The DPRK Fog ~ What Lies Beyond The Mist


Major Trade Bridge between Dandong, China and Sinuiju, DPRK

What lies across the border?

Looking into the DRPK from across the Yalu River (鸭绿江), I was met with a beautiful sight of a bridge from a thriving Chinese society venturing ahead into a shrouded mist of mystery, taking the question of “what lies beyond the DPRK border?” and putting it into physical form.

A perfect scene to contemplate the question: “Why is this enigmatic land hidden from the modern world in blankets of fog and misunderstandings?”

Granted, it was a little after 5:00am in the morning, so if it wasn’t for this photo I would have shrugged off this vision and marked it up as another strange dream, fuel by a little Chinese vodka (白酒) the night before.  However, the morning chill and the coffee in my hand were awakening my curiosity as I peered at this scene.  It felt as though I was entering a fantasy.

Awake and heading into a new ‘Heart of Darkness‘ as Joseph Conrad once coined.  With a few biased expectations in my pocket and a building excitement that either the beliefs I currently held of the DPRK were true, or perhaps there was more to the story that was not visible through the fog.

The DPRK ~ Into the Mist -15

Speaking of fantasy, little did I know that in my first full day in the DPRK, one of my oldest fantasies would come true: acting.  One thing I should state very clearly, if you detest acting, then it is perhaps wise you do not travel to the DPRK.

My reason for stating this is that the DPRK custom is for all foreign guests to show respect for their ‘Dear Leaders’ often in the form of bowing before statues of their likeness.  It is my assumption that you may have a different impression of the ‘Dear Leaders’ than your hosts, as I did, and thus the need for acting.

The best example of this is at the Mansudae Grand Monument, a place every foreign visitor must visit and pay respects to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.  It was moments like these that I would guess that even Richard Burton would be jealous of my performance.  Choose whichever Richard Burton fits your picture…the American actor or the British adventurer, Richard Francis Burton.  I’d go with the adventurer.

This moment was not an unexpected one, as paying your “respect” to the great leaders is made clear before you get on the plane.  There is no getting around this formality.  It is more accurate to believe that you are paying your respects to the Korean people and their philosophy, as Juche and Communism in theory are actually pretty powerful.  They just suck in practice.

The process of paying ‘respect’ included bowing and laying flowers at the front of the statue.  The bowing I had rationalized and thought no problem, the issue however was that I had thought the laying of the flowers part would be done by a representative, saving us from the charade, but no it was the Full Monty.

I will admit very freely that I did not feel comfortable laying down the flowers, and if it wouldn’t have gotten me in trouble, I would have given those flowers to the first pretty woman I saw (which were many…but I will leave that for another post).

As I mentioned, for the paying of “respect,” the laying down of flowers was the most uncomfortable.  Yet, however uncomfortable this moment was, it was matched by the surreal aspect of what is at the heart of DPRK politics.

Mansudae Grand Monument (The Kims and the Martyrs)

There is something I do need to mention, because it freaked me out.  When I approached these huge statues, I was hit by a feeling of awe.  Considering the circumstances, it was a creepy feeling.  I was not alone, as I talked with other Westerners about this, and they too had similar emotions.  These statues are huge, very well done and with the reverence of the place and people and the lighting, it is impossible not to feel any emotions.

Fortunately, I read a post by author Alec Nevala-Lee quoting Peter Sellars on the affect that the act of “looking up” has on people (  I now understood that tilting the head back and up is an act that the body is not accustom to, so there can be a strange sensation.  Although in Sellar’s example, he used Michelangelo’s incredible Sistine Chapel…not quite in the same league as the Kim statues.

Still, it was an eerie feeling to have, and I also put this down to the fact that I was in the DPRK.  Viewing the statues was the hammer driving the nail home: staring upwards at these behemoth statues within the cultist ambiance of the day.  Quite out of the norm for me.

The DPRK ~ Into the Mist -8

The ceremony at Mansudae Grand Monument did not bother me much and it brought forth a series of introspective thoughts about people and their rulers.  There is something to the saying “when in Rome, do as a Roman…” and going through this ceremony of respect in the DPRK (or in any other country) is a necessary step and perhaps the only way to begin to understand the culture.

