10 Most Inspiring Cities in the World

I’m not Johnny Cash, and I ain’t been everywhere, man. I haven’t been to Tallapoosa, Oskaloosa, Grand Lake or Crater Lake, for Pete’s sake. I have been to Fargo, but don’t ya know, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. But I have been around the block a time or two, and I’ve visited some amazing cities along the way. Half of my job is photographing beautiful places; the other half is writing about them. These are the ten most inspiring cities I’ve ever visited, places that spur creativity unlike anywhere else I’ve tread.

No two places are the same, of course. I love Dublin and Yangon, but the reasons couldn’t be more disparate. Seoul has a very different vibe from Porto, and a weekend in Montreal is a totally different experience from ten days in Luang Prabang. Difference, of course, is what makes travel so exciting. In making this list, a city need only qualify under two criteria; it must inspire photographic curiosity, and it must stir literary ghosts.

Keep in mind that I’m focusing on cities alone – if it were a list of my ten favorite travel destinations, things would be different. But since most of my work begins and ends in large urban centers, I thought I’d kick off my first “Top 10” list with a bang.

I’ve included a trio of places you shouldn’t miss for each destination. Quirky cafés, world-class brew pubs, boutique hotels, secluded temples – that sort of jazz. Little things that help make a place unique.



Dublin, Ireland

Arguably the world’s finest literary legacy. Crumbling Georgian architecture. Noble Celtic heritage. St James Gate and Guinness by the barrel full. Atmospheric Liffey River. The green lung of St. Stephen, and the tortured liver of Temple Bar.

If you succeed in removing yourself from the pubs, cafes, and bookshops, Dublin’s hardscrabble streets hold plenty of intrigue for intrepid travelers.

Don’t Miss:

1. The Porterhouse | Brew Pub

16-18 Parliament Street, Temple Bar, Dublin 2, Dublin



2. The Winding Stair | Café & Bookshop

40 Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin 1, Dublin



3.  Glasnevin Cemetery | Cemetery and Museum

Glasnevin Museum, Finglas Road, Glasnevin, Dublin 11, Dublin




Seoul, South Korea

To the world Seoul is bright neon lights, fuel-efficient cars, genetic research, and mountains of kimchi. The Land of the Morning Calm is deservedly lauded as a spreading ground for future tech, and well known as the K-pop powerhouse, and rightfully so – just try and pretend you don’t sing Gangnam Style on your way to work – though Seoul is furiously rebranding as a design-centric, green-focused hub to East Asia, and a welcoming haven for the independent traveler.

Some of the world’s best street food, Korean BBQ, ancient palaces, bustling markets, and a furious nightlife scene make Seoul one of the most exciting places to visit in East Asia.

Don’t Miss:

1. Namdaemun Market

49-1 Namchang-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul

Subway Line4, Hoehyeon Station


2. Gyeongbokgung Palace

161, Sajik-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul


3. Anyang Art Park

Anyang 2-dong, Manan-gu, Anyang, Gyeonggi Province



Yangon, Burma

Burma, Myanmar, the mystical python kingdom, is a place where nothing is ever as it seems, and expectations are shaped on the fly. There is a side of this country that few visitors ever get to experience, even though it exists right before their eyes. Yangon is a vast, quixotic city, home to busy thoroughfares that shoulder ancient pagodas, an absurd chicken market, a vibrant, colorful Indian Quarter, crumbling colonial architecture, and some of the world’s friendliest people.

Watch the breathtaking Shwedagon Pagoda come to life at night, dine on succulent Shan noodles at a hole-in-the-wall café, swap black-market currency in Chinatown, and walk among the ghosts along Strand Road at midnight.

Don’t Miss:

1. Chicken Wholesale Market

Outside Yangon, near the airport


2. Shwedagon Paya

Dagon Township, Yangon

Daily: 5:00 pm–10:00 pm (closed on Saturday and Sunday)


3. 999 Shan Noodle Shop

No. 130 B 34th Street, Kyauktada Township, Yangon



Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Montreal is more than just curds, fries, and gravy (if you’re not familiar with poutine, then I feel sorry for you). Montreal sits at the epicenter of one of the most unique cultural enclaves in all of North America. Old European charm, contemporary art and design, raucous nightlife, fine French dining, invigorating green spaces, and enthralling boutiques, galleries, and museums culminate in Quebec’s marvelous cultural capital, and imbue all who visit with a certain joie de vivre.

Montreal also serves as Canada’s craft beer capital, which may put a serious hurting on your early morning photographic designs.

Don’t Miss:

1. Patati Patata

Dining in Montreal begins and ends with a trip to a local poutine shop. Poutine is a unique Quebecois dish of French fries, cheese curds, and gravy. Patati Patata is a favorite among young locals. 4177 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, Montreal, Quebec. 9am-11pm.


2. Dieu du Ciel

Craft brewers like Le Cheval Blanc, and L’Amère à Boire have been brewing brilliantly for years, but Dieu du Ciel sets itself apart with masterpieces like the Corpus Christi Rye Ale and the Peche Mortel Imperial Stout. 29 Avenue Laurier Ouest, Montreal, Quebec. www.dieuduciel.com


3. Atwater Market

Shop for artisanal breads, cheeses, and chocolates at this robust market built in the 1930s. Dig a little deeper for gems like seaweed caviar, salted codfish, and fresh pig’s feet. 138 Avenue Atwater, Montreal, Quebec. www.marchespublics-mtl.com



Chicago, Illinois, USA

Chicago is a city on the cutting edge of gastronomy, urban design, contemporary culture, and, well, gigantic metallic beans.

