In Focus, Bangkok Photography Blog June 27th, 2009

Rural Chiang Rai/Capture Tips

England Hotel Guide
New Linden Hotel
Duke of Leinster Hotel
Russell Hotel
Waverley House Hotel

Feature Photograph

Have you ever seen a darker sky in Bangkok? Sheets of rain are falling on the city creating Bangkok’s infamous floods, lightening flashes across the sky, and thunder rolls through the skyscrapers reaching my ears 5-7 seconds later. If we were in tornado country I’d be watching for a funnel to drop. Not even ten minutes later the storm had reached my home and winds registering upwards of 80kph (on my Krestal) hit the towers and rain starts coming down so thick you can’t see the neighboring towers 20 meters distant. And honest to goodness storm!

Most people would sit tight in their apartments and wait for clear skies. Not me. I’ve already packed my favorite Safari World lenses and I’m down the lift and driving out of the car park just minutes later. I’ve become a sort of storm chaser. No, I’m not into taking pictures of storms. More, I’m into hanging out in storms in prime photo locations and waiting for the one cloud to break and allow the sun to light my subjects with a beautiful directional beam of pure golden light. Today I’m making the 20 minute drive to Safari World and hoping for the best.

This picture is significant because of the explanation above. Bangkok has tons of pollution but look how clear the air is in this photograph, the high levels of contrast, the air is so clean it looks like the giants used a full bottle of Windex on the skyline! A few weeks worth of thunderstorms have cleaned the air in the city and the sky is perfectly clean. Something that happens just a few times a year. Behind my location the clouds opened up and lit the city like a giant studio strobe might.

30 minutes later the skies are still black, rain is still pouring down, and I’m sitting in my car inside Safari World watching this group of African Crown Cranes. They’re beautiful birds and I know if another break in the sky opens up, especially one to the rear or side of me, then I’ll have a beautiful high contrast image. My wish is answered and the image of the African Crane Crown above is my reward. Beautiful colors, high contrast, and perfect light. This scenario repeats itself 7-8 more times at different locations in the park producing more portfolio quality images than my previous 10 visits!

It’s taken me years to learn the little nuances of photographing Thailand and of course I’m still learning. Most often Bangkok has dirty air, haze, and a low contrast look. The sky is so ‘hot’ it’s usually blown out in most pictures you see of the area. A solution is to shoot in the rain, on days most would never dream of venturing outside, and to take advantage of the recently cleaned air and spectacular light. It’s always a good time for photography, but after/during such a rain storm it can be a great time!

Rural Chiang Rai

Regular readers of this column will have seen a couple of these images before. I wanted to put all my recent rural Chiang Rai images in one place making them easy to find. Regular readers will also know that Chiang Rai is my favorite small town in Thailand. And that I like the rural Chiang Rai countryside even better!

I’ve yet to discover my “favorite” rural areas in Chiang Rai. It seems every time I set out to drive around the countryside I’m delighted by the scenes I discover. Great skies, mountains, rice fields, lakes, the people, and much more. Photographically rich!

Even the old shacks you come across are rich in wood tones and textures.

Ranching and farming is done today, as it was done a hundred years ago.

Rice fields are everywhere, but don’t be surprised to come across lakes with beautiful trees just around the next corner.

There are enough mountain scapes to decorate many scene backgrounds.

Time stands still, maybe for over a hundred years, as a fishermen fishes from a hollowed out boat for the evenings meal.

Many farms have man made ponds used for fish farming.

And interesting landscape by itself, but enhanced by using part of an old shack to frame the landscape.

The small size and small dynamic range of a computer monitor doesn’t do this toned black and white image justice.

Discover the rural landscapes of Chiang Rai on your own. Challenge yourself to find an unusual perspective, a virgin landscape, or even a new friend to share a meal. You’ll also love rural Chiang Rai..

Capture Tips

Really good photographs rarely happen by accident. Usually they’re the result of mastering your equipment and more, accumulating bits and pieces of “technique” which are often scene specific. This week, and in coming weeks, I’m going to share with you a few capture tips designed to enhance good photographs into great photographs. Some of this stuff will seem basic, but you’d be surprised how often they’re overlooked.

Another African Crown Crane. Beautifully colored birds with a regal air about them. At first glance this image looks really solid. However, it would not stand up to even a modest size enlargement. Why?