In the case of the DPRK, ‘being a Roman’ is the only chance to even begin to fathom what goes on in everyday life in this country.

Sure, these required “shows of respect” are a little bit ridiculous for most Western foreigners to stomach, perhaps even becoming more of a joke toward the leaders than respectful, but then again this ridiculousness is a perfect initiation and introduction into this country.

It also gets the wheels moving, wondering just what makes this place click?  Coming from my past knowledge of the DPRK (mainstream western media), it seems that the deification of the Kims’ follows a common path of past Communist societies, deepening misperceptions of the government.

Yee-haw, the Kims on Horseback

Have you ever been caught up in a lie?  It started off very small, almost inconsequential, but over time it developed a life of its own.

This is my take on what has happened here in the DPRK: a feeling that this whole place is beginning to catch wind of the secrecy and ‘misperceptions’ of the world beyond the DPRK borders, and it is creating fear within the government.  What was once a small innocuous lie has grown too big to manage effectively, and at some point (as with all prevarications) the truth will eventually leak out.

Do not read too much into my next statement, but I believe the initial strength of the North Koreans is quite honorable.  The DPRK is built on self-belief, self-reliance and a strong country that did not want to rely on foreign powers.  Sound familiar anyone?  It is similar to what a group of Americans in 1776 believed in and did something about.

Whether it was under the guise of ‘democracy’ or ‘self-reliance’ is irrelevant, it was a choice of a population.  A belief they were willing to fight and die for, as North Koreans wanted something similar to what our revolutionary forefathers sought: a better life.  I respect anyone who fights for their freedom to do as they choose.

Propaganda Poster on the Street

Propaganda Poster on the Street

The DPRK ~ Into the Mist -9

The problem for me, of course, is that I am not too sure the decision after the war of increased isolation and a government that hides them from the rest of the world is what they bargained for.  However, hindsight is always 20/20.

Also, remember at the time, the DPRK had a whole group of countries which to rally with, a standoff between the Communist bloc and the rest of the world, both sides each believing in their hearts that they were correct.  Of course, it sucks to be on the losing end and I think that is the reality that the DPRK is having a tough time reconciling.  The list is long, and for the most part pretty clear-cut on how this whole thing will end:

  • Mao in China
  • Lenin in the USSR
  • Pol Pot in Cambodia
  • Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam
  • Kim Il Sung/Jong Il/Jong Un in the DPRK

Every one of these countries have gone through reform (or are in the process) so it is inevitable, isn’t it?  As George McFly would say: “you are my density”, and it appears that reform is the destiny for the DPRK.  Question is, when?

A DPRK Propaganda Street Poster

A DPRK Propaganda Street Poster

As mentioned, history shows a pretty good track record for societies seeking the truth, and if the façade is a false one, the ruling party will crumble…and I imagine that Kim Jong Un is fully aware of the history.   Considering Kim Jong Un is young and from reports, intelligent and well versed in the international infrastructure, I think he is the ‘perfect recipe’ to become the idealist leader, who understands it is time to open the DPRK to the international community.  I know, it makes me sound crazy, but it is my optimism doing the talking.

From talking with Koreans around the world, the strength of Korean culture is the backbone of the DPRK society, and this is very much respected by the population in the South (politics aside).  This is an aspect of culture that is, perhaps at its best, underestimated and misunderstood in the West and as foreigners, we just cannot discard this logic just because we are culturally immune to its effects.

The key in the “coming out” of the DPRK is China.  China has the perfect blueprint for transitioning a cultish socity into one ready to contribute to the international community.

The DPRK ~ Into the Mist -16

The DPRK ~ Into the Mist -17

Not to get off point too far, but part of the spirit of the DPRK can be seen in the Mass Games celebrations every year.  I have watched many of these from afar via video, and they are powerful.  Part of me is very aroused by this spectacle, yet I also see productivity of the people being channeled into entertainment and propaganda, when it could be used elsewhere (like production).  Then logic steps in and realizes that without any international support, there is little production, no great release for creativity and evolution of a society.  It is difficult to have one (high productivity) without the other (free trade and a relatively open society).