Chicago is unlike any other place in America. It’s more than the Midwest’s biggest hitching post; Chicago’s culinary dreamscape is every bit as nuanced as New York’s, and not half as pretentious. Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, formerly home to about a million slaughterhouses, is now the ultimate pit-stop for haute pub grub (Haymarket Brewery); the Market District has a fancy new tenant in the beloved Schwartz Pickle Factory (One Sixtyblue); and that notorious deep-dish death sentence pizza is never more than a few blocks away (Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria).

Chicago is so enticing, in fact, that even Batman decided to relocate here on Christopher Nolan’s wishes. It may have been the skyline that brought the Dark Knight West; one look at the shimmering towers from Lincoln Park or Northerly Island at sunset is enough to make anyone want to pack a toothbrush into their utility belt.

Don’t Miss:

1. Lincoln Park

For brilliant views of Chicago’s skyline.

2045 North Lincoln Park West, Chicago, IL


2. Haymarket Brew Pub

737 W Randolph St  Chicago, IL 60661
Tel. (312) 638-0700 haymarketbrewing.com


3. Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria

805 S. State Street, South Loop, Chicago, IL 60605

Tel. (312) 786-1000 loumalnatis.com



Hong Kong, SAR, China

Arriving in Hong Kong is to step into the future – at least how I’ve always dreamed the future may look, so long as the future is a curious blend of Bladerunner style and Disney-sponsored endorsement deals. HK is the financial wunderkind of the east, and the post-modern skyline reflects that; skyscrapers stretch from one island to the next in an infinite concrete and glass conflux. At times the city seems so foreign and impenetrable that it’s hard to wrap your head around – you want to see more than high-rise apartment blocks and shopping malls, but you can’t figure out how. That’s half the fun, of course; exploring this psedo-dystopia is one good time after the other, once you realize that you’re never too far away from world-class dim sum, a traditional Chinese Market, a 7-star hotel spa, planet earth’s wildest grey market, and an armada of traditional dragon boats built to cruise.

Don’t Miss:

1. Fragrant Lotus | Restaurant

160-164 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong

Tel. 852-2544-4556


2. Peninsula Hong Kong | Hotel

Salisbury Rd, Hong Kong

Tel. 852-2920-2888, peninsula.com


3. MacLehose Trail | Hiking Trail

Sai Kung District, New Territories East, Hong Kong



Luang Prabang, Laos

Tangerine-robed monks toting parasols through the mist. Elephants crashing through the jungle. Asia’s most underrated cuisine. Dark Beer Lao. Waterfalls demanding ill-advised cannonballs. An incredible open air night market (the best place in the city to sample traditional Lao food), a vibrant local arts scene, and more Buddhist temples than almost any other city on earth. Just thinking of our time in Luang Prabang has me yearning for hotpot by the Mekong River, sausages infused with lemongrass, canoe trips on the murky water, and chilly bottles of Dark Beer Laos – seriously, I can’t stress how much I love this beer.

Though it is not known as a land of superlatives – there is no highest mountain here, no longest river there, no park of pagodas anywhere – Laos offers opportunities to experience something different every day, whether you’re looking for excitement on the river, adventures in the jungle, or relief from the urgency of humanity in the most elegant of Asian cities. The slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang is indeed a pilgrimage of a certain kind, while Luang Prabang itself is the sort of place where you can unwind until your visa runs dry.

Don’t Miss:

1. Villa Deux Rivieres | Hotel

One of my favorite hotels in Asia; next door is a really unique vegan restaurant serving traditional Lao food with a veggie twist.

Kingkitsalath Rd 43 Unit 02, Luang Prabang

Tel. +8562077377571 villadeuxrivieres.com


2. Phou Si and Wat Chom Si

Climb to the top of the hill in the center of town for fantastic views of the city and her rivers. Evening views are spectacular, but remember a torch for the walk down.


3. Ock Pop Tok | Retail Shop

Handmade textiles, arresting bric-a-brac; runs textiles workshops and tours to local villages.

73/5 Ban Vat Nong, Luang Prabang,

Tel. +856 71 253219



Porto, Portugal

Porto is the birthplace of Port Wine. If that doesn’t do it for you, then you don’t like travel (or you’re not a raging alcoholic, I guess). If you manage to dig yourself out of a port cellar long enough to explore the city, you’ll find gorgeous medieval architecture in the form of ancient fishing apartments along the beautiful Duoro River; the Ribeira is a UNESCO World Heritage area done right. A river cruise is a great way to spend an evening, but you can’t go wrong exploring Porto’s litany of churches and cathedrals, testing your mettle on the city’s towering bridge during a storm, and rewarding your bravery with a sinfully delicious Francesinha sandwich.

The whole of Porto’s old center is a photographer’s dream; ferret warrens connecting one crumbling building to another, caves concealing quirky cafés, and hilly terrain marked by galleries, shops, and restaurants.

