Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Prime Lens?

I've been mulling the purchase of a prime lens for quite a while. All I have are Canon zoom lenses, and while they're the reasonably fast (2.8) L lenses, I'd like to have faster glass in my bag. Hence the interest in the new Canon EF 50 mm F1.2L USM lens, which is by all accounts a truly excellent piece of glass, and is also expensive.

Prime lenses usually produce very good image quality even when wide open, and this is an important consideration when one uses high resolution DSLRs like the Canon 1D Mark II or the Canon 1Ds Mark II. The question then becomes whether to buy the Canon EF 50 mm F1.2L USM lens ($1200) or the Canon Wide Angle EF 28mm f/1.8 USM Autofocus Lens ($380)....or do I go for the Sigma Super Wide Angle 20mm f/1.8 EX? Yes, I hardcore Canonphiles this sounds blasphemous, but I'm hearing that this particular Sigma lens is a worthwhile alternative, and it's about $410. What other excuse do I need to have to visit my favorite New York store?

When photographing in the monasteries of Bhutan last November, I was hampered by the low light and the maximum aperture of 2.8 of my zoom lenses. A prime lens with an aperture of 1.2 or even 1.8 would've provided me with the needed extra stop(s), and I wouldn't have had to increase my ISO to 400 (or higher) to compensate.

Farah Nosh:Wounded Iraq

Farah Nosh is a Canadian photojournalist, whose photo essays have been published in major newspapers and publications including the New York Times. Her Wounded Iraq multimedia portfolio is haunting, and has made a lasting impression on me, The background music and the voices of the wounded accompanying the essay give the images an indelible sense of reality. This is editorial photography and photojournalism at its best: Farah Nosh's Wounded Iraq

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Ethiopia: Timket Festival In Lalibela

Image from People of the Ark-Copyright 2004 Tewfic El-Sawy

I witnessed the festival of Timket in northern Ethiopia in 2004, and consider it (along with the Kumbh Mela) to be one of the most photogenically and culturally interesting religious festivals I've ever photographed. Timket is the most important festival in the Ethiopian calendar, with festivities beginning in the 3rd week of January, the day before Epiphany which, according to the Julien calendar, falls on the 19th of January.

Timket is celebrated all over Ethiopia, but it's particularly spectacular in Lalibela, a Biblical mountain town famous for its 11 churches hewn out of solid rock over a thousand years ago. Many Ethiopians believe they were built by angels. A word of caution: Lalibela is one of the world's dustiest places, and is a haven for flies...other than that, it's a wonderful place! The early dawn prayers in Lalibela are just ethereal in quality and are attended by enormous crowds of devout Ethiopians.

Due to its recent military involvement in Somalia, Ethiopia's current political situation is questionable, so caution is advised.

In the meantime, here are some recent images by Karoki Lewis, a talented photographer, which appeared today on the BBC website: BBC's Timket Festival Images

Monday, January 29, 2007

Verdict: Bhutan, Land of the Thunder Dragon

Image from Dancing Monks of Prakhar-Copyright 2006 Tewfic El-Sawy

Here's a short debrief about my photo expedition, Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon, which I organized and led this past October-November. The duration of the expedition was 14 days, and we formed a group of avid 8 photographers. I set up the itinerary with the assistance of Jachung Travel and Eagle Tours, which were extraordinarily competent.

The expedition's main objectives were to intensively photograph the tsechu festivals of Jambay Lakhang and Prakhar in the Bumthang valley of eastern Bhutan. Here's a link to my expedition's itinerary: Bhutan expedition

The Prakhar tsechu was an incredible cultural and visual experience, with literally hundreds of photo ops happening each second of the event. The organizers of the festival were gracious and hospitable, keen to welcome us as visitors and photographers inside the dzong itself, and making the dancers available for our cameras.

In contrast, the Jambay Lakhang tsechu was fraught with difficulties. The swarm of tourists, the site of the dance itself and the inhospitablity of the organizers all made it a far less enjoyable and rewarding experience than we hoped for. The Jambay dzong is an excellent spot of candid photography, but that's all.

