Matt Brandon Talks Tibet

Our good friend, The Digital Trekker, Talks Tibet and the 2013 workshop...

I’m happy to have my good friend and cohort, Matt Brandon, on the blog today talking about our last Tibet workshop together.  We at Plateau Photo Tours are excited to have Matt back again this year from what will be an amazing trip.  We spent a little time discussing our experience in Tibet and decided to write a bit of it down.  It’s a special trip, and if you are interested in this years tour/workshop we have just a couple spots left.

Check out more of Matt’s images from Tibet.



This is the second time you’ve been to Tibet teaching. Are you excited to go back?

Of course, I’m very excited about returning to TIbet. Tibet is one of those magical places that feels like you’re stepping into – and photographing – a fairytale. From the towering Himalayan peaks dotted with Tibetan monasteries to deep river gorges it’s a place like no other on the planet and one I can’t wait to get back to.  I’m excited to visit Garze prefecture and all it has to offer.


What was your experience the first time like?

I’ve traveled many places around the world so there are very few things that I haven’t seen. But I experienced so many “firsts” on this trip. It was my first time to sleep at 17,000+ feet. It was my first time to see Mount Everest close-up. Having such an experienced guide as Jamin and your years of photographing Tibet was a real bonus for me. Of course I can handle a camera pretty good ; ) but there is no substitute for local cultural experience. And on this trip it was plentiful.


What are you looking forward to the most

There’s nothing like photographing mountain cultures. I love photographing in the Indian Himalaya but there’s something uniquely different about the Tibetan plateau. I am thrilled to the point of almost being like a giddy schoolgirl as I think about my return to such an amazing locations as Tibet and China.  I’m excited to get to meet up with more pilgrims and nomads.  That culture is just fantastic.  And the people of course! It’s such a great experience all around, though.


Show us one of your favorite images and tell us a quick story about it.

We were visiting the Jokhang in Lhasa and found a little monastery that is right in the middle of this pilgram route — it was packed full of pilgrims at the time. It was so crowded that I could hardly raise my camera to photograph. So I chose to find a quiet corner sit down and just watch as the Pilgrims filed through or sit and pray. This one particular old lady had a weathered look that so many of the Tibetans had. But she also had an almost angry look about her. I watched her for sometime sit and spin her prayer wheel. She would turn, look at me and smile and then go back to that fixed frown on her face. I wanted to catch her intensity and the movement of her prayer wheel. So I cranked up my ISO to 2500. Used my 16 – 35mm at 16mm and got right near her and shot at 1/5th of a sec hand held. Crazy, but it worked.



What stuck out to you the most looking back on your experiences in Tibet?

Lot’s of things stick out, but for me it was the remoteness of the place. I felt there was a “otherworldly” dimension to Tibet and its culture.  I have no doubt that this adds to the mystery and mystique of the region.  It’s wholly unique. And of course, this is exactly what a photographer like me is looking for.  My experience was fantastic.


I want to hurt (more) with Boston…

Thoughts on suffering and perspective.

In the below paragraphs it’s my desire to make one thing clear, I’m personally trying to digest Boston.  I’m by no means trying to establish a moral high ground, or morality at all.  I’m trying to not speak in broad terms, also. I also realize the timing of this post and the possible perceived audacity.  However, this post was written with the humblest of intentions despite the fact that I’m sure this will rub someone the wrong way.  I apologize in advance, if possible, for that.

By no means is this meant to diminish those who deal with pain and suffering in varied ways or those who have hurt so much that they can’t take one more thing.  I’m not pointing fingers and I’m by no means trying to shift focus away from Boston where no one should deny that real suffering is taking place.  Real lives are forever changed there in horrific ways .  People in Boston, like people in Syria, Iraq, and Afganistan are suffering in ways that are universal and their suffering should not be undermined.

As a storyteller, and a photographer who finds myself all over the world quite often, I desperately want to gain perspective where perspective is to be had.  A softer heart towards suffering is my goal here.  I think I’ve failed to see and empathize with suffering because I’ve failed to be touched by those who suffer.  There are people in the world who, by all means, suffer unspeakable situations every day.  Some of those people are in Boston right now.

If I can’t look at Boston and hurt with them, how can I personally establish a grounds for empathy and care for suffering around the world?  

I hurt for Boston as well as I can.  I want to understand their pain, suffering, and dismay as much as possible.  As odd and masochistic as it sounds, I’m scared to turn away and allow my heart to harden and forget.

