When photographer Mandy Sham is on the go, she packs light. The one indispensable thing she carries in her photography kit is a CPL filter. Here, Mandy explains how she uses one to manage unpredictable elements and focus the image in her mind.
Words and Photography by Mandy Sham
In my world, travel and photography are often one and the same.
They’ve grown more intimately connected over the years — one reflecting upon the other in pixels and in practice. I’ve edited photos on my phone in a small Himalayan teahouse; on a bus from Turkey to Bulgaria; during every layover, from Dubai to Bangalore. I myself am in motion when I shoot — staying long enough to get a feel for a place, and leaving just as I find a desire for more.
Given the way I shoot, and the spontaneity my itinerary (or lack thereof) lends, things often tumble unpredictably into place. Sometimes the light conditions aren’t right, given the location or the time of day. Haze and air pollution diminish background details and colours. There are also certain colours that can wash out or flatten considerably when exposed to the sun. I’ve found that using a CPL filter helps me handle these unpredictable variables I face while on the move.
“Without my CPL… the skies would be blown out, and the land would lose its suaveness and definition.”
The thing I love first and foremost about my CPL filter is that it neutralises the shot for me — cancelling out the noise of the image, and clarifying the details contained within it. Regardless of the conditions I’m faced with that day, the CPL helps cut unnecessary haze and shimmer, meaning I can work with something more pliable when editing. It also provides a sharper focus of what the final product might be in my head.
Handling light, though, is probably where it excels most. Midday in the desert is probably not where you want to find yourself on any given day, but that’s where the cards might fall when travelling. Without my CPL, I’d be nowhere in any of the hot-and-dry open spaces; the skies would be blown out, and the land would lose its suaveness and definition. Of course, there’s only so much you can do if you decide to shoot at a time where the sun is directly overhead. But when you’re on the move, you also go in accepting that not all conditions are under your control — and that experimenting a bit with a filter can provide surprisingly finessed results.
It’s safe to say I haven’t found my way to any deserts since the beginning of the pandemic — and in a rooted, psychological way, I was starved of the rich material I had the privilege of working with before. I already felt as though I knew my own Canadian city and province intimately, even if the reality was that I didn’t. So when I began taking weekend trips to explore my own backyard, using a CPL filter to hone in on ambience and mood rather than subjects was a way of reclaiming my own photographic style — rather than relying on capturing what was in front of me as a crutch.
In art and music school as a child, I’d always been drawn most to the Impressionist period. Debussy’s Arabesques were my most poignant and favourite. In the works of Monet and Renoir, I loved how light was often perceived as something sentient and intentionally focused, rather than solely a mark of time; a by-product of the scene at hand. I’ve started to see this inclination as something that very much informs my work. My photography is often about nostalgia and feeling, even when it isn’t — and it often uses colour and light to express a certain texture and emotion.
“Using a CPL filter to hone in on ambience and mood rather than subjects was a way of reclaiming my own photographic style.”
As a result, the CPL filter has been indispensable in rooting me back to the use of light as something far more than an afterthought or variable — but rather a focus of my work. I use it to bring deep blues back to the skies: a reminder of something imposing and grandiose, forming the background of our lives. Through aperture settings and the CPL filter, I’m also able to darken the scene for a rosier, ambient look. Experimenting with which reflections to preserve or cut out can create subtlety in the overall outcome.
As time goes on, I feel my photography works as a reflection of a moment that has already passed. I don’t want it to lose that essence; it should always feel a little out of grasp. And so there’s always an element of the surreal to the work — something slightly unnatural, whether it’s the vividness of a colour that pops in the foreground, or a painterly expression to the composition and usage of light.
All that to say the things I capture feel deeply nostalgic to me — something I try and replicate in the editing process. But I think there’s also a nostalgia inherent in the softer edges and specificity of colour captured with a CPL filter, even before the editing starts. This alteration, be it through a CPL filter or in the editing phase, is a reflection of reality in my mind — that a shot is not the play-by-play narrative of what happened, but how it felt. We are editors in our lives: seeing things as we and only we can see them. It’d be a shame not to bring that to life in the world of a photograph.