Interview with Daniel Cuthbert of Hmmm

Daniel Cuthbert is the photoblogger behind Hmmm.


PetaPixel: Could you tell me a little about yourself?

Daniel Cuthbert: Born in the UK, grew up in South Africa (during the Apartheid years), left in 95 and since lived all over the world. I’ve had a few careers, namely a chef, a milkman (in the UK, for a grand total of 1 week before I couldn’t handle the hours anymore) and most recently that of a legal computer hacker (the good type).

PP: How did you first get into photography?

DC: I won’t do the usual spiel of saying I was born with a camera in my hand, that’s so clichéd. :)

I was in NYC at the time and had a small Sony point and shoot and a very good friend of mine, who is a creative director for a very well known ad agency, enjoyed the street images I had shot and said I should look at a few photographers like Eggleston and Winogrand.

I took his advice and a whole new world opened up for me. It was amazing to see how to properly take an image, not the type I was taking at the time and I pretty much decided there and then to learn how to compose and do it right.

PP: What is your goal in photography?

DC: I love telling stories.


PP: What was your first camera?

DC: Nikon 2FAS (my old man’s).

PP: What equipment do you use now?

DC: Right now I’ve kept it dead simple. I did go down the route of having loads of cameras, but felt it wasn’t helping me so I sold them all. I now shoot with a Rollei 6008 Integral and my two Leicas (M6/M8).

PP: Can you tell me a little about your Leicas?

DC: I swapped my Canon 1d mkII with 50mm, 85mm, 70-200mm, 28mm and assorted batteries and stuff for the M6 and Summicron lens. The M8 was purchased from a good friend of mine, conflict photographer Jason P Howe (

The benefit of the M system is that the camera isn’t in your face. What I mean by this is that with the Canon, or indeed Nikons, you look like a pap/press photographer. Big bodies, even bigger lenses, it becomes hard to not get noticed. With my M6 and M8, I just blend in and it does make a difference. I was able to get this shot of a Cocaine dealer bagging up before New Years Eve because he didn’t notice me taking the shot, I doubt I would have got the same shot with the canon as it’s too in your face.


The M8 I love. I know many harp on about how the 5dmkII can shoot in the dark, but to be honest I don’t shoot in the dark so don’t need that capability. The quality of the sensor is amazing however, and it suits my workflow.

PP: Is there any gear on your wishlist?

DC: Not really to be honest I’d like a wider angle lens for my Rollei, I was thinking a 40mm or 50mm lens, but haven’t gotten round to looking for one yet. I really have tried to keep my setup as minimal as possible. The only thing that might sway that is if a Mamiya 7II comes along at a great price…

PP: What are some of the countries you’ve photographed in?

DC: The list is very long these days, but ones that stand out are:

Ukraine (and Chernobyl) — I visited the region for the 20th anniversary of the disaster, before the world’s press agencies and spent 2 days inside Pripyat and surrounding Chernobyl. It was -20 on most days and I was outside for a good part of 10 hours a day. The whole area is an amazing place, like time has stood still.

Cambodia — Cambodia is a country awash with change. A couple of years ago tourism wasn’t a big thing. It was full of journos, NGO workers and their big SUVs and extravagant lifestyles and a few photographers. Now it’s a top destination for anyone wanting to see a fantastic country recovering from a terrible past.

Russia — There is something about Russia, can’t put my finger on why I loved being there, but I will be returning next year to do a longer documentary about the region

Thailand — Oh Thailand, so much fun I decided to live there for two years and had some of the best times. Truly an amazing country


PP: How were they different or similar to each other?

DC: I think it was the people. Each country had a past event that had defined the people, and this made for a more interesting outlook on life.

PP: When and why did you start Hmmm?

DC: It was started in 2004 as a reason for me to force myself to learn to see and take better pictures. About that time, the photoblog scene was exploding, so it was good to see fellow photographers learning. I’ve since become good friends with a few of them, namely Frisky (Faisal) and a few others.

PP: Where do you get your photographs developed?

DC: For the most, I do them myself. When time is of an issue, the local lab here in Durban, South Africa, does them and I then scan using my Macon.