By shielding the mass of population of how the world has evolved, the government has kept news regarding the stagnating standard of living away from its population.  However, such news is becoming more difficult to control, and while many intellectuals are fully aware of the poor state of the DPRK economy, it gets attributed to UN sanctions and “the imperialistic dogs of the USA.”

Anti-USA Propaganda Poster

Anti-USA Propaganda Poster

To sit and listen to a lot of anti-US propaganda, it is important to realize that it is possible that the local people may hear things that may not be fully accurate (cough, cough). Yet, do not be naive to think it doesn’t go both ways.  People on both sides understand that engaging a nation and its people is a heck of a lot better than threats and sanctions…yet here we are.

People are the same everywhere.  After a good, hard day’s work, we walk home and live the best life that we can create.  Within a normal day of existence, we also end up having to trust those in power to do what is best for our country and us.  At times this may be contradictory.

Off Work in Pyongyang

Can a government be somewhat admired for clinging onto values that it once held at the beginning of its existence?  Self-reliance and establishing a strong unity within the population is honorable.  Perhaps for the first decade(s), there was some respect for the strength of such people, but things have gone pretty askew right now, I guess is a mild way of saying it.

There is a definite fog surrounding the DPRK, and cutting through it will be impossible without the leaders of the country taking their international responsibilities seriously.  The actions of the DPRK government seem counterintuitive, as if they are uncertain how to get out from underneath all the deceptions created.  Perhaps that is the biggest stumbling block in front of them now.  Will they ever be able to legitimize themselves?

Unlike the photo that opened this post (showing the bridge from Dandong China that is the lifeline of trade for the DPRK), the bridge in the above photo is called the “Broken Bridge” brought to you by Gen. MacArthur and his squadron of B-17s and B-29s during the Korean War [edit: John E., has corrected & confirmed that only the B-29 Superfortresses were used].  It has been left as a reminder of US aggression.  It serves as a good metaphor for the DPRK government as a whole, clinging onto the past at the expense of its future: a broken bridge is just that, it has very little practical purpose.

The DPRK on the Brink of Peace ~ Moonlight Over Pyongyang

DPRK Moonlight Over Pyongyang-1

The brink of peace?  OK, perhaps it is just the absolute stillness of the night, the crisp fresh air (anything is fresh after a few days in Beijing) and a calm that penetrates the dark night that gives me this feeling of ‘peace’.  Having just arrived in the DPRK, I am still in a bit of a bewildered state.  [FYI: this will be a first in a series of posts written while in the DPRK last week].

I am not sure what to expect, as there does not seem to be anything restless with this calm, nothing but a sense of relaxation.  Of course, being from the USA that immediately sets off alarms as we are taught early on that the DPRK is evil (actually an “axis of evil”), so there must be something dark and menacing out there, correct?!?  The US media and government never distort the truth, do they?  Regardless, my paperwork made it through and I have arrived (although no stamps in the passport…).


DPRK Visa-1

DPRK Visa-2

DPRK Visa-2

♬♪♬♪♫ Moonlight Over Pyongyang… ♬♪♬♪♫  Nice title for a song, and I’d love to be able to write something moving to celebrate the peace and tranquility that rests over this city tonight, and I assume every night.  Being a bit ambitious, perhaps a symphony to capture the spirit of people, their hopes, loves and dreams that create such great places as Paris, Hong Kong, NYC and even Cairo.  All places where people are allowed to have beautiful thoughts and dreams, and transform them into great works of art.

Why can’t Pyongyang and all of the DPRK one day provide the world with the same?  Strange thoughts on my first night, as I admit I am quite skeptical of just about everything the DPRK could offer.

That said, flying into the DPRK and to the capital city of Pyongyang, I was pretty stunned by the beauty of the countryside.  A blanket of green consisting of mountains, trees and farmland that left me wondering what was in store for the week as we descended into the city.

