Readers' Submissions

Beginning the Day

  • Written by BKKSteve
  • May 19th, 2007
  • 16 min read


China Hotel Guide
• Regalia Hotel Shanghai (Jing an)
• Rendezvous Merry Hotel
• Shanghai Hotel
• Zhaoan Hotel Shanghai


Today is going to be a ramble. About what? A normal morning in Bangkok. People often expect the exotic and sometimes you get the exotic, but most of the time you just get a different version of the same old thing. Mornings in Bangkok are my favorite time, mostly because I’ll either just be going to bed or just getting up to start the day. My schedule varies by my work and I’ll often be up late all night taking advantage of the darkness to process my photographs and the quietness to write, or getting up early to set off for whatever destination is on my agenda. You see, I live for the light. I see things differently than I used to. I used to see whatever was making the most noise or moving the fastest, but now I see shades and direction of light and the way it changes the appearance of everything around me. What am I looking for?

Someone asked me the other day what was my “style” of photography, my goal and purpose when I look through the viewfinder. I didn’t even need to stop and think about it, which tells me I’m not there yet. Someday when I get “there” I’ll have to stop and think about it like we normally do when we do something by habit without thinking about it and when questioned we pause and think how to put into words that which we do automatically without conscience thought. It was well over a decade ago that I started training myself to always “think light.” Some day I’ll be “doing light” and I won’t have to think about it anymore than I think about driving my car as I go down the rode with everything other than driving on my mind. Yes, I’m rambling and I still haven’t told you about my style, goal or purpose. That’s because it’s equally as important to know that it takes most people years and years of conscience thought to even start to “get it” when it comes to making good pictures.

Back to my friend who asked the question because even though his attention span this evening was a bit short, he really wanted the answer to this question. Now another friend is listening because he thinks it’s a good question. Shouting over the noise in the bar I motion over to the stage with the naked girls dancing around chrome poles and asked them “if you had a camera in your hands and wanted to take a picture what would you take a picture of?” I love answering questions with questions because it stimulates thought and I get to learn as much about others as they want to learn from me. Both of my friends are giving it some thought because they know I’m not looking for the obvious, and the first one says “I’d try to isolate a single dancer!” Looking at the other guy he says “I’d want to zoom in on the face to show emotion!” Both are good answers and both showed more thought about taking a picture than most people do in years of travel and snap shots. Now, both are looking at me and like the people who are reading this submission they want my answer. It’s my turn, but I’m not ready to answer yet. We need more explanation to truly understand.

Have you ever been to Siem Reap to see Angkor Vat or the Grand Palace in Bangkok? In the shops surrounding both places you see lots of photographs and paintings for sale. The photos and paintings are visualizations of what you just saw with your own eyes as you played tourist and appreciated the local attraction and in this day and age you probably pulled your small digital camera from the bag and took some snaps of what you just saw. When you did this did you look around at what the other tourists were taking pictures of to get an idea of what you wanted to take a picture of? Sure you did, it’s natural. You see 100 cameras pointed at a certain attraction and you figure it must be good so you point yours in the same direction. It’s easy, safe, and you get a good picture of what everybody is seeing to share with your friends and family back home. However, having taken such a picture on your own are you likely to stop at one of these shops and buy a print from them? Of course not, you already have one and you can make your own print at home or at the local drug store. Don’t get me wrong, these types of shots are necessary to really share what you’ve seen. They’re just not going to be special enough to sell to someone else and put some extra income into your bank account.

Ok, now my friends are getting a little impatient and so are you so I’ll tell you the answer. When I pick up my camera and look through the viewfinder I’m looking for what no one else sees. What? Yes, I’m studying the scene and looking for that unique view that allows me to see that which isn’t obvious to everyone else. Exactly what in this case? Looking at the lights changing colours on three different colour wheels I notice where they overlap and for just a moment I can the stage divided up into red, blue and green in equal parts. Looking through the viewfinder I patiently wait for the standard “orangish” colour to change into a rainbow of colours and it does. I wouldn’t yet take a picture though, the light while unique isn’t enough. I would move to a different vantage point where I could clearly see three different sections of the stage where the colours will appear and then wait for the girls to be evenly divided in three groups as they move around the stage.. and for the colours to appear at the same time. More, I’m going to be really patient and hope that not only can I get a shot of the three poles, three groups of girls, and three colours of light to separate them, but I would want to have their faces towards the lense as much as possible at that exact moment. This is what I saw when looking, but it wasn’t there. While my friends went back to talking about whatever I continued to watch the stage and I smiled as the vision I mentally formed happened not even five minutes later. If I had been able to take that picture I’m sure it would sell. Why? Because it was different than what everyone else was seeing, yet it was what they were seeing. If I hadn’t trained myself to “see”, I would have never noticed when it happened. I hope this is making sense because we’re going to talk about it again.

