Yann Arthus-Bertrand, “Earth From The Air”

Just 3-4 years ago aerial photography was available to a handful of photographers. When Ilya Varlamov‘s team got a mini copter able to lift a DSLR, they were giddy with excitement. The guys tried to get it to climb higher and higher for longer and longer shots until it went the Icarus way and they were $20,000 poorer. This didn’t stop them, and they bought another, even more powerful heli.

Not everybody knows that Air Pano had been taking pictures from the air for years then, but they weren’t the first in large-scale aerial image-taking. By large-scale I mean industrial production of devices to churn out hundreds and thousands of pictures. Air Pano specializes in 3D panoramas of famous landmarks and unusual corners of the planet – erupting volcanoes and such.

Nowadays, with quadro/octocopters widely available, thousands of photographers have taken off. Every other blogger uploads still pictures and videos of places he’s going through, seen from the air. All that is very curious, but, unfortunately, has nothing to do with creative photography. Of course, it’s different hawks for different folks – I have no objections to plain useful, informative pictures. But my own interests lie in expressive, not informative photography.

Can aerial photography be expressive – meaningful, sensual, personal? Or is it always about tourist-driven drone races? To answer I suggest going back 20 years and looking at some works by the wizard aerial photography, the great Yann Arthus-Bertrand. Here is a selection from his project Earth From The Air (1995). Notice what relatively short shots – close to the ground, not far from it – he preferred and at what time of the day he flew. Many newcomers to aerial photography fail to understand that driving the drone as high above the ground as possible takes them away from actual creative work and makes pictures look like Google Maps, shot from space and glued together by robots.


Photo tours

The familiar phrase „photo tour” doesn’t always mean what people expect it to, and in some ways the meaning is very different. A „photo tour” is a kind of catch-all, like „engineer” or „manager”. But because it’s often bandied about in the photographic or near-photographic circles, it may be a good idea to discuss what „phot tour” stands for – just so you know what to expect during one and whether it’s what you want.

There are two parts, the photo and the tour, and together they refer to a sort of cloud of all possible events where photography can meet travel. Depending on how accents are placed, this can mean anything from a regular tourist tour where are you allowed to take pictures to full-scale workshops in the open air.

In the former case you can expect to be taken on a route with old people and newlyweds, who will take out point-and-shoot cameras when the guide says and snap pictures of themselves with monuments in the background. In the latter – in-depth photo training with like-minded enthusiasts, art history lectures, daily picture reviews and other photo practices all the way to painting and drawing. Somewhere between these extremes roam bands of landscape photographers with knapsacks and tripods, catching sunsets and sunrises. Any of that can be called a photо tour.

As you can guess, sometimes the accent is on the „photo,” sometimes on the „tour.” Basically:

Photo TOURS are tours with a camera
PHOTO tours are photography lessons on the go

The balanced position is to combine discovery of new places, lessons in photography and discussions with other lovers of photo. But I don’t think this balance is always a good idea. Some people care more about interesting routes and exotics, and the photographer guide can give advice two-three times during the whole trip. Others want to study under a particular photographer, and they’re pretty indifferent to the choice of subject matter. But almost always people have preferences as to what kind of company they’re going in.

Company is the thing. The clearer a tour’s format has been positioned, the more likely it is to attract like-minded people who will be comfortable and interested in travelling together. So if you’re considering a photo tour and you have questions, don’t be ashamed to ask the organizers. The more you know on the shore, the smoother your sailing.

Here are some questions anyone will find worth asking:

1. Where are we going?

Of course, the route must be interesting to you. Even people who sign up to study under a well-known photographer look at where they will be travelling. It could be one city or an extended non-stop outfit or an auto rally through several countries. Make sure you want to go there. Pay attention to how quickly the tour’s program changes locations and overnight stays. The more hopping from place to place it includes, the closer it is to the „tour” end of the spectrum. Few locations means closer to „photo.” Both kinds of tours are legitimate, choose what’s more appropriate to the way you are feeling now.

