In Focus, Bangkok Photography Blog July 4th, 2009

Chiang Mai, 3 Choirs/Mid-Range Zooms

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Feature Photograph

Sometimes you take that one photograph that makes you pause more than usual. A photograph that makes you step back and re-evaluate how you think about something, how you look at something, and in this case how people are looking at you. This is such a photograph and that’s why this photograph is profoundly significant.

It’s a photograph of a sign posted at the entrance to Wat Rung Khun in Chiang Rai. Yes, I distorted its shape, but not its message. Let's be honest, do you think this message is fair? When I first read it, despite half a day driving just to get to this place, my first inclination was to turn around and walk away. Sure, I was insulted. But I think the feeling of shame towards my fellow “foreign visitors” was stronger. Stronger because they make a good point.

We’ve all see the “Ugly American” or the “Ugly Brit” or the “Ugly Russian” and especially the “Ugly Korean” visitors who make total asses of themselves. Blatant disregard for the culture of others, for their places of worship, and so much more. I’m on record as noting the disrespectful and deplorable behavior of “tourists” at many sites I visit. I wish it wasn’t true, but it is.

On this day I looked at the lady controlling the access gate with a “who me” look and she generously waved me through the gates without a tour guide. It was a relatively slow day so I don’t think employing tour guides was their primary motivating reason.

If we want to take responsibility for the way we’re looked upon as foreigners.. perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is: What can we do to gain respect and change their perception of us? For those of you reading this I’m sure the answer for our own behavior is clear. But what about the behavior of other tourists you’ve already witnessed acting like buffoons and are sure to witness again? Taking them by the elbow and exerting a bit of peer pressure in the way of a few words of reason could certainly help. I will if you will.

We’ve all laughed and called our toilets the “throne” at one time or the other, but the restroom facilities at Wat Rung Khun take the Golden Porcelain Throne joke further than I’ve ever seen it taken. This lovely golden structure is the restrooms for Wat Rung Khun, provided for your pleasure and recreation. I’ve never seen more bling on a restroom, or a finer looking building to house them. Wat Rung Khun is nothing if not a bit overdone in many areas.


Chiang Mai, 3 Choirs

In the opening Feature Photograph section the week before last (June 20th) I showed a soloist and her choir and talked a bit about my trip to Chiang Mai and how much I’ve enjoyed covering these concerts both as a guest and as a photographer. Today I’d like to show you some images from this show and introduce you to all three choirs, their conductors, and respective programs.

Every performance has a host who introduces the choir(s) and tells you which conductor and which piece will be next.

This is perhaps the best choir in Thailand, the Thai Youth Choir, composed of kids from the age 14-25 all from the Bangkok area. This choir regularly performs at the Thailand Cultural Center, Bangkok, at the highest levels. Wearing their “away” uniforms they’re not much to look at photographically, but listening to them perform is pure pleasure.

Thai Your Choir

Conductor: Pawasut Piriyapongrat

Program:
Blow! Blow! — Composed by Theron Kirk, Words by Shakspeares
Revecy venir le Printemps — Composed by Leonard Bernstein

Ubi caritas et amor — Composed by Morten Lauridsen
Plaudite manibus — Composed by Branko Stark
Sakura — Japanese traditional song, arranged by Toru Takemitsu
Loch Lomond — Scottish traditional song, arranged by Jonathan Quick
Pasigin — Visayan Fishing Song, arranged by Eudy Palaruan
Alexandra — Composed by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, arranged by Robert Walker
Loy Kratong — Thai traditional song, arranged by Kauval Kulwattanothai

This choir is from Mr. Fort College. Not as large as the TYC, but they love what they do and it was evident in their enthusiasm and efforts. Everyone enjoyed their performance.

Mt. Fort College

Conductor: Ezra Sittan

Pianist: Weerawan Muangsuwan

Program:
How Do I Live? — Words and Music by Diane Warren, arranged by Jeff Funk
He's Got the Whole World (In His Hands) — Spiritual, arranged by Ruth Elaine Schram
Love Songs from the Beatles — Words and Music by John Lennon and Paul Mccartney, arranged by Ed Lojeski

The surprise of the evening came from the Dara Wittayalai School in Chiang Mai. Small, amplified, and armed with a brilliant program and superb effort they captured the hearts of the audience this night in Chiang Mai.