On this crop of the image above you can see how critical focus failed. The eye is very soft and the crown itself is out of focus. You can’t really see this on a full length web site image, and you probably wouldn’t notice it on a 8×10 either. But you’d certainly notice it on anything larger. You’d notice it in a big way. Critical Focus is vital! Make sure you place the AF sensor on the closest eye. Its not good enough to have all your sensors activated so it picks up on the closest “part” of the animal, you need to have only a single AF sensor active and to put that sensor on the closest eye.

This set of eight images was captured at 4fps as the crane walked across the pond. Single shots sometimes work, but a continuous set of shots taken in succession will increase your odds of making a great capture. Notice that has the crane moves across the pond its head and even it’s body take on different angles to the directional light?

These are crops of the same eight images above. Notice not only how the eye goes in/out of focus from capture to capture, but how the angle of light makes the eye go from a light blue (natural) to dark, to hidden, to dark, to blue again. The first shot of the series set the AF sensor on the eye and nailed the critical focus. The camera held this focus point as I held down the shutter button. As the head turned it’s angle, the eye came back into focus as just the point the directional light perfectly illuminated the eye. Animals move fast. Techniques such as these help you compensate.

Over 30 images taken of this crane. Only a single perfect shot and this is it. This is the shot I wanted and I knew when I nailed it. It wouldn’t be unusual for a photographer to take over 200-300 images of a single subject to get the shot they wanted. The perfect light, great contrast and color provided by the perfect light, the perfect pose, a great shadow, and the depth of field (DOF) works perfectly in this scene.

Notice that the eye is super shape, naturally well lit, and critical focus was achieved. It doesn’t get much better than this. This capture can be evaluated from top to bottom and everything is either perfect or very solid. This is the sort of shot you get as you perfect your technique and become proficient with your equipment. This is why you challenge yourself. Something to look forward to, and an image that looks great in a gallery size print hanging on your wall properly mounted.

Photography News of Interest

Not everyone is inclined to spent $4000-$10,000 USD’s on a long lens for wildlife use. Sure, these lenses have their advantages, but there are many out there who want to spend less and are willing to live with the compromises. Sigma has produced the “Bigma” 50-500mm F4-6×3 EX DG HSM APO lens for many years and scores of photographers have been thrilled with both it’s value and image quality. This would be a lens to consider for wildlife if you just aren’t inclined to spend the big bucks for Canon Telephotos. Check out the review my SLRGEAR.com here.

2tb SATA II drives are now on the shelves from at least two manufacturers. This is great news for photographers who have large archives to store and access. Western Digital is the latest to release a 2tb drive and you can read about it here.

Hot on the heels of Canon’s brilliant T1i consumer DSLR featuring a 15.1mp sensor and HD movies, Nikon releases the D5000 in direct competition. 12.3mp’s, large 2.7” LCD, and 720p HD movie mode. At $850 USD suggested retail I’m sure it will compete well with the Canon T1i. You can read an hands on review here.

Photographer Ken Rockwell is full of great information, and just as often he’s full of.. well.. controversial information. You need to be smarter than the average bear to understand what he’s really trying to say in the controversial part. A very useful article he recently penned is “Nikon D700, D3, and D3x, lens recommendations.” I read through this and found myself agreeing with most everything. Sometimes with Ken it’s like this, other times he makes me laugh. Check out this article here.

Readers' Submissions

Steve –

Here are a few more taken around your condo.

A wider shot of the condo complex I stayed at. The location was good in that it was accessible from the expressway and fairly easy to spot. The majority of the taxi drivers that we had seemed to know where the place was and got us there without too much trouble. Only one got really confused. Having a high cluster of buildings like that was a good navigational aide in my local wanderings, though you would be amazed at how quickly they can vanish behind a “small” building.

Not far from Steve’s place is one of Bangkok’s many hospitals. You often see them driving along the expressway. Well within walking distance I went past it every morning to breakfast. This was a private hospital, pay as you go. Medical care in Thailand can be a mixed bag. Health insurance as we know it isn’t widely available. But the prices for many services is much more line with what people can afford. An office visit at the top hospital in Bangkok runs 800 Bhatt ($25/US)

Steve likes the place because its in a great location for getting out of town (a few minutes from the main expressway) and in the future the skytrain (the large bridge like structure running through the picture) will stop nearby. Looking “down” from the balcony at the single and two story houses is a nearby residential section that is actually pretty affluent.

