Readers' Submissions

Cambodia, One More Time, With Some Photography Hints

  • Written by BKKSteve
  • July 5th, 2006
  • 18 min read


Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

By BKKSW

Last week my son (13) and I went on a low key trip to Siem Reap Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat and a few other close by sites. The major reason for this trip was to explore the site with my son with a secondary reason of checking out the place during a more rainy season to see what kind of photographs I could expect during this kind of weather. I made a submission I think back in Jan / Feb? That was a working trip, up at 0300, on site with the gear set up at least an hour before the sky had light, work till about 10am, back to the hotel to rest until 1600, then back on site to an hour after sundown. Five days of that schedule left me exhausted but with a pretty nice portfolio and I’ll admit to it being a very profitable trip and with stock photography it’s a gift that keeps on giving for years and well into retirement. This trip was to enjoy time with my son and see if he was old enough to appreciate the magic and wonders of the history of Angkor. So.. light on the photography, heavy on rest, lots of talk and observation.

Frankly it was a disappointing trip. The weather didn’t lend itself to good photos, the town was practically deserted, the prices for many things like food were driven way up for poor quality, while the prices for the hotel could be bargained for and some money saved. The more I think about it, the more I think I’ll probably end up whining and griping a lot in this submission.. oh well.

Let’s start with Bangkok Airways, the “Boutique Airline.” This is the ONLY airline (that I know of) that flies the BKK to Siem Reap route so you’re at their mercy price wise. With the airport taxes on both ends (500 baht each as standard at BKK, $20 visa upon entry into Cambodia and another $25 each departure tax) I ended up paying more for two roundtrip tickets (even with internet promotional prices, about 6,000 baht cheaper than my travel agent quoted, and two others) than my son and I could have flew to Taipei, India, H.K, or some other interesting places. In other words they’re gouging you for a 50 minute flight on a small twin engine turbo prop with small seats, a meager box meal / snack, and not even a proper wai in the process. Out of principal I’ll be avoiding Bangkok Airways in my future travels in the theatre which are considerable.

The Angkor Hotel. Normal price of $125 a night, during peak season (last Jan) the manager was nice enough to give me the room for $45 including taxes and breakfast.. this time $35 a night. It’s fairly new, but way too many corners are being cut and it made our stay somewhat unpleasant. It started with the room having a terrible rank smell coming from the bathroom drains. If we kept the bathroom door closed it was tolerable. The food was expensive and horrible ($12 hamburgers with 2 ounces of meat for example), still no internet access in the rooms (though there is a hookup in the lobby area and two desktops to use for free), and I could go on but suffice it to say we’ll not be going there again.

Koreans are still Siem Reap's number one tourist demographic and they are still as loud and rude as ever. My son being half Korean found himself asking the noisy tour guides and ill-mannered tourists why they were yelling and running around making so much noise IN A TEMPLE and making general asses of themselves. Usually I’d correct him for being this way with elders, but in this case he was only saying what I was thinking. No other nationality of tourists has such blatant disregard for the culture of the Cambodians or this ancient site.

Humidity was probably greater than 90%.. we were wet and sticky from moments after stepping outdoors until returning back to the hotel.. and we’re acclimated to Bangkok. The site does look different during this season and I’m including a few snapshots (far from the finished product I shared last time) and of course is rather muddy and such during the rainy season. Still, we enjoyed it and along with the land mine museum, actually watching some U.N. mine experts clearing a field, and the hospital.. my son gained a new appreciation for the long lasting damage land mines continue to do decades after..