Don’t Miss:

1. Bufete Fase | Restaurant

Rua de Santa Catarina 1147, 4000 Oporto

Tel. 351 222 052 118


2. Sandeman Port Cellars

Largo Miguel Bombarda 3, Vila Nova de Gaia

Tel. 351 223 740 534 sandeman.eu


3. Mercado do Bolhão | Market

Rua Fernandes Tomás, 4000-214 Oporto

Tel. 351 223 326 024



Hoi An, Vietnam

A sleepy Vietnamese town on the Thu Bon River, a place where colorful shops loom over ancient cobbled streets, lanterns illuminate the path through a grandiose covered bridge, and tiny men pilot tiny skiffs across the glassy surface of the water. At the river’s edge, crates have been turned upside down and stand in as tables, with tiny plastic stools nearby. A plump, jovial woman places a steaming bowl of Cao Lau before visitors – tongues wag in awe. Cao Lau is a regional dish made with hearty flat noodles, pork, and veggies. The noodles are made with water from an ancient Cham well, while the recipe is a closely guarded secret (if you believe what you hear on the road. I try to believe as much as I’m told).

Dining on the river in Hoi An is a quintessential Vietnamese experience. Foodies flock here to sample what may be the best-tasting noodle dish on the planet, But Hoi An is more than a place to stuff your face; it’s one of Asia’s most charming and laid back travel destinations (quite a feat for a country with roughly 400 million motorbikes). I’m a huge fan of sipping frosty beer by the river for pennies a glass, shooting the beautiful Japanese covered bridge (especially when there’s a local wedding taking place), sampling what seems like an endless array of local culinary delicacies, haggling over prices on shiny suits (none of which I ever buy), launching paper lanterns over the Thu Bon River as night falls, and reveling in the solitude of a slow boat ride out to sea.

Don’t Miss:

1. Morning Glory | Restaurant

106 Nguyễn Thái Học, Hội An

Tel. +84 510 3241 555


2. Hoi An Photo Tours

54 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Hội An

Tel. 090567198, hoianphototour.com


3. Japanese Covered Bridge

At the West end of Tran Phu St., Hội An



Jodhpur, India

Just about any city in India could have made this list, but I decided to go with the one that pissed me off the least. Delhi is insane, and a fantastic place to photographic, but a bit of an overwhelming, nightmarish glut of humanity. Agra has the Taj… and that’s about it. Udaipur’s stark whiteness is mesmerizing, but when we found a dead cow floating in our fishing hole, it was disqualified from this list. Jodhpur, then, takes the title! And why not? It’s as bright and vibrant as any other city in India.

Jodhpur’s market is a buzzing hive of human activity – but it’s unlikely that someone will grab your ass or touch your face at random the way they might in Delhi. Views of the Blue City from Mehrangarh Fort are sensational – so long as you brought a telephoto lens to compress the perspective. The giant clock tower at the center of town (in the middle of the market) may help you get orientated after wandering through the endless maze of ancient alleyways, while the shopping is apparently fantastic (I avoided it like the plague – which I think I got from a rat in one of the havelis. Learned my lesson about flip-flops in India).

Don’t Miss:

1. Mehrangarh Fort

The Fort, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, 342006

Tel. 0291 254 8790


2. Sardar Market

You don’t need an address for this. Follow your nose – or look for the clock tower at the heart of the market.

3. Ice Cream Shop

We wandered down the main drag south of the clock tower for about 30 minutes to find this place – and for the life of me, I can’t find the name in my notes. Oops. The secret dies with me.


There you have it – the cities that have inspired me most. Some were a lock from the start (Dublin, Seoul, Yangon) while others made it in at the last second (Jodphur, Chicago). I’d love to know what cities have inspired you!


Honorable Mention:

Chiang Mai, Thailand | Toronto, Canada | San Francisco, California | Galle, Sri Lanka

Beijing, China | Jogjakarta, Indonesia | Pokhara, Nepal


– flash

PS: I’m much better at updating my Facebook page, so if you’re so inclined, head over there for the last goings on from the empire.  Click to join me on Facebook


Flash Light Photography Expeditions


I’m proud to announce that Flash Light Photography Expeditions is now live @ www.flashlightexpeditions.com . What is Flash Light Photography Expeditions? I’m glad you asked!

Flash Light Photography Expeditions is dedicated to providing in-depth photographic adventures to keen photography enthusiasts from around the globe. We provide tours to destinations in South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Japan and the world over. We are the premiere choice of photography enthusiasts looking to take their image-making and photojournalism skills to the next level.



Our first tour takes us to South Korea’s Jeju Island.

Jeju Island, South Korea
September 21-27, 2011
South Korea’s fabled Jeju Island is one of East Asia’s best kept secrets and the perfect location to flex your photographic muscles.  Pack your camera and your hiking boots and join professional photojournalists Dylan Goldby and Flash Parker as they guide you across this kingdom of quiet majesty. Soak up the dawn of a new day from Sunrise Peak, the mighty remnant of a 100,000 year old volcanic eruption. Dip your toes into the East China Sea as you frame the legendary Haenyeo lady divers in your viewfinder and marvel as the masters of the sea harvest submerge themselves for minutes at a time.  Refine your long exposure technique as the tiers of the Cheonjeyeon Waterfall fall away before you then steel yourself for the climb of a lifetime as you tackle the epic moonscapes of Halla Mountain. Race down the verdant hills flanking wild horses or stop to shoot the flowers – just don’t be late for your dinner date. Take on the role of consummate food photographer as you shoot abalone porridge, black pork ribs and the endless array of eclectic kimchi at the island’s greatest food haunt at Seogwipo, Jeju’s second city. Capture sublime slices of life at one of Korea’s oldest Five Day Markets and hone your street shooting skills in Jeju City.  Finally, learn when and how to use off-camera flash to light up the night as you shoot star trails from the apex of one of the island’s 300 parasitic volcanic peaks. Between stratospheric adventures, culinary swashbuckling and capturing the decisive moment, your guides will provide critique sessions and seminars that will help you get the most from your equipment, day in and day out. When you finally pack your bags for that long voyage west you’ll be carrying with you a portfolio of remarkable images, the penultimate representation of all the mystery and splendor of the Land of the Morning Calm.

