Brian Wood-Koiwa on Wabi-Sabi in Photography (Podcast 791)

Brian Wood-Koiwa on Wabi-Sabi in Photography (Podcast 791)

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The last week has been crazy, and I was settling down a few days ago to create the final podcast episode for this month I found out about a problem with one of my bank accounts that took almost three days to correct. Thanks to the remarkably flexible bank clerk that helped me, we were able to get everything sorted, but it took two trips to the bank and a total of over five hours of filling out paperwork.

Then while I was at the bank in the gaps between paperwork, I was communicating with my friend Brian Wood and we decided to get together for a chat to talk about Brian’s recent work and help me out as I ran out of time to prepare for an episode. We decided to talk about Wabi-sabi and photography, Ensouling the inanimate through photography, Polaroids, and Brian’s Photo-walking tours. All of which you can find on Brian’s website.

Brian sent me a stash of images to illustrate our conversation, and you can find them below, and I have embedded the relevant ones into the audio so if you are listening with Outcast or the iOS Podcasts app, you will be able to follow along with the photos there too. Click on an image to open it in the lightbox, and you can then navigate back and forth with the arrow keys or your mouse.

Show Notes

Check out Brian’s website here:

Music by Martin Bailey


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From Model to Photographer with Kudzai King (Podcast 787)

From Model to Photographer with Kudzai King (Podcast 787)

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Today I have the pleasure of sharing an inspiring conversation with Kudzai King, who started as a model in Harare, Zimbabwe, moved to Cape Town, and then on to New York, where he now works behind the camera as a photographer. I found it fascinating how the various aspects of Kudzai’s life have helped to form a foundation for his future endeavors. I have had our conversation transcribed, so will share that below, but I will also embed the video here for those that prefer to watch, followed by the transcription of our conversation.

Martin: So, Kudzai, I am absolutely thrilled to have you on the Martin Bailey Photography Podcast this morning. Welcome to the show.

Kudzai: Thank you so much. I’m delighted to be here. Excited.

Martin: I say this morning, but for you obviously, it’s this evening, you’re in New York. You are in New York at the moment, aren’t you?

Kudzai: Yes, I’m in New York. Right now, I am looking at the sun setting.

Martin: Ah, okay. Mine’s just come up.

Kudzai: Yeah. Yours has just come up, yeah.

Martin: Yeah. We’re going to talk about a lot of things. One of the main things about your story, which I found so fascinating is how you got from Harare, is it? In Zimbabwe.

Kudzai: Yeah. It’s a very complex name. It’s got a lot of Rs. But the way you pronounce words in Japanese, it’s literally quite similar. So, Harare.

Martin: Harare. Okay. It’s exactly the same. We were talking a moment ago before we started the interview. I’ve travelled to Namibia a lot, that’s a couple of countries over from Zimbabwe, where you’re from. I imagine, you lived in the capital, right? Were you born in the capital? Is it a really busy place or how is it there?

Kudzai: How is it there? Well, just to start from the beginning, I was born in the capital. My mother was born in the capital. My grandmother was born in the capital. But that’s from my mother’s side. From my dad’s side, my dad grew up in the village, and then their whole entire family educated themselves, and became professionals within the working world, and moved out of the city, and now, they’re spread all over the world, basically. Yeah. I was born in Harare in the capital. It is a busy city, but not as busy as New York is, but certainly, quite busy. It is the hub of the country, basically.

Martin: Wow.

Kudzai: Yeah. It used to be quite modern a while back. Obviously, politics and all that got into a mix of things and it is what it is now. But it’s a beautiful country nonetheless and it’s got amazing people.

Martin: Wow. Yeah. We were just touching on the languages, and I managed to get your– I didn’t get your capital city right first time, but I managed to get the pronunciation of your name, Kudzai, pretty on the target. I’ve spent a lot of time– At the moment, my only photography tour that I do outside of Japan is in Namibia, which is like we say, two countries across from Zimbabwe, sandwiched, I guess, by Botswana.

I love languages. Obviously, I spent 32 years in Japan. I learned Japanese quickly in the first few years. And I spend a lot of time trying to learn little bits of the languages, because I travel with people who are from the Oshiwambo tribes. One of them, he’s a Herero guy.

Kudzai: Oh, yeah.

Martin: So, I know little bits of each of those languages. Also, we visit the beautiful Himba people in Namibia as well. I have a few little words that I use with those. So, I understand enough to be dangerous. If someone speaks back to me, I have no clue. 

Kudzai: The languages that you spoke about or rather the countries that have the languages you spoke about, they all sound quite similar because they’re all in a group called Nguni language. So, even though they’re completely different languages, because of that particular dialect that they share, you find that there’s a language in Zimbabwe called Ndebele. It sounds very similar to what’s in South Africa, which is called Zulu. And Namibia as well, there’s certain words that sound quite close to the Shona language, which is what I natively grew up speaking apart from English. 

Yeah, they all share these dialects, and it’s quite fascinating because having traveled myself as well, bounce around them like, “Oh, I hear a word.” There’s a connection, and sometimes, the same word means the same thing in another language. But then, sometimes migration has intermixed people, and then within the spaces that they managed to dwell in, they curated their entire language and way of speaking, but still they share that dialect.

Martin: Yeah, wow. We’ll carry on with your story in a moment. But one other little fact that I want to throw in here, because it’s a claim to fame from a few hundred years ago. I don’t know whether you view this as a good thing or a bad thing. But one of the first people from England that would have traveled in Zimbabwe and Botswana and those areas is actually the guy who named Victoria Falls. And he’s my great, great, great, great granddad, David Livingstone. 

Kudzai: Oh, David Livingstone. 

Martin: Yeah.

Kudzai: Oh, yes.

Martin: When I was a kid, on my dad’s side, my dad’s mother’s name was Livingstone. And obviously, I then became a Bailey. But Livingstone on my grandmother’s side came down from David Livingstone. He was the guy that, again for good or worse, named Victoria Falls. There’s a statue of him there on– I think it’s the border between Zimbabwe, Botswana, and the tiny strip of land that comes over from Namibia.

Kudzai: Oh, that’s very fascinating. Very fascinating. One of the things that happened in my country, when we won independence in 1980 is that a lot of past sins are forgiven. And then, the people that added to the progression of what became Zimbabwe are people that are celebrated, and David Livingstone is actually one of the celebrated people in history that shifted and morphed the country into being what it is. I actually went to a school called David Livingstone.

Martin: Oh, wow.

Kudzai: Yeah. 

Martin: That’s amazing.

Kudzai: We’ve got schools called David Livingstone, and then streets named after him as well, and then obviously, you spoke about the statue.

Martin: Oh, that’s amazing.

Kudzai: Amazing having to meet one of his descendants.

Martin: Well, that’s brilliant. Thank you very much. I didn’t realize that. So, that’s a bonus for me.

Kudzai: When you visit, you have to really explore, because his name is really ingrained within history in Zimbabwe.

Martin: Brilliant, brilliant. I’ve only really just over the last few years started to look into his life and what he did. It’s one of those things that I’m also still very, very fresh at, but I’ll look into it more. Okay, well, thank you for that. We’ve got to where you started. When did you get into the modeling, you became a male model? Was that when you were in Zimbabwe or you moved to Cape Town, right?

Kudzai: I’ve kind of darted around different countries all around. But initially, I kickstarted in Zimbabwe. I was 16 and at that time– it’s only now this year that I’ve realized that perhaps I’ve had fashion roots for a long time in my life now. But at that time, I was 16 and I was involved in fashion. Me and a couple of friends had kickstarted a successful clothing label without us actually knowing that we were pretty successful what we are doing. At 16, we broke apart the business and we all focused on different things. One became a famous designer, the other one became a famous musician, and then I became a model, and celebrated my own right. 

But at 16, I decided that I wanted to model. And luckily, my mom has always been quite supportive of me. As soon as she heard that I was interested in that, she found connections and then I was now in talks with a modeling agency, which taught me the ways of modeling. Back then, you had to do a class or a course basically with a particular agency to be acquainted with the industry. I did that and that carried me on until I was 21. That’s how I initially got into fashion. It’s an industry that taught me a lot. Most of the things that I know, apart from having learned photography from anew, they are inspired from my industry days in modeling.

Martin: Wow.

Kudzai: I did modeling in Zimbabwe. And then, our family moved to England. I’ve got two moms.

Martin: Have you?

Kudzai: Yeah. My stepmom and my sister moved to England. And then at some point, I joined them and did a little bit of modeling there. But then, I was always to and fro, because Zimbabwe was always home.

Martin: Hmm-mm. Wow. 

Kudzai: Yeah.

Martin: That’s amazing. What a story. When did you find yourself over– You went over to Cape Town. What age were you then roughly?

Kudzai: At the age of 21 is when I moved to Cape Town. I was in England. I did a little bit of school in England. And then, at some point after school, I decided that Cape Town was a place for me. I visited Cape Town once for a holiday. I fell in love with it so much. The very next year, I told myself I’ll move there and then I sure did move there the very next year, I didn’t know a single person. I didn’t know a single thing, but it felt like home. 

Martin: Yeah.

Kudzai: It felt like home. And I just melted into the spot, and I found my feet. So, 21 is when I initially moved.

Martin: Yeah, that’s strange. I find a lot of similarities between those in some ways, because I remember– I came to Japan in 91. So, it’s 31 years ago now. And I remember after six months or so, I went back to England for my first holiday, like time off. When I came back to Tokyo– not to Tokyo. I was in Fukushima where they had the nuclear power plant meltdown a few years ago. But when I was standing on the platform to get the train back up to Fukushima in Tokyo, I let out this huge sigh of relief. It was like, “I’m home.” It was the home thing. So, I can relate to what you’re saying how with Cape Town, it just felt right. And sometimes, I think that’s it. It just it feels right.

From there, you moved to New York. Tell us about the transition, because you were the male model and you decided to switch to the back of the camera. You became a photographer. And that is, of course, the main reason why we’re talking today, because the podcast is all about photography. I just love your story. So, tell us how you got from male model to photographer.

Kudzai: I believe at the age of 20, this is me being to and fro in England and Zimbabwe. There’s a particular photographer, amazing photographer that had shocked me when I was still doing modeling. At some point in my modeling career, I’d felt like I had exhausted the excitement that I could get out of it. I felt quite constrained because I couldn’t tell a story. Because I do believe that when you’re a model, you are the canvas. You are the blank. canvas. A very vital tool in creating artwork. 

What I wanted to be was someone who could come with a brushstroke and paint on the canvas and craft the art. I felt at that point that photography was my next best way of expressing myself. These are the days of Facebook. I reached out to this particular photographer. She was big and I didn’t know whether she would reply or not. But there’s a motto that I’ve lived with since I was young and that is, “The worst anyone can say is no.” Rejections and no’s are amazingly for me, because then I now can instantly recognize that there’s an obstacle. When I’ve got the intention, I just have to figure out how to get around the obstacle basically.

Tracking back to what I was explaining, I lost my train of thought there. But I reached out to this photographer. Her name is Michelle Fordham and she’s an incredible photographer. Less now a photographer and more a fitness guru. But then, she was doing a lot of photography. I reached out, she responded back, and we set up a coffee. In my head, the intention that I was seeking out was to be an intern. We spoke, had a great time, connected really well. By the end of it, I was hired as a full-time assistant.

Martin: Oh, wow, that’s amazing.

Kudzai: I know. Now, I was being paid to learn, which was pretty amazing. She taught me a lot of business skills, and how to operate certain things, how to be respectful to your clients. Yeah, I think if I’m to really pick the most valuable things she taught me was the business structure. I think with lighting and everything else, I bumped into it as I went about. But she laid out the foundation for me when I was working with her. Yeah, it was a great time. It was a full-year experience with her and got very lucky that I was very passionate during that time, and I was posting my work on Facebook each time I would shoot on the side. I started picking up momentum, and clients started booking me. I felt like I knew nothing, but people were interested on what I was making. Yeah, it was very appreciative.

Martin: Well, there’s a number of things that really resonate there. The first thing that you mentioned about what you were taught was the business side, and that’s so important. And something that a lot of people getting into photography don’t– Especially, you knew that you wanted to do it as a business, not just as a passion or hobby. But the fact that you were taught the business side first with most importance is incredible. Because a lot of people start out, they’re more concerned about, “Can I get the exposure? Are the lights going to be in the right place? Do I have the right balance?”, all of the technical things. I tend to be a technical photographer in many ways. But to be successful as a photographer, if you’re doing it professionally, the main thing is the business set. It’s great that you were taught that first. 

But you also talked about the lighting and things like that. I think that confidence as a photographer, the confidence to ask for money comes more from the business side, the business education that you’ve had than the technical side. Because a lot of the time, as you said, you threw together lighting, you bumped into it. It’s difficult, but it’s not incredibly difficult. Another thing that you mentioned earlier that resonated with me was the figuring out how to go around an obstacle. And obstacles, as a photographer, it’s all about obstacles, right? 

Kudzai: Yeah.

Martin: Okay, so this side of the face is too bright, what do I do? I want this side darker, what do I do? You are forever solving little problems. I think that you’ve touched on all of those things just in the last few minutes of what you’re saying there. It’s all great stuff.

I think you also mentioned that, again, about the confidence. We’re going to look at some of your work shortly as well so the listeners or the viewers will understand that you’ve got what it takes to do what you’re doing. There’s no worries now about confidence. But going through that, I think it’s also really humble of you to be able to say that as a working photographer. Some people try to hide that stuff, but you’re very vulnerable and I think that’s a nice trait to bring with you into the industry. I guess the fact that I’m saying all of this, you can tell I’m enjoying our conversation.

Kudzai: Same here. But to speak on what you just said, I do realize– I think why I’m so open as well is at the age of 24, I just realized that there was a very different way of living life. Having been brought up in the fashion industry since from a young age, I think there were a lot of things that I could have done better. And then having my friends in entertainment, we were very confident about what we’re doing. Some of those things were probably not things that we should have focused on during that time.

But after a while, I think when I was 24, I met an amazing friend who I admire his way of life. It was a peaceful way of living life, and it was just so beautiful and glorious. I met him in Cape Town. And from then on, I just decided to switch away from the past life that I was living. I call it the death of ego. Because I do believe that ego serves no purpose in my life, it has never put food on the table, and it has never connected me to more people. So, that created a playground for me where I feel all the things that I know, they’re all things that I’ve learned from other human beings, I came screaming and wailing as a baby with no knowledge. I didn’t wake up speaking three, four languages, or doing arithmetic, or anything. All the information I know is through friends, my community, school, through the internet, through every source of information I could gather around me to learn from. The more I learn, the more I feel I know nothing. And it’s an amazing place to start.

