Photographing Amsterdam

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A few months ago, while I was in full camera review mode working with a pre-release copy of the amazing new Fuji X-Pro2, I had the following request:

“We’re thinking of flying you to Amsterdam in March so you can hang out for a week and do nothing but photography… what do you think?”

Seriously, true story.

There are few things I love more than travel photography.  It presents a plethora of opportunities to photograph beautiful locations, to meet and photograph amazing people, to shoot street photography, and perhaps most importantly to grow as a person.  Whenever the topic of European travel comes up I am told:  “You HAVE to go to Amsterdam”.   It is a city loved by many, so I was insanely excited about this new opportunity.

This post will be part one of a three part series on Amsterdam:

For the camera lovers:  I had just written a 5 part series on the new Fuji X-Pro2 and had a lot of interaction with people about it on Twitter and Instagram, so I decided to travel ultra light for this trip with nothing but my Fuji X100t travel kit.   There is no question that the X-Pro2 is the best camera Fuji has made, but the X100t has a special place in my heart and it turned out to be the perfect travel companion for this trip.

Final note before we jump in:  I have been told that WordPress compression has been affecting the image quality for some people.  If that happens for you please click each image to view it large and in full resolution.

Let’s get started…

Every city has something iconic that immediately lets you know you are in it.  Paris has the Eiffel Tower.  New York has the Empire State building.  San Francisco has its cable cars, and it goes without saying that in Amsterdam it is the canal system.  These canals, built in the 17th century, were the result of elaborate city planning.  I was told that there are more than 100 kilometres of canals and 1,500 bridges!

Central Amsterdam is incredibly easy to navigate on foot, despite being constructed with concentric canals that go around the city .  A rough estimate had us walking 20 kilometres per day, and this really is the way to experience this beautiful city.   Every corner you turn, every bridge you stand on, every direction you look there is a beautiful and classic view like the photo at the top of this post, or like this photo here:

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We expected (and had) a fair bit of rain while we were there, and in many ways it just made things more beautiful.  Here is the same vantage point as the photo above, but on a grey and rainy day:

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This photo reminded me of my experience six months ago when I spent time in Paris, and of how timeless Europe feels .  The photo above could have been taken in the 1940s.  I love that.

Here is another scenic canal view, taken while we were waiting to board a cruise.  A beam of  light burst through a break in the clouds and lit the buildings perfectly:

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When you travel you go outside of your bubble, and you see how other cultures find solutions to challenges they face.  They say that necessity is the mother of all invention, and I was impressed with the many different ways the canals are used.  Take this photo, for example:

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Along the right you can see the Bloemenmarkt, the world’s only floating flower market (if the internet is to be believed).  This market, founded in 1862, is one of the main suppliers of flowers in central Amsterdam.

Cycling is one of the main forms of transportation in Amsterdam, and it is said that there are over 1,000,000 bicycles in the city.  That’s a lot of bikes, and they all need to be parked somewhere.  See that red barge floating on the left side of this photo?  That is a bike parkade.   A brilliant space utilization solution.

You learn very quickly in Amsterdam how to negotiate the city streets without getting run over, and rule number one is that the cyclists have the right of way.   If you wait ten minutes on the road side you will see people cycling in suits and ties, in dresses and heels, with baskets of flowers, or with briefcases.  It is such a beautiful thing to see:

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What truly defines a culture though is not the architecture or the modes of transportation, it is the people… and I LOVE the people in Amsterdam.

Now, I’m Canadian.  We are pretty much the nicest people on the planet.  We can use the words “please”, “thank you”, and “sorry” multiple times in the same sentence.  We understand “nice”, and believe me when I say the people I encountered in Amsterdam were joyous to interact with:

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And, they have a fabulous sense of humour:

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Amsterdam is a liberal city, and I think that is part of what makes it so relaxing to spend time in.  It felt like the people there work to live, and not live to work.  Things we consider taboo here (for right or wrong) such as prostitution or certain drug use are completely legal and regulated there.

This brings us to another iconic visual that comes to mind when you think of Amsterdam:  The famous red light district where the city’s sex workers ply their trade:

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If you see the lights on there will be someone working in the window.  When you see somebody to your liking you can negotiate the particulars of your business together and take it from there.  There is health testing, a union, and no stigma attached to it.

