I covered the first meeting of Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly (NLA) last week. It was a frustrating experience.
When I was working for newspapers, my bread and butter was covering politics. Photographing the first day of the NLA was a bit of a throwback to those days. Back then I would have been covering the first day of the state legislature and I had access to the newspaper’s inventory of long lenses. I would photograph the early stuff – the parliamentarians meeting with constituents, protests in front of the legislature and features with my short lenses, like my 24mm and 50mm (I don’t use zooms) but I would cover the stuff inside the legislative chambers with long lenses, either a 300mm f2.8 or 400mm f2.8, Canon’s ridiculously expensive (the 400mm f2.8 is about $12,000 US) L series telephotos. These weren’t the most interesting photos of the day, but they were important photos of record.
Since leaving the world of newspaper photojournalism, I don’t need those lenses. I don’t photograph sports much and the work I do is much closer and more intimate. Even when I use my longest day to day lens, a 200mm f2.8, I use it as more of a macro lens than a traditional telephoto. The opening of the NLA is the first time since I left the paper that I really needed something longer than my 200mm f2.8. But when you need a 400mm lens, you need a 400mm lens. I ended up using my 200 and 1.4X teleconverter (for an effective focal length of about 280mm at f4).
Using the teleconverter in the dimly lit Parliament was a challenge. With the 200mm lens I could get away with working at ISO3200. But with the teleconverter, which both takes one stop of light (my 200mm f2.8 becomes a 280mm f4) and requires a faster shutter speed (because the longer lens is more prone to camera shake) so I ended up working at ISO12,800.
I was checking my work on the camera’s back screen and I was not impressed with what I was getting. The pictures I made across the room required a lot of cropping and digital noise, from the high ISO, was apparent even on the camera back. When I thought it was over I hurriedly left. That was a big mistake and somewhat out of character for me. My normal routine is “be the first to arrive and the last to leave” because I always thought the best pictures came at the beginning or the end.
When it was over, the newly elected leadership stood in the middle of the chamber with their hands clenched over their heads in a victory pose. And I wasn’t even in the room. It wasn’t a very good picture (none of the photos from the day were really very good pictures) but it was THE photo. The one everyone used from the day.
The only good thing to come out of the experience was the knowledge that I can work at ISO12,800 and still get usable images. I still remember the old days of film, when ISO800 (for color) was a big deal. Those low ISO habits are hard to break.