In Focus, Bangkok Photography Blog September 20th, 2008

Focal Distance, The Great Wall

Feature Photograph

This weeks feature photograph has pulled on my emotions since I first saw it and it’s a photo I keep coming back to glance at every once in a while. Unfortunately I didn’t take this photo. On the plus side I was involved in its capture and I feel some satisfaction from that. One of my workshop students Troy captured this photo. Troy spent four days with me lightly covering a wide range of photographic technique, equipment, and interests. During this session he was being exposed to the use of a long telephoto and capturing subjects from a distance, often without the subjects knowledge. Troy was a fast learner and it wasn’t long before he was using the Canon 300mm F2.8 IS lens to good effect capturing scene after scene at a local running and exercise park.

He Clinic Bangkok

This little girl was walking with her nanny in the park and when she saw my assistant she did what all well brought up Thai kids do, putting her hands together in a show of respect she waied her and once the formalities were over she ran into her arms with all sorts of questions for my assistant. Troy and I looked on from a distance and like a seasoned pro he kept the camera working and he ended up with some great shots as one young girl instantly became close with a younger Thai girl in the manner so unique to the Thai people. For a few minutes they shared a closeness that would take months to form in a western society, and then each moved on back into their own separate lives I’m sure richer for the experience. This is one of the many things which helped give Thailand it’s nickname “Land of Smiles..”

Weekly Photo Outing

As much as I like to hear myself talking I’m sure the readers of this column would like a break.. ;o) One of the great joys of being a photographer based locally in Bangkok is exposure to other great photographers and the relationships you build in the process. Rob from is a good friend and an accomplished photographer and last week he shared a nice readers submission with his work from the Siracha Tiger Zoo. I enjoyed his submission so much I asked if there was some way I could talk him into writing and sharing a “Weekly Photo Outing” submission. Rob really travels and has visited and photographed many interesting places! Currently he spends a lot of time in Beijing and has had opportunities to photograph the Great Wall. He agreed to share his experiences and photographs from a Great Wall outing and his work is really good! Read on and enjoy..

CBD bangkok

This weekend I decided to head up onto the Great Wall of China for some exercise. Trekking up and down the walls is a great way to get a head of steam going, and to also take in one of the worlds great wonders.

I chose Simatai, a place I've been quite a few times before as it's incredibly beautiful and incredibly challenging for a trek. The day was not too fantastic (photographically speaking) but was "Ok".

This sign was on Tower 10, after two hours of clunking up and up and up . . . . . . . .

We met a bunch of people coming the other was from Janshaling. This is now on my trekking menu and we'll be heading back there in a few weeks. It seemed that they had gone about two and a half hours or so to meet up with us. 28 Towers and counting. On a nice crisp morning, it'll be a great walk…… Of course we're never in a hurry when walking the wall…… Look right for the Mongol Hordes, look Left for the Emporers Teaming Armies…… Sigh..

wonderland clinic

As part of the Experience we are hassled all the way along by the Obligatory "Sales Lady" from the Farms around the district. With a few idioms of English they all use, we quickly establish where we come from, where we are going to and the fact that we're not thirsty… yet!! She follows along loyally. Persistence usually scores a sale of a T-Shirt, Book, Drink, Trinket or the likes. For us "Old Timers" is no longer quaint, but we persevere.

Inside many of the towers there are "Guards" or "Cleaners" or …… "<enter description here>" who know the touts and who are generally friendly. Most are sleeping, resting or skulking in the shadows. We met two this day that we in better light and would smile for us.

This chap was smoking some sort of long pipe (feel free to let me know the name of it) and wanted me to try it. After huffing and puffing all the way up to this point, there was no way a lung full of smoke was going to add value!!! I politely declined and pointed my camera his way. He finally smiled after a few minutes and I got a shot I liked. He disappointed me by making a "give me some money gesture", and I smiled back without acknowledging it. He gave me a "It was worth a try" look.

The Pipe Smoker's friend seemed amused that we'd like to take their photos.

The valley heading into the wall proper is lined with barren slopes. There are no large trees almost anywhere in any direction. I believe this is due to them all being chopped down for wall construction, wall security and for warmth in the winter. It's a fairly tough place to photograph as there is little inherent beauty (apart from the wall) and this alone is barely enough to make a decent picture. Although we try!!

This is the nice surface. As the wall progresses, 1000 years of Ice, Wind, Rain and walking have taken their toll. It's amazing it lasted this long. No much Architecture these days is designed for the ages…… 20 Years and pull it down and build a new one….

