“A contestant in a local Mongolian Naadam Festival tries his skill at picking up some small bones while his horse is running at a full gallop,” writes photographer Ira Block. “This festival was in the South Gobi Desert where locals competed in the traditional Mongolian games of archery, wrestling and horse skills. The contestant that picks up the most objects wins and can move on to the national festival in Ulaanbaatar. I used a Sony a7 II and a 70-200mm G lens to capture the image. The focus was locked on Flexible Spot, which followed the action throughout the ride.”
As a globetrotting photographer for more than three decades, Ira Block has gone on assignment from Istanbul to Mongolia, from Cuba to Japan. A longtime National Geographic shooter, he has a distinct advantage over most photographers: He’s able to make return trips to a destination in order to gain a deeper knowledge and fuller portfolio. That was the case in recent years when he turned his intense focus to the sport of baseball and its importance to the people of Cuba.
“I spent close to three years and made about six or seven trips to Cuba,” says Block of his fascination with the island. “That was on the big side, because I wanted to cover the whole country. One of the things in a situation like that is, the first trip or two, you’re just getting there and getting a feel of what the subject’s like. It’s information-gathering. Where else can I go, where is this going on, when is this happening? Then after that, you can start plotting out what you want to do now. Knowing I had time I was able to plot out more; I was able to figure out, okay, on my next trip I’ll go to this region, and after that I’ll go to this other region, and then the last trip is, what am I missing? What do I need to really complete this? That’s a luxury, to be able to do that. Most times I’ll make two trips to a place, and your first trip, you kind of get what you think you need, you get it moving, and then the second trip, usually you’re able to start really putting things together and getting a feel for the story. Because as much research as you’d think you can do online, there’s so much you can find out on places, but until you get there, until you’re right there, you never really know what it’s like, what things feel like, how things go.”
Block says that every job is so different that it’s hard to standardize any aspect of the process, but he has developed his own kind of shorthand that helps him be more effective when it counts. One thing that always helps, he says, is to pay attention to the background. That’s not only to simplify it, as young photographers are taught on day one, but hopefully to let it add to the story he’s trying to tell.
“It’s complex,” he says, “because it could hurt you or it could help you. The way you look at it is if you have something happening in front of you that’s interesting, and the background is bad, it detracts from it. In that case, I’d rather have just a simple, plain background and the foreground is going to stand out. That being said, if you find a background that actually adds information, and it works photographically and compositionally, then by combining the foreground and the background you get a much deeper picture. It just depends on what it looks like when you’re shooting, what the circumstances are. If you can expand your background and make it work into your composition and give more information, that’s terrific. But if you’re in a situation where the background is not going to be helping you but hurting you, then just keep it simple.
JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY: BASEBALL AND CUBA. “That’s always a tough thing because you do get preconceived notions, and then you become disappointed when you can’t fill those. For instance, when I was doing the baseball thing in Cuba, I thought to myself, ‘I need a real personal picture of some kid in his bedroom with trophies or posters of ballplayers.’ That was in my mind: getting memorabilia or something in somebody’s home. And I continually was looking for it, but I could never find it. Because there just isn’t a lot of memorabilia in Cuba. Now, if you’re in the U.S., you could find it. I had this notion from living here in the U.S. about how things are, and I was trying to carry that into Cuba, and it just didn’t work. Having preconceived notions sometimes gives you a template, but other times it can be very frustrating.”
“It takes training your brain, your eye,” he says. “They have to get trained to be able to put a moment that’s happening together with a background and make it all work as a great image. Being a photographer, you have to train yourself to see. You have to train yourself to see what the camera sees, not what your mind and eyes see. Because what your mind and eye see, you can isolate things, you can focus on certain things, so you have to learn how to look at things and be able to interpret what the camera is going to make of it. And that’s the hardest thing because the cameras can do a lot of stuff now. Ninety percent of the time the camera is going to get your exposure right, it’s going to get your focus right, and a lot of people believe so much in that camera that they stop thinking. They say, well, the camera’s doing it all, I don’t have to think that much. But you still have to see the picture, point the camera in the right place, look at the composition, wait for the moment. You literally can’t just point and shoot. Although you’ll get a good exposure and you’ll get good focus, you still have to make the image yourself.
“When you do find something that’s working,” Block says, “stick with it. I’d rather have four or five really great images from a situation than 100 mediocre pictures. And I think a lot of people feel that when they go out with their camera, they’ve got to just shoot as much as they can. They shoot a lot, and, yeah, that’s a good type of record imagery, but it’s not making a good photo. Anyone can go out with the cameras nowadays and shoot a lot of mediocre photos, where everything is in focus, everything is pretty well exposed, but it’s not interesting. The camera will get it right, get the exposure right, 90 percent or 95 percent of the time. But it’s that 5 percent of light that’s really tricky that the camera can’t get right that usually makes the better picture. And that’s when your mind has to go to work.”
Block himself travels with a Sony a7R II. He loves that the small size makes travel a bit easier, but it’s the ability to blend in that gives him a distinct advantage. [Editor’s Note: Ira Block recently shot with the Sony a9; read about his experience with the camera and see sample images.]
