black and white, digital, documentary, Hong Kong, leica, M9, monochrome, street

Jonathan van Smit . Photographer

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Jonathan Van Smit Heart of Darkness 4

I keep staring at Jonathan’s pictures on my screen.

I cannot take my eyes off them.


JS: A friend of mine in Phnom Penh runs a charity helping the disabled, and is a musician too. I was touched by the words in one of his songs, and started a project loosely based on the lyrics.

she no like but she do
no money, no eat
love you like monkey
I no lie, I speak true

I spent a few days simply walking the back streets of central Phnom Penh, taking lots of photos as I usually do, and one day plucked up enough courage to speak to Phouk, a girl who worked a corner where a slum alley led onto Street 51 which is a notorious red light area full of girlie bars and clubs.


She spoke good English, and was quite happy for me to take photos provided that I gave her money so she could get her teeth fixed. I explained that I wanted photos related to drug use and also her work, and we arranged to meet the next day. The next day, Phouk introduced me to her friend, and took me to their room which was a small plywood shack reached by a ladder on top of the slum shanty buildings.

jonathan-van-smit-heart-of-darkness-6I eventually did two photo sessions with them. I wanted a blurry, ambiguous nude photo and some that were more explicit about drug taking. Both the girls must have been beautiful once but drugs, poverty and their work have taken their toll. They smoke the local cheap methamphetamine ‘yama’ to cope and sometimes mix it with heroin.

GL: How do you pick your subjects?

JS: Like most photographers, I had this dilemma of what to photograph. A turning point for me was a trip to New York a few years back. I took ten rolls of Tri-X, and pretty much randomly shot anything that my eye lingered on for more than a few seconds. I tried not to have too much intent and part of the plan was not to use the viewfinder and to just guess focus. Many of the photos were rubbish but I also ended up with some that were blurred or out of focus but still had plenty of meaning to me. I was then able to edit these down to a small set that seemed coherent. I was surprised by the outcome, and even now, many of my favorite photos are the result of serendipity or instinct. I still estimate focus most of the time, and rarely use the viewfinder.


I mostly take photos in a fairly aimless sort of way. I just walk the streets endlessly at weekends or on holiday. I like walking, and watching people too. If I’m lucky, I might have a handful of okay photos out of two or three hundred frames. I try to work within some loosely defined themes. For example, how people overcome adversity, or anything that has a ‘noir’ feel to it. I find the more deprived parts of towns more interesting. They’re the opposite of my professional experience working in wealth management, and visually more interesting too.

GL: I don’t think I have seen many nudes that have shaken me to the extent that this photo of Phouk has. I am still trying to understand why.


JS: I was quite disappointed with this photo as it was very hard to process. The room was very dark, and I had under-exposed many of the shots so the set was mostly unusable. I was using a high ISO, partly because of the low light but also because I like to degrade my images. I’m okay with grain, blur and digital noise. I just shot on continuous mode until the camera buffer filled up. I was using a slow shutter speed, and was hoping to have a shot with enough blur to provide meaning & context but without being abstract. If I’m taking photos like that then I might have one or two usable frames if I’m lucky.

GL: Looking at your pictures it’s clear that there’s some deep correlation between your personality, your shooting method and the emotional impact of your images.

JS: I use a rangefinder as it’s faster than fully automatic cameras. I always try to be pre-focused, usually at 1.5 metres or even at one metre depending on the location as I use very wide-angle lenses. I don’t like to have the camera in front of my face as it limits my peripheral vision so I usually shoot at shoulder height. This way I can anticipate people’s movement, and time the shot more precisely. I set myself targets like shooting 200 or 300 frames over a weekend. The more we shoot, the more likely we are to have a ‘lucky’ shot. Mentally, I usually have to psych myself up especially if I’m taking photos in difficult or challenging situations. It’s easy to let fear take hold and run away!

Jonathan van Smit (10)

Taking photos can be a lot of hard work. I walk for hours at the weekend, and often late at night or on uncomfortably hot, humid days here in Hong Kong. I don’t often have the luxury of being ‘in the mood’ and frequently have to consciously motivate myself to go out and take photos. It’s a discipline thing for me, and not always easy.

The technicalities don’t interest me very much. I’m not trying to take photos that are technically ‘good’, and I’m not trying to take ‘pretty’ photos of the type so often seen in photo magazines. It’s harder, I think, to take photos that are technically ‘bad’ but still have meaning.

GL: What camera did you use? Film or digital?


JS: I’m not really into this film versus digital thing. Digital is easier and more flexible so I use it. I mostly use Leica digital rangefinders and small Ricoh point-and-shoots. I like small cameras as they’re lighter to carry all day and less conspicuous. If there was a cheaper rangefinder alternative then I’d use it as I’m not hung up on Leicas and the poor quality is frustrating. I black out manufacturer’s logos and lettering with a permanent marker.

Currently I’m using the M9 and Monochrom, and sometimes the Ricoh GR. More importantly to me, I use wide-angle lenses: 15mm, 18mm, and 21mm. I do have longer lenses, 28mm and 35mm but don’t often use them. I’m used to the Leica form-factor so I can change focus or shutter speed without having to look down at the camera. I don’t have standard settings though I usually shoot at high ISO between 800 and 1600 as I want to use smaller apertures to avoid bokeh (which I hate!) and have good depth-of-field.

GL: How do you measure light?

jonathan-van-smit-and-pass-me-by-2JS: I’d love to be able to use auto-exposure all the time but the metering on Leicas using wide-angle lenses is problematic so, unless the lighting is uniformly flat, I often have to set exposure manually especially at night. I can quickly change the aperture or shutter setting as I walk from shadows to streetlights.

How do you focus?

JS: I usually pre-set focus and then adjust either side from that if there’s enough time. I don’t like auto-focus as it’s too slow in poor light and sometimes I want the subject out of focus, for example, I might focus on a dirty, tagged wall while a person walks in front.

GL: What about lighting? Based on your images it’s clear that you take pictures all the time. What’s your relationship to daylight and artificial light?

JS: I only use ambient light, not flash, and prefer shooting at night or towards the end of the day as the light is more interesting then. I’ve nothing against flash though, it’s just that I’ve never got around to using it.

GL: How much do you usually work with in ‘post’ with your stills?

JS: Photographers have a tendency to focus on camera choice but I think post-processing tools are equally if not more important. Not that I spend a lot of time on it. I mostly use contrast controls as that can have the biggest impact on the photo’s emotional content or implied narrative.

jonathan-van-smit-flickr-2I use Nik Silver Efex after RAW conversion in Lightroom. Basically, I just play with sliders until some meaning or implicit story emerges from the photos. I might dodge and burn too as well as using the red and yellow filters. Every camera responds differently to post-processing so I don’t have a generalized workflow but treat every frame differently.

