Apr 132010
 

The Leica M9 in Colombia (and some general thoughts on travel photography) by James Klotz

Greetings! I’m fresh back from 12 days in Colombia with the Leica M9 and thought Steve’s readers might be interested in hearing about my experiences. I had a lot of time to consider what to write, as my laptop battery died in the airport, so 7 hours of sitting next to a fat guy who smelled like garlic on the plane, with nothing better to do, gave me plenty of time to think about what to say. There are a lot of travel blogs on the internet, and I have no desire to add to the noise, so I thought, instead, I’d write an essay on travel photography, using my time in Colombia as a backdrop. So here goes, I hope you find it useful and interesting:

Just the Facts….

Firstly, let’s get the technical out of the way. I’m sorry to report that I had not one single problem with the M9 during the 3000 +/- shots I took. I found the M9 to be a rock solid travel companion. Why am I sorry? Because it gives the photography forums nothing to discuss, analyze and complain about. What fun is that? Actually, most of the gear I own works most of the time. Sometimes I read the forums and wonder what all the fuss is about. Anyway, …

What I took:

An M9 with a Tim Issac “Thumbs Up”

Voightlander 12mm

Voightlander 35/2.5 Color Skopar

Leica 50/1.4 Summilux ASPH

Leica 75/2.5 Summarit

2 Leica batteries

6 2-gig SanDisk Extreme III memory cards*

SanDisk USB card reader

Dell PC Laptop running Lightroom**

Domke F-803 Camera Bag

Cannon G11

LaCie 80 gig “rugged” back up drive

Leica battery charger

Benro C069-M8 Tripod

*I prefer smaller 2 gig cards. If one gets lost or damaged, there are fewer pictures to loose on each card. In addition, I like the SanDisk Extreme III cards because they work every time and I’ve never had a problem with them. I’m sure others work great, but this is what I prefer.

** I’m a Mac guy, tried and true. So why do I travel with a PC? Simple – nowhere on the planet do you see as many Mac’s as in the USA. Problem is I don’t usually take travel photos in the USA. Should I ever have a problem, my chances of finding a solution with a PC are far greater in a 3rd world country, or just about anywhere for that matter. In addition, the cost is far lower in case it gets stolen, and it’s more low key (more on that in a sec). A nice, new, shinny 17” Macbook Pro in a coffee house in a third world country just screams “I’m a rich gringo, please mug me”!

I’m not going to try to counsel the dear reader with a bunch of lens and equipment suggestions. There’s plenty of that to be found elsewhere on the internet. You can see the list of what I brought above, but that is, by no means, the “ideal” travel kit. Truth be known, what works for me may not work for you. My suggestion? Shoot a lot. That’s the only way you’ll know what does work for you. In my case, I wish I had my 90 Elmarit 2.8 instead of the 75 Summarit, but it was in the shop for a tire rotation and oil change at the time I left, so I took what I had. Point is, there is always some other piece of gear that would make things “ideal”, but use what you have and focus on the pictures. Actually, there are 3 Leica lenses I’d love to own right now that I don’t, but given the choice of going somewhere exotic to photograph, or buying a new lens, well, let’s just say I keep my passport next to my camera bag.

When in Rome…

I make sure to learn at least some pleasantries in the local language before I go. Nothing irritates people more than the guy who expects the rest of the world to speak his/her language. It’s amazing how my photographs from Latin America have improved since I’ve started studying Spanish! For example, look at the shot from the billiards hall. I never would have found it had I not spoken to a farm hand who told me that’s where he and his compadres like to go after work. And I can assure you, he didn’t know the first word in English. It probably kept me out of trouble as well; One woman came out of a store screaming at me in Spanish. If I weren’t able to explain that I was just a “tourist” (my regular line) and not some government or corporate spy trying to bilk her out of her clothing design or make an additional tax assessment, who knows where that could have gone. As it turned out, she was all smiles and apologies afterwards, and invited me in for some fresh squeezed tangerine juice. The more the local language you can learn, the better.

I also try to read up on the local events before I go. For instance, the Colombian President, Álvaro Uribe, has been in office for coming up on 8 years. He has done wonders for his country, always has had very high popularity ratings. He is well loved by most, some even having fought, to change the law, unsuccessfully, to allow him to run for an extra term. The election for a new President will be coming up soon and is the hot topic for a lot of Colombians at the moment. I found that, by simply asking somebody his or her opinion of the upcoming election (without offering one of my own), could give me an instant “in” with almost anybody. It showed I was interested in their culture and not some tourist who was wondering around, oblivious to the world around them. After a little discussion, I didn’t have one person turn me down from taking their picture.