For now back to the mornings. At 0440 every day the nearby mosque plays a sort of “call to prayers” which is a sort of singing. It’s pretty loud and can be heard for kilometers around, but a week after you move into the area you sleep right through it. This call to prayer lasts for about 30-40 seconds and is a prelude to the minutes long singing that will take place at 0500. This is my cue the sun will appear in about an hour and as the first sounds emit from the loudspeaker I can hear 1000 soi dogs start barking and howling. This happens every morning, the call to prayer followed by the dogs making a racket. Every dog in the neighborhood is up and barking and howling. I’ve heard Muslims aren’t really fond of dogs so I wonder if this annoys them? Sometimes I laugh when I imagine the dogs just want to pray too, the guy sings, the dogs howl. It stopped being funny when my parrot started learning the morning prayer song! She’s still covered and I thought sleeping at this time, but instead she’s listening and learning. Her habit is to practice new words and sentences in a very soft voice when she thinks no one can hear, and then as she gains confidence in her skill with those words then she’ll use them when people are around The other day I was laying on the sofa with my eyes closed and she though I was sleeping so she started singing and it was the prayer song word for word. She actually does this very well and I expect she’ll be confident enough to do it more loudly with an audience soon enough. I wonder if she’ll learn the other four prayers with time?

Right after the first call to prayer the neighborhood wakes up. You can see lights coming on, smell fires starting as the food vendors light their charcoal, and soon the smells of street food reach me. Activity increases until at 0530 I can smell the pancakes and sausages from the restaurant in my complex. There’s a breakfast club you can join for 1200 baht a month, and six days a week you can show up from 0530-0730 and eat all the breakfast you want. Not a bad deal. Right after the pancake and sausage smells reach me I know sunrise will take place any minute. Normally I’m not to keen on the view of the city at this time of the day. Lots of haze, not much contrast in the light, and no matter how hard I try I can’t see anything everyone else doesn’t already see. Until last week. Last week I had my breath taken away.

Try to imagine. It had rained all night so the air was really clean. Black rain clouds still hung over the city so when sunrise came it stayed very dark. The sun rises behind this view. Suddenly the clouds behind but not above me part and rays of light came down at about a 30 degree angle at my 10, and lit up the city with very focused and directional beams of golden sunlight that hit all the high rises, skytrain, expressway, and road ways from the same angle lighting only that part while leaving everything else dark. The effect was magical and very much three dimensional as colours I’ve never seen before reflected off the concrete buildings and asphalt and like a dummy I just stood there with my mouth open watching. After nearly two years looking for it, I was finally seeing what was always there but no one else sees. This was the picture that would get published or sold and all I could do was stand there soaking it in. Less than 40 seconds later the clouds blocked out the sun and soon it was more over head dimly lighting everything in the same old way it always does.

Later that day I set up two tripods and four cameras with four different lenses hoping that with the same weather conditions being forecast that maybe the next few mornings would produce a similar effect. I’ve been awake and prepared for the last seven days and haven’t seen anything close. I was hoping I would be able to capture such an image before I turned in this submission so I could share and better illustrate my words, but I haven’t. I’ll keep trying and hopefully some day..

By 0630 the sun has lit up the entire city and you can see as far as the haze allows, more and more cars fill the road ways, and the frogs and crickets have gone silent only to be replaced by car horns and the white noise produced by thousands of cars filling the roads and expressway. Morning has come and from this point on the smells will get stronger, the weather hotter, the sun brighter, and not much will happen in the way of light until roughly 12 hours later when the sun starts to fall below the horizon.

