Having grown up around cameras – his father U Tin Yu being the pioneer of colour feature films in Myanmar – Zaw Min Yu acquired a passion and skill for photography at a young age. Now a professional photographer for the last 40 years, his talent has earned him clients around the globe in the fields of commercial, travel, documentary and editorial photography to name but a few. For our January issue, Marie Starr interviews Zaw Min Yu for his valuable insights and photography advice.
For travel photography, I usually take my car and try to leave for my location as early as possible – typically around 4am – so I can get some sunrise shots along the way.
Beforehand, I find out from locals living in the area which place and time is best to catch the sunrise. For instance if I go to Bagan, I call my photographer friends and they can tell me— depending on which time of the year it is – which pagoda or area is best to go to for photographing at sunrise.
Bagan is my favourite spot. I like going there right after the rainy season because everything is still green. The look of a feature or location can change totally at different stages of the day.
In Bagan, the Minnanthu area is great—especially in the late afternoon sun though it looks totally different at other times of the day.
I’m using Canon 5D III and IV with lenses to cover 16mm all the way to 300mm—that’s 16-35mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm and 28-300mm. I tend to carry three camera bodies each with a different lens. I don’t change the lenses, I just match the bodies with the right lens. This is because they are very dust sensitive and this can be very risky, especially in places like Bagan. It’s not easy to have as sensor cleaned here. You have to send it away to Singapore and it takes time and costs money, so avoid it.
I recently bought a Fujifilm XT2. I added a vertical booster to it—I have them on all my cameras because when you’re using a big lens a small camera can become unbalanced. Also, with the booster, you can shoot 16 frames per second which may be essential for some types of photography. In my XT2 I have one battery in the body and two in the booster so I really don’t have to worry about power. For my Fujifilm cameras, I have lenses to range from 15mm to 300mm.
Most of the time foreigners ask me about the ethics of photography in Myanmar and if it’s okay to photograph people. You should ask for their permission. Sometimes even us Myanmar people need to ask permission first. Sometimes they don’t mind. Most of the time though, when I am making lifestyle photographs with people, I use telephoto lenses so they don’t even know that I’m taking the photo. You can really get genuine lifestyle shots that way.
I strongly disagree with photography set-ups where photographers get a monk or nun to stand in a certain place and read a book – those are not real life, it’s not real photography. People who I have been teaching have been claiming that photography competition judges don’t choose photos without this kind of set up. I told that photographer that if you were going to compete in something I was a judge in, if you were to set up the scene or if you had altered the saturation, you would get a zero. An important message that I want to relay is that travel photographers tend to saturate too much. They tend to use Photoshop and the result is that the green is too green…the photos are too red or too orange.
Coming from a film era, I tend to use Photoshop as I would work in the darkroom. I don’t manipulate photos. If you manipulate too much it’s not a photograph anymore—it’s a photo illustration and you are not a photographer, you are a photo illustrator. I am a photographer and I want to remain a photographer.
What really stops me and makes me take a photo is the light. I think about the light in every scene. The original meaning of the verb ‘photograph’ is, ‘to paint or to write with light.’ If you take a photo at night without light, the photo will be a black screen so that shows you how important the light is to your photo.
For example, when you’re photographing in a market you need two cameras – 24-70mm and 70-200mm. Just before entering the market I change the ISO to 400 because I know the market is going to be dark. I also like to shoot with a very narrow depth of field: f2.8 or up to a maximum of f5.6. Then I look. I’m always looking .If I see what I like then I make the photo
A lot people take what I call, “yeah right, so what?” photographs. If there’s nothing interesting in the photograph – if it’s just a Ngapali sunset with nothing interesting as a subject—the viewer is just thinking, ‘yeah right, so what?”