In short: two thumbs up for Prakhar and two thumbs down for Jambay!

Adobe's Photoshop Lightroom

Adobe has announced that Photoshop Lightroom 1.0 for Mac and Windows will ship on February 19, 2007 at an introductory price of US$199. The company's pro photo management and RAW conversion software, has evolved through a public beta process that resulted in over 500,000 photographers downloading the work-in-progress application. Adobe Lightroom

The Holiday & Travel Show

The UK annual travel extravaganza is held in London on February 1 to 4, 2007. The venue is at the Olympia in Earl's Court, and its host to hundreds of travel businesses, from travel tours to magazines to accessories. I've never been to one, but since I was given free tickets at Stamford's (a great travel bookshop in Covent Garden), I might take a look. I noticed that a couple of lectures are on the schedule; travel photography, travel writing and on getting published, etc. This sort of event have consistently been disappointing in the past, being nothing really more than barely disguised efforts to sell something, but I'm ready to be surprised.

If I do go, I'll post my impressions. The London Travel Show

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Geotagging, Whatsit?

I've read the term 'geotagging' recently, and thought it may be worthwhile to write about it here. Geotagging is essentially posting images on the web (either on one's own website, blog, or on photo-sharing web sites such as Flickr) that are linked to web-based maps. The geotagging would show on these maps where the images had been made.

So had I geotagged my images while in Bhutan a few weeks ago, I would have been able to see on a web-based map (such as Yahoo maps or Google maps) whereever I pressed the shutter on my camera!

All digital cameras generate a considerable amount of information and data along with the images, known as EXIF. Geotagging would add location coordinates to the information, and would link the images to specific locations on maps. The concept is still in its infancy, and while users of Flickr and other photo-sharing sites can geotag their images now, it is still uncommon. However, manufacturers are coming to realize that geotagging would be an interesting option to their cameras, and are slowly adding GPS-like systems to their products.

More information can be found via here

Camera Bags: The Holy Grail?

Photographers are buzzing about a new rolling carry-on backpack sold by Think Tank, which is said to allow us to legally store our camera bodies, lenses, and accessories in overhead bins or under the seats of international carriers and smaller regional commuter aircraft. At $320, the Airport International (see picture) ought to be really good!

Depending on my destination and the kind of photo gear I'll need, I use the backpack Lowepro CompuTrekker AW or the shoulderbag Stealth Reporter D650 AW. I've tried the much lauded Billingham bags, which are made in the UK but found the fabric/canvas to be too rigid. The choice of any camera bag is a personal one, and is based on invariably costly trials and errors. I've spent many hours discussing the merits of one versus the other...and concluded that there will never be an ideal camera bag, and it's all a conspiracy to make us spend our money.

Think Tank's Airport International

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Soundslides Revolution

Joe Weiss, the creator of Soundslides is a multimedia producer and a software developer. His popular program has enabled anyone willing to pay $40 to combine still images and sound in a functional mutlimedia package for posting on the web, and has simplified how the way images are conveyed to readers of online news services. I've used it, and will continue to use it, for my multimedia slideshows. In fact, I prefer showcasing my photography work with Soundslides rather than regular HTML galleries, since I can add music, ambient sound recorded during my photo shoots, and interviews or narration. This adds what I call 'aural texture' to the images. Some detractors of the product (and there are many) find it too constraining and too simple. To each his own, I guess.

Many photographers and established news services (notably Mercury News of the Bay Area of San Francisco) use Soundslides to present news and features. It's an attractive, it can be tailored to one's esthetic requirements and it's a boon to photographers because it's a cinch to produce multimedia shows with it.

I just don't understand why CNN, New York Times MSNBC still insist in using their clunky slideshow viewers instead of Slideshows (or something similar).

There are many tutorials on Soundslides around, including one by the talented Martin Fuchs, but here's one I found on Popular Photography's website:
Popular Photography: Soundslides Tutorial

Friday, January 26, 2007

Photo Tours: Are You Paying Too Much?