Martin: Wow. Yeah, I love that way of thinking. The death of ego, I like that. I’ve always felt as though– My wife often says this about me that I really have no real ego as such. Obviously, I don’t want to be belittled. I want to save my own space to a degree. But everyone I meet, I treat them the same way. I always say like I’m a mirror. I start off with everyone, it’s like flat, completely. I’ll give you respect, and I get some back. If I get disrespected, then I get disrespectful as well. But if someone is positive towards me, I’m more positive towards them as well. But I always start off with everybody on a level playing field. I’ve never had any kind of discrimination against people or anything like that, and my wife always says that’s one of my best qualities. And I guess it’s very similar to the death of the ego. So, I’m happy about this stuff. It makes me feel better about myself too.

Kudzai: Yes, it sounds like you’re on the right path. 

Martin: Yeah. At that point, you became a photographer, you started to work. Via Facebook, you were getting job offers. What took you to New York? That’s a big change. So, what happened there? 

Kudzai: Oh, yeah. I was in Cape Town, and this is years later, I’d done well for myself. I had created a whole entire community around me, and I was busy. I was working with big fashion designers in South Africa or rather in Africa to be precise, because I was traveling around quite a lot. I took it upon myself to learn Africa because I didn’t know so many countries. So, whenever a job offer would come through and it’s from another country, I would instantly snatch it. I did Nigeria, I did Botswana, Zambia, I did Ghana, and then number of other countries.

At some point, I felt I had a really nice life, a really comfortable life, a really, really comfortable life from the work that I was getting. But then, I felt I tapped the scene too quick. I’ve always been a very ambitious person within everything that I do. When I think of doing the stuff that I do, I never look at my peers as competition. To me, whoever is at the top of the industry during that time is what I’m competing with even though some of those people didn’t know me then. Some of them are friends now but then then, they didn’t know I was just a kid from Africa who just had a crazy ambition. When I tipped my ceiling too quickly, I felt I needed a bigger challenge. 

I think I was about to work with the city of Johannesburg during that time with the mayor. There was this looming project hanging around, and I had to make a decision whether to stay in South Africa or to come to America. And so, how that decision even came through to choose New York was, I asked myself, “Where’s the highest ceiling in the world?” To me, within my industry of fashion, it’s definitely New York. Because just when you think you’re at the top, there’s a kid in a tiny dark apartment concocting ways to take over the industry. And now, it rattles you to come up with a new game plan. And so, the world keeps turning and you keep improving yourself. So, progression.

Martin: Yeah. 

Kudzai: That’s how I decided to end up here, and I didn’t know any single person as well.

Martin: What? You came again without any… That’s amazing. Was there any culture shock? It’s a very different culture, I imagine. Did that hit you in any way?

Kudzai: Honestly, one of the things my mother was able to do was expose me to things. I owe a lot of gratitude to my mum, because she grew up in poverty, like extreme poverty. And she picked herself from her bootstraps and had me on her back when she was working and built her entire life around us. At that point, we were living the middle to upper class life, and she always made sure that I remembered my roots. Sending me off to holiday where she grew up, so at least I’ll have a view of both worlds. She made me try a lot of things. Weekends, we would do picnic. We would do things that she didn’t grow up doing. She had a nice tasteful life and she made sure that I tried things. 

The other thing is, apparently, when I was a kid, I was very, very troublesome. The only way they could stop me from crying or being naughty was placing me in front of a TV. So, I guess my love for pictures tracks all the way back.

So, New York was ingrained in me from a young age. I’m talking about comic books, I’m talking about TV shows, I’m talking about Christmas movies, I’m talking about everything. Because in Zimbabwe, we’re quite a modern country and one of the languages that we speak so well is English. So, I never felt the culture shift. I never thought the culture changed. Perhaps, who I felt it was more personal things like romance and whatnot. Then, that became quite specific. But then, it wasn’t a culture shock because I’ve also exposed myself, and traveled, and then took time to learn things. And even before I came through, I did my research. I easily switched onto the news that people are watching here so that by the time it came through, I would be acquainted with what’s happening. So, I prepped up and I guess that’s the essence of why I do like to prep up.

Martin: Yeah, that’s interesting. I guess my only thing that I can relate to that is that growing up in England, similarly, we watched a lot of American movies. And yeah, a lot of influence. The comedy shows, and all of the series and things that we get on the TV, a lot of it was from America. So, we learned not only a little bit about the culture, but also the language and the differences between English English and American English. And so, when I started working, before I started doing photography full time, which was 12 years ago, I worked for 10 years for a US-based company, and a lot of the people that I worked with were from America.

Whenever they visited– The first three years or two– No, the first year I worked in England for that company and then I moved to Tokyo. But we would have visits from the people from America. They would say– Especially when you go to a pub or something and all of the English people are speaking in their own local dialects and they’re using very condensed phrases, the Americans would say, “I can only understand about 30% of what you’re saying.” We’re speaking the same language, but the Americans couldn’t understand what English people were saying when they were speaking relaxed. If you’re in a business environment, it is slightly different. But we didn’t have that problem, because we grew up listening to the American dialect and various ways of speaking just through the TV. For us, it was really no problems. I guess, I can relate to the fact that you’d slotted right in there without having too much of a problem. That’s very cool. 

Kudzai: Thank you. I just wanted to add to that. There is a difference between English English and then US English. Certainly, I think there are a couple of words that I had to change. Probably, the one moment of a culture shift that I felt was, when I went into a bodega, which is a corner store where they sell these express goods. I got in there, because my English is quite English from having experienced England and then having lived in Zimbabwe as well, we’re subscribed to the education in England. I went into the bodega trying to buy water.

Martin: Yeah. 

Kudzai: I’m trying to order water, and no one can understand me. I’m saying, “Water, water.” And then, something clicked in my head, I’m like, “Oh, right there. I know what’s wrong here.” I instantly switched it to ‘water’. And they’re like, “Oh, water.” If there’s one moment I recall as being a culture shift, it’s probably that. Then maybe overtime, a couple of words that have had to change, so that it would sound a little more American but as you can hear, my accent is quite still strong.

Martin: Yeah. You’ve got very nice accent. Let’s take a look at some of the images that you’ve sent me. What I’m going to do is, I’m going to share my screen. I will share this video with the audience as well but I’ll also put these into the blog post so people can come along. If you are just listening and want to follow along with the images, the blog posts for this will be at So, the 787th podcast. I’m going to share my screen and I’ll put your images up onto here. Let’s see. For some reason, that’s very low on the screen. Let’s see if I can move that. There we go. I’m going to just open these in the order that– They’re in an order just in the folder, and I’ll just open them up. Can you see that over there, Kudzai? 

Kudzai: Yes, I can.

Martin: Okay. Tell us a little bit about this photo. What’s the story behind it? What were you doing here and things like that?

Copyright © Kudzai King
Copyright © Kudzai King

Kudzai: One of the most fascinating places that I got to experience when I came to New York, the outdoor spaces, was the Hamptons. I’d always heard about the Hamptons, and I didn’t know what the fuss was about. I went there for a photoshoot for a friend of mine who owns a swimwear brand. I fell in love with the place. I always make sure that I go there from time to time. It’s my summer little getaway. But then in this particular image, I worked with this girl named Katja. Katja is such an incredible human being and an incredible model as well. I was actually dying to create something that I had not done– or rather a version of a creation that I’ve not done in a while. 

I’ve gotten very lucky that in my career that when I kickstarted, there was just so many people that were very kind, and they wanted to work with me, and they believed in my vision. And so, it had been eight years since I LAST shot without a team, basically. Every one of my shoots always has– there’s a makeup artist, and they have their assistants, and then there’s hair stylists, assistants. And I also have digitech and then there’s me and my probably two assistants during an image shoot. I just wanted to declutter all of that and just focus on the fact that I wanted to capture something beautiful.

So, what I do from time to time is I create content that is used for marketing purposes. Sometimes, a piece of work that I’m creating might not have a particular client. But in my head, I’m shooting for a particular client, because there’s someone that I’m trying to aim to work with basically. And so, in this particular case, I did very much that. There was a particular swimwear brand that I was targeting. I visited my friend, Katja. She lives in the Hamptons full time with her husband. I just grabbed my camera, we rode out on a bike, and we started photographing. To me, it was the most joyous thing that I could do, because for the first time in a while, I didn’t have anything around. It was just me, the model, and the camera, how I started exactly. 

Martin: Yeah. That’s pretty cool in that I pretty much always work alone. I only do portrait work professionally, very, very seldomly. And when I do, my wife is my assistant. She’s great at handling my lights and things like that, but I’ve never worked with a big team like that. I can imagine that it’s so liberating to just get back to just you, and the camera, and the model. So, yeah, that’s pretty cool to think about that, just from my own perspective. So, she’s got the life– What do you call it? A buoy? 

Kudzai: Yeah, the buoy that they use, I guess, for lifeguards. 

Martin: Yeah.

Kudzai: The story behind this particular image is, it was around 1 PM and I never shoot at that time, ever. But I realized that I wanted to have something quite dramatic, something that felt very high velocity, something that was unique. And so, I looked at the angle of the lighting, and then I had a conversation with Katja, and then I told her like, “Okay, this is the way you need to pose, because if you look down, you’re going to have shadows on your eyes. And if you look this way, this way.” When we’re doing that, I observed a couple of lifeguards close by and basically, I walked up there, and I had a conversation with them. They were so cordial with me. They allowed me to utilize everything in their possession.

Martin: Wow.

Kudzai: We ended up having a full-on editorial shoot, people surrounded us. It was a beautiful moment. But yeah, I looked at the colors of everything that we had and obviously, the garments that were specifically chosen for her to wear. Because I was looking for– If you look at my work, my work revolves around certain colors. It’s your yellows, your oranges, your greens, your blues, basically. I’ve decided to keep that as a theme in my work, because I do tend to shoot outdoors and in the studio. And so, I always love a good connection between all of them in order for people to instantly recognize that, “Oh, this is Kudzai King’s work.”

Martin: Wow, that’s great that you’re conscious of that. I’m very interested in colors myself. I often take a color wheel, or I use a few applications where you can map the colors in photos and just find out why they work together. I don’t necessarily stick to specific colors as a way of branding. But I do enjoy looking at the relationship between colors and that’s great that you’re doing that and that you’re aware of all of that.

Kudzai: Absolutely. Actually, when I kickstart a year, I choose the theme for the year for myself.

Martin: Oh, brilliant.

Kudzai: It might not be the trend, but it will be something that I feel so strongly about. So, color is a great way to start. Yeah, I set up all the colors. When I’m working with stylists, I let them have a free reign of what kind of garments can work within the theme of a story that I’ve come up with. Then, they build a juggernaut around the structure that I’ve basically primed up.

Martin: Wow. I have a large body of work on a stock agency called Offset, which is a sister company of Shutterstock. And every year, they send out an email saying, “These are the colors for this year.” It’s like they decide what the colors for the year are. I don’t think it’s them deciding but it’s pretty cool how they do that. If you were really into stock photography, which I’m not, but if you were, trying to involve those colors in your work for that year, it’s an important thing, and I imagine it’s very important for fashion as well. I changed the photograph. Tell us a little about this next one.

Copyright © Kudzai King
Copyright © Kudzai King

Kudzai: This is still part of a series that I shot in the Hamptons. One of the things that I really love is movement. I feel creating work that is beautiful is important but also creating work that is unique is even more important. Because in this world that we live in where everything is kind of fast paced– Not everything’s kind of fast paced, everything is fast paced. It’s very hard to hold someone’s attention. With the work that we do as photographers, to grab someone’s attention for whatever fraction of time that you’ve grabbed it for, it’s highly important because if you’re doing it professionally, that’s the difference between you and a meal on the table. So, I’m constantly thinking about those things in the back of my head like, “Okay, so, I want to create something beautiful that feels like me, but I also have to create something that’s unique.”

I feel movement is very hard to replicate. You can try your best and then come close. But I feel movement, it’s quite unique in its own manner. Even if you take inspiration from a painting, from whatever the case it may be, and then you add some movement to it, I feel it instantly changes the image itself, the language of the image. With this image, we’re going through sunset time and the light was just purely beautiful. This is us having spent the whole entire day at the beach at this point. We’re shooting, and then we’re taking a break, and then I started to swim into the ocean, come back. We go grab lunch or coffee, and then we’ll come back to the beach. This was now at night and with this garment that I’ve been waiting to shoot. This garment was actually a great loan from, I think I maybe chopping the name of this designer, which is terrible, and he’s a big designer. They allowed us to have this garment in our shots. And so, I partnered it up with these– If you can see…

Martin: Yeah, beach sandals.

Kudzai: Yeah, exactly. But I felt I needed something to draw back the image. I didn’t want it to feel like fairy light. I wanted to keep it in within the realm of edgy fashion. I had one reflector to one side mounted on an impromptu rock situation that was happening, just bounce back light onto the model. And then on the very left, you can see sun peeping through. I was illuminating the face and then separating it from the background. This is how I created the image.

Martin: Yeah. The sun also, it’s got a really nice highlight on the chin, hasn’t it? To separate the chin from the neck, that’s a nice splash of light there as well.

Kudzai: Thank you. I never used to be a fan of lighting on the side as a way to separate someone from a background. But then, the more I’ve observed light– To me, observing light is within its simplest form. I simply look at a human being. Whenever I see something that’s beautiful in a human being, I always ask myself, “What is it about this particular moment that makes this particular human being appear beautiful to me?” Then, I start looking at the elements of color, and light, and whatnot, and I just observe where the sun is sitting. And so, wherever I am, I’m constantly trying to replicate natural light. Even if I’m using strobe lights or studio lights, I’m always trying to replicate that lighting that I’ve observed in real life. And in this case, I wanted that light, because I’d seen it somewhere. So, I wanted the face like that, and this is…

Copyright © Kudzai King
Copyright © Kudzai King

Martin: Wow, yeah. Beautiful. Okay, so, this is you. We’re going to use that in the blog post to show who you are. But the next one. Do you have anything to say about your own bio photo or shall we just skip to this one?

Kudzai: Sure. All my bio photos, they’re taken by me.

Martin: Yeah.

Kudzai: Each and every year, I’ve got a new photo that I take.

Martin: Okay.

Kudzai: I didn’t know it would be a thing, but I’ve done it the last five years now. Yeah, it’s a way to– I think it’s important for people to know who you are if you’re working. If you’re working as a photographer or any artist of any form, because yes, people love the work. But then, people want to know the person behind the work like, “Is this a person that can be trusted? Is it a person that fits the visual language that we’re trying to create? Do they represent their work, they look like they work?” basically.

Martin: Obviously, you’ve still got it as a model. You could probably go back to the catwalk or whatever it is that they call it. Do you find that your history as a model helps you in the fashion industry? People say, “Oh, yeah, that guy used to be a model and now, he’s a photographer.” Is that story something that you feel has helped you?

Kudzai: I think so. For a long time, I think, when I was starting out my career, a lot of the people that I was photographing were perhaps at the beginning of their careers, whether that’s in fashion or that’s in music, because I was also photographing a lot of musical artists. A lot of them really didn’t know how to move in front of a camera. And so, having been on other side of the lens, I felt that I knew exactly what angle to use for a particular subject to make them look great. And so, tell them, “Turn this way. Chin up, chin down. Hands out, one hand in pocket,” and all of that. 