PP: Why do you shoot film rather than digital? Have you shot much with digital before?

DC: I shoot with what ever does the job for me. I did have mostly digital, Canon 1d with the usual arrangement of lenses, but found it was too big and really attracted attention to me when I was using it. Also I got annoyed with the amount of post production needed when shooting digital on the Canons. In a mad state I sold them all and got a Leica M6 with 50mm Summicron and haven’t looked back.

For fashion work, it is mainly digital medium format. Clients love to have that instant feedback during a shoot. This actually makes it harder as you have 10 people telling you how to do it behind your back. Right now I have a healthy balance of film and digital with a Rollei 6008 and Leica M6/M8 and they seem to work well with my workflow.

PP: Would you recommend that a beginning photographer start with film or digital? Why?

DC: I think start with what you are comfortable with. I’m bored of the arms race that is the DSLR game right now. Everyone tries to keep up with this model and that model, yet all seem to take rather boring pics. How about getting a camera, any camera and really learning how to use it. Make mistakes, learn from them and enjoy yourself. That 5 year old digital camera is still good, still can produce good files. Remember that camera companies don’t want you to buy older stuff, it hurts their bottom line.

Going back to the question about film or digital, I think with film you are more disciplined. You have 36 exposures (35mm) or 12 (120), so you generally think more about the shot. However, with digital you get instant feedback, which is also good when learning. Use both.

PP: Are there any personal tricks you’ve picked up along the way that have helped you in your photography?

DC: Biggest trick so far is stop worrying what others think about your photography. Find something you really enjoy doing and let it happen, that’s the best trick. Oh and you can never have enough jiffy bags in a camera bag, I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve had to put all the gear in them when I’ve been caught out in the rain.

PP: What is a typical workday life for you?

DC: Admin, chasing up people, speaking to picture editors, dropping images off here and there. I spend most of the time doing the necessary stuff required to shoot projects. I’m also completing my Masters in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography over at the LCC in London, so that takes up a big chunk of time.


PP: Can you tell me about your workflow?

DC: Both pretty much the same. Film is processed and then scanned by me using my Imacon Flextight scanner. Once the raw scans are completed, I import them into Aperture and tag/organise them. I love Aperture for this one feature. Unlike other programs that require you to create/maintain the folders yourself, Aperture does it for you and you have the ability to have multiple backup destinations at the click of a mouse. Once inside Aperture I only try and do slight post processing. Levels, contrast and cropping.

If I’m shooting fashion/beauty, that’s another workflow all together. I scan/process the raw files, work out which ones are to be used and then liaise with my retoucher, who’s based in Argentina and then work out what we are doing with them as per the clients requirements.

PP: How much and how often do you shoot?

DC: Not as much as I used to, but now I’m trying to do more quality than quantity. I’m putting together the final plans for a new project looking at homelessness in Southern Africa, from the perspective of a black family and white family. This is requiring more research than usual, so it’s eating into the shooting time.


PP: How do you go about shooting?

DC: Good question!

Disclaimer, this might not be the best method at all, but it’s worked for me.

I think film, especially medium format, has really taught me to think more about the composition. When I look through the viewfinder, I try and ensure the whole frame is how I want it. I hate having to go through 10 of the same frames in Aperture, so I make sure it’s about as close to what I had in my head as I wanted. What I love about rangefinders is that you see more than the frame, this means I can easily see what is happening outside of what the frame lines give, which helps.

I try and take 1 shot per view. If this was a portrait for my People of Durban series ( I’d say it would normally be 3 shots for that person. Each showing an environmental portrait, a 3/4 portrait and a head shot. This way I have a good selection of shots to use.


PP: Who are some photographers you follow online?

DC: Faisal, Marco Vernaschi, Guy Batey, Simon Bates, and Kai Z Feng.

PP: Who is one person you would like to see interviewed on PetaPixel?

DC: Well you’ve already set the standard with previous guests, so I’d love to see Guy Batey put under the spotlight.

PP: Anything else you’d like to say to PetaPixel readers?

DC: “Find a subject you care about. Something that moves you. Something which stirs your rawest emotions. And then have patience.”

Mark Power, Magnum Photographer