Image from Supplicants of Bahadur Shaheed - copyright 2006 Tewfic El-Sawy

I've led many photo tours or "expeditions" (as I prefer to call them) to India, Bhutan, Cambodia, Nepal etc., and I'm currently setting one up in Bali...and little astounds me more than the prices of photo tours led by self-described 'experts'. Mind you, I'm talking of photo tours, and not of photo workshops which can be more costly to operate because of the hands-on tutoring, individual critiques, etc. Of course, there are photo workshops and there are photo workshops...but that's for another day.

Here's an easy real life example: a 2007 photo tour to Bhutan for about 12 whole days is offered at $5500 per person, on a double occupancy basis, and inclusive of the round trip airfare to Paro from Bangkok of about $700. Using round figures, the land cost for this photo tour is therefore about $4800.

Now let's keep things simple. Anyone doing a minimal amount of research will know that the Bhutan government-mandated land cost per day is $200...that includes room and board, meals, transportation and qualified guides. Taking this particular photo tour as an example, I calculated that based on the itinerary, the land cost is this: 12 days multiplied by $200 is $2400 per person on a double occupancy basis. That's what it should cost the photo tour organizer, but let's be generous and bump this up for incidentals, administrative costs, etc. and make it $2800.

This still leaves a gross profit margin of $2400 per person on the tour. Assuming 12 persons on the tour, we're looking at $28,800 for the tour organizer. Nice! And that's for two weeks of work. I'd love to annualize this for you, but I'm not that good with a calculator. And don't forget that the tour operator in Bhutan (as distinct from the tour organizer) is also making a profit out of the $200 a day government-mandated land cost.

It may be that some people are willing to pay that much for what they think is "expert advice and local knowledge", but I don't agree at all with this mindset. I'm all for people making a profit, but I think there's a difference between a reasonable amount of return and one that is over the top.


I have made this once before, but wasn't too happy with the result. This time it was perfect. I cooked it in the slow cooker, popped it in the fridge overnight and then the next day I brought it to the boil on the hob and then cooked the stew again for a few hours in the slow cooker.


ISBN 0701165766 - Page 108

Serves: 10 people but the recipe can easily be scaled down.

Skill Level: Easy

Taste Test: The meat was meltingly tender and the sauce was luscious.

It is important to lightly brown the meat and not to make the meat too crusty. The onions really do need some long slow cooking on the hob before adding them to the stew pot - use Nigella's tip and sprinkle the onions whilst they are cooking with salt and this stops them browning, remember this isn't a brown stew and so caramelized onions are not what you are after here, but soft and translucent.
For the wine I used a chardonnay and this seemed to be perfect for the sauce, perhaps my choice of wine was wrong last time and hence I wasn't too happy with the end result.
Nigella suggests using ditalini pasta but I couldn't get hold of this and so used festoni pasta from Waitrose. The pasta should be stirred into the stew at the end, but I chose to serve the pasta separately.
The feta cheese mixed with parsley, was crumbled over the top, and melted into the stew beautifully. Don't be tempted to leave out the cheese and parsley, otherwise you will be disappointed with the end result. I served the stew with some sundried tomato bread.

Kitchen Equipment Used: Slow Cooker.

Ed Kashi's Curse of the Black Gold

Here's an interesting and topical piece of work by Ed Kashi. Purely documentary in nature and an eye opener as to the limitless greed of oil companies, and to the corruption that accompanies oil exploration and production in many parts of the world.
Curse of the Black Gold

Thursday, January 25, 2007

James Nachtwey

"I don't use what's happening in the world to make statements about photography, I use photography to make statements about what's happening in the world."

James Nachtwey is probably one of the best documentary photographer out there. A recent interview with him can be found here.