It helped shaped the way my work actually looked as well but certainly, it helped that I’ve been on the other side. And even up to this day, I do tend to work with celebrities for various projects that they’re doing. Some of them are great in front of a TV or rather within the cinematic version. But then sometimes, still photos are quite a unique language to learn. And sometimes, they don’t know what to do. Or they’ve done something so much that they want something fresh. And so, this is where I come in with knowledge of being able to direct a shot to find the beauty within that particular being’s expression.

Martin: Mm. That’s something that I had not thought of until you mentioned that. But having been instructed yourself as how to behave as a model, that’s instant knowledge for you to tell people how to behave as a model. “Hand in pocket. Turn this way. Do that,” I hadn’t thought about that until you mentioned that. That’s a very valuable skill that you learned while getting paid for being a model that’s helping you as a photographer. Yeah.

Kudzai: Absolutely.

Copyright © Kudzai King
Copyright © Kudzai King

Martin: So, the next one, let’s see. Tell us a little bit about this one.

Kudzai: Most of the people that I work with end up being friends. I do take it upon myself to learn my subjects. Sometimes, even before I work with a model, I try and meet them, or call them, or text them, or at least just get the essence of who they are. This particular friend of mine, actually, I met in Cape Town.

Martin: Yeah, well.

Kudzai: I met in Cape Town once where we were both invited to a Christmas dinner. It was a fashion sort of Christmas dinner. When I moved, I didn’t actually know that she was here. And so, gradually, I discovered that she was here, and then we got in touch, and then we became quite close friends. She’s a really successful model here. She was born in Uganda, and she’s done a whole bunch internationally. She’s been in Paris, she’s been in London. She has worked for Balenciaga, Ralph Lauren’s, and whatnot. She’s done work for herself.

In this case, we were doing– It was a jewelry shoot. And so, I knew exactly who to choose for that particular jewelry shooting. It’s her. Her name is Akello. And I knew that she has a very amazing skin tone. When I set out to shoot, I didn’t know whether I wanted black and white or not, because clients with jewelry normally would request color. But when it’s a beautiful shot, there’s no resisting a beautiful shot. And so, I knew that I wanted strong highlights and then I also wanted very dark edges. I brought in a beauty dish from above and then I brought on two negative fills on either side, and we created that shot. 

Martin: Wow. Are you illuminating the background as well? Because it’s pretty white. Like you say, you wanted to contrast. Did you do something with the background?

Kudzai: One of the tricks with that is not to have the model far away from the backdrop. In this case, I didn’t have any backdrop lights. I knew that I wanted it white, but then I didn’t want it super white. That’s why you see her first before you see the background. It’s illuminated way much more than the background is.

Martin: Sorry. Basically, it spilled from your main lights than just going on to the background.

Kudzai: Precisely. And then, I angled it in such a way where there are no shadows on the background as well. 

Martin: Yeah, wow. Beautiful work.

Kudzai: This is a one-light setup. 

Martin: Really? Okay. So, the beauty dish is the single light.

Kudzai: It is the single light. Yes. 

Martin: Oh, wow. That’s so cool. 

Kudzai: I did have a reflector below her just to– or rather, a bounce board. I had a bounce board right in front of her just to fill in the shadows on the neckline. But this is purely a one-light setup.

Martin: Wow. That’s impressive. 

Kudzai: Hey, you can do a lot with one light.

Martin: Yeah. I’ve got a one-light t-shirt from– Zack Arias did the one-light course, the one-light video tutorial. It came wrapped up in a one-light t-shirt, which I still wear quite a lot. It’s a good philosophy.

Kudzai: Yeah. Sometimes, simplicity is beauty. 

Copyright © Kudzai King
Copyright © Kudzai King

Martin: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, let’s see– Tell us about this next one. This is very dramatic. I love the shadow and everything. But tell us about this.

Kudzai: Oh, thank you. This particular image was, I created it for Vogue Italia. Vogue Italia is very on the edge of creating images that feel a bit different from the rest of fashion. They focus on very dark images. Sometimes, light images that tell a story that you can instantly connect to nostalgia. Actually, just to track back a bit. One of the intentions that I had this year was to create images that felt a little moody, something that had shadows. Because the previous work that I created before that, it was very illuminated. You could see everything quite clearly. So, I wanted to experiment with shadows, and darkness, and highlights, and whatnot in different colors as well. 

So, when I got the opportunity to shoot for Vogue Italia, I thought out the concept pretty well. I knew exactly what I wanted out of the image, but I did not know how to get there. But then, when you have experience over the years with lighting, the same thing that you spoke about where you have one side illuminated and you’re trying to figure out how to illuminate the other side, you start getting all of that information in your head quite easily when you look at something or rather when you think of a concept or an idea. I didn’t know how to accomplish this lighting at all. But then, I started just planning it and experimenting with it. And I’m very lucky that whenever I have an idea and I have a big opportunity, I’ve got time to prepare. 

I worked with a model that needed pictures for her portfolio, and I basically experimented with the light. By the time I got to the stage of this image, I knew exactly how to execute it. What’s happening here is that this is a cove and there are two different lights. The spill is protected by two V flats that are blocking the light from spilling onto everything else. I had one light that had a yellow gel, and then I had one light that had a green gel, and they were all facing up. They were all facing up to the ceiling. And so, you can clearly see on the foreground that some parts of that background are a little white.

Martin: Yeah. 

Kudzai: So, I basically illuminated the background that way and the color merged in a very amazing way. And then for the front, what I did was I used a bare bulb, because I knew that I wanted harsh shadows. Where those shadows come from is from the body itself elevated. But then some of them I created using a second light, it was also a bare bulb. And the second light had black foil paper, basically and I crumbled it up in several ways, attached it with clamps, and step away from the light itself and so, it’s projecting the shadows onto the background. 

Martin: Wow. 

Kudzai: This is a very complex lighting system. 

Martin: Yeah.

Kudzai: But this is the way I figured it out and it worked beautifully.

Martin: Yeah, absolutely, it’s beautiful. The first thing that that came to me, but earlier, we talked about colors. And you may have noticed me looking over to the side here as we spoke a little there. But I’m going to just bring something onto the screen here. I don’t know if I can do this quickly, but if I go in and– Let’s see. If we get the colors from this image, I’m going to just quickly put these up. But if we open this palette, we should be able to see that, at least part of it, the colors that we’ve picked there are not so important. But if we look at the colors in your background here, these greens, if we look across to the opposite colors, it’s the purples in the dress.

Kudzai: Yes.

Martin: I don’t know if it was conscious, but you’ve actually got the exact opposite colors in the background and the dress. Was that something that you were thinking of? Because that of course becomes a complementary color. An opposite color on the wheel is always going to be complementary, but it’s through direct contrast. Were you aware of that or conscious of that when you designed this?

Kudzai: I’ve got a huge respect for people who make clothes, because I feel they do shape who we are or how we express ourselves. Whether you’re a simple guy or your fashion choice is quite extreme, fashion tends to lead to an identity of sorts. And so, within this respect is probably why I also learned color. I made sure that I knew my color so well that I never have to think about it, I never have to plan it so intently because it might just make sense. I’m like, “Okay, so, I have this background in and then I have this model. What kind of garments would work for this?”

Martin: It’s coming natural to you.

Kudzai: Yeah. At this point, it comes quite natural to me.

Martin: I see.

Kudzai: In the past, I would think about it more. But then these days, it’s become so natural and easy. When I chose that particular garment– because we had a selection of different garments. And normally, before we proceed on to shoot, when we’re doing prep up, the stylist always brings in the garments that we’ve spoken about that support the concept and then, they also bring in extra garments. Me and her have a final say on the day of the shoot itself. We go through the wardrobe and I’m like, “Maybe that actually wouldn’t work. I thought it would work, but maybe let’s check it out.” And then, I saw this garment and it wasn’t part of the pattern. I immediately fell in love with it, because I knew what I could do with it. I knew that I wanted volume, and we had a lot of garments that had volume, but then this one stood out to me the most compared to what we had planned. And then, it worked so well, because I planned the lighting in this particular way, and I saw that purple and I was like, “Okay, yeah. This will be great.” 

Copyright © Kudzai King
Copyright © Kudzai King

Martin: Wow. Beautiful. Okay. Tell us about this next one. This is another very striking photo. Tell us about it. 

Kudzai: Oh, this image. It’s terrible to have– I don’t have any kids, but I feel to choose an image and say, “It’s your favorite,” to me, it feels like having to choose your favorite children. It’s terrible, but I accept this image. This one-time shoot is probably– A lot of shoots take more time. Sometimes, half a day. And it’s probably the quickest shoot that I’ve ever had, this one. This was two hours of shooting entirely and with different looks.

One of the things that fascinates me about New York is the infrastructure. I’m definitely fascinated by the people. When I think of New York now, I think more of people than the infrastructure. But then, the infrastructure reminds me off a dream. It reminds me of the promise of what New York City has to offer. One of the things that we do as creatives when we move to New York City, a lot of us is that we’re so inspired by the city and what it has to offer. And then, we come into the city and then we go directly back to the studio. So, I fell into that trap as well where I went directly into the studio. When I was thinking about my New York work, in my work, I couldn’t find New York itself. I could find that yes, I’ve shot a lot of New York artists, New York models, New York designers’ work. But then, I didn’t actually have New York itself.

And so, it reminded me to also start looking up, because when you live in New York for quite a while, you become desensitized. In any particular place that is so incredible, whether you’re talking about London, or Milan, or Paris, or Dubai, everything becomes normal after a while. So, it was a wakeup call to open my eyes again and look around me and look up above me.

Before I shot this image, I knew that I wanted to shoot it, but then I went on a journey to discover the city again in a new way. So, I started looking around the very same process that I described. I was fascinated by meeting points of buildings and lines. My Instagram during those days, people were probably either annoyed or celebrating it by my Instagram stories. I was posting a lot of building shots, just very interesting angles on buildings. Because for the first time, I was now looking at New York as fresh as I saw it when I arrived. 

Martin: Yeah.

Kudzai: So, when he finally came to this image, I had a bank of images where I’d selected a couple of locations in New York. I knew I wanted to shoot on 57th Street and Seventh Avenue because of a building that’s behind there. On this shoot, there are about five people surrounding me, my team. I was literally laying on the streets and traffic was passing. Sometimes, when I do my work, I forget anything. I forget to eat, I forget to drink water. I always have to tell my assistant before I start working like, “Hey, please make sure I eat, please make sure I drink, and please make sure I don’t die.” Because to me, the shot is what matters the most.

Martin: Yeah.

Kudzai: When I was shooting the shots, I was laying on the ground and I was just looking for a particular moment in the people that are walking, because I had five people surrounding me. There was one light to one side. One light at a 90-degree angle, because I didn’t want the light to be in 45. I didn’t want the one site to be flat. I just wanted that kiss of light separates her from both sides. Because what’s to the left of her is the sun and then to the right is the light that I intended to put there.

Everyone’s waiting, traffic is passing, and then eventually, people start ignoring the fact that I’m there, which was what I wanted. People start walking past by and I’m just looking for that one particular moment where she’s the center of the frame, and then the people are walking by as supporting characters.

Martin: Ah, yeah. 

Kudzai: And then, when that moment finally came, I snapped it, and I knew I had the shot. Yeah, this is how this image was created.

Martin: Yeah. Wow. 

Kudzai: I love it, and it is my most viral image. On my social media, it has accounted to about 2.8 million views from LinkedIn, to Instagram, to Facebook.

Martin: Yeah. Wow. 

Kudzai: Right now, actually, it has resurfaced again.

Martin: Why is that?

Kudzai: It had another viral moment of itself.

Martin: Oh, okay. It’s just based on the merits of the photo.

Kudzai: Sorry?

Martin: Just based on the merits. There’s no external reason why it’s resurfaced, just because it’s a good photo. Is that what’s happening?

Kudzai: Well, this time, I’ve remarketed it. Before when I posted it, at some point, I was getting thousands of followers and clients who started– I’ve got a lot of clients just from this particular image going viral. But at some point, I just have to let it go. I was like, “Okay, I can’t explain this image. People just love it.” But then, I didn’t realize what it is people loved about it until much later. Well, people love New York.

Martin: Yeah. 

Kudzai: Everyone across the world is familiar with what New York represents or what it gives. And so, this is selling nostalgia, basically.

Martin: Wow. You mentioned the building behind. Is that the Trump Tower?

Kudzai: No, that is not Trump Tower. 

Martin: The bluish one, I thought it was, but that’s not– Okay. I remember walking around there. I was in New York a couple of times in 2012. I remember walking around that area. You look up and there’s always buildings. Use a wide-angle lens and all the buildings taper in. It’s an amazing city to photograph. 

Kudzai: Absolutely.

Martin: It’s great that you’ve got it so prominent in this photo. Beautiful work.

Kudzai: Thank you.

Copyright © Kudzai King
Copyright © Kudzai King

Martin: We’ve got a couple of last ones. So, this is your photo on the cover of a magazine, I imagine? Yeah?

Kudzai: Yes. That’s L’Officiel Lithuania. In my work, I tend to be cheeky from time to time. Pun intended. 

Martin: Yeah.

Kudzai: But I love the human form. I love the human form so much. I think before, I respected clothes a lot. But then, the more I shot, the more I started working with people that really understood their bodies. And so, separate to this conversation, I’ve had an art project that’s just centered around how we all connected through our bodies, basically. How we’re all a human, first of all. When it came to this image, I knew that I wanted form, but I didn’t know what image, where I wanted it. I was working with this amazing model whose name I can’t think of right now. But she works hard on herself, and I knew that. I wanted to celebrate the human form, the human body, and I wanted to shape around it. 

When I initially told my team, they were quite surprised, because they’ve not seen anything of that form in my work. But then, I’ve always been lucky that whatever vision I have, my team trusts me. And I told them exactly how I wanted to do the shot and it was all in studio and we captured it.

Martin: Wow. Yeah, the balance is beautiful. One of the things that strikes me, apart from the cheekiness as you mentioned, you’ve got the little, tiny triangle of arm in the top right. I think, without that, this to me, the eye would go straight out that top corner, because there’s a line of light leading you up there. But you seem to have everything, just a perfect place, to really keep the eye in the frame and the lines and everything. You have done a beautiful job of it.

Kudzai: Thank you.

Martin: Yeah, sorry, go ahead.

