We’ve officially reached that time of the year when people start posting their top nine shots from the past 12 months.
It must have been around 2014 or 2015 when the Instagram ‘top nine’ retrospective really took off. Nowadays, come the end of the year, users are quick to check their top nine posts for the year and share the results wide and far for all to see. I find it fascinating to see the type of content that does well on social media as opposed to the content that I think deserves plaudits. So with that said, I thought I’d get ahead of the top nine trend and share nine of my personal favourites from 2019. I’ll recount the story behind each image and what went into it. How I felt at the time, how I shot it and any special techniques used.
Date: 6 July 2019
Location: Victoria Peak, Hong Kong.
Lens: Sony E 20mm f2.8
Settings: ISO 100, 20mm, f9.0, 8 seconds
Somehow Hong Kong always seems to bring out the best in me, photographically. There’s something about those alluring neon lights and bristling streets that hypnotizes even the most battle-hardened traveller. This particular shot is special for a few reasons. At the time, I was on a short 48-hour weekend trip to the city and had planned to see most of the things that I’d missed out on the last time I was there. This involved taking a trip to the famous Victoria Peak. I’d underestimated just how busy it was and had to jostle amongst all the tourists to find a decent vantage point, but when I did eventually manage to get a good spot I made the most of it. I set up my mini tripod and played around with exposure times a bit before getting this shot. One key tip to shooting a long expo like this is racking focus by using zebras in manual focus mode. Usually you'll set the focus to infinity but with a cityscape like this, the focus point will likely be just short of infinity. Once your focus is sorted, sit back, set your timer to 2 or 5 seconds and let the shutter soak up that light.
This image is now the header for the Destinations page on this website and truth be told, is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Date: 5 October 2019
Location: Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan.
Lens: Sony E 20mm f2.8
Settings: ISO 200, 20mm, f7.1, 1/320th/s
If Japan had a list of cliche shots, this one would most likely be in the top 5 along with all those countless takes of Piss Alley, Kabukicho Gate, Shibuya Crossing and any one of the Kyoto temple shots. Funny enough, the fact that this exact composition is a cliche doesn’t detract from my personal enjoyment of this shot. I’ve seen this location often shot with a telephoto lens which, make no mistake, looks amazing and provides some very pleasing compression. But simply walking around Asakusa with my little “wide-enough” 20mm pancake lens gives this a more candid, intimate feel while still placing the iconic Kaminarimon gate right in the focal point. Despite the sense of busy-ness that you get with all the bodies in frame, the leading lines of Nakamise Shopping Street bring you right to the Kaminarimon gate, with a slight local exposure adjustment to brighten up that focal point.
Date: 19 February 2019
Location: District 3, Saigon, Vietnam.
Lens: Sigma 16mm f1.4 DC DN
Settings: ISO 100, 16mm, f1.7, 1/160th/s
This is an image from a walking video that I shot using the Sigma 16mm f1.4. This was an unusually wide focal length for me to shoot street and so I was forced to get a lot closer than I normally would. I saw a vendor dishing up a variety of dishes in a District 3 alleyway and thought that it might look interesting through the glass of the display ‘cabinet.’ It actually didn’t take much in the way of technique to shoot this besides checking focus a few times (which the Sigma 16mm did effortlessly). Okay, a few observations on this image and why I love it so much.
a) There’s a clear subject.
b) There’s interest. The multitude of street food dishes adds to the story here.
c) Despite all the peripheral figures hovering in the background, the image doesn’t feel busy.
Date: 31 December 2018
Location: Jagalchi Fish Market, Busan, South Korea.
Lens: Sigma 56mm f1.4 DC DN
Settings: ISO 100, 56mm, f1.4, 1/500th/s
Alright, technically this isn’t from 2019, but it sure is close enough to warrant inclusion. This is yet another image from a walking video, this time at the Jagalchi Fish Market in Busan, using a Sigma 56mm f1.4.
This shot is, in part, a testament to the equipment used but moreover, it’s an image which tells a story of an old hand. Her intense focus and deep wrinkles tell the story of someone who’s most likely worked this job her entire life and isn’t slowing down any time soon.
On the surface this looks like a deceptively simple image (which I guess it is), but I clearly remember all the movement around the Jagalchi Fish Market and the challenge of using an 85mm equivalent indoors. Add to that the fact that older people in South Korea are extremely hostile to cameras and I’m pretty happy with how this came out.
