Photographing Amal

Photographing a 12-foot puppet in a variety of perspectives can be a challenge. But the Nikon Z 8 made it that much easier.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to be Luminato Festival‘s dedicated photographer for Little Amal, a 12-foot puppet of a 10-year-old Syrian refugee. It wasn’t without its challenges, but it was certainly a blast to follow her around the streets of Toronto as we visited 14 different neighbourhoods throughout her time here.

With so many layers to peel here, I love how this photo turned out. Catching Amal walk through the sliver of light was no accident, and neither was the placement of the man in the foreground. What I like about this photo is the myriad of people moving at different speeds from one another and seemingly oblivious at the fact that there is a 12-foot puppet walking amongst them. Moreover, without the puppeteers being visible here, it looks like Amal is walking by herself. The little girl with the “Welcome Amal” sign runs past Amal just enough to not cover Amal’s hands. As Amal was walking on the sidewalk I noticed this sliver of light shining against the building. I quickly made my way there and started tracking Amal’s face with 3D focus mode on the Z 8. Noticing the man in the foreground walking quite fast, I didn’t want him to walk right in front of Amal, so just as Amal walked through the light, I stepped to my left and narrowly avoided the man from obstructing the view of Amal.
I was impressed with the Z 8 performance during the Dowest Festival. This image was taken with no focusing problems during a dimly lit evening with the Z 14-24mm at 14mm, f/2.8, 1/125sec., ISO 25600! The resulting image was fairly grainy as expected, but I cleaned it up using Adobe Lightroom’s Denoise feature, which really made the image shine without loss of detail.

Little Amal

Little Amal, a 12-foot puppet of a 10-year-old Syrian refugee, is at the centre of The Walk. She is touring cities around the world in search of her home, engaging with the community around her as she brings awareness to refugees around the world. She represents hope and has quickly become the voice of those who have been displaced.

Her time in Toronto was brief—a mere five days—but her schedule was packed: touring three different neighbourhoods most days, engaging with the community that supported her every step in her journey. Above, Amal looks ahead as the Rogers Centre and CN Tower flank her on either side. Rogers is a lead supporter of the Walk With Amal project in Toronto. Below, Amal plays soccer with the neighbourhood children.

The Walk is produced by The Walk Productions in association with Handspring Puppet Company. They present “large-scale participatory public art that brings communities together to celebrate art, community and each other, challenge assumptions, rethink narratives and provoke change.”

The Challenge in Photographing Amal

I knew Little Amal was 12-foot-tall, but the scale doesn’t quite hit you until you actually see her in person. She’s very tall, is maneuvered by three people (one inside her, and one for each arm), and has people surrounding her making sure the puppeteers have enough space to do their work. We can’t forget that everywhere she goes there will be a large crowd gathering around her to meet and greet her. I am also running in and around the crowd to better position myself for different photos depending on what Amal is doing at any given moment.

All this made for challenging times to get the more dynamic shots that makes for more memorable photographs.

This moment gave me goosebumps as the doves had flown at just the right moment! I wanted to capture Amal walking amongst the crowd and band. With the sky being so hazy and white, it was pure bliss to have these doves fly right there filling in the empty space and providing some much needed interest in that part of the photo.
I was pinned to the ground here when I took this photo as I found myself stuck between the little girl on my right, and Amal’s right hand and her puppeteer on my left. Since I kept the 3D focus button pressed, constantly targeting Amal’s eyes, I fired off shots looking at the LCD screen to ensure I had Amal and the little girl in the frame. I loved being in moments like this where I was literally right in the action.

The Lenses

Knowing her height and estimating where I’ll be to photograph her, I brought my 14-24mm for wider perspectives to incorporate Amal amongst the crowd in dynamic ways, and my 70-200mm to photograph her from afar since I knew I couldn’t always be so close to her. These proved to be the most ideal combination.

The Cameras

The Nikon Z 9 was paired with my Z 70-200mm f/2.8 and my Nikon Z 8 was paired with my Z 14-24mm f/2.8. I thought (correctly) that I would be using the 14-24mm in most cases so I paired it with my lighter camera so that I could handle it faster and in more perspectives with one hand.

