Cardiologist Amr El-Shafei was raised in Egypt before moving to the United States in the mid-nineties. His story with photography began back in Egypt, where his grandfather was a founder of Egyptian TV and his uncles followed suit. He spent his childhood behind the scenes of Egyptian movies and TV programs. Growing up with that creative process and the cameras, Amr developed a creative itch that would follow him into adulthood.
At 18, Amr started medical school, and photography fell off of the horizon. “Medicine doesn’t like partners,” he says, “so you learn how to focus and love the process of learning.” Amr ended up specializing in cardiology – a specialty, he says, that is very dependent on creativity. “And that’s why you see a lot of cardiologists have a kind of artistic side with music, writing, or photography. So it’s not uncommon to see cardiologists involved in some aspect of art.” After finishing school, he realized that he had a small window to explore something new. “If I didn’t find time to explore something that I loved at this particular moment, I will never get it done. So I did it.” Photography became an outlet to his more stressful daily career. He self-taught, attended workshops, and spent time with photographers he admired to see their processes and learn from them. It started as a hobby, and then became a passion. He was lucky to have the right people at the right time help him along the way. It was a start that allowed him to develop his own vision.
Getting into travel photography
It starts as an outlet to a very high stress job. When Amr is working, he is in a perpetually occupied state. It consumes him 100%. Photography and travel are his ways to disengage from his everyday life. “It’s scientifically proven that sometimes when you get this engaged with something that you are going strong at, it helps you cope with the stress and constant ‘on’ better, and your brain actually works well when you completely disengage and come back to it. It improves me as a cardiologist and as a photographer as well.” Amr says, “I think it’s almost like cross training for athletes. Maybe you are a soccer player, then you go and play something else. We improve other muscles. I think it helps me as well to cross train mentally. So I travel and then go back to cardiology with a refreshed mind. When I go on a trip and I do photography, I start to miss cardiology…and I go back and then I start to miss the travel. It actually makes life more interesting in both aspects.”
As Amr got more into photography, traveling to photograph incredible places and experiences was not far behind. “Sometimes I don’t know if I love traveling and the photography is just a natural part of that, or if I am travelling specifically so that I can take pictures. I think it’s great that I get two passions in one.”
He loves that travel photography requires a multitude of different skills within photography, providing ample opportunity to continue learning and developing his craft. “You have to have some skills in everything so that you can actually show the personality of the place. And that’s what I enjoy about it. You go to Venice during the carnival and you shoot portraits and street photography. Then there is the longer exposure of the canals and the water. Or maybe you go to Mongolia and you have to shoot action or sports because they have the eagle hunters, and at night you have astrophotography of the Milky Way. And that variety of skills is part and parcel of travel photography.”
Pre-visualization and preparation
When you are traveling to places for experiences that are once in a lifetime, it pays to plan and be well prepared for the situations and scenes you will encounter. Amr also takes a research-driven approach to planning his travel photography. “I like to start with screenshots of other peoples’ work. It helps me see what angles are most common and if there is a generally overlooked aspect of the scene that is interesting to explore. Then I use Google maps and all of this stuff until I figure out how I can shoot a different look that hasn’t been done before, or what has been done, but with a fresh perspective. Then I have to make sure that I have the equipment necessary to shoot what I have in mind. I write down the equipment I need for every shot I plan. Then it’s time to travel to the location. A lot of the times, I go to the spot I have pre-visualized and feel like I’ve been there before. But I am well prepared to get the shot I have envisioned, and that is satisfying.”
Amr’s equipment of choice
“I travel with different cameras and various equipment. But the important shots have to be shot with Phase One. I know we all talk about how the photographer is the most important thing in getting the picture, but I feel that the equipment influences the photographer as well, and that’s what the Phase One does for me. I take a DSLR for if I’m walking around and shooting scenes more like snapshots. For Phase One, I have both the XF and XT for different shooting situations. I also have both color and achromatic digital backs so that I cover the full range of possibilities.”
While covering a variety of situations is important for Amr, he does have a favorite when it comes to travel photography. “The XT is an incredible camera because it’s perfect for travel and is very compact, light and versatile. It’s simple, but at the same time, it’s sophisticated. You can take it anywhere. That’s really made my camera bag much lighter, while keeping the high image quality. It almost makes me feel as if I don’t need the rest of my gear. When you have a vision in mind for an image, you don’t want to worry about your gear. With the XT, you know that as long as you get to the right place at the right time, the camera is going to accomplish what you need. In some ways, the XT being so great is also pushing me to be better, because if there is a mistake, it will be my mistake, because I know the camera can deliver.”
How Phase One enhances Amr’s photography
“Phase One is almost like flying first class – once you experience it, it’s very hard to go back to economy. It’s about the amenities that come with it. With Phase One, already just from the file itself, the canvas I have to work with is huge. When you come back with a huge canvas and you can do a lot with the information you have, especially with travel photography, it’s like, how would I ever go back.”
But Phase One is much more than the image quality – they are cameras built to make the photographers’ process smooth and seamless. “Then there are the extra ‘amenities’ that can be done with other cameras, but they are just done in a really good way with Phase One. I tend to do panoramas, so the shift available with the XT is perfect. I also use the focus stacking quite a bit to extend the depth of my images. And I enjoy shooting long exposure, because I love this look with the soft light and the contrast. And that’s the nice thing about having frame averaging with the IQ4 because you get long exposures without the color cast, and without really needing filters.”
The longevity of an image
“Being a travel photographer is about basically capturing a bunch of moments. And sometimes you don’t know what you have until much later. You look at it five years from now and discover, man, that was an amazing moment. Let me revisit it again and make something big out of this. Re-process it with fresh eyes and print it big. And that’s what it is like. I just keep taking pictures and putting them on the hard drive. And when I go back to my hard drive, I find a lot of things that I forgot about. But that’s also why I usually don’t process images right away. A lot of times you prepare to take that particular picture and your emotions are high and you think that you got a good picture, and then you get disappointed when you see the final image because you hyped up the picture so much and you are too close to it. And then sometimes it’s the other way around. You think this is an ok picture. And then go back to it later and discover that it’s the picture of the trip. It’s good to get disconnected emotionally from your trip for a while, so when you go back and revisit it, you’ll be a good critic to your own critique because you are a different person now than a few months ago when you came back. It’s always great to rediscover amazing experiences – whether a few months after or years down the line.”