This is a beautiful curved in the wall. The surface is quite dangerous to walk up, so we walked around this section.

Above is the classic make a photo out of nothing. The haze is gowing (as it does) and the light is flat. I think this image is compelling despite the challenges of the light.

I like the feel of this image. Puts some context on the size of the Wall (although it varies wildly according to the terrain.) and puts a human face on it. It is a treat to walk it like this!

More images can be found on my site.



Focal Distance

Woo-hoo! We’re finally there! Focal Distance is the final basic term/area we need to cover before we can start talking about how we put the five variables to work for us to create fun and exciting images. In my very honest opinion, based on a ton of experience teaching those who have been to “photography schools”, taken “Photography 101 and 102” in college, and even those who have “read the manual”, if you truly understand even the basic explanations we’ve covered in Shutter Speed, Aperture, Focal Length, ISO and now Focal Distance, then you’re further along in your understanding and knowledge of photography, and ready to make great photographs, than the above graduates. Sure, they cover this material in-depth in such courses. Often too much depth. More often the student cannot visualize what they’ve learned which makes it extremely difficult to apply it in a practical sense.

Purposely I’ve kept the explanations of these areas simple, brief (I know it doesn’t seem like it considering my tendency towards verbosity), and visual. As we start using these variables to discuss composition I’ll be feeding in more bits and pieces of information exactly where the information can be applied. Hopefully this will work better than having everyone read the book, memorizing, and hopefully remembering much later during application. If needed please review the five variables in the appropriate weekly columns as often as you need to maintain. Most likely you’ll find you need to re-read certain sections during the discussion of application more than a few times. This is normal, stick with it and soon the information will be tattooed on your frontal lobes. It will starting being a load of fun when even those of you with no previous photographic experience start turning out some really good works!

Focal Distance. This one is easy. It’s the physical distance from the film/sensor plane (in a film camera the actual film, in any SLR or DSLR from the mirror) to the subject. The subject could be a person standing ten feet away, or the mountains being the standing person which are ten miles away. Looking at the scene you as the photographer decide what the subject(s) in your scene will be, and then you’ll expose and focus for those subjects.

Focal Distance determines perspective. Most people, even many professional photographers, are under the impression that “focal length” (of the lens) determines perspective. It doesn’t. Focal length merely allows you to fill the frame with the subject at a further or closer distance. This is all focal length does. Focal distance, is how far away from the subject you are and this is what determines perspective. For some reason many find this a hard concept to swallow, try not to make this more difficult than it needs to be. Keep it simple and you’ll be able to visualize it much sooner.

Usually the next question I get is “why do we have different focal lengths then?” Good question, why the vast array of lenses ranging from the super wide, to the super telephoto? Working distance is a big factor. You’ll probably want some distance between you and the hungry tiger, but maybe not so much between you and the pretty nude model in your studio. Using perspective control (by varying focal distance) you can make a human subject appear to have a bigger nose and ears and flatter face than you’d normally notice in real life, or on the other end a slimming effect better known as a compressed look. For instance, if I want to photograph a crusty old man and accentuate the features that make him crusty then I’d probably choose a wide angle lens that makes his ears, eyes, and nose appear large along with his other facial characteristics. If I wanted to photograph a beautiful swimsuit model and accentuate her great shape and make her look a tad bit slimmer, then I’d use a telephoto lens. Almost 100% of the time when I photograph swimsuit models outdoors I choose my Canon 300mm F2.8 IS lens. This gives them a slimming / compressed effect which is normally desirable. And you should never underestimate the instant respect and cooperation you get when you pull out that long/big white lens which sets you apart from those with average sized lenses. It sounds funny, but the models do perk up and become more willing to work harder and more cooperative because you’re giving the appearance of looking more professional.

Sometimes you’ll have two subjects in a scene, and two focal distances, sometimes more. In the below sample I had a focal distance from my camera to the big log on my left, and the focal distance from my camera to the ocean background. By adding the log, and keeping it in sharp focus, I added a reference point and an additional dimension to a rather bland scene. This doesn’t work and doesn’t have the right effect unless both the log and the background are in sharp focus. This is where a very wide lens (in this case a 12mm) and a very small aperture become necessary. The focal distance between my camera and the log was less than six inches! The focal distance between my camera and the horizon was probably about eleven miles.

In the below example I used the same 12mm wide angle lens to “encompass” the passageway. When using such a wide lens controlling perspective becomes critical. Perfect 90 degree angles from the floor, against the walls, and more becomes necessary other wise what appears to be severe distortion takes effect. In this shot I set up my tripod, carefully leveled the camera, and took the shot. The full size version shows every detail of every brick and piece of wood in the scene and it feels like you’re standing right in it.

