Travel photography with an iPhone, does it stand up against a DLSR?

Normally, when I travel, I take quite a bit of gear to shoot the photos I want to shoot. Last year, I walked 210 km through the Nepal Himalaya, carrying about 19 kg of stuff. Admittedly, most of it was for survival (clothing, sleeping bag etc.), but still I had 8 kg of camera equipment and paraphernalia with me.


For last month’s 335 km walk along the Camino Primitivo in Spain, I thought I’d reduce the photography gear to a minimum: an iPhone 7, a mix between a selfie-stick and a mini-tripod, and a polarizing filter. A total weight of 350 g! As a camera app, I used ProCam 5  that allowed me to shoot raw files (DNG) with my phone.


Being used to all the settings I can change on my Nikon cameras, the iPhone 7 has some limitations: a fixed 28 mm (full frame equivalent) lens, an aperture fixed at 1.8 and (since the sensor is only 1/3 inch) a very large depth of focus. But, unlike the standard camera app on the iPhone, with ProCam 5 I can explicitly set shutter speed or ISO priority, exposure compensation, white balance and view the JPG histogram.

So how did I fare, comparing this arrangement with my DSLR?

What I liked about it most was the ease of operation: very little weight and very easy to whip out your camera at every occasion. There was none of this ‘OMG, someone is going to take a photo’. No, you can quite easily blend in with the other tourists with their phones.


The camera is always in your pocket and ready for action, and I would take photos at moments or with perspectives that were more difficult with a DSLR. It was also easy to find my way around the menus of the ProCam 5 app; it’s very well organized and clear in its instructions. Unlike some other camera apps, the interface does not interfere (too much) with the preview of your photo on the screen.

On some occasions, I used the 77 mm (OK, bit of an overkill) polarizing filter to create deeper colors in the sky by just holding it in front of my phone. It was important to prevent any stray light from coming between the filter and the lens of the phone, to prevent reflections in the polarizing filter.


In practice, I often found judging the composition and photo by the display alone difficult. The glass on the iPhone reflects a lot of ambient light and the glare is massive, particularly when the sun is out. A viewfinder, like the one on a DLSR, allows me to concentrate much more on the scene to be photographed.

The climate in northern Spain is quite humid, and taking the phone out of my pocket to make a photo often resulted in a slight degree of fogging over of the lens, so that images were not quite as sharp as they could have been. However, most of the photos looked great on the phone itself, with its incredible pixel density and its high-contrast, saturated colors, and that was a real pleasure.

Then, I started processing the DNG’s in Lightroom; that took some getting used too. With my DLSR, the basic Lightroom settings often result in a reasonable starting point for further processing. With some of my iPhone 7 photos, a lot of work basic needed to be done. In general, I found both the contrast and saturation to be quite flat on the DNG files, making that my first point of interest in post-processing. Here is an example where I try to make the unprocessed DNG look like something I remembered:


The JPG that comes out of the phone has had a lot done to it ‘in camera’ ‘in phone’. We can see this when I try to mimic the processing of the JPG with the DNG as a starting point: look at the considerable changes in processing settings for exposure, contrast etc.


Secondly, I noticed that a lot of the images had considerable noise in them, even when the ISO was the lowest the phone could handle: 20. Have a look at the examples of noise with ISO 20, 100 and 800:




The high noise level is caused by noise in the electronics of the phone, and two factors make its effect stronger than on a DSLR: 1) the size of the sensor and 2) the temperature of the phone.

The sensor on the iPhone 7 has 12 megapixels on a 4.8 mm x 3.6 mm sensor. A D800 has 36 megapixels on a 24×36 mm sensor, which makes its individual pixels about 16 times as large as those of the iPhone and therefore it will be collecting much more light than noise!

The temperature of the phone can sometimes become quite high. When the ProCam 5 app is running in the background, it is engaging the display and heating up the phone. The warmer the phone, the more noise it will produce. In addition, having the phone in my pocket also warms it up, which makes the noise problem even worse. Apple applies quite heavy duty noise suppression to its camera’s photos, which make them palatable on the iPhone’s display, but they do not look great on a large monitor.


As I photographed my way around the Camino Primitivo, my camera filled up fast as each photo was stored threefold: the DNG file, the JPG of the DNG file and a JPG when the selected aspect ratio was different than the iPhone’s native 4:3. Traveling light, I did not bring a backup facility and photographed (and edited) until my phone was full.

