Sepia Toning/Eric Clapton Bangkok 2011/Lightroom Noise Reduction
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Feature Photograph *menu
Canon 1ds Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM @F8 1/1000th 70mm ISO 100
This second piece in our news series on digital toning is about sepia toning. As we’ve previously discussed, digital toning presets are a popular feature set in Lightroom and most imaging software. We’ll be exploring the genesis of the most common toning presets and how they apply to our photography.
For over a hundred years before it was called “digital toning” it was known as “chemical toning.” Black and white photography was enhanced by the addition of certain chemicals, and in the case of sepia this chemical was a pigment made from the ‘Sepia Officinalis Cuttlefish’ found in the English Channel, and applied to the positive print. This is a unique chemical in toning, as most toning types work by replacing the metallic sliver in the emulsion with a variant silver compound of some type.
Sepia toning gives the print a warmer tone which helps the print age better for archival purposes. But why would we convert modern color digital images to sepia today? Over the last century we’ve grown accustomed to seeing sepia prints and we associate them with an old style of photography, an era, a time and place in history which brings back special memories or sets a mood.
In the example above, a Thai fisherman in his sampan on a lake fishing, the sepia sets a mood and look which is just as accurate today as it might have been 150 years ago. There is nothing in the frame to signal the viewer “hey, this image was captured yesterday.” In other words, sepia fits the period and feel I wanted in this composition and I think it works well.
Fuji Finepix F200EXR @F12 1/75th 14mm ISO 100
The above picture IMO doesn’t work nearly as well with sepia. In fact, it’s a disaster. Nothing in the composition besides a bit of plant life would have been around during the original era of sepia toning. No mood is set, no era indicated. Just a mess. So why are most digital toning jobs in sepia I see of modern subjects? I don’t know, but I hope this article helps prevent more.
Eric Clapton, Bangkok 2011 *menu
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/10th 54mm ISO 1600
Eric Clapton Bangkok 2011, Impact Arena. February 16th. This was my second Eric Clapton concert in Thailand, the first being his sold out concert in 2007. This concert was sold out as well. In fact, try as I might I couldn't get tickets and if it wasn't for the extraordinary generosity of a good friend who took me as his guest, I wouldn't have been able to go this year. Thank you K!
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/60th 55mm ISO 1600
I must say Eric Clapton was great, the seats were great, great company, if there was any let down at all it would be the Impact Arena itself which was built with anything but music and acoustics in mind. Still, Eric Clapton went all out this evening trying to find what this mostly Thai audience would really appreciate. As you would have guessed, his classic pop songs won them over in a big way. Cocaine and Wonderful Tonight brought down the house in a big way.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/20th 18mm ISO 1600
As you probably suspected, yours truly was not professionally covering the Eric Clapton concert. The tickets were clearly stamped with "NO PHOTOGRAPHY, NO RECORDING DEVICES, etc" and they were checking your bags on the way in.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/100th 55mm ISO 500
A bazillion cameras, mostly mobile phones with internal cameras and camcorders, made it through. I suspect small cameras made it through in pockets. Any bags and all purses were checked. Watching others using their IPhones and other such recording devices I noticed they were limited to either very small subjects in the frame, or what most were doing was recording the big video panels and not the live subjects!