“They have made me blend in more like a tourist,” he says. “And that’s what I’m trying to achieve a lot of times: not coming in looking like a large production. Besides scrutiny and security, you also lose a lot of spontaneity of what’s going on, and people get a little more nervous. I don’t want to draw too much attention to myself, because that will ruin the environment and what’s going on—the natural things that are happening. You come in with big equipment and stuff, and it changes the whole feel of what you’re shooting. I’m trying to be stealth when I’m out there and move around and not draw so much attention to myself. So I usually go out with one body and a lens on the body, and maybe another lens or two in my backpack if I need something later on.
“I know a lot of photographers like the 35mm lens,” he says, “for that foreground-background relationship. For me, for some reason, I like the 28mm lens. It just expands the background a little bit more for me, and it’s just how I see and how I like to work with things. So, traditionally, my main lens when I’m out is the 24-70mm. That just does a lot of stuff for me. And one of the things is that as much as I love prime lenses, when you’re out running around, you don’t want to be changing lenses because you get dust inside the sensor, so that’s why the zoom tends to work for me. Now, when I’m walking around in the evening and it’s getting a little darker, I tend to carry the 28mm ƒ/2.0 because it’s a fast lens, it’s a smaller lens, so it’s not a big lens in someone’s face. I know Sony’s got a great 35mm ƒ/1.4, but for me it’s a bigger lens, and also that length just personally doesn’t work for me. I don’t usually shoot with really long lenses unless I need it for an effect—compression or just totally knocking backgrounds out. The 24-70 and the 70-200 are good combinations for me.
“When I’m being really light,” Block continues, “I’ve got the Sony a6500. If I want to keep the small profile with that camera, I usually have the 20mm ƒ/2.8 lens on it, which is equivalent to a 30mm, and that’s my length, that’s my sweet spot, 28mm, 30mm. That’s a pancake lens, so that’s a great little small package. And then when I’m really working, I’ve got the a7R II with the 24-70mm ƒ/2.8 G Master because it’s a little bigger lens, but being able to shoot at ƒ/2.8 means I can throw backgrounds out of focus, I have a little more control, and I can shoot obviously in darker situations and keep my shutter speed up.
“That’s another thing I always tell people,” says Block. “With cameras now, don’t be afraid to raise your ISO. I get people shooting at a 30th of a second at ISO 200 of people moving. And I’m saying, 1/30th of a second? What are you doing? If your picture is blurred because of movement, it’s gone anyway. You’ve got to toss it. I’d rather have a picture with some noise at 3200 ISO or 6400 ISO, and the noise now is really well controlled. In Lightroom, you can knock that noise down. Would you rather have a beautiful image at 200 ISO that’s blurred? Then what do you do with it? It’s gone. Boost your ISO up; don’t be afraid. Keep your shutter speed high, because things move. Image stabilization only stabilizes you. Some people actually believe it’s going to stabilize the other image, the person moving. And even if you were doing portraits, when people are moving their head while they’re speaking, at 1/125th you’re going to get blur. Get it sharp and get it in focus, and no motion, and then worry about noise. You can have great depth of field, but if your subject is blurred, the picture is gone.”
Block takes his technique very seriously, but it’s the travel and exploration the camera affords that most interests him. These days, he says, he’s looking for positive subjects, preferring to contribute to the good in the world rather than focusing on the bad.
“It really is hard to find projects that are worthy,” Block says, “or that can expand into some in-depth type of coverage. And I’m trying to find positive projects, because there are so many negative things in the world. You read the newspaper, you watch TV, or you get it on the Twitter feed. However you get information and news, it’s depressing. And there are a lot of photographers already out there drawn to cover these depressing subjects, and, for me, I’ve been there, done that. And right now I’m feeling that I just want to do things that show good and show positive things happening on the planet. And that’s tough to find. You have to dig through all this mess to get to something like that.
“For me,” he adds, “that’s the most exciting thing: going to new places and new cultures. For all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve just been so lucky to be able to travel and meet incredible people, look at incredible cultures, and it has enriched my life. And it becomes almost an addiction. I don’t want to stop. I don’t want to stay home and do things here; I want to go and look at a culture I haven’t been exposed to. I want to go out and meet new people and see how they live. Because all that, it just opens up your mind, and you just become a better person. You meet fantastic people who are nothing like you, nothing like any of your friends, yet they’re smart in their own way, they’re intellectual in their own way. It’s just a different perspective on life that they have based on where they live and what they do and what their culture has been like.
“The thing is,” Block adds, “I’m more excited and more involved with my photography now than I ever was. Maybe it’s because I’ve gotten smarter about it, I know more, I have a better perspective, I’m more focused on what I want to do. And also, the equipment has changed so much. I can do things that I couldn’t do when I was shooting with film and shooting 64 ISO and the big number would be 200. Now I start shooting at 200, and I can shoot situations and parts of stories and documentary, things I’m doing that I could never have done in the past. And I can tell my stories more because of the equipment. That’s very exciting. Hey, my life is good now. I’m picking and choosing what I like, what I want to do, where I think I can grow more, learn more, and where people can grow and learn from my photos.”