The building with the colorful blue domes is the local mosque. You could easily hear the call to prayer coming from its speakers every day.

One of my big objectives in coming to Thailand was to have some real Thai food so that I would know what the stuff was “supposed” to taste like. In the past I had learned the Chinese food we had in America and the Chinese food in China were not the same thing. Would it by for the same for Thai food?

I’ve eaten at a few Thai restaurants in the US but there were two that I kept coming back to because the food there was just different, and better than other places. One place, Thai Noodle House, used to have Rice Congee on the weekends. It’s a like a rice soup with little bits of flavor and meat in it. Fang was crazy about it and I liked it a lot.

My second morning in Thailand Steve’s Thai wife, Oy took me out for some breakfast. We rounded the corner at Soi 51 and I spotted a cart with a big vat of rice soup. I instantly remembered the dish and had Oy order it up. Once I got it and took the first bite part of my purpose here had been fulfilled. The Congee, or Jok as the Thai called it, was every bit as good as I had hoped and then some. The flavor was just like what I got at Thai Noodle house, only much stronger and more intense.

Another must have in my visit was Thai Iced Tea. I was first introduced to it over at Satay in Austin and I loved it. I had Thai tea at a bunch of different places but many of them didn’t measure up to Satay. The tea there had a certain smoky flavor about it that added the extra body that I loved.

Oy had taken me to this drink stand before and gotten a sweet and sour drink that was pretty interesting. But the next time we went out I asked if we could get Thai Tea, or Thai Cha. Turns out this stand did that too. Oy ordered one for me and I watched closely how it was made.

The first thing I noticed was the presence of a small metal can filled with dark liquid with a mesh strainer net in it. That was the basic tea brew. But the drink started with about a tablespoon full for brown sugar in a small glass. To that was added sweetened condensed milk. Then the hot liquid was added to the cup, probably only 4 or 5 ounces. The mixture was stirred up to dissolved the sugar and sweetened condensed milk. To that she added some coffee creamer and then pour the whole thing in a plastic cup filled with ice.

I ended up with a glass and it was just like what I got at Satay, cool, sweet and smoky. And instead of $3 it was 50 cents. The amount of drink you got was somewhat less than at Satay but for a quick refresher in the afternoon or a sweet treat the amount was fine.

From then on every time that I had the occasion to stop by that booth on the way back up Soi 51 I would order up a Thai Tea by pointing at the cylinder that contained it. Later I just had to show up and she started making it.

Tom

Tom –

Thank you! Your narratives are always informative and interesting. I really appreciate these “loans” from your archives. Many of you might remember Tom from his excellent Outing pieces:

Night Shots

Qianmen Street

Panoramic

Panoramic II

Truly good work!

Thanks Tom

Steve

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: [email protected]

Readers' Questions

Hi Steve,

For the camera, I don't really know if you can use that kind of question, however:

1) I had a Fujifilm Finepix S5000 which worked fine for me but I hadn't used it for quite a while and when I tried to turn it on again I realized it had died – or at least parts of it: the display turned bright white.

I guess it's not worth repairing (5 years old now….) as it'll probably cost much more than buying a new one. When I went to the shop I was quite confused to see the multitude of models available around 10.000THB, so I was wondering if you can give any advice for some thing easy to use or the key features that are really important and what can be ignored (guess the answer could fill books, huh ?).

2) Does the way the light travel through the lens and body of the camera before it hits the CCD affect the quality of the photo, i.e. is there a noticeable difference between the pictures of a camera with a slim body (like a Canon IXUS) and a 'bulky' body (like a Finepix or EOS) even if they have the same resolution ?

Best regards,

Helge

Helge –

Question 1:

You’ve asked some really good questions and I’m sure there are many with cameras out there laying in drawers with the same issue that might get tossed out as garbage unless they read this response.

Chances are you not using it in a while had nothing to do with the bright white LCD. I can almost tell you for certain that the LCD is broken and needs to be replaced. Sometimes they wear out, sometimes they take a hard blow. I’d guess yours took a hit while rolling around in a drawer or something similar.

Repairing LCD’s can be done in two ways. The Fuji service center here in Bangkok can replace your LCD while your wait for a very reasonable cost. The last time I had one done on a compact (Fuji Finepix F30) it was baht 1100 and that was just a few months ago. It took them about 30 minutes to replace it. They stock the parts.

