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Q&A with the photographer… Susan Seubert

We talk to the photographer of our Hawaii feature about her experience shooting in the footsteps of a writer in Maui

Q&A with the photographer… Susan Seubert

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Tell us a little about the shoot – how did you go about it, how long did it take?

Photographing on Maui is always a beautiful challenge because it has everything one could want for a tropical holiday: beautiful white sands on always-public beaches. Then there are chic restaurants; high-end hotels, camping and hiking in rainforests and, most importantly, the island is ringed with an impossibly blue ocean filled with fish and friendly sea turtles. In other words, there’s something for everyone and although it has changed dramatically over the past 10 years, it still remains no ka oi (the best).

Although Maui is only 727sq miles, there is only one road that circumnavigates the island, so getting about can take time. Since I was working closely with the writer, Andrew McCarthy, we had several conversations about ideas of what to cover. Any worthwhile story will have both good photography and good writing, so it’s important to recognise what is interesting to look at and what may not fit into a narrative.

That said, once we settled on what to cover, I divided the island into areas that could be reached by car from my location in West Maui and then set about making a schedule. Some subjects can be covered at high noon – food, for example, can be shot mid-day, while landscapes need to be photographed in the early and late parts of the day. This story took me about five days to cover because of the amount of driving that was necessary in order to photograph the locations at the proper times of day.

Were there any difficult challenges that you had to overcome?

The most difficult challenges in any shoot are weather and scheduling. When photographing a person or place, I must first identify myself as a member of the press and then ask permission to photograph prior to arriving. Sometimes places that are adjacent to one another won’t work out schedule-wise, and either they are cut from the story or I have to go back twice.

On the island of Maui, weather can be an issue depending on the location of the subject. The leeward beaches can almost always be counted on for beautiful weather and stellar sunsets, while upcountry and windward areas experience regular cloud cover and rain. For travel stories, food looms large, so photographing restaurants can be tricky to arrange. You don’t want to be indoors when the light outside is spectacular. It is also best to show restaurants that are occupied as opposed to empty spaces.

You were on assignment to retrace the steps of a writer. Can you talk us through the process of this?

I really enjoy working in the footsteps of the writer as I see the story through their eyes as well as my own. Every story is different, but often the writer will have a larger concept about a place, then we’ll have conversations about what places are appropriate for said concept. Then as the narrative develops, we’ll come up with a wish list for images. Then I start researching – do these places we want to cover still exist? Is it the proper time of year to photograph? Are the people covered in the story available during our shoot dates? More than anything, budget and deadline shape the coverage. Nothing can replace time spent with a subject, but the reality of any travel story is that I can only allocate a few hours for each subject, which is hugely limiting.

Tell us a bit about your experience shooting in such a set structure. Did you feel under pressure to capture Hawaii in the way the writer saw it?

There is always a certain pressure to illustrate a story that reflects the feeling of the copy, however, the most important aspect of my work is to make great images that will capture the eyes of the reader. Ideally those pictures will reflect the intent of the article.

Andrew’s piece focused on the changes he’s seen in Hawaii throughout the years. Did you feel you had to try and portray a more traditional and contemporary version of the island?

I found it fairly simple to discern between traditional and contemporary. Part of the reason that it is a story at all is the fact that it’s so visible.

Could you tell us about your beach photography? It’s mostly shot during the evenings – is there a reason for this?

Photographing the beach in the evening is the best time of day when illustrating a travel story. Early mornings can be nice for the light, but often the beaches are empty and it is important to see who occupies these places. Is it mostly tourists or locals? The beautiful light also seems to last longer in the evening hours, which is to say that I feel as though I have more time to shoot during the evening hours as opposed to sunrise. On Maui, locals tend to linger on the beach in the evening hours. Technically, being able to blur the water and the people can make for more interesting images, too, so this is something I take into account when making the shoot schedule. Ideally, I would have found a place to stay on each beach and spent a few days at each location to really cover all situations.

Shooting mid-day, the light is often harsh, the locals are generally at work and let’s face it, a bunch of sunburned tourists is not exactly something that will make you look at a photo and say “Wow! I want to go there!” The beaches the writer covered in this story were all a good distance from my home, so it would have been difficult to time a shoot properly given the restrictions on time and budget.

What would be your top three tips for our readers on getting the lighting right and avoiding unwanted shadows?

Shooting at the edges of the day is the best time for light balance. I would recommend paying attention to the light ratio. For instance, in Hawaii one will encounter a lot of black lava rock against either blue ocean or white sand. That is a tricky lighting situation where one would have to decide which is more important – the colour of the water and sand or the detail in the rocks? After you’ve made that decision, use the meter to force the camera to the proper exposure

And remember to use the fill flash. Even iPhones have a flash setting that you can force to the on position, which will help balance the light on your subject and eliminate unwanted shadows on faces. This is particularly handy when making images of your friends/family in front of a lovely sunset. By forcing the flash to turn on, your camera will expose for the overall scene of the sunset, while the flash will fill in the dark areas (faces) and make for a nice, balanced image.

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