I love solo travel but that doesn’t always mean that I am necessarily alone. The more interested I become in photography, the more I enjoy taking small photo tours/workshops to explore my wish list destinations.
The Benefits are Threefold
1. I discover a new place.
2. I improve my photographic skills by learning from professionals whose work I admire.
3. I meet people who enjoy photography as much as I.
My recent visit to western Mongolia was with a workshop led by Timothy Allen.
I love Tim’s work, in particular, his environmental portraits and use of single-source light. His images have won many awards and been in countless prestigious publications, and he was named Travel Photographer of the Year in 2013.
When I learned about his workshops in Mongolia, I immediately wanted to go. His itinerary promised not only photojournalistic opportunities but staged shots he would arrange to teach us how he creates his signature portraits.
Our subjects would be the famed Kazakh golden eagle hunters—men who still practice the centuries-old tradition of using eagles to hunt animals for their pelts and who Tim has befriended over the last ten years.
(There are under 100 legitimate eagle hunters left in Mongolia, and it’s conceivable that in a few generations, the tradition will fade into obscurity as more young people abandon the culture’s nomadic life to live in the cities.)
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Since it was July and the middle of the summer and eagle hunters only hunt during the winter when an animal’s fur is at its thickest, our subjects donned their traditional garb out of season at Tim’s request. It was a new experience for me. I’d never photographed a setup shot before, and I was curious to see how it would work.
Our first shoot was with Saylau, an elderly eagle hunter with a stately air, piercing eyes, and an impressive goatee. His wife Sayna was slight and reserved but very sweet. She sat with him for a while and then left him to sit alone with his striking 3-year-old golden eagle.
A few days later, we photographed Shohan, a handsome, somewhat famous eagle hunter whose family we camped near and hung out with the last four days of our two-week adventure.
On Set with Timothy Allen
A ger makes a wonderful photographic studio. A canvas flap over a hole in the roof can be adjusted to let in more or less light. If you cover it all the way, the door becomes the only source of illumination and that’s exactly what we were after.
The inside of a Saylau’s ger was rich with eye candy. Handmade tapestries in red, orange, and yellow draped every inch of the circular one-room home. There were saddles stacked in a corner, animal pelts, wrought iron beds, and a wood-burning stove. A visual slice of life so completely different from our own and a perfect backdrop for our portraits.
With Saylau and his wife, I used my wide-angle lens (16-35mm, f2.8), allowing the elements in the room to frame the couple and provide context. We propped the door of the ger half open, letting the light fall on the duo from the side in a luminous glow. We were lucky, it was a cloudy day and it was relatively soft and diffused. The key was to expose for the highlights, the brightest areas within the frame so that they weren’t blown out, then, if necessary, we could bring the darker shadows up during the editing process.
Tim encouraged us to explore various angles to see how the light fell on their faces as we moved around them, and the difference in look and feel each perspective produced. We shot straight on, from the side and directly opposite the light, catching the two in profile.
The most difficult part of the shoot was working in a relatively small space with eight photographers and Tim while navigating around the stove which stood smack dab in the center of the room and was blazing hot. At times I would see something I wanted but before I could snap the shutter another photographer would snag their attention and the moment was lost. Everyone did their best not to step on each others’ toes but it was frustrating.
Shooting the same subject as a group is never ideal but it was a great opportunity for experimentation and making use of Tim’s guidance and feedback. I reminded myself that if I ended up with a great shot, wonderful. If not, there was still a lot of value in the exercise.
Next, we photographed Saylau and his eagle. The challenge was capturing both Saylau and his bird looking great at the same time and keeping both in focus. I wanted to shoot with a shallow depth of field (f2.8) so that he stood out against the blur of the background, making focusing even more problematic. I enjoyed the challenge, intermittent frustrations and all. Plus, the wildlife lover in me got a huge kick out of being so close to a golden eagle.
Round two was a couple of days later with Shohan inside another ger which gave us a chance to practice all that we’d learned shooting Saylau.
The ger we used for Shohan had been set up the day before and was empty, giving us more room to maneuver (no stove!) but also meant we needed to dress the ger so that we would have a proper setting in which to plug-in our eagle hunter. We borrowed tapestries, animal pelts, saddles, whips, and bridals from the family to recreate a small part of the Kazakh gers we’d seen during our travels. With Tim acting as our creative director, we all pitched in to create the scene.
When we had everything where we wanted, one of Shohan’s daughters appeared wearing a winter fur coat and hat. She had beautiful almond eyes, perfect skin, and cherry red lips. Surprise! We had another subject to dote on and she became our first shot of the day. She was wonderful. For such a young girl ( I believe she was 11) she sat with quiet grace—though she had eight cameras pointing at her—and looked from lens to lens like a pro.
When Shohan arrived, he wore a magnificent wolf fur coat that had to weigh at least 15 lbs and a mixed fur hat that echoed his daughters’. Though relatively short, I’m guessing 5’7″, Shohan had a powerful aura about him that made him seem taller. His resting face was serious which gave him a warrior vibe, but when he smiled (and he did so a lot) it evaporated, leaving a brilliant smile in its wake that lit up the room. Pulling the look together was his very cheeky golden eagle that kept trying to fly out of the room.