2. Who is the photographer guide?

If you haven’t heard of the photographer guide, don’t rush to conclusions. Look up his pictures on the Internet and read up on him (/her). It’s impossible to know everybody and here is your chance to expand your scope. You may very well like the style and decide to learn from this photographer or just travel together. Being interested in him as a person is an important ingredient. There are plenty of good photographers in the world, but not too many are ready and willing to share their how-to. Those it would be pleasant and interesting to camp with for a week are even fewer.

3. How is this different from a regular tourist tour?

However the accents are placed, a photo tour must be different from a basic tourist offer in some way: tried and tested locations for photography, scheduled shooting times depending on the hour and weather, unusual routes, interesting events (festivals, celebrations etc.), special permissions to shoot in hard-to-access places, joint museum tours, an atmosphere of art (with medieval castles, theaters, film studios), professional models to pose, make-up artists, stylists on board, impressive staging and so on. And, of course, a photo tour must include lectures and picture reviews. This is important enough for a separate article.

4. How much time are we going to spend reviewing pictures taken on the tour?

A photo tour of any kind is always photographic practice. Any advice on photography is useless without looking through and evaluating actual pictures you take. This can be done „in the field” on the camera screen, but it’s much better to dedicate special times to it. And a large projector works better than crowding around a laptop screen. The presence of a quality projector is sure proof the tour’s solidly on the „photo” side of things. On the other hand, if it is, say, a trip to the mountains, a projector is probably not an option – not necessary either. On the whole, get some idea of what the tour is about – basically tourism or basically photo training.

5. Where can I see the pictures of people from the last tour?

Coming up with an original, interesting route to take photography students on is a rather complicated task. It takes resources to set up, too. So almost all tours are made repeatedly. If the organizers can’t show you pictures taken the last time around, it probably means there aren’t any. It’s also an indication that this tour stresses the tourism component. Or maybe the photographer guide couldn’t inspire the students to pictures worth showing. Or places and events aren’t so exciting. All these limitations are normal and may be fine with you, just make sure you know it in advance. Looking through previous groups’ results is a sure way to discover what you can expect and what level of pictures you may be able to take on this tour and bring home. Regardless of a tour’s accents, a common picture album and picture exhibitions are a very good indicator of quality.

6. Who else has signed on?

Unless you’re first past the post, ask who else has signed on. At least get a general description. What matters at this point is not specific names (and the organizers probably won’t reveal that until you have joined up yourself), but the general feeling with which the group is described. It’s a fine idea to get to know each other online before the tour. If the organizers allow it, make sure to visit each other’s sites, Facebook and Instagram pages and link up.

6. What is the level of this photo tour for?

A sensible question, but practice shows that difference in technique is not a decisive moment. Complete newcomers to photography are certainly going to have a bit of a harder time the first few days, and professionals will be a little bored. But usually photo tours create such a comfortable environment to develop in, old hands and newbies quickly get on the same level, at least enough for everybody to know the terms and general photographic methods. Besides, experienced photographers like passing on their knowledge.


To make the picture complete, here are some words that are used instead of or in addition to „photo tour”:

1) Photo journey. Used by those who want to move the accent off „tour.”
2) Photo expedition. Hike-a-lot.
3) Master class. Photo tour with a clear stress on photographic mastery.
4) Workshop. The same thing as a master class, perhaps stressing joint practice a bit more.

So what should you go for, the photo or the tour? In what proportions? How to mix and match? This depends on what you want, where your priorities lie. Either part of the equation or any combination and be interesting, useful and pleasant.

As for recommendations, at the moment I suggest choosing from this short list of companies and people who provide quality photo tours:

Photo Planet
Ivan Dementyevsky
Vladimir Trofimov

There is a vast number of other people and organizations in the photo tour business, and a lot of them are probably deliver the goods, but I’m citing those I know very well myself and have absolute confidence in. I won’t mind seeing other names and links in the comments, though – feel free to post your recommendations.

May you choose well!

White Balance

“White Balance” serie
Malozemelskaya & Bolshezemelskaya Tundra
Nenets Autonomous District, Russia
(c) Pavel Kosenko, 2013-2015








Shooting strangers

If you are involved in street, journalistic and other genres of photography with a “human interest,” you have probably wondered how to take an expressive picture of someone you do not know without the end result looking dull and yourself getting in trouble. In this piece I want to share my thoughts and experience about shooting strangers.


Is it okay to take pictures of strangers?
Staged or spontaneous?
Spontaneous images
The target and the backdrop — combining them
Plowing over
Deconcentration, or the art of woolgathering
The Eye in the Gut
The Fake Video Shoot
The Selfie
The Front Man
The Surprise
The Provocation
“No pictures!”
Befriending Characters
Into the Home
By way of a conclusion


Getting a bit ahead of myself here, I must say that sometimes there will be trouble anyway, and there are ethical issues to sort out with oneself, not to mention legal. Is it okay to take pictures of strangers, anyway? Is that not an invasion of privacy? What do Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and people from other confessions think about it? Is it all right to shoot… take pictures of policemen? In airports, railroad stations, subways? How about supermarkets and private stores? What restrictions do different countries have in place? …There are lots of questions when it comes to shooting strangers, and few of them have definite answers.


Intelligent Sharpen 2.0

I’ve been promising lots of people to explain how I increase image sharpness for Web images. I’ve talked about sharpening before several times, but new techniques come with experience. The following is by no means my own discovery, but I hope it will be useful to some.


A Few Words On Selection of Photos

An Article for Beginners, Introduction for Those Who Keep Practicing, and Step-by-Step Guide for Every Occasion

“You need ten minutes to learn to take a photo. You need to mold a personality to learn to select one.”
(c) Gueorgui Pinkhassov


Some friends/colleagues of mine criticize the above wording viewing it as incomprehensible, inaccurate, even snobbish. They argue against the idea of somebody being able to learn photography in ten minutes; as for mature personality, they say the notion is arbitrary (what about the personality of a five-year-old child?). Such an approach by all means sounds reasonable, even more so, it is interesting per se. However, give me a five-year-old child and a modern camera, and they will be taking pictures in ten minutes flat. Will they act consciously in so doing? Should one act consciously? What should the balance be between the conscious and the unconscious in the process of taking pictures and selecting photos? From a personal perspective, these issues seem to be deep and important, and the above quotation implies their philosophical interpretation.

Generally speaking, it is hard, if ever possible to be an effective judge while discussing photography. One cannot tell how to do things right, as everyone makes his or her own choice. There are no off-the-shelf solutions, since every photographer exercises an individual approach. Time and again I see utterly “wrong” actions (objectively wrong, like incorrect processing techniques in Adobe Photoshop) bringing about the “right” result, shaped by the photographer’s creative insight rather than by his or her technical skills.

Striving for algorithmization is quite useful in terms of application tasks in photography and dangerous in terms of creative tasks. Since art starts where rules end, I believe creative growth relies heavily on personal experience, both your own and of those people whose works speak to your heart.


Color photography outside direct sunlight

“It was octarine, the colour of magic. It was alive and glowing and vibrant and it was the undisputed pigment of the imagination, because wherever it appeared it was a sign that mere matter was a servant of the powers of the magical mind.”

Terry Pratchett, “The Color of Magic”

Photographers, especially beginners, often hold the mistaken opinion that shooting is reserved for broad daylight – especially if you are looking to make an effective color picture. When it rains, in twilight or at nighttime you should (they say) refrain from shooting or, at most, settle for black and white. So photo tourists coming to a new country are often put out by precipitation forecasts and cloudy conditions. I say, it is an occasion to rejoice! Shooting without direct sunlight opens great opportunities for expressive color photography, and I have proof – not just pictures I myself have made, but work of acknowledged masters.


1. A few words in defense of the sun
2. Now that night is coming
3. Rafal Milah: “I can’t see colors in sunny weather”
4. Work in interiors
5. Leave a bit for contrast
6. Mixed-temperature lighting
7. Is rain the most anti-photographic weather?
8. The opposite myth: “Noon light is too harsh and colors are drab”
9. By way of an afterword



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