Background first; the subject can wait: Unusual advice from Nat Geo pro Ira Block
Hitting the road with a camera is the very definition of having a blast for a lot of photographers. But with the proliferation of cameras and accessible travel, the list of places that haven’t been shot—and shot well—by other photographers grows ever shorter. It can be a challenge to find new perspectives that captivate the eye and offer real insight instead of falling back on familiar tropes about a place or culture.
To get some advice on how to find fresh perspectives in new places, we turned to a master. Ira Block’s career in globe-trotting photography has spanned several decades and ranged from award-winning photojournalism to commercial work to cultural reportage for National Geographic.
Block spoke with us about his approach to composition, including a technique used by many pros that was news to most of the IR staff: Find your background, then wait for your subject. He also discussed his recent project photographing baseball in Cuba and how amateur photographers can develop the insights they need to return from their travels with a compelling body of work.
Aimee Baldridge: You find such interesting points of view for your photographs. Tell me about your approach to composition and how you think photographers can find compelling perspectives.
Ira Block: The things that make a great picture are the composition, the light, and the moment. I think the one you have the most control over is composition, and the one that can detract from your photo the most is composition. I try to be very careful with it, although I don’t make myself too crazy about it, because if your composition is always too perfect, sometimes the pictures look phony.
When I go out and shoot, I look for a background that’s going to work. A lot of times the background is what ruins people’s pictures. They may have an interesting moment happening, but in the back they’ve got a sign growing out of someone’s head or a fence or shrubbery. I try to find a background that fits the story I’m trying to tell and wait for things to happen in front of it.
Shadows of camels in the sand dunes of the Erg Chebbi in southeastern Morocco. Photographed with a Sony a7R and Sony FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* lens at ISO 400 with an f/4.0 aperture and 1/4000 second shutter speed. Photo © Ira Block.
I like shooting with a wider lens so I can have a subject big in my foreground and include the background. I think about working in layers: foreground, middle ground, background.
Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) temple enveloped in fog in upper Paro valley, Bhutan. Photographed with a Sony a7R and Sony FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* lens at ISO 400 with an f/5.6 aperture and 1/500 second shutter speed. Photo © Ira Block.
AB: Tell me about the middle ground. A lot of people don’t think in more than two layers when they’re photographing.
Ira Block: Two layers are typically what you work with. You have a foreground and a background. The middle ground is when you get really lucky and there’s some other thing happening. You have something in the foreground and you’ve got your background set and you’re working that situation, and something walks into the middle ground. Then you have a three-layered picture, which is more complex.
I’ve done it in landscapes where there’s something in the foreground and, say, a mountain range in the background. Then I’ll get something like a layer of fog in the middle ground.
An example with people is something I did when I was in Mongolia: In the foreground were two men carving up a goat for dinner. They were on the ground on a blanket, and there was a four-year-old kid standing there watching. In the background I had their yurts. The kid was almost another layer, but not quite.
But while they were preparing the goat, sometimes there were people going by in the middle ground. It had to be the right motion of the people going by. I’m very particular about people in a picture not being clumped up. If I’m doing something in the middle ground, it’s trying to get the people going by in a moment when they have a nice shape going on.
Nomadic family dressing a goat in Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve, 130 km (81 mi) southeast of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photographed with a Sony a7 II and Sony FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* lens at ISO 200 with an f/7.1 aperture and 1/400 second shutter speed. Photo © Ira Block.
AB: What makes a good or bad background?
Ira Block: A good background should be fairly simple, so it doesn’t distract from your main element, and it should do things that help pull the image together. Matching the perspective of the background and the perspective of your foreground is always something difficult. When people are first starting out in photography, they want to include a lot of information: “Oh, wow, this is happening in the foreground, and look at that in the background!” They put it all together, and the photo has good information, but it’s not a good photograph.
Musicians in the sand dunes of the Erg Chebbi desert in southeastern Morocco. Photographed with a Sony a7S and Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* lens at ISO 40,000 with an f/2.0 aperture and 1/60 second shutter speed. Photo © Ira Block.