In the example below I wanted to get the very tip of the elephants trunk in focus, as well as his eyes and other parts. This was shot at 14mm with a focal distance of less than two inches! Yes, his trunk was actually touching the front of my lens at times while I was taking this shot. If I had tried to take this shot with a 50mm lens and not the 14mm lens, I would have achieved getting the front of the trunk in focus, but only being able to get about half way up his trunk in the scene. The wider coverage of the 14mm lens allowed me to get the entire elephant in the scene. A fun shot I’ll always remember taking. It won’t win any awards, but it will make me laugh every time I look at it and remember his trunk bumping my lens in curiosity.

My final example was shot with a 300mm lens and a focal distance of approximately 100 meters. The young lady looked lovely and I didn’t want to intrude on her private thoughts as she looked over the river while standing alone. The working distance was so great she didn’t even realize I took the photo until later when she turned away I approached her and asked for her email so I could send her a copy of the picture I took. My habit is to email images to as many of my subjects as I can, a way to say thanks for the enjoyment they’ve provided. You end up amassing a lot of names, phone numbers, and email addresses, so a good system to keep track of them is necessary. I find the voice tag recording feature of the professional series DSLRs to be very handy for this. It attaches a small sound file to the appropriate image of your voice recording the pertinent information. You also make a lot of new friends by sharing the images.

Focal Distance controls perspective. Focal length controls focal distance. You use perspective in the composition of your image. This is all you really need to know about focal distance and I’ve given you some fun examples of how it’s used. Next week we’ll be discussing how to use all five variables to get the desired depth of field in our composition. Until then review as necessary.

Photography News of Interest

With Photokina 2008 starting early next week Canon finally made the announcement many have been waiting for. The announcement of the 5d Mark II. Canon also announced an update to the excellent 24mm F1.4 USM lens called the 24mm F1.4 USM II, an update to the very popular G9 compact named the G10, and several more updates to its long product line of compacts, superzoom compacts, and consumer level products.

The 5d Mark II breaks new ground. With an MSRP of just $2699 USD it offers a full frame 21mp sensor, weather sealing, 1080p movie mode which is an industry first, ISO’s up to
25,600, and new internal processors allowing 14 bit processing as well as more speed. This camera will compete directly with Canon’s own 1dsMarkIII at $8000, Sony’s new 24mp full frame at $2999, and both the Nikon D700 and D3 at
$2999 and $4999. It's not hard to imagine that the 5d Mark II will not only be an industry leading product, but that it will quickly become a huge sales success. You can check out a hands on review here

The new G10 compact will have 15.8mp’s, a new 28-140mm lens, a bit 3 inch high-resolution LCD, a VGA movie mode, raw capability, and a host of other desirable
features that many pros and advanced amateurs desire in their own personal compact cameras. The entire “G” line (G5, G6, G7, G8, G9) has been a huge success over the years and there’s no reason to believe the G10 won’t
be a success as well. Check out the pres release here.

Canon’s wide angle lenses have always been a bit weak and recognizing that Canon updated their popular 24mm F1.4 lens with the new 24mm F1.4 USM II wide angle lens. You can read
more about it here.

Have you ever wondered if you need a degree in photography to be a successful photographer? You can read the question and answer here.

As a treat let me introduce you to Mr. Chuck Westfall. Chuck has been Canon’s “voice” on professional DSLRs for as long as I can remember. He’s the guy who explains Canon’s policy, why it chose to make certain upgrades and not others, what’s in the immediate future, and much more. In this interview Chuck is asked about the new 5D Mark II and its quite an informative read. Link.. Listen in to the audio.

You don’t usually see news about camera manufacturers and their marketing decisions make it into the mainstream news, but the Canon 5D Mark II really is big news in the industry. The “one” everyone has been waiting for. This article quotes an unhappy Canon engineer who feels Canon could have done much better against the competition (Nikon is their only real competition) if their marketing department wasn’t pushing them into the “Megapixel Race” (you might remembering me mentioning this before) and instead was concentrating on innovation and overall image quality. Link here.

Readers' Submissions

Akulka is back this week to share a few more images with us. Akulka travels extensively and is very good at documenting his travels. I hope to be able to talk him into hosting a “Outing” feature in the future.

Camera: Sony DSC-H1, Exposure at 1/80; f/4.0; ISO64, Program Mode, center-weighted average metering.