GL: Most of your images are black-and-white. Why? Do you shoot on film or on digital?

JS: I haven’t used film for years. I like black-and-white. This is partly an aesthetic choice but also because restricting subject content can have a greater emotional or narrative impact. For example, increasing contrast also darkens a photo which in turn withholds detail, and something that is implied can have more meaning than something that is explicit. Sometimes, I’ll use colour but this is usually because I want to break out of my usual routine. Importing the photo into Nik Silver Efex automatically turns the photo into black & white.

GL: You have lots of extremely wide-angle shots and I haven’t really seen pictures that you’d take with longer lenses. Why is that? What does focal length mean to you?

Jonathan van Smit (2)JS: My favorite lens is my 15mm Zeiss though I mostly use 21mm as the 15mm is very extreme. It’s hugely expensive too and quite heavy but can focus down to 300mm, and I can shoot someone head-to-foot at 1.5 metres away. I like being close to the subject but I don’t usually want interaction. I just want to be an observer or passer-by rather than a participant. Being close to the subject results in a very different emotional context compared to using a longer lens but it’s much harder to use in practice.

GL: You don’t want interaction but you want the energy and directness that comes with being close to your subjects. How does that work?

JS: Occasionally I’d like to to be invisible or merely a shadow! D’Agata, for example, wants to be a participant, and that’s central to his work but I’m often taking photos of a world that I don’t generally belong to. Appearing to be a participant would be a contrivance on my part. This notion is ambiguous though, Sometimes though I do want interaction or at least a direct gaze into the camera lens. I guess a lot of this is instinctive on my part, and not something I think about much There’s also an adrenaline thing going on sometimes. Photo-taking can be potentially dangerous, and that can be exciting.

GL: How do you feel about having paid Phouk? Is this something that you generally do or are willing to do? Or is it simply a last resort?

jonathan-van-smit-heart-of-darkness-8JS: It’s something I’m uncomfortable with unless they’re a model in which case I’m paying for their time. It’s just an emotional thing on my part. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with paying someone but it does change the dynamic in a way, and perhaps risks diluting the authenticity of the photo.

GL: When you get as close to your subjects with your camera as you have to with your wide-angle lens, you become part of their world for a little while. What impact did your ‘Heart of Darkness’ series have on you?

JS: The experience has shaken me a lot, and I’m not sure if I’ll continue. As well as the normal human concerns about the two young women’s well-being, I’m left with nagging questions. Was it ethical to agree to pay them money for the photos? Should I be taking photos like this? Was I exploiting them? I don’t know the answers but the questions remain awkwardly in my mind.

I’ve been back a couple of times since. One of the young women is clearly very sick, and the other has disappeared.


(To see more of Jonathan van Smit’s pictures visit his website at or follow his stream on flickr. All images © Jonathan van Smit and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

György is a cinematographer teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit


L1ghtb1tes is moving!

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L1ghtb1tes is moving to its very own domain:

The new site is up and running. What has been published so far on will stay here and for a few weeks, until you all get used to the new address, I will keep posting articles here, too. The new links posted on l1ghtb1tes’ facebook page will, as of Monday, August 5, point to the new domain, so if you have ‘liked’ that page, you have nothing to worry about, you will be always notified of the latest developments.

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black and white, color, compact, D700, digital, documentary, Lumix, nikon

Annalisa Brambilla . Photographer

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The more pictures I look at, the less I am able to say why I feel attracted to some images. Sometimes the answer is not so much in the image itself but in the emotional attachment that forms between me, the viewer and the photo. It’s a strange umbilical cord that ties me to what I see, it has the power to turn me into the photographer who took the picture.

GL: Two pairs of feet, one black and white, the other color, two pictures from two different series but there’s some playfulness and intimacy that they share.

Annalisa Brambilla As If 9AB: These two images are parts of completely different works of mine, and also from very different phases of my life, both personally and photographically. There is not connection between them, at least not at a conscious level. The black and white image was taken at a spa in Argentina a few years ago. I decided I was going to work on my first proper photojournalistic story. I took a month and a half unpaid leave and I went off following a story about water, water scarcity and abundance. I had both a DSLR and a compact digital camera, for which i had a waterproof case. That’s what I used for this photo.

Annalisa Brambilla As If 5

As If, the series this picture is part of, came together when I decided to format my hard drive and bin it all. I ended up being caught up in a crisis about the meaning of photography. I could not find myself in what I was doing and I didn’t like my photographs. I started looking here and there more with a nostalgic feeling than anything else, and all of a sudden I looked at some images in a different way. I had my little humble epiphany and As If came out.

GL: A photographer about to ‘burn’ her pictures? May sound romantic, but it must have been a huge crisis.

Annalisa Brambilla As If 1AB: I was feeling defeated in my hopes, dreams and ambitions. I was about to press ‘confirm formatting’ when a friend of mine phoned me inviting me out. I told him what was going on and he suggested to leave it there for the moment and go out. I did. I took the camera with me. I got drunk. I took photos and the following day I turned up at the last day of the workshop that I was attending that week with my series. The series wasn’t bad, and I never formatted the hard drives.

Annalisa-Brambilla-My-Star-Wars-Family-18The color image is from My Star Wars Family. I took all the images mostly during the three months I lived with this family in 2011/2012. In this case the subject was quite clear from day one, even though it became clearer while in the process. As far as I remember I was helping one of the children taking a bath and Ibu, the little one, was messing around with us.

GL: How do you respond to the situations around you? How do your pictures get taken in the technical sense?

Annalisa Brambilla My Star Wars Family AsleepAB: I don’t have any mantra, any exercise. Sometimes I am luckier than other times. More often than not, when I really think I got a picture situation and all is there the result is pretty disappointing. At other times, as I go through what I shot, I find something I like. I see something that I didn’t really realize the moment it happened. But in all honesty, I wish I could draw and make all the pictures I didn’t take. I have the feeling those are the best ones.

GL: What are some of the best pictures that you didn’t take?

AB: Moments and portraits, some situations. Mostly portraits of people, interactions…. Those things you see and surprise you. You have no time to grab the camera, but also you may feel you’re intruding. I have this. And I let it go, I guess.

Annalisa Brambilla My Star Wars Family kitchenAs for technicalities, I’m not so fussy about that. I try to get the best possible file so that afterwards I can work on it more easily. Having said this, I don’t post-produce much and if I think a picture works I get over the fact that it is maybe overexposed or underexposed, badly composed or focused and use it anyway.

GL: Technically: what camera(s) did you use? Film? Digital?