Dara Wittayalai School

Conductor: Anusit Kethom

Program:
Harmony — Composed by Norman Simon and Artie Carplant Sofa Calypso — Composed by Jack North and Walter Rodby
Song Tor Kwam Rak (Pass on the Love) — Composed by Boyd Kosiyabhong

Soloist Tanut Ruengwimolwet sang the Scottish traditional song “ Loch Lomond” and every young lady in the audience swooned. Tanut is a 12th grader from Bangkok Christian College, the first private school in Thailand.

Solist Prangsuwan, a 12th grader sang “How Do I Live” and the audience showed their appreciation through a loud and sustained applause.

The choir from Dara Wittayalai School had their own guitarist and drummer to accompany them.

The TYC were all business as they went through some very complex pieces.

Mt. Fort College was relaxed and at ease during their performance.

Dara Wittayalai School incorporated choreographed movements in time to their pieces to great effect. Great showmanship!

Conductor Ezra Sittan from Mr. Fort College receives a bouquet of flowers in appreciation for the fine performance of her choir.

A bouquet of flowers is given to Conductor Anusit Kethom for Dara Wittayalai School’s outstanding performance.

Conductor Dr. Pawasut Piriyapongrat, a professor of music from Chulalongkorn, is presented a large bouquet of flowers for her Thai Youth Choir's wonderful performance and in appreciation for their long travel to Chiang Mai.

All three conductors face the audience and receive great applause for a truly entertaining evening!

After the concert the three choirs posed for pictures together (taken from the seat I shot all the pictures from). It should be noted that no choir had a bigger cheering section than the other two choirs watching them perform. Their support and praise for each other was extraordinary.

Take the time to look at your local cultural center for the schedules of performances. The cost is minimal and the enjoyment great. This is truly something different to do in Thailand and you’ll really be glad you made the effort.


Mid-Range Zooms

This is probably more appropriate as a blog entry where I usually place my rants, but there is also a lot to be learned here.

A short while ago I posted a lens choice article by Ken Rockwell and stated that I agreed with most of it. There were a few minor points I didn’t agree with, and one large issue. He did it again! Reading this article by him again this week I saw the same glaring issue which I disagreed with about mid-range zooms. Ken Rockwell isn’t the only one. Many professionals will tell you they don’t own or don’t use mid-range zooms. The statement “I don’t know a single professional who uses a mid-range zoom” needs to be qualified. Perhaps, if all you know are professional landscape photographers this ‘could’ be true. I still doubt it.

In his defense he might think that anyone reading his site has like interests in photography. Or, they might be like me who reads his site because he’s an entertaining writer, controversial, and knowledgeable about photography on a grand scale.

Any professional who shoots weddings, events, photojournalists (a mid-range zoom is their second most used lens right behind the 70-200mm zoom), or studio photographer uses mid-range zooms as their bread and butter lens. It's at least in their top 3.

I’m not even sure I agree that a landscape photographer wouldn’t be well served by a quality mid-range zooms. What is a mid-range zoom? A 24-70mm, 28-70mm, 35-70mm, 24-105mm, 24-85mm, or any zoom close to this range. The professional grade lenses are usually F2.8 lenses with the exception of Canon’s excellent 24-105mm and Nikon’s 24-85mm which are both F4 lenses with IS/VR.


Characteristics of a professional mid-range zoom:

Sharp images throughout the focal range. Excellent color rendition and strong contrast. Noticeable barrel distortion on the wide end, and some pin-cushioning distortion on the long end. Bokeh (defocused area) is usually rougher than you’d want. Fast handing, fast focusing, and an extremely useful focal range for studio portraits, events, weddings, and so forth. Very well built. Most take 77mm filters.


Why not use a mid-range zoom for landscape photography?

There are several reasons you might make another choice. First, focal range overlap. Most landscapes will be captured with a wide-angle zoom (16-35, 17-40, 17-35, etc) or wide angle prime. Beyond that you’re usually doing telephoto landscapes with a 70-200, 200, 300, or something longer than 70mm.

When you’re trying to travel light a big heavy mid-range zoom might not offer that much benefit for the small chance you’ll use the focal range between your wide-angle zoom and your telephoto zoom. Also, many primes are lighter and faster. Kinda sorta. At least the old manual focus primes are, and the mid-quality primes of F2.8 like the 24, 36, 50.. The really high quality primes like the Canon 24mm F1.4 and 35mm F1.4 are big heavy pieces of glass. The Nikon 28mm F1.4 is also a big heavy beast.

Why use a mid-range zoom for landscape photograph?

