May 10, 2017 140

Leg rowing fishermen of Inle Lake

The narrow boat feels shaky. I’m grasping my camera tighter and planning how to swim one hand above water. But I quickly put these thoughts aside. This is after all what I’m here for. To photograph the traditional leg rowing fishermen of Inle lake in Myanmar.

An old fisherman is standing at back of the boat and I’m sitting on the floor of his tiny boat. To be able to experience and photograph closely how these fishermen work, I need to be in the same boat. But as soon as I see how masterfully he maneuvers the boat I relax and have full trust on him.

Inle Lake is a shallow freshwater lake located in Myanmar (Burma). During the dry season, the average water depth is just over 2 meters (7 feet). The people of Inle Lake are called Intha. There are around 70.000 of them and they live in simple houses of wood and woven bamboo. They are largely self-sufficient farmers.

Inle Lake is truly a beautiful place. High mountains and lush hills. Floating gardens and villages built on stilts. But what brings most visitors here is the extraordinary leg rowing tradition that in only seen on Inle Lake. This leg rowing technique gives the fishermen a better view of the waterways over the reeds and floating plants.

The fisherman stands on one leg carefully balancing and wraps his other leg around the oar. By rotating his leg with a circular motion he’s propelling us on the still and quiet lake. The sun is starting to set and as I look at the light and the scene I already know these shots are going to be great.

After a short distance he stops and grabs his traditional conical shaped net. He lifts his net into the air, before plunging it into the water. I want to be sure that I can get exactly the photo I’m looking for, so I once more check my settings and signal him to do it once more. He doesn’t speak any english but our cooperation is smooth. The EVF on my Sony makes it easier to get the correct settings in changing light.

To get another angle of him I put my camera inside his net from the top opening. It just fits inside. Once again I feel lucky for the small size of my camera. Many full frame DSLRs would have hard time fitting inside the opening of the net.

The theory behind their fishing method is simple. The net is thrown into shallow water and when fish is trapped inside, they spear it through an opening on top of the net. But doing this in practice is far from simple and takes a lot of practice. Sadly most of the traditional fishermen left are old people. I hope that the next generations will also hold on to this unique tradition I was able to witness and photograph.

Next morning we’ve agreed to shoot again at sunrise. From the distance I can see them already waiting on their boats. They are sitting by a small fire they have set up on their boat to keep them warm. The mornings in February can be really chilly even though days are hot.

I know I need to use higher ISO setting for this one to be able to avoid blur. Water is pretty still but the boats are moving a bit and the sun is just starting its climb. Luckily with my camera it’s not a problem to go up to at least ISO 3200 without significant noise. As the sun is rising it feels surreal to see them acrobatically balance on one leg holding their nets high in the air. At this moment I knew I would come back to Myanmar one day.

Photographing Inle Lake and the fishermen was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. I spent two weeks photographing in Myanmar. My main camera was the Sony A7Rii and as a backup body I had the Sony A7ii. My lenses were Sony FE 16-35mm f/4, Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM and Sony FE 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 G. Most of the time I found myself using the FE 24-70mm GM lens.

With this setup I was able to travel light but had to make no compromises on image quality. I love the EVF because I can see how changing settings will affect the image. Really useful eye AF was something I used for all my portrait work. I also shot in situations where besides using tripod I also had to push up the ISO, and knowing that your camera can handle it without excessive noise is great. Even battery life turned out better than I expected. I had five batteries with me but never ended up using more than three per day even though I was shooting most of the time. Overall this is the best travel setup I’ve ever had. 

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