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/15th 55mm ISO 1600
Not being able to get the appropriate cameras into the arena I was limited to a small Fuji F200EXR compact and the Sony NEX-5 with the 17-55mm lens. Not ideal considering I was 150-200 feet away from the stage and working off a severe angle. Getting any sort of acceptable image was a major challenge which I'll discuss later. Even under the best of circumstances using the best DSLRs and fastest lenses photographing a concert is a difficult task. The lack and type of light results in some real challenges.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/40th 55mm ISO 1600
As the stage lighting changes you’re provided with different opportunities for captures. Contrast increases and decreases with the intensity and direction of light, colors change, and spotlights isolate individuals while general lighting dims around the others.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/10th 55mm ISO 1600
Other challenges brought on by being limited to one shooting location and angle, is that often a stage prop (such as this microphone) is right in front of his face. As you’ve noticed most of these images are soft. Let me explain how why this happens.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/80th 55mm ISO 1600
Because the intensity of the lighting is anything but uniform, most of your automatic exposure controls just won’t work. I found that ‘spot’ metering combined with careful exposure control (EV) helped nail the exposures. When you nail the exposures you won’t be increasing noise by adjusting the exposure after the fact.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/10th 28mm ISO 1600
In the same vein, autofocus becomes an issue because of the lighting challenges. In this case there is plenty of light for the AF sensors to find focus, but if you leave the AF illuminator active I found it often conflicted with the stage lights throwing focus off.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/100th 55mm ISO 500
Still, I ended up shooting at ISO 1600, aperture 5.6 was the widest aperture available at the full 55mm (variable aperture 3.5-5.6 lens), and to prevent from moving to ISO 3200 where I’d lose even more detail and have even more grain, I chose to operate at shutter speeds of 1/10th to 1/100th which when coupled with the OSS image stabilization produced decently sharp images ‘most’ of the time. Even so, you needed to have a stable shooting platform no matter the shutter speed, and a foot stomping crowd combined with a less than stable seating area meant a stable shooting platform was next to impossible.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/100th 55mm ISO 800
Now consider I’m using a lens with an effective (35mm equiv) focal length of 82.5 on the long end, from several hundred feet, and now you know I’m severely cropping these images which means very few pixels to work with.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/40th 42mm ISO 1600
My friend noticed I was shooting 4-6 captures in continuous mode all the time. He probably wondered why. The answer is that a combination of a seriously unstable shooting platform, ISO 1600, slow shutter speeds, and poor lighting meant clear sharp pictures were more of an exception than a rule, so multiple continuous captures of the same subject simply increases your odds of getting a good one.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/100th 55mm ISO 1600
When more stage lights increased in intensity, it was possible to shoot at a faster shutter speed which clearly gave sharper images, but less contrast. Everything was a trade off.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/13th 55mm ISO 1600
Other scenes afforded very little light requiring a very slow shutter speed, yet sometimes you just get lucky.
Fuji Finepix F200EXR @F5.1 1/30th 32mm ISO 800
The Fuji Finepix F200EXR which I handed to my friend to shoot, also an experienced photographer, had twice the focal length at an effective 140mm. You might expect focal length to give an edge as this distance over cropping an image from a larger sensor, but I found the Sony NEX-5, even with a max focal length of 82.5, was able to produce the better image every time. The power of a bigger sensor cannot be overstated.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1sec 20mm ISO 1600
It was interesting watching those close to me use their camera phones. Most were taking pictures of the big screens and not the live subject. When I asked the lady in front of me why, she smiled and said “mai pen rai, no one will know the difference..” Considering the poor image quality of even the best camera phones in such an environment, she made a good point.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/60th 55mm ISO 1600
I want to talk about the Impact Arena a bit more. This is an absolutely terrible location for producing music. Especially blues. It’s bright to the point of being tinny. It’s obvious seating capacity and not music production where the priorities with the builders. Every dedicated blues fan knows the sound will change drastically from hall to hall, blues club to blues club, and stadium to stadium. Dedicated fans will often forego a concert at a close and convenient location, only to travel a thousand miles or more at great expense to hear the same person play at a preferred venue.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/100th 55mm ISO 1250
This is why an ‘accurate’ home stereo system really isn’t the advantage many think it is. Once past a certain quality point, your listening room and the way it’s furnished, your seating location, the construction of the walls, all of this means much more to accurate music production. Perhaps the best hall in Thailand is the main hall at the Thailand Cultural Center. I’ve been to several wonderful performances there where every voice in a choir is enjoyed with great accuracy. If the same choir had performed at the Impact Arena, in comparison, all you’d hear is a bunch of noise melding together in a very ugly way. Perhaps this is why many musicians find it hard to really get into their music when at such a venue, which would explain why Eric Clapton got off to a slow start.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 .6sec 19mm ISO 800
Some will try to tell you shows at the Impact Center are often lackluster and the venue will be half empty. Not when Eric Clapton comes to town. Every available seat and then some was taken, from in front of the stage to the top of the rafters. The house was packed!
