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In the episode, Gorky M speaks with National Geographic Photographer and Cultural Documentarian Ira Block. Ira has shot multiple photographic stories for the National Geographic Magazine including Nat Geo Traveler and NatGeo Adventure. Ira is also a Sony Artisan of Imagery and conducts multiple photography workshops around the world.
Ever wondered how to become a National Geographic photographer or what does a National Geographic Photographer do?
Ira Block’s photography covers various genres including documentary photography, travel photography, landscape photography, portrait photography, wildlife, people and culture – but Ira prefers the term cultural documentarian, because there isn’t one particular genre, and his work revolves mostly around people and culture. Ira has spent many decades taking photos and he also travels to many countries in search of stories regularly. Ira recently published a photography book on Cuba’s culture and their love for sport in, ‘Cuba Loves Baseball’. The book features images and quotes from Ira Block.
The video is also a photography masterclass where Ira also tells us which camera he uses, his photography gear as well as about his lighting gear while travelling. Gorky M and Ira also discuss film photography and the days when Ira used to shoot black and white photography. Ira also gives practical advice to beginner photographers and talks about what is composition in photography.
This photography video is the second episode in our latest photography series of 2018, In Frame with Gorky M.
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In the first episode of this photography series, we spoke with wedding photographer Joseph Radhik. Joseph gave plenty of tips on the best camera settings for wedding photography, which lenses to use for wedding photography and also some very useful lighting tips. You can watch that video here:
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hello IRA welcome to GMAC studios and it's an honor and pleasure to have you here thank you it's pleasure to be here yes [Applause] [Applause] first question that everybody kind of wants to know is that where did photography start for you photography started for me while I was in high school it was a hobby that just kept growing and growing and growing I was supposed to eventually go to medical school and be a doctor but I was so in love with taking photos that I decided follow my heart and be a photographer I started working for a local newspaper and working with the local photographers that were older knew what they were doing was what taught me everything you are most you know renowned for doing about 30 plus assignments from that Geo so how did that happen how does one actually design their first do they approach you or do you approach them how does it work I knew I wanted to travel and do that kind of photography around the world and I needed to approach the National Geographic but you're not going to walk into the National Geographic and show them your pictures and impress them they've seen great pictures from all around the world from great photographers there's no way that you just walk in I knew somebody that worked there that got my foot in the door and I went in and I suggested a story to them a small story and they were willing to try me out now what was that first small story that he did the first small story I did was about protecting and saving the American Buffalo the bison and because it is it had been becoming extinct and they were the government was trying to breed these bison and you know populate the herd so that was the first story I did after that you have had some really really long assignments which have stood for days and months well after that yeah the assignment started coming in and back when I started we would do assignments that you know three four months at a time I'd be gone and what what's the longest as that time that he was spent on an assignment there was one story I worked on for about a year and a half it was a story I was doing on alright on early man the first modern humans so there was a lot of ground to cover a lot of places to go a lot of permissions to get okay and that was predominantly shot in which country I was shot around the world I had been I went to spend time in Africa I spent time in Australia I spent time in Israel I spent where else I did some caves in France and Spain so it was pretty much around the world when you find something you love that you want to do those are the kind of things that are usually more difficult to get money at if you want to go into banking or be an engineer you're gonna pay you but if you want to be an artist it's harder to find the money and it's not only now it's been that way when I started has it gotten tougher I think it I think it has gotten tougher because there are more people taking pictures there are more photos out there from people so the value of a photo has dropped too many people with these great cameras traveling and taking pictures and willing to give them away just to get published publishers are going why should I pay for it when I get it for free so being a cultural documentary and do you think that a demand for that has lessened I think the demand for in-depth stories has lessen because the world is now attuned to social media having you know instantaneous pictures get it up put it up on Facebook put it up on Instagram and serious in-depth photography's tougher to do there aren't as many magazines as there used to be so