Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Scouting Report: Papua New Guinea
Preparing for South Pacific photo opportunitiesThe Tari Highlands, smack in the center of mainland New Guinea, are a must-see. Here, the concept of payback exists to this day, and the “eye for an eye” mentality often sets villages at one another’s throats to extract payback for someone accidentally killed in a road accident or other incidents.
The main draw here are the Huli Wigmen. The Hulis, indeed most Papua New Guineans, are very amenable to being photographed, and it doesn’t take much to persuade a warrior to sit for a tight face portrait. Although I often use fill-flash shooting portraits in harsh lighting conditions, I prefer the big, broad source that the reflector can provide, and I’m able to enlist the aid of one of my fellow visitors to act as “reflector jockey” while I make portraits of these proud warriors with a short telephoto lens.
Nearby Kara is a Huli bachelor’s village where young unmarried men spend time growing their hair for the fantastic wig headdresses the warriors wear festooned with bird-of-paradise feathers. I was in deep woods in this small village, and the light levels are low and overcast. Here, for added mobility and to make sure I got detail in shots of the bachelors tending to their growing hair, I boosted the ISO to 400, sometimes 800, and used the SB-800 in Balanced TTL mode. The resulting pictures have a natural look with plenty of color and detail.
Not everything goes on in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. The Sepik River, back at sea level, is another major draw. It’s reached via a short flight on a small airplane. Whenever you’re on a small plane for a domestic flight in Papua New Guinea, it pays to try for a window seat in front of or behind the wing. Although heavy airplane window glass isn’t the most optically clear, you’d be surprised at what you can get through a relatively clean airplane window.
I got some good views of the highlands as we climbed out of the area, but the best aerials came as we descended into the steamy lowland jungles near Timbunke on the middle Sepik River. For this, a lens in the normal range (like the 35mm ƒ/1.8 Nikkor on the APS-sized chip in the D90) will allow you to get interesting compositions of the serpentine river wending its way through the dense, low forest.
Although the Sepik is about 700 miles long and starts in the mountains of central New Guinea, it only covers about 200 miles as the crow flies, so that gives you an idea of how serpentine it is. Traditional dugout canoes travel the river, as people trade in the villages lining its banks. The architecture here, the tamburan, or spirit house, is unique with its soaring gables and carved posts, and the area is also known for the great carved wooden masks, statues, story boards and basket hangers.
Most tours will base on a river-going ship like the Sepik Spirit. As it cruises down the river of this remote region, stand on deck with a telephoto zoom and be ready to capture the scenes of river life—carved dugout canoes gliding past, women preparing manioc on the banks, children frolicking outside straw houses on stands. Try to be out on deck for sunset and the next morning’s sunrise as well.
There’s something a little incongruous about traveling one of the most remote rivers in the world in an air-conditioned boat, but I confess that I don’t miss sleeping in the steamy conditions. Ordinarily, coming from a cool, air-conditioned cabin into a steamy jungle river environment wreaks havoc on your equipment in the form of moisture condensation, and many of my fellow passengers wait for 15 minutes or more for their cameras to defog when they bring them outside.
If you’re lucky, your trip will coincide with one of the semiannual Highland Cultural Shows, where tribes from all over the island assemble to parade in their fantastic costumes and makeup (and occasionally scare the living daylights out of visiting photographers!).
But I learned a long time ago to travel with a mini-hairdryer (mine weighs less than six ounces) in the tropics. If you spend a minute or two going over your equipment with a hairdryer before you leave your air-conditioned room, you’ll warm it up to the point where condensation isn’t a problem. You’re able to start shooting the minute you hit the top deck and make the most of the beautiful early-morning light.
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