I’ve been wrestling with these thoughts since the news in Boston broke:

Am I numb to compassion because I’m ignorant of suffering?  How do I suffer and hurt with those who I don’t have a direct connection to?  Does suffering give us greater capacity to empathize with those who hurt?

The bottom line is that the acts of terror, and subsequent death, in Boston are all horrible.  By all account’s it’s been a horrible week for America.  Boston’s suffering cannot be minimized nor sufficiently equated with the suffering around the world.  Any comparisons done of humanities suffering, in and of itself, should only conclude with equality.  Suffering is equal opportunity.

I’ve watched people react to the news differently. Some people turn the other way and ignore it.  Already moving on.  I tweeted things on Monday that were superfluous and lacked the proper tact of such a weighty situation.  I watched some react in anger. Some simply don’t know how to react.  That’s understandable.  I don’t really either.  Most don’t.

But it seems like I’m struggling to let it really sink in.

I’ve heard people on the radio say, verbatim, “Thank God it wasn’t close to home.”  I’m uncomfortable with that thought because I don’t want my capacity for empathy to be based on distance.  That’s little confort for those who are in Boston.  It’s always close to someone’s home.  But conversely I am glad that it wasn’t in my neighborhood and that my wife and child are both safe.  Something many families in Boston cannot say.

I’ve heard people say, “It’s been a horrible week. Let’s be happy. Here’s how…”  Immediately I’m tempted to bury myself in one of a million readily available distractions.  It’s easy.  Let others deal with it.  I can let it not affect me if I want.

But there’s this.  I don’t want to move on.  Optional escape undermines the weight of suffering. I want to push into the suffering of those in Boston. I want to weep with them and let it hurt.  I want to let the fact that three people died and three families are irreversibly changed sink in deeper and deeper.  I know for a fact that I personally need to face suffering in order to deal with it better, empathize with it better, love those who are suffering better, and ultimately act against it around the world better.

The above scene in Syria is an astonishing, humbling, and fantastically touching example of what I believe empathy to be.  No one would deny that these men know what suffering and death look like, and that’s why I believe them.  Syria and Boston are by no means congruent situations, but suffering is suffering and hurt is real despite location and socioeconomic divides.  These men (boys really) have hit the nail on the head for me and inspired me to write these words much sooner than I thought I’d be able to.

All in all, I’m encouraged to make the time to hurt with you, Boston.  God Bless.

2013 Garze Tibet Workshop & Tour

Spend 10 days in the beautiful, mysterious, and uniquely Tibetan Garze prefecture...

I’m really excited to announce our first tour/workshop of 2013.  We will be holding a workshop in one of my favorite places in all of Tibet, Garze prefecture.  Garze has the most unique architecture I’ve ever seen in all of Tibet and the people are relatively untouched by modernization as compared to other places on the plateau.  In 2012 I spent three days driving through Garze and it left such a huge impact on me that I knew Plateau Photo Tours needed to do a workshop here.  We will spend 10 days photographing Garze prefecture.  I’m excited as always to have my good friend and cohort Matt Brandon (The Digital Trekker) on board for this one as well.  All in all, this is going to be a truly amazing trip.

Check out the information and images below:

Read more →

“Sorry! We can’t pay. But…”

Thoughts and conversations on licensing creative work for free

Post your work online for long enough (a day, for example) and you are bound to get an email requesting to use your images for free.  This situation is a mixed bag in the sense that it’s always nice to know folks like your work but frustrating to know that they don’t love it enough to consider payment.  No budget.  Sorry!  This type of email is a phenomenon that generally happens more often in the creative fields.  I personally know writers, developers, designers, and artists that frequently get these kinds of requests.

So what is it about the creative fields that make this type of email significantly more common?

The question is simply this:  Why is it so universally acceptable (ie, not considered offensive) for people to ask artists for free goods and services?  

The other day I breeched the subject on Twitter, and to my surprise the topic took off with dozens of people relaying their thoughts and experiences.


The question is: why does this seemingly happen more to creatives than other professions?*  My first thought is that clients simply don’t know any better.  Unless you work in marketing or advertising, creative jobs tend to be considered more of hobbies than actual lucrative paying jobs.  Additionally, as more and more people are taking up design and photography simply as a hobby, the gap between those claiming to be professionals and those who actually are professionals has become blurry from the clients point of view.  But to us working in creative fields, we know that the knowledge and ability gap has only widened between professionals and non professionals.

