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Photography: Capturing life on the Mandalay Express

Tristan Bejawn, the photographer for our Myanmar photography story, explains how he used focus to capture a person deep in thought on the Mandalay Express

Photography: Capturing life on the Mandalay Express
The Mandalay Express. Image: Tristan Bejawn

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Shutter speed: 1/100
Aperture: 2.5
ISO: 200
Mode: Manual
Lens: Nikkor 35mm f1.8
Camera: Nikon D750

My ultimate aim for this shot was to fulfil a narrative; which meant that I was on the search for a sense of tranquillity aboard the carriage contrasting the mayhem beyond the train. Aboard all the locomotives of Myanmar, there was an unexpected natural state of calm, even amidst the noise and the chaos that arrived with every stop. To get this particular shot, I waited for subjects in a spot that I found interesting, but also befitting to the story that I wanted to tell. This meant riding trains for most of the day, and I waited at this spot long before the boy in focus showed up. When he started to stare out the window, as so many of the locals of Yangon did that day, I was able to subtly photograph him without having to fiddle with framing or exposure, as I knew they were both good to go. I feel like this lead to a more genuine image.

There was very heavy light falloff from the window, so the boy was naturally lit dramatically, which is key to the visual look of the image. To get the most out of this light, I exposed for the highlights of his face, which leaves the exterior slightly overexposed and the interior slightly underexposed. This was really pushing the dynamic range of the Nikon, but I wanted the boy, as the subject, to be perfectly exposed. To get this correct in these conditions, you really have to shoot in manual mode. I feel like it’s good practise, despite being inconvenient at times, because it helps you think more about light levels, while increasing your awareness of how your camera will read that light. When it comes down to it, light is everything. Automated metering could misjudge the scene due to the extreme shadows and highlights, and could ruin the shot, or force you to hack at it in post-production.

The final thing I wanted to achieve was a dynamic composition that portrays two worlds. I used a 35mm lens to give me the width that I needed, found the framing I liked, and again, just waited for the subject to come into frame and for the right ‘decisive’ moment. I composed for half the frame being inside the carriage and half outside, with the dark line down the very centre.

Technically I wanted to isolate the subject within the scene so shot at f/2.5. I also didn’t want the outside to be motion-blurred, so I shot at a moderately high 1/100sec. In this case, the shallow depth of field works with the light and composition to isolate the subject. It came off as I’d visualised in my head, which is always a great feeling.

To get a shot like this, you really just need to be patient. Find a scene with interesting light, and hang around. There are moments when you are traveling where you might feel like there is something about a scene, that photographic instinct that tells you there’s a great picture there, even if it’s missing certain elements. I suggest hanging around, waiting in the wings until the right subjects come along and gift you a winning shot. Some of the best travel photography has many elements contributing to their success as an image, but waiting for each of these to align takes time and patience, and rarely happens by chance. Be there and it often pays off; which means that sometimes, you just have to ride on trains all day.

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Published in issue 9 of National Geographic Traveller (UK) Photography Magazine

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