Photographing Graffiti – Whose Art Is It?

by Robyn Porteen
( January 21st, 2015 )

Graffiti at the Dead Sea

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once famously defined obscenity as “you know it when I see it.”

This was later clarified to try to find that fine line between something someone may enjoy seeing, and someone may find offensive.

A similar boundary exists with graffiti, when a property owner may see it as willful destruction of their property, while artists may see it expressing themselves creatively.

Context and quality also help – the minimal tagging of initials may be easier to define as “not art” compared to the grayer area of a colorful mural.

Graffiti in Israel

The role of a photographer trying to shoot graffiti is also uncertain. If you’re taking a photo to document vandalism for the authorities, it’s a different situation than if you were trying to capture a wonderful temporary artistic creation.

You might even potentially be charged with the same criminal offenses as the artist. In the eyes of the law, you may be an accessory if you don’t try to stop the artists, or even are aware of their identity.

Israel Graffiti

That’s what happened to pro photographer Jonas Lara, who was arrested in 2010 while taking photos of two people creating a graffiti mural in Los Angeles. The original charge was felony vandalism, which was later changed to misdemeanor vandalism, then aiding and abetting, then disturbing the peace, before it was dismissed.

Laws against graffiti vary by municipality and country – places like Russia and Japan seem less tolerant of “street art,” partially because it sometimes is seen as spreading subversive messages.

Another sticky area, at least where art is concerned, is who owns the rights to a particular street image. If a photographer takes and sells a beautiful photo of a beautiful piece of street art, does the photographer need to get permission from the artist first or pay for its use?

Generally, the answer is “probably,” although the law is still evolving. Some artists have begun not only including their signature in a piece but registering it as their original copyrighted work, which means they can challenge unauthorized use in court.

London Graffiti

Advocates of artistic freedom sometimes claim that a street image that catches a photographer’s eye can be perceived as being in the public domain, since it’s not in a gallery or private artist’s studio. If a photographer includes other elements in the image, they can also be seen as re-interpreting it under fair use laws.


All images copyright Robyn Porteen – Editorial Use Only

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Great Nighttime Photography Tips

by Robyn Porteen
( January 16th, 2015 )


Bangkok at Night

If you cannot see the Aurora Borealis in your part of the world, photographing the night sky can still be a wondrous task! For a typical photographer, most projects don’t start after sunset. But if you’re seeking that creative and innovative moonlit image, then it’s time to pack up your gear bag and head out into the twilight. A whole new array of beautiful images await you under the stars—from the captivating glow of a full moon, the peaceful energy of a metropolitan cityscape from afar, or the dazzling vibrant array of colors that make up our starry sky. Composing these images takes just a few steps, and plenty of patience and persistence, to create the perfect after dusk photograph.

DSLR Night Photo

Nighttime Photography Tips:

Photography with a digital SLR in low light situations means you’ll need to give your camera more time to absorb the minimal available light. To accomplish this, the camera will demand slower shutter speeds. But a slow shutter setting makes the image vulnerable to camera shake—which drastically reduces the sharpness of your image. To combat camera shake, a firmly placed tripod is an essential element of your evening photography kit. Also try hanging your gear bag on the tripod from a central location to add weight and improve overall stability. It’s also important to avoid touching the tripod or camera when the shutter is released. A remote or built in timer can come in handy for added image sharpness.

Photographer with Tripod

With the camera perched securely upon the tripod, it’s time to dial in four of the most important settings. First, be sure to shoot in RAW format. This file format will give you the flexibility to make white balance and exposure adjustments during post-processing with software such as Photoshop or Lightroom. Secondly, use an ISO setting between 800-1600. ISO is the equivalent to the speed of traditional film, and indicates its sensitivity to light. But be aware that the higher the ISO value the more noise, or graininess, that will appear in your image.

Next, put your camera into full manual mode to get the most control of your lens aperture (how wide it is open) and shutter speed (how long it is open). This setting is identified by an “M” on most major brand camera mode dials. Although the particular manual settings will depend on the amount of light available in your scene, it is safe to begin with a lens aperture of f/9 and a shutter speed of 15 seconds. Snap a shot and review the histogram of the image. If the histogram is skewed towards the left, the image is underexposed and shutter time should be increased, if skewed far to the right, the image is overexposed and shutter time should be decreased. Typically, a full moon or a fresh coating of winter snow will produce more reflective light, and thus require less shutter time.

Winter Night Landscape

Lastly, night time photography works best when using manual focus since your camera’s auto focus will have a hard time to lock onto objects that it just cannot see. Most lenses have what is called the ‘infinity focus’ (depicted with the traditional infinity symbol). Use the infinity setting when your lens is switched into manual focus mode and watch how it works wonders for shooting far off stars.

