Interview with photographer Palani Mohan
First published 23rd January, 2011
Palani Mohan is an Indian-born Australian photographer who has lived and worked in Asia for more than a decade. Now based in Kuala Lumpur, he is represented by Getty and has photographed for National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, Geo, New York Times and Stern.
You've travelled all over the world taking photos. What has been your favourite job?
That's such a hard one. But they're the jobs I can spend driving from point A to point B, letting serendipity take its course -- like the job I've just done for National Geographic in Tasmania, in search of the cleanest air in the world. Right now, that's my favourite, I feel so good about it.
And the most challenging?
When I was working for a newspaper in Sydney, doing death knocks was the most challenging. And jobs in Africa, when you're confronted with poverty and suffering.They are the hardest ones to do.
One of the focuses of your work has been elephants. (Vanishing Giants - Elephants of Asia was published in 2007 by Editions Didier Millet.) Can you tell us a bit about how that came to be?
It started when I did a book on India, which had one chapter about an elephant camp in South India. Soon after that we moved to Thailand and it seemed that elephants were all around us– they were on the streets, in restaurants, and their logos were used for spas, for hotels, beer. We in Asia haven't really decided whether we love or hate elephants... So the whole project started from a couple of stories for Time, which became a book over the next five years. (Vanishing Giants - Elephants of Asia)
Will you keep photographing elephants?
Definitely. I love them and will keep photographing them. You just don't stop – they're a pleasure to spend time with and it's not just about the animals, there's a whole society that goes along with them in Southeast Asia.
Would you say the digital revolution has helped or hindered your work?
In a lot of ways it has helped. It's easier – you can take more photographs – but it's also more challenging. There is a big tendency to just want to do it on the computer, but the challenge is to stay true to the reason you started taking photos and take the shot on your camera.
Nikon, Canon or ahhhh Apple? What do you shoot?
Canon and Apple. I use the Canon 5DMK11 and Macbook Pro.
You're a recent iPhone camera convert?
I love taking photos on my iPhone and using the apps, the whole creative process. You can take cool images. Basically on holidays, it's the only camera I take with me – and I've done two assignments on the iPhone.
Any apps you recommend?
Hipstamatic. There are so many lenses and effects. I've been using it non-stop for almost a year and I'm not bored with it. The whole thing about it is you just don't know what you're going to get, like cameras in the 1930s and 40s. It's fun, creative, easy to use – it takes photography to the next level. I would suggest that unless something better comes along.
Are amateur photographers wasting their money buying a semi-professional DSLR? Are they better off just buying a point and shoot?
It all depends on how much money they have. For $2,000, there are cameras on the market that sit between point and shoot and semi-professional. It really depends on what you want to spend and how serious you are.
If someone was going on a Southeast Asian backpacking trip and could buy a single camera to take with them, what would you recommend to them?
I would stick to Canon or Nikon: EOS 60D or 7D in Canon and D90 orD300 in Nikon. For $2,000 you can get something really quite good. But it depends – as long as you are looking at the same brands and spending about the same across them you can't really go wrong.
Tripod while backpacking - yes or no?
Yes. You can get really cool small ones that are super light and definitely always a good idea. If you don't put a camera on it you can always stick a torch on it.
How many lenses did you take with you on your National Geographic assignment? What were they?
24mm 1.4, which is a wide-angle, 24-70mm 2.8, 70-200mm 2.8.
Many amateur photographers struggle taking photos of people. What advice do you have?
Don't be shy. Ask people, although a lot of the time I don't, because if you ask you miss the moment. It's not easy, because you don't want to offend people, but if you walk up to people, smiling and making eye contact, then especially in Southeast Asia people are very receptive to having their photograph taken. It's all about building confidence – once you done it a thousand times, it becomes easier. But just go, do it, or you'll regret it.
When should you ask before taking a photo?
This is a really difficult thing. If you ask people, a lot of the time you'll miss the photo. If I'm taking a photo in a public place, I will normally just take the photo unless I think it will offend. It's extremely unlikely in Southeast Asia if you are polite, you make a show of the niceties, and smile, that you will offend.
What mistakes do you most commonly see people making when taking their holiday snaps?
Taking lots of photos just because they can with a big memory card. And just “snapping it” – rather than taking time to get the shot, thinking about whether you should walk closer, get a different angle, lay on the ground. It's about putting in the extra effort.
If you could give a first-time traveller 3 tips for taking good photos, what would they be?
One: Slow down. Two: Think about what you want to shoot and why and move around to find the best angle. Three: Come up with a photo that no one has taken before. Angkor Wat has been photographed a billion times, so it's about thinking of a different shot, trying to make it interesting.
What software do you consider indispensable?
Photoshop, but you need to be careful not to get too carried away with it. You've got to take the shot on the camera rather than try to do it on the Mac and in Photoshop. Correcting it too much is more digital art than photography.
What are some of your favourite places to take photos in Southeast Asia?
Laos and Cambodia, because there are some places in those countries that haven't been corrupted by tourism and lots of people the way somewhere like say Phuket in Thailand has – especially Laos on the Mekong, where daily life goes on today pretty much as it has done for a long time.
Taking photos in the morning and afternoon can be a breeze lightwise compared to the middle of the day. What advice do you have if you have to take that snap of Angkor Wat at midday?
The light is going to be horrible outside, so think about the light in the shadow; maybe you can get a shot of a woman praying inside the temple, in the shade. Basically, try to go inside. Always try to be creative about it – somewhere there is going to be good light, you just have to find it.
Do you take photos when you go on holidays?
Yes, all the time, on my iPhone. On my last holiday I took about 500-600 shots over about five days.
Through 2011, every Monday we'll feature an interview with a person working in the travel, tourism and hospitality industries across Southeast Asia. From masseuses to restaurateurs, princesses to paupers, we aim to bring a diverse range of voices here to Travelfish.org to shed some insight into travel in the region or the region itself.
Related readingSoul to soul with Bangkok's Jarrett Wrisley
Watching out for the future of Cambodia's past
Elephant trekking in Laos
Read 1 comment(s)
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (12)
- All stories
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (8)
- Cambodia (22)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Indonesia (13)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (16)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- Malaysia (7)
- Singapore (9)
- Thailand (73)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 31 Thai islands
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (31)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (21)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The best places to stay on Ko Chang, Thailand
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (15)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (16)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.