DPRK Moonlight Over Pyongyang-4

Sunset in the DPRK
Pyongyang Countryside Green out Plane Window

Airplane Window Shot of the Pyongyang Countryside

With only one evening in the DPRK under my belt, I’m not sure I am qualified to attempt any such eloquence as song or poetry.  Perhaps on my way out of the country, inspiration will hit and I can try out my talents on DPRK Immigration officials.  For now, the only thing I can offer are my expectations coming in.

Expectations are easy.  As I mentioned, I am American and we are pretty much programmed to expect a brutal regime where its citizens will look upon us with some disgust.  These days, internationally, that may be par for the course as the US government makes Americans easy targets in the international community.  While discomforting, it does emphasize why I love the USA all the more, as freedom should never be taken for granted and understanding the good along with being able to speak freely of the bad makes a true patriot.

Of course, growing more cynical as I get older, I trust all media (and governments) about as much as I trust the Pyongyang Times…  A wonderful paper, if you like pure propaganda at its flowery best (it gives the old China Daily of the 90s a run for its money).  Something to think about: propaganda machines are just about everywhere (FOX news, CNBC, Pyongyang Times, etc.), whipping up stories with sensationalism to back a belief they want to be taken as fact.  Difference here, in the West we have a few more choices and resources to find the truth for ourselves.

The Pyongyang Times

The Pyongyang Times

Funny thing about the Pyongyang times, in the DPRK a photo or image of the great leader (Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il and current leader Kim Jong Un) must be treated with “great respect.”  What does this mean?  Well, for example, the copy of the Pyongyang Times that I received on the plane should not be folded in half as it would create a crease on the leader’s face.

The newspaper we were given on the plane were given to us flat, so when it came to putting the paper away, the only way to get around this was to fold the paper in thirds.  Pretty easy solution, except when I went to read the inside pages, I had severely creased all the other photos of the “great leaders” on those pages…which upon viewing, the person sitting next to me joked “We’ll see you again in about 10 years when you’re released…”  Sometimes, there is just no way out.

Also, another great piece of info to pass on: throwing a newspaper away with the photo of one of the great leaders on the cover is disrespectful as well…so I suppose you will forever see me holding a “folded-in-thirds” Pyongyang Times from here on out.

One person said upon hearing this: “where the heck do they put all the old papers if they can’t throw them away?!?”  Good question.

DPRK Moonlight Over Pyongyang-8

Blue Hour on the Taedong River

So as I look out onto Pyongyang, I wish for some solitary music, something to catch the spirit of this place.  I come up empty.  Rather, I can imagine a deep, somber beat of footsteps trudging onwards playing in my mind…music to represent the worry about the life their children may have: uneasiness, with little opportunity for expression.  Perhaps it is this silence that I am hearing.  Silence like this tends to make men and women fight to create a better tomorrow…although I expect if I mentioned this to one of our guides, they would say “Of course, that is what happened on June 25th, 1950 and we achieve this goal.”

While I have had very little time to get a feel for the DPRK, it does not take a sociologist to understand that there is a chasm between “us” and “them”.  A very stoic society, and with all this deification of their Dear Leaders blazing from almost every building and being pushed onto the local population…can they even grasp what “the real world” is like?

DPRK Moonlight Over Pyongyang-18

Mansudae Art Studio
Entering Pyongyang

Entering Pyongyang

With the rain coming down as we came in, I did not see many people out and about, so the quiet, greying weather perfectly matched my expectations on what I would see in Pyongyang.  A dull, grey machine that does not have any noticeable human parts.  Not to be trivial, but the DPRK does not have the best PR in the States.  Whether my feelings will change after a week, who knows?  It will be fun to see how I picture this place after a few days, and hopefully the weather will pick up.

As for our hotel, it is actually pretty brilliant.  Fills every expectation of a pre-80s Soviet/Communist Hotel: dated, but solid and with a little bit of intrigue.  We are staying on Yanggak Island at the Yanggakdo Hotel, also know as the Alcatraz of Fun (via the Lonely Planet guide-book) as foreigners are allowed free rein on the island, just don’t think of leaving the island on your own.  Hotel California may be a better name.

