Excerpted from The New Art of Photographing Nature by Art Wolfe with Martha Hill & Tim Grey. Available online at http://store.artwolfe.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=2&products_id=494.
People sometimes imagine that great photographs are composed in a flash of inspiration, arriving in the world fully formed. While that can happen, most of the time we fumble toward a great shot, refining the composition with each exposure. This was certainly the case with my image, The Night Fishermen. I will lead you through the process of steps it took to get there.
For centuries, fishermen on the Li River of Southern China have partnered with cormorants to catch fish. Each fisherman has a complement of a half dozen or so trained birds. The light of a lantern attracts the fish, and the cormorants catch the fish and return to the boat, fish in beak. The birds can’t swallow the fish because the fishermen fix bands around their necks, but they eventually get their share.
While the fishermen are working, they see enough tourists to know that a few minutes posing can yield as much money as a night’s work. After a few moments exchanging hand signals, we came to an agreement. In the first image I grabbed a shot of two fishermen approaching the shore. Unfortunately, nothing works here. A bright background throws the men into silhouette, some of the birds sit with their heads buried under their wings, and the composition is deadly static. I decided to try adding a second light to tame the contrast and provide a better sense of separation for the fishermen.
For the second shot, I tried a simple flash but it overpowered the background. Even with gels to match color temperature and knocking down the power by a stop or so, I could tell I wouldn’t get the result I wanted unless I could choreograph everything, which was out of the question given the circumstances. I needed better conditions, not better technique.
By the time I was ready for the third shot, a darkening evening sky balanced the light somewhat. A 23mm focal length gave me the depth I wanted and, combined with an f/8 aperture, enough depth of field. Although blurred moving birds ruined most of the shots, they also blocked direct light from the lanterns. I was making progress.
By the fourth shot, the light was getting good, but the composition was still too tight. I needed space for the image to breathe. Also, I was getting so close that the cormorants were becoming agitated.
The fifth image is a vertical. Everything is working here. The light was coming alive. I still preferred the horizontal composition, but I often license images for magazine covers or ads, which usually require vertical compositions. Never turn your back on a sale, I always say.
Finally, with the final shot, it all came together. The cormorants stood stock still, heads up and blocking the lantern light like champions. The fishermen, now bored out of their skulls, were occupied with their tasks, transforming a posed image into a genuine candid shot. The light was in perfect balance: background, foreground, and warm lantern fill. The fisherman received their tips, I had my shot, the cormorants swallowed some morsels, and everyone was happy.