Borderline Stupidity Saved My Photography Trip

Borderline Stupidity Saved My Photography Trip

A few weeks ago, I spent two days in Doha, the capital of Qatar, especially to shoot some of its amazing architecture. And due to a little serendipitous oversight, I ended up getting exactly what I wanted.

Doha is incredible. Out of a sea of white sand and turquoise water rises this sparkling metropolis like a beacon. I was fascinated by Abu Dhabi when I flew through it earlier this year for the very same reason. From then, I wanted to photograph one these modern desert oasis cities. Dubai — a favorite of Elia Locardi — is the obvious choice for a photographer, but I was drawn to Qatar for one reason: The Museum of Islamic Art. The museum was designed by Chinese-American architect I.M Pei and built in 2008; it houses 14 centuries of Islamic art and is itself a work of art. From the outside, every angle gives the observer something different to ponder. The interior is impressive too, but not so eye-catching as to steal the show from the exhibitions it contains.

architectural monochrome photography in a museum

The celing of the museum.
Handheld, three-bracket exposure. 50mm, ISO 2500, f/8

The city’s skyline, while not as dramatic as Dubai’s, is still a feast for the eyes, especially when the sun goes down. But, the real pearl of the city is most certainly the museum although it soon will have competition from the National Museum of Qatar when it is completed. Jutting out from the rest of the city on a manmade bank,and surrounded by its own beautiful gardens, it demands to be photographed.

Photographing the garden of the museum of Islamic art

Shooting for black and white helps to simplify a scene, but also uses midday sun as an advantage.
28mm, ISO 100, f/8, 1/25th

I arrived as dusk set in. I set up my tripod so as to get a strong leading line and after placing the Doha skyline in the background, my composition was nailed down. With my trusty Canon 50mm f/1.8 attached, I set my exposure to 25 seconds and pressed the shutter. But just as I had pressed it, I was approached by a security guard. I did not know this beforehand and there were no signs to the fact, but as he informed me — in a very polite and apologetic way — it was forbidden to set up tripods on the grounds of the museum. “Not even in the gardens?”, I asked. Nope. Like I said, he was almost apologizing to me for having to tell me. I have to admit, I stalled for a few seconds as he walked over to another couple who were taking photos. *click*, the exposure finished.

Photograph of the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar

The Museum of Islamic Art with Doha's skyline in the background.
50mm, ISO 100, f/14, 25 sec

Even though I was disappointed that I couldn’t scamper around the exterior of the building with my tripod getting more angles; armed with this new information, I decided to return the next day with a different view and different expectations. Shooting architecture without a tripod feels weird, almost dirty. But, I treated it more like an exercise in street photography. Because I was not encumbered by a tripod and it was daytime, I could play around with angles, shapes, and contrast in a more fluid fashion. I had fun, more fun than if I had had my three-legged sidekick with me. I even managed to get a decent long exposure of Doha’s skyline from across the bay, using my bag as a rest.

photographing a city at dusk without a tripod

No tripod? No Problem.
78mm, ISO 100, f/10, 8.0 sec

Am I happy I got the shot of the museum that I wanted? Yes. Should I have checked the rules regarding photographing the building? Definitely, yes. It was a gross oversight from me. And I would encourage everyone to double-check the rules around photographing particular landmarks. I will be. I got away with this, but skirting the rules in a foreign country is not only disrespectful; but it could also land you in trouble.

Has a lack of planning ever ended up helping you?

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Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Necessity is the mother of invention, eh? Happy mistakes!

Mike O'Leary's picture

It is indeed, Mark!

Deleted Account's picture

This isn't what you're talking about but, on every trip I take, I plan some things and reserve a lot of time, unplanned. Some of my best photos, and experiences, were the result of not planning. Had I otherwise filled that time, I wouldn't now know what I never knew.

Mike O'Leary's picture

I'm a big fan of having unplanned time, as well, Sam. Like you say, some of my best experiences we off the cuff decisions.

Patrick Rosenbalm's picture

Great photos and story! I really like the black and white shots too! And for what it's worth you didn't mention what brand of gear you used or gear at all other than a tripod and camera settings. You put Art over gear! Go Mike!!

Mike O'Leary's picture

Thanks so much, Patrick!