It’s always a good idea to pick up a travel guide before you go (I like the Lonely Planet guides personally, but there are a lot of great ones out there). I also like to consult travel forums on the internet – they are a great place to learn of safety hazards and local events of the moment you might not know of otherwise. A little research can make your trip a lot more productive and safe.

The Invisible Man

I don’t hear many folks talking about this, but a big part of my travel kit consists of a pair of jeans, a non-descript t-shirt, some comfortable tennis shoes and a baseball hat. Why? Because if you want good travel shots, you have to fit in. You’ll never see me with a photographers vest or a professional camera bag. I don’t want to be noticed. I want to be in the middle of the action, interacting with the locals, seen as just another guy. That’s where the good stuff is to be found. If, on the other hand, you prefer a photographers vest, cargo pants and a hat that says Leica, and carry your mono pod and fancy leather, logo encrusted “pro” camera bag with your “Canon Pro Services” ID badge around your neck, held by the bright, yellow Nikon lanyard, and you still get the “good stuff”, then more power to you. After all, I’m just a guy with a camera. What do I know?

Speaking of being just a “guy with a camera”, if you are on Steve’s site, you probably are already “enlightened”, and know the M9 is the best travel camera you can get. It’s small, built like a tank and doesn’t intimidate your subjects like a big DSLR does. If dressed accordingly, you’re just a “guy with a camera”. That’s also why I choose a Domke F-803 camera bag. It doesn’t look like a camera bag. You never hear people mention this, but some of my Voightlander screw mount lenses look like something I dug out of my fathers junk box in the attic. That can be a tremendous advantage when you are trying to blend in. I also have a plastic Casio watch. I’m a watch guy, I love little mechanical works of art (hey, I’ve got a Leica, don’t I?), but nothing says “us and them” louder than a big, shiny new Rolex glistening in the sun while photographing a farm worker in a third world country. Be one with your subjects and your photographs will represent that.

I suppose there are many ways of “blending in”. The trick is to do it in such a way that you are being yourself, but at the same time, conscious of your surroundings and subjects. Ask yourself constantly “how will that person feel?” when he sees me pointing my little camera at them? Do I look like a guy who’s making fun of him or trying to profit from our differences or take advantage of him/her? Or do I look like somebody who has a sincere interest in his culture and country? A smile and a few words in the local language can go a long way when it comes to travel photography.

Safety in Colombia

When most Americans I talk to reflect on Colombia, the first thing they think about is Pablo Escobar, drug lords slaughtering helpless victims, and the FARC kidnapping children, politicians and the like. 30 years ago, these concerns may have been relevant, but today, I feel safer in Colombia than in New York. That’s not to say common sense isn’t prudent. I don’t wander down dark alleys, at night, in Bogotá. Then again, I don’t do that in Atlanta, GA, where I live, either. I present myself in a “low key” way, leaving the fancy watches at home, and I talk to the locals about places to avoid. I am constantly aware of my surroundings and try to pay attention to what’s around me. I’ve traveled half the world like this and have had no issues (except one in Guatemala, but it was because I broke my own rules and didn’t follow the advice of the locals).

So if you are considering a trip to Colombia, my advice is go! The people there are very nice, humble and accommodating, the culture wonderful and the photography ops are spectacular.

Zen and the Art of Choosing a Subject

I used to be one of those guys who’d pack a bag, head out the door, get on a plane, go somewhere, come back, and never take my finger off the shutter release. I shot pictures of people, buildings, flowers, cars, busses, signs, whatever I saw. I’d always come back with some good shots, but when I’d look at them back home, they were just that; a few good shots mixed in with some ok ones (and maybe even one or two bad ones, but let’s keep that between us…). Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed doing it, it was fun, but I never got a sense that my photos, as a collection, really told a story.

This realization led me to question what it was I really was trying to capture. I think of a shot of a guy with an American flag in front of the Statue of Liberty. It “screams” New York. Or possibly a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau, 2 wine glasses and a cheese plate with a vineyard in the background – fall in France. These are obvious. These shots, as trite as they may be, are examples of capturing part of a culture; telling the story in a single or series of pictures. But what about a place like Latin America? How does one differentiate Chile from Peru? Honduras from Nicaragua? Costa Rica from Panama? Sure, there are many differences between the countries, but, visually, much is very similar, particularly to a non-native. I wanted to tell a story, capture some aspect of the culture – I never really managed to get that out of my photographs.