AB: A digital SLR, a Nikon D700. I mostly use a 50mm, f/1.4 and sometimes an old 35-70mm, f/2.8 lens. I used to have an old Nikon film camera, darkroom and all and when I moved on to digital I thought of getting a Nikon so I could swap lenses and carry on with both digital and film. I, regrettably, never did. The color image was taken with this camera, I don’t remember the settings, probably high ISO, around 1600 or so, and maybe f/2.8, but definitely no more than f/5.6 and 1/60.

The black and white image was taken with the Lumix GF2, which I use with the 20mm, f/1.7 pancake lens. The settings were on auto. The waterproof case wasn’t the most perfect and I could not control the camera at all.

GL: How do you choose what camera to use for a given story?

Annalisa Brambilla My Star Wars Family picnicAB: So far, I have mostly used my Nikon D700. But I used the GF2 a lot during the family project. I really had to try to be ready all the time. I was staying with them as an au-pair, so I was also working and looking after 4 children. No time at all to plan anything and the house was quite big, three floors. So I would leave a camera here and the other one there and grab the one that was closer to me when I needed it.

GL: How do you prefer to operate your cameras?

AB: I rely on the camera’s light meter, shoot one image, check it, and compensate exposure accordingly. I mostly use aperture priority, or manual mode, depending on the light situation.

GL: You’ve mentioned that you don’t like to do too much in post. How much is that ‘not too much’?

Annalisa Brambilla My Star Wars Family mouthAB: I don’t retouch my images very much, I get bored quite quickly so I do an overall adjustment and some details, depending on the photo. The color image is very close to the original, I balanced the white a bit better and added a contrast curve, just to adjust the image’s depth.

The black and white is a different story, I cropped it a bit and turned it into black and white. The series this picture is part of was my first attempt at translating feelings into images. In a certain way black and white simplifies your life, it’s both direct and evocative. I wanted the light in the upper side of the image to be like an explosion, so I stretched the contrast there playing with layers and masks.

GL: How do you feel about color? With the My Stars Family you are sticking to color. With the As If series, it’s all black and white.

AB: I think color and black and white. I’m not at all a fan of the strict rules some have about photography, about styles, signatures and all. Different stories deserve different approaches and require different expressions. My Star Wars Family had to be color, it was such a strong element in general, it would have been crazy to erase it. As If had to be black and white, and not only because the pictures came all from different series/times/places. Black and white and a few shades of grey were the right colors for transposing what I was feeling, and this is what it was all about.

GL: In my mind, there are two kinds of photography. One is more about the individual image: you happen to create something that is just right. The other is more about the act of photography: the beauty is in the series, in the repeated act of taking pictures.

AB: Yes, one is more about aesthetics and the magic of photography in itself, and the other more about the process. Evocation vs narrative, unless you are someone like Henri Cartier-Bresson and you get the two to marry and ‘live happily ever after’. I find fewer and fewer single images that ‘prick’ me. It’s more often series. Also a story on a page, the layout/design, the sequence and size of images – all that, which belongs to making a book grabs me more at the moment.

GL: How do you feel about photography now?

AB: It’s like an intense relationship. There’s always tension.

(To see more of Annalisa Brambilla’s pictures visit her website at All images © Annalisa Brambilla and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

György is a cinematographer teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit

black and white, digital, Johannesburg, nikon, street

Yolanda van der Mescht . Photographer

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Yolanda van der Mescht 1GL: When I first saw the picture of the Man on the Bridge, I thought he was a preacher calling to God. And there was some intangible contradiction between his formal gesture and the informal urban setting that I found very exciting.

YM: While the majority of my photographs are unchoreographed, this was part of a conceptualised shoot. The photograph was taken on the Nelson Mandela bridge in Johannesburg at 9 o’clock on a winter’s morning. I wanted to connect with the post-apartheid spirit of South Africa. The man (a friend of my sister’s) is a business analyst who holds dual citizenship of Nigeria and South Africa. I was interested in exploring the dichotomy of being a successful foreign black man in South Africa.

GL: How did you come up with the shot? Was it all prompted by the location? Or was the primary force his body posture?

YM: The location and posture were incidental. I wanted a city landscape as a backdrop, we happened to pass the bridge and I was immediately drawn to it. Initially he was just walking along the bridge and then as the shoot progressed that barrier between subject and photographer disappeared and he was no longer playing a part but just being. For me photography is more about feeling than thought. Words that come to mind are intuition, premonition, magic. I see photography as a form of metaphysical alchemy.

Yolanda Van Der Mescht - Street 2I have always been drawn to photography. I got my first film SLR when I was 21, but at the time I couldn’t afford the cost of film and developing. The camera ended up gathering dust and I eventually sold it. When I moved to Hong Kong in 2006 I started taking photographs with my mobile phone camera. I took photos of anything, whatever caught my eye. I was smitten. I bought a Canon G7, then upgraded to a Nikon D7000 and now I have a Nikon D800. Photography has become a way to express my personal thoughts and feelings and I find that it is a lot less incriminating than words. It also speaks to anyone anywhere in the world as it transcends the constraints of language, it is in itself a universal language.

GL: What equipment did you use for this picture?

YM: I used the Nikon D7000. At the time it was my latest acquisition and I was keen to try it out. As I am self-taught I am cautious to spend a lot of money on equipment. The picture is uncropped. I used a Nikkor 18-105mm DX VR Lens, which is the standard lens that comes with the camera. Shutter speed: 1/400; f-stop: f/5.6; ISO: 100.

GL: How much do you usually work with in ‘post’ with your stills?

Yolanda Van Der Mescht - Street 1YM: It definitely depends on the shot. With this picture the ‘post’ was limited to a black and white conversion and some minor adjustments in the brightness, contrast and midtones. As I find post-production rather tedious and I would not entrust it to anyone else, it has definitely motivated me to become a better photographer in the sense that I try to minimise the need for post-processing.

GL: Most of the images on your website are black and white. What draws you to it?

Yolanda Van Der Mescht - Street 4YM: I took this picture with the intention of turning it to black and white. I have nothing against colour, but I love black and white. If the composition and perspective are not perfect the picture might succeed as a colour photograph but definitely not as a black and white photograph. In a black and white photograph there is nothing that distracts the viewer from the emotion, the message. I think Robert Frank said, “Black and white are the colours of photography.”

GL: Do you ever work on film?

YM: I don’t work on film, but if I was not faced with time, space and financial constraints I would absolutely love to. I have succumbed to the instant gratification of digital photography.

GL: I noticed that in your street photography you are usually quite far from your subjects. You observe from a distance.