There might be several reasons. The most common being you’re not a professional landscape photographer and you already own one that you use to photograph the kids, family events, and the such.. and you don’t need to spend more money to cover that range. Or, you’re a professional photographer who already heavily uses a mid-range zoom and landscape photography is a hobby.

Modern professional grade mid-range zooms are very good optically. At the apertures most often used for landscape photography (f8, f11, or smaller) ‘optically’ even the very best primes offer very little improvement over a mid-range zoom. You’ll be splitting hairs to see a difference in sharpness, color, or contrast. You will see less distortion with primes. Still, with modern software the small amount of distortion common in mid-range zooms is easily corrected with a mouse click.

How good optically are they?

Take a look at this image of Angkor Vat captured with my 24-105mm F4 IS Canon L lens.

Now take a look at this crop (full size crop) and the resolving power of this lens. Remember, this was taken with a 1dsMarkII, a five year old camera body.

There would have been very little noticeable difference of this scene, between the 24-105mm F4 IS, and the top of the line Canon 35mm F1.4 And let's not forget, I was shooting this at F8-F11 where the 24-105’s sharpness sweet spot is, and I had image stabilization. The image stabilization, especially if the light was marginal, might have given the optical edge to the 24-105mm.

I also own the Canon 24-70mm F2.8 L lens and it’s even sharper! Freaky sharp.

Look at this image.

Now look at a crop of the above image. It really couldn’t be any sharper on a practical basis.

I’ve owned the Nikon 28-70mm F2.8.

Not bad?

About as good as you’ll need for any sort of practical sharpness.


Are there instances where a faster prime in these ranges offer advantages for landscape photography?

Yes. Caves, temples, and many instances of general use like inside museums, buildings, and any instance where you don’t require the depth of field (DOF) of the smaller apertures and the light is marginal. You can end up carrying an awful lot of expensive fast primes to cover all these instances.

I routinely carry a very lightweight Sigma 20mm F1.8. It goes for about $300 and I’ve found it invaluable inside temples, caves, and even museums and buildings. I recently used it for the shots inside the Death Railway Museum in Kanchanaburi when I was offered rare access and it’s the only lens I had with me which was suitable.

Summary:

Sure, if I was a dedicated landscape photographer and that’s all I ever did, then a mid-range zoom probably wouldn’t make my “must have” list. However, if I was an average amateur hobbyist who enjoyed shooting landscapes, a mid-range zoom would probably be a lens I already own for other uses, and as I’ve shown above it can be very useful for landscape photography within that focal range.

Who should definitely own a mid-range zoom?

  1. A wedding photographer
  2. A photojournalist
  3. A studio photographer
  4. Anyone who enjoys photographing family events
  5. Anyone who just enjoys visiting places and wants a single zoom lens in the most useful range

The list could stretch out quite a bit longer, but you get the point.

I know Ken Rockwell and other dedicated landscape photographers are trying to make a point about their being better choices for their type of photography. But the casual photographer / reader will probably be misled and ill served by these statements.

It’s always good to have all the useful information to make informed decisions.

When you’re just getting into photography a quality mid-range zoom will probably be one of your first lens purchases. If you’re a professional who uses a mid-range zoom as one of their bread and butter lenses (wedding, studio, events, photojournalism) you’ll for sure own one. And if you’re a seasoned photographer you’ve probably already added at least one mid-range zoom to your lens collection as well as many primes, and you’ll just pack your bag with the best lenses for your current outing.

I think you’ll be hard pressed to not find a quality mid-range zoom useful in a big way.


Photography News of Interest

“Currently” the Nikon D3x is tied for the most resolution in a DSLR with the Sony A900, but stands alone in overall image quality. There is more to a camera than image quality and before buying a system your needs should be examined closely and matched to the best ‘overall’ DSLR. The Canon 5d Mark II, Sony A900, and Canon 1ds Mark III all have different advantages over the D3x, and the D3x over the rest of the field. Reading a solid review can help you make the decision. Image Resources just updated their excellent preview / review with full test results. Read more here.

If you’re the lucky owner of a new Micro 4/3’s system, especially the Panasonic G1(h) and their 14-55mm and other lenses, know that Panasonic is providing firmware updates (bodies and lenses) to help with a host of function, from better Autofocus in continuous mode to smoother operation of the aperture of the lenses in movie mode. Check out Panasonics firmware update page here.

An excellent piece from NPR. Teaching Kids to Think Creatively Through Photography. Wouldn’t this be good in a country where education mostly relies on copying from the blackboard and repeating after the teacher? I’m just sayin.. Read more about it here.