As of my last few “adventures”, I’ve changed my way of thinking about travel photography. I’ve begun to research the place where I am going a little more, and tried to pick a subject, or one particular aspect of that culture to focus on instead of going after everything I saw. For example, on this last trip to Colombia, I had access to a horse farm (or Finca, as the Colombians call them) just to the west of Medellín, in a small pueblo called Las Palmes. Around this area, horses and agriculture are the staple economic generators, as well as the main cultural influences of the region. So I choose to focus on this aspect rather than make the entire country of Colombia my subject. That’s not to say I didn’t have a camera with me all the time, and if I saw something of interest, would not shoot it, but rather I took my time and tried to get to know the region and it’s culture.

Overall, I am more pleased with my work using this method than in the past with my “shot gun” approach. I’m not suggesting it is right or matches the goals of every traveling photographer, but the next time you pull that passport out of the drawer and pack that bag, I have a challenge for you. Slow down, find one area of particular interest and shoot that. Spend a little more time in that place. Get to know the light, the fog, the subtleties of the area. Watch the people, know when your subject is most active and try to get to know it a little better. Try to tell a story of that particular aspect of the culture, and see if you agree with me, that, ultimately, this makes for a more meaningful set of pictures than trying to cover an entire country in a week.

Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it. As always, your comments and feedback are welcome.

James Klotz is a professional architectural photographer based in Atlanta, Ga. He also teaches photography at The Creative Circus, Atlanta, Ga. For more information about James, or to contact him, see his website www.jamesklotz.com

  35 Responses to “The Leica M9 in Colombia by James Klotz”

  1. Fascinating read, some great insight into a country and great shots that let the people in them speak. Really enjoyed that James!

    Loved this para too:- “……cargo pants and a hat that says Leica, and carry your mono pod and fancy leather, logo encrusted “pro” camera bag with your “Canon Pro Services” ID badge around your neck, held by the bright, yellow Nikon lanyard, and you still get the “good stuff”, then more power to you. After all, I’m just a guy with a camera. What do I know?”

    You see so many guy’s like that though when you travel though. hehe :D

  2. James, nice story and wonderful photos. You should check the spelling of this country. It looks like you spelled it correctly everywhere, but the title. LOL, don’t feel bad…I did the exact same thing a few months ago in a blog post where I mentioned meeting two “Columbian” photographers at the PMA show. Cheers, Ned

  3. Thanks Ned. I’ll contact Steve pronto and get it corrected.

  4. Sorry! That was my fault on that mis-spell. Fixed.

  5. Now that was refreshing!
    By that I mean what you wrote and how you did it.

  6. James: How does the Voightlander 12mm mate with the M9? Any color fringes? What lens setting you use in the M9 for the 12mm?

  7. Eddie, there is color fringing with the 12. The best solution I’ve found is to shoot it uncoded and use cornerfix. To be honest, I really didn’t use it much on the trip, so maybe some of the guys who live in wide, wide land more often can shed some light on the subject.

  8. Great article James and amazing pictures. I have a question for you and would really like to know your answer.

    The question is this:

    When taking pictures of people you don’t know, do you speak to them first, get to know them a little and explain that you want to take some pictures that reflect their daily life. I am talking about the shots showing them living, not posed shots. I understand that some of the Magnum photographers would sometimes spend weeks in an area getting to know their subjects before shooting a single photo. Now, with time constaints that most of us have, this is not possible but some attempt could still be made.

    It would seem there are two types of photographers out there, those that just grab shots almost secretly (Walker Evans – underground style) and those that speak to their subjects and wait until they let them into the inner circle and then get their shots. Winogrand is more in your face but no permission style which is a hybrid I suppose.

    Just wondering what you thought the best way was.

    Many thanks,

    Stephen

  9. Aren’t the images a bit over saturated?

  10. Thanks for the comments guys. Dan, I didn’t add any saturation to the shots, but even so, I still prefer a good bit of saturation. Colombia is a very “colorful” country, and I choose to represent it as such. In my homeless series, I shot it b&W, because the subject felt better that way. I really don’t think there is a right or wrong, whatever suits your tastes and the mood of the series…

    Stephen, that is a good question. I touched on it briefly in the article, but, for the most part, I prefer to engage the subject in some sort of dialogue. I suppose it’s a personal preference, but it helps me to understand more about the person I’m shooting. What I don’t do is try to interfere, in any way, with who there are – If I don’t represent them as they are, then, I feel as I failed in making the portrait. I’ve never asked anyone to smile for a picture. Ever.