I think the most tangible point would be that there are more and more people willing to give away work simply for credit and links.  I know lots of photographers flipantly giving usage rights away for free.  The clients don’t realize that credit, link backs, and publicity won’t feed my family. Clients probably assume I work in a tax office as my full time job.  My business cards say ‘Working Photographer’ for a reason!  Additionally, non-creatives don’t understand the licensing market – that my license agreements often require credit and links, but more importantly, money.

I’ll add this.  Do you really want to be promoted by a company that doesn’t have a budget to even buy your image?  There is no marketing fire power behind that kind of deal.  Nine times out of ten, you are wasting your time on empty and budget-less promises with folks that will give you a link but because they of their lack of ‘budget’ no one is paying attention to them in the first place.

I also think it’s possible that we as creatives are a bit more sensitive to this type of thing that other professions – maybe rightfully so.  Our ability, skill, and creativity are directly proportional to our potential for making a living in our field.  However, if you want to enter an industry where there is universal understanding of how your job benefits the client and thus deserves a proportional pay check, find another industry – or be prepared to explain your worth.  We get upset when our work doesn’t speak for itself, but it’s possible that, to the vast majority of clientele, we have to explain it’s worth… in words.  And if the hobbist doesn’t value his work enough to ask for money, why should we?!  Maybe we need thicker skin.

Many clients don’t realize the sunk costs that goes into actually producing a product.  The costs I speak of are not only in gear.  Things like vision, decades of experience, education, travel cost, rental cost, and social investment all play into a creatives ability to work professionally. Most of the times clients can’t see that.  There is no way they could know.

Finally.  Very few mechanics, lawyers, or CPAs are doing work for free… or at least so few that the ‘free’ factor is an extreme outlier.**



My response to free image requests is always a kind, but firm ‘No.’  I’d love to spend time educating them on why I can’t give my work away for free, and it’s something I should consider doing on some level (and will eventually do).  However less than 10% of requests like this turn into the person changing their mind.  I generally never hear from the person ever again (and consequently spend time checking their media to make sure they didn’t steal it in the despite my response)  Those who do respond are offended if I try to explain myself, and the last thing I need to do is spend time NOT getting paid and answering more emails.  We all need less email in our life.

I don’t want to be a jerk either.  Keeping a reputation as a kind and reasonable person is extremely important for creatives and those of us who are self-employeed.  Being a jerk is a good way to ruin that and makes a person more likely to complain about you on social media.  That’s really important to remember.

Beyond all that, there is a good chance that they sent that exact same email to hundreds of other people looking for a similar image.  Requests like this are rarely isolated to just you.  Again, I don’t want to waste time on that type of thing that doesn’t feed my family.  I want to maximize the time I’m doing work that pays and this, in my opinion, is one aspect of my job that I feel isn’t worth spending a ton of time on.



Let’s talk.  After asking this question on twitter, I had writers, developers, designers and photographers all respond.  I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience.

  • Does this happen to you often?
  • Why do you think it happens?  More often than other industries?
  • What is your response?
  • Is educating low-potential clients worth your time?  Is it even possible?



* I have a theory that the ‘free work’ request gets thrown around in other industries more than we know.  Maybe it’s the bleeding heart (and less wealthy) creatives that throw their hands in the air about it.

**Go talk to a pediatrician about what is like to always be working even when you’re off the clock.  Those guys get have it way worse than us creatives.  


A review of Phottix's new ODIN TTL trigger system for Nikon

Phottix has been putting out some great stuff lately, specifically the Odin system recently released for Nikon. Last year I picked up a set of their (yet to be released at the time) triggers and receivers.  Four office moves, three new apartments, a move to a new country, and having a child delayed me from  reviewing the Odin system for many months.  But on a positive note,  this did give me six more months to use the units before reviewing them.


ABOUT THE SYSTEM (straight from Phottix)

Top Features:

  • Wireless 2.4GHz. TTL and Manual Flash Triggering
  • Remote power control of groups in TTL with +/- EV adjustments (3 stops in 1/3 stop increments  – 18 different levels.)
  • Remote manual mode flash power control with 1/3 stop adjustments
  • Remote flash head zoom adjustments – auto or manual
  • Mix TTL and Manual flash – fire some groups in TTL, others as manual
  • Remote power control in A:B ratio modes with +/- EV adjustments
  • High speed sync – shutter speeds up to 1/8000 sec.
  • Second curtain sync functions
  • Compatible with Phottix Strato 4-in-1 and Phottix Strato II Multi 5-in-1 Wireless Triggers
  • Upgradeable firmware via built-in USB port.