Have you ever watched one of the three CSIs and thought about becoming a forensic photographer? These students were put in contact with a gruesome mocked up scene for some very realistic experience. You can read more about this unusual training experience here.


Readers' Submissions

Hi Steve

Bagan, one of many Burmese style Buddhas with red color clothes that look much different from a Thai monk. The walls inside the room are painted on the plaster and you can still see the different colors .

Bagan, a look to the outside. It reminds me of Angkor Wat.

Bagan religious art and architecture. In ancient times we can understand how the inside of the room was built.

Amazing art.

This pic represents the distraction and the robbery which was done during the Mongolian invasion. The head and the body of the Buddha were smashed since it was known precious stones were put inside the head of Buddha and that was what the robbers were after.

More will come soon

Eyal

Eyal –

Thank you! Very much enjoy the images and look forward to more. Your narratives are interesting and appreciated.

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;

Can you please explain how to get a blurred background with a small digital camera? I do not need to understand what I am doing, only what settings to use.

Thanks!

Randy

Randy –

The answer isn’t going to be what you want. Allow me to explain:

What you’re asking in photography terminology is “how do I achieve a shallow depth of field (DOF).”

Depth of Field (DOF) is a function of four main variables.

  1. Aperture (the more open the aperture, the more shallow the DOF)
  2. Focal Length (the longer the focal length (say 150mm vs. 24mm) the more shallow the DOF)
  3. Focal Distance (the closer you get to the subject, the more shallow the DOF)
  4. Sensor size (the larger the sensor, the more shallow the DOF)

Small compact cameras are lacking in two main areas that allow you to easily achieve a shallow DOF.

  1. Aperture (most compact cameras have small apertures)
  2. Sensor Size (compact cameras universally have very small sensors)

The sensor size limits compact cameras from achieving a shallow DOF. This works out well for manufacturers for two reasons. Most compact camera users want sharp focus throughout the frame (deep DOF), and smaller sensors are much cheaper to manufacture.

Knowing this, in some circumstances with some compact digital cameras, you can get some blur (bokeh) if you know which settings to use and use the settings at their extreme ends. Try this, set your camera as follows:

  1. Set in Aperture Priority mode..
  2. Set the aperture to the largest aperture. This will be the smallest number, i.e. F4 vs. F11.
  3. Extend your lens to its maximum zoom setting.
  4. Get as physically close to the subject as you can and still achieve the framing you desire.

This is the best you can do with a compact camera. Give yours a try and see how it works out for you. Some compact cameras with longer zoom lenses and faster lenses can overcome the small sensor deficit if used at their limits.

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

Slow season is upon us. Not a single bit of business all week!

Help feed a starving photographer.. ;o)

Infocus Blog

What am I looking at?

We’ve all heard the phrase “different strokes for different folks?” It sounds silly if you say it out loud. Yet, when it comes to art and photography specifically, the above quote couldn’t be more apropos. Art is an acquired taste. What you see when you look at art takes experience and to some extent education. Not necessarily a formal education either, but an education born of passion and desire for all things ‘artistic’ in nature that you personally care for.

Several weeks back I posted a learning topic about Photography Critique sites. I highly recommended, and still do, that if you’re new to photography as an art, that you spend some time on these sites learning to see what others are looking at. By paying attention to what others see, it will help to develop your own eye.

Thanks to the internet many aspiring photographers will cruise the WWW and view photo blogs, travel blogs, and personal websites. Some are filled with great photography, some are not. Who’s to judge other than your own personal tastes?

When viewing the work of others new photographers will start to develop their own list of likes and dislikes, note that which turns them on, try out the ‘look’ on their own images, and in this way start to develop their own “style.” As you can imagine, if you were only being exposed to great works this would be very positive. Is the internet filled with great works? Or is it a mixture of different levels of talent and accomplishment, easily posted, and perhaps misinterpreted?

I would never be so snobbish to suggest that only a “trained” art viewer has a valid opinion. Still, developing your own “style” can take years. Sometimes decades. Wouldn’t you rather develop a style which has the best chance of pleasing others as well as yourself?

Maybe it would be wise to learn what you’re looking at in both a formal setting, and a free view setting? Compare them, ask yourself why you like that which you enjoy from each. Learn to know and appreciate what you’re viewing as “art” and how others see the same. If you only create ‘art’ to please yourself then none of this matters. However, if you’re creating ‘art’ as a business, to share with others, or even post on the web.. then perhaps you should take a look.. at how what you’re looking at?

Just food for thought.

Until next week..