How I Made It: The Story Behind Ira Block’s Photo of Myanmar

Photo of Myanmar by Ira Block

Photographer and educator Ira Block recently shared the above photo he shot a few years ago in Myanmar on his social media pages the day after the country’s military staged a coup and arrested a large number of pro-democracy leaders including Myanmar’s president Aung San Suu Kyi. We wanted to learn more about the image and how Block captured it, so he agreed to answer a few questions about the photo, which reflects a more peaceful time in Myanmar (also known as Burma).

Editor’s Note: This is the first in our new “How I Made It” series where we interview photographers on the story behind one of their images.

Q: What is the story behind this image?

Ira Block: I was in Bagan, Myanmar, the ancient capital of Burma a few year ago. During the kingdom’s height between the 9th and 11th centuries, there were over 10,000 temples in the area. Now there are only about 2000 temples remaining in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was looking to do a photo that would show the mixture of cultures – the old Burma culture and the new tourism – the temples contrasting the balloon rides for tourists.

Q: What sort of logistics were involved in trying to capture it, in terms of travel, location scouting, timing etc.?

Ira Block: Logistically I needed to find a location that combined both of these old and new concepts. I knew that the balloons went aloft early in the mornings and that the prevailing winds north to south usually carried them in one direction. From the west I could get the sun rising behind the balloons. The tricky part was finding temples for the foreground. It’s always important to find the location before going out to do a sunrise photo as you are working out of darkness and need to be setup in the right location before the sun rises. After much searching, I found the right location to put all the elements together. I especially liked the shape of the temples being similar to that of the balloons.

Q: Can you share some technical details about the photo? What type of gear did you use – camera, lens etc. – and what were your settings? Is it straight out of the camera or was there some post-processing work on it?

Ira Block: This was shot a few years ago; I was using the Sony a7r II camera with the Sony 70-200mm f/4 lens. At the time, this equipment was ‘state of the art’; a lot has changed since then.

I was shooting at 70mm, 1/320 sec, f/8 at ISO 200. I was shooting on a tripod, as it was fairly dark when I started. I exposed for the area just outside the sun – that usually gives me the best exposure – though I did bracket a stop on either side. Of course, I was also waiting for a balloon to pass through the sun to give an added dimension to the image. The early morning fog and smoke from cooking fires also helped the feel of this image. We did a bit of post processing, controlling the highlights, shadows and color balance.

Q: What was the greatest challenge with this shot?

Ira Block: Finding the right location was the biggest challenge for me. Also, I was getting around on a bike carrying my equipment and a tripod on sandy roads where I did not have much control. It was especially treacherous when I left at 4:30am maneuvering in the dark! Technically doing photos with the sun is fairly easy once you understand how to read the light.

Q: How do you feel about looking at the photo now considering the current unrest in Myanmar after the military coup?

Ira Block: I thought of this photo and my friends in Myanmar when I heard the news on Monday about the military coup. I have been to Myanmar four times in the last few years and really love the people and the culture. Communications is difficult at the moment, and I can only hope for everyone’s safety.

You can see more of Block’s work on his website and Instagram page.

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