DPRK Moonlight Over Pyongyang-11

Central Pyongyang Photo of Yanggakdo Hotel in the Distance

DPRK Moonlight Over Pyongyang-12

Ryugyong Hotel – Still Under Construction

It would have been great to have had the opportunity to stay at the above pictured monstrous Ryugyong Hotel, which pretty much dominates the Pyongyang skyline (the largest building), yet after 36 years since construction began, it is still unfinished.  I believe that falls into the category of “white elephant.”  It does serve as an example of how the fall of the USSR hit the DPRK hard, crippling its economy and stopping all major construction.  Not sure what its future will be, but there are still discussions of the Ryugyong becoming perhaps another ‘Hotel California’, an enclosed enclave for foreign guests.

As for now, I sit at my Yanggakdo Hotel window very tired and smugly admiring my Canon 70-200mm lens.  I say “smugly” because technically it is illegal to bring a 200mm lens into the DPRK…nothing like being a little bit of a rebel.  Although, truth be told, the worst that could have happened is they would have taken the lens and held it until I exited the country, and I brought the lens specifically as I heard that DPRK customs have been flexible with foreigners bringing in a 200mm lens (I am not that brave, especially with my camera equipment).

As one of my good friends told me: “taking your 200mm lens that is technically illegal to bring into the DPRK…yeah, I can see this is going to be an eventful trip for you…”  My final shots of the first day:

DPRK Moonlight Over Pyongyang-15

Juche Tower at Night

Looking west of the Taedong River (right hand side), you have the Juche Tower in its nighttime glory (along with the lights of the Workers Monument and May Day Stadium).

DPRK Moonlight Over Pyongyang-16

Pyongyong East – Kim Il Sung Square at Night

Looking east of the Taedong River (left hand side), you have the Folklore Museum, Kim Il Sung Square, Mansudae Theater and Pyongyang Pavilion and department store.

I would like to imagine that in those well-lit areas of the night, the streets are teeming with people strolling, kids playing and lovers dreaming…but the silence I hear outside makes this thought far-fetched.  So the symphony I wish to compose will just lay in my head, waiting for another day.  I heard there is karaoke, a casino and bowling alley in the basement of the hotel, so I just may head there instead…

“I’m Back in the DPRK…You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are”

All apologies to Lennon-McCartney for borrowing their line…great song.

For my last post before I head off to the DPRK.  To keep consistent with my latest post on the Golden Hour of photography, I have put the below shot as a send off.  With this photo, I need to give thanks to our the men & women in uniform who ensure our liberties and freedoms ring strong and true.  Thanks for making all this so.

See you at the end of June.

The Goddess of Democracy and Freedom

The Goddess of Democracy and Freedom Waiting for All to Return

The Golden Bewitching Hour of Photography

Golden Hour on Po Toi Island - Hong Kong

Golden Hour on Po Toi Island – Hong Kong

In my previous post on the ‘Blue Hour’, I insinuated shooting the blue hour provided more of a challenge to achieve a great exposure than one could get in the golden hour.  Quite a few people disagreed with me, with the complaint that shooting into the sun (and handling the glare of the sun) was much more difficult to manage.  

Granted, these two aspects of shooting a sunset can be difficult, but my point was that if you are shooting the sun, it is your only subject.  There are no other distractions to worry about, and if you are not incorporating the sun into your shot, you have the greatest light in the world to work with.  Conversely, with a lack of light and quickly changing shadows on your subject during the blue hour, the photographer needs to juggle more variables and therefore an inherently more difficult task.