Yolanda Van Der Mescht - Street 3YM: I am an introvert by nature, so I am acutely aware of personal space. When I shoot portraits there is certain level of familiarity and intimacy. The subject is obviously aware of me and my camera, the subject has to let me in, connect with me. For a few hours we become emotionally involved and I am allowed to enter his or her personal space, I can get up close and personal with my subject. But with street photography I am just a passive observer, I don’t want my presence known. I don’t want to alter the course of events, I don’t want to influence anything. I am just an outsider looking in, leaving my subject unaffected, untouched. Distance definitely makes this easier. I guess there is a certain amount of voyeurism attached to my street photography.

GL: What do you like about the Man on the Bridge the most?

YM: I like the lines and his expression, to me we stopped the time-space continuum at exactly the right moment. I take pictures because I want to. The feeling of capturing a moment that will never be repeated again is unlike anything I have ever experienced.

Yolanda Van Der Mescht - Street 5

(To see more of Yolanda van der Mescht’s pictures visit her website at All images © Yolanda van der Mescht and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

György is a cinematographer teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit

35mm, 5D, analogue, black and white, canon, color, digital, documentary, leica, rangefinder, travel, USA

Elaine Mayes . Photographer

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This blog is just as much about my love photography as about my interest in the people who create images. But to be honest, I am more interested in people than in photography. L1ghtb1tes is a hi-tech excuse for me to meet people. Dear Elaine, thank you for meeting me and letting me to get to know you a little bit in this strange, 21st century manner. And for those of you who do not know her yet, well, meet Elaine Mayes.

The Coach

Elaine Mayes Autolandscapes Coach

GL: Simple, elegant, lonely – these are the words that came to my mind when I first saw your picture of this coach.

EM: Well, this is the old bus image… I like it a lot. It is part of a series I did called, Autolandscapes. The series is from my moving car while driving from San Francisco to Massachusetts in 1971. It was 6 AM, I was driving my car East at about 65 mph in Utah. I really got lucky.

GL: How did this picture happen to you?

EM: Most all my photos are spontaneous reactions to what I see. In the case of the Autolandscapes I intended making an image each time the landscape changed. I love the idea of skill combined with serendipity. I also was interested in formal issues and the way when one shoots out the side of a car the near landscape is blurry. I further wanted to make images that felt still and like there was not movement at all. I wanted to see what normally goes by too fast to be seen the way a camera can stop motion.

GL: What camera did you use?

EM: A Leica rangefinder camera, and the shutter speed was 1/500th of a second at either f/16 or f/11. I always try to have my camera ready. I judge my exposure by knowing how the film will respond to particular light circumstances. I used a 50mm Leitz lens and Tri-X film that I processed myself using Rodinol or a similar developer. There was no digital system then, but now I use digital, and my newer Autolandscapes have even better stop-motion because the system can employ much higher shutter speeds than a 35mm film camera.

I used a Leica because it makes high quality pictures, and I like the rangefinder system because it allows me to see the image without seeing any distortion caused by a lens. I prefer normal or wide angle lenses because I like maximum depth-of-field.



GL: Why did you decide in 2010 to embark on a new (photographic) journey that in many ways is a reflection on the 1971 trip?

EM: I photographed across the country West to East only twice. My two trips called Autolandscapes (1971) and Across America (2010) were my way of recording my moving from one coast to the other with the car full of my belongings, nothing more. The journeys came first. The decision to photograph them came second. All my work in some manner reflects my life, as my subject matter comes from photographing my life experiences. I am not trying to document my life, but my photography always accompanies my life, and in this sense I see my images as creating a diary of my life experiences.

GL: What has changed for you in those four decades?

elaine-mayes-across-america-10EM: Now the world is more crowded than it was in 1971. What has changed for me is that I have gotten older and have had many more life experiences. In 1971 I was 34 years old. Now I am 76 years old and have experienced more dimensions to life than when I was younger. I no longer teach photography. In 1971 I had been teaching photography for only three years. I have moved to many places since that time, and I have lived nearly a lifetime.

GL: To my mind both Autolandscapes and Across America are about time. First, about time in the sense that you also mention, in the form of more or less motion blur, i.e. a side-effect of shutter speed. Second, it is about your perception of how time passes while on the road. Personal time. And finally, it is about time as a reflection, time measured in decades when you look at your American landscape and you realize not only how much it has changed but also how much you have changed.

Elaine Mayes Autolandscapes HighwayEM: For me both trips are about the same, except I have had a lot of practise and have done many other projects in between. None of my interest is beyond the way I see and the way a camera can work except for my formal horizontal idea the first time, and my long-standing idea that I am interested in things in the world. I am primarily an observer and feel that what I have to express is part of what I make, not something extra or added.

None of this work had for me anything to do with time passing except that being in a car for hours can be boring, and I wanted to distract myself from being bored. Of course when I photographed during driving I was taking the idea I began with and went one step further. The photographing had turned into an idea. The blur to me is not a side-effect of shutter speed, but in a physical sense is about what happens with relative motion seen up close and then photographed. Then with the digital camera one can stop the blur except for up close because a faster shutter speed is possible. I believe we don’t look at the blur because it is distressing to the eye, until of course one decides to focus on it. I always choose my “good photos” after the fact, when I see them either on contact sheets or in digital files.


GL: Technology plays a major part in both journeys. First, your beautiful Leica. And now a digital camera. Why did you choose digital the second time?

EM: I changed to digital for economic and personal reasons. I lost most of my income in 2008 when this country had its downturn. I lost my major source of income (the bank I had invested in all my life went broke) and have been trying to learn to operate with less. This has meant much confusion and living-style changes. It has meant moving around and renting my houses for income. Along with several times staying with friends because I rented my houses, I moved back to New York from Oregon, renting my Oregon house, and in the moving back I decided to repeat my focus on taking pictures while traveling.

elaine-mayes-autolandscapes06I chose digital for practical reasons. The world changed, and I needed to change with it. I did not decide to minimise blur, but I found that my digital camera when set on automatic can render a sharper image because it uses faster shutter speeds. I learn with every effort, and I try always to keep learning. I wish the world had stayed the same, but life in fact is about change, and the cultural changes that I don’t much like are the way it is. I feel it is important to go with the flow, to embrace what is necessary in our changing culture.

elaine-mayes-across-america-07Also, in 2010 my eyesight was very bad, and I broke my glasses the first night out, so my partner, Randy had to do all the driving. All the photos on the second trip are from the passenger seat. I needed cataract surgery, and I could see well enough to shoot pictures with my practised method but not well enough to drive a car. I bought drugstore close-up glasses so I could see the image later. I used autofocus and auto settings, primarily with my new 5D Canon camera with its zoom used mostly on its most telephoto setting which was about 60mm. This meant I was free to take pictures without much technical consideration.