There was a bright spot in the tour, my driver for the second time, Ross Phansy. He is very prompt, hard working, his going rate is $20 a day which includes the car, gas, etc (thought I pay him more because he earns more), very knowledgeable about the history / facts / etc, and is willing to work 20 hour days while carrying very heavy photo gear when I need him to do for me, without complaint of any kind. He’s an honest hard-working man and on this second trip I trusted him to take my 13 year old son around to see the sites while I battled a stomach virus for two days. His English is very good and my son had no trouble with communication and actually enjoyed the time they spent seeing the sites. I can’t promote this guy enough and if Stick leaves this paragraph in I’d very much appreciate it. With all the hotels and competition he has to compete with I very much enjoy someone like Ross who you can count and depend on pick up any jobs you can through his way. His mobile phone is 855-12-843-992 and his email is [email protected] He will return your email the same or next day, I believe he reads them at home each evening and answers them immediately. I’m not sure what more I can say to show you my satisfaction with this man, but I’ll be making at least 4-5 trips back there in the next eight months and he’ll be my driver each time and I feel lucky to have him. I’m attaching a snapshot of him so you’ll know what he looks like if you engage his services.

I wish I was left with the desire to write more about the wonders of the place but I wasn’t left in the mood I suppose.. so lets talk about the pictures I submitted and maybe that will left my spirits. They’re mostly snapshots but maybe my techniques and subjects will lift your spirits a bit. First, most stock agencies require a minimum size image and currently the only DSLR that meets ALL these agencies requirements is the Canon 1DS Mark II, a 16.7mp full frame body that produces 98mb 16 bit tiffs straight from the camera without any sort of interpolation. Way overkill for web shots, snapshots, and even nice 11×14’s for back home.. but if you’re a professional then over your career you build a collection of stock images (my first ten years is from MF and 35mm film transparencies long since drum scanned and in large digital files) and you list them with several agencies (the top agencies are the best, like Getty Images if they’ll accept your work) and over the course of time you’ll add to your library and you’ll sell more and more. Never a great amount, the fee is based on the requested size that they’ll actually print (1 / 4 page, ½ page,etc), amount of time you license the images use, and the circulation of the publication, but one image from my last trip more than paid for the trip and my half of my 13 year old son's new braces which was an exception but it happens. In retirement this is money that can still be coming in, and it’s copyrighted material that will keep money coming in for your heirs for as long as your images are relevant and properly marketed. I’ve toyed with the ideal of getting a $30,000 USD digital back for a MF camera body but frankly I don’t think I’d sell anymore images than what I am now using what I have now.

When you shoot for stock images they need to hold up to inspection at their largest size, so this means ALWAYS using a tripod for the sharpest possible shot, the best lenses (not the most expensive, just the ones that make the best images), mirror lock-up, a remote shutter release, lots of patience, and of course shooting interesting and / or marketable images. Marketable and interesting can and are often two different things. If you’re going to do this learn the difference and choose your compositions / frames accordingly.

F2P3808 – This image was shot inside a DARK passageway, ISO 100 (since I use a tripod for stock shots I can shoot at ISO 100 for best quality and at longer shutter speeds), F8, .5 second exposure time. Half a second. The lens used was a Canon 24-70mm F2.8L. This is a great lens, excels in the studio when I’m shooting chromakey portraits, and nearly as good as the best prime lens (a set focus lens, like a 50mm, 35mm, etc) I would have had to carry a set of to duplicate the range of this fine zoom. For more informal handheld snapshots I also have the Canon 24-105L F4 IS lens and enjoy it as well, but for serious work it’s NOT a 24-70. Even at a half second exposure time everything is nice and sharp, colours vivid but not overdone, and the dynamic range (light to dark areas) came out well considering it was a DARK passageway. The sun shining in the windows as you go through the doors balanced out nicely with the selected aperture and as you can see the depth of field (amount of the photo in focus) encompasses the entire frame, from the close up rugs to the farthest doorway. Interesting shot? Not really. A shot that could be used on the cover of a mag with big print all over it, or to illustrate someone else’s story? Certainly. A good stock shot.