  11. Excellent article James. I really enjoyed reading it. I’m off on a little trip this week myself. Nowhere as adventurous as Colombia. But I’ll be mindful of many of the tips you gave.

  12. James: Thanks for your sharing your experience. Also thanks for sharing your wonderful from far away places.

  13. Wow, a wonderful article, James! I learned a lot myself and really enjoyed seeing your style both in your shots and through your words. Obviously, I concur with all of what you say….though you gotta switch out the G10 for a X1…hahah..

  14. James, thanks for this awesome article. I’ve been renting a lot of DVDs on photographers lately, and they all say how everyone should slow down and take a photograph, instead of using shotgun methods of taking a picture. Andre Kertesz was my favorite in that regard.

  15. I really enjoyed reading your article, it is always so interesting to read peoples thoughts on style of photography, your photo’s are wonderful, i would LOVE the M9 to travel with.
    Can you tell me,,what are those lenses which you would love to have for your m9?

  16. Guevón, no me mencionaste en el artículo, y te acompañé y manejé el Audi 0.5 por muchos kilómetros para que obtuvieras unas excelentes fotos para compartirles a tus colegas.

    Que este comentario sea una forma de participar de este artículo.

    Tu Ex amigo

    Juan Felipe

  17. Thanks guys, I appreciate all of the comments. Ashwin, I can assure you an X1 is on my list….

    Lucy, I’d love to have a Leica 21/1.4. The 50/.95 is another that I lust after. Given the economy, my next one will probably be the 35/2.0. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind the 24/2.8 either. These Leica lenses are a slippery slope I tell you!

  18. James, thanks for sharing your photos and engaging article with us.

    I visited Colombia last year on a business trip and had the good fortune to see many different parts of that wonderful country. Colombia is a surprisingly modern country given their isolation over the past few decades. The people are friendly, self-confident and proud of their country. The food is delicious, the infrastructure operates properly and there is good cell phone coverage that extends into even the remote rural parts of the country. That’s more than I can say about many parts of Canada.

    The other suprising thing about Colombia is that the entire country is cycling crazy, road bikers are everywhere. Even in distant rural areas I saw groups of cyclists out training at 5:00 AM and with just as modern and up to date gear, i.e. carbon-fiber bikes as you would see at any century ride in the USA or Canada. If you want to equip your self with some conversation topics before going to Colombia, you should learn the names of the Colombian riders who are on some of the Tour de France teams.

    Politically, the situiation in Colombia is complicated and there are no easy solutions. Travellers to Colombia should take their cues about security from the Colombians; when they are concerned about their security, you should do the same.

    Thanks again for sharing your photos with us

    Jay

  19. James, thanks for sharing your photos and engaging article with us.

    I visited Colombia last year on a business trip and had the good fortune to see many different parts of that wonderful country. Colombia is a surprisingly modern country given their isolation over the past few decades. The people are friendly, self-confident and proud of their country. The food is delicious, the infrastructure operates properly and there is good cell phone coverage that extends into even the remote rural parts of the country. That’s more than I can say about many parts of Canada.

    The other surprising thing about Colombia is that the entire country is cycling crazy, road bikers are everywhere. Even in distant rural areas I saw groups of cyclists out training at 5:00 AM and with just as modern and up to date gear, i.e. carbon-fiber bikes as you would see at any century ride in the USA or Canada. If you want to equip your self with some conversation topics before going to Colombia, you should learn the names of the Colombian riders who are on some of the Tour de France teams.

    Politically, the situation in Colombia is complicated and there are no easy solutions. Travelers to Colombia should take their cues about security from the Colombians; when they are concerned about their security, you should do the same.

    Thanks again for sharing your photos with us

    Jay

  20. James, great pics and article. I was just in Colombia earlier this year for a wedding and it was amazing. I went to Medellin, Bogota and Cartagena and all 3 cities were so different! People are so nice and accommodating – nothing like the stereotypes we have of them (danger, drugs, etc.). It’s time people started realizing that Colombia is a place that can be travelled once again. Thanks again for the wonderful article!

  21. James

    Thanks for sharing your 12mm lens experience. Most of all I thank you for the wonderful pictures from Columbia and your practical tips (get by and do the best with whatever lens you have on hand..no remorse….)