I had an opportunity to repair a Fuji Finepix F31 on the cheap since then and decided to check out Chinatown. They have tons of parts. I removed the LCD from the camera (you need a very fine set of screwdrivers) and walked among the vendors and eventually found a brand new replacement for baht 300.

Most will probably feel comfortable going to the Fuji service center for repairs (or whatever brand they have). Do note that all these LCD’s are likely not manufactured by the camera maker. They buy them from the same 2-3 LCD manufacturers, so any camera brand repair should be just as easy and inexpensive.

Question 2:

Yes, definitely. But not necessary in the types of bodies you listed. Allow me to explain:

For sure, image quality has everything to do with the way light passes through the lens, mirror box, prism, and to the sensor. The lens of course would be the most significant factor.

But what I think you’re really asking is ‘does the path’ the light takes before it hits the sensor affect image quality? This can be a very complex answer if you start looking for design deficiencies. If we take design deficiencies out of the equation (which we should, because without careful analysis on each camera we can’t ascertain such deficiencies with any accuracy) then the answer would be no. The camera is designed to ‘direct’ the light to the sensor as efficiently as possible and in most cases they do. The “thickness” of a point and shoot’s body has little to do with this particular design feature. The thickness has more to do with battery bulk, lens design (physical size), miniaturization of electronic components, and other features that take up physical space. If you look carefully at the test images of like (same size, even same manufacturer) CCD in different bodies, you’ll find the images very similar with the only real differences being the lens or possibly how firmware cleans the noise.

Generally, the bigger the sensor the more light it needs to cover it, the most care must be taken in the design and quality of the light path. With point and shoot compacts the CCD is so small, this isn’t an issue. With bigger sensors like DSLRs or medium format digital backs.. the light path for certain comes into play. However, instead of showing up between the different models as an image quality issue, it shows up as a viewfinder (these cameras have optical viewfinders) issue. Pros demand the biggest brightest and most clear viewfinder possible. No where is this more evident than between a crop frame and full frame DSLR.

A new design recently out on the market is the new Micro 4/3’s system. This is a much larger sensor than your standard P&S compact with great image quality, yet there is no optical viewfinder. By incorporating a high end electronic viewfinder (EVF) they’ve done away with the thickness and bulk necessary for a optical viewfinder. The tradeoff for losing your optical viewfinder, is a much smaller and thinner camera. Many professionals looking for a small personal camera with high image quality are turning to this new system. Panasonic’s G1(h) is the best example yet. Akulka recently submitted a special on the Philippines using this camera. Philippines, an Evolution. Check it out.

I hope this helps

Steve

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

A Snapshot of Bangkok Images Week in Review

Two workshops and as you read this my son and I will be on the road for a summer getaway. We’re thinking Laos or possibly Cambodia. We’ll let you know.

Infocus Blog

Stranded on a Deserted Island

You’ve heard this before, but probably as a “desert” island. How many real desert islands are there? Not many. The real phrase is “deserted” island.

Okay, you’re stranded on a deserted island and could have only one lens for your DSLR. What lens would it be?

This is a great exercise, not because we need to talk about the characteristics of different lenses, but because the answer will help define your style. Many people don’t even know what their style is, so this is a great way to help think about it.

Would it be a telephoto? Perhaps to photograph the wildlife?

Would it be a portrait lens to take great portraits of the natives?

How about a macro lens to photograph all the insects?

A zoom lens with a very wide range so you could photograph just about everything?

A very fast wide aperture lens so you could photograph in low light, or inside caves?

Many would say a ultra-wide angle zoom lens for landscapes and even some people photography. I was tempted to choose this type of lens until I gave it some thought.

Many professionals will tell you a mid-range zoom (24-70mm) is the least desirable lens because they’d never use this range, that other lenses overlap its range. This is partly true, at least if you’re not a professional who works in a studio where this lens is used more than any other.

My deserted island lens would be my freaky sharp Canon 24-70mm F2.8 L lens, BECAUSE all the other lenses overlap it. Because it would be extremely useful and allow a high level of photography over the widest subject range. Its great for landscapes, portraits, close-in wildlife, and the F2.8 aperture is large enough so that even low light photography is possible.

What lens would you choose for your sentence on a deserted island?

Until next week..