AB: Because it’s not guiding your eye to anything?
Ira Block: Right, there are no lines that bring you in. I usually tell people starting out: Don’t jump into doing complex images. Do simple, one-dimensional images, do them well, and learn composition that way. Then once you get that down, you can start doing foreground/background relationships.
The other thing is that you have to learn about sizing. Sometimes the size of something in the foreground versus the background doesn’t look right. I look at things and go, “The person’s too big. I’ve got to make the person smaller.” Or: “I need to make the person bigger.” But when people do the foreground/background thing and don’t have experience, it usually doesn’t work successfully.
Teenager playing baseball on La Isla de la Juventud, Cuba. Photographed with a Sony a7S and Sony FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* lens at ISO 200 with an f/6.3 aperture and 1/200 second shutter speed. Photo © Ira Block.
AB: A lot of your shots are dead on to the background. Do you think about your angle or perspective on the background?
Ira Block: Usually what’s pleasing to me is to shoot it straight on if you have a background that has an intrinsic shape, like a doorway or window. But people will try to shoot it from the side, because they feel that doing it straight on isn’t being as creative. But when you shoot it from the side, the parallels get funny. I think 90 percent of the time you want to shoot things that have an intrinsic geometry straight on, because that’s how they were made to be seen.
Monks and monks' robes drying at the Gangtey Shedra in the Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan. Photographed with a Sony a7R and Sony FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* lens at ISO 160 with an f/5.6 aperture and 1/1000 second shutter speed. Photo © Ira Block.
AB: Tell me what you’re shooting with these days. What’s in your current kit?
Ira Block: I’ve switched to Sony’s mirrorless cameras, because they’re light and small. Besides the cameras being lighter weight, the files have incredible quality. They really look great. The skin tones look a lot better than in the files I was getting on my previous DSLR system, which I thought were going a little yellow/magenta-ish.
I basically use the a7S for low-light situations, because that’s incredible. I’ve shot at 50,000 ISO, and as long as your exposure is correct, you can get some really nice images with that. I have the a7 II, and I just got the a7R II. Every time they come out with a new camera, it seems better.
Belly dancers at the Comptoir Darna restaurant in Marrakech, Morocco. Photographed with a Sony a7S and Sony FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* lens at ISO 51,200 with an f/1.8 aperture and 1/100 second shutter speed. Photo © Ira Block.
AB: What are your favorite lenses?
Ira Block: I use a lot of the zooms because I’m out in bad conditions a lot, and when you’re changing lenses you have to worry about dust and crap getting on your sensor. So as much as I love prime lenses and how sharp they are, the 16-35mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm are my main kit.
And then I’ve got the 55mm f/1.8, which is a really sharp lens. I use that for low lighting. I’ve got the 28mm f/2.0, which is an inexpensive lens, but it’s small and surprisingly sharp. I like having a wide angle that’s pretty fast.
Naadam is a traditional Mongolian festival of three games: wrestling, horse racing, and archery. One of the tests of a rider's skills is picking up objects from the ground while the horse runs at full speed. In South Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Photographed with a Sony a7 II and Sony FE 70-200mm f/4 OSS lens at ISO 400 with an f/5.6 aperture and 1/2500 second shutter speed. Photo © Ira Block.
I just got the 90mm macro, because I shoot a lot of objects with macro when I'm working in museums, and I also like using it to get in close on faces.
Chances are, Sony isn't going to be making a tilt-shift lens soon, so I'll keep that from my old system. I’ll get a Metabones adapter for it, because I work with tilt-shift to control depth of field, like you would with a view camera.
Backstage at the Chinese Opera in Bangkok, Thailand. Photographed with a Sony a7R II and Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS lens at ISO 2500 with an f/2.8 aperture and 1/160 second shutter speed. Photo © Ira Block.
AB: How has using the smaller mirrorless cameras changed the way you shoot and the way people respond to you?
