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Chasing magic light with filmmaker Abraham Joffe

Cinematographer Abraham Joffe dives with sharks for Tales by Light
Cinematographer Abraham Joffe dives with sharks for his documentary series Tales by Light.

Supplied: Eric Cheng

Sydney filmmaker Abraham Joffe takes us behind the scenes with professional photographers for his documentary series Tales by Light, and shares what he's learnt about travel photography along the way.

When Abraham was a young boy it wasn't picture books that he loved during story time, it was National Geographic magazine which his father would read to him.

He was enthralled by the exotic locations, the colourful animals, the unfamiliar faces, the breathtaking landscapes.

And now, years later, Abraham is helping to inspire a whole new generation with Tales by Light, which is being broadcast on the National Geographic network and streamed on Netflix.

Swimming with sharks, getting close to anacondas, filming burning bodies and getting bogged in Kenya have all been part of the job of making the documentaries.

Filmmaker Abraham Joffe
Filmmaker Abraham Joffe behind the camera, and on dry land.

Supplied: Abraham Joffe

Abraham is pleased at how the show has been received around the world.

"The feedback online has been amazing. I jump on Twitter, and every couple of minutes there is a tweet about the series from somewhere around the world."

"So that tells me people are watching, and it's been really good feedback," he says.

Filmmaker Abraham Joffe balances to get a shot.
Filmmaker Abraham Joffe shooting on location.

Supplied: Abraham Joffe

Based in Sydney, Abraham travelled across the world to capture the professional photographers who feature in the series.

The goal was to document the hard work that goes on behind the scenes of memorable images.

"The key to it all is having the right expert photographer, which we had in every case, whether we were diving with sharks or dealing with grieving people."

Life and death in Varanasi

One of the most powerful episodes in season two revolves around Stephen Dupont, an Australian photographer, in the Indian city of Varanasi.

For his project exploring themes of death, the photographer spends time shooting Hindu funerals which involve cremating loved ones on the banks of the Ganges river.

Abraham says the experience of documenting the ritual wasn't one of grief and loss.

"It doesn't have an energy of great grief because it's a huge honour for Hindu people to be cremated at Varanasi, and very few people get to be there.

"There were a couple of people who didn't want us to film [them] and we respected that."

Walrus swim in the open ocean
The documentary series takes a close look at nature.

Supplied: Abraham Joffe

Being an outsider

As someone who is often an outsider to a location, Abraham and his crew take steps to be considerate when interacting with new locations and communities.

He says it's not always about 'getting the shot', but being polite to people he's documenting.

"One of the photographers we interviewed says you don't take photographs, you're given them."

"That's a good way to think about it and we want to leave a place better for the next crew."

The show is a visual feast, with underwater footage, slow motion video, aerial shots and ultra-high definition footage.

Freediving in Vanuatu
A free diver in Vanuatu is captured for season one of the documentary series.

Supplied: Abraham Joffe

The most remarkable aspect of series is that most of the work was captured by only three people - the crew consists of Abraham, Dom West and Blake West.

Despite the challenges, Abraham says that it's all worth it.

"The hardest thing is the mental exhaustion, your mind never stops until you get on a plane to go home. And then you're probably planning the next shoot. But I'm not complaining, I've got the best job in the world."

Abraham's tips for improving your travel photography

  • Don't be afraid of wide angle shots

"It always start with the environment, so I start wide. You want to establish where you are before you enter the scene and disturb it, or become a part of it."

  • Make use of 'magic light'

"We would chase the magic light a lot of the time, and take a break during the middle of the day. Magic light is in the morning at dawn, and in the evening before dusk."

  • Lenses are important

"Good glass is one area to invest in. Camera bodies change a lot, but good glass lasts a long time."

  • Be respectful

"Even if you don't speak the language, having eye contact with people is really important. So is acknowledging people's presence and using body language.

"Don't start shooting straight away, come in and meet people, give them a nod."

  • Back up your images

"We do double backups and travel with the drives separately. The drives become more valuable than the cameras if there's data on them."

A leopard feeds on a kill in the Maasai Mara National Reserve
A leopard feasts on a fresh kill.

Supplied: Abraham Joffe

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