Acacia Tree of Amboseli

Acacia Tree of Amboseli

However, I do agree with the difficulty of shooting into the sun, as I love the flare of her rays; a testament to the original beauty and variability of every singe sunrise/sunset.  Some examples:

  • You can capture a great set of Sun rays, while also highlighting the beauty of the land at the time of dusk.
Golden Light on LouXiaGou in Yunnan 东川红土地云南

Golden Light on LouXiaGou in Yunnan 东川红土地云南

  • You can capture a great silhouette of the beauty of the outdoors and outdoor activities.
Bird Watcher in Solitude, Po Toi Island Hong Kong

Bird Watcher in Solitude, Po Toi Island Hong Kong

  • You can capture the glow of the warm light on a number of beautiful things: landscape, cityscape, people and even wildlife.
Red-Crested Cranes in Evening Flight - Hokkaido, Japan

Red-Crested Cranes in Evening Flight – Hokkaido, Japan

  • Unfortunately, you can also capture a bunch of lens flares and blown highlights, as seen below that can disappoint…
Unintentional Lens Flare Shooting into the Sun

Unintentional Lens Flare Shooting into the Sun

The great thing I love about the disappointment of seeing lens flares is that while I know most stock agencies and companies would refuse such a photo…I still find the photos themselves pretty awesome to view.  Not to say flares are bad, because if you can get it right in a photo – nirvana.  And while I may be disappointed in the result of the flare, I do learn from my mistakes and slowly these errors become fewer (or, I am just blocking them out…).

But for me, the Golden Hour is a time of pure adrenaline because weather permitting, it produces a precious light handed down from the Gods, and that makes it hard not to take a good shot.  Therefore, I do stand beside my belief that the Golden Hour sunrise and sunset is the easier environment of the two “magic hours” to photograph.  As for a choice between sunrise and sunset, as there is nothing more difficult for me that the pre-dawn battle of crawling out of bed: sunset wins.

Kenyan Sunrise in Golden Glow

Kenyan Sunrise in Golden Glow

One thing I have not yet mentioned in either my Blue Hour post or this Golden Hour post is inspiration.  The bewitching hours of photography are perhaps the most inspirational time any artist will always have at their disposal.

Whether you are a writer, musician, poet, painter, photographer or simply enjoy the skills of other artists (which is where I fit in), the golden hour is the time of the day that excites the soul.  The lighting is special: slightly cool in the morning but with a glow that you can carry into the day…and in the evening, you can wrap yourself up in the warm light and its creativity.  Inspiration.

Terraces of Inspiration in FaZhe 法者红土地云南

Terraces of Inspiration in FaZhe 法者红土地云南

Speaking of inspiration, to all the bloggers out there that share your great ideas.  You all spark the creative fire in others.  From a post back in February from Yinyin in Vietnam (, I caught sight of a nice photo on her site of the sun breaking the horizon…with a great caption of “the scent of sunshine” which I loved.

“Scent of the Sun” is a perfect description, especially for a sunrise. I think every artist has a feel for the sun, besides just making the body feel good (and giving us vitamin D), the sun can open a corridor between our soul and the outside world.

Scent of the Sun - Inspiration

Scent of the Sun – Inspiration

So, to loop back to the beginning of this post: Blue Hour is the most difficult to photograph and is part of the reason why I like it so much: if you get it right – it can be amazing.  However, when I was looking at what photos to add to this blog…I could not believe the number of Golden Hour shots I had to choose from in my collection.  Viewing photos on the internet or in magazines and you will find that sunset shots not only dominate – but almost all of them are terrific shots.

My feeling is therefore, the Golden Hour is like the golden child…everyone loves her, for she is beautiful, intelligent and can do no wrong.  The Blue Hour is the less appealing little brother who pales in comparison to the more famous golden child.  Personally, for me growing up the only brother in a sea of three sisters, I think I can rationalize my admiration for the Blue Hour as I relate to its “unfair situation.”    🙂

Ode to the Blue Hour at Wu Meng Mountain

Ode to the Blue Hour at Wu Meng Mountain

Photography, and to a certain extent my writing, has been my artistic release, but perhaps my calling is more towards admiring the work of others.