for me book publishing is a way to display my photos but even book publishing is tough it's my book just came out last week a book on looking at the culture of Cuba through sport baseball they love the sport there but it's tough getting a book published and usually if you're lucky enough to get it published you don't necessarily make money at it it's more of just for your heart you want that book published you want you want to feel you've got something on paper I'm living in a world of my images inside some computer screen getting prints and books published is special for me when you have taken exceptionally well to social media especially Instagram so how did that happen I mean did it take a mental kind of phillipe of for you the world isn't photography is totally changed and not just photography everything in the world has changed because of the digital age and I realized I didn't want to be a dinosaur I didn't want to be left behind dealing with my photography the way I did 20 years ago so with social media and all the other digital platforms I embraced it I thought okay let's make this work for me and I move forward in my life I don't want to look back on things I want to look forward I want to not hey this is what I used to do it's more about this is what I'm going to do when I'm taking pictures now I have to be careful because sometimes I do it does cross my mind well I want to shoot it and make it you know of the right size the right feel for Instagram but then I stopped and I realized well if I get a really nice image then it I can't use it for something else it's not the right style for something else I can't it's not gonna make a print I get torn at times so uh what was your typical gear like when you started shooting yeah when I was shooting these science archaeological stories with film I had to carry a lot of lights I remember going through airports with 1012 cases of equipment lighting equipment backgrounds all this growth gear arms reflectors it was a lot of equipment and now using digital and be able to pump up the ISO to a higher number I have to you know I can carry less light so I've always used Pro Photo gear and the new Profoto stuff is great they have small lights that I could work with that are transportable that are easy and I'm able to carry less equipment which is a blessing for me because those days of traveling with assistants and all this gear was you know always iffy getting the stuff on aeroplanes so the switch from film to digital and was it easy did you embrace it like you said you embrace the way the world is going do you feel nostalgic about it I switch from film to digital I think in about 2004 because that was a time when the cameras I thought were good enough but when I first switched I was nervous and I remember one of the first stories I was doing I had to go to Malaysia to photograph and I basically shot a digital but I also shot it with film that's how worried I was about it's already shot it on two cameras Hey and the initially yeah it's a little rough trying to make sure things are working developing a workflow but as things progressed I realized that digital was great you know I had multiple copies of my images so the drive went they were backed up I could email or send pictures around the world something with film I couldn't do with film they'd be worried about sending original transparencies out or getting dupes made of those transparencies and sending them FedEx somewhere and hoping they'd get there and then trying to get him back and worrying about them getting damaged so with digital it was once I got the rhythm it was fantastic no looking back no looking back I do what I do miss and I hadn't done it in a long time was working in black and white in the darkroom that stopped a long time ago and maybe someday I'll give it a shot again but you know the darkroom black and white making prints was pretty special [Applause] what's your typical kit now now that you have switched to a mirrorless how many lenses do you carry the world on your back or you just prefer going light and being agile on your feet well now that you know I'm using the mirrorless cameras in the Sun using the Sony's which are pretty small and the lightweight I try to carry less so I carry typically two maybe three bodies I have usually three zooms with me you know a wide zoom a mid-range zoom in a long zoom the Holy Trinity yeah because with digital you don't want to be changing lenses that much because of dust on the sensors so be besides those three basic zooms I usually carry one or two fast prime lenses 28 F 255 1/8 or an 85 1/8 those would be for more night shots or really low light situations I get into back in the days of shooting film I have and without zoom lenses I have 2 or 3 cameras around my neck because you need the different lenses with zooms most of my stuff's done between 24 and 105 millimeters I don't use extreme lenses unless I need an effect from the extreme lenses I'll use a long lens to blur out of background or I'll use a really wide lens if I'm just in a room where there's no space to back off quick comparison and you went on a 30 day trip to the Arctic oh that was a three months trip three months it was yeah the Arctic when I was young and just starting out yeah so compare this what you're carrying now to the kind of equipment that you carried then what was that you were carrying been back then I was using basic probably Nikon F or F twos I had probably three bodies maybe forward me and there were no zooms then so I I had I think a 28 millimeter 