As the photographer for GeekWire, I have many unique chances to capture the goings-on of the Seattle tech community. When I get bored of all the presentations and talking heads, I like to traipse around the globe on photo workshops led by Andy Williams, looking for epic and unusual shots.
I recently spent a couple weeks in far-western Mongolia, following along with nomadic herders from the area who are constantly on the move in search of greener pastures and capturing their ancient practice of hunting with golden eagles.
Andy is both a great photographer and educator, so I sat down with him while we were in Ulaanbaatar to record a special episode of the GeekWire podcast where he shares some photography tips and tricks with our listeners.
Our photography picks of the week included:
Listen to the episode above, or subscribe to the GeekWire podcast in your favorite podcast app. Continue reading for a full transcript of the episode.
Kevin Lisota: Greetings GeekWire listeners, this is Kevin Lisota. I’m an occasional guest on the GeekWire podcast, but I’m also the GeekWire photographer and videographer and I do some web development for the site. I’ve got a special interview today for our listeners out there. I’m in a very unique location with a unique individual, with a good friend of mine, Andy Williams. Andy, why don’t you introduce yourself?
Andy Williams: Hi everybody. I am a photographer for my entire life, and for the last 14 years I’ve created a company with two other people and we’ve been doing photography expeditions around the world to some of the coolest places on the planet. We call them photo workshops. The name of my company is Muench Workshops. We are here today in Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, the capital city in fact, after completing a pretty dang epic two-week unique photography expedition that I don’t think too many people have done before. I think I dragged you through the western Mongolia countryside in minus 30 degree Fahrenheit temperature for five or six days as we-
Kevin Lisota: Followed the sheep and the camels.
Andy Williams: The purpose of this first trip was to or this trip was to follow a nomadic family as they moved from their winter to their spring pastures. Well, I could ask you, how did you like it?
Kevin Lisota: I thought it was pretty epic. I will say it is a trip that is not for everybody. Using the toilet in the middle of the night at minus 20 degrees and going into a tent that at the beginning of the night was nice and toasty warm, at the end of the night was probably below zero, is not a relaxing vacation so to speak.
Andy Williams: Yeah. But luckily we kept warm and I think we’ve got some fantastic pictures to prove it. It’s interesting that we’re talking to GeekWire folks, and we’re going to talk about technology, but we were just with some people that the biggest technology they have is a little solar panel that recharges their, I think, five generations old android phone that they use to connect maybe-
Kevin Lisota: Once every two weeks.
Andy Williams: Once every two weeks to the internet. Exactly, but it is interesting.
Kevin Lisota: I will say the technology, probably the best technology that the nomadic herders have, it’s probably the horse. The horse is versatile, strong, and can handle all those conditions and landscapes that we were in.
Andy Williams: Think about its durability since the beginning of time practically. Mongolia and if you don’t know the history, you should take a look at it. If you want the easy and fun way out, just go to Netflix and watch Marco Polo series on Netflix. You’ll learn a little bit about Genghis Khan. They had nearly almost half of the world, right? So quite a big empire.
Kevin Lisota: I thought what would be fun for the listeners of the GeekWire podcast is, you’ve been teaching photography for many, many years now. You do a lot of nature photography, a lot of wildlife, a lot of people photography, and I thought we could get into how people can improve their photography. Not everybody’s going to have two backpacks worth of professional gear like you and I do, but I think there’s a lot of techniques and tips that the average photographer can use to get better pictures.
Andy Williams: I’m sitting here with my iPhone next to you and I just took your picture and made … You’re actually a handsome fella.
Kevin Lisota: Got a little bit of a tan out there in the Mongolian wilderness.
Andy Williams: Somebody a long time ago said, in response to what’s the best camera, it’s the one you have with you. And we are so fortunate today that we can carry in our pockets an absolutely, unbelievably, full-stop amazing camera that can do so many unbelievable things. It’s funny because I’m in the photography business. I’m a professional photographer. I teach photography. I teach photography to people who bring 15 kilos worth of top end camera gear in the backpacks, traveling halfway around the world. And these are people who are 60, 70, 80, sometimes, almost 90 years old carrying this massive amount of gear and technology.