By the way, I always set my digital cameras 1/3 stop under so as to not overexpose the whites. On the second trip I decided to look in any direction not just out the side, and I was thrilled to discover that the shutter speed was making the background very sharp indeed, and also the foreground was less blurry. I also used a G10 point and shoot Canon when I left my battery charger in a motel room. The Canon 5D with its zoom was the cheapest good way for me to continue working. Its limitation is its inaccurate finder.

Reflection v. translation

GL: How much do you usually work with in ‘post’ with your stills?

EM: I like digital printing. I like digital photography less than analog otherwise. I prefer digital printing because it means more corrections can be accomplished than when using a darkroom. (I had given up working in the darkroom because it was impossible to maintain one while living in a number of places.) But I almost never crop my pictures because I believe the entire frame is the photo, and I like the 35mm film shape.

elaine-mayes-autolandscapes04I remain interested in light and how to render light with both technologies. I fear that digital-only trained photographers will never know the wonder of light and light senstive materials. I bring this kind of knowledge to my digital photography. I never manipulate except to correct color and contrast. I have never been interested in “creating” photographs but always interested is seeing them and then making prints that are true to what I see and what the camera can do. For me the difference between analog and digital is reflection v. translation. I remain attached to the idea of reflection, and I bring this idea to my digital efforts.

Seeing what there is to see

elaine-mayes-autolandscapes08GL: There are obvious visual parallels between the two series. Were you looking out for these? Or does this come from the nature of the project, as there are only so many types of views you can have from your car?

EM: I was not trying to be parallel. I was just trying to photograph in the best way possible with the materials at hand. I did realize that I was revisiting an old project, but I never thought about the changes except when they occurred. I am not much interested in technique but want to see the world. I try to live in the present and see what I see, and my entire life I have been trying to see what I see only.

elaine-mayes-across-america-05The main difference between the two groups is letting go of the horizontal idea some of the time during the second round. Both trips were for me journeys that I photographed quite deliberately with the equipment I already was using at the time. Both trips involved primarily seeing what was there to see. I found more culture near the road on the second trip. The first trip was only a few years after the interstates were built, and the roadside culture then was primarily truck stops. Now there is more traffic and more business next to the road.

GL: Why did you choose color for the second series? To avoid nostalgia?

EM: I have been using color since 1978 and also before for commercial work. It was not possible to make for me good color images in 1971. But as technology changes, I do my best to use the best of the new methods. My work primarily has been in color since 1978, so choosing color was natural. In 1971 color was not as good as it can be now. I originally was worried about permanence, and black-and-white was the only way to get images with a long life. With digital the images when properly stored and printed using archival materials can last. I love black and white, but color is what the world is about. Black and white offers greater abstraction; color shows us more or less the colors we see without cameras. I appreciate showing the colors of things in the world. I say more or less because the materials used always affect the results. Photography is always an abstraction because with black and white or color the world becomes flat.

GL: How does digital photography ‘feel’ to you compared to your Leica? Did your DSLR change your approach during the second trip?

EM: I do not change my approach except for the limitations of the technique availalble to me. I do take a lot more photos with digital because I can, and digital does not cost as much as did film, so I can expose more exposures without spending a fortune.

elaine-mayes-autolandscapes14I like and prefer fixed lenses, so that seeing is part of my collaboration with the equipment I use. I would love an M9 Leica camera, and maybe one day I will be able to afford one. I have lost a lot of potential photos using point and shoot cameras, and I find it difficult to take the pictures I want to take. Maybe someone will award me a Leica soon, or maybe I will sell some prints so I can afford to purchase one.

If I could afford a good quality rangefinder Leica I would get three lenses and not look back. I would get a 35mm, a 50mm and just possibly a 105mm. But I would most likely use only a 50mm and a 35mm. Maybe I would get a 28mm, too. I like to use one simple approach without changing my vantage point by using a zoom. I like to work with my eyes, my emotions and the materials I have. I believe that the technical part should be best for what I want to do. I am not the least interested in technique except for making the best seen photos I can.

(To see more of Elaine Mayes’s pictures visit her website at All images © Elaine Mayes and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

György is a cinematographer teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit

color, digital, iPhone, London, New York, street

Daniella Zalcman . Photographer

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New York + London 52, 2013

Our lives are surrounded, flooded by images. All of these images have an impact on us, but only a few of them register consciously and give you that ‘aha’ sensation. Daniella’s New York + London did just that to me: there’s some playful immediacy about them, you’re drawn into a game of trying to guess where they were taken. At the same time, many of them take you floating above these cities, showing you the world from a dreamy, lonely, god-like perspective.

GL: How did you discover your method of digital double exposure?

DZ: I basically had no experience with double exposures before this project, outside of accidental composites in my film photography. A few weeks before I moved to London I stumbled across the Image Blender app and thought it was kind of fun, and so when I came up with the idea for New York + London it just clicked.

daniella zalcmann ny:lnd 1All of the photos for my New York + London project were taken very casually — in New York, they were taken with a twinge of nostalgia as I was preparing to pack up and move, and London they were taken through the eyes of a tourist, essentially, in my new home. None of the images were taken with composites or specific pairings in mind — that all happened organically. For this specific double exposure, the New York photo was taken while on an assignment for the Wall Street Journal on the 100th anniversary of Grand Central Terminal, and the London image was taken just around the corner from my flat in Pimlico.

GL: With street and documentary photography we all have our methods of being (almost) always ready to take a picture. How would you compare your own attitudes and strategies when you’re shooting film, digital or on a smartphone?

DZ: My attitudes differ pretty dramatically depending on whether I’m working with film, a DSLR, or an iPhone. With medium format film I’m slow and thoughtful, with my DSLR I’m a little trigger-happy. The iPhone is somewhere in between — because it’s such an informal medium, I tend not to overthink framing and composition, which can be surprisingly freeing.

18My phone is almost always in my hand. It’s a horrible habit (born of spending many years as a spot news photojournalist in New York City and always being on call in the event of… pretty much anything), but it means I’m always ready. For New York + London I was a little less in street photography hunting mode because so many of these images are architectural and, thankfully, buildings are a little more forgiving than people.

GL: You used your iPhone. Why not film? Digital? Is this a technical/financial choice or an aesthetic one?

DZ: It’s mostly a choice dictated by convenience. I love my medium format camera dearly, but it’s a bit of a tank and not really something I stick in my handbag when I run to the grocery store. My iPhone is with me at all times, and it probably most accurately captures what I see on a day-to-day basis. I really wanted New York + London to reflect that.

GL: How do you feel about not being able set your camera manually? Does it bother you? Does it free you?

DZ: Sometimes, not having manual control over my phone is a little annoying, but for the most part I’ve embraced it. I almost make images with my phone like I would with a film camera — snap a frame or two, lock my phone, and look them over later.