When it comes to photography I’m a pretender. Yes, I make and sell photographs and I can tell you about all the technical aspects of how to do it. The technical part is easy, anyone willing to dedicate the time can learn the technicals. Making photographs that can be sold and/or published involves other skills and over the years I’ve learned how to hedge my bets and make images that people enjoy or that better illustrate a story. Being a successful “professional” photographer is 90% business and marketing, 9% technical and 1% artistic. I’m a solid professional photographer. Yet, I’m a pretender. I know this because I have two friends who are not. Both are very successful commercially, successful being they’re both the very best in their fields and get paid accordingly. More importantly when you view their photographs you see things no one else sees, and you really enjoy yourself while looking. They didn’t get this way over night. Like me they had to train themselves to “see” and I’m sure their brain in wired in such a way on the creative side where it lets them ‘better see’ that which others can only see part way. I’ll continue working at “seeing”, and perhaps one day I can stop pretending and everything will come into better focus than it does today.

It’s 0900 and the morning is no longer. The streets are full and thick diesel smoke adds to the haze as it fills the sky and the sunlight increases the temperature with every passing minute. I’ve already uncovered my parrot and let her fly around for some exercise and sitting by the door are three equipment bags. Last week I visited the Sanctuary of Truth in Pattaya (www.sanctuaryoftruth.com) and was unable to find a close in vantage point. I found myself out a kilometer or so on a very long fishing pier about an hour after dark. The locals looked at me like I was crazy as I set up my gear to photograph the sanctuary which was maybe 1.5-2 kilometers distant in the dark. Looking through my binoculars I could see very dim accent lights around the base of the temple and as I’ve told you before there is often light left in the sky after all the naked eye can see is darkness. What the fishermen didn’t see I saw. I knew some colour of light would be in the sky with the proper exposure and I was pretty sure if I could match that exposure with how long it took for the dim accent lights to “grow” up the sides of the temple then I’d have an interesting image. I did, and a few hours later I was back at sunrise to capture the way I saw some of the fishing boats as the men set about preparing for a day of fishing as the sun rose in front of them and by turning 180 degrees a bird flying across my view of the temple in the morning light. I’ll share a few of those photos below, and after I do I’ll be loading my equipment bags back in the car and heading down to Pattaya once again. Anything worth photographing, is worth photographing well. This trip I hope to photograph the temple properly vs. pretending.. Enjoy your morning..


Until next time..

Last week the Saturday submissions weren’t put up on Saturday and I was given the choice of holding this submission over to early the next week or Saturday. I chose Saturday because I was still hoping to catch the image I talked about earlier. After close to two years living in this location I’ve only seen what I described once. Honestly, I never expected to see it again but I still made sure I was awake at daybreak each day for the next ten days just in case, for me the small chance was worth it. On the eleventh day I’d went to sleep at 0500 with no plans to wake up an hour later to look once more. Perhaps it was the rain, maybe the light coming in the windows a certain way while I slept, I’m not really sure, but at 0620 I woke up in a stupor and looked down the end of my bed through the sliding glass doors and saw light resembling what I saw before. It was later in the morning so the contrast between the darkness and lightness was significantly reduced, but it was close enough for a shot illustrating what I was trying to say above. Too tired and groggy to grab the nice camera already setup on the tripod from the days before I picked up my lightweight travel DSLR and opening the screen leaned against the door jamb and quickly bracketed three shots before dropping back into my bed for another 3-4 hours. I almost forgot I’d taken these three shots until something reminded me tonight. I was that tired.

The relevant specifics of the shot aren’t that important but I’ll list them anyway. What is important to explain is the light. First, this image was shot in the manual mode at F8 and 1/10th of a second shutter speed. The shutter speed was too slow for even a good braced handheld shot and as a result the image looks ok at the smaller web sizes, but at full resolution the sharpness isn’t up to what I normally consider acceptable due to the exceptionally low shutter speed. The light: I live in a huge tall building and at this time of the morning as the sun moves across the city the building splits the light giving the effect common in a portrait studio environment, two lights off to the sides aimed in diagonally at about 60 degrees. You can see the light shining on the supports of the skytrain coming from the left as you can on the buildings facing the left. It’s also coming directionally from the right casting light from that side. If the light was even all over the frame (the city) like it would be if the sun had risen above the building during the rest of the day, or the clouds weren’t blocking most of the city allowing light in directionally from behind, then you’d only have a low contrast hazy looking image without the colour or 3D effect (depth). Perhaps I’ve slept through dozens of these, but I really think this sort of light only happens for seconds at a time on rare occasion. I wish I could post the full size image for your review, the small compressed size barely does the scene justice.

Stickman's thoughts:

If you like the Sanctuary Of Truth – and it is impressive – you have got to see Sala Googaew in Nongkhai.