But in reality, we have in our pockets, something that can do a tremendous amount of photography. And I’m always taking pictures with my iPhone. I tell a story, I do a lot of articles for print and no matter the subject, I’m often able … The editor asks me for 20, 30 pictures, let’s say, and in that 20 or 30 pictures, I will include a bunch taken with my phone, and I just let him, whatever the editor picks.
The editor, more often than not, will pick many photos taken just with my iPhone, which I find always very interesting as I’m the same guy that has tens of thousands of dollars of worth of gear that I’m carrying. And it’s true, there are many photos that you can’t make unless you have a special camera and a special lens or a special type of camera and a long telephoto lens or a lot of situations-
Kevin Lisota: A tripod.
Andy Williams: Or a tripod or whatever. But the fact is today, there’s a lot of fun photos that we can make with our iPhones. A great example, whether you do it the built in capabilities of an iPhone, I think it’s a 8, a 9 or a 10, which that live photos feature. When we get in front of a waterfall, we teach, set up your tripod, put up your expensive camera, put on a filter in front of your camera, which enables us to take a slow exposure in the middle of the day.
And that gives … Many of you have probably seen photographs where the water in a waterfall in a still image, it looks like the water’s moving. Well, before iPhone and cell phone technology camera technology had improved, we would have to set up a tripod, take a long exposure and if it wasn’t dawn or dusk, you would have to put on a filter called a neutral density filter so that you could force your exposure from whatever daylight exposure it was 200th of a second, let’s say down to a 10th of a second.
Now, you can make that water slow down and it looks really beautiful. Well, use your iPhone, take a live photo of that moving water, whether it’s a stream coming at you or a waterfall falling in front of you, and then in the iPhone photos app, just swipe the photo up and then you’ll have three choices of how your picture can look using the live photo. And one of those is long exposure, and you know what?
It looks darn near just as good as you can do with an expensive camera. I don’t know the name of the software, but there’s different software cameras you can buy for your Android phones that can do the same thing. I stopped using Android a few years ago, but they have it as well.
Kevin Lisota: Tell me about portrait mode. We were just with a bunch of Kazakh eagle hunters, and I know you love portrait mode and taking intimate portraits of people with just the iPhone with some fairly stunning results.
Andy Williams: Well it’s funny, when they came out with portrait mode, it was autumn or late fall of 2016 and I was here in Mongolia, and I’d just gotten … I think it was, I’m just thinking back. Maybe the iPhone 8 Plus, I forget. Whatever. Anyway, it was brand new, portrait mode. We were on a trip in western Mongolia with, again, with the Kazakh eagle hunters who are a very small group of folks that carry on traditional ways from thousands of years ago.
We had a group of 60 eagle hunters with our photo group and a private eagle festival, we called it where they do various events, sporting events. It’s like a little Olympics for the day, for these guys. Well, so I have these 50 guys dressed up in magnificent traditional wear, and by the way, this is the stuff they wear almost all the time, so it’s not like they’re putting on the one outfit they wear once a year.
No, these guys wear these five days a week. It’s unusual for them not to be wearing this stuff. Well, so I had 50 eagle hunters and I didn’t have a lot of time. What we did is we asked their permission, we’d like to take their photograph and they all said yes. And the reason is … You might ask, why do they want their pictures taken? They’re very proud people and they like their story to be told around the world.
They like people to know about them. When we told them that we would invite them into the ger tent, which was very colorfully decorated with beautiful oriental patterns on the walls and such. We set up a little mini studio area, no lights, no fancy camera, just me and my iPhone. And you should have seen the first guy that we took his picture, I did it in portrait. I was like, “I really didn’t know I was going to use portrait mode,” but I took the picture, and then I went up to him and showed him the picture and it was a straight color shot of him, and his eyes went up open like dinner plates.
I remembered about portrait mode. So I turned the edit button on and I turned it into this black background portrait mode, which forces a black background and light on the face of the main subject. Well, he went crazy. Like, “Oh my God, this is really cool.” And so he didn’t want to leave, so I took one more of him.
Kevin Lisota: Right.
Andy Williams: Then I got him out, and we had to then bring these 50 guys in. We didn’t have a lot of time.