Thanks to my friend Len Payne for helping with our website – www.flashlightexpeditions.com – and to Matt Bosmier, the Tooninator, for all his fantastic graphic design work.

Please check out our site and let us know what you think. I hope some of you will join us this September when we land on Jeju-do!


– flash

The Wall


Sometimes, I hit the wall.

I just can’t create anymore. It happens from time to time, usually when I’m not under pressure to get something done or when I have a lull between projects. When I’m writing I can usually push through it; I’ve been doing it long enough and have a few tricks to get through the dry spells. I have enough confidence to work through the blues, toss our the crap that I will invariably generate and forge ahead.

Photography can be different. I haven’t been at it long and shedding the self-doubt that can creep in when I’m unawares takes me longer. Often I’ll feel like I’m never going to produce an image worth looking at again. Often I feel like I’ve never produced an image worth looking at in the first place. It’s tough to pick up a camera on those days. When I do I wonder what I’m going to shoot, how I’m going to shoot it and who (if anyone) is ever going to look at it.

Maybe it’s because my photography is a matter of public record. Of course, my writing is, too. More so, in many ways. I write movies and books and I work for magazines and papers and people are giving me their opinion on what I’ve created all the time. Yet somehow, photography just feels different. I wonder if it’s because I still view it as a hobby? Hobbies are supposed to be fun. When taking pictures starts to feel like work I think I get a little anxious. A little while back I was as anxious as I’ve been with a camera in my hand.

Olympic Park Shootout: Greg James Hanford and the SPC

My second shoot with Greg was doomed from the start. I don’t remember a time I’ve felt so ill prepared and uncertain about a shoot. Maybe it’s because I knew my idea was silly all along; Megan, Damian Tony and all the other folk that came along to pitch in spent a few hours helping me make “puffy clouds” in an attempt to create some surreal environment for Greg’s cover shoot. Pulling out the black spray paint to make “angry puffy clouds” was never going to be a good idea.

Doomed from the start.


I had been doubting myself for a few weeks after a couple particularly uninspired shoots and I hit a new low when the clouds started dangling. They looked stupid, the light was off, the background was terrible. All my fault. I wanted to pack in the whole operation then and there but with 20 people out to help that wasn’t much of an option. Believe me, though, I considered it. To make matters worse we were crunched for time – a few people were late – so one shoot was spilling over into the time we allotted for the other. Not a good scene.


Yes, it was every bit as tragic as it looks to be here.


We were accomplishing less than Jake. I called an end to the foolishness and went about shooting on the hill – another failure – before working a few natural light images with Greg. At the time they seemed just as silly but I don’t despise them as much now.


That’s enough whining. The moral of this story is that no matter how bad things look – and when you’re taking pictures the proof is right there in front of you – better times are but a click and an f/stop away. By the time I got Aaron and the rest of the crew in front of the camera I had zero confidence left in my ability to create an image, but I did it anyway. I kicked down the lightstands (for the most part) kept things as simple as possible and just got the work done (there’s that word again, and perhaps the root of the problem).


Reflecting on the work we put in it’s easy to see what happened; with the help and encouragement of my team and friends I quit second guessing everything I was doing and we were able to get some decent images out of the set. World beaters? No, not really, but a few keeper frames for sure and one or two I’m even proud of. Mostly because The Immortal Incumbent is so handsome, though. Mostly.


A couple of them even made it into Groove Magazine. Imagine that.

Thanks to everyone who came out to the park to help and have a little fun. The best part of the day wasn’t taking pictures but all the fun we had after. Who knew beer went down so smooth at 2am?*

*I did.

– flash

Groove Magazine Assignment: FreeNK

Controversy. North Korea. Together.

Incredible, I know.

Two things you’d never assume were in bed with one another; controversy and our wild northern neighbor. It’s almost as preposterous as Kim Jong-Il riding an eagle from the peak of Baekdu Mountain to the steps of Castle Grayskull… er, wait. What?

This post isn’t directly related to North Korea or anyone who may or may not reside there, preside there or rule there with an iron fist, so all you watch dogs and folk from the anti-English spectrum can relax. I’m not here to comment on politics, since I’m A: not political, and B: I’m fairly stupid. Don’t send me angry letters (in English or Korean), please.

No, what I’m here to discuss today is the controversy that arose over my own steadfast stubbornness. I’ve clashed with ideologies before; working on film projects with fiery directors and bombastic producers back home often means that heads are going to butt like the billy goats of Austria, concessions are going to be made and compromises are often going to be at the head of the agenda. Obviously, the same can be said for photographic assignments, being the nature of the beast and all. If anything, I’d like this piece to serve to remind me of that in the future because I sure had my blinders on for this one.


Let me preface this by saying that this article is no way an attack on the people I was shooting and working with on this project. It’s simply an exploration of the creative process. I find it interesting and I hope that there are those of you out there who might take something from it. Some of you might think it odd that I’m publishing a story on an experience that was at times frustrating but hey… if I’m anything I’m transparent.

