Nour El Refai: Downtown Reflections — Cairo, Egypt

The Image

Nour El Refai

Downtown, Cairo, Egypt

Time / Date:
16:00 / October 17, 2008

The Technical

Camera Body: Nikon D200
Lens: Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM

Camera Settings:

Shutter Speed: 1/80s
Aperture: f/8
ISO: 100
Focal Length: 10mm

The Story


I am an Architectural and Documentary photographer based in Cairo, Egypt.

I believe this became my signature shot, not because the awards I won for it, but because in a way it combines both Architectural and Documentary Photography, the two fields or genres of photography that I do and have passion for.

The Scene: 

I used to do field-trips on downtown with my students from AAST university, I was teaching Architectural Photography as an elective course, and downtown has a unique distinctive architectural style.

This was an ordinary field-trip day, I don’t shoot much during those walks as all the time I am talking and explaining things to my students and also explaining what are we doing to police she they were asking.

Suddenly I’ve seen this weird object passing at a distance, a large mirror reflecting the sky! I forgot about everything and started running towards it. (Notice my students were being questioned by police at the background of the photo below.)

I kept running towards him and snapping photos while running, I knew that if I got close enough and got lucky enough, I might get interesting reflections that will totally transform my photo. I was lucky that he waited a few seconds for the cars to pass then he moved, that was enough for me to get the shot.

This “maybe” photo below was taken few seconds before the “Yes” shot.



I don’t think the camera body has much to do with this shot, honestly I could have taken it with any other DSLR, ofcourse I am always trying to get a better body with more MP, better DR, and better ISO performance (I was using D200 in 2008, now I am using D800), but at the end, what really makes the shot is the moment, the location, and the subject.
However, the extreme wide-angle lens I used was really helpful in getting more of the reflection on the mirror, I was able to get really close to the mirror, step on my toes, and look down to get the reflections.

My philosophy about gear is actually changing through time, I remember I was walking with two bodies and many lenses including the heavy 70-200mm f/2.8 VR. Right now I move with only one body and two fixed lenses 35mm and 50mm. And I am currently considering going totally mirrorless with the Fuji X system and keep things small and light.

Making the Shot:

One more thing that was important besides running and being quick to get the decisive moment, it was the lighting, the sun was coming from the front, this means that the man and bicycle would be mainly dark while the reflected building on the back will be nicely lit and that I think made the shot successful as it draws the viewers eyes to the reflection.

Editing & Processing:

I don’t remember I did much editing on this photo except converting it to B&W on photoshop and play with the curves, at that time, I didn’t have nik software Silver Efex or the amazing presets of VSCO film that I have now.

I currently use Lightroom 5 and VSCO film presets on all my documentary work.

Looking Back:

I took this shot in 2008, and till now I feel this is the shot that most represent me and my style. I don’t call myself a street photographer, I am a documentary photographer interested in documenting people in their environment whether its in the street or in their home.


My advice is to go after your passion and explore surroundings like a child exploring a new toy, try to keep the gear as light as possible so you can walk more and explore more.
Be nice to everyone you meet, and don’t be afraid to make friends with locals and strangers you meet, they might give you access to great locations, ideas and subjects to photograph.


I think its obvious that part of my inspiration comes from the decisive moments of Henri Cartier-Bresson. I also get inspired whenever I travel and see different cultures and meet new people.



About the Photographer

Nour El Refai is an Architectural and Documentary Photographer based in Cairo, Egypt.

He earned his bachelor degree in Architecture at Cairo University in 2005. He started photography when he was 12 on fishing trips with his father, then his hobby has developed into a profession.

As an Architect, he frequently works in architecture and interior photography, but his passion for travel made him explore documentary and social photography.

He worked on assignments as a documentary photographer in Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and Turkey.

He is teaching photography since 2005 in various cultural and art centres.

He taught architectural photography within the academic field in various universities in Egypt since 2007.

Facebook: /nourelrefai
Twitter: @nourelrefai
Instagram: @nourelrefai

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