29 Jun Through a Photographer’s Eye: Bhagiraj Sivagnanasundaram
Welcome to the Second Series of Through a Photographer’s Eye. In this series, we continue to learn about Australian photographers and how they use X Series Cameras to photograph their world around them. Our sixth interview in Series Two is with Sydney based photographer, Bhagiraj Sivagnanasundaram.
Bhagiraj, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started in photography?
I’m a wanderer often travelling between two worlds, one as a Doctor in a busy Emergency Department, another as a photographer. There should be a starting point to any kind of passion. For us photographers, it’s mostly another photographer or a photo that pushes us to start exploring the world. For me, it was the photos taken by my cousin brother when I was just five or six years old. The small chicks under the monsoon mushrooms in Sri Lanka, the beautiful flowers and of course the photos of myself in different attires, sometimes as a fashionista and occasionally as a native hunter wearing just a leaf where appropriate. Those were the old film days which provoked the craving for the looks of films even though I hardly used a film camera – one strong point that made me fall in love with Fujifilm and its film simulations.
Fujifilm X-T2 with XF10-24mmF4 R OIS – 1/15 second – F4.5 – ISO 400
The journey began with a small point and shoot ten years back; I went through different phases of bridge cameras, DSLRs and now have finally settled on Fujifilm X Series. Luckily I had early recognition of my work as some of them ended up in few magazines and some won awards. Slowly the passion to Travel started, and now I proudly call myself as a Travel & Documentary photographer even though occasionally I try other genres of photography out of curiosity.
We noticed travel and documentary photography form an important part of your portfolio. Can you tell us why?
Travel and documentary photography is something that challenges me. It’s highly unpredictable; scenes won’t wait for me, so I have to be at the right spot at the right time. I have to handle people with all types of personalities, and most importantly our world is rapidly evolving. We don’t see half as much of what our grandparents saw, and our grandkids won’t see much of what we see today. This reality constantly pushes me towards Travel and Photography.
Fujifilm X-T2 with XF35mmF2 R WR – 1/20 second – F2 – ISO 500
My inspirations are from famous travel and documentary photographers, and I follow the passion of those travellers who witnessed the various cultures, people, lifestyle and stunning destinations. However, art should be unique, and I try my best to maintain my way of the journey. I explore my way of expressing my inner feelings of witnessing a moment, let it be a happy event or something bad, either way, I make sure it will be remembered forever for what it is and I share it with my audience.
It is not only about a process of making an infinite physical memory of my travels. It is also a medium that connects me to a lonely Shepard in a cold Himalayan region with whom I shared a hot coffee or with a cliff diver in a rural village in Sri Lanka who asked me to take a good picture of him doing the stunt, risking his life.
Fujifilm X-T2 with XF10-24mmF4 R OIS – 1/500 second – F9 – ISO 250
Each moment I encounter has an unexplored history behind it. When explored, these moments become so important that they carry an experience of that fraction of a second. I become the portal connecting two unknown worlds, and the tool is my camera, from the artisans of Fujifilm. The fraction of a second that I encountered will never repeat, but it will resonate forever through my photographs.
What are your thoughts on editing an image by removing a distracting object from the scene? Do you change the scene in post processing or is your preferred capturing method SOOC (Straight Out Of Camera) with much editing?
I do not modify the scene, but I create the image to represent the actual scene as much as possible. We are getting a little bit technical here. As we know human eyes have higher dynamic range than any of the consumer cameras ever produced. So it becomes essential to process the photos to a certain level, so they match the original dynamic range of the scenes.
Fujifilm X-T2 with XF10-24mmF4 R OIS – 0.6 seconds – F16 – ISO 100
Over the course of a decade, I have used three different brands, and I have found Fujifilm is different to them. The mix of colours, shadows, and highlights are more artistic with this Japanese brand. When combined with stunning film simulations it just brings back my childhood memories, and it is one of the most important factors that opted me to do the big jump to the Fujifilm X Series territory. When used correctly the film simulations have some strange good emotions in them which I cannot explain, but I love them. Sometimes you don’t know why you love something, but it’s the best thing you can ever do.
