Sony Artisans of Imagery: Ira Block

As an accomplished photojournalist working for the likes of National Geographic, Ira Block is a storyteller at heart. Throughout a long and illustrious career, he has documented changing cultures in some of the most far-flung spots on our planet. Mongolia, Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet—these are just a few of Block’s favorite stomping grounds. He says, “I like to show people and cultures that are on the cusp, with one foot in the new world, and one foot in their old world. For example, in Mongolia, 30 to 35% of the people are still nomadic, and they're going through changes. The younger nomadic population is choosing to work in oil and gas or mining, where they can make more money and have a social life in a city, as opposed to the lifestyle of an isolated nomad. Others are choosing the tourism industry, where they are exposed to many cultures.”

In Mongolia, an ancient culture is experiencing drastic change, as seen in this photo of a tourist on a cellphone at the archeological site Flaming Cliffs, or Bayanzag, in the South Gobi Desert.

To get from the streets of Brooklyn to the steppes of the Himalayas, Block had to hone many skills—both photographic and endurance based. Yet, another talent he considers just as essential to his success behind the camera is his people skills. “In journalism, you have to have a gregarious personality, because you have to get close to people,” he explains, “not only to take their photo, but for them to trust you.”

While an advertising photographer doesn't need to develop a relationship with his paid models to get their participation, he notes that a documentary photographer needs to connect with his or her subject, “so they’re comfortable being photographed, and also so they’ll help you out with information to get you to the next step.”

From College Cub to the Big Leagues

After starting out as a newspaper photographer while a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Block headed back to his native New York to freelance for major magazines such as Time, LIFE, Sports Illustrated, Stern, and Paris Match. His first National Geographic assignment was for a story called The Continental Shelf: Man’s New Frontier. “Working for Geographic is a whole new ball game,” he says of the experience.

For his story on the Continental Shelf, Block photographed atmospheric diving gear called a JIM suit being used off the oil rigs. “The diver would get into a big metal suit, basically a submarine shaped like a human, so they could work at normal pressure,” he explains.

Undertaking an assignment of this caliber meant reaching beyond the obvious to reveal new discoveries, or to picture the subject in a different way. While fishing and oil exploration are the most common activities occurring within this expanse of coastal waters, Block’s search for newer, more unique aspects to the story led him to a company that was harvesting kelp off the coast of Santa Barbara.

Kelp is cultivated in watery beds about a foot under the water’s surface for use in a wide range of products, from ice cream to iodine. An overview showing the beds from the air would add a fresh dimension to the story, yet Block soon realized that the dark green of the underwater kelp farm wouldn’t show up in normal aerial photographs. Undaunted by this technical challenge, he decided to try infrared film, “which showed the kelp,” he recounts, “and the cuts that the harvesting boats would make like a lawn mower. It’s useful to try any sort of angle or style of photography that’s different,” he points out, “because the editors want to be visually surprised by pictures that no one's ever seen before.”

Richness in the Details

In addition to being visually engaging, Block explains that photographic decisions must serve the larger story being told. “Everyone thinks you go out, find a pretty place, and just snap the shutter, but it’s not that simple,” he insists. “The photos have to advance the story; they have to move your story ahead. So, you have to think, ‘Okay, what do I have? What's it saying, and what do I need to add next?’”

As part of his documentation on the culture of olive oil, Block captured this view of century-old ceramic urns storing Italian olive oil at the Tenuta Di Capezzare estate, in Tuscany.

He offers up an assignment on the culture of olive oil as an example, which encompassed everything from the historical aspects of olive oil being used for light and heat, to its essential role in the economy of the Mediterranean region, to the health benefits it is known for today. In planning for photos, Block needed to encompass all of these aspects, leading him to consider, “There's the modern way of making olive oil, but I also wanted to find places that still made it the old way, to have a comparison.”

He was photographing people gathering olives in Crete when he noticed they would put a big white cloth around each tree to catch the fallen fruit. “All these white cloths looked the same, and I found out they were World War II parachutes,” explains Block. “A lot of battles took place in Crete, and people kept the parachutes after the war ended. Learning these kinds of little details about your subject can really add to the story,” he says. “The key thing is just finding stories that keep the project you're working on moving forward and discovering little sub-stories that add interest.”