A couple of weeks ago over lunch, a friend was planning to go to Lamma Island to shoot the sunset, and asked for advice.  While I told him I am not the right one to be asking, there are three general pieces of advice I can give (or rather pass on from what I have learned):

  1. Bring a tripod, and shoot off the tripod for sharp and crisp shots.
Crisp Wide-Angle of the Yunnan Countryside

Crisp Wide-Angle of the Yunnan Countryside

  1. Vary the focal lengths of your shots.
    1. Wide-angle lens for landscape (as you can tell, I like to incorporate the sun with this lens although lens flare issue are huge).
    2. A zoom lens (200mm or more) the more traditional approach if you want to feature the Sun in your shots  (tripod is often necessary).
Golden Rays Breaking in the Valley 法者红土地云南

Golden Rays Breaking in the Valley 法者红土地云南

  1. Experiment with Exposure
    1. Fast shutter speeds for silhouette shots (facing the sun)
    2. Slower shutter speeds for detail (focus on the warm light, not the sun)
    3. Bracket your shots and incorporate HDR techniques
Giraffe Family in the Kenyan Morning

Giraffe Family in the Kenyan Morning

Extremes of the Morning Sun

Extremes of the Morning Sun

And then the best advice I gave him was to go and checkout the work of others on the Internet.  Check out what the professionals do, and then try to dissect how they achieved their shot.

For me, the big three: John Shaw, Darrell Gulin and Adam Jones.  And then, from my time in San Miguel de Allende (, Raul Touzon is one of the more creative users of light in photography that I have seen.

One thing that I have picked up from Shaw and Jones, is that the details in landscape and the nuances with how light works in those compact areas require a zoom or longer lens.  In the past, rarely did I ever pull out my zoom lens (200mm), instead I shot with my wide-angle or mid-zoom lens.  It was through looking at their work where I really learned the value in pulling out my longer lens for landscape and sunset shots.

Lamma Island Sunset

Lamma Island Sunset

I figure we will all continue to evolve, as photographers.  New equipment and ideas will ensure this happens, but also every time we go out we see & learn something new.

The idea to capture as much of the beauty I saw in front of me, often led me to pull out my wide-angle, to bring it all in…but instead at times I would miss out on the wonderful nuances of her beauty that are even more stunning.  Be flexible and creative in these hours, and go for the original shot.

FYI: For the next 3+ weeks, I will be in Northern China and the DPRK and will not have access to the Internet.  So see you at the end of June.

The Bewitching Hours of Photography: The Blue Hour

Christmas Duck Hunt

Through ‘bending of light’, an artist is able to create unique, emotional and stunning photographs. Unfortunately, light also is the most destructive force as well, as I have an endless supply of photographs with blown-out highlights or underexposed noise (aways sad news after a shoot, but good to learn from those mistakes).  I have learned that while the scene may look beautiful, if the lighting is flat and harsh, it is more difficult (if not impossible) for the camera to capture all the beauty we see.

Light is the piece of magic that fuels photography, and there is no better time to ‘bend the light’ to your imagination than the bewitching hours of photography:

  • The golden hour (roughly the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset)
  • The blue hour (the hour before dawn and after sunset).

During these hours, the creativity of the artist is allowed to flourish as the lighting provides a window of opportunities…the artist is allowed to dream, and if everything flows together the results can be spectacular.

Cormorant Fisherman of Ancient Folklore - Li River, Guangxi 丽江广西

Cormorant Fisherman of Ancient Folklore – Li River, Guangxi 丽江广西

The blue hour is the topic today, mainly because I found out that historically the ‘blue hour’ meant the time between 3:00pm and 6:00pm where the pubs in England, Wales and Scotland by law had to close their doors.  Very sad for photographers, as in the summer those are the hours when light is often at its worst (harsh and flat), and to enjoy some spirits during that time would help the creative process prior to the magical shooting hours…

Why I am attracted to ‘dawn and dusk’ is simple: great blue hour lighting is rarer than great golden hour lighting.  The photographer needs to pay more attention to both exposure and the subject at this time, more than at any other time during the day.  A great sunset alone is worth a photo without regard for any specific subject other than the light.  However, once you get into the blue hour, having a nice subject to help accentuate the wonderful light is needed.

MaWan, Hong Kong near the ending of dusk

MaWan, Hong Kong near the ending of dusk

The above shot at MaWan is perhaps 15 minutes after the official ‘Blue Hour’ but the glow of dusk to the right made this an interesting shot, so sometimes it is worth while shooting deeper into twilight.