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 .8sec 18mm ISO 1600
I made this capture to illustrate how many camera phones were being used at any one time. Any time you looked you could count hundreds in use. I really wish they’d allow real cameras and stop this nonsense. The images would have been hugely better.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/100th 55mm ISO 1600
Eric Clapton is one of the most relaxed and laid back performers I’ve ever seen. He can afford to be. Even as he ages, he continues to improve his art. Many are of the opinion that he truly became a master over the last 10-15 years. My ears tell me this is so.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/40th 24mm ISO 1600
Further proof is the sparse stage with only 8 total musicians including the two singers/dancers. Eric Clapton plays music. Others ‘put on a show’. No fireworks required, no flames, no one being lowered from the overhead, no gimmicks. Just a musical performance by a man at the top of his art and perhaps the best guitar player in the world. A performance, not a show.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/80th 55mm ISO 1600
After their performance the band members come to the front of the stage, take a bow, and say goodnight. As low key and relaxed as they’d been the entire evening.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/100th 55mm ISO 400
Tim Carmon can really play, he impressed on the baby grand the entire evening. A preachers son Tim Carmon has a long list of musical accomplishments including working with Gladys Knight, rock Christian choirs, and he started working for Eric Clapton when working on the 1998 Pilgrim tour. I remember him playing with B.B. King and Eric Claptop in the “Riding With The King” sessions. A pure joy to experience.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/15th 55mm ISO 1600
What do you think of the blue guitar?
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/80th 40mm ISO 1600
For a man in his mid-60’s Eric Clapton played with a huge amount of energy, though during the first half I couldn’t help but think he wasn’t being motivated. Maybe the crowd, mostly Thai, who seemed more interested in texting and drinking beer and really couldn’t seem to get into the blues selections through him off, or maybe it was the poor acoustics of the venue.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/80th 54mm ISO 1600
A choice crop, this shows all the musicians playing this piece.
Sony NEX-5 18-55mm OSS @F5.6 1/60th 39mm ISO 1250
Almost the same image as above, you can see how a nearly instant change in light can really change the image.
I was there in 2007, and I was there this time in 2011. I can’t help but wonder what he will be like playing Bangkok in 2015! I’ll be there, will you?
Lightroom Noise Reduction *menu
Lightroom is a wonderful image processing program for beginners to advanced professionals alike. It’s user interface is can be configured for all levels of users. Lightroom excels in indexing and organizing your images and making them searchable, and Lightroom is a very competent RAW image processor. With a powerful print module, web interface, and slideshow capabilities its perhaps one of the most complete image programs available. I use it, most pros I know use it, and if sales are any indication more photographers use Lightroom than any other imaging program.
This is why no single tutorial will ever be able to cover all its features, and why I’ve already created tutorials forGlamor Processing, Portrait Processing, and Landscape Processing. This tutorial will cover the easy and basic steps for noise reduction.
Adobe improved the noise reduction capabilities dramatically in v3 and I’m sure they’ll get better and better in future versions. In Lightroom you have the choice of using aftermarket plug-ins or their own excellent noise removal engine.
Nik Dfine is one such plug-in which I highly recommend. Nik Software makes quality products which work well in both Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, and Adobe Photoshop CS5.
Most modern digital cameras don’t show significant noise from ISO 100-800, in general the bigger the sensor the less visible noise. So let’s take a look at an ISO 1600 image which exhibits heavy noise which could benefit from noise reduction. This is a 1:1 crop which easily shows the noise, a full size image at this size would show much less noise, but when you zoom in for a closer look this is what you get.