The Evolution of a Plan

Although advance planning is essential to his work, Block recommends striking a balance between initial preparations and going with the flow. “You make some plans, but what I’ve found after years of experience is that whatever you think is going to happen, isn't necessarily going to work out. You have to get out there and start with an initial plan, and then talk to people. It's a continuous evolution.”

Block encountered this Kazakh eagle hunter in a remote area of western Mongolia. “His face and the fox fur jacket looked so good I decided to do a lit portrait,” he says. “I wasn’t carrying a lot of lighting gear, I only had one 1x1 LED panel light, a stand, and a reflector. I hung a sheet behind him as a backdrop, and rigged the reflector to his right, placing my LED on the left. A very simple, yet effective setup.”

The amount of planning varies from one story to the next and is often based on the subject matter and associated technical concerns. He differentiates between photos involving people and more technical subjects such as museum displays or other types of still lifes. “For certain kinds of things, you want to create a style that will be consistent through the story,” Block explains. When it comes to people, it's a little different. But again, you could stylize a way to photograph people with a certain lens or a certain lighting technique.”

In such cases, he recommends covering your bases by shooting a stylized version along with taking a more conventional approach. “You do have to be careful,” he advises, “because if the editor says, ‘I don't like this technique,’ and you don’t have an alternative version, you've wasted a lot of valuable shooting time. So, it’s a balance, and a lot of that just comes with experience.”

The Study of Light

Early in his career, Block developed skills in photographing—and lighting—objects such as museum displays and archeological finds, technical knowledge that he considers, “The best thing I ever did. Learning how to work with artificial light gives you a much better knowledge of natural light,” he explains. “When I walk into a situation, the first thing I think about is, ‘Okay, where's the light? Where's the light going to create drama?’ You look for a place that's got interesting light, because light creates drama in your photographs.”

To add drama to the only structure left after California’s Manzanar internment camp was torn down, Block added light to an old barbed-wire fence, with threatening clouds looming behind.

When a situation is lacking the desired mood, Block puts his lighting skills to work. He describes a daunting assignment to photograph the former Manzanar internment camp in California for the book project, Saving America's Treasures. “The structure had already been razed,” he says. “I got out there and the only thing left was this barbed wire fence.”

It was a sunny day with white puffy clouds, yet the scene called for a somber mood. “I was lucky,” he admits. “The sky clouded up, and I lit the fence to make the sky even darker, so the picture had a mood to it.”

Building a Picture from the Background Forward

According to Block, there are three classic components to a good picture. “You look for good light, seek out an interesting composition, and wait for a moment,” he says. “And if you need to augment the light, or climb somewhere for a better composition, you do that. And as far as moment goes, you try to put yourself in situations where things are happening.”

Architectural elements and the strong diagonal created by the road form a solid background for the foreground action of a baseball player quenching his thirst next to a roadside vendor during a game at Campo Caney, Cuba.

In composing his pictures, Block works from the background forward. “When someone is photographing, they concentrate on the subject and what's happening,” he explains. “But the canvas where the action is happening is equally important, because the background could either add information to improve the subject, or it could be distracting and ruin your picture.”

Prioritizing a picture’s background elements serves a secondary purpose of helping to establish a photographer’s presence. “Psychologically, if you walk into a scene and start taking pictures of other peoples’ activities, you're invading their space,” he says. “Whereas, if you say, this is a good background, I'm going to stand here and wait for something to happen, you're already there with your gear. People are now walking into your space, so they can’t get uptight about being photographed.”

Cuba Loves Baseball

In recent years, Block’s impressive abilities to weave intricate stories about people and culture for top-tier magazines and books helped him open the door to a story of great personal meaning and career-changing impact.

A long-time baseball fan, Block was attending a game in Cuba when he realized how essential the sport was to the island’s identity. This became his springboard for a personal project to photograph all aspects of Cuban baseball over the course of five or six two-week trips.