Overall, I enjoyed this lightweight travel photography experiment, but apart from the technical quality of the images, I realized what I missed about my DSLR: the ability to zoom in, the shallow depth of field and the viewfinder. The next time when I am photographing with my camera among those who only take photos take their phones, I know why I carry all that gear ;-)

To enjoy a selection of photos taken on this trip, head over to my website.


The € 15,000 job I did not get. Why?

As a professional photographer, life is not all about making photographs, but also about running a business. So of course, I am always happy to receive a request for a quote from potential new clients. One of them I would like to share with you.

Through my Photoshelter website, I was contacted by Mr. Abdul Al Jabal, with the following request:

“We are A B M Trading from United Arab Emirate looking for Professional Photographer needed in france for our up coming event.

Behind the scenes images of 60 People during annual meeting for 4 days for Annual report and company internal use Includes post-production and upload to online archive system for either viewing, download or further distribution. This will be for unlimited worldwide usage for 30 images

Travel Expenses Will include”

Naturally, I was interested, so I replied with a couple of questions regarding details of the event, so I could come up with a realistic quote.

In his reply, Mr. Abdul Al Jabal wrote the following:

“The date is March 28th to 31st 2016 of march 2016 7 hours per day. Kindly send us a proposal for the 4 days as i said in my previous email.

The event is for Asia & Gulf Associate they are meeting with their Partners and Customers. Include all your traveling expenses and all other expenses you can work on the budget lesser than €15,000. Await your Quick Response.”

€ 15,000? Sure! I am interested!



So I checked the venue mentioned in the mail, which turned out to be a small rental apartment in Nice, France. A further check online confirmed that Mr. Al Jabal is part of group of scammers, so I decided to play a game and replied:

“To be on the safe side, and offer you the best service possible, I propose to hire a second photographer. This way, we are able to cover both the presentations and meetings, AND shoot portraits on the side.

The location address you sent me looks very promising, and I look forward to the challenge of photographing your event there.

I have looked into flights to Nice for the suggested period and have already found a suitable hotel near the venue.

I am happy to offer you a quote for € 14,995 for my services, this is well within your budget.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Al Jabal was not too happy with my proposal and wrote:

“Can’t you do this for the amount of € 14,000?”

Now, as a professional photographer, I have also have my bottom line to think of, so my reply was concise:

“Thank you for the reply and your offer of € 14,000. Unfortunately € 14,995 this is our final price, and a very reasonable one.”

Luckily, Mr. Al Jabal was easily persuaded and wrote:

“Thanks for the proposal, we are very okay with it and as be approved. Very sorry i did not ask you this in my previous mail what is your payment options? we really want to know before we proceed.”

I wrote:

“With new clients from abroad we only have 1 payment option: we would like to receive a 100% deposit in gold. With the current exchange rate that would be 451 grams. We do not think that should pose too much of a problem.”

The reply:

“Kindly note we can only make payment by Bank transfer since the full payment will be made by the company not individual.”

I expressed my disappointment, but quickly offered him a second option:

“Since we are very happy to welcome A B M Trading as a new customer, I have consulted with our finance department. They have kindly agreed to provide you with our banking details.

Please transfer the invoiced € 14,995 to the following bank account:

Bank Name: Piggy Bank Ltd
Bank Address: 1 Up the Dark Alley, Castle-upon-Air, United Kingdom
Account Beneficiary Name: Quicksand Images Plc
Account Number: 123G-W8-ICURNS”

Mr. Al Jabal obviously did not get the word play in action here, nor did he read the account number out loud in English (he might have taken the hint). No, instead he plugged it into his software and wrote:

“This is not account number :123G-W8-ICURNS”

At this point, I was getting a little tired of Mr. Al Jabal, so I decided to have a final creative go at getting the message through to him:

“I am sorry you were unable to transfer the funds with the information provided. There may be a slight problem on your end of the transaction, but I am sure we can work something out.

We are very keen to do business with you and I am happy to provide you with an alternative payment option!

Since in 50 years time oil will be in very short demand, we are happy to receive the invoiced € 14,995 in the form of 548 barrels of crude oil, to be delivered to our contact person in The Hague, coming Saturday. 548 barrels is just about what our contact person is able to transport in our company van in a single ride.