Andy Day's picture

Gorgeous photos as always, Mike!

John Diven's picture

Great photos. Currently in Doha and have had the same experience. Once at the museum and once at the Torch. Security got to me in both places before I even snapped my first shots. Wound up having to use makeshift tripods out of ledges and even a trash can to get my shots. Still have several other places I am hoping to shoot including the Emir's place by the airport and some mosques but am getting conflicting opinion on what is allowable and what is not.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Thanks, John. Yeah, it's a funny one. I would always er on the side of caution. Here, I just wasn't thinking. Best of luck with it. There sure are plenty of places to shoot. I'm looking forward to when they finish the National Museum. It looks otherworldly.

Studio 403's picture

I think you should be beaten with wet noodles and then stoned with marshmallows. That should suffice.

Mike O'Leary's picture

That actually sounds quite pleasant.

Marcin Świostek's picture

I once forgot to take my tripod... on a landscape photography trip.

Stephen Holst's picture

Can I ask why you decided to share the photo?

Stephen Holst's picture

Why not? Because you end the article by saying that skirting the rules is disrespectful. I would think, out of respect, you would consider not sharing the photo to be a sort of teacher to all those who are reading your article. Yes, you got away with this because you said the guard was polite. But now your flaunting that by sharing the photo and possibly encouraging others to take advantage of break rules that are not strictly enforced. Why not just share all the photos you got where you didn't break the rules?

For instance, I know a fellow photographer who flew his drone in a location he was not supposed to. But he didn't see the sign prohibiting the activity until he got back to the parking lot. He decided not to do anything with the photos he got where he broke the rules out of respect for the rules and the location.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Like I said in the article, there was no indication that I was not allowed to use a tripod. If this was clear, then I wouldn't have used it. When I was told not to use the tripod, I stopped. I could have used it surreptitiously, but I didn't. In fact, when I asked the guard if I could use my smaller tripod on the wall, he said "okay, but don't let me see you.". I didn't bother, because I felt that that would have been too cheeky.

As for your fellow photographer story, I don't really see it as analogous to mine. I understand it, on principal but I don't see any harm in me sharing this photo as photos are allowed to be taken, here. A drone is a different kettle of fish. I never deliberately flaunted any rules or laws. If some weak-minded person somehow interprets this as me ecouraging them to break the rules, then that's on them.

John Diven's picture

Stephen, I do not think the picture is the problem. They did not have problems with me taking shots without the tripod. My assumption is tripods can be viewed in a bad security light as something else like a weapon from a distance. But I do not see a problem with posting the pics he got with it. He, nor I, skirted any posted rules and obliged the security by putting tripod away. Thought I could use it in another park and same think happened so I no longer use it here. The guy flying the drone may have had things on film that should not have been like revealing security vulnerabilities and completely agree with him and his choice of not posting it.

Stephen Holst's picture

I'll admit I'm holding Mike to a higher standard because he has an audience on this site and because he ended his article by stating that skirting the rules is disrespectful. I get it that nothing was posted and so he didn't know until the guard approached and informed him. I guess I'm just disappointed that he's taking the approach of shoot first and ask questions later. Or in this case don't even ask but wait until you're told not to do something. The museum clearly states on their website that tripods are not permitted in the galleries. Knowing that, in my mind it would have been more respectful to ask when you entered the property. Honestly, I don't think this is a terrible infringement just a little odd in terms of how he concluded the article.

With regards to the drone story. I know the photographer and there was nothing in the footage that warranted not sharing the images. It was totally his decision to be respectful of the rules even when he learned about them after the shots were taken. There's just so much going around about the Instagram culture being disrespectful to this or that, that I think we need to be extra vigilant to be respectful when we can.

Mike O'Leary's picture

The way you phrase that first paragraph makes it sound like I knew that there might have been rules regarding tripods. It most certainly was not a case of "shoot first, ask questions later". In saying that, I could have worded my last paragraph better — maybe that is where you are confusing my ignorance with a disregard for the rules. I was completely oblivious to the fact that tripods were not allowed to be used on the grounds — hence, the title of the article. As for tripods not being allowed in the galleries; that's a given in any museum.

Stephen Holst's picture

Ignorance is bliss, as they say.