The purpose of  my assignment in northern Sri Lanka  is to document the post-civil war reconstruction  and rejuvenation efforts of the Asia Foundation.

There is still a significant military presence  evidenced by the numerous soldiers patrolling the highway. Since the military is not overly enthusiastic about having their photographs taken, I made several shots through the front window of the vehicle as we drove from Colombo to Jaffna.  An image like the one below is not necessarily an award winner, however it is important to  the Asia Foundation,  when they are putting together a PowerPoint presentation or a written piece for print for the web and need to illustrate a point about the military’s role.

Shots like this,   through the window of a moving vehicle are more successful when you pay attention to your shutter speed  and select a one that is fast enough to limit or eliminate blurry photos caused by camera shake. For the photograph above I chose a shutter speed of 1000th of a second.

Along the road between  Colombo and Jaffna,  evidence of  war,  like buildings that were hit in mortar attacks  are plentiful.  I chose this particular location because I could juxtapose the bombed out building with  a billboard of the new president.

Another damaged structure near the highway was under renovation. I asked my driver to pull aside so that we could  ask the construction foreman if it was OK for me to take some pictures. We smiled a lot and before long we were given the okay to go inside and take the pictures that I needed. I started with several shots of the exterior and then moved inside, gradually.

There were plenty of the holes and craters which had been apparently been created by shells that had dropped in the compound, as well as lots of bullet holes in the walls. There must have been quite a battle going on here.

Once inside  the building, I met a young Tamil man. Through my translator I asked him some basic questions about where he was during the conflict. As he spoke I made photographs of him and gestured that we should move to different rooms.

There was a window with exposed rebar and broken concrete. As we spoke I looked out the window as if I saw something interesting, and almost naturally he looked also. At that moment, I captured a picture that depicts something like “someone looking to the future”.

One of the programs of the Asia foundation is doing includes upgrading and improving local government offices. Tax collection is one issue of importance. An antiquated record-keeping system using large paper books is being phased out and replaced by computerized tax collection services.

In order for businesses to pay their business tax, they must queue in long lines wasting lots of time just to pay the business tax. A new computerized system makes things very fast and actually allows the local municipality to collect more taxes, and therefore provide additional services to the residents.

I made several images of the old system so that they could be contrasted against images of the new computerized system. I wanted to show an analog paper system versus a computerized modern office.

There is also a proposal to the Bank of Ceylon to allow residents to pay their taxes via the Internet and cell phones. To illustrate this, I asked someone to hold a cell phone in hand, in a position that I could superimpose the bank logo, int the background, slightly out of focus. Using my 70 to 200 f 2.8 I compressed the cell phone and the bank logo together, to illustrate that cell phones can “connect” people to banks and allow for easier payment of taxes.

I am often asked to take staff photographs. The trick here is to find some decent place, not too far away from the office, to photograph a large group of people.

After making a group shot I always try to do a portrait of the person in charge. For this image I chose a wooded area behind the subject and used a short depth of field to isolate her against the background.

One of the most influential business leaders in Jaffna owns both the fiberglass factory and an ice factory. Since Brent, the reporter, was doing this short story about this man, I followed along and during the interview snapped a few shots when the lighting in the background seemed to suggest his “environment”

For the ice factory shot, I found the position where I knew the ice was going to be sliding down the ramp and just waited for customer to come in to purchase some ice. Selecting a fast shutter speed to stop the action of the splashing water as the ice hit the bottom of the ramp I snapped off about 3 frames, this being the best. Notice by my position that I am trying to minimize bright areas which appear to the right and the left of the frame. Had I included the bright area to the left or to the right it would’ve competed with the main subject, the ice making it less visible.

Next I was off to photograph some traditional Sri Lankan markets. Photographing markets is all about finding areas where the light is most complementary to your subjects. The periphery of the market which is bathed in natural light from outside is often a good place to start, but one has to be sure not to include overly bright areas of direct sunlight. Looking for areas “just inside of the shade” is what I call it. The area adjacent to the strongest light source provides a stage on which were subject can be well lit and a background that’s considerably darker. This helps the subject pop off of the canvas.

