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.

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