F2P4164 – Angkor Temple. Not much different than the one that paid for my son's braces. ISO 100, F8, 20 second exposure (I know the exfil says 1 / 200th but for some reason it’s just plain wrong) and taken AFTER dark. They close the park well before this and they try to push you out, but a press pass and $10 will get you a personal guide to stay a few extra hours. Yes, I know it doesn’t look dark, but it was. Very surreal colours can happen during these times after dark, often time you only get a minute or two to get these colours, much depends on the day, sky, smoke, pollution, etc.. I shot over 100 images of this same frame and all were drab except for two.. two images had these fantastic colours. Patience. This shot also used the 24-70mm F2.8L at 24mm. No cropping, though the image was resized for the net. The detail is stunning at full resolution, And of course all serious photography work concerning landscapes is done in manual mode.

F2P3904 – 70-200mm F2.8L IS lens @200mm, tripod, again mirror lockup (always assume mirror lockup, 100 ISO, tripod mounted, and external shutter release unless I say differently) at F11 and 1 / 8th of a second. Interesting? Nope. Great stock for marketing though. For my return trips I’ve already arranged for a “bus O’monks”, seriously. Their bright orange robes and natural appearance in the park makes for a great contrast and used properly can really add interest and depth to an image. I’ll be renting a dozen of various ages with their brightest orange robes simply because they’ll pose as I ask, I’ll have the variety of young / old to select from, and it will save me days of time over waiting for a monk to walk by at the place and time of day I’ll need them…J

F2P3868 – Shot with the excellent and under rated Sigma 12-24 F4 lens. Me and another professional friend who use wide angles DAILY for pro use compared a Nikkor 17-35mm F2.8 AFS (using an EOS adapter), Canon 16-35mm F2.8L, Canon 17-40mm F4L, Sigma 20mm F1.8 prime, Sigma 15-30 F4 Nikkor mount but with an EOS adapter, this 12-24 Sigma, and several other top wide angles. We both agreed after extensive testing that the Sigma 12-24 (most are good copies, the ones you hear about that aren’t good copies just had the bad luck of being sold to someone who probably didn’t use it properly) had the best corner to corner sharpness at F8-F16 (diffraction starts at F16 on this lens so we use it at F11 mostly) of the lot, and about the same contrast, colour accuracy, etc, at the rest as well. It’s also a great deal cheaper. For product photography in the studio, landscapes where F11 is possible, it’s the best wide angle going for full frame Canon bodies. For event work we’d both choose either the 16-35mm F2.8L or the 17-40mm F4L depending on if you needed the F2.8 or not for your work, and at more than double the price over the 17-40 this is something you want to make sure of. The quality was virtually identical between these two. At wider apertures, event work (faster AF needed), etc, then either of these two. The Sigma F1.8 20mm for the price is a great low light (inside museums where flashes aren’t allowed, etc) lens. The great Nikkor 17-35mm F2.8 AFS really disappointed. As an avid ex-Nikon shooter I loved this lens and swore by it.. but on a full frame (the only full frame Nikon makes is a film body) it comes up short compared to the Canon W / A’s.. contrary to many “expert” opinions you’ll read on photography forums. And yes, it was a good copy, all proper techniques were used 100% of the time, etc. Since wide angle lenses are so often asked about I thought I’d include all of the above.

Anyway, back to the shot. 17mm F11, 1.6 seconds exposure This was also a dark room. I used very light sharpening and as you can see the lens is pretty sharp right out of the camera. I like this lens.

F2P3992 – 70-200mm F2.8L IS @200mm F8, 1 / 25th of a second. Now don’t judge this lens by this snapshot.. this is my primary PJ lens (photojournalism) and capable of extraordinary image quality, but I was shooting a moving (slightly) subject across a busy roadway with two tour busses driving by and at 1 / 25th some vibration was picked up and sharpness was lost. Great lens, bad picture. Still, the greenery and the orange robes and the relaxed nature of the monk will probably help this sell as stock some day. I won’t be holding my breath however…;o)

F2P4078 – 70-200mm F2.8L IS @70mm..1 / 200th HANDHELD WHILE DRIVING PAST THIS IN MY DRIVERS TOYOTA.. I saw and liked the scene and took the shot at about 40kph out the window (actually two of them) and was too tired to ask him to stop and do it right.. but I like the way it turned out. I’ll probably crop off the bottom 10% of the frame.. but the rest of it I really like. I suspect this will do well.. and I’ll have at least 15-20 20×24” prints made and mounted for sale at the next art show. From experience I’d guess I’ll sell them all. I’ll need to work a bit more on the post-processing though.