(Photo by Daniel Cuthbert)

Motion Blur

I've recently experimented with a few techniques involving motion blur, especially in dance. Whenever I photograph dances as those in Bhutan for example, I favor shooting the rapid movements of the dancers with a slow shutter speed. To me, there's some degree of trial and error until I get the right amount of blur to impart movement rather than creating an abstract image. Using one the fastest digital cameras around (Canon 1D which goes up to 8 fps) allows me to shoot a bunch of images of a whirling Tsechu dancer, capturing his movements over 10-25 seperate images....all of which will be blurry if I used a slow shutter speed.

This is useful because I can then sequence all these shots (and repeat them if necessary) on the timeline of the wonderful Soundslides (my favorite flash-based slideshow maker), and if I keep the duration of each image under a second, I obtain a moving image of the dancer's motion, similar to the well known 'flip book' technique used in animations or in cartoons. The 'flip book' concept was pioneered by many photographers, but Ed Kashi produced one on Kurdistan quite recently.

To view my 'whirling' Tsechu dancer based on the above technique, drop by my Dancing Monks of Prakhar slideshow.

Motion blur can also be achieved in post-processing in Photoshop. The tutorial is found here.

Bobbie Goodrich, whom I met on a photo tour in Bolivia, has made a name for herself by doing just that. She photographs dancers, and post processes the images in Photoshop possibly using the same procedure. Her excellent dance portfolio can be found here.

There's no question that I much prefer the real thing, however there's a little something to be said about the post processing technique, although it's not my cup of tea.

Image from Dancing Monks of Prakhar-Copyright 2006 Tewfic El-Sawy

Belu Water

Have you heard of the above natural mineral water? The name is pronounced Belloo or Blue. All profits go to clean water projects and every bottle bought gives someone clean water for a month. The water comes from two natural springs - one in Shropshire and one in the Black Mountains. Another interesting fact - they have brought out the UK's first compostable bio-bottle made from corn! Next time you buy a bottle of water, how about giving this beautiful water pride of place on the dinner table? For more information visit their wonderful website

NG's Traveler Photo Contest Winners

I am always perplexed by photo editors' choices when judging photo contests like the one by the National Geographic's Traveler magazine. It appears that some 15,000 entries were received by the judges, out of which only 10 made the cut. Frankly, the results of the 2006 photo contest don't impress me at all, except for Anna Rhee's entry (#3) of an image made on the island of Santorini. To me, it captures the essence of Greek male identity. It's a good picture, but is it good enough to be a prize winner? I don't think so.

I suspect that many serious photographers are put off from participating (real professionals are not allowed to enter) because of the National Geographic's terms and conditions. To win provides good publicity and is a nice add-on to the resume, but not much else. Sour grapes? Maybe.

National Geographic's Traveler 2006 Photo Contest Winners

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Ardh Kumbh Mela

Image from Sadhus of the Kumbh-Copyright 2001 Tewfic El-Sawy

The Ardh Kumbh Mela is currently in full swing in Allahabad, India. This is one of the holiest Hindu festivals, when millions of Hindus bathe in the confluence of the rivers Ganges and Yamuna. This year's festival marks the halfway point of the major Kumbh Mela, which Hindus celebrate every 12 years in Allahabad, where ancient scriptures say a drop of the nectar of immortality landed after a 12-day celestial war.

By the time the current festival ends on February 16, more than 70 million pilgrims are expected to have bathed in the river.

I attended the Maha Kumbh Mela in 2001 which was held at the same spot, and I always marveled as to how women kept their modesty and poise while bathing. This article speaks to that: here

I photographed the naked sadhus in the above picture ( see my Sadhus of the Kumbh Mela multimedia gallery of my main website) in January 2001 during the massive festival. Due to complaints by the sadhus' religious authorities in Allahabad, photographers were not allowed to photograph the nagas during their march to the bathing site. We were ordered by the police to kneel on the ground and not aim our cameras at the passing sadhus, Naturally, all of us photographed using wide angles from our kneeling positions. The sadhus knew what was going on as they could hear the collective shutters! Notwithstanding, some of the police used their 'lathis' (bamboo canes) on a few photographers for breaking the rules. So we all had to suffer for the transgressions of a few.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


I am a cappuccino lover and also love a good cupcake! A combination made in heaven for me, and so there was nothing for it but to have a go at making these.