Block’s switch to the smaller form factor of Sony gear made it less intimidating for him to shoot close-up portraits such as this Havana Industriales fan smoking a cigar outside of Latinoamerican Stadium, in Havana, Cuba.

While such arrangements are normally extremely complicated to pull off, Block was able to get permission from the ministry of sports through the help of a highly placed contact within the Cuban government, with financing to produce the story arranged through a non-profit foundation. “I got very lucky,” he says. “It was a positive story about the culture, looking at culture through a sport. There was no agenda. I was shooting for myself, doing what I wanted to do, and having the ability, experience, and knowledge to do it.”

An essential aspect of his coverage was Block’s use of Sony mirrorless cameras, a system that he was trying out around the time he started the project. “I just decided that the smaller camera and the lower-profile look would be important in Cuba,” he explains. “When you’re photographing somebody, I think it's a little scarier if you have a big camera and lens in their face.”

Seeing the Future in Sony Gear

Block notes that many people initially viewed mirrorless systems as a fad, yet points out, “The idea of a single lens reflex camera with a mirror that pops up out of the way goes back to 1955 or 1958. This is pretty old technology.” After reflecting on older colleagues who get set in their ways, he decided, “I want to move forward with my photography, with my thinking, and with my equipment. So, I said, ‘Okay, I'm going to switch to this mirrorless system and learn to love it.’”

After starting out with the Sony a7R, Block switched between the a7R II and the a7 II for most of his baseball work. While the a7R II boasts 42MP compared to the 24MP a7 II, he remarks, “For some reason I found the a7 II to be a little peppier. It just seemed to respond quicker, so I used that a lot.”

Block used his 24MP Sony a7 II for this overview of fans at Victoria de Girón Stadium, in Matanzas, Cuba. “I enlarged this file to 10 feet on the long side for one of my exhibits, and it looks terrific,” he says. “So that really was a game changer.”

His current cameras of choice are the Sony a7R IV and Sony a9, which he switches up based on the situation. “I like the a9 because it's got more dials and physical things to change,” he notes. “It's easier than getting into menus, but I've got the a7R IV set up with customized buttons. That's the other good thing about these mirrorless cameras, you can customize them based on the way you like to work.”

When it comes to Sony lenses, Block was impressed from the start. He explains, “The original Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 24–70mm f/4 ZA OSS was a nice small lens, but now you also have the FE 24–70mm f/2.8 GM, which is much larger. The small lenses are usually slower apertures, but you do have a choice, depending on what you're shooting, which is great.”

Adapting to Work on the Fly

Along with ushering in his switch to Sony gear, Block’s Cuba project opened his eyes to a new way of working. “It was really organic, which is great for me,” he explains. “It suddenly took me into a different space than I'm usually in, which is a little obsessive-compulsive. I want the pictures too perfect. I need the background perfect, the light perfect. So, I tried to loosen up.”

Given its lack of technological infrastructure, Cuba was an ideal environment for keeping things loose. With a rental car for transport, Block traversed the island with an assistant/translator, finding lodging on the fly. “You couldn't email people, since the Internet was minimal,” he says. “You could try calling, but they only had landlines when I started, and there were no answering machines. So, we’d basically just get to a town and ask, ‘Where are they playing baseball?’ We’d go to the first place, and ask questions, and get information as we went.”

A kid playing baseball on Concordia and Escobar streets in Centro Havana, Cuba is featured on the cover of Block’s 2018 book Cuba Loves Baseball.

Initially, he photographed everything that he found related to baseball, getting more specific about what he needed as the story developed. The resulting book, Cuba Loves Baseball, released by Skyhorse Publishing in 2018, covers everything from stadiums and food stands, to old timers and pro leagues, to grassroots games and funky, rural-looking situations, all drenched in the vibrant color and masterful lighting that is Block’s hallmark.

“I think as a photographer you have to have a vision, and trust your vision,” he attests. “Now, as a seasoned photographer, I trust my vision. And at this point, I'm not as interested in doing managed assignments. I'd rather do my own work. I want the photography to be fun, and to tell the story the way I want to tell it. And I think I have enough experience to do it. So, let's just go out there and make pictures.”