It is actually quite difficult to put into words how embedded into the Amsterdam lifestyle these red light areas are.  You can literally walk 20′ from one of them and enter a church that is hundreds of years old:

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Another iconic visual that comes to mind when thinking about the Netherlands are tulips:

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The tulips are particularly relevant to myself as a Canadian, as both of my grandfathers fought in World War Two.  A little history to explain why…

After the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940 the Dutch royal family fled to England, and in 1942 Princess Juliana and her two small daughters were sent to live in Canada for the remainder of the war as a safety precaution.  In 1943 Princess Juliana gave birth to another daughter in Ottawa, and to ensure the new princess would have full Dutch citizenship Canada made the maternity ward in the hospital they were in extraterritorial.   In 1945, to say thank you to Canada for their role in protecting the royal family and in fighting to liberate the Netherlands from German occupation, Princess Juliana sent gifts to Canada that included 100,000 tulip bulbs.  When she became queen in 1948 she continued to send thousands of tulips to Canada each year during her reign, and it is said that there are now over one million tulips in the capital region of Canada.

…such an amazing history.

I also visited the Anne Frank House.  Photography is not permitted there, but it was one of the most moving experiences I have had on my travels.

Here are a few more random images taken while out on my wanders:

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To end this first post on Amsterdam I need to come back to the photo at the top of this post, and the experience I had shooting it:

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Right behind the place I was standing to take this photo there is a little restaurant.  After a long day of walking and shooting I stopped into this restaurant with my travel companion where we had drinks, some bread, and a delicious cheese plate.  When the light started falling we set up our tripods and shot through the changing blue hour into deep dusk.  It was our last night in the city and all I could think of was how lucky I am, and how blessed my life is.  I was standing in front of this beautiful vista, I had just spent a week experiencing a remarkable culture, and I was standing beside a good friend doing what I love.   No words needed to be said and when the light fell, when we had this last perfect photo experience for the trip, we packed up and headed to one of our favourite restaurants for a final dinner in Amsterdam.

I hope everyone has the opportunity to experience the pure joy that comes from doing something they love.  This evening, in this amazing city, will stay with me for a long time.

Next up, Amsterdam street photography!

Until then,

Ian

12 thoughts on “Photographing Amsterdam

  1. Moose Borrowdale says:

    Interesting post and great photos. I am visiting Amsterdam for the first time for a couple of days in September as part of a photo trip to the Redhead Days in nearby Breda. I’m also mainly into street so look forwards to your next post.

    • Ian says:

      You will love it Moose! There are so many great backdrops to shoot street against, especially when you get off of the beaten path. I look forward to seeing your work.

  2. Mike Vincent says:

    This was a great read Ian. I just got back from Holland last Friday and spe n’t the day walking and shooting in Amsterdam, I also covered The Hague and The City of Leiden. Your post has inspired me to go back before the end of this year and stay a week. The little I experienced was simply enchanting.

    • Ian says:

      It was for me too…

      If you go back with time, be sure to go a little south-east of the Rijksmuseum. It is out of the tourist area and there is a little flea market there that was a lot of fun to shoot at!

  3. Robert van Heumen says:

    Hello Ian,

    I’ am Dutch and visited Amsterdam a couple of times a year. It’s indeed a special city and great to do streetphotography. You have to check the work of a famous Dutch streetphotographer, called Ed van der Elsken. He was born in Amsterdam. His pictures get me in streetphotography. You can found a lot on You-Tube. Cheers Robert

    • Ian says:

      Good evening Robert!

      Thank you for commenting. I will definitely check out Ed’s work, and I really appreciate you turning me on to to another source of inspiration for an art form I love so much!

      Best wishes,

      Ian

  4. Alex (@alscottphoto67) says:

    Hi Ian,

    I’ve been going to Amsterdam almost every year since 1997, and I never get tired of taking photos there. My next trip there is in the middle of May and I’m counting the minutes till it’s time to go. The people are cool, the atmosphere is relaxed and the city is beautiful. I want to live there one day ! (Great photos btw).

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