GL: How much do you usually work with in ‘post’ with your stills? What about this image – could you talk about the relationship of the originals and the final output?

daniella zalcmann ny:lnd 3DZ: I’m a fairly terrible editor. I never really learned how to properly tone images and it’s still a huge weakness. That being said, as a photojournalist I really don’t believe in a lot of the heavy postprocessing that’s become so popular recently. These images aren’t actually edited all that much — once composited, I apply one (sometimes two) Instagram filters, and that’s it.

GL: What is it about this picture that makes it your favorite from the series?

DZ: It’s partially for sentimental reasons, since the NYC image of Grand Central Terminal was taken during one of my last weeks working for the WSJ’s metro section, and the London image is from my new neighborhood in London. It’s also not quite as straight as some of the other New York + London photos — it’s a little weird and surreal and I like that.

GL: Do you have any other projects in mind that are smartphone-specific?

DZ: I’m working on another iPhone double exposure project called @echosight with buddy and fellow photojournalist Danny Ghitis. The images are much more fantastical and surreal, and are based more on collaboration and combined vision rather than my own nostalgia and memory.

(To see more of Daniella Zalcman’s pictures visit her website at Click here to see more of her New York / London photos. All images © Daniella Zalcman and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

György is a cinematographer teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit

35mm, analogue, black and white, contax, Rome

Anders Petersen . Photographer

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As I am sitting down to edit our conversation with Anders Petersen, I realize that it turned out to be much briefer than what I was hoping for. While at first I felt disappointment, I have come to understand, that his words are like his photography: he has the power that only true artists and scientists have, the ability to tell you volumes with just a few words. And so, I now understand that his dialogue with me is not only about a mysteriously intimate portrait of a woman, but a lesson in being concise and to-the-point.

GL: Can you tell me about how you took this picture? How is this image part of your Rome? I’d like to know more about the context in which you took this photo.

AP: What counts is meeting people and asking questions. On the streets or in bars, sometimes in somebody’s home, yes, anywhere. I don’t know how I take the pictures, they are less important, what I like is the meeting, the identification and the learning process and, of course, the communication.

GL: As it is with all good pictures, it’s hard, if not impossible to say why the moment they catch is so powerful. How do you get ready for such moments? And how do you make sure that the image is going to be okay technically?

Petersen Anders - Rome, A Diary 2005 3AP: It’s not about a good or a bad picture. It’s more about being believable. When I feel the temperament and the emotions of the person behind the picture, then it works even if it’s technically bad. It’s simple: photography isn’t about photography. You ask about shooting mood. It’s back to basic. Being curious and motivated and then it’s all about your focus. And innocent enough.

GL: What’s your attitude towards preparation before the shoot? Or do you rather improvise and react freely to what’s in front of you?

petersen-anders-19AP: No preparations. I need a working camera and a lot of films. I have no fantasy, it has been the same all the time.

GL: What camera did you use?

AP: I mostly use a Contax T3. It’s a simple, small, analogue camera with a sharp 35 mm lens. I prefer small tools I can have in my pocket.

GL: How do you measure ligh? Manually?

AP: When you have been shooting for some years you train yourself in different lights, so I don’t measure it. It’s become a kind of habit.

GL: How were you focusing? Manually? AF?

AP: Nowadays AF.

GL: What about lighting? What time of day did you take this picture? Is it “found” light or did you light this scene?

AP: I like available light. Sometimes flashlight. And mixing sun and flash. This picture is from the late afternoon inside the apartment.

GL: How much do you usually work with with your stills in ‘post’? What about this image – could you talk about the relationship of the original and the final output?

AP: I have no rules, but I keep the negative format. I really don’t understand why, it’s disturbing. I print until something is coming out, trying many different ways and also using bleach.

GL: What do you like about this picture most?

AP: The presence.


p.s.: I liked Anders’ answers a lot and was hungry for more and more so I kept on asking. And while this is not something that I’d normally do, I cannot help but quote his last email to me:

“I think it’s fine you are showing interest. But my writing is poor and my English is even worse. So it takes too much time. Another thing, I have difficulties in explaining how and why I’m shooting. I’m sorry, but I’m more a photographer than a writer.

Best regards,

And so, dear Anders, here is my private public reply to you:

“Thank you. And that has been the whole point. That you’re a Photographer.”

(To see more of Anders Petersen’s pictures visit his website at All images © Anders Petersen and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

György is a cinematographer teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit

8"x10", analogue, black and white, Earlsfield, London, London, studio

Jason Pierce-Williams . Photographer

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Jason Willams 1 Tramp

GL: I was lucky enough to be in your studio when you took this picture. I have never seen anyone actually use such an ancient, large format camera and I had the impression that you were ‘just’ taking a picture. It was about an hour later, when you developed and showed me the 8”x10” negative that I realized that looking at it was drawing me into a mysterious world, where everything was in some ways more real than the person who has just left the studio.

JPW: I took this picture as part of an ongoing photographic project which I’m calling “Local”. This is a series of large format portraits using black & white sheet film and a full plate field camera.

Being something of a photo historian, I am interested in old things. Old cameras, old film, old, often dead photographers. I am also intrigued when technologies can be stripped down to their most basic forms. A paper plane floating through the air is fascinating and delightful. A 747 jet, although the same principle may be involved, is alien and somewhat intimidating. I feel the same about cameras. The camera which I am using for this project, is a more than 100 year-old Sands and Hunter full plate bellows camera, made on the Strand, in a location which now sells a superior make of umbrellas, if I’m not mistaken.

GL: This picture is the opposite of what you’re doing as a wedding or a street photographer, when you’re catching amazing moments. Here you prepare for you picture. But in the end, you’re still capturing a single moment that needs to reflect something essential about your subject. How would you describe the difference between street or documentary photography and studio photography in this creative/emotional sense?

JPW: This is a complex question as it points to both the underlying common project of photography as well as its diversity. The most obvious answer – although not necessarily the most accurate or complete one – might be that most street photography is more or less captured through stealth. Hence the enduring appeal of the small, quiet Leica and Contax cameras. Small and quiet but also so fast and intuitive that one can capture shots which no other system could achieve. An old and enduring argument is that through stealth, one captures a more intimate, private, unguarded representation of the subject since they are unaware of the act of photography.

On the other hand, when there is a more explicit “contract” between photographer and subject – when the subject is aware of having their photograph taken – then this may elicit a whole gamut of responses as the subject attempts, perhaps even struggles, to project the desired construct which, somewhere in their psyche, they perceive as being most representative of who or what they are.

This rarely happens in fast street photography. Subjects generally don’t have the time to gather their wits enough to give this idea of self representation / projection a great deal of thought. But it does happen when the contract between photograph and subject is more explicit. And it is here that portrait photography becomes, for me, more intriguing. With stealth photography, a photographer can choose their moment and record, or even, to a certain degree, construct narrative within an image, shooting in such a way as to elicit or provoke a certain conjecture about the subject’s place in and relevance to the environment in which they have been observed and subsequently frozen.