By the way, they were bribed into the tent by homemade dumplings that the chef was making, and they loved that. They would come in wait their turn, have a dumpling or two, sit down with me, and it was literally one minute per guy.
And the end result, not only having a lot of fun was that I had 50 portraits done inside of one hour, which I never could have done with my traditional gear. Not only that, they were 50 finished completed edited pictures that were quality work.
Kevin Lisota: Right.
Andy Williams: I mean, okay, you can argue here and there, right, but they were 50 finished products, and I don’t know any technology that has advanced so fast that allows me to do that, because in the real world, you have studio time, you set up the lights, you put the subject there, you take the picture and guess what it doesn’t stop there, right? Because we have hours of editing in the digital darkroom right to make everything perfect.
That experience a year and a half ago was the top photographic experience of my life. Ever.
Kevin Lisota: The top of your life?
Andy Williams: Yes.
Kevin Lisota: And how many years have you been a photographer?
Andy Williams: Well, I’m 56 and it’s been since I was probably six, so a long time.
That whole experience charged me up. It moved me. It was visceral. I was on such a high after doing that, all because of this little thing that Steve Jobs created so long ago that put this, all this together in our hands.
They thought it was just unbelievable.
Kevin Lisota: Yeah.
Andy Williams: Now, fast forward, a year and half later, well we’ll been here many times. We make a lot of friends with these eagle hunter guys, and we stay close on Facebook and they see our pictures, and I’ve had other people in my company, other leaders take other groups in the meantime, and we’ve brought them prints. We’ve made photos for them. This time when I came back, I passed around a slideshow I made of those pictures with music.
Kevin Lisota: Yep.
Andy Williams: And we’re there with a smaller group, about 20 eagle hunters-
Kevin Lisota: But many of the same guys.
Andy Williams: But, no, all of them were there the time, a year and a half ago. They were all there before.
Kevin Lisota: Yep.
Andy Williams: And for them to see this finished product in the form of a moving slideshow was … It brought tears to my eyes, I was that excited.
Kevin Lisota: Nice. And I’ll be sure to include some of these, if you’re listening to the podcast, visit the webpage for the podcast, I’ll be … The photos are fantastic, these Kazakh nomads have kind of a stately, grizzled look to them, given the kind of harsh life that they lead, and the portrait mode just enhances that.
Kevin Lisota: I know another thing that you really like is the new HDR mode on the iPhone. Tell folks what it is and how you use it.
Andy Williams: Again, it’s iPhone specific, but I do know that Samsung and Google Pixel, the top phones, they’ve all been making really good progress, and they’ve all been within millimeters of each other, right, in terms of quality.
But if you’re using an iPhone the latest kind of versions of iPhone, set it to auto-HDR in your settings and don’t ever think about it again. Because it’s that good. Used to be, we’d say HDR, ick it’s gross, it’s crappy done, don’t do it. Now you can… I set it on HDR auto and just I never think about it again.
Every photo I take out there is using HDR auto with my phone. And it knows, it’s smart enough to not use it when it doesn’t need it.
Kevin Lisota: Right. And so it uses it in scenes where there’s very bright sunlight and very dark shadows, and it takes, it probably internally takes multiple exposures, or does some magic internally to smooth that out, so that you can see the details.
Andy Williams: Exactly.
Kevin Lisota: Okay, we’ve talked about the iPhone, how about location? Obviously folks like you and me go on epic journeys to try to get these epic photos, but in everyday locations, I think there are things that people can do to get better photographs.
Andy Williams: There are. And one of the fun things you can do. We were talking just last night at dinner, about how there’s a lot of different kinds of photography, but there’s nature photography of landscape, there’s nature photography wildlife, and then there’s cultural photography, and there’s travel photography, and there’s urban architecture photography, there’s all this kind of stuff right? And not everybody can go on some trip to Mongolia. Not everybody wants to sit in an outdoor toilet that looks like an igloo at 30 degree below zero Fahrenheit at 5:30 in the morning.
Kevin Lisota: Otherwise known as the lovely place.
Andy Williams: Yes, and that is what they call it here, the lovely place.