Kudzai: All right. I’m a former OCD. I wasn’t diagnosed properly, but I like things in a particular way. If I didn’t have that in a particular way, then I would lose it, basically. But over time, I’ve always been great at self-diagnosing and realizing I’ve got an obstacle. And so, I decided to get rid of that obstacle, and that got accelerated by having in the past, a roommate that was the opposite of me. But that worked out well. But parts of that me being quite particular still exists in my work. So, I’m very, very– 

I’m very terrible at shooting with an LCD screen. Right now, I don’t use that screen as the way I see an image. To me, looking through a viewfinder, and that might just me being old school, but looking through the viewfinder, I feel I’m observing every single thing within that frame. So, I’m adjusting as I’m shooting and I’m looking for that particular angle and those particular shapes that make sense and that gravitate towards you. And that’s exactly what happened here. I was looking for balance and I found it within this particular angle and that’s what you see.

Martin: Wow. Yeah. You just proved that you’re not old school by calling the R5 viewfinder a viewfinder, because it’s still an electronic viewfinder, right?

Kudzai: That’s true.

Martin: Many years ago, I use the R5 as well. I believe it’s probably still the best camera that Canon have made. But until this, my previous camera was the EOS R and that had a slightly clunkier electronic viewfinder. The R5, it’s so good. It makes you feel like you are looking through a real viewfinder. But the fact that you didn’t really think about that as you said that proves that you’re not old school. You’re in the middle of this.

Kudzai: You’d be quite shocked actually, because I didn’t advance my camera system not too long ago. I’m talking about two weeks ago. All this time, I’d been using a Canon 5D Mark III.

Martin: Oh, yeah.

Kudzai: And then, before that, I was using a Canon 50D, which was my first digital camera. 

Martin: Wow.

Kudzai: And then before that, I was using a film camera, which is what I learned on. 

Martin: Yeah. 

Kudzai: So, I learned the very hard way.

Martin: Wow.

Kudzai: If you messed up, you would find out next week. 

Martin: Yeah.

Kudzai: But I guess, is that a proper term to call it a viewfinder?

Martin: It is. Yeah, it’s 100% correct. You said that you don’t like the LCD and you prefer the viewfinder. I understand exactly what you’re saying. But they’re essentially now– with the R5, they’re essentially the same thing. It’s just like you’re looking at it through a viewfinder rather than looking at it on the back of the camera, and I understand that that’s what you meant. 

One of the things that I love about the R5 is that you do get the– Because you’re essentially looking at a two-dimensional version of the scene, it’s flat on LCD, but it’s much closer and the experience is very different. It’s just that you didn’t really differentiate between that and a physical viewfinder, where you’re looking through the lens. It just proves that you’re completely comfortable with the equipment that you’re using it rather than thinking too much about the past. I am intrigued though, which camera were you using when you were shooting film?

Kudzai: I was using a Canon T1, I believe. 

Martin: Oh, wow, yeah. 

Kudzai: Yeah, I was using a Canon T1. Yeah. 

Martin: And you cut your teeth on that?

Kudzai: Sorry. 

Martin: Oh, sorry. Yeah. So, you cut your teeth on that?

Kudzai: Yeah. That’s how I learned how to capture images before the Canon 50D, which I used actually, for a lot of campaigns and a lot of people don’t know. The only way I advance is when I have the need to. Otherwise for me, the tool is actually not the biggest thing. The tool is an instrument.

Martin: Yeah. I think that the just speaking today, that comes across a lot. We haven’t even mentioned the gear until now. That comes across in how we’re speaking about this. But at the same time, I think it’s also interesting to hear. Obviously, I’m probably a bit older than you, quite a lot older than you. And so, I myself for many years shot film. I used to shoot slide film, mainly slide film. And I’ve recently come back to that. I’ve got an old Rolly, a Rolleiflex camera that shoots big, square medium format film. I’m enjoying that immensely.

But it is interesting that someone that has– You were talking earlier, I got a hint as to your age, when you were talking about that in Cape Town, and you were using Facebook, and all of that. When I was first doing photography, there was no internet. There was no Facebook. There was no internet or not one that public people could use. And so, I’m aging myself at the same time here. In the years that you’ve worked, it’s refreshing to see how you’ve really used the social media pretty much, it seems very naturally. You’ve got your Instagram with the followers and all of the likes and things, and it all comes very, very naturally to you. I’m envious of that. Because for me, although I use social media, it came along so late in my life as a professional, but also as a photographer, I really don’t use it as naturally. I put out posts saying, “Okay, I’ve just released a new blog post,” and that’s really a lot. Just pretty much all I do each week. So, I’m envious that it’s so natural for you.

But also, again, it comes back to the viewfinder comment. It all seems so natural to you. I think that is probably one of the reasons why your work is so beautiful, because you’re not overthinking it. And yet, you’re coming up there with the results that are really powerful and dramatic. And so, it’s been an absolute pleasure looking through these images with you. We do have one more. Tell us a little about this final image that I’ve got on the screen at the moment.

Copyright © Kudzai King
Copyright © Kudzai King

Kudzai: Oh, God, this is very latest. This is one of my latest works. Actually, maybe not the latest, because I’m doing a portrait series right now. But speaking about this work, looking at the fact that I feel the worst anyone can say is no, I did a massive reach-out to a couple of people on my dream list, basically. One of the people on my dream list was Tom Ford. I’ve been observing Tom Ford since I was a kid, since I was all the way back in Africa, in Zimbabwe. It’s a brand that just captures the way I visualize life, because of its intensity, because of its creativity. Because it is quite a commercial brand, but then being commercial, there also quite edgy. They present themselves in that way.

I reached out to one of the creative directors of Tom Ford. And then, they wanted to see my work. They wanted to see my portfolio. I quickly realized that I did not have work that quite felt like Tom Ford. And so, I gathered my team together, they were so excited. And then, I’ve been dying to work with this particular model, because she just has the most amazing look. She’s probably one of the best models that I’ve shot thus far. Her name is Anna Koval. And my stylist overperformed, just amazing work. And so, I created a different range of works, basically. I created beauty work, and then I created editorial work, and then I created commercial work, all under the taste level of what Tom Ford represents. And this is one of the images.

Martin: Wow.

Kudzai: It’s work that I’m really excited about. And it looks like my audience really welcomed it quite well as well.

Martin: Yeah. Brilliant. Actually, I’ve just looked at my clock for the first time in an hour and 30 minutes. We’ve gone way– Are you okay to do another few minutes?

Kudzai: Sure. Let’s do it.

Martin: Yeah? Okay.

Kudzai: I’m enjoying it.

Martin: I’m going to stop sharing my screen for now. Obviously, you’ve made many bold moves. You’ve moved yourself around the globe. You’ve moved from in front of the camera to behind the camera. Lots of things in your life that you’ve made very bold moves. If you have one piece of major advice to give anyone that wants to do something similar to what you’ve done, what would you tell them?

Kudzai: Hmm, that’s a very good question. I think I would say pick what you love. Pick what you love, but not– I know people use this statement quite in a very frivolous way, but it’s important to have purpose. Because without purpose as human beings, we’re close to as good as dead. Purpose is what wakes you up in the morning. Purpose is what gets you out of bed when you’re like, “Ugh, not today, I’m tired. things to do and they have to get done.”

So, pick what you do and learn what you can do through any given source around you. There’s no excuse, especially during these days. We are quite privileged there. We live in a world that information is now all around us. You can open a book, you can open YouTube, you can open Instagram, you can open TikTok, you can open any platform, you can go to someone’s website and just observe what they’re doing. And so, pick what you do and then set out a clear goal for yourself. Sometimes, goals change. But without a goal, you don’t have a purpose. You’re not progressing towards something. So, pick out a goal, and that goal could be quite simple. It could even be a very complicated goal. But it gives you a map and a direction on how to move as you go about in your work career or even in passion that you’ve chosen. So, I think that’s probably the biggest one.

Martin: [chuckles] Absolutely golden advice. Sorry, you were going to say?

Kudzai: And then the very last is what I’ve been repeating all along. The worst anyone can say is no.

Martin: Beautiful. Absolutely amazing advice. I have had an amazing time for, sorry, an hour and a half, way over time. Kudzai, where can people find you if they want to come and check out your work or hire you? I know that your main website is And so, that’s K-U-D-Z-A-I King, K-I-N-G dotcom. And is there anywhere else that you’d like– I guess, you have your social media links and everything on your website. Is there anywhere else that you’d like to send people?

Kudzai: At the moment, I just started with a new agency that I feel can take me to the next step of within the work. I’m constantly making sure that I’m progressing as much as possible. I feel at the moment– Not at the moment. They’re just amazing at what they do, and I feel together, we could do something, create some magic together. This agency is called Cake Factory. It’s and if you want to reach out for press or to inquire about rates, normally that conversation filters through my agency. So,

Martin: Is that C-A-K-E, cake?

Kudzai: Yeah. Cake. 

Martin: Okay.

Kudzai: Like pudding cake.

Martin: Yeah. Okay. Excellent. Well, I’ll include a link to that in the post as well. And any closing thoughts? I think we’ve pretty much exhausted the conversation. But any closing thoughts from you, Kudzai?

Kudzai: Any closing thoughts? This is probably one statement that I live by since I was young that my mother taught me. It says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I keep that in mind. I realize that I am great at a lot of things, but I need people around me who are also great at what they particularly do in order to support this juggernaut that we’re trying to build and to progress forward. I think that those are my closing words.

Martin: Okay, excellent. Well, thank you very much. And thank you again for your time, for your wisdom, and for sharing your past, and a little glimpse into the future of Kudzai King. So, thank you very much and I hope to speak again at some point.

Kudzai: It’s been a delight being here and thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Martin: Not at all.

See Kudzai’s work here:

And Kudzai is also now working through

Show Notes

See Kudzai’s work here:

And Kudzai is also now working through

Music by Martin Bailey


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Up Close 2nd Edition with Andrew S. Gibson (Podcast 777)

Up Close 2nd Edition with Andrew S. Gibson (Podcast 777)

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Today I share a conversation with Andrew S. Gibson. who I spoke with for the first time exactly 10 years ago, and then again 8 years ago, as he released a few of his early eBooks alongside mine when we both wrote for Craft & Vision. A lot has changed since then, but Andrew is pretty much the same, so it was nice to talk again. I messed up, recording the first 20 minutes or so of this conversation with my webcam microphone, following a discussion with my accountant, and like a fool, I forgot to switch back to my Podcasting mic. You’ll hear the difference as I switch back, but I hope it doesn’t spoil it too much for you. I’ve also shared some photos that Andrew kindly shared with us to illustrate our conversation.

Andrew S. Gibson is the founder of The Creative Photographer and Mastering Lightroom websites, the editor and publisher of Creative Photographer Magazine and author of more than 40 photography ebooks. He lives in south-west England with his family and likes making portraits and black and white photos.

You can see Andrew’s ebooks and catch up with him at

Show Notes

You can see Andrew’s ebooks at

Music by Martin Bailey


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In Conversation with Award-Winning Microphotographer Håkan Kvarnström (Podcast 750)

In Conversation with Award-Winning Microphotographer Håkan Kvarnström (Podcast 750)

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Today I’m very happy and honored to be joined by one of the premiere microscope photographers in the field, Håkan Kvarnström. Having communicated with Håkan for the last four or five months, it was a pleasure to actually catch up with him for the Podcast. I needed a few months to learn enough to be able to have even a half-intelligent conversation with a micro-photographer at Håkan’s level. It was worth the wait though, so I hope you enjoy our conversation. I had it transcribed, for those that prefer to read, and you can use the above audio player too if you want to listen to us chat directly. Either way, I hope you enjoy my conversation with Håkan Kvarnström.

Håkan Kvarnström
Håkan Kvarnström

Martin:  Håkan, it is absolutely an honor to have you on the show today. Welcome.

Håkan:  Thank you, Martin. Delighted to be here. 

Martin: I am very new to microscopes or micrography. It’s been three months or four months now since I got my first microscope. I have had no experience with them until that point. So, I am looking forward to learning some stuff from you today. But tell us a little bit about yourself, how you got into photography initially before micrography, microscope photography? 

Håkan:  Well, I’ve had different cameras since I was a kid. I grew up in a small village in Sweden and started photography quite early having cameras, mostly analog at the time. But the photography interest took off when I got kids and I wanted to start documenting celebrations, weddings, birthdays, and family events, and also a dedicated motorcycle biker, and I wanted to document the road trips. This way, I got into photography more and more over the years. 

For the last few years, besides microphotography, I’m also starting to get an interest in portraiture and other types of normal photography. I’m also moving into medium format cameras, digital, of course. I’m not only focusing on microphotography nowadays. 

Martin:  I see. Well, you are obviously one of the first names that come to mind. As I’ve looked at your website and seen more of your images, I’ve realized that I had seen some of your images before I bought my microscope. You’re probably one of the forerunning people in the field. I know that, as I was looking through, and I’m thinking, “Hang on, that’s one of those photos that I showed my wife to say, ‘This is why I need a microscope.’” It really is amazing to be sitting here talking with you. 

We’ll touch on some of the things that you would talked about a moment ago about your other photography. It’s great that you do other types of photography, and it also plays a part in how beautiful your microphotography is as well. We’re going to talk about all of that as we get through this. When did the microscopes come onto the scene?

Håkan: I’m a scientist by heart and education. It started maybe six, seven years ago when I was reading a local website with classified ads, and I saw a very nice microscope for sale. I did have a microscope as a kid. I sold it in my late teens. But all of a sudden, I got this itch again and realized I definitely need a new microscope to explore the micro world. I’m somewhat interested in both the microworld, but also the macroworld. I’m a dedicated Star Trek fan and like stars, the universe, galaxies. It was more of a lucky strike that I found a microscope before I bought the telescope. 

The good thing about a microscope is that you can do it all year round. You don’t have to have good weather, Sweden can be quite cloudy, but the microscope, I can use all year round and not dependent on light pollution and stuff like that. So, it’s a very good hobby. 

Martin:  I have to admit, a big part of me jumping into this year has been the pandemic. We can’t really get out. I can’t go on tours, I can’t do a lot of the things that I usually would do. That was part of it. Then for me, Don Komarechka, a good friend of mine wrote a book that I reviewed. He talked about shooting some macro work with microscope lenses, the objectives. I was looking at that and I was thinking, “Oh, this is really cool, but I don’t think I want to get into botching things together. So, I’m just going to go buy a microscope.” It was then when I saw some of your work as well. 

Håkan:  Actually, I got his book last week as well. It’s an amazing book. 

Martin:  It is. Well, I was lucky that he sent me the PDF because he wanted me to review and write a few words about it. I was lucky to get an early sneak peek at it. You got into the microscope, you told me that you recently have started working with a 60x water immersion lens, and that to me, I was thinking okay, so I knew about– My microscope came with a 100x oil immersion lens, but I didn’t even realize that there was such a thing as a water immersion lens. Tell us a little bit about that, is it really difficult to work with liquids and lenses?