Pilgrims sheltering from the rain at Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, a Hindu temple situated on the shore of Lake Bratan on Bali, Indonesia. Constructed in the 17th century at the south-western end of the volcanic crater lake, this temple is dedicated to the Hindu deities Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu, and therefore one of the most revered and significant religious sites on the island.

Camera: Sony DSC-H1, Exposure at 1/40; f/2.8; ISO64, Program Mode, multi-zone metering.

A market lady pitching her merchandise – worms, larvae, and other creepy-crawlies – at Ngasem, the famous bird market in Yogyakarta, central Java, Indonesia.

Camera: Sony DSC-H1, Exposure at 1/200; f/4.0; ISO64, Program Mode, multi-zone metering.

Dancing with hoses! Two monks engaged in cleaning their site of worship. Nakhon Pathom, Thailand.

Thank you Akulka, great stuff as always!

We can really use more readers' submissions and readers' questions. If you have anything to share please send it in and I’ll add it to the queue and get it up as soon as possible. The photographs don’t have to be anything special, average shots of average things you encounter during your travels will be appreciated by everybody. The more narrative you can attach to each image to give the reader a feeling of where you were, what it took to get the picture, and whatever else you think germane would be appreciated.

I suspect the readers' submissions will be a highly anticipated section of this column and I encourage anyone with photographs and travel accounts they’d like to share to please send them to me at:

Readers' Questions

Jeremy asked in the September 6, 2008 column if he could save money buying legitimate copies of several popular software titles in Thailand. I responded by showing him the sometimes vast price differences between buying products in the USA, and other countries with high taxation and import tariff’s like most of the EU. Today he gives us some feedback I think many of you in the EU and other countries with high taxation might benefit from. It’s always great to receive follow on feedback!

Thanks for your answer in the 6 September article. I had not realised that that is the case. Unfortunately I do not have a US credit card. But I found a solution that may interest your international non USA readers.

B and H Photo Video in New York accepted my Australian credit card when purchasing Adobe software online at the USA prices! The shipping was $42 for my two software purchases and I received the software in Australia yesterday, so less than 5 working days!



Dear Steve,

I was down in Pattaya this week and wanted to take a photo of the new sign on Walking Street. The sign features an extremely bright LCD screen on top. I tried many different aperture settings but could not get a decent exposure where both the LCD screen and foreground were decently exposed without one being significantly under or over exposed. I was able to do something of a rescue in Photoshop using the RAW file but even then the final result is not what you'd call good. Do you have any suggestions on how to photograph scenes with such a wide exposure latitude?



Stick, I'm surprised you're having problems photographing this new sign. It seems to work exactly as it should for me. Please see the below photograph.

LOL! Seriously though, this is a tough one without an easy fix that only involves camera settings. Let me explain what's happening.

Simply put because the sign is so brightly lit, the dynamic range of the scene is far (very far) beyond the capabilities of even the best digital or film cameras. There is no way that I know of to take a simple single image of this scene and not have the sign blown out. However, where there's a photographic solution there is a photographic solution and I'll offer several below.

1. A simple screw on split ND filter (neutral density, clear on bottom, 4 stops of reduction on top) with a power of approximately 4 stops should do the trick. The disadvantage of using such a filter is that they take special adapters to use with compact cameras which can be expensive, and everything else in the top half of the frame will not be exposed at all. The end result will look odd.

2. You could make a HDR (High Dynamic Range) image from 3 – 5 separate images blended together in a HDR program such as Photomatrix from HDR images properly done are very useful and can look very normal thereby increasing the effective dynamic range of your camera. The disadvantages of a HDR image is that they require either a 8 – 10 frame per second rate of handheld, or slower while using a tripod. Again, more gear to carry around.

3. The most obvious answer would be the easiest and something everyone can do with any camera they have. Take the picture in the day time when the dynamic range (the range of light from dark to its brightest) is at a minimum. You can put the camera in manual mode and expose to make it look like it's taken at night time if you wish, and all the elements will be as close exposed as you're likely to get with any other method.

Really, I wish they would take down this ridiculous eyesore and replace it with something more genre appropriate. It's in terrible taste in my opinion.

I hope this helps.


Please submit your questions to All questions will be answered and most will show up in the weekly column.

A Snapshot of Bangkok Images Week in Review

We’ve been very busy this week visiting the Damneon Saduak Floating Market, Grand Palace, Suphin-buri province, and many places along the way. Once I get a chance to catch my breath I’ll process the images and post some new galleries.

Mirrored Blog

I haven’t had time to sort out my blog issue yet, but I hope to get to it week after next and to be able to bring you more of my archived blogs.

nana plaza