Sidebar about Sony lenses

Ira BlockJeremy Cohen

What is your most-used lens?

To capture this atmospheric view of visitors at the Yee Peng (lantern) festival in Chiangmai, Thailand, Block set his Sony EF 24-70mm f/2.8 GM to its widest setting, with the aperture at f/2.8 to heighten the contrast between the foreground lanterns and those floating skyward.

Besides that, what is your favorite lens?

Block used the f/4 version of his 70-200mm zoom to capture this caravan of Bactrian camels in the bright light of Mongolia’s South Gobi Desert, yet he needed the f/2.8 version of this zoom, and an ISO of 1600, for a silhouette shot of a cameleer leading camels in the dunes of Erg Chebbi, near Merzouga, Morocco.

Block finds that camels make particularly difficult subjects to photograph, since they tend to bunch up when traveling in a caravan. “This is one thing that makes me crazy, he says. “If the camels overlap, you've got legs and heads coming out of weird places. I go nuts over that. I find that it’s a more interesting image if people or animals each have their own place in the picture.”

What would be your dream lens?

A 24-105mm f/2.8 lens that’s not gigantic, but I think it would be pretty big. The 70mm focal length is a little short for a tight portrait; you still get some distortion on the face, and the background doesn't narrow as much. So, 105mm is a good length for those kinds of portraits, but currently, with a zoom, you have to shoot at f/4.

For this tight, shallow-depth-of-field portrait of a traditional Chinese opera actor in Bangkok, Block chose the Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS prime, shooting wide open for creamy bokeh.

Do you have any advice for up-and-coming photographers?

Think about what you’re shooting, and what you're trying to say. Don't just grab the obvious colorful image, post it on your social media, and walk away; look deeper into your subject. There's a lot more going on. If you want to really get more involved in your photography, you’ve got to tell a story.

When photographing on Inle Lake, located in the Shan Hills of Myanmar (Burma), Block learned that some of the older fishermen decided they could make more money posing for tourist pictures, using their old-style conical nets, than they could fishing. Currently, most people fishing in this lake use modern nets. “Even though this is a very strong image without a caption, I always explain what's really happening when I post it on social media,” explains Block.

Zoom or prime?

If it made sense for me on a practical level, I'd rather work with primes. But the reality is, you don't want to be changing lenses that much when you're out running around outdoors. For that reason alone, zooms are very handy, and you can get a more exacting composition that can be tweaked a little bit.

The Sony FE 24–105mm f/4 G OSS zoom enabled Block to nail the symmetry of this scene of a nun standing in front of the Buddha statue at the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum in Dashu District, Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Telephoto or wide-angle?

Working with a wide angle is harder, because the background has to be good, but I prefer wide-angle pictures where you can relate the person to their environment. With a telephoto you can just zoom in and totally blur the background, so you don't have to worry about it. That can be too much of a crutch for people.

To get this environmental shot of a child selling peanuts in the tight space of a train at Maeklong Railway Market in Bangkok, Block broke out his Sony FE 12-24mm f/4 GM lens.

Studio or on location?

Occasionally, it's fun for me in a studio, where I can really play with light. When I have tons of equipment, and can put up gobos, and try light banks and spotting things, it's a technical, fun candy store for me. But that's good like once or twice a year. Otherwise, it's the food, the environment, the people you meet on location. That's all stuff I enjoy.

National Geographic magazine sent Block to Texas for a cover shoot featuring the new types of NASA spacesuits being developed for long-term space flight. “I brought a lot of lighting with me—strobes with light boxes, snoots, barn doors, and lots of clamps and gaffer accessories,” he says. “To avoid reflection on the front of the helmet, I lit the suit from the left and right sides, so I could see the subject's face. It probably took me about 45 minutes to get everything correct.”

To learn more about Ira Block and his work, visit his website, follow him on Instagram, and check out his Sony Artisan of Imagery profile on Sony’s Alpha Universe Website.