Håkan:  The water immersion is quite good. The basic problem with microscopy is that the higher magnification you want, the more important it is to have a good level of refraction indexes. The whole light chain going from the condenser to the specimen, through the objective and so on, the higher refractive index you get, the more resolution you can squeeze out of the system in a way. The problem with the air gap, normally, if you have lower magnification objectives, you have an air gap between the specimen and the objective, but you can’t have that for 60x, 100x, and even higher magnifications because the image quality will degrade. Then, you use immersion. The most common way is to use oil. The problem with oil of course is that it’s very messy and you get oil everywhere. And you need to clean the objectives using special cleaning fluids and stuff, so it’s something I try to avoid, even though it gives you probably the best resolution in most cases.

Water immersion is a middle ground. You have lower refractive index, but it’s good enough to dramatically increase the resolution compared to using an air gap, and you don’t have to deal with a mess. You can just wipe it off with a lens tissue afterward. It’s very simple to use, very quick, no smell, no mess, and you get really good image qualities. 

The other advantage of using water immersion is that, if you compared to oil immersion where you might have a working distance of maybe 0.15 millimeters, you get double that with water immersion. So, you can image much thicker specimens. If you have a small animal, for example, or if you have really thick algae, you can get a better image quality because of the increased working distance. I can definitely recommend using water immersion lenses.

Martin:  This is me trying to learn from a master here, not so much providing something for the audience. I’m totally selfishly trying to learn something here. When you’re using either water oil, you’ve got your specimen under a coverslip and you’ve got the oil on top of the coverslip? 

Håkan:  Yeah. That’s the way. First of all, you have a glass slide where you put your specimen and then you put a drop of water on the glass slide and then you cover it with a coverslip. So, you have glass, water, glass, and then you put water on top of the coverslip again to go into the objective. You have an uninterrupted chain of high refractive indices going from the bottom of the cover glass all the way through the objective. That is what gives you the increase in resolution. There are also objectives that you can dip directly into the specimen, but those are more for in vitro procedures when you do live-cell imaging. Not very good resolution perhaps, but for specific purposes only.

Martin:  I recently replaced the– well, filled the four slots on the turret of my microscope with the plan achromatic lenses. The highest magnification I got was a 60, but it’s an air 60, it’s not made for going in water. I understand what you’re saying. The jump from 40 to 60 even, and you can see that the image, the resolution, drops relatively quickly when you switch them out. But it is still really nice to be able to get in that close and still be able to see. I’ve still got the 100x oil objective, so I think I’m going to put that on and give that a try at some point. 

Håkan:  Yeah, definitely. In my view, the 40x air is difficult enough to use. I rarely go with an air gap higher than 40x magnification because it becomes almost impossible to get good image quality. I have a long working distance 50x objective, which is designed to be used without the coverslip. They are used for more macro-like work. You don’t really have an insect eye, for example, or something you want. But using a coverslip and then have a 60x air will not give you much quality, I would say. 

Martin: I haven’t been using it with coverslips. I haven’t really used coverslips very much at all yet, but I’ve got a few questions about staining and some of the other things later. So, I’ll save that. 

Håkan:  It’s very important. It’s only the really low magnification objectives like for 4x and to some degree, 10x can be used without coverslips. Otherwise, they need to be specially designed at higher magnifications to be used without the coverslip. There are special objectives you need to use if you don’t have a coverslip on. Otherwise, you will not get any image quality at all. 

Martin:  Well, the 40x objective works pretty well, but the 60, I have found it’s pretty difficult to get anything decent with. It’s nice to have the plan achromatic, that makes a big difference over the original ones that came on my relatively cheap microscope. So, that’s nice just there. 

Håkan: Agree. Microscope lenses are exactly like cameras, or normal photography, it’s not the camera body that is important. It’s the lenses. You have to put all your money and spending on the right lenses that will give you the quality you need, not the camera or the microscope stand as such. 

Martin: Yeah. You talked in your email about the importance of camera techniques, and good composition and lighting. Tell us a little bit more about how that plays into your microphotography. 

Håkan:  That was one of the reasons as well as I started to learn more about more normal photography, about composition, about how to use lighting and flashes and how to work with the foreground, the background and the subject, and try to use well-known photography techniques also to improve the quality of the images from using the microscope. The basic principles on what makes a good photograph is still valid even though it’s a microphotograph. If you look at my images, many of them are quite have clean backgrounds and so on. But I’m starting now to change my artistic language, if you like to have more details in the background, trying to use different foregrounds, and also working with not overdo the focus stacking part, so everything gets sharp, but also try to make out of focus areas to use the bokeh, also in microphotography. By learning normal photography better and understanding the masters of photography over the years, I think I can also start making better microphotographs, which appeals to a wider audience perhaps, not only the micro nerds probably.

Martin: I am fully with you. I found that as I’ve done certain work with certain specimens that I’ve left a fair amount out of focus. Because we are all working with such shallow depth of field, pretty much everything has to be focused stack to a degree. But I agree, you don’t have to have sharp from front to back. It’s much better sometimes to just let it fade off into the bokeh as they say. 

Håkan:  Yeah. You are way ahead of me there in terms of maturity as a photographer, because I have an engineering background, and for an engineer, if you can make it sharp, you make it sharp. As an artist, you have to think differently. I guess I’m maturing later. I have recently learned what makes a good photograph. I’m learning all the time. Well, I haven’t really implemented that fully into my micrographs yet, but I’m working on it. 

Martin:  Well, there’s one of the photographs. You’ve sent me eight photographs to talk about, but one of them has really nice layers of focus with the specimens in the background, and a few in the foreground that is very much like you just said. You’re doing it, it’s there, and it’s beautiful. 

Håkan:  I’m trying. 

Martin:  You’re achieving. 

Håkan:  Trying to use the techniques I’ve learned in other fields of photography. 

Martin:  Yeah, we might as well right now start to work through your images. You’ve sent me eight shots. The first one, can I guess what this is before you tell me, just in case? 

Håkan:  Yeah. 

Martin:  Is it fishing wire?

Håkan:  No.

Martin:  So, it’s a natural organism?

Håkan:  It is. 

Martin:  Oh, okay. Then, I have no idea. I thought it was fishing wire. [laughs] 

Blond Hair - Copyright © Håkan Kvarnström #
Blond Hair – Copyright © Håkan Kvarnström

Håkan:  Do you want to know what it is? 

Martin:  Yes, please. 

Håkan: It is the hair from my 10-year-old daughter, which I tied in a knot and photographed.

Martin:  It looks as though you’ve polarized some there as well, you’ve got some color coming through. 

Håkan: Yes. I used polarized light. That’s one of the tricks you should learn, or everyone should learn using microscopy because it’s very cheap and very easy to do. You have to have a set of polarizers, and you can twist the polarizers to different angles and get different color effects. 

Martin:  Most of what I’ve done so far has been exactly that. It’s such a lot of fun. 

Håkan: It’s a lot of fun. Then, I tied the hair in a knot and I used super glue to glue the knot, the hair strand to a piece of rubber, into each end to a piece of rubber. And I used super glue to get it to have exactly the right tension. The problem I had was sometimes I tied the knot too hard, and sometimes I tied the knot too loose. So, it took a while before I found the perfect knot. It’s very difficult to see because it’s so small, so you have to guess a bit and try it out. In the end, I got the results I wanted. I used a 20x objective for that one. 

Martin: Is your daughter fair-haired then?

Håkan:  She has white hair.

Martin:  Okay, that’s why it looks so translucent. It’s such a beautiful shot. The coloring, not so much the color of the hair, but the background and everything, what did you use for the background? 

Håkan: Well, I used the retarder. I have a retarder in the microscope as well. More or less, if you tweak the retarder, you can get any color you like. I usually try the different dials and try different angles to get the colors I like and want, and that’s where I end up. It’s trial and error more or less. 

Martin: I’m getting loads of ideas here. This is such fun. I realize now, of course, as you rotate one of the two polarizers, you go from white to black, and then there are loads of shades between. I see now.

Håkan: Yes. It’s amazing to work with those filters. You can get any color you like, more or less. It looks more complicated than it is, I think when you are playing around with it. 

Martin: Oh, yeah. I know now that I could have bought some for like $100 that fit onto my microscope, but I couldn’t find anything that I could use. So, I started with old polarizing filters, just sort of wedging them in here and there. And then, I bought some circular drill bits, and drilled circles out of polarizer filters and cleaned the edges up, and I’ve actually inserted those. One in the filter holder above my condenser. The other one, I take the head off of my microscope and put it in on top of the tube where the light comes up. 

Håkan:  Yeah, that works. 

Martin:  Yeah, it’s working pretty good. 

Håkan:  This one, I used to 20x objective, which was a long working distance, designed to be used without a coverslip. So, that’s why I got the resolution. You can actually see the scales on the surface of the hair. 

Martin:  That’s the next thing. I’ve got the plan achromatic 20x in my Amazon cart. It’s waiting for the next time, and they’re not that expensive. The ones that I’ve been getting, it’s like, I think it’s $60 for the next one. I’ll get that.

Håkan:  It’s a good investment. If there’s anything you should spend money on in microscopy, it’s the objectives, so that’s the secret to everything. It’s different depending on what you’re aiming for, but if you want to do video, for example, it’s to have a longer working distance, so you can get more depth of field because video gets really boring if you only see one half of micrometer every time. 

Håkan:  And then you have to move back and forth to get focus. Then, I use longer working distance objectives to get more in focus. You lose resolution, but you gain depth of field. 

Martin:  Yeah. I’ve done a few videos because it’s been so amazing to see some of the stuff that I’m looking at. When you’re having to tweak the focus all the time, it’s much better when you use the 4x or 10x.

Let’s take a look at the next one. This is amazing. Tell us about the second image you sent.

Håkan:  Yes. That’s a green alga. It’s one of the biggest green algae, it’s called a Microasterias, and it can be up to maybe 0.3 millimeters, 300 micrometers in diameter. That one is actually stained. So, I stained it with calcofluor white, which is a really useful stain. It stained the outer shell in a way in blue, so it radiates in blue light. The red one, you can see is the red parts, is the chlorophyll that autofluoresces. All chlorophyll autofluoresce when you shine them with ultraviolet light.

Martin:  Oh, I see.

Micrasterias - Copyright © Håkan Kvarnström #2
Micrasterias – Copyright © Håkan Kvarnström #2

Håkan:  So, that’s the natural light. Blue parts are stained.

Martin:  Ultraviolet light, amazing. 

Håkan:  Well, it turned out to look like a man with two eyes and a nose. 

Martin: How are you getting the light in there? Are you shining in from the side or have you got something in your–?

Håkan:  All I have a fluorescence attachment to the microscope. So, it’s like a top light you use. Instead of illuminating the specimen from below, you illuminate it from above. There’s this small mirror cube with fluorescent filters in them. So, you radiate them with a very wide bandwidth light source ranging from 300 nanometers up to maybe 1000 nanometers. And then, you have filters to only let through specific wavelengths. Let’s say in this case, I used I think a 340-nanometer filter. So, specific stains go with a specific wavelength, then you can filter out the rest. Then, you get the black background because everything is filtered out except for the radiation or the photons with a specific wavelength designed for that stain. It’s a very useful technique to get higher resolution and to get specific features of a specimen to be visible, and you can take away the rest. 

Martin: Wow. This is probably one of these shots that I would have said to my wife, “Look, I need a microscope because of this.” And now, I’ve found that sometimes they’re still out of reach because I need a particular type of microscope. But it’s all great, it’s such amazing work.

Tell us about the next one. 

Håkan:  The next one is also a green alga called Botryococcus braunii, is the Latin name for this. That is an interesting alga because it contains so much oil. I think 40% of the biomass is oil. When you put it between the cover glass and the slide, and the water starts to evaporate, it squeezes on the alga. When it squeezes on the algae or the weight of the cover glass, pushes out the oil in small droplets around the surface. So, you get this fantastic effect where you can see all the small oil droplets around the edges of the specimen. In fact, I think this type of algae can be used to produce biofuels, so you can grow them, even though they grow slowly, but still, there have been trials to do biofuel from these types of algae. 

Botryococcus braunii - Copyright © Håkan Kvarnström #3
Botryococcus braunii – Copyright © Håkan Kvarnström #3

Martin:  I was thinking that. That’s amazing. I would have guessed that they were air bubbles, but I thought, “He’s too careful to get air bubbles in there.” 

Håkan: No, it’s oil. If you look closely at the image, you can see the channels inside where the oil flows. 

Martin:  It’s amazing, absolutely beautiful. The next one, this beautifully symmetrical shot. Tell us about this. 

Håkan:  Yeah, that’s Cosmarium, it’s also a green alga, and that is also polarized light. There I think I used some retarders and filters as well to get the sort of shining effect in the background. It looks like a world within. It looks like there’s some kind of a shell where you have a secret world inside the– you can actually see how transparent the shell is, and you can see all the chloroplasts inside. I think it’s very beautiful in a way. 

Martin: Oh, absolutely. 

Cosmarium - Copyright © Håkan Kvarnström #4
Cosmarium – Copyright © Håkan Kvarnström #4

Håkan: It’s so interesting that all these algae you have in the sea actually produce an equal amount of oxygen as the rain forests do. Even though you can see them if you take the diatoms and the algae you have in the sea, and also the cyanobacteria, are one of the major contributors to oxygen production and also the carbon capture in the world. They are amazingly important, even though most people have never seen them. 

Martin:  And that is why it’s so important that global warming makes the seas too hot and then this stuff starts to die off, or you end up with too much of one. We have this thing in Japan. I haven’t a clue what you would call it in English, but it’s like the red tide if I– do you get what I’m saying.? 

Håkan:  Yeah, I know what it is.

Martin:  It’s a type of red algae, but it grows so thick, actually the algae itself changes the temperature of the water below because the light can’t get through it. It’s crazy stuff. 

Håkan: It’s important with the balance, it can’t be too warm, it can’t be too cold, you have to be careful. Also, if it becomes too many of them, they fall to the floor of the sea and they start consuming oxygen when they break down and creating these dead bottoms, where the fish dies and so on. Finding the right balance is important, and I think these are too important to be ignored. You have to work on–

Martin: Yeah. Nature did a really good job of finding that balance until we started messing it up. 

Håkan: Yes, unfortunately.

Martin:  Oh, dear. Okay, the next one, this is simply amazing. It looks like wheat, the head of a wheat plant.

Dinobryon - Copyright © Håkan Kvarnström #5
Dinobryon – Copyright © Håkan Kvarnström #5

Håkan:  Yeah, many people say that it looks like wheat, but it’s called Dinobryon, it’s also a Latin name. It’s actually a colony of– it’s called golden algae. They are quite interesting because they have these two hairs at the front, flagella. They can actually swim, so they can move around in the water. And you can see there’s a red spot in each one of them, and they can sense light, so they can swim towards the light. 

Martin:  Oh, wow. Are these classified fully as an animal then or–?

Håkan:  No, it’s still an alga. 

Martin:  Still an alga, wow. 