This can be interesting enough, but it is the nature of street photography, or street portraiture even, that the identity of the subject is very much woven into the wider environment and narrative of the “street”.

GL: I’ve seen you work in your studio. You moved with a clear purpose. There was nothing stealthy about your approach. The opposite: I felt like you were going for ‘the kill’ with an undeniable determination.

Jason Willams 5 Pastry ChefJPW: A studio is more like a laboratory; empty, functional, faceless, it generally has no other purpose than to examine the subject under totally controlled conditions. The lighting is controlled by the photographer. The subject, to a degree, is controlled by the photographer, in terms of clothing, physical position, even facial expression in the more commercial examples. But the major difference between studio and most street photography/portraiture is the nature of the contract. For a start, it is undeniably there. The minute a subject steps into a studio there is a set of shared, although often elusive, even contradictory expectations. And it is how this contract plays itself out in the image which often makes the “straight-up” portrait such a fascinating document. A straight up portrait often says as much about responses to photography itself as it does about the subject. In fact, one could go so far as to say that this is what straight up portraiture actually is; a document recording a subjects response to the action of being photographed.

GL: What do you see in the tramp’s eyes?

JPW: The image of the tramp is a particularly powerful, albeit elusive example of all this. I could have shot him any number of times, walking to and fro around the local backstreets, and this may have yielded interesting results. But the studio image really struck me. It is a young man, shabby, with a poor posture, peering into the camera with large brown eyes. But the eyes give nothing away. He meets what he must understand will be the public’s gaze with a sort of weary pragmatism, disinterest, even. It is a gaze which reveals absolutely nothing at all. It is entirely unengaging – and hypnotic.

The clothes, the posture, the mad, frazzled hair are all indicators of what should be an individual under a certain degree of stress. And yet he appears as calm as Buddha.

The image of the local tramp, for me at least, is one of the better examples in this series of portraits, of what we might call, (trivially perhaps), the “enigmatic” in straight up studio portraiture.

GL: You’re obviously emotionally attached to your equipment. What is your full plate camera like?

JPW: It is remarkably easy to use, particularly when used in a studio environment. I rebuilt the original lens board to take a more modern Compur, 8″ lens, yielding a moderately wide angle of view for an 8”x10” format. The camera is a full plate 10”x12″ format, but I masked off the viewing screen so that I can shoot 8×10″ film in the modified dark slides.

Jason Willams 3I chose this format through historical interest, but also because large format, as distinct from 35mm, is a very, very different experience altogether, both for the photographer and certainly for the subject. Peering into a 100-year-old antique machine, for probably the first (and last) time in one’s life, can elicit an entirely different response than a grab shot on a smaller, hand-held format.

GL: So is large format a technical or a philosophical choice for you?

JWP: Well, the results are breathtaking. There is a level of detail which 35mm, or even medium format could never hope to achieve. And it is this which, at the technical, or optical level if you like, lends these images such an immediate, inescapable veracity. A tangeable, almost shocking realism which, as the format gets larger and larger, reveals more and more, in my opinion, of the central tenets of what photography actually is: the power it can wield as a document of not only reality but also, in a sense, meta, even super-reality.

It talks and elicits responses about reality which is not something we naturally do. Our perceptions of reality are at best, dubious, at worst, chaotic, barely considered at all. Looking at a photograph is like stopping time and space – which is precisely, at the technical level, what a photograph is. My point is that when an image also yields a level of detail to be studied, at our leisure, in a way we could never, ever hope to achieve in our everyday scrutiny of the world, then the image, as I say, becomes not only a document of reality, but a document about reality. There is only one other artistic, intellectual enterprise that I can think of which comes close to achieving this – I mean provoking and challenging thought and conjecture about what we think we mean when we consider reality – and that is not a great departure from meta-realism, in a word, surrealism.

GL: How do you light these portraits?

Jason Willams 2JPW: It was and is important to me that all these images are lit and shot in exactly the same way. I may shoot tighter or looser depending on the relevance of body shape, clothing, posture etc, but the light is the same, one large soft box over a Bowens strobe, a large reflector set to the other side, a reasonable amount of distance between the subject and the background to yield a little blur, and that’s it.

The reason for keeping everything the same, however, is that it is important to me that the photography doesn’t get in the way, so to speak. It all needs to be democratic and even-handed, otherwise there would naturally be issues as to why I shot one subject in a certain way and not another. It is important, if the subjects are to be given any kind of voice, however elusive that voice may be, that the hand of the photographer is as unobtrusive as possible.

GL: What about aperture and shutter speed? What motivates your choices?

JPW: I used a light meter on the first couple of shots and got f/22 – f/32. I still check but it’s pretty much a formality now. Shutter speed doesnt mean a great deal but I keep it at around 1/125th as older lenses can start to get a bit suspect at slower speeds. The aperture is more important of course, particularly shooting on such a huge format. The larger the format, the shallower the depth of field when shooting at equivalent distances since the focal lengths become longer and longer.

In short, shooting at f/5.6 is virtually impossible, and largely pointless. Besides, I don’t want massively shallow depth-of-field, I’m going to get them anyway on the tighter shots, even at f/22!

GL: Do you work with your portraits in post?

Jason Willams 4JPW: With regards to post-production, I’m very sorry to admit that I scan the images. I want to, and will, contact the negatives onto double weight fibre based paper at some point, but right now, the quickest way of getting the images out there is, of course, to scan. It’s a pity, as the whole thing just winds up as pixels again, but it doesn’t make a great deal of difference to the online viewing experience. Well, it makes no difference at all beyond the purely intellectual objection of knowing they are scans and not prints….because I just told you!

(To see more of Jason Pierce-Williams’ pictures visit his website at All images © Jason Pierce-Williams and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

György is a cinematographer teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit

6x4.5, analogue, color, contax, documentary, Massachusetts, Shutesbury

Holly Lynton . Photographer

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HL100302 001

“Sienna, Turkey Madonna, Shutesbury, Massachusetts”, 2010.

GL: When I saw your picture at the Somerset House in London two things caught my attention: the motion of the flying feathers and the stillness of the girl holding the turkeys.

HL: I arranged to photograph at the farm that raises the turkeys before they were going to be slaughtered for Thanksgiving. I had read a book by Barbara Kingsolver called “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” in which there is a description of a chicken slaughter and all the beauty and chaos in it, so that is what gave me the idea to try to portray something beyond the death. They didn’t want me to photograph the actual slaughter so we agreed to photograph the turkeys on the table beforehand. The turkeys were unsettled so the daughter stepped in to calm them down as she’s very good with all animals. With a cock of her head she was in that pose, and I reacted immediately, telling her not to move so I could make a picture. It was arranged that I would photograph at the farm, but spontaneous as events unfold. I had planned to photograph the mother not the daughter, but we all had to respond to the turkeys.