Ira Block: If I walk in with a big DSLR and a huge lens on that makes a lot of clicking noises, people are intimidated. The smaller system makes them feel a little more relaxed. And you can shoot with the Sonys on silent mode. You don’t even hear the clicking going on. Sometimes when people hear the click, they’ll go, “Oh, I blinked on that one.” They’re just aware that that’s the moment you shot. So sometimes I’ll shoot on that silent mode.
So, for sure the smaller cameras have made it easier to get closer to people and their weight factor means I can bring more lenses with me without killing my back, and have a little better choice of lenses that way.
Holy men at the Pashupatinath Temple on the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photographed with a Sony a7R and Sony FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* lens at ISO 250 with an f/5.6 aperture and 1/250 second shutter speed. Photo © Ira Block.
AB: You’ve been photographing baseball in Cuba recently. How did that project get started?
Ira Block: I’ve been to Cuba a lot of times. I think my first trip there was in 1997, for the Geographic. I went back again in 2001 and in 2012. While I was there, I noticed baseball all around me. I always liked baseball, but in the last few years in the U.S. I’ve become a pretty big baseball fan. So me becoming a baseball fan in the U.S. and going back to Cuba and noticing all that baseball going on gave me the idea that there was something to be done.
It was not about just the sport of baseball, but the cultural influence of baseball in Cuba. That first story that I did for the Geographic in 1997 was about the Spanish-American War and the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor. While I was researching that story about Cuba getting its independence from Spain, I read that the Spanish had wanted to make bullfighting the national sport of Cuba. The Cubans said, “No, we’re going to make our national sport baseball.” So this is a long-standing cultural tradition that’s been going on since they were trying to get their identity and freedom from Spain.
A player slides into home plate during a championship baseball game between the Matanzas and Isla de la Juventud teams, Cuba. Photographed with a Sony a7 II and Sony FE 70-200mm f/4 OSS lens at ISO 800 with an f/4.0 aperture and 1/1250 second shutter speed. Photo © Ira Block.
I was thinking about this about a year before Obama talked about opening up relations, but I knew that at some point relations would open up. I thought that once that happened, the sport would change in Cuba. The way I was looking at it was that baseball in Cuba was very pure. The pro guys were making 100 or 200 dollars a month. It wasn’t the big business it is in the United States and Japan and the other countries that play baseball. The idea was to get it while it was still pure.
You know, in the countryside, the kids are playing in fields and pastures. They don’t have a real bat. They have a good branch from a tree that they’re using. They have some semblance of a ball. They don’t have gloves, and they play barefoot. I’ve seen kids hitting crushed soda cans around. These kids don’t have Internet. They don’t have computers. They don’t have much. So sports is something they can do.
I grew up in the fifties as a kid in Brooklyn, without Internet, and television was three or four channels with rabbit ear antennas. I spent most of my time out on the street. We played stickball, stoopball, and what we used to call Chinese handball. So I’m sure there are a lot of points touching my childhood.
Kids playing a street ball game in central Havana, Cuba. Photographed with a Sony a7 II and Sony FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* lens at ISO 200 with an f/6.3 aperture and 1/800 second shutter speed. Photo © Ira Block.
AB: You’ve found a subject that reveals so much about people’s lives in Cuba. It’s also personally compelling to you and very topical. How do you think photographers can go about finding that kind of rich subject to explore when they travel to a foreign place?
Ira Block: You’ve got to be curious. If you go to a country and you just touch the surface—you read the guidebooks, you go to the iconic spots, you take a picture and you walk away—you’re not digging into anything. You also have to have the type of personality that lets you really reach people. I think many professional photographers who are doing editorial work are like that. I could walk into any place and make friends.
People want to show you around. They’re proud of what they do. If you’re a very serious advanced amateur photographer, look for something in the culture that people want to share with you. Once they share it, it opens up and its tentacles just go out into a lot of other things. It brings you other parts of the culture.