The brief for this piece included a little information on a group called Free North Korea that works under the umbrella of a larger NGO, Justice for North Korea. I was tasked with covering the basics – obviously this is an ongoing initiative and the purpose of the piece is to spread the word. Nothing mind-bending about that, right?


I set to work as I usually do, reading up on the people I’m going to be covering, gathering information and making contacts. My due diligence, if you will. I pride myself on being prepared for an assignment and I approached this like any other I’ve done since I started an ill-fated career in journalism at my university paper in 2002.

Here’s the thing; I couldn’t gather all that much information on the group. Outside of their Facebook page and what they do at their rally in Insadong every Saturday, there’s just not that much literature about Free North Korea floating around. I didn’t have the time (nor the inclination, to be honest. I’m not Steve McCurry and this wasn’t a years-long running editorial) to meet with the group a dozen times so I did the next best thing. I sent them out a stack of feeler questions. I also started firing off ideas for what I thought were creative photographic ideas, but they were met with resistance. Which is cool; not everyone is always going to agree. My original idea had the members of the group wrapped in a flag somewhere on the grounds of Gwanghwamun, the statue of Armiral Yi or Bukhan Mountain in the background. FreeNK didn’t dig it, though; they didn’t want to run anything with the flag, as they believed it would portray them in a political light. They are, of course, focused on the human side of the issue.

I guess I should have listened the first time, but I was stubborn on the flag issue. How does one create a provocative image that resonates with human rights issues in a totalitarian North Korean state without using the flag? I suppose one could use North Koreans, but they are in short supply here in Korea. And, you may be surprised, North Koreans look exactly like South Koreans. See what I’m getting at here?

I tossed out a few more ideas and wracked my brain (didn’t take long) before meeting up with the group at Tapgol Park to shoot. I set up with the stone reliefs as a backdrop – pretty human stuff going on in there, if you ask me, as they depict images of struggle (even if it has to do with the Japanese). I had each member of the group hold up a naked picture frame that was doing a good job standing in for a mirror; the idea was to superimpose a reflection of people, and force people to look within themselves at an image [re: human rights] they might otherwise ignore. Hey, I thought, it’s creative. Maybe.


Then I shot the group photo.

And I got to thinking, which often lands me in trouble. Wait a minute, I thought. What the hell does this evoke? What does any of this evoke? Foreign people in a Seoul park? What does this have to do with my article?


To me, the image with the group in the frame is effective at nothing more than being an image. It’s not communicating anything. That’s cool when you’re doing some other types of photography, but for an editorial piece it’s really not going to fly. And if I want to call myself an Editorial Photojournalist… I better get on the wagon.

I got to thinking of statements and the lack thereof. I went back to my original idea – the flag. The North Korean flag, tattered, ragged and a shambles, representative of the people (I don’t know about you, but when I see the Canadian flag or the US flag I think of the people of those nations). I went back to the FreeNK crew and heard the same response; it’s evocative of politics and not humanity. We want humanity. FreeNK felt that if people simply glanced at the photo without reading the article, they’d get the wrong impression. But an evocative photo is going to get people interested in the article; otherwise it’s all just fluff.


Bah. Politics.

Right. Well, this is where I dug my feet into the sand. I told them that no matter what they believe they are doing, this issue is political, even if their message and their campaign isn’t. Sure, it’s centered on the humanitarian principals, but it’s about freeing people in a non-free state. Seems political to me.


We went back and forth over this issue until they refused to allow the mag to run the image with the flag. I asked them to send me an image – something from their campaign, if they thought it’d be helpful – and I’d put them together.

This is that image.

Flash_29691-3 copy

I certainly see the human aspect here. I get the point of view. What I don’t understand is how this image is one iota less political than the image with the flag. The man is wearing a North Korean uniform, the woman is bound and seated on the ground, a noose around her neck. I suppose I just don’t see how one is [political] and one isn’t. I’m not looking at this in a negative light, either; this is all about communication. I’d love to get your thoughts on this, all you loyal readers out there.

At the end of the day, FreeNK got an image they were happy with, they loved the article and Groove was happy on both fronts. I was left a little disappointed that I didn’t work through the creative differences/points of view beforehand, though happy with the written piece.

While you’re at it, why not share a similar experience, if you’ve had one in the field.


To see the article in print please pick up a copy of the May edition of Groove Magazine

For more information on FreeNK please click here.

– flash

Groove Magazine Assignment: Greg James Hanford

Greg James Hanford. Rockstar. Welshman.

I knew this was going to be fun.

Greg is one of the most easygoing people I’ve ever met and when I shot his band, Solitaire Love Affair back in January we did a little groundwork for what would become our interview and photoshoot. We drank a few beers, Greg played his guitar in the street and we had a crew of nearly a dozen folks working together downtown… could have been Rolling Stone out there (If anyone from Rolling Stone is reading, yes, I do accept your job offer).

The story I wrote on Greg can be seen in the April 2010 edition of Groove Magazine. Here we’re going to stick to the photos.

The Shoot

I enlisted the help of the Seoul Photo Club and the Seoul Strobist Club to shoot James one afternoon in Itaewon. It was all hands on deck and flashes at full power; not sure if any of us will ever get our eyesight back. Certainly Greg won’t. What a trooper.