I have shot so many markets in so many different countries that I now try to find unique angles and variations on the same theme. Using Nikon’s excellent auto-focus I placed my camera on the ground and knelt next to it. Then, I just waited for people to walk by hoping to catch a foot position or a woman’s Sari to “frame out” the man with the scale in the background.

Outdoor fishing markets are quite a challenge especially when you arrive at 10 o’clock in the morning when the light is already very high and the shadows are very strong, but it’s not a deal killer, one just has to work around the challenges.

On the way to shoot the market assessment fishermen tending to their nets and approach them. I like the way the man off on the right acts as an anchor to the frame and the fishing net leads the eye down to the boat with the other 2 men are working. This photograph was made using a 17 to 35 mm f 2.8.

I rarely use flash but I find it quite useful during the middle of the day when I need to illuminate the subject like this man carrying a basket full of fish up the stairs from the boat. If I had not used fill flash the man carrying the fish would’ve been relatively dark. So, using a SB 400 (which is a very tiny flash) I set my camera too slow sync rear curtain and made several images.

Oh, please note that none of the shadows you see in the above image belong to me; they are two Sri Lankan men sitting near me and a post with electrical wires. I pay close attention to not introduce my shadow into an image unless I want to for some reason.

The next story was about a woman who benefited from the program where chickens are given to families so that they can start a small poultry business. While the woman was being interviewed by Brent, I chose a position where I could photograph the woman with her chickens in the background. This image was made with a 70 to 200 F2 .8

The image below was made using my 17 to 35mm F2 .8. I knelt down next to the woman and started asking her questions about the chickens as soon as she looked away and snapped a few frames.


This last image (below)  is my favorite and probably one that will be used by the Asia foundation in some sort of written piece for the web. It’s full of joy. I have been photographing the woman for quite some time and I think she was beginning to think I was crazy because I was taking so many pictures of her, so I started laughing right along with her, but rather than put my camera down, I kept it to my eye, waiting for a very broad smile while keeping her to the right set of frame and leaving plenty of negative space on the left for some text that might be placed on photo.

Portraits always come in handy for my customers, as they have a universal appeal for placement in brochures, blogs, annual reports and such. I often try to capture a subject with a range of different emotions or the progression of a smile. If an NGO is creating a piece that needs someone looking rather serious or someone smiling broadly, I try to get the subject and work with that subject long enough to get a range of emotion. The one above were shot with a 70-200. It is also important to shoot both horizontals and verticals often leaving negative space for text. And last but not least I always try to get an environmental portrait using my 17-35 with the main subject closest to me and in sharp focus, along with other people or interesting, supporting element in the background, giving the image depth and additional interest. 


This next series of shots is of a city Council meeting. It seems that these types of meetings always take place in rooms lit with the most horrific fluorescent lighting and some equally disturbing wall paint and curtains. The combination of these factors makes getting the white balance almost impossible. Thank goodness often times there is a ceiling offer which a flash can be bounced. Indeed, this is the case here. I used flash bounced off the ceiling with my camera set at slow sync rear curtain. To try to hide the fact that I was actually using flash.

Meetings are usually not so visually interesting so one must do whatever is possible to make the uninteresting; interesting. So, I always wait for the moment when someone is gesturing. Gesturing, provides the viewer with some visual clues that a point is being made, the question is being asked. Back in my newspaper days when I was covering press conferences I remember that whenever the person at the podium raised his or her hand, shutters clicked like crazy. So, my advice when shooting a meeting like this, is to wait until someone gestures before making the picture.

And finally I am going to share 2 pictures with you, they are images of the fronds of a palm tree. While I am sitting around waiting for something to happen I often try to get images of some repeating pattern which might be useful to the client as a background image for some report or blog post. Images like these are often used at about 50% opacity in some sort of photo illustration or text over an image.

Well, that’s it for today, I know it hasn’t been a very exciting blog post but I hoped there might be a pearl of wisdom in there for you.

Tomorrow morning I’m heading back to Colombo, it will be a 5 Hour road trip, so I will be looking for interesting things along the way, and may have a bit of computer time to come up with another blog post. Thanks for reading, Karl

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