35 50 105 200 millimeter lens at one point I had some 21 millimeter lens that you could you had to flip the mirror up you put the lens in and you had a separate viewfinder and under those extreme circumstances do you feel you feel that you know I mean do you have the constant need to recharge batteries and right they didn't need recharging every day definitely so when I was shooting film especially when I was in the Arctic nothing had batteries in there everything was you know battery lists you know I hand wow my film you couldn't put a motor on because in the cold weather it would crack and for a meter I used a handheld selenium cell meter so there are no batteries and that one of the old ones of the little bulb in the front today so because in the cold weather your batteries are gonna die oh it was minus 40 minus 50 degrees what do you think makes for a good composition well to me there are two different kind of compositions that generally work the ones I like the best are layered compositions where I have something going on the foreground something going on a middle ground and then something going on in the background and those layers really tell the story but it's hard to do that you've got to take this practice it takes patience waiting for things to sort of move in and create it the other composition is the one where I think say wedding photographers and fashion photographers use where you've got just subject you're using a long lens and a wide aperture and just let let the background just go blurred and those are easy to do but I personally happier with the more complex compositions so that would mean shooting at high F values right to do those yeah I would to get foreground background spay well if it's daytime and there's a lot of light it's not a problem you give you at f/8 and usually I tend to shoot more with white or lenses anyway I like 28 millimeters a really good spot for me I know a lot of people like a 35 millimeter lens but with 28 I get more of a spread in my background it's a personal choice and so 28 millimeter lens at f/8 you're gonna have a lot of depth of field if you really want to be a good photographer if you really love photography you need to have personal projects because Commission work you can't be as creative you're under the thumb you're being told what to do by a client personal work is where all your creativity is and where you can try out new things develop a new style you're not worried about what's the client going to say so I think personal work personal projects are so important to do now when I look at some of the newer photographers the younger photographers today I sometimes get the feeling they're not going to work as hard I get this feeling that because of the digital images and because of what you could do in post-production a lot of people think I don't have to get it right now I'll just fix it later whereas I came from a generation of get it right in the camera and for me taking the picture making the picture being in the moment when that's happening is where I want to be I don't want to be spending my time in front of the computer screen that's not the joy of photography for me for me the joy of photography is being out there somewhere hearing the sounds that are happening smelling whatever is going on the wind blowing all that happening while I'm shooting those are the memories I want that's where I want to be with my imagery not at a computer in some post-production can you name three photographers have influenced your work or everybody should be aware of their work and look up to as idols heroes in terms of work I think every photographer looks up to different people different people have made influence in their life and there are classic photographers that have on Ray Cartier Bresson is one of the classic photographers that everyone looks up to is reportage his decisive moment was an important changing point in the world of photography when I started doing color it was Ernst oz the German photographer because he took color and he made imagery out of it using color and as an art form of itself and then there is some early Nat Geo photographers there was a guy who wind parks Bill Allard a friend of mine is a great photographer so these are people that you know I look up to you know young photographers get so caught up in so many different things I just want them to realize keep your life simple try to keep your photography uncomplicated and follow your passion hopefully if you follow the passion you know money you will follow because you need money to continue your work you need to survive so unless you have another source of money you can't be a photographer and be dirt poor you need to buy equipment you need your computers so the most important thing is be happy in your photography because if people come to you and they see you're not such a happy person and you're miserable as a photographer because you're not shooting what you want they're not gonna want to hire you so you've got to have that attitude that you're happy with your photography that you're doing what you want and hopefully a little little business sense and you may be able to survive being a white leopard may relief or even a tit lien you're playing nicely through the maybe a minor acting as a wildlife photographer up with two pairs of our image our exotic o2o come second teens h-hey monopoly whoa Oh Scotty aliciarojo double blind a McCoy be gentleman guy and I have goose mezzo mazaya or German a proper story Kirk a plan became a photo Joe Nickell uma [Applause] you