Notice the heavy noise against the dark background? Anything we do other than white balance adjustments will increase the overall noise of this image. Fortunately the exposure was spot on when captured, but let’s take a look at what happens when we apply a reasonable amount of sharpening.
Notice the heavy increase in noise? Look at the face of the closest subject and compare it to the example above this one. If we’d have to have increased exposure the noise would have been much worse.
There are two main types of noise. Color noise, and luminance noise. Noise in a digital image looks very much like ‘grain’ in a film image, but not nearly as neat or uniform. Digital noise is more splotchy and much less attractive. Color noise appears as a bunch of colorful speckles mostly visible in the dark parts of the image, while luminance noise is visible throughout the entire image and looks a lot like film grain. Lightroom has slider controls for both types of noise.
This image is exhibiting luminance noise. Luminance noise breaks up fine detail. As you apply noise reduction fine detail ‘blends’ giving the effect of a softer image. You’ll only want to apply ‘just enough’ noise reduction to make the noise level acceptable at the size you wish to view the image. Too much noise reduction will make a terribly soft image, not enough and it’s too noisy. Let’s look at some examples.
Looking at the above image and comparing it to the original above you can see it looks very soft. The three controls for luminance noise Luminance (overall level of reduction), Detail (the size of the small area of the image it works with), and Contrast (adjusts the contrast between the small areas being adjusted)..
As you can see 100% of luminance noise reduction with the detail at 2 eliminates the visible noise, but takes away significant detail leaving a soft image.
Here, we left the detail at its default of 50, and slid the Luminance slider to the right from its default of 0 to where most of the noise is gone at 42. Not all of the noise is gone, but the image is much more acceptable without sacrificing too much detail. This is what we want, a nice balance between overall reduction of noise, and overall detail present in the image.
To further help the ‘look’ of noise be reduced we can increase the contrast by adjusting the black level from its default level of 5, to the 12 shown above.
As you can see, there are many factors which affect noise. The size of your camera's sensor, how far from the captured exposure level you need to adjust for, how much sharpening is applied, and then how much noise reduction is applied to clean it all up. We balance noise reduction with apparent detail, and contrast adjustment can help reduce the apparent ‘look’ of noise.
If you’re shooting in difficult conditions, like the concert in the example above, you’ll want to be sure to get the proper exposure right out of the camera. You then want to make the least exposure and image corrections as possible, add just enough sharpening as needed, but not too much, and then apply your noise reduction ‘just enough’ to make the noise level acceptable while retaining as much detail as possible.
That’s it. It’s not a complicated process.
Will noise removal plug-ins do a better job of noise reduction? Yes, often they will. Depending on the image and the circumstances of capture, this difference may be very slight, or significantly different. The noise reduction capabilities built into Lightroom are very good, but you would probably benefit from a quality noise reduction plug-in like Nik Dfine, Neat Image, or Noise Ninja.
Photography News of Interest *menu
Bibble Labs releases its latest version, Bibble 5.2.1. This version adds some imaging enhancements, but it mostly supports new cameras like the Nikon D3100, D7000, P7000, Canon S95 and G12, Olympus E-PL2, E-5, and more.
“Seeing Now” is a powerful new tour of American photography at the Baltimore Museum of Art. You can read more about it here.
The Columbus Museum of Art: Exhibit focuses on painters who were inspired by photos. This is a bit of a reversal and an interesting read. “Photographs changed the way we see..” A very interesting thought. You’ll want to read this.
The Canon G12 gets a thorough review over at Imaging Resource. This is a very capable and popular camera for photo enthusiasts looking for a full featured point and shoot. If you’re in the market give it a look.
Windows 7 SP1 was released for general distribution last Tuesday on February 22nd. Be sure to enable your automatic downloads if you haven’t already downloaded this important update.