I am sure a man representative of such a great company as ABM Trading will be able to work with this third alternative I am offering you.”

Fortunately, I haven’t heard from him since. But probably, unfortunately, others have.

I hope that you, unlike Mr. Abdul Al Jabal from ABM Trading, were able to read between the lines, and have some fun with it too.

15 Reasons Someone May Say ‘no’ When Asked for a Travel Portrait

One of the most rewarding types of photos you can take when traveling are those of local people. In general, we just love looking at other faces and it is all the more interesting when the faces are from another country or culture.

I am all in favor of asking permission before taking a photograph, rather than sneaking a picture. In fact, in one of the assignments in the travel photography course that I teach, students have to ask at least 10 strangers if it’s OK to take their photo (and then take a proper portrait, of course).

Nomad girl milking a yak in Mongolia

[A nomad girl is milking a yak early in the morning in Mongolia. Photo taken with permission]

Now, going up to a complete stranger and asking if you can take a portrait is not the easiest of tasks, and you are likely to get a few nos. But what could be the reason for those ‘rejections’ (and I am putting this in quotation marks deliberately)?

Together with the travel photography students, we compiled a list of reasons why someone might refuse to have their photo taken. Now, these reasons are usually not given to you explicitly, but it helps to keep them in mind when you receive a no.

We came up with the following reasons (so far, and in no particular order):

1. ‘I do not feel that I look good enough’
It may be that you think your subject looks great, but he/she may not feel they have their best day, or maybe that the strange squint you think looks great is actually a medical condition.

2. ‘I am not sure what you are going to do with the photos’
Quite a few photographers spread their photos everywhere, for example on Facebook. I once photographed in a small Indian village near the Pakistani border, where villagers had imposed a complete ban on photography. It turned out that in the past a photographer had posted images of some of the women on Facebook, even after he said he would not. Now, it may have been a small village, but the internet reaches quite far and one of the villagers had seen the images online, leading to the ban. Interestingly, this kind of suspicion is more common in the West, in spite of everyone distribution their own personal life in cyberspace.

3. ‘It takes away my soul or spirit’
In quite a few countries, photography is regarded as taking part of the soul of the subject. This may contradict your views, but the view of your subject is of course deciding the matter.

4. ‘It is against my religion’
In some religions, it is considered offensive to make images of the human form, as the human form is a reflection of the image of God.

5. ‘I do not have permission from my parents/husband/brother/uncle’
In some countries, photographing women is not allowed without permission from a male companion, be it a parent, husband, brother or uncle. It is worthwhile however, to then ask for his permission, which is quite often granted.

6. ‘I feel insecure about something’
See reason #1

7. ‘I don’t like it at all’
You have met them, probably also in your own country: people who do not like to have their picture taken at all. In fact, many photographers are camera-shy, so you can check your own reasons behind this blanket statement. It is probably covering up one of the other reasons in this list, or plain shyness.

8. ‘You are the person number 20 to ask’
In some places people travel, there are a lot of photographers or photographing tourists. If that place has some remarkable ‘characters’, many people want to photograph them, so it may be that you are number 20 when you ask them for a photo.

9. ‘I have had bad experiences with this in the past’
If you are not the first person to ask for a photo, the person’s reaction may well have to do with how the experience was with a previous photographer. Not all photographers behave respectfully with their subject, even after they have received their ‘yes’.

10. ‘I feel exposed, when others are also looking on’
Sometimes you need to photograph a person in the middle of their activities and there may be other people around looking on. This can make someone feel very selfconscious and many people try to avoid this situation.

11. ‘Why me and not somebody else?’
We continue from reason #10: if you photograph one person out of a whole group of people, the act of choosing may in itself lead to feelings of self consciousness. What are your reasons for selecting this one person and not the other?

12. ‘I am a police officer / a military / a criminal can’t you see?’
In some countries it is easier to photographs the above categories than in others, but in general, be conservative with these subjects.

13. ‘This is the city, we don’t do stuff like this. Go to a village!’
You probably know this from your own country: there is quite a difference between a city mentality and a small town mentality.

14. ‘I think you may be hitting on me’
In some countries, people are very sensitive to the interactions between men and women. This holds for both men photographing women and women photographing men. Make sure your intentions are clear (and clean).

