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Q&A with the photographer… Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi

We talk to the winner of our Photography Competition 2015 about her photography commission for National Geographic Traveller (UK) and her experience shooting Lewis and Harris

Q&A with the photographer… Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi
Photographer Alecsandra Dragoi

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Tell us a little bit about your experience shooting Scotland? How did you approach the shoot? Can you go into some specifics about how long it took you?

I haven’t travelled much, but I have travelled enough to say Lewis and Harris blew me away with its vibe, colours, smell, shapes and quietness. I think the beauty of this piece lies in the way two people — writer Audrey Gillan and me — travelled and worked together for a week, sharing the experience. My objectivity about the island brought a new perspective to this piece, a good reason why Audrey and I worked well as a team.

We were lucky to have a car and accommodation arranged, giving us the time to focus on our story. We left London with a plan, but in the end we broke it and changed it along the way. The stories unfolded along the road and I tried to photograph as much as possible to get to the essence of the island. I photographed continuously, craving stories and beauty. Sometimes I got lost in the landscape, but luckily I had Audrey bringing me back to reality.

From the start we decided to photograph people during the afternoon when the sun was up and less helpful for shooting the landscape, while morning and evening were mostly for landscape photography. Our schedule was heavily influenced by the weather and the amount of sun. Understanding the light was the key to get the best photographs. I didn’t take too much gear with me because the plane from Glasgow to Stornaway didn’t allow me to bring more than 6kg of hand luggage. I had a telephoto 70-200mm, 24-70mm, 20mm and a 35mm.

Tell us a bit about your experience shooting whilst on assignment with a travel writer. Were there any difficulties or time restrictions? Did you feel under pressure to get good pictures of what Audrey would be talking about?

In my opinion, being on assignment with a travel writer is an excellent opportunity, especially if you share the same passion. There were many benefits from working in a team, but the most important was allowing us to focus on our work without rushing. As a photographer, when you want to capture someone in a candid moment, it is very important to have someone distracting the subject. Whenever I had to catch these unique moments, Audrey was the one who managed to create a specific atmosphere, to give me the opportunity to get in the zone.

Audrey and I worked as a team and discussed what the key places were to cover. We did research together and the piece was mostly influenced by the moments and the places I was photographing. As long as you research, talk and share thoughts, working with a writer is an excellent experience. I don’t deny there were compromises we had to make, especially in terms of timing, but the outcome was much stronger, because each of us had the time to focus and get the energy for our part of the story.

Were there any funny moments?

Our trip had plenty of funny moments, like the time we gave a ride to a hitchhiker. This was one of the tricks we used to get stories from around the island. He was on his way to do a medical check and his hearing wasn’t the best. Audrey and I struggled to speak as loud as possible to be understood, but we had no hope when he asked us where we were from. I had to settle for saying Aberdeen.

Is there anything you weren’t happy with, and what would you do differently next time?

It was the first time in my life I was frustrated to have clear and good weather. My job was to capture unique and striking moments, to capture the essence of the place, including the people and landscape. Every landscape photographer wants something a little more challenging than perfect weather. Despite not having a changing sky, I challenged myself to look into other details, especially into focusing on capturing the vivid colours that the island’s known for. Good timing is an important aspect in every trip we take. If I had been on the island one day earlier, I would have captured the Aurora Borealis. Unfortunately, I was unlucky, but it’s just given me a reason to go back.

Tell us a bit more about how you shot the tartan and other materials. How did you make sure you’d keep the images interesting? How do you achieve it in a technical sense, too?

Photographing people in their working space and showing their passion and dedication was the best approach to show the beauty of these materials. For Rebecca, I used a flash, because the light was coming from a window above the room and the dark areas had to be balanced. For Norman, shooting the natural light was the best option, because it was good enough to capture the atmosphere of the place without any additional light distractions. In order to capture the essence and the colours of these materials, I have switched between candid photographs, details and still portraits. For both portraits I used a 35mm 1.4 lens, one of my favourites in portrait photography, allowing me to have a close connection with the person I was photographing.

What would be your top three tips for our readers if they were thinking of photographing rugged landscapes like the ones you shot in Scotland?

First, bring ND filters and a tripod. Second, if you are addicted to landscape photography, prepare to not get much sleep, especially if you travel during springtime. To get a beautiful sunset, you have to be on location around 8-9pm and leave around 11pm. The sunset is the key, but the blue light shouldn’t be forgotten either. To get a beautiful sunrise you have to be on location around 5am. Third and final tip: listen to Scottish music while driving.

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Published in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) Photography Magazine