SOOC has never been my method until I discovered Fujifilm. It is also one important reason I switched to the brand. With Fujifilm, all I have to do is a very basic editing for few a seconds or a couple of minutes, and sometimes I do nothing to the images at all.
One would argue that using film simulations is similar to digital manipulations. However being the photographer we should decide on what is the most important message we are conveying through our photographs. We should decide whether to give weight to the shadows, highlights or colours. Simulations help us to achieve them- I’m not talking about digital filters here.
Fujifilm X-T2 with XF10-24mmF4 R OIS – 1/100 second – F8 – ISO 100
Depending on the genres of photography the use of simulations or post processing differ. For example, travel photographs can be a bit exaggerated replica of the reality in a more promotional way of a destination, while most of my documentary photographs undergo very little processing or none. A travel image with a stray dog or a light post with wires visible on the street could give a negative feeling to the viewer which is unwanted, where the same scene in a documentary (more towards photojournalism) photograph will work entirely differently. I mostly avoid those scenes for a travel picture than spending hours removing it in Photoshop. This is where the composition comes into the picture; I think it is the most ethical means of removing a distracting object from the picture or changing the distractor into a helper and I’m a very strong supporter of compositions. It is the most important thing for me in photography. One wise man once said, “Photography is an art of exclusions”.
You recently travelled to Sri Lanka with the XF10-24mmF4 and XF90mmF2. How did you find the XF10-24mmF4 lens for travel photography? Did the lens meet your expectations?
I never used such wide angle range. The minimum I have used previously was a 24mm (35mm equivalent). I was never keen on landscapes. Most of my landscapes were the backdrops of the environmental portraits. The Fujifilm XF10-24mmF4 was the first lens of its kind for me, and the intention was to capture more landscapes.
Fujifilm X-E2S with XF10-24mmF4 R OIS – 1/500 second – F4 – ISO 400
In the field, it was far beyond that, the use of it in creating beautiful compositions of day to day Sri Lankan life was impressive. The lens remained on one of the camera bodies for the rest of the trip because of its versatility. I no longer see the wide angle lens reserved mostly for landscapes. Of course, there will be issues with distortion. However, I worry more about the moment than the technical aspects of capturing it. You don’t need to switch to Fujifilm for this lens, it doesn’t mean it is inferior to any other branded wide angles, but if you are into Fujifilm, then this is one lens you should have.
Both the XF10-24mmF4 and XF90mmF2 were loaned products from Fujifilm Australia. When I returned the gear, I made sure those are the next two lenses I will acquire.
How did the portraits you captured using the XF90mmF2 differ from the lens you used previously? Where there any differences in quality, sharpness and autofocus speeds?
I would like to answer it differently. Could the XF90mmF2 truly replace the legendary lens I already used before making the switch to Fujifilm? The answer is, yes by all means! In reality, the Fujifilm XF90mmF2 almost equals the 35mm equivalent focal length of 135mm. It’s a specialised focal length with specific uses, particularly with portraitures. So many hardcore lens reviewers have already concluded that it is one of the best lenses in the current market.
Fujifilm X-E2S with X90mmF2 R LM WR – 1/400 second – F2 – ISO 320
The autofocus speed is super fast that I hardly missed any shots and it maintains its speed in low light – my favourite type of lighting situation. The sharpness is equally incredible, and corner sharpness is well maintained at any aperture. The beautiful bokeh, particularly at F2, works amazingly well when compared to other 135mm lenses from other brands. With the excellent contrast, colour rendition, weather resistant sealing, lesser weight than counterparts, there’s nothing more I need other than just to keep shooting with this beauty. It’s an instant boost to the confidence level in image making.
If someone was travelling to Sri Lanka, based on your experience what camera and lens configuration would you recommend they take?
Sri Lanka is a small tropical Island. In a matter of few hours, you will be on a misty mountain or a rain forest from a beach. Depending on the places and the season you visit the selection of camera gear will vary. In general, it is advisable to carry weather resistant lenses and cameras as most of the beautiful natural habitats in the country are water based. Also, the island has friendly people, rich traditions and festivals. So you will need lenses that can be wide opened (in aperture) and good at focusing in low light. It is also a land of leopards, elephants and the mighty blue whales. It’s one of the best places on earth to witness these giants. So you will need a good telephoto lens if you decide to take photos of them.