Because Shohan’s feathered friend was so feisty, Tim suggested that we might want to minimize the risk of a bad picture by shooting at f8—meaning our images would have a greater depth of field. If the eagle moved a few inches in front of or behind Shohan, both of our subjects would still be in focus.
Our last set up, which was completely different, was on location in a beautiful valley a few miles away from camp with a lovely river snaking through the mountains that rose up on either side. We started on the valley floor photographing Shohan on his horse racing around a herd of grazing cows. Then we climbed 400-500 ft up one of the mountains so that we could place the majesty of the countryside behind in the frame. Shohan looked fabulous (and was incredibly patient) as he posed for over an hour and a half at our behest.
I’m a voracious learner when it comes to something I’m passionate about, some might say obsessive. Like most people today, I want instant gratification and if not instant, at least as fast as I can get it. I found that I just learn better when I can ask questions in the moment. When someone can see what I’m trying to achieve and help me get there. It’s that simple. And what better way place to do it than in an incredibly exotic foreign country?
It’s been a few weeks since my return from Mongolia and I am pretty happy with the images I took that day. More important, I learned a lot.
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144 thoughts on “Low Light Photography in Mongolia with Timothy Allen”
C’est tellement beau que je croie y être. j’ai partagé vos photos. Merci.
It’s so beautiful,,,,
fab photos. I’m fresh back from a trip to mongolia and your work makes me want to go back and try harder!
That’s very kind of you to let me know my work inspired you in some way. Where in Mongolia did you travel?
Took the train from beijing to ulaanbaatar and then joined an organised trip with a company called dragoman up to lake khuvsgul and back. a fascinating country. would like to go back and take a little more time traveling independently.
New follower here. Started to like your writing it is straight to the point, informative and the photos bring life to your stories. I am very inspired.
I absolutely love the light in those photos! It seems to paint the image and resembles a painting more than a photograph. The Mongolian people are so interesting. I imagine that experience was incredible. Love your blog. ~Anna
I agree, the light in the gers was just beautiful. I kept saying to myself that if I ever invested in a studio I wanted it to be a ger. Though I doubt that would be easy in New York City. LOL .. So glad you love the blog. Welcome, and I hope you return. S
Very striking pictures, beautiful light. And it strikes a chord with me, I have friends in the netherlands who own Yurts and
Beautiful and impressive! Amazing light!
Very impressive and powerful!
Seriously such a beautiful collection of photographs! im just starting photography myself and I really admire your work!
Thank you very very much. I truly appreciate your kind words and that you took time to check out the post. I hope you return. 🙂
Powerfully beautiful! Thanks for sharing!
I love travelling in particular place too
Love love love! I hope one day to have an organized page like you! Following
Thank you so much. I’m thrilled that you enjoyed the blog. Means a lot that you let me know. Have a great day!
Absolutely gorgeous! I thought a couple of them were oil paintings at first! Beautiful pictures of fascinating subjects. Thank you for sharing!
Thank you for checking it out!
Amazing piece and photo!
Thank you so so much!!
Great job on its light for portrait! Stunning portraits on a light play! Absolutely amazing.
Thank you! It great fun to shoot and I learned a lot. 🙂
Your job is truly an art! I love normadic life style. I want to visit Mongolia so bad! This story make me job on next plane!
Thank you very much! I’m so glad that you feel inspired. 🙂
Very interesting article. Great suggestions. As someone who adores both photography and traveling, this blog hits home for me.
I’m so happy it does! Thank you very very much. Welcome to the blog and I hope you return.
Absolutely! I already follow you. I’m new, and you were actually the first blog I followed!
I’m so honored! Thank you. 🙂
it’s so beautiful…
You have discovered a passion for which you have incredible talent. Reading your posts is inspiring me to dig out my DSLR and get to work! Thank you.
Thank you very very much. I couldn’t ask for more than having you say you found inspiration, even in a small way, through my work. 🙂
Thank you for sharing your passion with us!
I’m glad you enjoyed it!
Un trabajo fascinante.
Wow what amazing work…inspiring!
Thank you so much. I’m glad you like the photos.
Have a great day!
Amazing photography !! stunning portraits and amazing play of light
every portrait tells a story..
Hey again! Thanks, Latesh. Means a lot. 🙂
Just, wow! 🙂
Thank you. I’m very happy you like the post. Welcome to the blog.
Now that’s an awesome stuff!!!
Thank you very much. It was a wonderful experience to shoot.
just amazing photographs 👍 great work
Thank you, very very much. Your very kind words are truly appreciated. Welcome to the blog.
Hi miss Susan! Would you mind if I use your photos and share them on my page and website (of course with all the credits to you) Cause i need to share them, and people need to see it. Hoping for your reply 🙂
I would prefer if you link or reblog than pulling the photos individually. Is that OK?
yeahh! sure! 🙂
Thank you so much. I’m so appreciative that you asked first.