15. ‘Can’t you see I am busy?’
Often, when people are in the middle of something, or on their way to something, they do not wish to be interrupted. Your request for a photo may just be too much of an interruption to the person.

Good news: all of the above reasons for saying ‘no’ to a photograph have nothing to do with you as a person! This means that their rejection is not a rejection of you, but a rejection of the act of taking the photo. It is extremely helpful to learn to separate the two and create more confidence in stepping up to the next person and ask for a portrait.

So, go out and start asking! You will find you get more ‘yes’ than ‘no’ and for the occasional ‘no’, above are at least 15 reasons why you as a person are not part of the equation ;-)

Good luck with your travel portraits!

8 Tips for Preparing Your Next Photo Trip

Cameras, batteries, chargers and memory cards. Books, research, surfing the internet. A closer look at preparing your photo trip, wherever you may go.

1. Read the travel guides
At any stage of the trip, and particularly at the planning stage, printed travel guides are indispensable. Not a single guide is complete; each guide offers its own interpretation of the country. Although every guide to Paris will bring you to the Eifel Tower, some will have you arrive in a limo and others will let you walk the local ‘quartier’ before you arrive. There are guides for cultural trips, adventure trips, or backpacker trips. (Un)fortunately, there are no particular guides for photographers, so for now, we’ll group those under the different types of travelers above. You could be a cultural photographer, an adventure photographer, a wildlife photographer or, maybe more general, a travel photographer.
140817-Cambodia-Buddha-cave2. Research the internet
In addition to studying several types of guidebooks, the internet is obviously a huge source of information. Travel guides are usually researched and updated every few years, while information on the internet is often more up to date, but not necessarily more reliable. What I often do, as when asking for directions in say, India, is read an odd number of sources so at least a majority of them will point me in the right direction. You can often find me searching Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum, or Trip Advisor.

3. Look at photos from others
To fill the image bank in my head with inspiring material, I enjoy looking at the works of other photographers. This gives me clues as to which sites could be interesting for photography, but also what is possible at the various locations and what has not been done before. For photographers, there is a constant challenge to expand their creative palette, and also to add something new to the existing range of images. Typing in the name of a location on a Google image search can often lead to disappointing results: since the majority of images posted are not necessarily photographically ‘interesting’, you’ll have to wade through many uninspiring images before hitting on a great one. Better to have the first selection done for you!

I often start my searches at Getty Images, or Alamy, but I also like to look at more journalistic work from the location, such as the iPad app TRVL.

140817-China-Beijing-Mao-photography4. Look at your own photos
A fun thing to do is to look through your own photos every once in a while. The following exercise is useful, whether you are currently in the process of preparing a phototrip or not. Take out a piece of paper and go through all your photos. As you go through them, note which categories of photos you take and mark them in columns on the piece of paper. For example: portraits, architecture, animals, landschape but also more specifically stylistic themes such as shallow depth of field, motion blur, overexposed, colour, black and white. Then, check off how many photos you take in each category. This exercise will give you an insight into your own photographic preferences, but also you photographic blind spots: things you consistently avoid, for whatever reason.

5. Create a shoot list
All this research eventually leads to a shoot list, a list of locations I would like to explore and photos I would like to make. During the photography itself, this list serves as a guide: I can see what I shot already, what I still need to shoot and whether the various subjects are sufficiently represented in my work. Often, during a trip, I will add to the shoot list: I am always carrying a note book to jot down new ideas and work out others. In addtion to the shoot list, I work with a wish list. This is a list with some more creative ideas which I have not yet seen and which are often technically more complicated to realize.

140817-Jordan-Umm-Fruth-night6. Check the position of sun and moon
To waste as little time as possible timing my presence in the right locations on the ground, I use the app The Photographer’s Ephemeris. This app allows me to determine the rising and setting times of the sun and the moon at my location. But in addition, the app shows me from which direction the sun or moon light will come at my position, so that I know where to be for unobstructed views.

