The Stories Behind My Best Selling, Favorite and Most Challenging Photos

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It has been a little over four years since I wrote my very first article for Digital Photography School. In that time, I have covered a vast array of subjects. I still often get asked what is my personal favourite photo that I have taken, or what is my best selling image. So for this, my 50th article for dPS, I will tell you.

The Stories Behind My Best Selling, Favourite and Most Challenging Photos

My Best Selling Photo

I had done a fair bit of research into Abu Dhabi, and Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was at the very top of my shoot list. From my research, I found that the majority of photos of this amazing building were from the front, where a grand staircase leads to the main entrance. Naturally, I had this particular view on my shot list, but I always arrive at a location in good time and scout around it. Having looked at satellite images on Google maps I could see that there was clearance from the other side of the mosque that could potentially give me an alternative view and a point of difference.

I had arrived the night before and having preemptively organised a taxi, I arrived at the mosque well before sunrise. Through my research, I knew where the sun would rise so I began to scout locations looking for the perfect composition. Having noticed a small pond that sits behind the mosque, I immediately knew that this was where my camera should be set up. I could picture the shot in my head and envisioned a bit of lighting from the side to light up the minarets of the mosque. When combined with the reflection in the water, I knew I would be onto something that would sell.

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My first set up. I felt the image wasn’t balanced.

Set up and be patient

My first couple of shots did not include the grass on the right-hand side and, to me, the photo didn’t feel balanced. It needed something to help frame the mosque. I simply moved back a little to the right and knew straight away that this was the exact composition. Then it was just a matter of waiting for the perfect light and setting my camera.

I used my Canon 24-70mm lens and wanted to keep as much of the background and foreground in focus so I went for f/16. As I was using a tripod I didn’t have to worry about camera shake so I set my ISO at 100 which meant I needed a fairly slow shutter speed (1/13th).

Just after sunrise, the minarets of the mosque were painted with the bright orange rays of the sun and I got a beautiful orange gradient on the horizon which helped bring out the darker areas of the background. I took four shots from around the same point with the same sort of composition. This was the first one (below). As a photographer, you always know straight away when you have captured something decent.

This image has sold six times since then, and the combined fees make it my single most profitable photo.

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My Favourite Photo

I think any photographer will tell you that choosing one photo as their favourite is tough. Every photo they’ve taken has a story behind it; a reason why they thought it made a good composition or an interesting subject.

But my personal favourite photo is of this little girl in a tiny village in Vietnam (below). I had been travelling in Vietnam for a while and had a clear plan of my route. But at the last minute, while in the north, I made the decision to head to a region known as Mai Chau. I wanted to visit some of the local villages and experience what everyday life was like for the locals. After arriving at my hotel I started speaking to a local staff member who told me that he was from the next village and there was a local market. When I arrived at the market the next day, even though it was pouring with rain and incredibly foggy, I was blown away. The hustle and bustle and the amazingly vibrant colours overwhelmed me so I walked around the market a few times to take in my surroundings.

Camera settings

In this sort of environment though you have to work quickly so I already had my settings sorted on the camera. I knew I would have to raise my ISO because of the shortage of light so I set it at 400 to allow me to have a shutter speed of 1/125th (this would mean my photos would not be subject to camera shake). An aperture of f/4.0 was chosen as I needed to keep my shutter speed fast but also because I was only looking at isolating one person at a time (shallow depth of field).

A lot of my time in markets is spent just standing still and watching people and that’s exactly how this shot came about. I noticed this little girl in between the two women so I raised my camera and pointed towards her. She seemed intrigued and didn’t turn away, so I snapped one photo before the scene changed, she moved, and people began walking across the photo. When I looked at the photo again what I loved was her expression, the curious look where she just couldn’t turn away.

So for me, this photo always reminds me of that wonderful experience. Even though it has sold only a few times, it is by no means my best selling, but it is definitely my favourite.

My Most Challenging Photo

Anyone who has ever visited the underground cities in Cappadocia, Turkey will tell you that they are claustrophobic. They’re hot and humid with some parts barely wide enough to walk through. To even think that people lived in these underground cities is simply astonishing. I loved photographing this region because a huge part of its history are these underground cities so I knew that I needed to capture these images.

But besides the obvious low light conditions, it is difficult to portray something that, without being in it, does the scene justice. I knew this would be though so as I worked my way around the maze of tunnels it felt like an impossible task. I tried different areas with different ways to keep the camera steady, by resting it on my bag or on a step and raising the ISO, but nothing stood out.

Portray the feeling of the scene

As I made my way through yet another tunnel I turned around and was immediately drawn to its eerie shape. It looked like a casket to me and I loved how the glow of the light illuminated the outline on the path. I knew that to really show how small and claustrophobic these tunnels are I would need to place a person for a sense of scale, so I had to wait.

While waiting I took a few test shots to get my settings correct.

While waiting I took a few test shots to get my settings correct.

In the meantime, I took a few test shots to check my settings were right and after a bit of trial and error arrived at ISO 3200, f/2.8 and 1/80th. This was the slowest I could go without camera shake as I was utilizing the small tunnel to wedge myself in and keep the camera steady.

After what seemed like an eternity, someone began walking through so I took a deep breath, concentrated on focusing on them, and snapped away. I only managed to take two photos; luckily the first one worked. This was the only photo that I ended up submitting to my stock agency from that particular location.

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My first photo and the only one that worked.

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The next shot on the roll. The person has moved too close and the photo doesn’t work for me.

Summary and take away lessons

The interesting thing about these three photos is that they all highlight a different skill needed. The first photo is all about research and planning, the second is about spontaneity and being ready, and the third is about perseverance and challenging yourself beyond your comfort levels. Photography requires a lot of skills and hard work but the rewards are worth it.

Thank you to all the readers who have commented on my last 49 articles. Please share your experiences, questions or photos below.

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Kav Dadfar is a professional travel photographer based in the UK. His images are represented by stock agencies such as 4Corners Images, Robert Harding World Imagery, Getty and Axiom Photographic and they have been used by clients such as Condé Nast, National Geographic, Wanderlust travel magazine, Lonely Planet, American Express, and many others. To keep up to date with his latest news follow him on his Facebook page

  • strong_faith

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  • Photobrit56

    Did you need releases for the images submitted to the stock agencies?

  • Kav Dadfar

    Hi, you only releases if the images if they are to be used commercially (i.e. to sell a service/product etc). For editorial purposes (i.e. magazine article) you don’t need a release.
    Kav

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