Håkan:  And they are also very useful or they are very efficient in cleaning lakes and ponds because they eat bacteria. If there’s a bacteria-rich lake, if you have a lot of these, they will eat the bacteria and convert them to biomass instead. Very useful in many ways, but they nice smell bad, unfortunately. 

Martin:  Really? Oh, dear. Well, they don’t look smelly. They look absolutely beautiful. 

Håkan:  Yeah, looks can be deceiving. 

Martin:  I’m looking at the same photo that I see in your background. Is this a feather? 

Håkan:  Yeah, it’s a peacock feather.

Martin:  Oh, wow. 

Peacock feather - Copyright © Håkan Kvarnström #6
Peacock feather – Copyright © Håkan Kvarnström #6

Håkan:  I think that’s 10x magnification. I also illuminate from the top, so I use LED lights, I think I had four different LED lights. And then, I use ping pong balls like a lightbox or what you call a softbox. I put one ping pong ball over the specimen, and then I put ping pong balls on each light to get the diffused light, really diffused light as possible. And then, I turned on also the normal illuminator on the microscope to get the very faint background light. Because I had such a low voltage on, it turns almost red or orange. That’s why you got the orange color.

Martin:  Yeah, that’s amazing. Were the ping pong balls white?

Håkan:  Yeah. I use white.

Martin:  They’re great diffusers. 

Håkan:  I use two sizes. I have the normal ones, which I normally put for smaller specimens, and I cut a hole for the objective. So, the objective goes inside half of the ball.

Martin:  Oh, wow. 

Håkan:  And then I have a bigger jumbo ball size for the bigger specimens. It’s a very good trick actually, you should try it. 

Martin: Yeah. I can imagine it because it’s thin, and yet it’s a good shape. Obviously, probably 50% translucent or cell size. Amazing. I’m learning so much. This next one is the one that I was talking about earlier, where you’ve got the different layers of bokeh with the background containing stuff. Tell us about this.

Xanthidium antilpaeum - Copyright © Håkan Kvarnström #7
Xanthidium antilpaeum – Copyright © Håkan Kvarnström #7

Håkan:  Yes, that specimen is called Xanthidium. It’s also some kind of Desmid. It belongs to the group of Desmids. It’s a green alga as well. In this case, I used focus stacking, but I use focus stack them in, I think three or four sections. I’ve realized that it’s very difficult to do focus stacking and get everything perfect at once. You need to break it down into several stacks. So here I use the stack with the surrounding algae, the smaller ones with one stack, and I used this one set of the stack for the foreground, the specimen in this case. And then, I actually took a single shot where almost everything was out of focus for the real background. And then, you need to combine these images into one image when you do the focus stacking, because you can do it in the stacker if you include the images, and then you do retouching in Zerene Stacker or Helicon Focus, for example. But it takes some work. It’s done at the same time but requires more manual work to get their final result. 

Martin:  I see. I’ve really not used the retouching module in Helicon Focus yet. I’ve had a few plays with it, but it always seems a bit clunky, I’d probably end up jumping into Photoshop to do that. But I see what you’re saying. I definitely can understand the necessity and the reasons why you would do that. One stack for a certain area, another stack for other areas. 

Håkan: I think that’s a very good trick, because if you have two deep stacks, for example, if you do more macro-like work, when you have thicker specimens, you might have hundreds of photographs that you need to stack. The problem is that some blurry areas might become sharp again because you’re reaching deeper into the specimen. And then, the stacker gets confused. Is it sharp or should it be out of focus? And then, you get artifacts in the image, so then you really need to break it down. Okay, focus on the surface first, and then you get the surface clean, then you can focus on the other parts later, and so on, and I try to divide and conquer your way forward to get to a good final image. It can take hours. You can spend hours on this. But the results, I think, it’s getting better when you are doing it like that, especially for the deeper stacks. 

Martin:  That’s great advice, I’ll give it a try. I’m not a very patient postprocessor. The good thing with Helicon that I found is that once you’ve processed a stack, you can reprocess it with different settings pretty quickly. I’ve been playing with different settings and going through, but I get a little bit frustrated with the retouching because you click something, and then it takes a while even with an eight-core CPU iMac. So, that does get a little bit on the edge of my limits of patience with photo retouching. 

Håkan:  Normally, I use two stackers. I use Zerene Stacker, which is one commonly used software in photography. I use Helicon Focus, which is the other one. I think they’re both good. They both have strengths and weaknesses. The retouching module is better in Zerene. It’s easier to use. I use that quite a lot actually because let’s say you have a stationary specimen, but you have maybe bacteria swimming around or you have other small creatures swimming around, moving during your shoot, they will leave streaks when you stack, so you get black streaks on the image, a lot of black streaks. And then, I also have a trick, I always shoot a way out of focus image, which is very blurry, so I get the perfect background, and then I include that image into the stack. Even though I won’t use it for any of the focused parts, I can remove all the streaks by selecting that image as the source and then just painting away all the streaks with it out of focus background. So, that is a good trick to use if you want to clean up the background, and maybe you don’t have an image in the stack that is completely clean. That’s why I really go far beyond focus to just get that image into the stack as well.

Martin:  That’s such great advice. I wouldn’t have thought of that. So, yeah, I’ll write that one down. Another great piece of advice. This final one looks like Christmas crackers. What’s this?

Spirogyra - Copyright © Håkan Kvarnström #8
Spirogyra – Copyright © Håkan Kvarnström #8

Håkan:  That’s also a green alga called spirogyra. It’s very interesting because the chloroplasts have a spiral shape, so they are like a tube with spirals inside. If you see the middle parts, you can see them with pure autofluorescence, meaning you can only see the red shape, the red spiral. The other ones that are green as well have been stained. It was a lucky strike here as well. I took three different stains, and I mixed them in various portions in different bottles. And then, I added the spirogyra into those, and I mixed it. And then, I pulled strains up from the jars and rinsed them, put them on the slide. Some of them were stained, some were not, so I got this pattern. So, I tried to stretch them to straighten them out. And, of course, they are no thicker than a strain of hair. So, they’re really, really thin. 

Martin:  Wow. That’s amazing that you not only did that with the different stains, but you were able to get them all nicely spread out and everything. 

Håkan:  Well, if you have enough of them, and you pull them out on a piece of glass, you have to look, of course, to find that small portion. 99% of the slide looks like a mess. You need to look for the composition you want where something looks nice. And then, sometimes you’re lucky, and sometimes you’re not lucky. Sometimes, you need to crop a bit to get what you’re– But that’s the problem with microscopy as well, you don’t have a zoom. Based on the magnification you have selected, you have to live with the composition you get because you can zoom in, you can’t move closer, you can’t move away, and you have no zoom lens, so you have to live with what you get and just crop instead.

Martin:  They call the 4x a scanning lens, don’t they?

Håkan:  Yeah.

Martin:  It’s so amazing, just scanning across– I scan with the 10x as well, depending on what I’m doing. But just looking across a slide and seeing everything down there, and then zooming in– Well, not zooming, change your objective and getting a closer look, just amazing.

Håkan:  If you’re moving up to maybe 40 or 60 or 100, it’s almost impossible to scan a slide because it will take forever. And by the time you’re done, the water has evaporated and you have to start over again. So, it’s very good to go back quickly to lower magnification to see what you want to focus on.

Martin:  Yeah, that’s a good point. The thing with me so far is that most of what I’ve been doing has just been crystals, and they hardly change for days. So, it’s a lot easier to have fun with that. I can imagine the–

Håkan: Yeah. Now, that’s also a really interesting specimen to work with. Different chemicals and crystals and salts and whatever you have and to see– amazing shapes and patterns coming from those crystals, especially if you’re using polarized light. 

Martin:  Yeah. We watched a good movie on a Saturday afternoon. I have to admit that a tear dropped down from my eye, and I thought, “Hang on.” While it was still on my eye, I ran upstairs and got a slide, dropped it onto the slide, and then let it dry and polarized. It was amazing. All of the patterns that form just in the salts in a teardrop, it was pretty amazing.

Håkan:  Yeah. I guess, it’s the salt as you said, that does the trick. It crystallizes. 

Martin:  Yeah. Almost like snowflakes in some parts. We’ve just seen some amazing specimens. W\here do you find them? 

Håkan:  Well, that’s the good part with microscopy as well as your hobby, that you don’t have to, or if you compare to nature photography, in general, you have to travel. People go to Iceland, Greenland, Antarctica, wherever they need to go to find good– There’s inflation in photography that you have to have all those exotic places to go to. I think with microscopy, you don’t have to go far. You can go outside and you can find the closest pond or you can find an insect or you can find a lake, you can have a net, and drag the net in the water for one, two, three minutes. And you will have endless of material to look at.

Even though I’ve been doing this for like five, six, seven years, every time I look, I see something I have never seen before. They’re millions of shapes and species in those samples. I am living close to the King’s castle here in Sweden, Drottningholm, it’s called. They have this English park where they have a huge number of ponds and small islands, and you can walk around, it’s open to the public so you can get specimens there. That’s the main source I use for all my findings.

Martin:  So, that’s mostly freshwater, then?

Håkan:  It’s only freshwater, I would say. I haven’t done much saltwater photography at all. I’m living close to a lake, which I’m using, and I live close to this park, where I take my samples. On occasion, I have also looked at more marine saltwater specimens, but not that much actually. Mostly freshwater. 

Martin:  That’s good to hear. I’ve got a river near me, although rivers are running water, there is some sort of like stagnant pools at the sides in the summertime, and there’s always algae in there. So, I’ve been trying to make a day when I can just go down with a couple of tubs and scoop some out and see what I can find. 

Håkan:  Yeah. But the trick, if you have running water, is to buy one of those sampling nets. So, you can put the net into the running water for an hour or so and come back and get the net. And then, you have maybe collected quite a few things. 

Martin:  I see. That’s a good idea.

Håkan:  Getting more condensed, so you don’t have to look– You can only look at one drop at a time. It’s very good to have a condensed sample of material. Otherwise, you have to look forever.

Martin:  I’ll be on Amazon after talking and see if I can find one. Excellent. What do you do to keep them alive? I know that you were saying earlier that you have live specimens on your slides. What do you do to keep them alive?

Håkan:  Well, I use simple glass jars. I collect them, I try to figure out what I have, using the microscope to see what type of algae or what type of animals I have in there, and I try to find the right conditions for them. I read up. I tried to read books and see what they like, what type of nutrition they need, how much light they would like to have. Some species want a lot of light, like green alga, some want less. Like cyanobacteria, they don’t want much light. I have a table with wheels that I can push back and forth. And then, I have one growing lamp that I use so I can adjust the light by moving the table back and forth depending on what I’m growing at the time.

And then you use nutrition, like BG-11, which is a common one. I also buy nutrition from Carolina Biological in the US. They have this Alga-Gro, which I use. But in many cases, you can buy any plant nutrition bottles from the grocery store to kick off some rapid growth. 

Martin:  We talked earlier a little bit about the staining. What sort of things do you do to prepare? So, you’re going to sit down for a session and try and capture some of these algae? What sort of things do you do to prepare that slide for viewing and photographing? 

Håkan:  Well, the majority of the specimens I photograph, I don’t do any real preparation. I just take a drop and I put them on the slide. I put the cover glass on and I start photographing. The advantage with my microscope is I’m using also a contrast technique called DIC, Differential Interference Contrast, which is like optical staining. It uses differences in refraction index to highlight edges and highlight differences. So, you can get increased contrast just by using optical means. Therefore, you don’t need any stains.

But for fluorescence microscopy, you need stain because then something needs to be shining when you light them with ultraviolet light. So, therefore, I have used various, like calcofluor white, another one is called eosin, there’s also one called acridine orange, I think is called, which I use, which is like an orange color. And then, you put them into the stain for a few minutes, and then you rinse them in water, and then you put them on the slide and put a drop of water on and the cover glass on, and then you blast them with various frequencies of light only, and to see what happens.

But the most interesting part, I think, is to find specimens that fluoresce by themselves. You don’t have to stain them, you can just try it out with– you can buy a flashlight, which sends out around 300 nanometers or 350 ultraviolet light. And you can go around in the garden, try and see what gives red light, what gives some other color, blue light. And if you find something of interest, you bring it to the microscope, and you can use the same technique there to really see the specimen, shining and different colors by themselves. 

Martin:  Wow. I’ll have to try that. 

Håkan:  That’s a really good trick.

Martin:  Yeah. I have some small ultraviolet, like keyholders with one LED on it. 

Håkan:  That is good enough, you can try that. If you take that one, and then you shine that onto some green alga or green leaf, and you should see the red immediately. 

Martin:  Well, I’ll take it out and have a play. You already mentioned a number of these to eliminate your specimens. I imagine that you can relatively easily do darkfield work with your– do you do darkfield at all? 

Håkan: I do. The simplest one, of course, being bright field, which is just having a plain light source, and you don’t do anything with filters and stuff, and that gives you poor contrast. It’s difficult, and also, since many of the specimens you are trying to look at are more or less transparent. They don’t have any color. They are completely transparent, especially if they’re swimming in water. So, it’s very difficult to get good contrast. But there, you can use the various techniques to improve that, DIC being one of them, which unfortunately is quite expensive compared to many of the others. The most effective, I will say, and the most beautiful, perhaps in a way is darkfield, as you say. Having a black disk, a darkfield stop that you put on top of your condenser or inside your condenser to avoid direct illumination onto the specimen. It gets lights from the sides, from the top and it gets a completely black background and very colorful images. Not really many details but, like art, you don’t need all the details all the time. It’s more like the colors and the shapes. A darkfield is very simple to build yourself as well. You didn’t have to buy expensive equipment, you can just use what you–

Martin:  The listeners will be able to hear it rattling around, but I bought a set of rings that go into my filter on eBay. Someone’s making them with a 3D printer. I’ve had a lot of fun with it. I tried making them myself, to begin with, with a marker pen and some clear files and everything, and then it got everywhere. I’m like, “Oh, no, I need to just buy some.” But they were like $30 for a full set. 

Håkan:  Yeah, but definitely worth every penny. It’s an amazing technique and it’s very simple to use as well. The problem normally with darkfield or in many cases is, it works up to the 20x objective. Above the 20x objective, it’s very difficult. You need special equipment, and then you need to use oil. You have to oil the condenser to the underside of the glass slide which creates a mess because if you then move the slide back and forth on the stage, the oil starts to drag off the stage. But if you have the patience and if you have the time, it gives you extremely good resolution, even at high magnification and the darkfield, so it’s a very beautiful image.

Martin:  I’m going to have to talk to my wife and get permission to buy that 20x, that’s in my car because it’s definitely necessary. The gap between 10 and 40 is huge in size. It will be really nice to have something between–

Håkan:  I would say the 20x is, I think, my most used objective.

Martin:  I can imagine.

Håkan:  20x is really good. I think that’s extremely important to have. Definitely convince your wife. 

Martin: It’s not a huge amount of money. I wouldn’t get onto her about that if she’s in a good mood later. And it’s crazy because it’s a business expense, but this is how it is, especially with the corona days. 

Håkan:  Yeah, I understand.

Martin: I’ve got a number of questions left, and I’m aware that you’ve got– we don’t want to keep you too long. So, we’ll try and jump through these a little bit. One of the things that we are going to talk about was depth of field. We’ve mentioned this a number of times. We are working with such shallow depth of field, is there anything that we haven’t already mentioned that you do to work with that or overcome it? 

Håkan:  Well, that’s the tricky part. The more resolution you want or need, the higher numerical aperture you need to have on your objective, and the less depth of field you’d get. So, it’s a combination that is not very good in a way, making it more and more difficult to get decent images. And also, then it becomes very sensitive to the distance between the specimen and the cover glass. The higher up you go, the more sensitive and more difficult it will be to get good images even though you’re using focus stacking. My general recommendation is to if you want to take pictures, don’t select objectives with too small depth of field. Use objectives with slightly lower numerical aperture, that gives you more freedom to move up and down and give more depth of field. Also, for video, it’s crucial, of course.

It’s very difficult because compared to normal photography, when you have meters or at least decimeters or inches of depth of field, here you have micrometers or half of a micrometer. So, it’s a constant challenge, of course, to work on those, especially at high magnifications. For the 4x and 10x, I think it’s fairly okay. 

Martin:  You could get away with single photos and lots of bokeh with the 4 or 10. I have a note as I hear about ISO. I’ve been finding that I’ve been using ISOs between– sometimes rather than letting my shutter speed get too low, increasing the ISO to like 800 or 1200, 1600. What sort of ranges are you working with, with your ISO? 

Håkan:  Well, it depends. Normally, the default mode I do– in most cases we have fairly stationary specimens, they don’t move very fast or it can be an alga, they are sitting still, so you don’t have to have a fast shutter speed. You can be quite slow. So, I set the ISO at 100, and then I just adjust the shutter speed to get decent lighting, to get the exposure right. The aperture is fixed, you can’t change that for your microphone. It is what it is. So, the only two things you can play with are ISO and shutter speed. So, I adjust the shutter speed, but if I have moving specimens like I shot some vorticella that was moving really fast, then I need to increase the ISO to get the shutter speed I need, and maybe go down to 1000, 2000, or something like that, then I need to go up fairly high. But I do have a 100-watt lamp on my microscope, so I have quite a good light. I do have a strong light– [crosstalk] 

Martin:  That’s the thing. Mine’s only got a cheap light. I need to see if I can actually change that out. 

Håkan:  Yeah, because that’s really important to have good lighting. You have really strong light, you can tweak it up dramatically compared to the 20 watts that you might have. 

Martin:  Yeah, I’ll have to take a look. I don’t know if I can even change it. I imagine I can with a bit of wrangling. 

Håkan:  When I do fluorescence photography, it’s different because those autofluorescence capabilities of these specimens, they’ve very weak lights, so I need to go up to maybe 3000, 4000 in ISO, and then I would need to work with noise reduction instead postprocessing, and also deconvolution to some degree because I don’t want to expose for like 30 seconds. I’m trying to avoid that. I try to do maybe one or two seconds but then increase ISO. It’s a mix, but you need to have a good camera. I use normal mirrorless cameras, I don’t use specific microscope cameras. It’s better to use regular cameras, which–

Martin: I decided that from the start. Even the expensive microscope cameras are like 20 megapixels. I wanted a little bit more wiggle room than that. 

Håkan:  I totally agree. 

Martin:  That’s the main thing with me at the moment. Without breaking the bank, and even this, it’s going to take a lot of wiggling around financially, but I’ve got to get a better camera adapter. That’s the weak link in my system at the moment. 

Håkan:  Yeah. But that’s the trick, to always try to find the weakest link and then to improve that to see if it can raise the level of quality. Unfortunately, they’re becoming more and more expensive. The weakest links disappear, they will be more expensive weak links to– [crosstalk] 

Martin:  Well, my microscope, my compound microscope or biological microscope cost me under 400 bucks, which is probably on the high-end amateur, not professional level. My stereo microscope was actually about 600. That’s probably a better microscope in its class, but a good adapter is probably going to cost me around $1,000, which is about the sum of both of my microscopes. So, I’m a little bit cautious about that. 

Håkan:  We talked about that before, but you might be thinking about designing your own as well, buying lenses. That’s a possibility as far as you get the cost on it.

Martin:  You make it sound easy in your email. I can’t really get my head around that just yet. Maybe we’ll have to take that offline and see.

Håkan:  Yeah, definitely. 

Martin:  Okay. Your work is incredibly artistic. You’re probably making the most artistic microphotography or microphotographs that I’ve seen. What are your thoughts on this form of photography as an art? You’re not just documenting stuff, you’re making beautiful art with it. I’m sure you’ve developed some thoughts on that.

Håkan:  Yes, but I do find these specimens really beautiful. I think it’s so fascinating to see that, even though you can’t see them and they’re so small, they have such fantastic shapes and forms and colors. You can see shapes where on a micro level, like in spirogyra, for example, it goes all the way through the universe, all through the galaxies and the same shapes reappear from micro to macro level. I think the beauty of nature is amazing. I never get tired of looking at these specimens and to see them and to see them under the microscope in real-time and see them moving, see how they are bubbling with life if you look inside them, and you can actually see the photosynthesis ongoing in there-, 

Martin: It’s amazing.

Håkan:  -crystals moving around. I think they are really beautiful. In general, nature photography, if you consider this to be nature photography, some people don’t do that, but I do. 

Martin: I do, too.

Håkan: Even nature photographers are struggling with getting their work seen as art. Landscapes are doing a better job, nature photography, animals are having more of a struggle. Some people like these images, some people think they are creepy. They don’t want to see the eye of a fly. 

Martin: My wife won’t look at my bug shots.

Håkan: No.

Martin: She doesn’t want to see them at all. 

Håkan: I think they’re beautiful, bug shots.  

Martin: I do too.

Håkan: They’re amazing design, these bugs. The eyes and the different parts, the eight eyes of the spider, and so on and so forth. It’s amazing. 

Martin: I’m waiting now to find– we have the cicada, they’re like little matchbox cars with wings. There was one dead on my balcony a few days ago, but it was in the middle of some pigeon crap. So, I decided to give that one a miss. But I’m looking forward to getting– there’s usually one or two drops and die on the balcony a year. So, I’m going to get some of the eyes and see if I can get some good specimens.

I think we’re just about coming towards the end of my list of questions. Can people find you online? I know your website, and can you tell us where to go and I’ll put links into the show notes? 

Håkan:  Yes. My website is But it’s easier to find me on Instagram and you can find a link to my webpage on Instagram as well, in my profile. It’s micromundusphotography

Martin:  Mundus is world, right? 

Håkan:  Yeah. It’s microworld. 

Martin:  Excellent. I look forward to continuing to learn from you as I’ve watched these accounts. I’ve been a huge fan of your Instagram account. I will put all of the links to your stuff in the blog post and the blog post for this is going to be at Is there anything else that you wanted to share with the audience before we wrap up, Håkan? 

Håkan:  I’m not sure. I think we’ve covered a lot of interesting topics. I’m looking forward to talking to you some time again. 

Martin:  Yeah, absolutely. I will be picking your brains on the camera adapter as well. 

Håkan:  Yeah, let’s work on that, let’s see if we can find a solution. I will try to build mine now for the medium format cameras, and then see we can adapt it to your setup as well. 

Martin:  I eventually found one that I think is pretty much what I want. It’s a very wide field, it goes into the seamount rather than the smaller tube. It gives you a really big wide image pretty much to the edges of the circle. I’m trying to get them to loan me one for a week to see if it will actually work. 

Håkan:  Oh, that’s good. The important part is that you have your objective. Normally, objectives have an image circle of maybe 20 to 25 millimeters. Cheaper ones maybe 18 or 20 and the more expensive objectives 26.5 even. And then, you need to magnify that a little bit to fill the sensor. Otherwise, you will get dark corners on your images. To find those lenses that will magnify just enough to fill the sensor, but not too much, because then you are losing so much working area, so you need to find the sweet spot depending on the camera you have and the size of the sensor you have. 

Martin:  Well, the one that I’m looking at, they say it gets you just inside the image circle. If it does, I’ll be happy.

Håkan:  For a full format camera, then.

Martin:  Yeah. But it’s $900.

Håkan:  Yeah, that’s the issue. It cost more than your microscopes. 

Martin:  Exactly. Okay. Well, we’ll wrap it up then. Really, thank you so much, Håkan. It’s been an amazing hour. I’d love to catch up again at some point. And yeah, we’ll talk about the other things in email and see if I can pick your brains a little bit more. But thank you. 

Håkan: Thanks for having me. Very nice to be here. 

Martin: Not at all. It’s been my pleasure. Thank you very much. 

Håkan: Thank you, bye.

OK, so that’s it for the interview. I hope you enjoyed that fascinating conversation. I’ll leave you with one last very cool photo that Håkan sent me. Amazing!

Håkan Kvarnström
Håkan Kvarnström

Show Notes

Check out Håkan’s work here:

As well as on Facebook:

And Instagram:

Music by Martin Bailey


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Seven Stages of Contentment in a Photographer (Podcast 627)

Seven Stages of Contentment in a Photographer (Podcast 627)

This week we explore an idea that has been building in me over the years, which is that as we grow as photographers we go through various stages, and eventually spend less energy lusting over gear and gain more satisfaction and contentment from creating images that feed our souls.

I believe the confidence that we build as photographers effects how we work in a number of ways, so I’m going to break this down into what I’ll refer to as multiple stages of contentment and how that, in turn, drives various thought patterns, some of which are good, and some that can be quite destructive and even paralysing.

Before we go on I’d like to mention that most of what I will relay here is based on observations of my own personal growth, and I’ve solidified my thoughts to a degree based on observing how the many photographers that I meet each year work. Also, keep in mind that although I’ll number these stages, this is not a comprehensive scientific study of human behavior; it’s simply my attempt to put arrange my observations in some semblance of order.

Stage One – Getting Started

When we first get interested in something like photography, we obviously need something to make our photographs with, be it a compact camera or something more sophisticated with interchangeable lenses, and the search for gear begins.

If we are lucky, our journey may start with a gift of a camera from a family member. I remember my first camera was bought with money that I’d received from my parents to spend during a family holiday when I was in my mid-teens. Money used to burn a hole in my pocket as my mother would say, so generally, the first thing I did on such family holidays was to find a way to spend my pocket money, and on this occasion, I decided to buy a camera and some film. Already on the holiday, I simply bought an old 110 film pocket camera, but I recall spending hours photographing the scenery in the holiday town we’d visited, and the excitement and anticipation as I opened the envelope of developed film later in the holiday.

These days, of course, things are very different; everything is so much more immediate. With information about the gear available to us now at our fingertips via the Internet, a quick search immediately shows us what we could have, and the choices can be overwhelming. In many ways, I feel as though it was better when we had less choice, as we tended to be happier with what we have for much longer.

I used that old 110 film camera for over five years until I noticed a roll of 35mm film in a film processing store in town that actually came with a black plastic camera housing. The film canister was the largest part of the camera, and the film was passed through a tiny central shutter area with a plastic lens and wound onto a spool below the shutter button until the roll was finished. I must have put twenty or thirty rolls of film through that camera as I started hiking in the hills of Derbyshire back home in England, and once again, I loved the results, despite it being an incredible crude camera.

Stage Two – Desire vs Capability Gap

My own passion for photography was fueled heavily with the arrival of digital photography, and by this time, the Internet had become completely ubiquitous, allowing me to easily check what was available, and make more intelligent purchases. It was around this time though, that I fell foul to what I now believe to be the most frustrating stage of a photographer’s growth.

I was making images that people would praise me for; making me feel good about my photography, but deep down I was not very confident in myself as a photographer, and it seems as though I was a constantly searching for that piece of gear that would make me a better photographer. I guess I had a strong desire to be better, but was frustrated by my results, and tried to bridge the gap by picking up more gear, as there is a strong sense that if you own better gear, you’ll shoot better photos.

Couple Walking Between Trees
Couple Walking Between Trees

Gear is Good

Now, I’m not going to tell you that you don’t need good gear to make good photos; that would be completely hypocritical of me, sitting here with some of the best camera equipment available, so let’s just get this out before we proceed. You may remember my friend David duChemin’s company Craft and Vision used what became a popular catchphrase “Gear is Good. Vision is Better” and I believe this is still so true. We need gear to do what we do, but it’s so much more about the vision of the photographer. Plus, the journey to arrive at our gear nirvana is much more important than the gear itself.

I definitely went through a stage though when I did not yet understand which photography genres really excited me. For many years I shot all sorts of genres, and although I believe that helped me to grow, it certainly left me feeling frustrated on occasion. I recall seeing images made with Tilt-Shift lenses that looked like georamas and rushing out to buy my own Tilt-Shift lenses. I was desperately trying to find something to fuel my creativity while satisfying my desire to get out with the camera. 

In many ways, new gear can help to get us out with our cameras, and this kind of experimentation is absolutely an important part of finding who we are or who we will become as a photographer. With this in mind, I feel that most of us are going to buy a certain amount of gear that we will later sell, with the realization that we no longer need it but this doesn’t necessarily mean that it did not serve a purpose. Everything we do forms part of what we become, and I believe that nothing goes to waste.

Stage Two Summary

The important thing to note about this stage is that most of us probably go through a phase where we have started to grow and we’re making some nice progress, but our ability to make beautiful images isn’t quite in-line with our expectations, and we tend to throw more gear at the situation in a bid to improve.

In hindsight, we could probably have done without certain lenses or pieces of gear, but because this all helps to form who we are as photographers, it’s an important part of our growth, so I can’t really say that we should simply try to skip this part. Afterall, this is about how content we are, and I believe that this stage can be both frustrating and fun as we search for the photography that we will become.

Bonus Stage – Replacing Tripods

I have also noted over the years that most people buy at least two or three tripods before they realize that it’s time to buy a really good one. My first tripod was something that was recommended to me by the sales rep in the camera store in the early 90s, costing around $100. I used this tripod for well over 10 years, and while I was not really enlarging my photos, and because of the relatively low resolution of film, I didn’t know that it wasn’t really supporting my camera very well. Another important factor that I didn’t even think of when I bought the tripod is that it did not get the viewfinder to my eye level, even with the center pole extended, and that makes it uncomfortable to use.

Around 17 years ago, after I bought my first digital SLR camera and my first couple of L lenses I realized that my images were shaky with my first tripod, and I thought I was pushing the boat out by buying something around $500 and a better ball head. I won’t mention the brands, but the tripod was carbon fiber and from a well-known manufacturer, and this time it got my viewfinder to eye-level by using the center pole. I thought at the price it was going to last me forever. As the resolution of our cameras increased though, and I started to do very long exposure photography, I soon found that even my $500 tripod was inadequate.