AMD/ATI released their new Catalyst drivers version 11.2 which you can download here. There was a lot of installation issues with 11.1, which was a significant update. 11.2 helps fix these issues. Still, I highly recommend you run Driver Sweeper and clean out all your old video drivers and registry entries prior to updating to the latest version. Do it in this order:
a. Run Driver Sweeper
b. Reboot s
c. Install the new driver (in this case Catalyst 11.2)
e. I'd also recommend a last power down reboot where you let your machine turn all the way off, power off, let it sit a few minutes, and then bring it back up.
Readers Submissions *menu
There were no submissions this week.
I’d like to mention that everyone, myself included, is really enjoying the current trend of readers' submissions. Everyone loves them, but remember we can really use more. I have only another week’s worth in my queue, so please take the time to put together a few images and words if you can and send them in. Thank you. [email protected]
Readers Questions *menu
I will work on the suggestions you have made. Having fun playing with the split toning feature of Lightroom 3. The use of the Graduated Filter is another matter. This will require more time to understand how to obtain good results. Do you have a "How to" in your library on this subject?
I will send a small report on the 18-200 mm NEX-5 lens in the next week. Delivered here for $810.
Hi Rick –
Yes, there are a few Lightroom tutorials you can follow along with.. Try these basics:
Lightroom, Processing A Landscape
Lightroom, Processing A Glamor Portrait
Lightroom, Processing a Portrait
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 *menu
This week was fun, one workshop, one really fun assignment I won’t be publishing in this column, a trip to a parrot farm/sanctuary, and a great time at the Eric Clapton Concert. The hot weather is here!
Positive comments continue to pour in about our new look and much faster more interactive site. If you haven’t already checked it out, visit www.bangkokimages.com to see my latest galleries, share your own galleries, participate in the forums , and scour our large repository of photography related articles. The “What’s New” page continues to be very popular with almost daily updates and interesting content.
The Readers Submissions queue is now officially empty. If you have any images you’d like to share please send them in. If you think you have material for a feature contact me and I’ll do what I can to help you put it together. Your contributions are appreciated by everyone.
Infocus Blog, Thailand Car Ownership *menu
Reading Stickman’s Without Wheels found me agreeing with most of what he said. I’ve had many of the same experiences, but perhaps my explanation for these experiences is a bit different.
US culture, and I dare say the same holds true for Aussies and Kiwi’s more than it does for most Europeans, is that cars are a necessity. The way our cities are laid out, the limited choices in public transportation, and even the concept of the ‘suburb’ has left us dependent on motorized vehicles for most of our transportation needs. It’s probably natural for us ‘not’ to feel comfortable without our own means of transport, while my European friends are quite content to use the many types of public transportation Bangkok provides. Not having a car in the US is rare, and in most cases this is because you find yourself on the lower levels of the income scale. So yes, you don’t really feel ‘at home’ or ‘somebody’ unless you have your own set of wheels.
I’ve personally owned a car/truck/SUV 100% of the time I’ve been in Thailand, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Yet, I still use taxi’s and public transportation when its personally more convenient. Loading up the car for another fun trip somewhere in Thailand is something I look forward to several times a month. There are few places in Thailand I haven’t driven to. I suspect I’ve driven more of Thailand than most experienced Thai drivers.
I drive everywhere in Bangkok where I can expect to find parking. I’ve enjoyed the empty streets during Songkran when most Bangkokians are out of town, and I’ve been stuck in flood induced traffic jams that leave you stuck in one place for hours at a time. I’m as much at home in the traffic of Bangkok as I am the commute rush hour of Los Angeles. Right or left, this is one area where I’ve always been able to switch back and forth with a confident ease.
Contrary to Stick’s perfectly understandable decision to sell his wheels, I can say with absolute certainty that I’ll never live in Thailand without my own vehicle. If the ‘system’ every gets ‘too much’ for me, I’ll pack my bags and be on the first flight to greener pastures.