The Look – Black plastic.  Matches well with all Nikon camera bodies.  Looks solid with no weird angles or parts sticking out that can break off.  See pictures below.

Menu System  The menu system is very straight forward.  You can learn how to use most of the functions in less than 5 minutes.  There are three groups that you can cycle through as well as four channels.  You do the math on what the options are as far as light groups and individual controls.  Switching between manual and TTL is very easy.  Adjustments are easily made with the huge forward/backward button layouts.

Features – Listed below are the BEST features of the Odin system, as I see them:

High Speed SyncThe HSS works exactly like it’s supposed to.  See the images below.  You can hide quite a bit of light shooting at 1/8000th of a second.

A:B Ratio Mode This is nice, but I haven’t used it nearly as much as I thought I would outside of adjusting hair lights.  All this does is increase the intensity of one light set and reduce the other.  It’s nice for product photography work.  One other really nice thing about it is that it works perfectly with high-speed sync.  Check out the images below, they were fired using both A:B ratio and HSS.

Wireless TTL – It works.  It’s nice.  On the SB-900’s it even was enough to ‘focus’ the distance of the flash head remotely.  It’s remote TTL, what else do I need to say?

Range – The range is great.  I’ve used them at a distance of over 100 feet.  In fact, during a studio session last year I accidentally fired my flashes from two stories above my studio while outside.

Updateability – Simply put, it’s a good thing to have a set of triggers that will receive new firmware from time to time.  This means that the ODIN’s will more than likely become more and more compatible.

DurabilityI’m really hard on my gear.  If you read my other reviews, you’ll see that.  Heck, if you look at my gear you’ll see that.  I’ve thrown both the receivers and the transmitter around quite a bit and nothing has broken or chipped off.  All are working just fine.  One thing I did notice specifically about the Odin’s is that there aren’t any weird angles or antennae that would easily snap apart.  I’ve broken both a set of CyberSyncs and also a set of Pocket Wizards.

Nonetheless, these triggers are plastic minus the hot shoe on the transmitter.  Plastic things will eventually crack or break.

The not-so-good – Just a few things that stood out to me:

Compatibility – With TTL being that made attraction for these triggers, it would be nice to see them work with more lights.  I tested these with SB-600’s, SB-800’s, SB-900’s, Alien Bees and also Phottix’s own PPL-400 strobes.  While everything could fire, only the 600 ,800, and 900’s would do so with a TTL signal.  Sadly, there is no compatibility with the Alien Bees or the PPL-400s.  It would be a nice feature and one I was surprised to not see (radio poppers) in such a feature-rich package.  Nonetheless,  it wasn’t a big deal for me because I manually control just about everything.  I like to be in control of the amount of light I’m using.

I also found the the focus assist lights, test, and AF-ILL were sporadic from light to light, the SB-900’s being the only units with perfect compatibility.  Again, this will probably be fixed and improved upon with firmware patches.

Ready ButtonSimply put, the ‘ready’ button didn’t do a thing.  The only way I knew my flashes were recharged was by listening.  

Random Firing Issues – I’ve noticed that the triggers will randomly fire on the set that I have.  This will probably be fixed with a future firmware update.  This has little to no effect on the reliability of the units and it could be indicative of just my copy.  However, it is worth mentioning.

RX Battery Drain –  This seems intermintant, but kind of a big deal because I’m forgetful.  If you leave the receivers on they will drain quite quickly without any ‘rest’ mode.  The transmitter doesn’t have this issue, which is a huge plus.  The transmitter will actually go into a ‘rest’ mode where there is little to no battery drain.  I rarely replace the transmitters batteries, which is nice.

This is normal since you don’t want your triggers shutting down while in the middle of a long shoot.  But seven hours later they are still going to be on.   

The Conclusion – For under $400 you can get the transmitter and two sets of receivers.  That’s a good deal considering the same functionality is well over $600 from other brands.  They are a decent looking and highly functional set of triggers with some great updatability.  The system, despite a some obvious flaws, has worked very well for what I’ve needed over the last 1.5 years.