   Both have internal mics but to get good sound you need to get some good external mics.   I use the Sennheiser MKH 416 or a wireless lavalier for interviews and the Audio Technica 825 stereo mic for ambient sounds. 

The Automatic Gain Control on the 5D Mark II makes it impossible to record a decent sound track.  When recording sound you want your input volume control to be at a steady level.  The AGC raises the volume setting any time there is a period of silence resulting in weird volume fluctuations through out the recording.  Unfortunately this is not a setting that can be turned off.  If you want to get away from carrying a DAT recorder and the extra hassle of syncing sound in post production Beach Tek has a solution to get around the AGC, but it still does not deliver the sound quality of the Marantz 661 (24bit/ 96kHz).  I decided to beef up the 661 a little further by getting it through Doug Oade who replaces the stock 661 mic pre amps for an extra $160 to increase the signal to noise ratio.  His site is a good source for info on field recording.

And finally it is necessary to listen to your sound throughout your entire recording.  A good pair of headphones is a must.   The industry standard is the Sony MDR 7506 ($100).  You wouldn’t take a picture without looking through the view finder, so why would you record sound without monitoring it. 

I recently watched Sound for Film and Television, which I recommend for a good and entertaining tutorial.  If you have any resources you recommend please share!

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Now that the web is nudging all of us photographers to create more than just stills to deliver our message we who work on location in remote areas are faced with the prospect of adding more equipment to the heavy packs we have been carrying for years!

Last year I traveled to Malawi, Zambia, Sri Lanka, Peru, India and Tibet to create short multimedia pieces for my ongoing project focusing on the empowerment of women and girls in the developing world. 

In addition to my Canon 1Ds Mark III and various lenses (16-35mm f 2.8;  70-200mm f 2.8;  28-70mm f 2.8;  24mm f1.4)   I was now carrying a Sony PMW-EX1 Camcorder; a Marantz 661 field DAT recorder; shotgun; omnidirectional; and wireless laviler microphones plus the tripod, lights, headphones, etc.

As you may have seen in a previous blog post, here is what it looked like on one of my trips to Tibet!! 


Not only is it a lot of weight that sometimes requires a Yak but in instances like this it makes getting to the equipment quickly a major problem—so much for spontaneity.

I’m on my way to Northern Mexico to do a story on maternal mortality among the Tarahamara Indians living in the Copper Canyon near Chihuahua.  Here is what I’ve decided to do to lighten my load.

One of the great advantages of digital photography is the ability to shoot in low light.  Instead of lugging around my heavy Lumedyne packs, batteries, and light heads I now just carry a Canon 580ez .   In fact, I hardly light anymore and create my highlights in post production (shooting HDR and using the brush tool in Lightroom – see below)  This has helped to lighten my load a lot.

My time in Mexico will determine whether I will replace my Canon Mark III 1Ds with a Mark II 5D to shoot both stills and video when needed.  Though the 5D does needs a few add-ons to make it functional as a video camera.   First, a Z-Finder from Zucuto is a must for getting accurate focus.  Secondly, the Automatic Gain Control on the 5D makes it impossible to record a decent sound track.  More on this in my next blog. 

We are all waiting for the promised firmware upgrade for the 5D that will allow a 24 frame per second frame rate.  Right now I’m not looking to use the 5D to completely replace my Sony EX1 but as I get used to shooting my interviews and B roll with it, I’m looking to the future and hoping I’ll be able to leave my EX1 at home.  The new Canon Mark IV will make high ISO still and video shooting even more available and I assume it won’t be long before these new SLR cameras will be built more ergonomically to allow for easier video shooting.

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Because most of my work is now done in very remote areas without the help of a trained assistant, I have learned how to simplify my on-location lighting substantially. Now I choose lighting equipment based on its reliability, simplicity and weight.