GL: The act of photography demands a high degree of alertness, of being present and reacting without hesitation.

HL: One of my teachers explained that as a photographer you develop an intuition. Usually moments happen too fast to think them through. You are responding with your gut and your eyes, not your head. You learn how to see when you study photography. You also need to develop your own perspective and hone in on how you specifically see the world and articulate it in your photographs.

Technically, I get ready just by making sure I have a working camera, batteries in my light meter and for my camera, and film. Mentally, I generate an excitement inside, and then I am prepared to wait and let things unfold. I can’t control what happens in my photographs, but if you spend enough time looking for magic, you can find it. I don’t worry about the image being okay technically — you need to check your camera settings most importantly. I’ve had enough experience so that I can judge the light without a light meter, but everyone makes mistakes, and if you start photographing before checking your camera you may accidentally be on the wrong shutter speed or aperture. Happens to everyone once in a while. Film is pretty forgiving though.


GL: What camera did you use? Film? Digital?

HL: I use a Contax 6 x 4.5 camera, Kodak Portra VC film (now discontinued), 160 ASA. I always use film, and low speed film for sharper grain.

I do not crop my photographs so they are always horizontal rectangles. I used an 80mm lens. I can’t say what my shutter speed and F-stop were, but it was a bit overcast that day, although still quite bright, so maybe f/8 or f/11 and 1/60.

I use film, because it is what I have always used. A digital camera to me is like a computer. It has too much control over the photograph. If I bought a Canon 5D with a good manual lens, it may feel more like my film cameras, but thus far, they feel like two completely different tools. I want to articulate the light, and therefore the world as film depicts it. But the main difference is that I never know how a digital camera (at least my lower-end DSLR) is going to articulate the light. I don’t feel I have as much control over the outcome as I do with film. It feels like the camera is thinking for me and we don’t always agree.

GL: What about your settings?

HL: I adjust my shutter speed and aperture depending on the light and whether my subject is moving so it can vary anywhere from 4 seconds at f/22 to f/5.6 at 1/60 or 1/30. Depends on whether I am using a tripod or not.

For this photograph I was holding the camera. The feathers were moving so there is some softness to them. But I wouldn’t use a slower shutter speed than 1/60, because I wouldn’t have wanted the turkeys or girl to be blurry. I don’t usually go higher than 1/60. Maybe 1/125 sometimes if someone is moving fast. But the motion blur gives you the sense that it a moving scene. It’s a moment after all on a time continuum.


GL: How do you measure light? Manually? Or do you rather use aperture priority or shutter speed priority?

HL: I measure the light with a hand-held light meter as I have for 20 years. I then set the shutter speed usually at 1/60 and the aperture as it needs to be. I positioned the table at the entrance of the barn as I wanted light on the table, person, and turkeys. The barn behind them was more than 2 stops darker than the foreground, so it went almost black.

GL: How were you focusing? Manually? AF?

HL: I use manual focus.

GL: What do you like about this picture most?

HL: The girl transforms from a teenage girl into a rendition of the Madonna, as she tenderly holds the turkeys that are about to become food, and the basketball hoop is her halo. The question is not what I like about it. But what do you?

HL110511 002

(To see more of Holly Lynton’s pictures visit her website at All images © Holly Lynton and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

György is a cinematographer teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit

35mm, analogue, black and white, canon, documentary, Dublin

Ross McDonnell . Photographer, cinematographer

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Thank you! See you there!


GL: When I first stumbled across your Joyrider series I felt that strange, nervous excitement that you have just after having woken up from a nightmare: what you’ve seen in your dream is unreal, yet you seem to have an intimate knowledge of it. Joyrider is like any great story, it takes you some place deeply familiar where you can’t recognize anything and feel lost and scared.

RMD: This image was taken in Ballymun, on Dublin’s Northside, on the first day I ever worked in the community. It was Halloween night and I was beginning a project I was calling ‘Days of Being Wild’ trying to capture a sense of Irishness as it was being consumed by the economic boom known as the Celtic Tiger. Ireland was socially undergoing and a kind of homogenous, commerce-driven new dawn. I felt something real, something wild and untamed about our national character was on the verge of disappearing forever and wanted to begin capturing that. Like all things concerned with nostalgia we only recognise them when they are gone or disappearing.

I went to Ballymun that particular night around 8 pm. It was one of the wildest places in Dublin and I knew Halloween would be an interesting experience to photograph there. After a couple of boring hours a 15-year-old named ‘Gillie’ approached me shooting a bonfire and asked “if I wanted to see the real crazy shit”. That moment was the beginning of the Joyrider project.

GL: You have literally ‘caught’ your subject flying. How did that happen to you? What equipment did you use?

RMD: As a matter of fact, technically these are some of the worst images that I have ever produced. The film wind-on jammed that night and tore a whole roll of film with one kid driving a car being engulfed in a ball of flame. A tragedy!

I was shooting with a black 1970s Canon FTb on a 28mm lens with a huge old Metz flash attached to the camera. I got the camera from my father when I became interested in photography. I still use it whenever possible. Probably, because I could never afford a Leica and also for the unique look I get from the old FD lenses I own.

GL: How did you capture this image?

RMD: Most of that evening I was just running around firing off this massive flash when anything was happening. Technically, at that time I was a purist and was shooting Kodak Tri-X (probably pushed to 800 ASA). I think I was shooting at 1/60 around f/2.8 to get some sense of ambient light with the flash set to f4.

There was no way to set that camera up to get a shot properly, I think these images were always shot with a total disregard for technical perfection and mostly trying to imbue the images with the energy and chaos that was happening live. In this series there is blur and flash, heavy contrast, push processing, lots of experimenting with how to make these images more interesting, more dynamic.

GL: How much do you usually work with your images in post?

RMD: With this series, the negatives are really contrasty. I’m not sure they have been retouched. When I eventually printed them properly and had them scanned I worked a little bit on the consistency of the black and white through the series but apart from that no real retouching. This is different of course now with shooting digital work.

GL: What comes to your mind when you look at this picture?

RMD: I love its energy and how bizarre it is, these urchins overtaking a high rise. That night eight years ago started a project that is still evolving and developing today. Personally, it has very powerful memories and associations for me. Maybe this was the moment I became a photographer.

(To see more of Ross McDonnell’s pictures visit his website at or follow him at and All images © Ross McDonnell and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

György is a cinematographer teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit