I’ve used Canon cameras for as long as I’ve been a photographer. The first camera I used was a Canon FT-QL, a tank of a camera. The QL stood for “quick load,” a Canon innovation that made it easier to load a new roll of film into the camera. We got that FT-QL at the PX in Bangkok in 1967 or so.
Even then, Canon and Nikon were the big two of the camera companies. The others, Minolta, Olympus, Ricoh, Yashica, etc were playing catch up to the CanNik juggernaut. Leica was always in a league of its own.
Through the years I’ve flirted with other systems.
In the 1980s, one paper I worked at issued me Olympus OM bodies and lenses. The lenses were excellent and the bodies nice and small, but I stayed with Canon for my personal gear. In the late 1980s, another paper I worked for issued me Nikon gear, FM2 bodies and a selection of Nikon lenses. They were okay but (and this might be heresy to Nikon fans) they didn’t offer me anything the Canons didn’t, so I stayed with Canon. (Although I have to admit the Nikon FM2/FE2 are arguably the best looking 35mm SLRs ever made. Nikon nailed the aesthetics of those.) While the Olympus gear was substantially lighter than my Canon gear, the Nikon gear weighed about the same.
When the digital tsunami swamped the photo world I made the decision to stay with Canon. Digital cameras and lenses are so expensive and complex that the switching systems is not done on a whim (unless you’re exceptionally well heeled or enjoy the support of a camera company).
When I make the decision to switch cameras it’s a big deal. Maybe not in terms of global politics or curing Ebola but certainly in terms of my personal work.
I’ve been plagued by back problems the last few months and it’s just not practical for me to carry the ridiculously heavy 5D Mark III bodies, four lenses, flashes and various doodads. I’ve been very happy with the image quality and reliability of the Canon gear, this is a decision based purely on health and weight (my health, the cameras’ weight).
I’ve been using Micro 4:3 cameras since 2010 and I’ve written about small cameras several times. But my back problems forced me to take a hard look at what I was doing and the gear I was carrying.
Let’s do the math (the weight of the gear is taken from the manufacturers’ specifications pages):
5D Mark III body: 860 grams (x2) = 1,720 grams
24mm f1.4 lens: 650 grams
50mm f1.2 lens: 545 grams
100mm f2 lens: 460 grams
200mm f2.8 lens: 765 grams
580EX2 flash (with batteries): 475 grams
430EX2 flash (with batteries): 430 grams
ST-E2 flash controller: 100 grams
Total of Canon gear: 5,145 grams (5.1 kilos = 11.3 pounds)
Olympus E-P5 body (with VF4): 420 grams (x2) = 840 grams (less than the weight of one 5D Mark III body)
12mm f2 lens (roughly a 24mm lens): 130 grams
25mm f1.8 lens (roughly a 50mm lens): 135 grams
45mm f1.8 lens (roughly a 90mm lens): 116 grams
75mm f1.8 lens (roughly a 150mm lens): 305 grams
FL300R flash: 100grams
Total of Olympus gear: 1,626 grams (1.6 kilos = 3.6 pounds)
(I don’t have to carry a separate flash controller for the E-P5 because it’s built into the body. I also have only one flash for the E-P5.)
The Olympus gear I carry weighs about 1/3 what the Canon gear weighs. That’s a lot. The Olympus lenses are excellent and almost unbelievably tiny. The 75mm f1.8, in particular, is outstanding. I think it’s as good as Canon’s 135mm f2 or 200mm f2.8.
(In the interest of full disclosure, the weight of the camera gear is only a portion of what I carry. There are also notebooks, ponchos, light meter, and misc bits of stuff. The weight on that extra stuff hasn’t changed, so I am probably still carrying more than I should.)
I’m not going to sugar coat this and say both systems are equal. That is not the case. My Canon lenses are the very fast, very expensive and very heavy L series lenses. They are some of the best lenses made. The short Olympus lenses are about 1 stop slower (my Canon 24 is f1.4, my Olympus 12 is f2, my Canon 50 is f1.2, the Olympus 25 is f1.8) but the longer lenses are the same speed or faster (the Canon 100 is f2, the Olympus 45 is f1.8 and the Canon 200 is f2.8 while the Olympus 75 is f1.8).
The Olympus gear is Micro 4:3, or a 2X crop compared to full frame. This is great from the weight and portability perspective, less good from the ISO, depth of field perspective.
Larger sensors have better high ISO characteristics because the photosites on the sensor are bigger. This gets into engineering, physics, math and a lot of stuff I don’t understand. But across camera lines, larger sensors have better high ISO characteristics. Canon full frame is better than Canon APS sized sensors and Nikon full frame is better than either Nikon APS or Nikon 1 Series cameras (which have a postage stamp sized sensor).
But, and this is important to remember, I think that for many people high ISO is over rated. That’s not to say it’s not important, it is. However, I use ISO100 a lot more often than I use ISO1600. I seldom go over ISO3200 and can count on one hand the number of times I’ve worked at ISOs higher than 6400.
I’m old. When I started photographing in color back in the early 1980s, ISO160 was considered a high ISO. Seriously. High Speed Ektachrome was the fastest available color transparency film. It was an E6 film and could be pushed one or two stops. It was bad at its base ISO of 160. It was dreadful pushed. “Normal” speed film then was Kodachrome 64 (ISO64) or Kodachrome 25 (ISO25) or Ektachrome 64 (ISO 64). Now, most digital cameras don’t even go down to ISO 64 and I don’t know of any that go down to ISO 25.
Our high ISO black and white film was either Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP-5, base ISO of 400, pushed to 1600 and developed in a witches’ brew of homemade chemicals. Photographers then didn’t sit around talking about which sensor was better. We traded secrets for push processing film. (This is predating Kodak’s T-Max 3200.)
(This was early in my color photography days. Color films got a lot better at high ISO pretty quickly, but even at the end of my color film photography days “high” ISO meant 800 pushed to 1600, so we’re much better off now than we were then.)
Clean high ISO is important to me but the high ISO of modern digital cameras is amazing. I have no problem going to 1600 with the E-P5 and 3200 is usable with noise reduction in Lightroom. The 5D Mark III has about a 1 to 1.5 stop advantage at high ISO, I just don’t routinely need those super high ISOs. High ISO of modern cameras, including the E-P5 and Olympus bodies, just blows away anything we could coax out of film back in the day.
It’s important to know what kind of photography you do. If I did a lot of sports or worked at high ISO a lot this would be a bigger deal to me.
Finally, Olympus’ in body image stabilization is excellent and makes up for some of the high ISO deficit. I can handhold the Olympus cameras at shutter speeds that would either force me into using a tripod or higher ISO on the Canons.
The other big difference is depth of field control. I really like working with my Canon lenses at f1.4 or 1.2 or 2, “wide open” or close to it. The shallow depth of field and large sensor create a great look that I can’t equal with the Olympus, which has a smaller sensor.
Because of the math, f1.8 on the Olympus 25mm has about the same depth of field as the Canon 50mm has at f3.5. F3.5 might be a wide f stop for some photographers, especially zoom users, but for me it’s the middle of the pack. I still work at f1.8 or f2, I’ve just had to get used to not having the same super thin depth of field I had with the Canons.
The glass is half full take on this is that I have more photos in focus. As good as the autofocus is on the 5D Mark III (and it is very good), working at 1.2 or f1.4 means missed focus by only a few inches can throw your picture unusably out of focus. There’s a greater fudge factor with M4:3 because it has more depth of field at the same f stop.
Those are some of the tangible issues with using Micro 4:3. There’s also the intangibles. When I use the Canons people the people I photograph react differently to me. They are stiffer, more formal. When I use the Olympus, probably because it’s so much smaller and less intimidating, people don’t take me as seriously, which I prefer.
I am keeping the Canon gear for the time being, just in case I have to cover an event that’s a bad match for the Olympus kit (sports for example) but now when you see me on the street I’ll be working with the Olympus gear rather than the Canon gear.
The Vegetarian Festival just ended in Thailand. The festival is celebrated in Chinese communities throughout Thailand. Bangkok generally gets dismissed as a Veg Fest destination but with hundreds of thousands of Thais of Chinese ancestry in Bangkok, it’s mostly a matter of knowing where to go to enjoy the Vegetarian Festival.
The temple is a part of Bangkok’s history though. The Chao Phraya River used to be Thailand’s gateway to the world. The tall ships and 19th century steamers dropped anchor and unloaded their freight at piers along the river. Foreign embassies were along the riverfront. Chinese junks used to drop anchor near a pier at what is now Wat Yannawa. Tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants coming to Thailand made landfall at that pier. In some ways, it’s Thailand’s “Ellis Island.” Because of its role in the Chinese influx into Thailand it hosts one of the city’s better Vegetarian Festival ceremonies.
I’ve always consider myself pretty lucky when it comes to photographing religious and cultural events in Thailand. Whether it’s Buddhist events, like Vesak or Hindu events like the Ganesh Festival or Muslim holidays like Eid al Adha or any of the many cultural events here, I’ve always been able to cover them pretty much the way I want to.
I call it “luck” but that’s not really accurate. Even though I don’t plan it out, I try to pay attention to local customs and respect local traditions. And although I’m not a very patient person or one who’s good at “hanging out” and seeing what happens, sometimes that’s exactly what it takes.
I went to Wat Yannawa in search of Vegetarian Festival events. I had seen banners advertising the Vegetarian Festival on walls near the temple so I wandered down there not knowing what to expect. I got down there about 1.30PM and planned to just hang out. Because I wanted to photograph religious events I was dressed in white – white slacks and a white shirt (Buddhists traditionally wear white when they go to temples for religious ceremonies).
When I cover a religious or cultural event I dress appropriately.
I chose to wear white not because I wanted to camouflage myself or pass myself off as a Buddhist, which would have been dishonest and, with my cameras, pointless. People would have seen through the subterfuge in a second. Wearing white was about respect. I didn’t want to disrespect the people I was photographing.
A crowd was gathering for the food distribution and people were praying at shrines set up in the parking lots specifically for the Festival. I’ve been photographing Vegetarian Festival events all week in Bangkok, so I didn’t photograph very much at this time. I mostly watched.
In the middle of the afternoon a truck delivered a big load of charcoal and dropped it in the middle of a parking lot. I took that as a good sign because firewalking ceremonies are held on beds of burning charcoal. The prayer services ended and I was getting ready to go outside the temple to get a bite to eat when a couple invited me to join them at their table for the vegetarian banquet that was coming.
They didn’t speak much English and I don’t speak Thai, but we enjoyed a great meal of Thai-Chinese vegetarian dishes like stewed duck (with tofu playing the role of the duck), and pork (with tofu playing the role of the pork). It’s a good thing I like tofu because I ate a lot of it at the Vegetarian Festival banquet.
After dinner people gathered for another prayer service and procession. The procession circled the parking lot (which had been turned into a large shrine) three times, each time around the parking lot people stepped over a small pot of burning coals. A couple of tourists showed up halfway through the procession.
This is where dressing appropriately pays off. They were dressed in shorts and tee shirts. One of the attendants at the service asked them to stay at the edge of the ceremony while I was allowed to wander freely and photograph. While he was talking to them, he specifically pointed at their clothes. They stayed for about 10 minutes but left before the main event started.
The procession ended with a clash of cymbals and people moved over to the fire pit. A few men and women lined up at the end of the fire pit while men tending the fire stirred the coals and sprayed it with alcohol (to keep things toasty).
Then men and women ran through the coals. The whole time I photographed freely.
I tried to be as respectful as I could. Showing respect at an event like this is a complicated equation. I am there to photograph it but I don’t want to interfere or lessen the experience for the participants. At the same time, I need to make pictures that accurately capture the emotion and reality of what’s going on around me.
Showing respect means sometimes using lenses longer than I normally would – at this firewalking ceremony I mostly used my 50mm and 100mm lenses when I normally would have used my 24mm and 40mm lenses. It meant moving to a vantage point that was not as clean as I would have liked because the best vantage point would have obstructed the view of participants.
Covering events like this is frequently as much about overcoming obstacles as it is pushing the shutter button. It’s about dressing appropriately, being patient and working respectfully.
One of the things I’ve noticed while I’m leading workshops is that when people find something they want to photograph, they tend to make one or two photos and then move onto something else.
Back in the days of film, every frame we exposed cost money, the film, something we had a limited supply of, cost money and processing cost money. It was easy to spend $15 (US) on a roll of 36 exposure film and processing.
The economics with digital are completely different. Yes, memory cards cost money and they hold a finite number of exposures. But memory cards are reusable, and the number of frames they hold is an order of magnitude higher than the number of exposures on a roll of film. I carry eight 8 gigabyte cards with me when I go out with my 16 megapixel Micro 4:3 camera. Each cards holds approximately 300 frames, or more than 8 rolls of 36 exposure 35mm film. We are not bound by the same limits we were when we worked with film.
Now, the biggest expense we incur when we travel for photography is the getting there. With digital, the actual photography part is nearly free (I know, we’ve spent money on cameras, lenses, cards etc, but those are one time expenses, not ongoing ones like film was). We owe it to ourselves as photographers to fully explore a scene and make the most of the situation.
This doesn’t mean setting motor drive to 10 frames per second, leaning on the shutter button and blasting through gigabytes of card storage. It does mean exploring the scene, working it different lenses and lighting. Looking for the perfect moment, when your subject’s eyes are open (or closed if that’s what you’re going for), the right expression and the best composition.
I recently photographed the Thai Prime Minister before his first cabinet meeting. The event I was photographing lasted roughly 4.5 minutes. The PM came out to a shrine, said some prayers and walked back to his office. That was it.
In that time, using three cameras, I made just over 100 frames. I used three cameras because I don’t use zooms. I needed multiple focal length lenses but there wasn’t time to change lenses so I photographed with three lenses on three cameras. I used a 280mm lens (a 200mm lens with a 1.4X teleconverter) for the long photos of the PM walking to the shrine and very tight portraits. I used a 100mm lens for photos of the PM praying and I used a 50mm lens for wider pictures of the PM walking around the shrine. If I used zooms, I would have used just two cameras but it would not have been possible to cover this event they way I wanted to cover it with just one camera.
I didn’t mindlessly motor through the event. In fact, I set my cameras to the slower settings (four frames per second) specifically because I didn’t want to mindlessly motor. But I was “working” the entire time the PM was at the shrine. Jockeying for a position among the other photographers, working different lenses to get different perspectives. Some pictures made with flash on (for fill flash) but most with flash off. Worried about making sure the PM had his eyes open etc.
I did not check my cameras’ LCDs while I was working. That would have been too much of a distraction. I did, before the PM came out for his moment, make test exposures with each camera and lens so I knew everything was working but once the event started I focused on making pictures.
You may not be photographing the Prime Minister or some other celebrity but you owe it to yourself to work the scene or whatever you’re photographing every bit as hard as you would if you were photographing the PM (or whatever subject you’re passionate about). And don’t worry about getting every frame perfect. We learn from our mistakes, so if you’re satisfied with every frame, you’re either a) an amazing photographer or b) not pushing yourself hard enough.
I photographed the annual Ganesh Festival at Shri Utthayan Ganesha Temple in Nakhon Nayok over the weekend. I ended up using my Micro 4:3 gear for almost the whole thing.
Back in the day, when photographers used film, I used to carry Canon FD and Leica M cameras and lenses. Most of the telephoto work was done with the Canons, while I used Leicas for wide angle or street photography. Being a newspaper photographer, I needed the flexibility of the SLR, with lenses from 20mm to 400mm, motordrives, flash and professional support and I used SLRs for most of my work. But the Leicas were smaller, lighter and more fun. They also challenged me in ways that the Canons did not because they didn’t have light meters (until the M6 came along) and they were “finicky” to load and unload. (The motors for the Canon New F1 had an automatic rewind function – hit the last frame and the camera would rewind the film into the cassette. At the time I thought that was very cool.)
Years ago cameras were things of beauty. The Leica M in particular was a wonder to hold and use, but even the Canon New F1 and other Canon film bodies (not to slight peeps who used Nikons but I’ve been a lifelong Canon photographer). Cameras and lenses were much smaller than they are now. Ergonomically, controls and dials fell into place naturally. Some manufacturers went down different paths (Olympus OM line I’m looking at you) but they made sense in their own way.
Things changed with autofocus and other electronics. Now manufacturers had to find ways to build micro-computers in their cameras. Cameras got a lot bigger and heavier. Lenses exploded in size.
Digital bodies, especially professional ones, are huge and outrageously heavy. A Canon New F1, their top of the line film body in the early 1980s, was a large camera for its time but it is positively petite compared to the EOS 1DX, Canon’s current top of the line camera
For years I’ve been looking for a smaller option to my Canon bodies. For a long time I used Canon G series “point and shoots” alongside my dSLRs. They were okay. Image quality was okay (actually pretty good considering the small sensor) but they were slow. Autofocus was slow, shot to shot time was slow and shutter lag was bad. Press the shutter button to make a photo and the camera would fire pretty much when it wanted to, not when you wanted it to. Decisive moment photography was a challenge.
Then I discovered Micro 4:3 cameras.
For a long time, Olympus has been a sort of an also ran in camera circles. Their products are excellent. Their lenses every bit as good as anything from Canon or Nikon. Their camera bodies are very good but their camera designers march to their own beat and while they were always cult favorites, they were never really able to generate much traction against the CanNik juggernaut. (Pentax and Minolta, two other storied brands had the same problem and eventually disappeared.)
With digital, Canon and Nikon have built a certain amount of backward compatibility into their digital SLR lines but Olympus threw out the rule books and started from scratch.
While Canon and Nikon pursued the holy grail of full frame, Olympus and Panasonic went the other way and collaborated on a smaller sensor. They came up with 4:3, a sensor that is 18mm (wide) by 13.5mm (tall). A full frame sensor, in comparison, is 36mm wide and 24mm tall or roughly twice as big. The 4:3 line didn’t sell very well and eventually Olympus and Panasonic modified it and came up with Micro 4:3 (M4:3). The sensor is the same size, but by redesigning the cameras and going away from traditional SLR design they came up with much smaller cameras (and lenses).
My first M4:3 was a Panasonic GF1. It was a great little camera. It was nowhere near a replacement for my Canons but it was small, had good quality and was fun to use. Noise was a problem over ISO800, autofocus was slow (but reliable) and it was, in general, a slow camera. But it became my go to small camera pushing my Canon G cameras out of the bag. It was generation 1 of M4:3 and with any new technology generational improvements are huge.
M4:3 sensors have gotten much better with every generation. My current M4:3 camera, the E-P5 is a huge improvement over the GF1. ISO1600 is no problem and ISO3200 is usable with some noise reduction in Lightroom. It’s got almost as much dynamic range as my full frame cameras and it’s really fast. Not 5D Mark III or 1DX fast, but considerably faster than my 5D Mark II.