ISBN 0701168889 - PAGE 199



TASTE TEST: Very light coffee sponge, with minor adjustments made to the topping this proved to be light, sticky and not too sweet.

The sponge used instant espresso powder instead of the usual coffee granules or coffee essence. The coffee taste was far superior and gave a much more sophisticated taste. I am now a convert to instant espresso powder.
The mixture for the cupcakes was just whizzed in the food processor and so that part was extremely easy.
I read somewhere that the topping was toothachingly sweet and so I proceeded with caution, making some minor adjustments to the recipe.
My adjustments are as follows: I used 45g white chocolate, 85g unsalted butter, 142ml sour cream and 130g icing sugar. By looking at the original recipe you will see I have cut down considerably on the icing sugar and to counteract the sweetness I used quite a lot more sour cream.
The topping was softly set and sticky, but perfect on taste for me.
These cakes were gratefully received by the lucky people who got to eat them!

KITCHEN EQUIPMENT USED: Magimix Food Processor

Sunday, January 14, 2007


I love a well made chicken pie, and this recipe is especially good. The lid is made with puff pastry, always a winner in my house.


ISBN 0-00-723573-9
- Page 91

Serves: 6 people.

Skill Level: Easy

Taste Test: Full of flavour and very comforting.

I didn't follow the recipe to the letter but made a few adjustments. Chicken thighs were used in the original recipe - but I am afraid that I am not a lover of these and so I cooked up some chicken breasts instead. Also Sophie uses dried rosemary in her recipe but I think fresh is a much better option. Leeks play a big part in this recipe and so tasty organic are best, after all you only get out of a pie what you put in. A pie raiser was placed in the middle of the dish before topping with the puff pastry otherwise the pastry is in danger of slipping from the sides of the dish.
Sophie suggests serving this with roast potatoes - how right she is.

Kitchen Equipment Used: Falcon oblong enamel pie dish.

Monday, January 1, 2007


These are a small cake for the summer really, but after all the Christmas wining and dining I thought a hit of lemon would be just the thing to kickstart the new year. The photograph was taken just after the lemon syrup was poured onto the cakes and before the syrup had soaked into the little cakes.


ISBN 9781740453646 - PAGE 261

Serves: 6 people.

Skill Level: Easy

Taste Test: Light, fluffy and a good hit of lemon.

I had a lemon left over from Christmas, hence this recipe was made.

You will need six 185ml well buttered and floured ramekins or a 20cm tin. I find Cake Release from a brilliant product and cakes come out of tins very easily if you use this.

100g slightly softened butter
100g caster sugar
1 large egg separated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
100g plain flour, sifted
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon rind
1 teaspoon baking powder
60ml milk
juice of half a lemon

1½ tablespoons lemon juice
50g icing sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 180° C/350° F/Gas 4.
2. Cream the butter and sugar for a few minutes, then add the egg yolk and vanilla and whisk in well. Add the sifted flour, lemon rind and baking powder and fold in with a large metal spoon to incorporate it all. Pour in the milk and lemon juice and stir well. With clean beaters, whisk the egg white in a small bowl until it is very white and fluffy, then fold it into the cake mixture with a metal spoon.
3. Drop 2 heaped tablespoons of the mixture into each ramekin, ensuring that the base is covered and the mixture is even. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the cakes are deep golden and a bit crusty on the top, but still soft to touch and a skewer inserted comes out clean. Put the ramekins on a wire rack to cool completely. Remove the cakes by putting a knife down the side of each ramekin and lifting them out.
4. To make the icing, whisk the lemon juice and icing sugar together until smooth and fairly thick, adding a little more of either if it seems necessary. Put the cooled cakes on a flat plate, make a few holes with a skewer in the top of each one and dribble the icing over the top.
5. I served these with Greek yogurt.

Even if you don't cook anything from the book, buy it just to look at the wonderful photographs and read the text.

Kitchen Equipment Used: Kenwood Hand Mixer