With all of this optimized, the only factor that I cannot control is the weather: I’ll just have to work with it. By observing local weather patterns and predictions, one can get a fair idea of what possible on which day.
140817-Tibet-Lhasa-Jokhang7. Create an equipment checklist
With all of the above taken into account, it is time for the last list, the equipment check list. Depending on the gear you have, you can divide this last into several categories. An example of those categories could be the following:
– cameras
– lenses
– power (batteries, chargers, power supplies)
– storage (cards, laptop, image bank, external drive)
– light (flash, light modifiers)
– filters
– tripods
– cleaning gear
– cables
– sundries (plastic bags, tools, Swiss Army knife, torch)

My check list is expanded with every trip. I’d like to keep an overcomplete checklist; I might not take it all, but at least I know I have considered taking it or not. Of course, I make sure all is insured, it’s not all that difficult to drop your camera in the Dead Sea!
140817-Jordan-Dead-Sea-Float8. And finally: go with the flow!
All this meticulous preparation is quite important, but it does not mean there is no room for inspiration on the spot. If I meet someone who knows a great cave, a lovely litte shop, a great view point or whatever may be of interest, I’m very happy to go with the flow and see where I might end up. My favourite moments on a photo trip are most often the result of contact with the local people, and they are still my favourite guides!

Enjoy your next photo trip!

Favourite places 2: Ladakh, India

There are some places in the world that a photographer can easily fall in love with. For me, it was Ladakh, in northern India. Ladakh, meaning ‘land of the high passes’ is located in the Himalayas and consists of a series of valleys, separated by hulking mountain ranges. There is a definite Tibetan feel to the place (it is often referred to as ‘little Tibet’), and the Indus Valley is dotted with Buddhist monasteries big and small.

Novice monk, Thiksey Monastery, Ladakh, IndiaOne of the most impressive and accessible is Thiksey Monastery. Every day, monks are called to morning ceremony (puja) by monks blowing conch shell horns from the roof of the monastery. The ceremony is open for travelers and it is deeply moving to attend the 1,5 hours of prayer, chanting and music, accompanied by several cups of milk tea.

See more of my images of Tibetan Buddhism in Ladakh here

Photographers love Ladakh for its amazing light. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not always blue sky country; quite often there are some clouds in the sky. It is exactly this presence of clouds and an often piercing quality of sunlight that makes for a very dramatic light play on the buildings and hills.

Namgyal Tsemo Monastery, Leh, Ladakh, IndiaSee more of my Ladakh light images here

For years, Ladakhs capital Leh had been a major post on the trading routes between Central Asia, India and China, causing an influx of people from many parts of India. Although trade with China has declined, the rise in tourism to Ladakh still attracts many Kashmiri, Punjabi, Sikh and Rajasthani merchants, let alone workers from relatively poor states such as Bihar, and the neighbouring country of Nepal.Muslim teenagers in Leh, Ladakh, IndiaI met some wonderful people as I wandered the streets of Leh with my camera and portrait lens. Every time, after taking their photograph, I would return to my hotel room, print the image with a Polaroid ZINK printer, and return with the printed image as a gift. It’s been a great way of sharing photography, without the hassle of having your mail opened by customs or the post office.

See more of my Ladakh portraits here

Ladakh is accessed most easily through Leh. You can travel to Leh by airplane from New Delhi, or by a two-day bus or jeep ride from New Delhi, overnighting in Manali.

Favourite places: Jökulsárlón, Iceland

I’ve been fortunate to have traveled to some beautiful and interesting places on this planet, spending time photographing them in all their glory.

Icebergs on a summer's evening at Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon,

One of my favourites is Jökulsárlón, in southeast Iceland. Jökulsárlón (literally ‘glacial river lagoon’ in Icelandic) is a huge lake of nearly 18 square kilometers, at the base of the Breiðamerkur glacier. Gradually, icebergs break off the tip of the glacier and float into the lagoon, collecting at its ocean’s end. The lagoon is connected to the Atlantic Ocean through a narrow canal, and at low-tide, when water exits the lagoon, icebergs are transported into the shallows of the Atlantic Ocean. There, pounded by waves, they are broken up further and distributed along the black lava beaches.

Stranded icebergs are pounded by waves at Jökulsárlón, Icelan

Stranded icebergs on the beach at Jökulsárlón, Iceland

The glacial lagoon with its icebergs is a very dynamic place. In summer, the lagoon is teeming with wildlife: you can spot seals, fish and when the sun is out, the skies are filled with bird song (watch out for your head though: in nesting season some birds tend to attack the highest points they can find!). The ice in the lagoon changes continously as icebergs shift position with the winds and the tide, and new icebergs arrive from the glacier’s edge. You never quite know what you’ll find, either on the lagoon’s shores, or on the beaches, as the ‘harvest’ of ice depends on the winds and the tide also. I have seen the beach filled with icebergs taller than myself, but there were also days (often rainy and windy) where I found no ice at all.