I had four different shots drawn up and diagramed, though I knew we’d go with whatever was feeling right at the time. The final package is a touch different than what I originally envisioned, but I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time post-shoot.


image imageimage

I did more prep for this shoot than I usually do because I had some time and because I was going to be doing fairly involved set-ups with a lot of people; I didn’t want to waste valuable time. Plus, I only had two hours to shoot and interview Greg before he had to play at Castle Praha. Crunch time.

You can see that I’m not using a fancy little iPhone app. to outline my shots. I draw these up when I’m not sleeping on the subway, fire them off to everyone involved in an email and call it a day. They look a touch better than my usual diagrams, but I’ll admit, they’re a little sterile.

Where’s the love?

Another reason I prepped as much as I did for this is because I like to do this kind of work in a single frame; I like to shoot people handheld because I can move and connect and talk and not have to worry about trucking a movement-restricting tripod around with me. That means single frames, no bracketing, no dropping people into this frame and out of another (to an extent). Maybe one day I’ll learn to be patient.

On the street


We prepped in the parking lot of the Hamilton Hotel and though we were nearly killed by a Hyundai and then a Mercedez, we were ready to go by the time Greg arrived.

I’m not stranger to this setup; I’ve done it a few times and it was in fact one of the very first styles of off-camera flash work I practiced when starting out last spring; key high and tight, sunset in the background, street life playing a little symphony. Simple stuff, until you borrow a little inspiration from the light god himself, Strobist.


That’s the Seoul Photo/Strobist Club helping me out, flashes strapped to each of their cameras. Greg is far too chill to come off as an arrogant rock star, so I decided that this frame and this attitude wasn’t to be the winner. I love everything else about it, though. Even the green gaffers tape I used to rig the recievers to the flashes. Yeah, that’s right.

There are 7 flashes in this scene: SB-80DX, softbox, high camera right as key / SB-900 w David, camera left / SB-80DX w Dylan, Camera right / SB-25 w Megan, camera right / Canon Flash w Aaron B, camera right. We triggered the Canon and the SB-900 optically and used Flashwaves Triggers for the rest. I love ‘em. I’ve never set off one of my flashes from the moon so I don’t need the range (or size) of pocket wizards.


Now the music is doing the talking. This is much more Mr. Hanford than the last frame. Same lights, same spacing, different attitude (I need to use another word… attitude makes me sound like a judge on America’s Next Top Model. Not like I’d know that, though). Attitude!


I’ve had a few questions about the processing I did on the street shots. It’s nothing more than a little lightroom experimentation. First, I started by layering in some black and adding contrast to deepen the scene. Then I adjusted colour and saturation (bringing out the guitar and Greg’s clothing) before turning to the highlights and shadows. This is where the processing becomes prevalent; I took the highlights from neutral to a bright yellow and desaturated and did the same with the shadows, but using blue. I went back and tweaked the overall saturation until I had a mix that I wanted and presto – EPIC SUNSHINE! I have been using this processing preset more and more – especially on my travel photos – and I love the result. It alters the colour and tones on just about everything but human skin.

In The Back Alley

I took Greg into the back alley and I…

this isn’t an episode of Red Shoe Diaries, people. We’re here to talk about the light.

Groove_29227xYou’ll find this photo was mapped out in diagram two. Is this what I thought I was going to get when I drew it up? No, not really. Tons of ugly flares, small light sources (thank forgetting to zoom the heads and the spacing for that) and just a general awkwardness overall. I like it, though. I should have stuck with this and had Greg get a little pensive, look down at his guitar and pose a little, but I didn’t. Just made the one frame.

Getting the frame I did want with this set up was simple enough. All we had to do was turn the VAL’s around. The light bouncing off the walls – four of them – provided the backbone of the silhouette shot and another light in a softbox a few miles to the right added a touch of detail to the guitar and the shades on Greg’s face.


The light: SB-28 @ very low power, camera right, softbox, for rim and highlights on guitar/glasses /SB-80DX, bare, shot into the wall, Camera right / SB-900, bare, shot into the wall, Camera right / SB-25, bare, shot into the wall, Camera left / SB-80DX, bare, shot into the wall, Camera left
Groove_29252-2 Same lights here. I love this frame for what it could have been; it could have been as righteous as the Summer of ‘69 cover, but I don’t think Greg was cool with smashing his new guitar into a million pieces before he had to go on stage. I wasn’t too worried, though. I knew he had it. I should have pushed the envelope. He’s a rockstar, after all. He’s likely to push a few televisions out of hotel windows before his days are done. What’s a single broken guitar at the end of the day?

Groove_29258xI went with one extra light in this scene to carve Greg off the background. Again, I think this is him; happiest when he’s playing, pleasing the people around him. Not an ounce of angst or annoying rock-god self-importance about him.

Groove_29277-2xI had to give the man the BDS treatment, though. Had to. This is the third lighting diagram and was, in a way, the simplist. It’s a portrait, so there was no jumping around and I didn’t have to worry about timing. No awkward light positions to compensate for. Just straight-up shooting. I had Greg keep the glasses on for this one so I could catch the massive reflector as it bounced light back onto his face.     Groove_29287-2xYou put a guitar in this man’s hands and he’s going to break into a smile. There’s no way around it. That’s the genuine stuff right there, too. I think you can feel that in this frame.

The light: SB-80DX, high camera right in a softbox, two CTO gells / SB-80Dx, monopod, behind Greg camera right, rim / silver reflector, low camera left.

Groove_29328-2xOne last trick to pull out of the bag.