Twilight begins in Dongchuan, Yunnan 云南红土地

Twilight begins in Dongchuan, Yunnan 云南红土地

Another reason I enjoy the blue hour so much, is from an explanation I received about the electricity of dawn from a photographer in Hokkaido, Japan.  She poetically said: “Dawn is the time where the air is freshest and the electricity of all our dreams we had during the night are there for us to see, like frost resting on the trees along the Setsari River (Tsurui, Hokkaido).  And it is at dawn when our dreams sparkle in hope that today will be the day when the dreamer claims them…instead of once again being tossed aside.  This makes the moment before dawn so special.”

Red-Crowned Cranes at Daybreak on the Setsari River

Crystalized Dreams and Red-Crowned Cranes at Daybreak on the Setsari River

As a photographer, we have the opportunity to shoot and record such scenes…to keep the dreams alive.  I also really liked her description, kind of a reminder that each day is a time to start anew, to look beyond at what the day can and will be.  The above shot was taken in the fleeting moments of dawn with the sun ready to breakout in the bitterly cold, grey morning on the Setsari River with red-crowned cranes.

The blue “hour” is a bit of a myth, as the length of time varies greatly, but on average there is about 30+ minutes of great shooting.  The website: is an excellent tool to use for planning your shoot.  Once you have your time worked out, then choose an area that has interesting subjects: landscapes and cityscapes work well and also think creatively with some soft light for portraits shots; a bit more difficult due to slower shutter speeds but results can be interesting.

Li River Cormorant Fisherman at Dusk

Li River Cormorant Fisherman at Dusk

The fisherman shot above was f/4, and hand-held.  Jacked up the ISO a bit and shot wide-open, but overall the results turned out OK.

Probably a good idea to also think ahead about “How to Shoot Blue Hour”, a worthwhile topic and I have been fortunate to shoot with other photographers who like to pass their wisdom on to others.  The piece of advice I have always received: checkout the landscape, the time of year and weather because each day the available light will be different and so your exposures and shooting plans may change.

With limited lighting, it is important to determine how the slower shutter speed is going to affect the shot.  Camera shake is the first issue, so a tripod is needed.  If there is any motion in the scene, then take into account that there will be blurring and then try to make that an interesting part of the shot.

For the Blue Hour, generally I shoot at f/11 or higher as I want that great depth of field and detail, and by stopping down I am better able to achieve that ‘starburst’ quality with distant lights that can create just a little more intrigue within the shot.  However, it can also be fun to shoot wide open, especially with great foreground activity, and being wide-open gives greater stability and allows you better opportunities to hand-hold your shots.

Seattle at Twilight

Seattle at Twilight

Blue Hour on a Village in Yunnan - 云南东川红土地

Blue Hour on a Village in Yunnan – 云南东川红土地

Getting the exposure correct during Blue Hour is a bit more complicated as well, so fire some quick shots and check your histogram.  For Blue Hour, I use both spot and center-weight metering, depending on the shot, and will meter off the darkest point of my composition that I want to bring out.  Checking the histogram (even if you bracket, which I often do), should result in technically better photos.

If I am shooting any landscape, I bracketed my shots (3-7 depending on lighting conditions), so I have the option of layering my photos in Adobe or run my files through the HDR program Photomatix, which captures the details of the shadows without blowing out those bright points of lights that make the scene so attractive.

Washington State Ferry Bremerton to Seattle

Washington State Ferry Bremerton to Seattle

For choice of lens, it is a personal preference but a fast wide-angle lens is one I use predominately, both to capture the “total essence and ambiance” of the scene…and when the camera is off my tripod, a quicker lens allows me to shoot crisper shots during the light-deprived Blue Hour, such as the above shot of a ferry, on a ferry heading to Hood Canal.

Blue Hour shooting is fantastic, as it also serves as a good warm up to shooting a sunrise and a warm down from shooting a sunset.  Either way, you are going to learn a lot more about both photography and the area around you.  Creative lighting situation always can be little challenging (I have walked away from many shoots with nothing to show), but there is always something new and interesting to gain.

Sunny Bay Blues - Hong Kong

Sunny Bay Blues – Hong Kong

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