Fortunately I can afford decent transport and I do own a modern GPS. 4-5 years ago GPS devices were a mixed bag, and I’ve reviewed the ‘next generation’ GPS deviceshere and here. I now consider them essential for anyone driving in Thailand, and if you pay attention you’ll notice a great many Thai’s agree with me. GPS devices are now sold most everywhere in Thailand from ERSI, to Gadget Trends, to Power City, everywhere in MBK and Pantip, and even in discount stores like Tesco/Lotus. 5 years ago my GPS was baht 42,000. Today a better one can be had for as little as baht 5000 including the Thailand map set.
My two biggest complaints while driving are covered here in “Ugly Thai’s” and here in “The Culture of Corruption.” Basically the roads, even while well designed and the laws modeled after western laws, are unsafe. They’re unsafe because of an inept and corrupt police force and the culture of corruption they inspire. To make matters worse there are zero trauma centers in Thailand, very few qualified paramedics or EMT’s, and even if there was one close by, most traffic prevents them getting to you in a reasonable amount of time. Thai drivers don’t pull over to the side to let emergency vehicles pass, there are no shoulders on the Expressways and most highways, and the average Thai driver would rather eat glass than allow an emergency vehicle to get past them.
Make no mistake about it, driving in Thailand is a deadly serious endeavor. Being distracted either by your phone, passenger, driving impaired, or even paying too much attention to your music can get you killed. Anyone who’s been here in Thailand a while can tell you about at least several friends who were either tragically killed, or who sustained life changing injuries.
Many weren’t insured and some who’s families couldn’t pay to transport them back to their own country via medevac languished in sub-standard hospitals receiving the bare minimum of medical care. If you’re going to drive in Thailand carry 1st class insurance on your vehicle and its occupants, and the best medical insurance you can afford. IF you survive long enough to get to a hospital, having insurance will normally get you the best care available in Thailand. Just don’t expect much in the way of trauma care. If you receive brain or spinal injuries you’ll soon find the ‘best in Thailand’ isn’t nearly good enough.
I’m going to finish this by discussing some differences in perception I have with Stick’s piece:
Traffic Enforcement: 4-5 years ago it was possible to drive from Bangkok to Pattaya as fast as traffic would permit, and you’d never get stopped by law enforcement. The roads were filled with a mixture of very fast and mostly unsafe drivers, very slow and unsafe vehicles/drivers, and then everyone else.
As the Expressway and highway links to Pattaya were finished, and the highways throughout the country generally improved, there was a rash of very serious accidents and the public started asking what could be done about it. Obviously enforcement costs. Putting adequately trained law enforcement in proper vehicles with the latest equipment would be a huge expenditure. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they soon figured out this program could be entirely self-funding and even generate additional revenue through enforcement and fines.
The Traffic Police were born. By now I’m sure you’ve noticed their brand spanking new Honda Accord maroon and yellow cars, officers in nice new uniforms, and of course the latest in radar and laser detectors. By and large, the Traffic Police are not corrupt. They are the most honest uniformed agency in Thailand. When you get stopped in one of their many speed traps from one end of the country to the other, you’ll be issued a ticket and expected to pay for the ticket on the spot. They’ll have umbrella canopies set up with tables and chairs and you’ll be treated with courtesy and respect through the entire process. You actually leave with the feeling you received much more than you paid for, which is odd considering the only think you really received was fair treatment and the proper respect you deserve.
It is possible to find a dishonest Traffic Police Officer who will send you on your way for a few hundred baht, but you take your chances. These guys are seriously professional. And lately they’ve been reporting these tickets to the insurance companies. It won’t be long before insurance companies are sharing information and raising your rates based on the point system like they do in the west.
The amount of ‘revenue’ they raise has been legendary. So much so, that as you pull out of one of their traps you’ll often find the ‘local police’ have set up a trap less than a kilometer or two later. Unfortunately these guys aren’t nearly as professional, honest, or fair as the Traffic Police. And further down the road a piece you’ll find another. And then maybe another. Well, you get the picture.
