Q&A with the photographer... Ewen Bell

We chat to the photographer of our New Zealand feature about his experience shooting Nelson

By Ewen Bell
Published 17 Jul 2016, 09:00 BST

Tell us a little bit about your experience shooting Tasman in New Zealand? How did you approach the shoot?

I spent a week in Nelson Tasman with a journalist to shoot a feature on the gourmet side of the South Island. We had a hire car and some accommodation pre-arranged by the local tourism team there, and a list of ideas that might fit well with the brief.

As the story unfolded, we made changes to the schedule. You get good tip offs from locals and you just chase them up. It could be as simple as where to find a beekeeper, what time of day whitebait is being caught, or which wineries in the region are lesser known but worth a stop.

My key strategy on this kind of journey is to avoid shooting everything, and focus on the best bits. Over a week, I'll end up with thousands of shots, but only a hundred will ever get published. So I don't worry if I missed a shot, or missed a subject. I take my time at a location and look for something a little bit unique that can show the character of the place.

Were there any difficult challenges that you had to overcome?

As shoots go, this one was excellent. The people of Nelson are justifiably happy, living in a wonderful part of the world with an abundance of good food, great coffee and beautiful seasons. Good people make the job easier. We had lots of time to chase photos and a relaxed itinerary, with excellent hosts along the way.

Tell us a bit about shooting the beekeeping at Eden House? How did you go about this with safety in mind?

It was probably more dangerous than I realised initially, but I could see the shot and I got pretty focused on that instead of the bees. The beekeeper was with me and we'd talked about rogue hives and the risks he faces in his job. He smoked out a box for me and I had a good 10 minutes to get right in close to the bees without being at risk. I don't usually travel with a macro lens, just a 10mm extension tube. I put the 10mm tube onto a 50mm lens and ended up shooting a few centimetres from the bees.

Tell us a bit more about your street portraiture and getting people to appear relaxed and natural. Do you have any special techniques or tips?

I shoot all my portrait work with a shallow depth of field, typically with a 50mm prime lens, but sometimes a 24mm prime as well. An f/2 aperture is my sweet spot, it lets me work in a wide range of light and pulls the subject into contrast with a soft background. I like soft light for people, indirect light or simply backlighting. I never want full sun on my portraits because it's unkind to the skin. Working at f/2 does mean you might miss the focus sometimes, but you always shoot more than you need, and I have immense trust in the autofocus of my DSLR. Aim for the eyes, reframe to get the subject out of the centre and that's it.

My preference is for candid portraits, not looking at the camera. My subjects know what I'm there for and, typically, they're busy chatting to the journalist while I'm shooting. After a few frames they get more relaxed about it. I'm shooting for a scene that shows them being themselves, not posing for me. When they're engaged with a customer or talking to the journalist, I can get my shot. Some publications want portraits looking down the barrel of the lens, but I prefer to aim for a more natural image. I want to show people simply as they are.

What would be your top three tips for anyone thinking of photographing locals while travelling?

My mantra for travel photography is 'Go slow. Get closer. Look for the light.' Travel is best enjoyed at the most gentle of paces, because you get more opportunity to meet people and talk to them. This is also good for photography. The more you know about your subject, the more likely your photos will express what made them memorable to you. Avoid using a lens longer than 50mm for portraits, as it removes all the context from them. 35mm is very good for portraits too, and I even use 24mm sometimes. I shoot 'inclusively', to bring into my frame more layers and detail, however subtle. Spend some time with people, get closer and let the light guide you. Cameras don't see people, they see light. So find that soft light with a nice prime lens and wait for the shot to present itself.

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Published in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) Photography Magazine


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