Fujifilm X-E2S with XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8 R LM OIS – 1/4000 second – F5 – ISO 200
I would like to summarise the gear recommendation that will work for any travel and documentary photographer anywhere in the world.
Main Camera – The Fujifilm X-T2.
Backup Camera – The Fujifilm X-T20.
The lenses listed below are the ones I carried.
Fujinon XF 18-55mmF2.8-4 R LM OIS
Fujinon XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8 R LM OIS
Fujinon XF35mmF2 R WR
Fujinon XF10-24mmF4 R OIS
Fujinon XF90mmF2 R LM WR (I’m comfortable with this focal length, but some people prefer Fujifilm XF56mmF1.2 R)
Optional – Fujifilm XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR (If you are serious about wildlife photography).
Do you have a favourite image you captured on your trip? What was the story behind the shot?
My favourite image was from a remote village in Sri Lanka nestled among the large mountains ranges. It has a rich history dating back to many centuries. The village is abundant with beauty, and it was only recently received widespread attention from tourists after a few local films were shot in the location. Over very few years the village transformed dramatically, and now it’s a popular holiday hub for many tourists. Many villagers who relied primarily on paddy fields and other traditional lifestyle jobs are now into tourism as it gives more financial stability in the modern economy. Even though methods are implemented for sustainable tourism the rate at which tourism grows is a major threat to the centuries-old traditions of the village.
Fujifilm X-T2 with XF10-24mmF4 R OIS – 1/100 second – F16 – ISO 200
I wanted to capture the essence of the community, and during a stroll, I saw a villager visiting his paddy field surrounded by dark foliages and huts built for tourists – a familiar scene throughout the village.
The whole scene was like an arena – the field is the village, the dark foliage from the mountains and the huts surrounding it portrayed how tourism was slowly penetrating into the heart of the village. The man was both the victim and witness of this event. It was like there was a spotlight turned on to an important event in that village which will change its future forever.
When you look at a scene what is the most important thing you try and capture? Does composition play an important part of your photography?
Most of the times it is about how unique the image is. In the current world, almost all of us have a camera of some sort, from smartphones to the high-end medium formats. So many photographs are made of the same subject each second. Once I visited the Taj Mahal in India, and I tried to go as early as possible before sunrise, and I was among the handful of photographers at that time, and in few minutes there are hundreds of people with cameras. So it means most of them are going to take photographs of the same place at the same time and my worry is how can I stand out from that crowd while retaining the true meaning of the scenes I encountered.
This is where composition becomes important. For me, it is the most important part of a photograph. How you place and connect the elements of a scene into a photo will decide how the picture will connect with the audience. Naturally, I’m inclined towards better compositions in my images. The actual scene may look dull, could have bad weather, etc, but still one can come out with a good image if the composition is different and unique – often turning those negative factors into positives.
Fujifilm X-T2 with XF10-24mmF4 R OIS – 1/500 second – F4.5 – ISO 400
Just because a sunset looks beautiful or a shadow from a person in a city looks mysterious doesn’t mean they will make a great photograph unless they connect well with their surroundings and tell a story together which makes the audience have inner discussions about the image. Occasionally the story can come from just the subject alone like in close up portraits, but most of the time it’s something that evolves around the subject and its environment. So, we should be vigilant on how we are going to present the whole thing to the audience.
If you have some advice for someone starting out in photography what would it be?
Learn how to be a tough critic of your images. You can book a trip for a few thousand, buy the most expensive photography gear to take to your exotic location, but at the end of the day in the hotel room; you should be brave enough to delete most of those images which you think are not the best. You shouldn’t reflect on the amount of effort you put in to get those shots.
Fujifilm X-T2 with XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8 R LM OIS – 1/25 second – F16 – ISO 200
There is a difference between ‘creating’ images and ‘taking/capturing’ images. Photography is an art; we have to be the creators of the art. Perfection needs experience, and even with the best experience, it’s highly doubtful that anyone would become just perfect in image making, but keep fighting for it. Cherish the better pictures that you make today and compare these to the ones you shot last week and keep going. Keep connecting well with fellow photographers and share knowledge. Remember, it is not about the destination, but more about the journey. Good Luck!