A bird rests on top of the icebergs at Jökulsárlón glacier la

Iceland’s notoriously unreliable weather (‘If you don’t like it, wait five minutes’), also plays a large part in how the lake looks from day to day. On some days, it’s all glorious blue skies and blue water, but I’ve also spend days waiting for just a tiny sliver of light in an endless expanse of greys and muted blues. In midsummer, when the sun slowly passes through the northern skies above the glacier, and the skies are opening up a little, the play between the muted reds and the icey blues and whites can be just magical.

Jökulsárlón, Iceland

I have visited Jökulsárlón on several occasions, often for days at a time, exploring its shores, the outlooks, the beach, the midnight sun. On every occasion, it has been worth my time, regardless of the hours spent waiting with hot chocolat in a car pounded by torrential rain.

Two birds on top of the icebergs at Jökulsárlón glacier lagoo

Jökulsárlón can easily be visited with your rental vehicle in Iceland; it is located on Iceland’s ringroad, and no four-wheel drive is required. It is quite far from Reykjavik, and I recommend taking 2 days to drive there, spending one night in Vik. There is no accommodation at Jökursarlon; you would either have to camp in the wild, sleep in your car, or spend the night near Skaftafell National Park or at the Hali Country Hotel.

You can see more of my favourite images of Jökulsárlón here. I hope you enjoy exploring them as much as I enjoyed taking them.

On the ethics of image sales

Over on the blog of the  Digital Trekker, Matt Brandon, this week is a post on the ethics of image sales.

Matt raises the point that as photographers, we shoot our portraits in an atmosphere of trust and that this trust could be broken when subsequently, whether you have a model release or not, the image is sold to a client who can then use it for whatever purpose. As an example, he mentions an image of a muslim that would be used in an ad for pork or alcohol (without describing what the ad might look like, but we get the point).

I agree with him and with quite a few of the comments that it is a good idea to stay on the safe side and try and have some control over where and how your images will be used, if possible. By selling your images through stock sites other than your own, this gets a little complicated, although I have seen it mentioned on some stock sites that for instance images of muslims may not be used in a negative (editorial) context.

In a comment on the blog, I mentioned that sometimes travel photography can feel a bit like a new form of colonialism: we come in with our cameras and our lenses, we take our images and we hardly ever give back. And it is not only Westerners who do this. Last year, I had the pleasure of observing something similar when a group of Chinese tourists descended upon an Uyghur man in Xinjiang. Maybe it is a group thing?


Hopefully, those with a little compassion will already give back at the time they shoot their images: through smiles, exchanges of compliments, ideas, life experiences, maybe a drink, sometimes a copy of the image, sometimes money.

Ah, there is the question of money again… This week, in a travel photography course that I teach, we discussed the issue of paying money directly to the person you are photographing. Most students felt uncomfortable paying a person to pose for the image, as they felt it would taint their view of the image. Many had encountered people on their travels who had become so familiar to posing for ‘travel images’ that they immediately started asking for money the moment the cameras arrived. This seems to be leading to a new kind of begging: in much the same way that travel photographers might be begging for images, locals start begging to be photographed in exchange for money.

So, direct payment seems to be difficult, and paying out individuals after the sale of the image could be difficult, as sometimes it is quite hard to trace a person in some of the countries we visit. But maybe we could set up something else altogether.

For a while I have been thinking about some fund to which travel photographers could donate part of the sales of the travel images. The fund could then be used to pay money to NGOs operating locally, so that part of the proceeds of the images taken can flow back into the community from which they were ‘sourced’.

I mentioned that in my comment on the original post, and The Digital Trekker is up for the idea. If you are too, let’s get in touch so we can get something started ;-)

On drawing, seeing and slow photography

A few weeks ago, I joined an arts class: figure and portrait drawing. It’s been a long time since I did any drawing, in fact, I had not done any serious drawing since art school.

In class, we spend a lot of our time (more than 80%) using our eyes to trace our subject, and then, for the remaining 20% of our time, we translate that “eye trace” with a pencil onto the paper.