My third tripod was a pretty good Gitzo carbon fiber model that got my camera to eye-level without using the center pole, and I worked with a number of different ball heads over the years trying to find something that I really liked. Then in 2008, I found out about Really Right Stuff and shortly after bought my current main tripod which is their original TVC-34L with a leveling base and a BH-55 ball-head. Although it’s scratched and marked from heavy use and all the travel I’ve done with it, the $1,500 that this complete setup cost me has kept me satisfied with my camera support system for 10 years now. 

Really Right Stuff TVC-34L Tripod with Leveling Base and BH-55 Ball Head
Really Right Stuff TVC-34L Tripod with Leveling Base and BH-55 Ball Head

Again, with the knowledge that I have now, I could have saved myself a lot of money buy just going for a Really Right Stuff tripod from the start, theoretically of course, because they weren’t even available when I bought my first tripod, but this is one area that people always scrimp on, and always end up rebuying. I don’t think I’ve met a single photographer that didn’t buy at least two or more tripods before arriving at something that really works for them.

Stage Three – Finding Your Genres

Over the years, I have tried pretty much every genre of photography in a bid to find other types of photography that I enjoy. This experimentation is fun, and again, I feel it’s a very important part of our development as a photographer, but because we only have a finite amount of time to devote to our photography, we eventually start to gravitate towards areas that we are most interested in. Like divining sticks, once we start to be naturally pulled towards a small number of specific genres, we can really start to hone our craft and excel in some areas, as opposed to being OK at many types of photography.

Ezo Deer Fawn
Ezo Deer Fawn

For me, photographing landscapes has been at the core of my photography since that holiday in my mid-teens, and as I tried many other genres, I felt myself naturally gravitating back to landscapes, making it obvious that this particular genre was very important to me. Wildlife photography came to me with a much more powerful realization. I had always thought that photographing animals was an elite area of photography, and because it requires longer focal length lenses, in some ways it is, but it was easier to get started than I thought.

For the first ten years that I was using an SLR camera, I owned three lenses, that I bought in the early nineties. I had a 24mm lens, a 35-105mm lens, and a 100-300mm lens. I recall that I started to photograph birds in the parks that I was visiting on the weekends here in Tokyo, using that old 100-300mm, and I distinctly remember getting very excited that despite the relatively poor quality of the lens, I was able to see detail in the birds that stirred something inside me.

By 2003, the Canon EOS 10D had brought us a whopping six megapixels, and this was enough for me to see that the quality of the 100-300mm lens I’d owned for a little over ten years was not going to cut it, so I invested in the original Canon 100-400mm lens, with the push-pull zoom action, and I booked a holiday with my wife to Hokkaido, in the hope that I’d be able to start getting some animal photos. It was more a family holiday still at this point, but I recall my excitement at being able to photograph a young deer, and although my focussing techniques still needed honing, I recall being strongly motivated to seek opportunities to photograph more wildlife as soon as possible.

Although I would continue to shoot other types of photography, as time and interests allowed, as 2003 drew to an end, I finally felt as though I had something that motivated me to search out my first opportunity to visit Hokkaido in the winter, with my now good friend Yoshiaki Kobayashi, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for opening up a whole new world of photography to me. I was now aware of two main photographic genres on which I’ve pretty much hung my hat, Landscape and Wildlife photography.

Stage Four – Mastering the Technical Side of Photography

Although I’m still not sure that these stages are exactly in line with the majority of photographers, I am confident that for me, this was the beginning of what I can define as stage four, during which I feel I mastered the technical side of photography and gave myself a better foundation to improve in other areas.

I recall thinking as I booked on my first winter tour to Hokkaido that I was perhaps not yet ready to capitalize on my investment, as I prepared to pay another photographer to both show me where to go, and give me advice on how to photograph our chosen subjects. In hindsight, this was the best money I’ve ever spent on my photography. On the second day of the tour, Hiroshi Yokoyama, another very successful Japanese photographer that was co-hosting that first tour I attended in Hokkaido, took me aside and asked why I was bracketing my exposures.

My answer was that I didn’t want to risk not getting the exposure right, and his reply to me was something like “If you are afraid of not getting your exposure right, why don’t you learn how to set it correctly, then you won’t need to bracket?” Now, I know that some people get upset when I diss bracketing, but this is a gentleman that tested Canon’s first autofocus cameras in the winter Olympics, so I figured I could trust him, and I’d later find that my photography improved tenfold just from this one sentence challenge. I checked my images as I prepared for this episode, and I literally see that I was bracketing on January 14, 2004, and from January 15, I stopped completely.

We started out photographing the Sea Eagles at dawn, and then in the afternoon moved on to photograph the Red-Crowned Cranes, both of which you will be familiar with if you’ve been following my antics over the years. My dawn eagle shots were OK, but a little on the dark side, and I can see that my crane shots were all over the place exposure-wise, to begin with too, then Kobayashi-sensei taught me how to set my exposure on the snow. I can literally see from my images that I shot my last image in Aperture Priority at 15:07 and from 15:11 I started shooting in Manual mode, and I have since shot almost exclusively in Manual.

This was a revelation to me, but I literally felt my photography change on that trip. For the first time, I felt that I could really do this. Although I wasn’t there yet, I felt without any doubt that I had moved on from being a happy snapper, motivated by occasional praise from friends and family, to a photographer that was honing the skills required to make images that I would finally be happy with.

A Red=Crowned Crane in Flight (2004)
A Red=Crowned Crane in Flight (2004)

From then on my main goals became putting myself into locations that would give me opportunities to make images that moved me, and to continue to hone my craft as I did so. Photography requires a certain amount of technical understanding to help us to really capture the world in a way that gives us confidence that our images are as good as they can be. Without this understanding, we risk missing opportunities as we fumble with our camera settings, and that kind of experience really motivated me to make the technical side of photography as automatic as possible.

I don’t mean by leaning on automated features of the camera, more that I learned how everything worked to the point that I could do it on autopilot, leaving my brain the mental leeway required to think about the creative side of my work. I guess this stage also includes honing our creativity as well, but being an engineer type, I always felt that for me, the technical side was easier to grasp, that’s probably why it came first for me. If you are a more creative type, you may well find that you grow creatively either at the same time or before you grow technically.

I certainly felt happy with my technical understanding of photography as I grew during this stage, but I continued to feel frustrated that I was not always able to really produce what one might consider artistic photographs. Indeed, I still struggle with this today, but I feel as though I’m fulfilling my own goals more and more often now, but let’s talk about that in the next stage.

Stage Five – Becoming An Artist

I started my Podcast in September 2005, almost two years after my first visit to Hokkaido. Although I was obviously confident enough to share my work and my knowledge of photography, I have to admit that I am a little embarrassed by some of that early work that I shared. That’s fine, of course, because this blog and podcast have always been about trying to help others with their photography through sharing my own experiences. If you were to skip back through the archives a little, you’d hopefully agree that I’ve grown as a photographer over the years, and that is partly why I decided to share my journey this way.

Without a doubt, the goal that I gave myself, of sharing a podcast each week was a huge motivation for me as a photographer and helped me to grow. I quickly developed what I called a “Mental Checklist” that I shared with you in episode 498, that helped me with both the technical and creative side of my photography as I approached my scenes and subjects. Settings similar scheduled goals for yourself might also help you in similar ways.

Photograph What You Love!

I am fortunate that I have been able to photograph what I love, and from 2010 make that my full-time profession. I fully believe though that one of the biggest steps in maturing as a photographer and really shining at what we do is to photograph what we love. I’ve talked about my pursuit for my chosen genres, and I guess as I’ve built a large part of my business around the Tours and Workshops, I should include travel photography as one of my genres, although my main goal as I travel is to photograph beautiful landscapes and wildlife, as well as the people that we meet on occasion.

We realize our full potential as photographers and do our best work when we photograph what we love. I feel I’m at my happiest when I’m looking through the viewfinder at something amazing, and I have the confidence to know that I’m probably nailing the shots technically while having the mental leeway to compose my images in a way that I feel does the subjects justice.

I can recall hundreds of images from the last ten years or so where I was totally at one with the subject and location, and felt completely happy as I released the shutter recording images that would define me as a photographer. Too many of course to include in this post, which is as much about your journey as it is mine. One image that springs to mind from 2011 though, is my shot of the two Red-Crowned Cranes dancing in the snow (below).

QI #2 (2011)
QI #2 (2011)

It was as though the stars had aligned for this shot to be made. I had been traveling to Hokkaido every winter since 2004, and running my own tours there since 2008, but this was the first time that I felt I had shot an image that really did the cranes justice. My only regret with this image is that there isn’t really enough light in the crane’s eyes. That’s hardly surprising because the sky was heavy with the snow that makes the scene, but now I continue to hope for something similar to this on my tours, so that I, and my guests, can get another shot at creating a new version of this type of photograph.

This certainly isn’t my best photograph, but I don’t want to dilute this message with lots of my own images, so let’s move on. My portfolios are full of my work if you are interested in seeing more. 

Stage Six – Appreciation Over Emulation

I don’t want to make myself sound too old, but when I first got started in photography back in my teens, we didn’t have access to as much photography as we do now. The Internet has literally opened up a whole world of images for us to consume and be inspired by, but one thing that I feel I have to add to this conversation about the stages of contentment as a photographer though, is that it’s now very easy to feel inadequate if you start to compare your own work with work that has been heavily processed.

As we look through the web, we invariably come across work that seems so fantastical, that if you don’t put your own stake in the ground, it can be deflating to see what other people are creating. Maybe the confidence that I’ve built in my own work helps me to remain content with it, but I don’t feel as though I have to compare my own work to the slew of overprocessed imagery that we see now.

I remember when HDR photography first became popular, I struggled with the imagery for a while. I knew a few photographers that I felt were really rocking it with HDR; my friend Jon Sheer is one of them. Jon’s work is powerful and very artistic, and I recall thinking that it would be cool to try to do something similar in my own work, but quickly realized that it just wasn’t me. 

It was probably around that time that I realized that it’s perfectly fine to form a deep appreciation for someone’s work without necessarily trying to emulate what they do. Emulation is great as we try to find ourselves as photographers, but I think there comes a point when we really just start to stand on our own, and feel happy with our work, without feeling the need to incorporate what we see and are impressed by.

Having said that, we don’t need to become isolated either. Inspiration comes in all forms, and for sure, viewing other peoples’ work and gaining inspiration that can affect how we create our own work is fine, but conscious emulation probably won’t be necessary once you reach a certain stage, and I think you’ll know when you get there, or if you already are there. 

Bonus Stage – Gear Nirvana

Before we start to wrap this up with Stage Seven, I want to add another bonus stage, about Gear Nirvana. Earlier I talked about how I have bought various pieces of gear over the years, trying to become a better photographer. As I said, gear is certainly necessary and can be a great catalyst to get us out with the camera, opening new doors and opportunities. There are times when you simply cannot do a certain type of photography without specific gear. You need a long focal length lens to do wildlife photography, for example. It’s unavoidable.

Although I used to travel with an incredibly heavy bag, especially for my wildlife work, times change, and the camera manufacturers have released better lenses that are often sharper and more compact than previous versions, sometimes even giving us new zoom ranges that enable us to downsize our kit. I am now traveling with everything I need for landscape, people and most wildlife work all in one 18L backpack. I do take my 200-400mm lens when I’m doing wildlife here in Japan, but overseas, unless it’s a wildlife-specific tour, I’m working only with the 100-400mm now, and the results are fine for me.

The Scowl
The Scowl

Still Mirrorless-less

People ask me if I’m thinking of moving to a mirrorless system, but at this point in time, I’m completely happy with my Canon gear. The 5Ds R gives me beautiful high-resolution 50-megapixel images that I can print really large and/or crop when necessary, so I just use two Canon EOS 5Ds R bodies, an 11-24mm lens, a 24-105mm lens, and that 100-400mm lens. This gear feels like an extension of my arm and although it’s heavier than the micro four-thirds systems, it’s not a lot heavier than the full-sized sensor mirrorless cameras, and even if it was, being this happy with my gear, I see no reason to change. 

Being happy with my gear really has helped me stay out of an expensive switch so far, and although I will never say never, for the foreseeable future, I guess I’m going to remain mirrorless-less. Also because I’m content with my gear though, I don’t feel it necessary to attack others’ for their gear decisions. If it works for you, then be happy too! I think the people that spend a lot of energy defending their decisions to stay with a particular system or trying to persuade others that they should change, are really just not completely happy with their own choices. It’s as though they have to talk everyone else into feeling the same way as they do to bolster or protect their own egos.

I’m also pretty confident though, that the tendency to be defensive of your gear is probably related to how content you are with your photography too. The higher you are in these seven stages, the more likely I imagine you will be to just sit back and smile to yourself when the sparks start to fly in a conversation about which system is better.

Stage Seven – The Best is Yet to Come

OK, so let’s start to wrap this up, with stage seven. We have reached a point where we’re happy with our technical understanding of photography and our gear, so we no longer fumble with our settings as the action unfolds. We’ve learned enough compositional techniques that we can draw from a large mental database of possibilities and produce images that please us aesthetically. We have our gear sorted out and are so happy with what we have that we don’t spend time hankering after gear or spend lots of money for that matter, on the next bit of kit to make us amazing.

Most importantly, I think it’s important that regardless of how good our work is compared to others, it’s important that our images feed our souls. While running the risk of sounding totally conceited about my own work, I love sitting in front of my large 4K TV and going through my work from a trip with my wife. She doesn’t like every image and helps me to be objective about my work, but I find my results now in the most part to be very fulfilling.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I’ve nothing more to do. At this point in time, I feel as though I need to just keep doing more work, and finding things that excite me, and continually strive to make a better photograph whenever I pick up the camera. Sure, I’m happy with my work, but I don’t want it to sound like I’m just sitting here letting it just happen. I don’t struggle with this so much as in my early days, but from this nice place, where I’m content with my work in general, I know that there is always room for improvement, and every time I raise the camera to my eye, I’m looking for something more. 

Winter Wonderland
Winter Wonderland

How can I compose my shots in a way that shows the subject with dignity, or gives us a sense of scale, or enables us to smell the cold of the air, or the dust of the desert? As automated as some parts of my mental checklist have become, there are questions to be asked with every photograph, and the answers to every question play a part in my continued growth as a photographer; with our continued growth as photographers.

Are there just seven stages? I doubt it very much, but this is my summary of what I know at this point in time, as of July 2018. As more stages become clear to me, I’ll be sure to let you know. And by all means, if you feel that there are other stages of contentment that you can contribute, do leave a comment below.

Morocco 2018

By the way, we’ve just had a cancellation for Morocco in November (2018) so if you might be interested, please check out the tour details here:

Morocco Tour & Workshop 2018

Show Notes

Check out these related posts:

The Evolution of the Photographer (Podcast 438)

The Mental Checklist to Make Better Photographs (Podcast 498)

Music by Martin Bailey


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