Kathmandu, Nepal with the Sony A7s and the Mitakon 50mm f.95
by Judd Weiss
These Nepal photos probably would not exist if not for this site. Steve Huff’s blog and wider sharing community has been the single largest influence on my photography. I don’t connect with the approach of most photography communities online. But this community of mirrorless enthusiasts has continued to inspire me and push me to keep going further with this photography obsession. I’m still relatively new to photography, starting about 4.5 years ago when I picked up the first Sony NEX-3. For about a year I treated it more like a higher quality point and shoot for parties. Since I’ve discovered Steve’s site, I’ve become a daily addict, pouring over the daily inspirations and user reports, trying to understand new perspectives, obsessively studying how you impressive bastards pull it off. I’ve never taken a real course in photography, this blog has been my photography school. It’s possible I might still be shooting glorified point and shoot style photos without it. And all the beautiful photos in my life that I cherish might never have been if not for the influence of the community here. So thank you Steve and everyone else who has contributed inspiring photos in guest posts here. I’m honored to offer my small contribution to the mix.
Despite all of my public statements at the beginning of 2015 that I’m going to tone down this photography obsession and focus more on business, I just can’t help it. I want to do everything at once. When you’re doing something you’re proud of and excited about, it feels like a crime to restrain yourself. And there was just no way I could turn down this trip to Nepal. I didn’t know anything about Nepal except that it’s north of India and that some very different world awaits.
I didn’t Google or Wikipedia anything about Nepal. Nothing. I didn’t want any movie spoilers, I just wanted the experience to be fresh. I was brought to Nepal to shoot a conference. I’m not a career photographer, I don’t market myself as a photographer or even have a proper portfolio site online at the moment. I’m not a professional, this is not my profession. I’m an enthusiast, I’m always obsessively trying to create beautiful compelling photos to the best of my ability. And that’s exactly what the conference organizers wanted. It’s a crazy expense to bring someone from the other side of the planet out to photograph your event in a 3rd world nation, so I knew I had some huge pressure to make sure I deliver.
The photos in this post are an album separate from the conference, purely the scenic photos of Nepal I captured outside of the conference.
I am hopelessly in love with my Sony A7s. The lowlight ability is not a leap in technology, this is some kind of magic voodoo shit. I don’t know what dark forces Sony has negotiated with to let us finally see clearly in the dark, but I’m not going to ask too many question. It’s amazing, and 12MP is actually still overkill when most of my images appear online and are seen at less than 2MP. I’m not limited by that sensor. On the contrary, the limits of light are pretty much gone. I only shoot with manual lenses. Most photographers don’t believe me when I tell them that using manual lenses is tremendously FASTER than autofocus but it’s the truth. Unless you’re center focusing ever shot, autofocus slows you down and limits your ability to compose a scene where the point of focus is anywhere but the dead center. Believe it or not, 1/3 of the photos in this post were shot from the front seat of a moving car. Autofocus would have slowed me down and outright prevented me from composing the shots the way I wanted while everything is literally speeding by me. Focus peaking, I can’t live without it.
I only brought 2 lenses, and almost exclusively used only 1, the Mitakon 50mm f.95. I suppose there may be snobs that don’t like that it’s not an $11,000 Leica, but what I do know is that this lens helps me produce images that make my heart skip a beat. I also use the Voigtlander 21mm f1.8, but rarely. I love the wide Voigtlander, and I plan to keep it even though I rarely use it. I suppose the way I often think about the lens combo is that I like to take a couple 21mm wide shots to establish the entirety of the scene. And then I go through with the 50mm and focus in on the details. I’ve taken many critical photos with the 21mm, but the Mitakon 50mm is my new baby virtually permanently attached to my camera (replacing the status previously held by my Voigtlander 35mm f1.2).
One note about the Mitakon 50mm, I’ve been chasing wider and wider aperture lenses since I got started a few years ago, and now I’ve finally gone too far. f.95 is ridiculous. I usually don’t go beyond f1.4 as f.95 is just too insane, and not the kind of shot I usually want. I suppose I like the luxury of knowing that I can totally abandon reality and push completely into a dream world by going to f.95, but I would also be totally fine constrained to a maximum aperture of f1.4. The wide aperture chase is now over for me.
