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11 September 2023
Be it in the high Andes of Chile, on the sweeping plains of Patagonia, or amongst the thriving biodiversity of Ecuador; the South American continent provides ample opportunity to take some great photos. Capturing the magic of a sunset or a vista is easier said than done, however. We caught up with photographer James Brunker to get his insight on documenting the stunning landscapes of South America and tips and tricks of the trade to help you get the most from your photographs!
TL: Your photography centres around South America, and you are currently living in Bolivia, what first drew you to that part of the world? What sort of experiences have you had during your time there?
My first visit to Latin America was as a result of working in adventure travel (Costa Rica, raft guiding and kayaking). After spending quite a bit of time in Central America which was where I got the Latin America bug I ended up tour leading in South America for a British adventure travel company for several years. It was at the same time my interest in photography became more serious.
As to experiences, mostly positive I’m glad to say! South America is a spectacular and diverse continent with amazing landscapes and nature and also a very rich archaeological and cultural heritage. It also a very dynamic continent that has been developing at a rapid rate in the last few decades, and as a result has a fascinating mix of traditional and modern, often with extremes side by side. The people are generally very friendly as well; if you are planning to visit learning some Spanish beforehand will make a huge difference to your time here!
All have got their appeal. I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors so landscape photography was a logical step and is I guess what I’ve done most over the years. Recently I’ve been dedicating more of my shooting time to astrophotography so that is probably my current favourite. The Milky Way and stars in the clear, southern hemisphere skies are a fantastic sight and here it is relatively easy to get well away from city lights to really appreciate them.
Photographing some of the indigenous people here can be quite a challenge, understandably they are often not too keen on outsiders appearing to photograph them and their traditions and customs and building a relationship to achieve this requires time and patience. In terms of concentration and technique sports photography is intense and demanding. You really need to concentrate so you don’t miss anything and news agencies want images of the important, newsworthy action available as soon as possible, meaning you are using any lulls in the action to select, caption and upload images. I have the highest admiration for photojournalists, especially those covering conflicts who are invariably trying to tell very important stories in extremely challenging and dangerous conditions.
TL: What is the message you are trying to convey through your photographs? And how do you go about translating it?
Hopefully my images will make people want to take a bit more time to look at and enjoy the natural world around them or visit some of the wonderful countries and places I’ve been lucky enough to visit and spend time in.
TL: What would be your advice to an aspiring photographer?
Try as many different branches of photography as possible to find which you enjoy and feel the most comfortable with. You’ll learn something new from all them, even the ones you decide not to focus on. Enjoy it! If you enjoy and are passionate about doing something it invariably shows in the results.
TL: What kind of planning goes into your photographs? Do you capture things spontaneously or is the idea already in your mind?
Both. A lot of festival, press and street photography in particular is spontaneous though by being aware of your surroundings and what’s going on you can anticipate where the best shots might be. Landscape and especially astrophotography often involves quite a bit of planning. On many occasions I’ve had the idea for a shot but it might take several visits to the locations to get the best light conditions. Photographing the Milky Way is a good example.
Subject, lighting and composition. Take the time to get those 3 right and you will get great shots that stand out. A lot of the iconic shots that have been taken contain these 3 elements. It’s an old rule but it holds true whether you are using a vintage film camera or the latest digital equipment and technology.
TL: Do you have advice on taking good photos in challenging conditions (rain, bright sunlight, overcast)?
Bad weather conditions can make for wonderfully atmospheric landscape photography. Images taken on sunny days with blue skies are more popular for a lot of commercial photography (think postcards, calendars, travel brochures etc) but the lighting is often more interesting and dramatic during bad weather. I particularly like days with a mixture of sunshine and showers / storms which can provide wonderful varied lighting and contrasts. Rain often helps clear the air (especially after a dry spell) and makes colours fresher and more vibrant. Keep an eye out for things like reflections in puddles or on damp surfaces, textures on wet streets or caused by rain falling on water. All these can be used to add interest to your shots. Make sure you have some way to protect your equipment, digital cameras and electronics don’t like getting wet!
The softer, lower contrast and more even light you get on overcast days lends itself to a lot of subjects. I tend to do more of my street and outdoor market photography in these conditions and it’s also great for outdoor festivals; a mixture of strong sunlight and dark shadows can often overpower scenes (though it also offers other opportunities). A soft, even light (think of the cloud as acting like a giant softbox diffuser for the sun) also works well for outdoor portraits (you can move subjects in to the shade as well), architectural and natural details, water features and effects and many others. Try photographing a stream in a woodland on both sunny (with bright, dappled sunlight and shadows) and overcast days to see the difference.
Bright sunlight can be great for emphasizing the shape and form of subjects, silhouettes and backlit subjects can make for very effective shots. A flash and / or a reflector is very handy for providing fill in light for portraits (so you don’t have the faces in shadow) or brightening foreground details. Don’t forget to look down, shadows can be interesting subjects too!
TL: What camera gear do you swear by?
Money spent on the best quality lenses you can afford is always a good investment. If you are planning on doing a lot of photography in low light conditions a good solid tripod is essential, smaller lightweight ones don’t really cut it.
Interaction with local people can often be the best part of trips. After all, the local people and their customs and ways of life give a country its character and identity just as much, if not more than its sights and scenery. One that particularly stands out was a trip a few years to Q’eswachaka which is several hours from Cusco, Peru, where the last remaining Inca rope suspension bridge crosses the Apurimac River. Every year the communities in the area rebuild the bridge by hand, starting by weaving new ropes from grass, plaiting them together to make larger ropes and so on before replacing the old bridge. This is a tradition that has continued since the days of the Incas, when maintaining the roads and bridges that connected the empire was part of the mita (or labour tax) that communities had to perform as service to the Inca. Rebuilding the bridge takes 3 days and involves around 2,500 people. Being present for the whole process and seeing how all the work was coordinated and shared between the communities was a unique and unforgettable experience. A privilege to witness.
TL: And, we’ve got to ask, what are your top three dream travel destinations?
I’m hoping to get to know Colombia a lot better in the not too distant future. A longer trip to Patagonia exploring the Carretera Austral region of Chile. Outside Latin America, Tibet and the Himalayan regions have always fascinated me. There are so many places though and never enough time, all countries have something to offer!
If you would like to see more of James Brunker’s fantastic photography you can find it at www.magicalandes.com. If you are inspired to travel to far flung locations and try your hand at photography why not make an enquiry by clicking here.