But one of the things I was just thinking about locations, almost everywhere where people are listening to this podcast, almost everybody has a renaissance fair within their radius of where they live. It’s a popular thing these days, right? You can find people dressed up in traditional costume, it’s kind of fun, and it’s an opportunity for good pictures.
Kevin Lisota: Yeah, Comic-Con is another great one, with all the cosplay.
Andy Williams: Comic-Con is a great place for photography like this. I think about location, and I think about subjects, right? But location can be as fun as just exploring your own neighborhood, and honestly this is the first thing I challenge people to do when they’re getting into photography is go out and keep exploring your neighborhood within a two mile radius of your home, and go down roads you’ve never gone down before, explore little vistas that you’ve never seen before. Look for different things that you’ve never thought about before, and you’ll find that there’s many, many photographic opportunities right in your own backyard.
Kevin Lisota: That’s location where you’ve located yourself. How about the location of the camera? Because that can make a huge difference in the quality of the photos that you take.
Andy Williams: Right. I think as you guys learned, because we all have a suitcase full of extremely dirty pants, I’m a big fan of getting down low and getting a lower perspective on things.
Let’s talk about what we were photographing. We were photographing people on horseback, you know, coming at us. And these horses aren’t the tall giant horses that we see on-
Kevin Lisota: They’re not Clydesdales.
Andy Williams: Yeah, they’re not Clydesdales. These are small. These are almost the same kind of size as Icelandic ponies. They’re definitely shorter horses than most folks are used to. If you’re standing up and you’re five, six feet tall, you’re gonna be above the eye height of these guys, and you don’t want that. You want to match the eye level at least of the subject that you’re at.
And often, for example, horses galloping, and what a thrill it was to have 25 eagle hunters galloping at us full tilt, and you’re just wondering at the end if they’re gonna veer off or not. But we were laying on our bellies and shooting these guys coming at us, and that makes them appear so much bigger than they really are, and it makes for a much more dramatic photograph.
This works with almost anything. Try it with your dog. Try it with your cat.
Kevin Lisota: Yeah. I think the key thing is what is the eye level of your subject.
Andy Williams: And with technology, today’s cameras not so much … It is possible with the iPhone, one thing you might use on your phones by the way is the two second timer or the five second timer on your iPhone or your Android phone. Click it. Then put the phone down where the cat is. That way you don’t have to lay down there and look through the screen then push it while it’s looking at the cat. And just take many pictures like that, and one of them is gonna be perfect.
Yeah, getting down eye level is important.
Kevin Lisota: Yep. Let’s talk about some people have more than the iPhone, they may have an SLR that they use on trips, they may be frustrated with it. What are some of the basic things that people can do? It might be an SLR, it might be a smaller pocket camera that is more capable than these smartphones. What are some of the basic tips that somebody could help ease some of that frustration that people have when the gear gets more complicated?
Andy Williams: It does get more complicated and honestly, almost … The reason I use my iPhone a lot is it’s good enough, it’s more than good enough, and it’s easy for a lot of my travel photos. We were in a monastery today. We had some exclusive access on the last day of our photo workshop here in Mongolia, and the documentary photographs I was taking at the monastery I took with my iPhone.
But then we, as promised, I took you guys into a special monastery and we had, I don’t know, maybe a dozen monks who were chanting, and we had special permission, read that as we made a donation, which is okay. I’m fine with that. But we had special permission where we could photograph these monks and record them while they … The recording the video you did is gonna be epic I’m sure.
Now we’re in a dimly lit monastery and the phone is not gonna perform as well. The iPhone will not perform as well as almost any new generation DSLR or mirrorless camera.
Kevin Lisota: Yeah, a Sony, Nikon, Canon.
Andy Williams: Doesn’t matter, right. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a DSLR or if it’s mirrorless or whatever, they’re all gonna do better indoors in what we call a high ISO situation, which is a darkened building with no flash, and no natural light coming in.
Kevin Lisota: Right.
Andy Williams: That’s a good example of where a camera, I don’t know, any of the Canon Rebels or the $1,000 Nikon DSLR, sort of that $1,000 range…
Kevin Lisota: Right.