So get out there and enjoy your new found playground of night photography! Not only will you capture beautiful photographs, but by learning to use the manual settings on your camera you’ll learn to maximize its features for professional looking portraits taken any time of the day.

Milky Way

More about night photography: Top 5 Places to Photograph the Aurora Borealis

Photo Credits -

Panorama view of Bangkok city scape at nighttime
Copyright: Anuwat Ratsamerat

Digital Camera: Copyright : Stefano Garau

Photographer at night: Copyright: Igor Goncharenko

Snow at NightCopyright : Mikhail Klushneu

Milky Way over Forest – Copyright : Abd Halim Hadi 

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Top 5 Places to Photograph the Aurora Borealis

by Robyn Porteen
( January 7th, 2015 )

Aurora Borealis Norway Lake

Photo Copyright: Yongyut Kumsri 

Few displays in the phenomenal world compare in sheer mystery and ethereal beauty to auroras. These shimmering nocturnal light shows, caused by the interaction of charged solar particles with Earth’s atmosphere, captivate not just for their sheer visual effect, but also their fleetingness and short-notice eruptions.

Night Sky Photographer

Photo Copyright: Siraphat Thanyaphuriwat

Plenty of technical challenges face the photographer hoping for a killer shot of the aurora borealis, the Northern Hemisphere’s share of aurora phenomena (commonly called the “Northern Lights”). But the best techniques for photographing a display don’t mean much if you can’t get yourself to an optimum location. In this article, we’ll run down five of the most consistently promising locations for glimpsing and capturing these heavenly extravaganzas.

Aurora Borealis

Photo Copyright: Johann Ragnarsson 

Top Locations

All the spots profiled below are in the Far North, all offer nighttime skies remote from city lights and cold, clear winter conditions ideal for the choicest viewing. The aurora borealis is most pronounced between late September and late March, when nights are longest in the Northern Hemisphere.

Tracking the auroral oval, the zone of peak auroral activity at any given time, is more feasible than ever given the numerous websites monitoring solar activity, such as NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

Alaska Northern Lights

Photo Copyright: burben -


America’s Last Frontier is an excellent place to view the Northern Lights. Not only do you have wilderness on a vast scale and plenty of frigid winter darkness, but the state’s also part of a region (along with the rest of boreal North America) globally favored for auroras because of the current proximity of Earth’s migratory North Magnetic Pole.

Fairbanks is the perfect jumping-off point for Alaskan aurora photo safaris: the wild bush awaits beyond the city limits, and meanwhile you’ve got plenty of services, including organized Northern Lights tours on hand in town.


Canada shares Alaska’s aurora-viewing virtues. Seemingly endless subarctic backcountry promises deliciously dark skies smack-dab in the standard auroral oval, and farflung towns provide everything you need to arrange and outfit your trip. Much of the country furnishes decent front-row seats for auroras, but some particularly good hubs include Yellowknife, Yukon; Whitehorse, Northwest Territories; and Churchill, Manitoba.


Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia likely offer Europe’s all-around best accessible aurora-photography opportunities. And one especially celebrated place in Lapland is the Blue Hole of Abisko, an area around Lake Tornetrask where a mountain buffer creates a microclimate of reliably clear skies.


Aurora Borealis Norway

Photo Copyright: Strahil Dimitrov


Norway’s Arctic north provides another outstanding destination for grabbing award-worthy Northern Lights images. As the country’s official tourism website notes, aurora hotspots extend from the Lofoten Islands poleward to the North Cape and Svalbard archipelago. The region’s largest city, Tromsø, is a famous mecca for aurora-viewing.


As in Canada, you’ve certainly got a limitless supply of howling winter wilderness on hand in Russia. That said, if middle-of-nowhere Siberia is too logistically intimidating, try the Kola Peninsula jammed against Scandinavia. Murmansk, like Tromsø, gives you an Arctic metropolis conveniently situated in prime aurora territory.

Northern Lights Russia

Photo Copyright : Andrey Lavrov 

Aurora Basics

Here’s an aurora primer: The Sun issues a stream of plasma (charged particles) out into the solar system in the form of the “solar wind.” Washing over Earth, its protons and electrons sweep along the planet’s geomagnetic field to the magnetic poles, where, through collisions, they “excite” atmospheric atoms and molecules into higher energy states. As those atoms and molecules then “relax” to a lower energy state, they release photons—light particles that produce the auroras.

Because of their polar habitat, auroras are most consistently seen in the high latitudes. When the Sun’s particularly active, as during a solar storm, aurora displays may be visible well outside their normal realm, even in equatorial areas.

More about night photography: Great Nighttime Photography Tips

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