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

The night photography almost ruined my vacation – A cautionary tale

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February was a gear heavy month on the blog, predominantly focused on pre-release shooting with the new Fuji X-Pro2.   I wrote my 5 part review series on the X-Pro2, and also published an interview with one of the official Fuji Guys.  It was a great month and I am so thankful for my relationship with Fuji Canada.  Now that the X-Pro2 is out in the wild I’m really looking forward to getting back to talking about the art and craft of photography for a little while.

Readers of this blog will note that March has been light on content.  This was mostly because I travelled to Amsterdam for a week of photography.  I am editing the photos from that trip right now, and will have a 3 part series coming in the next few weeks from that amazing city.  Before that, however, let’s talk about one specific evening I was out shooting in Paris last summer, and how my love for the art and craft of photography almost ruined what was, up until then,  a perfect vacation.

I should point out as we start that this night was an anomaly for me.  I lead an incredibly fortunate life, full of amazing travel and photographic opportunities.  I work with people I love, use gear I love, and get to share my work with family and friends.  I am incredibly thankful.   Consider this a cautionary tale then on the importance of maintaining perspective, because when you lose perspective it usually works against you.  Let’s get started…

The photo at the top of this post was taken from the  Pont Alexandre III in Paris, looking out toward the Eiffel Tower shortly after sunset.  I love this photo, to me it speaks to the romantic beauty of Paris.  When people view it they often comment any how beautiful that part of Paris is, how peaceful it must have felt to stand on that bridge that night, and how it must have felt amazing to be all alone and watch the tower light up.

Photography can be an illusion though.  A skilled photographer makes photographs, not just takes them.   The actual experience of taking this photo was very different from the experience described above, and that’s what I’d like to talk about.

On this trip to Paris one of the things my wife and I wanted to do was to have a picnic on the Champ de Mars, the grassy strip that runs below the Eiffel Tower.  As we drank wine and ate bread we would watch the sun set behind the tower and I would occasionally click the shutter to grab a beautiful image.  This picnic was also going to be held on my birthday, so it was going to be even more special.  I had a plan.

Due to some low clouds and rain early in the trip we had to postpone this picnic, so when we finally went it was toward the end of our stay.  We got off the Metro and I was totally excited for this night, which I knew would be full of awesome.  I could see it all in my mind.  I had a plan.

Walking up to the place where we were going to sit I was immediately caught off guard by the fences running around the entire area, by the grass that no longer seemed to be there, and by the large festival tents that were erected.  Indeed, the entire area was closed to prep for an upcoming event.

…I was crushed.

I had this whole evening planned and had anticipated it for so long that truth be told I was frustrated by this turn of events.   Now, I love photography.  It brings me joy, and my portrait subjects will tell you that I laugh non stop on my shoots because of that.   As I watched the sun fall though, for what was bound to be a perfect sunset, I found myself scrambling in my mind to pick a new location to shoot before “the night was wasted”.   From my pre-trip research I thought of the  Pont Alexandre III, and set off on the 20-30 minute walk at what could only be described as an angered pace… dragging my poor wife along with me.

It might surprise you to hear this, but artists can take themselves way to seriously sometimes.

Shocking, I know.   Let’s look at the facts for a second though…

I was still in Paris.  I was still with my beautiful wife.  I still had a bag of amazing gear over my shoulder.  There was still a beautiful European sunset falling right in front of me, yet I had fixated so much on one specific plan for the evening that I disregarded all of that when the plan fell apart.  This night reminded me that taking ourselves and our art too seriously almost always ends in failure.  I am human of course and we all have bad days, so I am ok with the fact that it happened and I’m not shy about sharing this story with you.

Back to the story…

Walking fast, I’m sure I went past at least a dozen beautiful photo opportunities along the way:  The Eiffel Tower framed between buildings, a garden, street photographs, beautiful people who I would have usually asked to make a portrait of, etc.  I was in damage control mode to try to save this evening and still get my “trophy shot” for the night.  I stopped seeing as an artist.

We arrived on the bridge, I set up on a tripod and got the photo above framed.  I felt better, and it  was now merely a matter of waiting for the right light as the tower lights came on and the light in the sky fell.

It turns out though that I wasn’t the only person who knew about this bridge and this view.  Amazing, I know, that other people in the most visited city in the world would also know about a scenic vista.  I’m actually talking about hundreds of people.  By the time the light was perfect I had to obsessively ask people to hang back out of the way while I clicked frames.  Sometimes it worked, sometimes they ignored me completely.  I think I got 12 decent frames and that was it, we were overwhelmed and I gave up.  And, let’s not forget that my poor wife, the amazing rock that she is, was waiting patiently the whole time while I destroyed our evening trying to get the perfect photograph.

This should have been a hilarious evening full of calamities (which, in hindsight, it was).  My frustration over the loss of my initial plans made me completely forget why I create art though…

Because it is fun, it is joyful, and it brings pleasure to my life.  Being an artist is such a gift.  I create because I love the process.  Every now and then it is good to be reminded of that.