In photography, quite often, it is the other way around. We take the image in a split second (literally), and then spend a tremendous amount of time tweaking the trace until it is starting to become close to what we think we saw.

In the classic book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”, author Betty Edwards argues that anyone with enough brain-hand coordination to be able to write, should be able to draw. To be able to draw well however, one must relearn to see.

The same may well hold for photography. To put it simply, anyone with enough brain-hand coordination to be able to press the shutter, should be able to take a photo. To be able to take a good photo however, requires relearning to see.

Highway 163, Monument Valley, USA

A drawing class can help photographers develop this ability, because in general, drawing is much slower than photography. Drawing forces you to really spend time with your subject, study the shapes, the negative spaces, the play of light and shadow, before you transfer it onto the paper. Drawing makes you think about where you’re going to put the next line, because the ‘undo’ function (the eraser) is often far from perfect. Drawing gets your hands dirty, whilst opening your eyes.

Frederick Franck, artist and author of the beautifully poetic book “Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing”, describes how he left on a trip to Africa, carrying two cameras and the determination to get to know Africa and the African people. But, as his mission progressed, he felt more and more that the camera “separated his eye from the reality he was observing”. The people with whom he was, ran away as soon as he got his camera out. But when he replaced his camera with a pencil and paper, they were quite willing to “have their portrait taken”. The camera had become a barrier to seeing.

Obviously, since the camera is the tool to use for photographers, we cannot put our camera away completely. But we can spend a more time actually seeing our subject, making contact with the landscape, the people or whatever is in front of our cameras. In that seeing, that contact, we can prepare ourselves and the camera for the photo we are going to take, bringing much more of what we saw into the resulting image.

Plants in a stream, El Tatío geyser field, Chile

Just out of curiosity, dear readers, which other art forms do you practise besides photography, and how does it affect your photographic work?

Photographing North Korea – 7 practical tips

Last August, I had the opportunity of visiting one of the most enigmatic countries in the world: North Korea, or the DPRK as it prefers to be known. The DPRK is a beautiful country, with a splendidly scenic countryside and warm and friendly people. It is full of sights that you do not see anywhere else in the world, but since photography in the DPRK is quite restricted, for many travelers, photographing their trip turns into a kind of hit-and-miss trophy hunting.

I hope that the tips below allow for a more relaxed time to look around, have a chat and enjoy the experience without constantly looking through the viewfinder. In case you are not traveling to the DPRK anytime soon, these tips can equally apply to other countries where there are some restrictions on photography.

Tip #1 Use autofocus

Since you have to decide quite quickly where to focus, it comes in handy to familiarize yourself with the autofocus settings of your camera. If you have the option of choosing the autofocus points yourself, then use that option and train your eyes and fingers to allow quick selection and setting of the autofocus point.

DPRK tour guides photographing our tour group with cameras from each member of the group

DPRK tour guides photographing our tour group with cameras from each member of the group

Tip #2 Photography from a tour bus

Photographing from a tour bus is generally not permitted outside Pyongyang city limits, so always ask permission first. However, inside the city limits, there are plenty of opportunities for shots from the bus. To avoid these shots suffering from motion blur caused by the bus moving, you put your camera in shutter speed mode, with a short shutter speed (typically 1/1000 s). A suitable ISO setting will depend on the weather. On a cloudy, rainy day, start with ISO 400. On a sunny day, ISO 100-200 should be sufficient.

Roadside mosaic mural showing president Kim Il Sung

Roadside mosaic mural showing president Kim Il Sung

Lone vehicle on the road between Pyongyang and Nampho

Lone vehicle on the road between Pyongyang and Nampho

Tip #3 People and portraits

Be aware that many Koreans do not want their photographs taken, so always ask before taking photographs of people, usually with the aid of your Korean guides.

Farming family posing with portraits of presidents Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il

Farming family posing with portraits of presidents Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il

You usually shoot better portraits (rather than snapshots), when you are able to establish some form of contact with the person you are photographing. Use your Korean guide as a translator to ask your subject small, innocent questions in between taking photographs.

Most portraits are done in aperture priority mode, with apertures of 2.8 to 5.6, for small depth of field. Make sure your shutter speed is shorter than 1/125 s, to avoid blur caused by movement of your subject (or yourself), and adjust the ISO accordingly.