Most of these photos were taken in a single day devoted to exploring Kathmandu. I knew I wouldn’t have much chance to explore the city while I was at the conference, so I gave myself 2 extra days in Kathmandu to see and capture whatever I could. Unfortunately, due to some serious incompetence and dishonesty from a tour guide, an early morning hike out in the rural mountains surrounding Kathmandu turned into an all day affair that caused me to cancel my packed schedule of sights I planned to see in my precious remaining few hours on my last day in the country. Stuck all day in the middle of nowhere, I was furious to waste most of one of my only 2 sightseeing days, but it’s a lesson in relying on your common sense over and above the assurances of strangers who act like they know what they’re talking about when it doesn’t make sense. Even when you’re in a totally foreign land. But I digress. I did manage to get good shots of the rural mountain villages and some groups of cute kids after they got out of school for the day. I have no shame, I just go up to groups of random school kids and ask who wants to be famous. They get ecstatic when I show them nice shots of themselves and their friends in my camera. No one asked for my info to get the photos, they seemed happy just that these photos of them would be seen by people in America.
One thing I totally didn’t expect was the weather. I knew I was going to the Himalayas. In January. I packed for very cold weather (I remember surviving the coldest winter on record in Romania), but it wasn’t that cold in Kathmandu. Once I was there I was told that Kathmandu is the valley surrounded by the mountains, and that it’s relatively warm. No snow ever falls in Kathmandu. It felt more desert like, maybe a little chilly at night, but no big deal. I had full body thermal underwear packed, but I wish I brought sandals instead.
I didn’t have time to check out any other city, though I’m told there are some real treasures throughout Nepal. Kathmandu was both beautiful and gritty. The poverty is pretty extreme, people often live on $80 a month. There is trash everywhere. Los Angeles is not exactly a clean city, but it feels like a sterile sanitary clean room by comparison. I’ve seen plenty of stray dogs and cats in other countries, but all the stray cows was actually pretty cool. The warmth of the Nepali people was striking. Everyone was extremely friendly and graciously greeted me with a Namaste and a bow. I’m talking about the random strangers I approached with my camera. I learned to reply back “Thank you friend” in their language, which people enjoyed.
The temples swarming with monkeys was a highlight. They’re really cute until you get up close. I was warned repeatedly not to get too close, but I didn’t listen, and one angry monkey tried to grab my camera from me. I was ready to fight him to the death, he’s not taking that (I did get a powerful angry picture of him, see below). The monkeys are rude. They are all unfriendly little shits actually. I can see why our society has so many problems, if we evolved from these bastards. Adorable as they are.
I took a $200 sight seeing flight to Mount Everest with a few friends. I regretted it immediately afterwards. We didn’t get that close, I’ve seen mountains from a plane window before, I wasn’t that impressed, and I really could have used the sleep instead of waking up so early for a delayed and pointless flight. But when I got back to Los Angeles and saw the photos I took of these majestic mountain ridges, I’m glad I did it. I shot those mountains totally sleep deprived, wishing I was back in a bed instead of a freezing cold plane to nowhere, but I managed to still capture a few shots that are priceless to me.
One night some of the conference attendees went out to a bar that had a local metal band playing. We were out on the patio where we could talk, which was my intention so that we weren’t drowned out by whatever crappy local band was set to play. But I was surprised and impressed with how good the local band actually was. I picked up my camera and started taking some shots of them, and damn did that amazing low light combo came in handy. They reminded me of some sort of a Nepalese Deftones. A throwback to 90s Numetal when it was still artistic, but driving and aggressive. And the guys were actually talented, the music was great, and fans were in a trance and pumped. I really didn’t expect that when I heard a local metal band was playing that night. I found the guitarist after the show and showed him a few shots I took, and he flipped out, immediately bringing me over to the singer to show him my camera screen. I promised they would eventually get these, and they invited me to share a joint with them. I got a picture of that too ;)
Pretty cool the places a little device in your hand will take you.
One of the craziest things I saw was a citywide protest that shut down all major streets on my last morning there, while I was rushing to get to the airport. Fortunately they were letting tourists through (the protesters don’t want to look like they’re cutting off vital income to the country). The protests were orchestrated by Maoists. Not Socialists, not Communists, but Maoists. With flags and banners of Mao. I’m just going out on a limb here, but it felt like it had to be China’s influence to me. Nepal is safe from out right occupation since it’s so closely linked to the massive India, but that doesn’t mean China isn’t going to meddle. Purely my speculation, but seeing very poor people that live off less than $100 a month carry around printed flags and banners of China’s Chairman Mao leads me to assume who’s funding this…
I WISH I had walked around and captured some compelling shots of the protests, but I was rushing to the airport, worried about catching my flight, and could only get a few imperfect shots as my taxi sped by.
Anyway, these pictures are worth more than any of my words. This is a landmark album for me, and easily the most exotic photos I’ve ever taken. I hope they help you get a better idea of the experience of this different world.
Full album and original post can be found on my blog here:
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[All the rest of the images in order (excluding those already used and excluding nepal-2015-1029.jpg):
This final shot was a defocused cityscape take-off from my connecting flight in Guangzhou, China.