Since that night 7 months ago I have travelled to Seattle, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam for the purposes of travel photography.  I have shot weddings and portrait sessions.  I have shot a lot of street photography, and that night has been a good reminder to always love the process… ultimately it is just as important as the final product.

Next on the blog, a three part series from Amsterdam.

Until then,

Ian

 

Photographing the Las Vegas Strip at Night

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(All images can be clicked to viewed large)

Note:  This post is part two of a three part series on photographing Las Vegas:

Whenever I visit a city I am always looking for a trophy shot, a beautiful city skyline photograph that I’d love to print large and put on the wall (remember, a photograph needs to be real).  I knew during my recent  business trip to Las Vegas that I’d have two or three nights available to shoot, and I wanted to make the most of them.

One of the first things I do when I am researching these trophy shots is to find the best place to shot from.  Many cities have elevated viewing platforms (e.g. the Top of the Rock in New York City, the Montparnasse Tower in Paris, the Vancouver Lookout, etc), and if they do I always spend an evening at the top shooting.  A little research goes a long way here:  Usually you have to pay to go up to these viewing platforms, sometimes you need to make reservations, you want to be there at least 30 minutes before sunset, they may or may not allow tripods, etc.

The photo above is a view of the Las Vegas Strip looking north, shot from the top of the Eiffel Tower Experience.   This photograph is a 3 image stitched panorama shot with the Fuji X100t.  Shooting stitched panoramas allows you to travel light, but still take beautiful scenic photographs.

Looking south from the same platform, this was the view:

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Give yourself time to shoot these images.  The light changes fast in the hour that starts 30 minutes before sunset, and ends 30 minutes after sunset.  As the sky darkens the colours saturate, and there is that beautiful sweet spot between the rich sky and the city lights that only lasts for a few minutes.

Tripods are not allowed at the top of the Eiffel Tower Experience, so having strong camera handling skills is of critical importance to ensure you get a sharp image when it is darker out.  Here’s a few tips:

  1. Increase your ISO.  Yes, you may get a slightly more grainy image, but you will get a faster shutter speed which will help keep your image sharp.  Today’s technology helps a lot here… I know with my Fuji cameras I can get clean files up to ISO 1600, and even 3200 is fine if I need to go that high.
  2. Brace against whatever you can.
  3. Use your timer to trip the shutter.  This eliminates any motion caused by pushing down on the shutter.
  4. Have good “trigger control”.  Control your breathing while the slow shutter is open.
  5. Take lots of photographs.  The slower shutter speeds required to get these images means you are going to get some blurry ones when you handhold.  You can always delete the extra photographs from you hard drive later.

Let’s get back to our evening…

Once the sky is black, I usually switch to black and white.  The Paris Hotel and Eiffel Tower Experience is directly across the street from the Bellagio Hotel, with its famous fountains:

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And just a few minutes away from there is Caesar’s Palace:

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These images, with the bright lights against the dark sky, work well as high contrast black and white photographs.

The longer shutter speeds required at night also provide an excellent opportunity to shoot motion blur:

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The strip is busy.  Hectic.  Chaotic.  A little crazy.  Pictures like this remind me of what it was like to actually be there.   Las Vegas has elevated pedestrian walkways over the strip, which give you an excellent point of view to shoot the traffic below.

On the second night I set up to shoot the Paris Hotel, framed with the fountains from the Bellagio.  Sunsets in Las Vegas have a magenta glow to them, which I loved:

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Shortly after this photograph was taken I moved south by a block or two, and shot back toward the Paris Hotel from one of the elevated walkways:

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Notice the difference in the sky.  These two photographs are taken less than 30 minutes apart, but the change is dramatic.  The sky has darkened and lost much of its colour, but the lights have come on beautifully!

This photograph is shot through the glass that is used to wall in the walkways.  Shooting through glass can be difficult due to reflections.  If you have a lens hood use it, and get your lens right up against a clean section of the glass.  Then use a small piece of dark cloth, your hand, anything to wrap your lens and prevent light from getting in.  You can almost always eliminate unwanted reflections by doing this.

On my last night to shoot there were amazing clouds, and I knew when they saturated with that sunset magenta colour the sky would look amazing:

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Spinning around, I shot another slow shutter speed image to try to capture some of that crazy las Vegas hustle and bustle:

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…and Hooters.  You can’t photograph Las Vegas, Sin City, and not get Hooters in the frame!

Of course, no trip to Vegas would be complete without shooting the famous sign:

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Shooting at night can be very rewarding.  The sky looks gorgeous, the city lights sparkle, and the slower shutter speeds allow you to capture motion.  This is your time as a photographer.   Enjoy the day with your family, visit the sites, enjoy the food.  When the sun is going down though put on your photographer hat and go looking for that trophy picture.

Next up, Freemont Street!

Cheers,

Ian