Interview with photographer Palani Mohan

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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.

Photo by Palani Mohan.

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.

Photo by Palani Mohan.

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.

Photo by Palani Mohan.

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 to shed some insight into travel in the region or the region itself.

About the author:
Samantha Brown is a reformed news reporter. She now edits most of the stuff you read on, except for when you find a typo, and then that's something she wasn't allowed to look at.

Read 1 comment(s)

  • Great interview. Palani takes some amazing photos and it's great to be able to hear a bit more about how he goes about them.

    Posted by Magda on 24th January, 2011

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