I was in Cambodia for a couple weeks on an exploratory photo mission, several days of which were spent touring around with some local guides in a 4×4 so that we could get off the beaten path. It’s one of my most memorable photographic experiences and I’ll never forget how friendly the people are in that country.
On our way back from a 4-day excursion up to the Northern border with Thailand, we passed through an incredible thunderstorm and as they so often do in monsoon season, it cleared just in time for the sun to set. As we drove through endless farmland we spotted a fisherman stringing out a net in a lake on the side of the road. This was one of those moments that only photographers can relate to. You’re just cruising along minding your own business, when suddenly dramatic lighting appears, and then magically starts to coexist with an interesting subject right before your eyes. The moments when those two things come together, are the moments we live for.
We screeched to a halt on the side of the road and grabbed out gear from the trunk, much to the confusion of the poor fisherman. He wasn’t about to stop doing what he was doing, so I had to think pretty quickly to get an interesting shot. The first challenge to solve was the brightness of the sky, and really I only partially solved it. I grabbed a 3-stop gradual neutral density filter from my bag and held it in front of my 24-70mm lens. This held back the brightness of the sky, although I probably could even have gone to a 4-stop grad had there been one in my bag.
The key elements in the shot are the dramatic clouds in the top left, and the fisherman, so I moved myself into a position where they would be diagonally opposed in the shot which I think gives it a nice balance.
Without this filter the sky would have been greatly blown out, there wouldn’t really have been a shot here because part of what makes this interesting is that stormy sky. Most people tend to think of grad ND filters as a tool for landscape photography, but they can also come in handy for general travel shots where the landscape is a large part of the image and the story you are trying to tell. I tend to find that a 3-stop grad is a great general purpose filter to carry around for all situations, although if I’m specifically shooting landscapes I will carry a selection.
There wasn’t a huge amount of work needed on this shot once I got it into Lightroom, but there was one very important thing to do in a small area. With the fisherman being completely backlit, his back was very dark. I used the local adjustment brush in Lightroom to paint over his back, and then I brought up the shadows and exposure.
This is a topic that always evokes interesting discussion. Do you think that I have brightened up the fisherman’s back too much? I would say that I’d never submit an edit like this to a journalistic publication, but I wasn’t there as a journalist – I was there to make images that are pleasing to my eye. Leave a comment below if you have an opinion you’d like to share.