The often-neglected ring light. I love this thing, but I don’t use it enough to warrant a steady place in my kit and it’s a pain in the ass to lug around. When I do use it, though, I love the results. I could have gotten close to the same effect here with a strobe since the catchlight isn’t as pronounced as it could have been had I been closer, but those shadows are just too smooth to mess around with. BDS, but in another way.

At the Show

We went inside. We had a few drinks. We talked for a while, I made some notes, took some quotes, had another beer. Then Greg took the stage. I tossed in a little light, got up close and personal and made frames of the create in his natural habitat, the place he is most comfortable in this world. I’m not a live music shooter – hard to move the light stands around that quickly – but this was a joy to shoot. Even if I did bump into half a dozen people trying to eat dinner and trip a waitress carrying a bottle of red wine.

I want to be a rockstar, too.   Groove_29343x

The Light: SB-80DX on a monopod, bare, bounced into the ceiling (above frame and both below).

Groove_29344-2x Groove_29346-2xAnd one more frame, this one from the original Solitaire Love Affair session I attended, where I met Greg and we worked together for the first time. One of my favorite frames of all time, but not something that suits Greg’s personality or his style of playing. It’s a little more Cash…and if you know the album cover I borrowed this idea from, I’ll buy you a drink.

Groove_27344-2In the end, I think we came away with some frames to make Greg and the crew happy. I’d like to thank Aaron Brown , Shannon Lunsford, Aaron Raisey , David Sheldrick , Megan Ahrens , Alex Murry and Dylan Goldby and Greg for all their hard work and for putting up with me all afternoon. That deserves a reward in and of itself.

Thought I’d show my appreciation this way. Don’t hate me.

Sunday Night Snack Shots Week 5: Pumpkin Salad

Sunday Night Snack Shots
Week 5: Pumpkin Salad


Last week we got down and dirty with four types of Jeon. This week, it’s a Halloween treat. Six months early.

The first edition of our Korean Cookbook, The Ubiquitous Kimchi, is on digital bookshelves now. Included are more than 50 recipes and 200 original photos not published here, there or anywhere. Make sure you try the bibimbap.

The Ubiquitous Kimchi @ www.blurb.com/my/book/detail/1091970

Pumpkin Salad. 호박 샐러드

Makes 6 servings


– 24 ounces pumpkin flesh

– 1 small sweet potato, cubed

– 1 1/2 celery stalk, diced

– 1/2 green onion, chopped

– 1 medium carrot, diced

– 4 tbsp. mayonnaise

– 1/2 tbsp. sugar

– 1 tbsp. salt

– handful of raisins (don’t be shy!)

– 1 tbsp. almond flakes

– 1 ounce walnuts, chopped



1. Steam the pumpkin flesh and sweet potato in a rice cooker. Remove before the flesh becomes mushy.

2. Add the cooked flesh, mayonnaise, sugar and salt to a blender and blend. Keep it somewhat chunky.

3. Add the mix to a bowl and add celery, carrot, onion and raisins. 

4. Serve warm or chilled overnight. Garnish with almond flakes and walnuts.


Shooting Pumpkin Salad

Tools: SB-80DX (x2), SB-28, air impact light stands (x2), flash gel kit, Flashwaves Triggers, small softbox, Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 lens, Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 micro lens, silver reflector

  The Christmas lights (and Christmas tree) have been sitting near the front door for a few months now, begging to be tossed into the street or put to good use. We got two birds stoned at once, here.

I started off by slapping the trusty black felt onto our white hallway wall. Gaffer’s tape is the key to life. Then I gelled the SB-28 and fired a few test frames – adjusting for wind and distance – until I had the colour and gradient I wanted. The one crummy thing about working with gels is that you need the strobes to be on low power (generally) to remain totally saturated. That means shooting with a large aperture which can reduce your DOF or a high ISO, which can introduce grain. There are a few ways around this, though, that we’ll talk about another time.


Building the light, step by step.

After the background we set about arranging our food and layering in the light; I could have used a c-stand for this one, but I made do with a small softbox. Not quit the same; the light would have been more dramatic from directly overhead in this shot, but we made do.

I wasn’t getting enough light to the food so I dropped in a second light on ultra low power and shot it through a reflective umbrella. Originally I had this done with grids and gobos but the light just wasn’t cooperating so we went with the larger sources. Finally we added a touch of foam core just out of the frame to bounce light and fill the unpleasant shadows.


Lastly, we dropped the background and hung the lights. The only thing missing was the x-mass sweaters. And pants. I never wear pants in the kitchen.


Groove Magazine Assignment: Rockstars

clip_image001I returned to Korea after my SE Asian adventure this winter just in time to go out on assignment for Groove Magazine. I hadn’t had time to recharge my flash batteries or brush the sand out of my vagina my camera and lenses, but there was work to be done.

The March issue of the magazine focuses on musicians making an impact on the Seoul music scene. My task was simple enough; interview Garan Fitzgerald and Zach Bardon as independent artists, then shoot them as part of their band, Solitaire Love Affair. I hadn’t written an expose since I was working for papers in university, so I was charged up. Making the photos…well that’d be easy, right? I mean, it’s what I do.

Garan Fitzgerald

I’m not going to spill the  beans on Garan (or Zach) here; that’s what the magazine is for. However, the reason I was sent out to interview Garan is, other than being a class act of a guy, he’s a brilliant, classically trained bassist and part of Co-amrous, a tango outfit that just won first prize at the 10th Osaka International Music Competition.

Cool. How do I make a photo of that?

