David Lazar offers some insight into his award-winning travel work.
Burmese Fisherman. On Inle Lake, Myanmar. Fisherman in the region have a unique rowing technique where they stand on the stern on one leg and wrap the other leg around the oar.
We think your travel photography is among the best we’ve ever seen. What pushes your buttons in terms of subject matter?
When I look back over my work, I realise I’m drawn to subjects that don’t reflect the modern world. I like to capture scenes that could have been taken 100 years ago ““ landscape and people shots that have no bearing on the modern, civilised western world. Subjects like Buddhist monks or scenes from rural Bangladesh. They have a ‘land before time’ feel to them. This type of subject is very different from my usual life in Australia, and I enjoy capturing and sharing these scenes that most people don’t get to see.
Mountain Monastery. The Tigers Nest Monastery in the Himalayas, Bhutan.
All of your work is extraordinarily rich in colour and tone. Although you’re using digital cameras, it’s as though you’re a master of the old Fuji Velvia fi lm. How do you achieve such gorgeous exposures?
I suppose the answer is careful Photoshop work on the images to achieve this look. My goal with Photoshop is to never have the photo look obviously edited, but rather just perfectly exposed, like a painting would have been created. The camera generally takes the photo in a way that is not quite what’s in my mind’s eye, so I need to work with the colours and lighting in post-production. I remove shades of colours in unimportant parts of the photo and boost colours in parts where I want the eye to look. The same applies to brightness. I darken parts of the photo that are less important and add brightness to subjects as if a studio light was in place, illuminating where I want the viewer to look.
A good example is the ‘Monk Eyes’ photo. I’ve de-saturated certain tones and darkened the background. The face and eyes have been brightened, and shadows on the face and robes have been darkened to give nice contrast and definition. I usually just enhance the natural light that was already captured by carefully making the brighter parts brighter and the shadows darker.
Monk Eyes. A novice monk in Sagaing, Myanmar.
Do you tend to take a lot of photos while travelling or are you very selective? I know you sometimes go to some trouble to capture people on location at their very best, sometimes setting up situations.
I shoot as many frames as I can to get the perfect shot. I try different angles and poses as long as the subject is keen and willing. I choose faces that have character and are aesthetically interesting.
As for set-ups, it’s true that nearly all of my people photos are posed. In close-up portraits, I like to show deeper emotions than just ‘smiling for the camera’ type poses. Since it’s quite a western concept to do this, it’s not hard for most of my subjects to give these serious, introspective looks ““ even though they’ll probably burst out laughing after the photos are taken.
I also like the idea of being an invisible spectator, as if we are viewing the person in their personal space, so I often ask the subject to look away from the camera. I find that people generally like being given a little direction, which is fortunate because it’s beneficial to move people into the right light or against a better background.
Our World Girls from a hill tribe in Sapa, north Vietnam.
How important is establishing a personal relationship with the people in your travel photos?
It’s very important. I think it’s the key to getting successful portrait photos.
How do you do it? Smile, engage and be interested in the people you want to photograph and what they are doing.
It’s all about your demeanor and attitude. If I interact with people and try to use phrases in their language, or comment on what they are doing through gesture and just be open and sincere, it can go a long way to gaining trust and eventually a photograph.
It’s all about making the process fun and lighthearted so people can relax and enjoy being a part of it. I often hand my camera to people I’m photographing so they can have a play with it and take some photos of their own.
Girl With Green Eyes. A portrait from Bangladesh.
You obviously like travelling. Is it mainly to take photos, and where have you travelled to? I know you’re in South Africa as we speak.
Even if I was denied taking my camera for some reason, I would still keep travelling. I enjoy being around people of different cultures and seeing how people live in circumstances different to what I’m familiar with. I generally find people to be happier, warmer and more welcoming in countries that are not as wealthy as the western world. I’ve been privileged to be invited into people’s homes in developing countries more times than I could count.
I’ve been to a lot of places in South and South- East Asia, including three times to India and twice to Myanmar (Burma). Also to some countries in Eastern Africa and the Middle East.
My Kingdom. A novice monk scans the horizon of the former kingdom of Mrauk-U, Myanmar. Temples from the 16th century dot the hills.
Tell us about some of the photography competitions and awards you’ve won. It’s an impressive list.
I’ve been very lucky over the years with photography competitions. To date I’ve won seven trips around the world through companies such as Intrepid, Peregrine, Great Hotels of the World, Gap, Kumuka and Abercrombie & Kent. Last year I was the overall winner in a number of Brisbane photography exhibitions, placed second in the Shutterbug Awards and was a finalist in the international Travel Photographer of the Year awards for the second time.
How did you get started in photography and when did you start taking it seriously? Is it now your main occupation?
My first inspiration in travel photography came after my first big trip to India and Nepal in 2004. My cousin, who I was travelling with, captured some lovely photos which I didn’t necessarily see at the time. I was reminded that there was so much you could do with a camera and a good eye for capturing scenes.
I then discovered more travel photography online and became involved in online forums. From 2005 I continued to experiment and learn about the art form. But photography isn’t my main occupation. I’m actually a musician ““ a pianist, film composer and piano teacher. I’ve being playing the piano for 24 years.
What other kinds of photography do you specialise in?
Outside of my personal travel photography, I’ve done a lot of actor headshots with a studio light set-up in my house, as well as family portraits and weddings.
What gear do you use? For starters, what’s in your travel kit?
My current gear is a Nikon D700 and a Nikon 24-85mm f2.8 lens. The initial photos I was drawn to online were taken with a Nikon D70s, so I bought one. And I’ve stayed with Nikon ever since.
Do you travel light? What would you never travel without?
I travel very light. I take my camera and usually just the one lens, and no tripod or fl ashes. I always keep my camera packed away in my bag and never on show.
For the portraits, I only bring it out after I’ve established a rapport with the subject so that taking some photos is just an extension of our experience together.
Tell us a bit more about the digital tweaking of your photos?
I have no problem telling you that Photoshop plays a huge role in the fi nal output of my images. Every part of the frame gets attention. I expose, colour and sharpen depending on what the shot needs to improve it, using layers and layer masks. My Photoshop PSD fi les have a lot of layers in them because I keep adding adjustment layer after adjustment layer.
The process takes weeks. I like to work on a photo, then leave it alone so I can view it again later with fresh eyes. In the initial second of looking at the photo at a later time, I can tell straight away if it’s successful or needs more tweaking.
I repeat this process over and over until I open the file and think ‘I like this ““ everything looks just right.’ Patience is an important quality when working in this way.
You’ve indicated that you have drawn inspiration from other photographers.
I sure have. I think it’s a big part of succeeding in the arts. Being inspired by other people’s work is a great way to be motivated and push yourself creatively. Countless times I’ve seen a photo and thought ‘I wish I had taken that.’ I like to analyse other people’s photos to learn what makes them successful.
I never had any formal lessons in Photoshop or photography. I’ve taught myself and picked up a lot from online tutorials and forums.
Where to now, David? What’s on your photographic to-do list?
I have just been approached by a new company that provides innovative technical solutions to problems for countries in development and conflict areas. They want me to be their photographer and help raise awareness and interest through photo and video media. I’m very excited about that.
Otherwise I’ll keep on doing what I’m doing, and if I’m ever asked to go on assignment for a magazine and shoot photo stories around the world, that would be a dream come true.
At the same time, I would never stop doing my music. A balance of music and photography is an ideal life for me.
Interview by Steve Packer February 2012
This is an excerpt from Photo Review Issue 51.
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