When I first started making portraits of indigenous and tribal people in the field, I wanted to re-create the same lighting I was accustomed to using in the studio. So it was natural for me to think of a softbox as the best solution to get nice soft directional light. But instead of a light stand, I started using a tripod to accommodate the uneven terrain in the field. I would hang my Lumedyne power pack on the tripod to stabilize it in the wind. Then, it usually took me five to ten minutes just to set up the tripod and softbox. Once I started shooting, I found it very awkward to change the direction of the light while I was working with my subject.


On one trip it finally dawned on me that I didn’t need to use a softbox since I didn’t have the problem of extraneous light bouncing back at me off studio walls. I could use an umbrella which was much easier to assemble. I also realized that I could almost always ask one of the many eager kids that would gather around to hold my light stand when the wind was blowing. So why did I need a stand at all?

One of the wonderful things about photographing in the developing world is that the kids love to be around new technology and hence serve as wonderful assistants.

After I returned home, I modified a strobe bracket with some quick-release brackets and came up with a portable system that could be assembled in the field in less than a minute. This also allowed me to check my Polaroids and then change the direction and distance of the light in seconds.


Since then, I have simplified the whole process even further. For one thing, shooting digitally with my Canon 1ds Mark III allows me to check my strobe-to-ambient-light ratio on the LED of the camera. I no longer need Polaroids.

I used to use the ST-E2 Speedlight infrared sender, but it was unreliable in bright light.  Now, to simplify matters even more, I use Pocket Wizard’s Flex TT5 and MiniTT1 to wirelessly fire my off camera flash (Canon 580EZ). I power the strobe with Underdog rechargeable batteries instead of AA’s (Underdog has unfortunately gone out of business). The battery pack is about the size of a pack of cigarettes and the universal charger is even smaller.


I now soften the light by having my assistant hold a twenty inch translucent disc about one foot in front of the strobe. I shoot one frame then check the LED. If the strobe light looks too bright or too dark I can quickly make adjustments with the flash exposure compensation dial on my camera body. It is so easy!


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I’m often asked how I gain access and go about photographing people in the developing world. First of all your mental attitude as you approach someone to take their photo is critical to your success no matter if the person you approach is from a remote tribe in Irian Jaya or someone on the streets of New York. If you are approaching someone with the intent of taking something (i.e. a photo) you are immediately at a disadvantage.  You are now up against the problem of having to convince them to give you something. 


When I approach someone I am thinking and believe that I am about to give them something. For one I’m going to complement them by letting them know that I believe they are unique and interesting to me. I also know that I am going to give them a unique experience. It isn’t every day that someone comes up to you and asks if they can photograph you. You don’t even have to be able to speak to the person. If you are thinking it they will be able to read it in your body language. They can read if you hope to make their day or if you are just trying to get something out of them. 


When I enter a tribe or village for the first time I almost always start by interacting with the kids. Kids are the most open and curious about new experiences. I take out my photographic equipment and begin taking photos of them and then giving them photos of themselves.  It is my little magic show.  Many times these kids ask to become my production crew. Before digital cameras I shot Polaroids, today I show them the LCD on the back of my camera and also carry a small battery operated HP digital printer so I can hand out prints. During my stay in the village these prints and Polaroid’s make it to their parent’s huts and soon I’m being invited into their homes and being asked to take photos of everyone. At this point the problem becomes how to take photos of everyone. I only carry a finite amount of Polaroids and ink cartridges! I find myself doing many group photos.


Even though I first approach people without an interpreter so they can get a sense of me through my body language, I always have someone available that can serve as a translator. I want to be able to tell them what I intend to do with the photos. In my case for exhibitions and books relating to an issue that their group is dealing with (human rights violations, poverty or environmental degradation).

I see many tourists taking photos of people in markets and villages without any meaningful interaction with the people they are photographing and many times getting a negative reaction. Just think how you would like it if someone came into your backyard and started taking pictures of you and your family without making a connection with you. 

Photography can be a great ice breaker that will allow you to have a wonderful cross cultural experience.