A White Valentine’s Day in Amsterdam

Herengracht at night

February 14, 2013

Photo set on Flickr

A Solitary Pursuit

What imagery does Amsterdam convey to you? Weed? Hard drugs? Stag party? Or its notorious red light district and coffee shops? With the notable exception of Bangkok, I can’t think of another city with such strong association to the drug and sex trade.

Yet Amsterdam has a much more serene side for anyone willing to take a small step away from the party and drug scene. Here I am, holding not a joint of weed but my camera and tripod. On this night of Valentine’s I have just finished a simple home-cooked dinner at our rental studio, and now I am all alone along the Amstel. The thermometer is measuring right around 0 °C. What am I doing leaving my wife behind by herself on Valentine’s? I can’t help myself. I brave into the cold full of anticipation because nature has bestowed an unexpected gift to me – Amsterdam is under a blanket of snow thanks to a mild snowstorm earlier in the day. My promise to my understanding wife is to be back in three hours.

The Amstel

After shooting a panorama, I follow the river south. On the opposite bank are Hermitage Amsterdam and Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge). Without any interesting subject I suddenly feel the urge to experiment. Here is my slightly haphazard plan – I have set up my tripod in the middle of a narrow one-way street and standby to oncoming traffic. After a full minute that feels ten times as long, a car finally appears from a distance. My 20s-long shutter speed leaves me a margin of error of about five seconds to get out of the way.

My experiment

What a bore. The result contains nothing of interest and the light trail is still too far away – no good remedy for that unless I risk being run over. My takeaway: Amsterdam’s tranquility should be my main focus, but I think a stream of light trail in the background can add a distinct dimension to the very still cityscape.

The red brake lights of moving vehicles, especially eye-catching in the dark, have now become my source of direction and eventually lead me to Prinsengracht, one of the city’s three main canals. With a rate of about a car per 30s, Prinsengracht’s traffic flow resembles L.A.’s rush hour when compares to the nearby streets.

For most compositions I have taken two shots, one with light trail and the other without. And each time I prefer the hint of human presence conveys in the light trail version.

Prinsengracht at Night

My search of light brings me past Keizersgracht and Herengracht, Amsterdam’s other two main canals, and onward to the Singel, the canal that formerly served as the city’s moat until the capital outgrew its boundary in 1585. This commercial area has much brighter and more colourful lights, providing good subjects for some reflection shots.

The Singel

Photography, for me, is a very lonely exercise. Which does sound ironic, as photography, at its core, is about sharing what one has seen with their own eyes. But the obsession for certain subjects, light condition and timing means a high demand of planning and flexibility. Even when I am not alone on my pursuit, the simple act of pressing my camera’s shutter allows me a completely personal perspective of my surroundings. And it is this feeling of solidarity and independence, as much as the result on its own, that continues to fuel my passion to venture into the unknown with my heavy gears, subzero temperature be damned.

Best of all, I have got someone to return to after my temporary exodus. Happy White Valentine’s Day.


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