The Perspectives

Speaking of perspectives, I quickly noticed that when I was near Amal, in certain cases even my 14mm in landscape couldn’t capture the scene entirely. In those cases I quickly changed from a landscape to portrait mode just by a twist of my hand. With my focus set to 3D tracking and people subject detection, the camera continually tracked the eye even as I switched from landscape to portrait, allowing me to photograph instantly after composing.

Noticing this landscape version cuts off the logo on the bottom of the ladder, I quickly turned the Z 8 into portrait orientation all-the-while pressing my 3D focusing button to maintain constant focus on Amal’s eyes.
Once I composed the shot the way I wanted, I took the photo. This all happens in a matter of a second or two.

Note that this wouldn’t be possible if I had set the a5 option to Store Points By Orientation, which changes your focusing options based on if you were shooting in landscape or portrait orientation.

3D-Tracking Amal with the Z 8

This method also came in handy as I kept holding down the focus button and ran around Amal all-the-while keeping her in my frame. This ensured that her eyes were still in focus after I stopped running. There were so many times I found use for this and every single time I came out with sharp photos of Amal.

The following series of photos gives a good example of how the event unfolds. As I am running around trying to position myself, I make sure to keep Amal in my frame by viewing the LCD screen as I run. I also have my finger continually pressing the 3D focusing button (I have it set to the Function 1 button on the Z 8), so that I can take photos at any point and still have Amal in focus. All of this happens in a matter of seconds so having the intuition of what Amal will do next helped to know where to stand to get the shot that I was looking for.

1. I run past Amal to get shots from the front, as she continues to walk.

2. Noticing Amal stopping, I stop running and quickly make my way toward her.

3. I move around her to capture her looking toward the building.

4. As soon as she turns her head towards me and swings her arms around to continue walking, I capture her in that split moment at 14mm from below looking up to give a dynamic feel to the image. Amal’s left hand is only a couple feet away from my lens!

5. The process then repeats as she starts to walk forward.

Mind the Edges at 14mm

I try not to photograph important people too much at 14mm because of lens distortion. Anyone at the edge of the frame will look stretched, which is often unappealing. Amal is no exception as her head being the closest to the edge often got distorted whenever I shot in portrait mode. To alleviate this, you could place her head closer to the centre of the frame where there is less distortion (but more negative space around her), or simply use another lens to capture a more appealing image.

Amal’s head isn’t even close to the edge but her head is still noticeably stretched vertically in this photo taken at 14mm.

When I crop the image to focus on her expression, I notice the stretched head.

Immediately I switched to my Z 9 and 70-200mm lens where I shot this composition at 70mm, which to me looks much better.

The Variety

Having a variety of perspectives is key to having a great set of photos for any event. That’s why many photographers like to have two cameras with two different lenses so they can easily shoot with different perspectives when needed.

Amal interacted with the crowd in many ways, from shaking hands, hugging, dancing, and even playing soccer. In addition, she was very expressive! The puppeteers were able to control subtle movements of Amal’s eyes and mouth to show what she was feeling. It was important to try and showcase those moments in my photographs as well.

The Losses

Where there photos that I couldn’t get? Most certainly! As much as I would have loved to have captured every moment of Amal, there were times when I just wasn’t close enough to get the shot I wanted, or I just wasn’t in the right position, or someone was blocking my view at that one moment I wanted to capture her.

These moments will happen and you simply have to accept the fact that you won’t be able to capture every single moment. This was in fact the best tip that was provided to me by Elijah, the videographer that tours with Amal. Once you accept that, you’ll be able to move on to the next shot quicker after realizing you missed that one moment.

Connecting With Amal

One of the best things about following Amal throughout Toronto was the connection she made with the crowd. It was great to see this in person, but it was even better to be able to capture these precious moments.

Be Different

When I have the opportunity, I often like to try creative things just to see how it turns out. It can be creative in terms of perspective, editing, framing, or something else. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. And that’s ok because the most important thing is that you tried. Without pushing yourself to do different things, you may find yourself doing the same old things over and over again.


For anyone that’s interested, here’s a YouTube video recapping all of the above. If you enjoy it, make sure to like and subscribe! 😉

What do you think of photographing events? Do you have tips and techniques you use? Did you get to Walk With Amal? Let me know in the comments!

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2 thoughts on “Photographing Amal”

  1. Valentina Rodriguez

    Beautiful work Taku both in photography and in subject. You captured the magic of the community moments and her message.

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