I love travelling in particular place too
I love These Pictures
your really good at this stuff
Thank you very very much!
no Problem I’m only telling you the truth
I really love your work, can’t take my eyes off these portraits!
This was a very inspiring article. Thank you for allowing me to live those moments through you.
bu kartalmı ne bilmiyorum ama koltuk yıkama iyi biliyor
I like your article, very inspiring and thank you for your posta
Thank you for checking it out 🙏!
I really loved your photos, you inspire me a lot.
Thank you very very much! I am glad you like my work. Welcome to the blog. 🙂
i like your article, very inspiring and thank you for your post………
i like your article, very inspiring and thank you for your post……..
Stunning photos. One good photo is luck; that many is talent.
Thank you so much, Sara!
I love travelling in particular place too
I adore these shots…. absolutely amazing!!
Thank you so much!!
Woah!!!!! Your photos are amazing! I am trying to get into travel photography, however, and your photos put mine to shame. Great writing as well. I enjoyed this post. Check out my blog if you’d like, the photos aren’t as good as yours but you might like that.
Thank you! Travel photography like most things just takes practice. Walk around your home and pretend you haven’t been there before and shoot it. It really works. 🙂
Fabulous images! What a great experience you have had! I love to travel, but I am not much of a photographer. Your story in word and picture has inspired me to gain as much of the culture as I can when I travel. Thank you for sharing!
Thank you very much for your kind words. Nothing makes me happier than to learn that people get value out of my posts. Thank you for letting me know. 🙂
I like your article, very inspiring and thank you for your post…
I”m very happy that you enjoyed it. Thank you for letting me know. 🙂
wow what great photos
Thank you very very much!
Very interesting to read about the back stage story ! Beautiful photos as well !
I’m glad you found it interesting. Thanks for letting me know!
I like your article, very inspiring and thank you for your post…,
I am in awe of what you portray. You show stories within stories and each one is more beautiful than the previous
Thank you Barbara!
I like your article, very inspiring and thank you for your post/
Absolutely fantastic!!! Even if the conditions inside the hub were difficult, the result is really fantastic!!! They look like paintings…. Love your editing!
Thank you so much!!
Hello Susan Portnoy,
Your pictures are just stunning!
I really like your portrait of Shohan’s daughter. It made me think of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings. Beautiful.
Thank you very very much for your kind words. I love Shohan’s daughter’s photo too. That look was what I was trying to achieve and part of what Tim was trying to teach us, so thankfully, at least in that moment, I nailed it. LOL
Each and every one of these images is superb Susan, you should be very proud and immensely satisfied.
You are incredibly kind. Thank you so much!!!
You’re most welcome Susan 😊
so beautifully written.!! and the pictures..!!
Thank you! I’m thrilled you liked it!
Your Mongolia trip has inspired me to concentrate on photographic quality in our upcoming trip to Bali In early 2017.
What a lovely compliment. Thank you. If you’d like any advice, let me know. : )
Bali sounds wonderful. I haven’t been.
These are beautiful <3
Thank you very much. 🙂
Wow! You would never know that there were 8 of you in that room. Wonderful images.. That sure is some smile! What a magical experience 😃
..nice job,,nice picture,,
Thank you very very much!
me too. I love the narration and all the photos are so, so, so beautiful.
Hi! I’m really happy you enjoyed the post. Welcome to the blog and thank you for checking it out. 🙂
Love the rich narration and the beautiful photographs. Thank you
Excellent photographs of this tradition and I totally love Shohan’s hat! Excellent details about low light and ideas shall try them next time.
Thank you! I also love his hat. Nice post by the way. Loved the first portrait of the little kid with the kind hat. His expression is great.
Thank you so much!
good job.i like your photos
there is a small country named georgia.you can search,i think you ll like it.
I haven’t been but I am familiar with it. Is that where you’re from?
you guess 😀
i like eagle
I’m rather an insatiable traveler myself, and Mongolia has always been on my wish list. Your beautiful photos just uproot my wanderlust once again.
That’s so nice to hear, thank you! It’s a wonderful country. I highly recommend it. 🙂
You are Rembrandt with a camera.
beautiful photographs taken by you i take photo in golf clubs 🙂 because mostly they are well maintained .
Superb! This is absolutely pure magic.
Thank you very very much, Dina!
Really amazing work!
semplicemente magnifiche foto
Nature as it is
Captured in camera
Viewers’ put to test
Analyse in detail
Capacity to know
What more should I say.
you did a very nice job
Thank you very very much.
I’ve really enjoyed the photos you’ve taken of Mongolia and the people there. I have it as a life goal to one day visit the far east, first the Taoist and Buddhist temples. However this is certainly on my list. 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing!
Thank you very very much. I”m glad you’ve enjoyed the posts.
I hope you make it to the far east. You’ll love it. 🙂
I always admired the connection between eagles and humans, these pictures are so wonderful
Thank you very much Micha!
Oh my God! SO gorgeous!!!
Thanks my dear!! xoxo