Well, I failed epically the first time. Shooting in a recording studio is great when you’re working for Guns N’ Roses – it even worked for Slash’s Snakepit – but to capture the essence of the tango de la meurte, you need a location more forgiving. Plus, we didn’t have a busload of groupies or a garbage bag full of coke.

I improvised.

clip_image002Deceptively simple light here: SB-80DX in a small softbox high camera left, just in front of Garan and the guitar shooting light back towards the camera. I used my change bag as a gobo to control flare. I usually don’t use it as a change bag. Often, I go to photo shoots clothed.

This is Garan. That’s a bass guitar. But this is Rock Garan, and that’s a rock guitar. Do you get tango out of this? I don’t get tango out of this. No one gets tango out of this. Tango and hoodies don’t mix.

Do I love the image? Yes, I do. But it doesn’t capturing the essence of my article. I went home, talked to Summer, my editor, and came up with a new plan of attack replete with diagrams (I love diagrams). I decided to go Full Monty; rent out studio space, hire some models and deck Garan out in his Sunday finest.

My incredibly hi-tech, ultra-modern computer generated lighting diagram. They don’t teach this stuff in school, folks. Street certified.


Not so simple light here, but the best we could do under cramped, unyielding circumstances. Light 1: SB-80DX, softbox, on a monopod heaved in the air by Megan aimed down at Garan. Light 2: SB-80DX on the floor behind Garan, lighting Cassie and Phil from the front. Light 3: SB-28, bare, in the frame camera right adding a little drama and rim to the action.

I couldn’t get lights up high – Cassie is almost touching the roof as is – and we’re cramped into a corner. What you see is what you get. Tony and Megan, bless them, helped out as VALs while Phil and Cassie modeled. Does it work? Sure. I dig it. Do you get tango out of it this time? I think so.

Lighting on different planes; SB-80DX, high camera left behind Garan, reflective umbrella. SB-80DX, high camera right, shoot-through umbrella, behind Garan. SB-28, bare, low, rim light for the audience.

True to form, it’s an image that came off the cuff and without planning that I like the most. I’d say that nearly 50% of the time, when on a shoot, it’s the spur-of-the-moment shot I end up going with. Not sure what that says about my planning. It can’t be good. Again, I’d do a few things differently here given different conditions; lights would go much higher, something would be draped overhead (a beauty dish, in this case) and I’d have shot with a longer lens from behind more people. But cramped spaces require you to think of new solutions, so the experience was the thing.

Zach Bardon

I sat down with Zach to talk about the aptly named Zach Bardon Recording Tour of Love, a 49-state odyssey of profound musical diligence. Sadly, I knew only briefly of his exploits beforehand, so I wasn’t able to prepare anything or diagram a shoot. That is, of course, my way of excusing myself from an incredibly creative series of shots with the multi-instrumentalist.

Not like it would have mattered on the day I met the boys, though; shooting a drummer in a studio has serious limitations (I’m sure I’m going to get slaughtered with examples of how it’s not limited). By the time I had a moment with Zach and was able to shoot him I had a thousand shots in my head that all involved different locations. In the studio, I decided to try and capture him as he found himself on the road for the Recording Tour of Love; isolated, alone for long stretches, dependant on himself to complete his masterwork.


One light: SB-80DX in a softbox, camera right, blasting Zach in the face and throwing shadows across the wall.

clip_image006One light: Softbox, low camera right, again blasting Zach in the face. His face took the brunt of the assault.

I only wish we had somewhere else to shoot Zach’s portraits, or more time; drummers are never given their due! There’s always next time…

Seoul Photo Club/Seoul Strobist Club

As I mentioned on flickr, the March issue of Groove has SPC and SSC influence pasted all over it. Dylan Goldby, Aaron Brown and Lee Smathers all worked tirelessly to make it the most well-photographed issue of all time. I’m not just saying that because these guys are my friends, either (I don’t even really like Dylan!); their work is spectacular and humbles mine. Into the corner to think about what you’ve done for an hour kind of humble. Dunce cap at school kind of humble. Check out their work. It’s worth it. Then join the Seoul Photo Club. Then buy a flash, and join the Seoul Strobist Club. Then get involved with the Seoul Metro Project. There are so many things you should do.

Rockstars Redux

Next time around, I’ll get into the work I did with the rest of the band; I can’t spill too many of the beans now, since some of what I shot is going into the April edition of Groove, but I’ve got a couple teasers from the cutting room floor.

clip_image007Two exposures. 1: SB-80DX, small softbox, high camera left, behind Marc slightly. 2: SB-80DX, small softbox, high camera right, behind Marc slightly. In-camera multiple exposure. No photoshop. Just good use of the light.

Marc Proulx, lead singer of Solitaire Love Affair. I think Marc resembles Alan Frew from Glass Tiger in a lot of ways. So I gave him the Radiohead multiple exposure treatment. I remember thinking there was a connection in there at some point…

clip_image009I believe this shot ended up on a poster for the band at a Haiti benefit concert, but I could be mistaken. It was supposed to run for the show in The Korea Herald as well, but it didn’t make the final cut. They went with a photo actually taken in Haiti. Can you believe that?! I know I can’t!

That foot there belongs to SLA’s Simon. More on him a little later.

Groove_27322Greg James Hanford. I’m doing a piece on him for the April Groove. No, this isn’t the photo we’re running; this is the tasty teaser. We all love ice cream. Greg is a rockstar. These things work together. You’ll find out why.