I was the one with Stick, and the one driving, when we were stopped by the local police on a major highway and told “I want 100 baht” with such ease and fluency you just knew we weren’t the only farangs he’d stopped that day. I remember being taken aback by the brashness and fluency of this individual. Stick and I looked at each other in surprise, I gave him his 100 baht, and we were on our way. No words were spoken, it was obvious we were thinking the same thing.
Yes, it is entirely possibly, even probable, that you’ll be stopped 4-5 times on a long highway trip, for example Bangkok to Chiang Mai, while if you live in the country somewhere and stay local being stopped is a rare occurrence. The Traffic Police will usually give you a 5kph margin, but the local police traps will not. They’ll stop you and take your money, no ticket issued, for going exactly the speed limit, or 10kph under the speed limit. They’re not there to enforce laws or make you safer. They only reason they’re there, is for personal enrichment. Corrupt to the core.
With over ten years of experience driving in Bangkok I know which parts of Bangkok present no issues with the police at all, and which areas I’m likely to get pulled over because of my white face 2-3 times heading to the same destination. Clients have been with me and seen this happen and just shake their heads. The closer you get to the tourist areas, the more chance you’ll be pulled over for “driving while white” and graft demanded.
On my latest two vehicles I purposely had my windows tinted so dark they can’t tell I’m a farang until I’m right on top of them and almost past. If they don’t react very quickly I’ll get by, which is why I did the dark tint. You can see the anger in their faces in your rearview mirror when you get by one of their cherry patches, almost like you cheated them. I’m not going to discuss DUI checkpoints. My opinion on these, is that if you drink at all, and then drive, you deserve what you get. Hate me for it, but that’s how I feel.
Insurance Coverage: For the most part, insurance and civil liability laws work the same way in Thailand as they do in the west. It’s simple. The police will charge you if you break a law, and a citizen ‘can’ sue you for anything they wish. Whether or not they’re successful or not becomes an entirely different story.
In the west, your insurance covers civil judgments up to your insurance limits. Same here in Thailand. This means that you’ll need to let your insurance company handle things for you in the event of an accident. As in the west, the moment you interfere with their handling of the incident, you lose your coverage. Same here.
In the west, insurance companies demand the injured party sign a release to all parties involved before any payout. Not so here. Here, the injured party reserves the right to sue you even after they get their payout. And this right is often abused against foreigners and there isn’t much we can do about it.
The number one thing you can do about it, is carry 1st class insurance and to up your limits way past the minimum. I personally carry a 50 million baht policy. It only costs about 4000 baht more per year over the minimum. This means I’m covered up to 50 million baht. If someone isn’t happy with the insurance payout, and I have 50 million baht in coverage, then the judge will take the insurance companies judgment into consideration. If in the event the judge rules the injured party is entitled to more than the insurance payout, then the insurance company is liable up to the limit of my policy. If the award is less than my policy cap, they’ll have to pay the legal costs as well. It’s in the fine print. I’m confident it’s in the insurance companies best interest (and mine) to settle with any injured parties as fairly as possible.
There are different tiers of insurance in Thailand and I don’t know enough about them to give advice. I know the compulsory insurance you buy with your yearly registration is 3rd class and the bare minimum. 1st class is full coverage for your car and its occupants. 2nd class is something in between. 1st class insurance is less than half of what it costs in the states, in the cheapest district possible. In other words, it’s very affordable. If you’re going to drive I’d recommend you have 1st class insurance and you up your limits substantially over the legal minimums.
And yes, 1st class insurance will cover you to your limits in the event an uninsured kid on a motorbike runs into you, and their parents sue you. They are legally bound to do so.
Personally, no matter how many times I have someone tell me this I still find it shocking.. a farang comes here and can afford to buy a newer car, in many cases they pay cash for some very nice cars, and then fail to buy 1st class insurance. Usually they’ll tell you they have 1st class insurance because they know it’s just plain stupid not to, but if you start pushing to find out the details of why they’re being sued and the insurance didn’t handle it. You’ll usually find they only had 3rd class insurance.