Ideally I would have removed the obstructing element in the bottom right corner for a fuller view of the subject and her hands, but such is luck of the draw when it comes to street photography. Shots like these can slip into lazy territory, as it becomes easy to just lift up a camera and shoot a subject from afar without worrying too much about story, but choosing a subject carefully and taking the time to line up your angles can yield rewarding results.
Date: 4 May 2019
Location: Ximending, Taipei, Taiwan.
Lens: Sigma 30mm f1.4 DC DN
Settings: ISO 100, 30mm, f5.0, 1/6th/s
Panning shots take a lot of time and practice, but when they do come off they’re utterly rewarding. I’ve only ever attempted a handful of panning shots and of those, this image is one of a few that I’d consider successful. My issue with a lot of panning shots is that they look almost too perfect; most times you’ll find that photographers have often tinkered with them in Photoshop to get their subject super crisp against a blurred background. Fair play to them, but you can see here that there’s still a fair amount of blur around the subject without it being discernably out of focus or completely unrecognisable. Add in the bright blues, reds and yellows of Ximending and you’ve got a shot which conveys the madness of life in an Asian mega-city.
Date: 20 April 2019
Location: Gwangju, South Korea.
Lens: GoPro Hero 7 Black
Settings: Auto (ISO 150, 3mm, f2.8, 1/950th/s)
Ever thought about using an action camera for shooting stills? Using a GoPro for street photography was actually an idea that was sparked by watching a fellow YouTuber, Jack Stolz. The ultra-wide angle definitely gives these shots a ‘unique’ look and not something that I would do regularly. Nonetheless, this shoot-from-the-hip shot works just because of that stupidly wide lens. It’s allowed me to capture not one, but two couples, strides in sync, holding hands. It’s a bit of an allegory for couple culture in South Korea in general. Moreover, it’s the result of a little experimentation, something which we see far too little of nowadays.
Date: 16 August 2019
Location: White Beach, Boracay, Philippines
Lens: Sony E 20mm f2.8
Settings: ISO 160, 20mm, f5.0, 1/100th/s
Despite the Philippines being my favourite destination of 2019, I didn’t shoot all that many ‘keepers’ (perhaps there’s a lesson there?). There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, I shot predominantly with my 20mm which doesn’t really have ‘wow’ factor as a landscape lens. It actually makes most landscapes look pretty bland compared to the ultra-wide shots you see most travel photographers get. Secondly, shooting landscapes from ground level produced some pretty vanilla results (again, the reason most travel photographers use drones). And finally, I didn’t really go to the Philippine islands to shoot street, I went to shoot 99% travel, so there wasn’t much of a focus on documenting daily life or searching out street scenes.
This shot on my penultimate day, however, appeals for a few reasons. It’s certainly got a candid feel to it, with the silhouetted subject pausing to take a picture of the sunset. But, if you take a moment to take this scene in, you’ll see that there’s a lot more going on. Beyond the proximate subject, you’ll see a couple in an embrace, you’ll see someone bent down taking another picture and in the distance the many junks dotting the horizon.
Date: 6 February 2019
Location: Bia Hoi, Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam.
Lens: Sigma 30mm f1.4 DC DN
Settings: ISO 100, 30mm, f1.4, 1/80th/s
It must have been my second or third day in Hanoi when I shot this. Casually walking around Bia Hoi in the Old Quarter and just taking in the surrounds, this dapper gent caught my eye.
The flawless suit, dashing shades and Bluetooth headset all point to this gentleman being a Xe Om, or a motorbike taxi driver – a level above your regular Grab or VietGo drivers. There’s not much else to this shot besides being a fascinating subject in an unexpected location. Who is he? What does he do? Why is this dashing chap walking around such an ‘unsavoury’ area? The element of mystery works here, as the subject juxtaposed with the grimy setting leads to some rather intriguing questions.
Date: 2 October 2019
Location: Dotonbori, Osaka, Japan.
Lens: Sigma 56mm f1.4 DC DN
Settings: ISO 1600, 56mm, f1.4, 1/800th/s
Two things spring to mind when I think of commuting in Osaka: Bicycles and taxis. Japan is, by far, the most bike-friendly country I’ve ever travelled in. Bikes are ubiquitous there, they even have huge public parking lots where you can leave your bike overnight. But, by the same token, Japanese taxis are just as iconic. The taxis lined up with the cyclist abreast is a quaint description of Japanese commuting. From a technical standpoint, there’s just enough light on both the taxi driver and the cyclist so that they stand out.
If you enjoyed this article, sign up for monthly updates as I post travelogues about my trips throughout East and South East Asia, along with videos around street and travel photography.