Children receiving a printed copy of a photo that was taken of them minutes before, Pyongyang Metro

Children receiving a printed copy of a photo that was taken of them minutes before, Pyongyang Metro

Do not forget to share the photo with your subject; show them the result on your camera’s LCD viewer, or even better, hand them a print!

Tip #4 Indoor performances

Again, motion blur is the key thing to avoid. Motion blur here can be caused by unwanted movement of the camera (since the distance between you and the stage sometimes is quite far, and you will have to zoom in quite a bit), or by movement of the performer (dance, acrobatics).

Dancers at the Arirang Mass Games performance

Dancers at the Arirang Mass Games performance

In the case of acrobatics or dance, shutter speeds of about 1/1000 s are required. For most other performances, 1/250 s is sufficient. Depending on the strength of the lighting, ISO settings of 400 to 3200 are required, and for best results with spot lights, use an exposure compensation of -1 stop.

Tip #5 Pyongyang Metro

The intensity of the light in the Pyongyang metro is quite low, even on the platforms. Practical settings are shutter speed priority mode, ISO 3200, 1/60 s. If you are photographing with longer lenses (up to 200 mm), use a support (tripod, fence, fellow traveler, etc.) to keep the camera still.

On the platform of the Pyongyang Metro

On the platform of the Pyongyang Metro

When motion blur is your goal however, great results can be achieved with shutter speeds longer than 1/10 s. Again, a support is needed to keep your camera still.

Tip #6 DPRK Monuments

Without a doubt, every monument in the DPRK is designed to impress. On a beautiful sunny day, in order to make the monument stand out against the blue sky, consider taking your photographs using a polarizing filter.

Statues of presidents Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il near the Korean Revolution Museum

Statues of presidents Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il near the Korean Revolution Museum

Do not forget to include human figures, to emphasize the scale on which the monuments are built.

Tip #7 Korean State Television

KCTV broadcasts from 17:00 – 23:30 on weekdays and from 09:00 – 24:00 on weekends. If your Korean is insufficient to follow the programs, you can still photograph the screens! In order to cover the 50 Hz refresh rate of the screen, put your camera in shutter speed priority mode, with shutter speeds of 1/30 s or longer. For regular TV brightness, use an ISO of 400.

The DPRK flag waving at the end of an evening of KCTV broadcasting

The DPRK flag waving at the end of an evening of KCTV broadcasting

I hope these tips were useful to you, good luck with your photography!

For more of my images of the DPRK, click here

ps: All images were taken on a group tour organized by Koryo Tours.

Let’s go letting go!

For many of us photographers, control is an important factor in our work. Before we create an image, we make decisions on the composition (viewpoint, framing and timing), the exposure (shutter speed, ISO and aperture), lighting conditions (over- or underexposure, or use of flash or studio lighting), perspective (choice of lens), quality of the camera etc. On top of that, the landscape photographers among us are quite happy to wait and wait until weather and lighting conditions are as we want them to be.

We take the shot and it’s off to Lightroom and Photoshop.

There, we can exercise the ultimate control: with the image captured in millions of pixels, we are now able to influence the appearance of every single pixel we have captured, one by one. And, when working in Lightroom, we are able to create virtual copies of your images, multiple versions of which the multiple operations we unleash upon them have multiple undo’s.

Wow! Wasn’t making art something about dipping into the well and seeing what comes up?

In her wonderful book “The Artist’s Way”, Julia Cameron urges blocked artists to regain trust and to “let go and let God”. She describes how too much thinking about art and too much control can stifle the artistic process. Rather then going for an all out loss of control, she advocates a surrendering of control. Much like for instance Dada artists would drop pieces of cardboard onto a large sheet of paper, glue them where they landed and take that as a starting point for their art.

On a trip to Nepal, I was staying in the small village of Tengboche, with a clear view over one of Nepal’s most beautiful mountains, Ama Dablam. I thought its dramatic silhouette would look great against a backdrop of star trails. I set up my camera in the pre-dawn freeze, and, relying on earlier experiments on that trip, I knew a 7 minute exposure would get me the result I was after. So much for the control part…

However, when I checked the image on the LCD-screen of my camera, an unexpected spec of light had appeared. Closer inspection showed it to be a trail of lights, most probably from a climbing expedition setting off from a high-altitude camp. It had been too faint to see with the naked eye, but the camera registered it perfectly well.

I guess that was chance favoring a prepared photographer ;-)

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