Caveat Emptor. You’re a farang in a strange land. It’s up to you to know the laws, how your insurance works, and to know when someone is trying to take advantage of you. And they will try to take advantage of you, from the local corrupt police to the citizens. Know your rights, have an attorney you can call, and don’t sign anything without representation.
Civil Rights: Stick mentioned the cops asking questions like “where did you come from, where are you going, do you work in Thailand” and other such questions. It’s not a violation of your civil rights to be asked a question. It is a violation if the police can’t accept “I’d rather not answer that” as an answer. But that’s really not what it’s about.
As a former cop I know we find such questioning useful for many reasons. On the surface the answers might prove useful, say someone in Chiang Mai fitting your description just robbed a 7-11, and you tell them you came from.. depending on your answer and the direction of travel it could immediately let you off the hook from further inspection. If you have nothing to hide, answer the questions. It’s really not painful.
Under the surface, how you answer the questions, your non-verbs, your willingness, your speech.. all tell the trained law enforcement officer important information. It’s not the questions or the answers, it’s how you handle them that provides the information they’re interested in.
And also consider Thailand cops aren’t required to know English. Possibly the only English they’re formally taught is what they get during their training. And questions like “where are you going, where are you from, etc” are exactly the type of questions you’d get during training. The answers are useful.
So, when a cop asks you these questions maybe he knows something you don’t (a place in the last town was robbed), maybe he’s looking to see how you react so he can further judge if you’re DUI or maybe carrying contraband, or maybe he’s just practicing his English. It never hurts to be polite to cops. It almost always makes the experience worse if you’re not.
Unreasonable Searches: We’ve all heard about the police searching you coming out of the nightlife areas, or off a bus as the Ekamai station, or as Stick mentioned during traffic stops. Keeping in mind there’s little you can do against a corrupt out of control cop, I’ll share with you how I’ve handled these situations and avoided being searched every time.
Nightlife areas. Anyone who knows me knows I carry a knapsack almost everywhere I go. Police zero in on these. On several occasions I’ve been stopped outside a nightlife venue and been ‘told’ I’m going to be searched. Each time I hadn’t been drinking, each time I was dressed neatly, and each time I said “I’d be glad to submit to a search, let’s go to your office where your supervisor can explain to me why I’m being searched.” I then photograph them with my mobile phone. Each time I’ve been apologized to and sent on my way. The key here is that cops don’t like to be told “no.” It’s like waving a red flag in front of a bulls nose. Instead, I tell them I’ll submit to the search, but with reasonable conditions. And I photograph them just in case.
Bus Station. Same exact thing as above. This only happened once to me and I was there to pick someone up. I pointed at my car and told them I’d follow them to their office. They apologized and wai’d.
On the Road. You need to recognize each type of stop and react accordingly. There are immigration stops where they’re looking for human cargo. In such cases approach them with all your windows down, smile, be polite, and you won’t have issues. There are drug stops. These are everywhere. Again, windows down, act like you have nothing to hide, and even ask them “can I open my trunk for you?” Cooperate, be reasonable, and you won’t get searched. They’ll wave you on. Traffic Police will never ask to search your car unless they smell alcohol on you and are looking for a container.
Local police who set up traps on the highways are looking for money. They’re not above planting evidence. I get out of my car and lock it. Again, I tell them I’ll be glad to submit to a search and will follow them to their office where a supervisor can explain to me why I’m being searched. Meanwhile I’m taking their pictures with my mobile phone. NEVER leave your car unlocked or allow them to enter your car while on the road. Lock it. Make a supervisor come to you.
There is no question owning your own car in Thailand carries some risk, or that it can be dangerous, and that the stresses can easily become an issue. However, if you learn all you can about the system, anticipate as many issues as possible ahead of time where you have the time to think them through, and you exercise good judgment, you should be fine.
But if you drink while out, or you really can’t afford the best insurance, or you don’t have medical insurance, then consider alternate means of transportation. Many find it’s just not worth it, especially considering what they came to Thailand to accomplish.
Until next time..