Andy Williams: Is probably where we’re talking-
Then there’s a bunch of mirrorless cameras that fit that as well. I mean there’s a6000 from Sony is still being sold. It’s been out five years. It hasn’t changed an awful lot. It’s almost as good as the two other models of that same family. But it’s under $500 and that’s with a lens, with a kit lens.
Kevin Lisota: Yeah. It’s cheaper than your iPhone.
Andy Williams: Right you can have a fantastic APS-C size sensor. So that’s a good question. I’m going to pretend I’m you. Andy, tell our listeners what they should think about when the friend says they should have a full-frame camera. You know what? I’m glad you asked that Kevin.
So you guys out there, you might see a serious photographer, like Kevin, and maybe you run into them and they’ve got this fancy, what they call full-frame camera, from Nikon or Canon or Sony or somebody. You might say, “Oh, I got to have one of those.” The truth is, you don’t have to have one of those.
Kevin Lisota: You can get the quality of the smaller sensor cameras, whether it’s APS-C or even the smaller Micro Four Thirds, is indistinguishable to the…
Andy Williams: … To the average human. The average person will never know.
Kevin Lisota: Even to the trained eye, it’s difficult.
Andy Williams: So if you’re looking to up your game… This is another good question that I’ll ask for you, to me. Somebody wants to get from an iPhone to a real big boy or big girl camera. What should they get?
I think that people should take a really hard look at any of the offerings from Panasonic or Olympus. The newer stuff. That’s called a Micro Four Thirds mirrorless. Great functionality, great quality and a tremendous lens selection. They should look at any of the APS-C offerings from Sony and there’s one, two, three, there’s like four: a6000, 6300, 6400 and 6500, and you’re splitting hairs from each one.
But the lenses and there’s probably 100 different lenses there that will be usable in that system. Fuji has another mirrorless, APS-C mirrorless, with a bunch of lenses. Canon and Nikon have recently announced and shipped their own APS-C. They have an APS-C? No? Yes?
Kevin Lisota: They have an APS-C in SLRs. They do not have an APS-C-
Andy Williams: … In mirrorless.
Kevin Lisota: In mirrorless, in full-frame mirrorless.
Andy Williams: Okay I take that back. So just, if you’re going to take a look, take a hard look at Micro Four Thirds or at Sony or at Fuji.
Kevin Lisota: Yeah. You can hit one of us up, if you really want to know the difference between full frame. Full frame has some advantages with lenses. But it also has major disadvantages with price, when you start adding up all the gear.
Andy Williams: Well it’s not just that. I mean, people often realize … I used to have a crop camera, APS-C camera and I went to a full frame, my pictures are blurry or not as good or whatever, softer. There is a requirement to be much more precise when you’re shooting full frame. Everything, your technique needs to be all that much better and there’s not a reason in my opinion, for everybody to be shooting that. It’s fine, if you’re the kind of person that needs all the pixels possible and you want to have a 42 megapixel Sony a7R III or whatever. I don’t know how many in the Nikon Z7.
Kevin Lisota: … 46.
Andy Williams: 46 megapixels. By all means, go for it, if you need to dive into an image like that. But again, for most normal human beings, who are not professional photographers, if you’re just looking to up your game a little bit, it’s not needed. Save your money for something else.
Kevin Lisota: Actually I think, what can really save your money and improve the pictures is some basic settings, shutter speed. Whether you’re photographing an animal or people that are moving or talking, you need to up the shutter speed or learn the modes of your camera, so that you can capture those images without blur.
Andy Williams: Well we’re happy to help folks with that. So muenchworkshops.com. We’d love to have you guys on a photo trip with us and introduce you to some of this.
That’s true by the way, I should say. We take people of all skill levels on these trips. It’s not only people think it’s professionals or serious … it’s people who love a great experience and people who love to travel, and if you don’t have any photographic chops at all, we’ll fix that by the end of the trip.
Kevin Lisota: Nice. Last segment here. Let’s do quick picks of the week. I am a listener of your podcast. What’s your podcast called again?
Andy Williams: Thank you for that. Yes, I do with my good friend Juan Pons. Every two weeks, we do a general photography topics podcast called Recompose.Photo.