  22. Dude!! This article absolutely rocked!! You nailed it about travel photography. I live in Asia (Jakarta), and can’t say enough about the importance of learning some language and something about the place one travels to before taking a trip…

    Which lens did you find yourself using the most?

    Cheers,

    Scotty

  23. Thanks Scotty, I appreciate the props. My lens cap on the M9 is thew 50/1.4. It’s on at least 80% of the time, if not more.

  24. Just 12 days in Colombia? I’m shocked =] I was just there (roughly 7 months ago), original plan was to see it 2 weeks. Well…. ended up staying 2 amazing, magical months. Planning to go back for a 6 month visit, once my current trip is finished. Great photos!

  25. James….one more question….do you use your M9 for any of your architectural work? Or do you use the M9 for only travel?

    “My lens cap on the M9 is thew 50/1.4″….I think you missed a couple of words there, but I got your meaning…ha ha….

    Scotty

  26. As always a great article and inside-informations…

    I will travel in some days to the south-west of the USA, especially the Mexican border with my Leica M8.2 … let´s see what the travel will be like.

    If you are interested, just follow the travel (around two-three months) via my Blog.

    Best – and keep up the great work

    Benjamin Hiller / Photojournalist Berlin/Germany

  27. Great article. I really like your reference to slowing down and taking some time to think – sound advice. As someone who travels a lot one thing I noticed really changed the way I take travel photos is going from being a solo traveller to one with a partner. I used to always travel alone and that way could loiter in places for ages, stop and chat prior to taking a few photos or whatever. Nowadays, much as I love travelling with my partner, the photos I take are different because I travel in a different way; faster, more conscious of my partner getting bored with me just wandering about, “doing” more stuff rather than just observing and waiting for photos to present themselves.

    I’m guessing from your article that you were travelling solo? (This bit of info is missing from your gear list!) Just wondering if this is something that you think affects the photos you take?

    (Incidentally, my favourite non-human travel companions are Leica M6TTL plus 35 and 50 summiluxes plus a Mamiya 7ii & 80mm with several bags of film).

    Cheers,
    Lucian.

  28. Thanks for the comments guys. I agree with Lucian that is is easier to focus on taking great shots when you are alone. My travel partners know me, and “I’ll see you guys back at 8″ is just part of the deal. I find that it helps to stay in out of the way hotels also – ones with character. I’ve gotten some great shots just outside of the hotel before my coffee in the morning. Getting those shots outside of the Marriot would just not be possible.

  29. Great Article! I love your strategy on focusing on one aspect of the culture, I think I’m going to give it a try. I’ve definitely started to feel like I’ve been using the shot gun strategy lately in my travels. Great shots, I really like the guy shoeing the horse. Columbia is definitely on our wish list for the next time ’round. Thanks for sharing.

  30. Great photos and story, however with all that gear I think your kidding yourself thinking that carrying a a Mac ‘screams rich gringo’ I think the locals would have you labelled in a nano second :)

    cheers,
    John

  31. tankess very mach!!!

  32. Everything James says is dead right. I’ve been taking a lot of shots with my M9 in Colombia recently
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/roryobryen
    … and the results are very rewarding

  33. Hey james,

    I saw the title of this article and I simply had to read it. Around the world people think of colombia, as you said, as a country were violence prevails. Fortunatly this is not correct as you saw. I am glad that you, with your words and photos are able to show people the real side of colombia. Finally great pictures!!

    Sincerely,
    Lorenzo from Colombia

  34. Sorry i just don’t get these photos, M9 or not. I wouldn’t be shooting donkeys or dogs if I went to columbia. Look at HCB, Constantine Manos, Leonard Freed or many other Magnum photographers to see some great shots. Everyone is so fascinated with the digital M series of Leica’s that everyone has completely missed the point. And by the way, an M3 loaded with film has more resolution than any M digital camera out there.

  35. Thank you James! It’s a brilliant article. As someone who has ‘shotgun’ my way through countless countries, your words have great meaning. If time allows, your deeper approach is brilliant. And your advice regarding blending is absolutely ‘spot on’. SO many ‘photographers’ look like spacemen in poorer countries; and flashing beacons for thieves. I never take a bag unless I rough it up (I lightly spray them with brown/black car paint, which makes them look dirty and old). I never use SLRs and cover any kit in gaffer tape, which actually protects it whilst making it look worthless and broken! Great article, thanks again!

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