I’ll go into any town or village with my local assistant down in Cuba, and all I have to say to someone is, “Hey, where do they play baseball around here?” So, for the average person—say you’re interested in pottery and you go to an area that’s rich in that. You can ask, “Where do your famous potters work?” That brings you in and gets you beyond being a tourist. You’re just hooked right up. It’s not like you’re asking, “Where do they hide the nuclear missiles?”
A player on the baseball team La Isla de la Juventud talks with a young fan in the dugout before a game. Photographed with a Sony a7 II and Sony FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* lens at ISO 500 with an f/5.6 aperture and 1/400 second shutter speed. Photo © Ira Block.
AB: So many people are directed by their phones now. Do you think that’s changed the way people photograph?
Ira Block: When I started shooting pictures and traveling around the world for magazines in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there were no cell phones. There was no Internet to do research. You had maps. You stopped and spoke with people. When you speak with people to get directions and find things out, there’s a possibility that it’s going to open up into something else. When you’re stuck looking at your phone, you stop interacting with people. If you’re just interacting with Siri, what are you going to learn?
Baseball fan going to a championship game in Cuba. Photographed with a Sony a7 II and Sony FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* lens at ISO 400 with an f/5.6 aperture and 1/400 second shutter speed. Photo © Ira Block.
AB: Do you think it’s a good travel photography technique to leave your phone in the hotel room for a day?
Ira Block: I would go into withdrawal! But it’s a good technique, even if you have your phone, to stop in to a coffee shop or cafe or sit in the town plaza and meet people and ask them directions and not depend on reading your online guidebook that says, “There’s a great place here.”
In Cuba there’s no Internet access. We make phone calls. We have to go physically see people. There have been a number of days when I’ve been on wild goose chases where I spent almost a full day driving, going to see one guy who says, “Oh, no, it’s not me. You need to go and see this other guy and he lives there.” Then I try to find where he lives and find out he’s not the right guy. I’d say on all of my trips there have been about four days that were just wasted.
But the thing is that on these wild goose chases, sometimes I pick up some other information that I’m going to use for something else, or another part of my baseball project. It’s that thing that you can’t get on the Internet: happenstance. In the process I’ve found things that are pertinent to my project that I wouldn’t have found otherwise.
Apartment building outside of Havana, Cuba. Photographed with a Sony a7 II and Sony FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* lens at ISO 400 with an f/7.1 aperture and 1/125 second shutter speed. Photo © Ira Block.
AB: Is it useful for people to give themselves an assignment when they travel if they want to come back with an interesting body of work?
Ira Block: There are two types of pictures you can take when you’re traveling, if you’re not a professional on assignment. First, do the pictures that record where you’ve been and try to do that well. Think about composition and light and the moment. And then give yourself a specific project that will focus you in on something going on.
You really need to do both. The idea is that if you’re going to go halfway around the world, you’ll still want to show the iconic images of the place. You’ll be showing pictures to your friends and they’ll say, “Oh, you were in Paris? Where’s your picture of the Eiffel Tower?” And you’ll say, “Well, I was working on a project on Muslim immigrants there.” And they’ll say, “Yeah, but where’s the Eiffel Tower?” What I suggest is that people get it out of their system and get some pictures to record where they’ve been first.
I’m also a big advocate of the fact that just shooting pictures is important to the average person, because usually their camera is put away for a certain length of time and they take it out and they don’t know where their fingers go. They’re not as familiar with the buttons. If you go out and just start shooting average stuff when you get somewhere, it’s getting you back in the rhythm of being a photographer.
If you’re a baseball player, you don’t just step into the batter’s box and swing. You’ve been warming up and practicing. You’re used to the ball being thrown at you. I’ll get into a situation that has potential to be something good, and I’ll just start shooting, even though I know I’m not making any good pictures yet. But if something happens, I’m ready.
Players on the Industriales de la Habana baseball team during batting practice at Estadio Cristóbal Labra, Isla de la Juventud, Cuba. Photographed with a Sony a7 II and Sony FE 16-35mm f/4.0 ZA OSS Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* lens at ISO 250 with an f/7.1 aperture and 1/1000 second shutter speed. Photo © Ira Block.
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