Previously on the blog: in April this year, travel photographer Matt Brandon, yours truly and a select group of adventurous photographers, accompanied by an expert team of guides and photographic fixers, embarked on a photographic journey to Mongolia. Our aim was to do people and location scouting and set an itinerary for a new Mongolia photo workshop that will take place in the first half of 2019. In the first postcard in this series, you could already get a glimpse of one of the highlights of this and next year's trip: an extensive visit to the world famous Eagle Hunters. In this second postcard, I've got some more Eagle Hunter shots for you, including some behind-the-scenes pictures and explanations on how some of these images were made.
The Eagle Hunters live in a hard to reach region in Western Mongolia. The choice between a three and a half hour flight or two and a half days of being tossed around in a car was quickly made. Not that we entirely escaped being the tossing part: from the airport to our final destination - a custom built gher (tent) camp - it was another three hours in those photogenic (and frankly more comfortable than expected) Russian 4 x 4 Forgon vehicles. We had access to a family of Eagle Hunters for four full days. This gave us ample time not only to get to know them, but also to photograph them both indoors and outdoors, at various times of the day and in various locations, as you'll see below. We've already told them we'll be back next year!
Below is a close up of one of the family's eagles. Here you can see how exquisitely decorated the caps are. I used the 110 mm f/2.0 GF lens for the GFX, which I had purchased specifically for this trip. I know, excuses, excuses :-) At f/2, the depth of field is razor-thin, comparable to f/1.4 on an 85 mm fullframe lens. That's why on this shot, I opted to work at f/4, to buy me some margin.
The first day, we photographed Silou and his son Ayu in the neighbourhood of our camp site. When you've got an important subject to photograph, you don't want to waste time prepping everything when they're already on set. That's why we often use a stand-in to try out poses and lighting. In the image below, you see Matt taking on this role. And no, he doesn't have a broken arm... he's just pretending he's carrying an eagle!
Although it was only spring, there was an enormous amount of light - almost more than in India, it felt. Because of that, our trusted Godox AD600 pretty much had to work on full power all of the time. Although it held up well, next year we're probably going to bring the AD600 Pro because of its much faster recycle time at full power: 1 second versus almost three! The image of Matt also shows you another trick I often use when I need to squeeze more light out of my flash, and that I also cover in my Light It Up! ebook on off-camera location flash. I just let the flash enter the frame. As long as it doesn't cover anything important or anything that has much fine detail, the softbox can generally easily be removed with Photoshop's Content-Aware Fill. Especially when you're working in High-Speed Sync (this particular image was made at 1/4000 of a second) and therefore you're losing a lot of flash power, this technique can make the difference between a well-exposed and an underexposed image.
As there was also considerable wind, our drivers came up with the brilliant idea to park two of the Forgons in a V-shape, creating a windbreaker. This made it easier to aim the SMDV Alpha 110 softbox at our model and get consistent light on them.
I already introduced you to Silou's son Ayu and his eagle Ana in the first part of this series. Below you see some more images of them. In order to waste less flash power, I worked at the sync speed of the GFX (1/125th of a second) and I used a six stop ND filter by Formatt-Hitech to keep my aperture wide open. The result is that at 1/125th, the action isn't completely frozen but in this case I don't mind. On the contrary, I think it actually shows the interaction between the Eagle and the Hunter better and I like the contrast between the sharp beak and the motion-blurred wings.
Normally, I'm a wide-angle fan, but the 110 mm is such a fantastic lens that I used it a lot more than I expected to. Above are two more 110 mm shots. Below is a comparable image, shot with the 32-64 (comparable to a 25-50 zoom lens on a fullframe camera). The feeling is different. Not better or worse, I think, just different.
After this introductory shoot, the next days we wanted to include the ruggedly beautiful Mongolian landscape in our shots as well. For someone like me who lives in one of the most densely populated countries in the world, the vastness of Mongolia is simply impressive. For the image below, we climbed up a rocky hill about half an hour's drive from the camp. This website and the compressed JPG images don't do the GFX's fine detail justice, but on my monitor, they're so sharp I could shave myself!
Below you see a couple of full-size 1:1 crops at 2,500 x 2,500 pixels. Click on a miniature to see the crop at full-size. The eagle looks slightly unsharp, but that's because of the motion blur caused by the 1/125th shutter speed.
One of the unique aspects of this workshop, compared to others, is that we use a lot of flash (and we obviously share not only our expertise but also our gear with our workshop attendees). Especially with high-texture subjects like Eagle Hunters with fur coats sitting on rocks, the flash light, when used from the right angle, helps to bring out so much more detail and punch, regardless of the camera brand and type you're using.
In this image, I deliberately let the softbox enter the frame to get more light and to also make my light as soft as possible. I had put my camera on my trusted Sirui Traveller tripod and made a second image without the softbox in the frame, so that I could combine both in Photoshop into the final image you see above. In order to get a similar image in-camera, I would have had to put my light twice as far, which would have required four times the power (that's the Inverse Square Law working against you). On top of that, putting the light further away would have caused it to be relatively smaller and therefore would have created harder shadows. Getting similarly soft shadows would have required an even bigger softbox, which in turn would demand a more powerful flash. Since the wind was blowing so vehemently at the top of this ridge, it was already quite an achievement that we managed to keep the 110 cm SMDV Alpha in place without going kite-surfing!
On shoots like these, I also try to photograph people when they're less camera-aware. The pictures below have the otherwise strong looking Silou actually smiling! These images were also made with the 110 mm.
From one extreme to the other: for the photo below, I used the 23 mm GF lens (comparable to an 18 mm fullframe) and I went flat on my belly to make the eagle look even more impressive than he already is. The downside is that the mountains look less impressive this way, too.
Normally, Eagle Hunters travel by horse, which is how we photographed them the next day. Below is one of my favourite images from the trip: Silou and his son on their horses, dominating the impressive landscape behind them. This location will also be on next year's agenda, unless... our fixers come up with something even more spectacular!
One of the default crop options you find in the GFX, is 65 x 24. This is a tribute to the X-Pan aspect ratio. Obviously, you could crop any image from any camera to this aspect ratio in Lightroom or Photoshop, but the nice thing about the in-camera-crop of the GFX is that you can actually see it in the viewfinder and... you still retain approximately 24 megapixel images. Furthermore, if you shoot RAW, you can always change your mind (and your crop) later on.
This may sound strange, coming from someone who's a true flash-aficionado, but one of the more important lessons of working with flash is probably knowing... when not to use it. Originally, I had the plan of photographing this sunset shoot with flash, but it looked really artificial. So I decided to let the ambient light do its magic and shoot into the available light.
On our last day, we were invited to have dinner at Silou's place, together with his family. This experience also involved quite a number of vodka shots that kind of got in the way of shooting... Luckily, just moments before, we had the occasion to photograph what might possibly become the next generation of Eagle Hunters...
This picture also officially wraps up these two blog posts dedicated to the Eagle Hunters. However, we also photographed our fair share of monks, herders, nomads and other photogenic people on the second part of the trip and I tried a couple of Brenizer panorama's with the GFX. More about that in the soon to be published part three of this series.
All images on this website © Piet Van den Eynde, unless otherwise noted.