F2P3884 – Sigma 12-24mm F4 @18mm Aperture 7.1 (odd, I’d rather have F11 but I was trying to work with the max 30 second exposure time my body limits me to because I wasn’t wearing a watch to time the exposure in bulb mode) 30 second exposure. You might not believe this.. but when at Angkor Vat the other tourists (especially the Korean tourists) just don’t stop and be polite and let you take your picture! No worries however, at a 30 second exposure in this VERY dark walkway they could walk right past the open shutter (about 12-15 tourists did just that with this particular picture) and they won’t be in any one place long enough (at this exposure time) to register as much more than faint spirits…J Actually.. you can use the spirits to your advantage once you get a handle on the process. (Maybe one day I’ll tell you the story of a PI who hired me to get pictures of a Chinese man cheating on his wife and I made floating “spirits” above the bed using his wife’s image and how very much this scared the crap out of him, sometimes photography can be very entertaining..:) I took this shot to show the way they used the archway construction for support, an architect I know asked me to try to find a good example for an article he’s working on)

F2P3888 – Sigma 12-24mm F4 @15mm F8, 1 / 20th shutter speed. As you can see, excellent corner to corner sharpness (no cropping) and a boring shot except for the tree roots. Ever since the Tomb Raider movies the tree root shots in Cambodia have sold pretty well. At 15mm and even at only F8 you can see the depth of field was more than adequate for sharpness from the stone I was sitting on to the farthest point. The ghosting / flare in the upper right top part of the frame in the branches I just noticed.. I’ll have to fix that in post before submitting this one.. The proper post processing of images for stock is an entirely different subject.. but a very important one.

I hope some of our more advanced photographers were able to use some of this information. I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a series for the site aimed at the more casual amateur photographer who travels through Asia and would like to know what cameras will work, where they’ll work at (in bars for instance as well as back as the hotel rooms or for landscapes), and how to get the most out of them.. but I’m really not sure if this is something that would be wanted / encouraged and if so which should come first, the more advanced stuff of the most basic stuff. Photography is fun and can be profitable though you have to work (most of us anyway) very very hard at marketing you work. I currently shoot and write photojournalism style pieces as my main profession, sell mounted prints at art shows when I have the time, and am working at getting my second coffee table book out on Asian photography. Stock photography is a very minor part of my work and I look at it as something of a retirement account and a way to pay for my travels when I’m traveling at my own expense.

I consider photography fun and as I’ve been retired enough financially for some years where I can live quite comfortably without working at all.. I only take on the jobs I really enjoy and get personal satisfaction from. Before moving to Asia I owned and operated my own studio and did everything from product / advertising to portraits to weddings. I hate doing weddings and don’t really enjoy standard portraits.. but I was stuck in that area for personal / family reasons for a few years and wanted to keep busy. Fortunately I found a strong niche in the artistic nude market and with the right models and the right purpose enjoy this very much. There is a big difference between porn and artistic nudes. Porn is something you and the wife do with your video camera and then hide the tape for a rainy day. Artistic nudes you’d feel comfortable showing your mother and the rest of the world.

Until the next late night with nothing to do and the mood strikes me for another submission….;o)

Stickman's thoughts:

For me, as a photography lover, this is superb. I hope readers enjoy it too.

And it would be MAGIC if you did a series on photography in these parts. I personally would love it, and given that so many people have digital cameras these days, I am sure a good number of readers would be very keen on the idea indeed!