The Heart of Vastness

    Mongolia Eagle
    A young woman prepares her golden eagle before a competition. The eagle hunting tradition has been a well-regarded skill among the nomadic Kazakh community of northwestern Mongolia for over 1,000 years. More recently, women have started training and competing in this sport – once exclusively dominated by men. (Photo © Manuel Libres Librodo Jr.)

    A photographic journey into the Mongolian Steppe: Manny Librodo shares his impressions while photographing the Eagle Festival in Mongolia

    Photos and Text Manuel Libres Librodo Jr.


    This feature was kindly supported by Sony Singapore.

    Manuel Libres Librodo Jr. specialises in photographing travel, and also works in fashion photography. His popularity among photographers and photography fans is evidenced by more than 27 million hits on his website. In 2009, Scott Kelby described Librodo as a photographer with “phenomenal vision” who “creates pure magic”, adding that Librodo was “one of the world’s five best photographers whom you probably haven’t heard about”.

    Photographing the eagle festival in Mongolia is a photographer’s dream: It’s a riot of action and colour, with participants dressed in their best hunting attire. But it is also a challenging place to work, so it’s best to keep things simple. I only packed one camera, Sony’s α9, which is relatively small and light compared to other full-frame DSLR cameras. I also tried to shoot with one choice of lens per day so that I didn’t risk exposing my other lenses to dust. Shooting with one lens really tests your creativity, and makes you more selective of your shots. 

    One of the fantastic features of Sony’s α9 is that it allows you to capture action in the same way as a video. At 20 frames per second, this ensures that you don’t miss “the moment”. This was especially true for me on this assignment when I was photographing the hunters and their eagles in action. The fast and accurate autofocus also made my job that much easier, as my subjects were pin sharp, even in low-light situations. The new dedicated autofocus and shooting mode dials made it easy to change shooting modes without having to fumble with the menu button.

    The camera produces top-notch image quality. The lighting can be really harsh in the middle of the day in Mongolia, so having a wide dynamic range is important for shooting subjects in contrasting light situations. In low-light conditions, I was able to shoot at ISO12,800 and still get great images with low noise.

    If you compare Sony’s α9 with its predecessors, one of the first things you’ll notice is the extended battery life: It lasts all day while shooting thousands of frames. This is important in cold and remote places.

    In my experience, most people at the eagle festival love to be photographed. Even with the language barrier, there are ways of communicating permission: A smile usually indicates “Yes, you can take my photo”, while a frown is a clear “No”. It’s important to be respectful.

    Be adventurous, explorative, curious, and most of all – have fun.

    I shot in aperture priority mode, so that I could focus on capturing the moment rather than worrying about technicalities. Sony’s α9 is a very intelligent camera, and the 1,440K-dot touchscreen LCD gives you an accurate preview of your exposure, so that you can review your shots.

    I was often exposed to snow and dust simultaneously. The magnesium alloy body is robust, and it is dust and moisture resistant – important when you’re working in rugged conditions like those in rural Mongolia.


    Photography Tips


    Choose the right subject: Look for people with “character”. In a crowd, there is usually someone who stands out – be it their eyes, outfit or hairstyle. Include the environment to contextualise your storytelling.

    Find good light: Photographing a festival can be tricky because you are often stuck in one place with the same kind of light. Explore your lighting options.

    Do your research: Study up on the place – the weather, security, transportation, food and accommodation options. Be ready for any eventuality.

    Enjoy the experience: Don’t expect too much, and don’t be too concerned about taking the best shots. Be a traveller at heart, and a photographer by mindset.

    Look for patterns and textures: But keep repetition from becoming boring by deliberately breaking the pattern.


    For more on the fearsome hunters, read Games of the Great Khan




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