Kevin Lisota: Yep. Thanks.
Andy Williams: And yeah, we do a pick of the week every week.
Kevin Lisota: And so I think the two of us have a pick of the week, from our Mongolia trip here. I’ll get it started. My pick of the week, I was trying to capture a lot of video on this trip and I grabbed a new device from DJI, the drone company, called the Osmo Pocket.
It is a tiny little device, maybe about the size of a Snickers bar. Has a three access gimbal on the top. So the camera rotates and keeps itself level, no matter how you’re moving around or how your subject is moving around. So it will track the subject with very smooth motion.
I was surprised. It’s not an expensive device. It’s about $350. I was surprised with the results this week. I think it’s a winner. It captures a smoothness of video that you can’t do with an iPhone, you can’t do with an SLR. Even with a dedicated video camera, it would be difficult to replicate this without some more stabilization equipment.
And it’s discreet. I was walking through the market in Western Mongolia, and people didn’t even know I was filming and I was filming these beautiful 4K images, nicely stabilized.
Andy Williams: I saw it this week and I’m going to get one as soon as I get home. So I really liked it too. So that’s a great pick.
My pick of the week. So we didn’t talk about this, but one of the other types of photography I love doing, is aerial photography with a drone, and I’m much more of a still photographer with my drone. I consider it to be a 300-foot tall tripod.
Kevin Lisota: That you can turn and rotate in all directions.
Andy Williams: I do take video of course. But only so that I can hand it over and give it to someone like you to edit it for me. Because I’m not really good at that part of things.
But I love creating images from the air with my 100 or 300-foot tall tripod, and I had been using a while back, one of DJI’s small drones, called the Mavic Air and it was good. I liked it for it’s portability. But it has a really tiny sensor in it, so the image quality while it was good, wasn’t anything special. You couldn’t make the-
Kevin Lisota: … Big prints from it.
Andy Williams: … Big prints from it. It wasn’t really super sharp. The resolution wasn’t that great. Well I don’t know how long ago it was, six months, seven months, eight months ago, they came out with the Mavic 2 Pro model, which has a one-inch sensor in it.
Kevin Lisota: … from Hasselblad.
Andy Williams: Yep. Well the sensor’s not made by Hasselblad. But the camera technology is all licensed by Hasselblad and Hasselblad owns … DJI owns Hasselblad.
Kevin Lisota: DJI owns Hasselblad now.
Andy Williams: … Other way around. Anyway, but the thing that got me was this one inch sensor. As soon as I bought one, it’s bigger than the Mavic Air, it take us a little more room in my bag. But it’s still super portable. You can fly it for 30 minutes on a battery which is pretty amazing.
Kevin Lisota: And we were flying it in 50 mile an hour winds this week.
Andy Williams: 50 mile an hour winds, 20 degrees below zero, it didn’t seem to bother this thing at all. It was crazy. Anyway, what blew me away with this when I first used this and still today, is the quality of the images, the still images, that it makes. They’re super sharp, their resolution is amazing, and I can click 100% on the computer and dive right into this image, and it’s like, “Whoa, wow, look at that!” So my pick of the week is the DJI Mavic Pro … Mavic Pro-
Kevin Lisota: Two?
Andy Williams: Mavic 2 Pro, whatever they call it.
Kevin Lisota: Not the Zoom. They have two models. The Zoom doesn’t have the one-inch sensor. It has a smaller sensor on it.
Andy Williams: The Mavic 2 Pro. That’s what I love. So if you want to see some more of that, you can also find my work on my website, which is my name, andywillia.ms. A-N-D-Y-W-I-L-L-I-A.ms. Put that in your show notes.
Kevin Lisota: I’ll put that in the show notes if you didn’t catch that URL. So the two picks. We’ve got the Osmo Pocket, the DJI Mavic Pro and I think we’ve got a Mongolian feast of some sort that’s calling our name right now.
Andy Williams: Time to go.
Kevin Lisota: Alright Andy. Thanks so much for the tips and tricks and remind readers again where they can find you.
Andy Williams: Yeah, it’s muenchworkshops.com. Thanks.
Kevin Lisota: Alright. Thanks so much Andy.