Is M4:3 as good as full frame? In absolute terms, probably not. There are inherent advantages to large sensors, like broader dynamic range and lower noise (digital grain). Depth of field control is also more precise with full frame bodies. But the differences, instead of being deal breakers, are more like the differences between medium format and full frame. In other words, it’s all a part of a choice you make and not a corner you’re forced into.
M4:3 has been my go to carry around camera for a couple of years. Something I would take with me when I was out and not intending to photograph but wanted to be ready just in case. Now I’m using my M4:3 for more and more of my work.
I photographed a recent Chinese opera with it and I covered Ganesh with the M4:3 almost exclusively. (I used my 5D Mark III for a couple of photos because I needed a 200mm lens and the longest lens I have for M4:3 is 90mm.)
I used to tell people that I could use the GF1 and early M4:3 for about 60% of my work but that when I hit the wall with it, it was a hard stop and I had to use my Canons. Using M4:3 meant using full frame and M4:3 side by side. Now I can use M4:3 for about 90% of my work and when I hit the wall, it’s a low wall easily gotten over or around. More and more I leave my Canons at home and go out with just the M4:3.
Just as I used to carry Canons and Leicas and other photographers had 35mm, medium format and large format (or view cameras) I think we’re now entering a time when photographers will have multiple digital formats.
M4:3 (or other mirrorless camera) for work on the street and carrying around. Full frame when they need that bokeh, high ISO or lighting (both Canon and Nikon offer a lot more options for flash and supplemental light) and medium format when they need a huge number of megapixels.
Summer, at least in the northern hemisphere, is nearly over, but it’s never to late to start a summer reading list.
Photography books don’t usually end up in the “going to the beach bag” and if these books don’t make your summer reading list, they’re perfect for those nights when you stay in. These are a few of the photography books I consider essential. They absolutely reflect my interest in photojournalism and street photography. There are no academic discussions on the merits of photography, like Susan Sontag’s “On Photography.” Nor are there picture books of cats, dogs or unicorns. My selection of photography books reflects the reality of the world around us.
Most of these books are available at Amazon but I am going to ask you, if you decide you’d like to spend time with one of them, rather than buy from Amazon scour your local used bookstores (most of them are out of print) or speciality book stores before you shop at Amazon.
Almost anything by William Albert Allard. Allard has been a National Geographic photographer for almost 50 years. He’s also a gifted writer. At one time or another, I’ve had most of his books but two I especially recommend are “The Photographic Essay” and “Portraits of America.” Portraits of America is a collection of his pictures made in America. There’s a timeless quality to the photos. The Photographic Essay is the only how-to book on the list, but it’s not so much a how to as it is an exploration of the thought process that goes into a photo essay.
Dancing on Fire by Maggie Steber. Documents her time covering the situation in Haiti in the 1980s. This pictures reflect a view of Haiti that’s not often seen. The brutality of the time is here but so is a Haiti of incredible spirituality and beauty. The pictures in this book will put you in Port au Prince circa 1986.
Telex Iran by Gilles Peress. All of the books on this list are a product of their time. But Telex Iran especially reflects the late 1970s. Iran was in a state of revolution, the Shah had fled and Ayatollah Khomeini was remaking Iran. This book is full of beautiful, sometimes jarring, black and white photos.
It also has the telegrams and telexes between Peress, his editors and magazines he was working for. His contact sheets, with editing notes are in here.
Now when we think of multimedia, we think of audio, video, maybe recordings of Skype calls or emails. But in 1979 none of that was possible. Telex Iran was the multimedia of its time, before multimedia was a thing.
This is also the most expensive book on this list. Used copies of Telex Iran go for about $140 (US). New copies for up to $850 and “collectible” copies (I don’t know how collectible differs from new) for an eye popping $2,800. If you stumble upon a copy of Telex Iran in your explorations of local bookstores snap it up.
Tim Page rocketed to fame for his coverage of the wars in Indochina.
He worked his way through mainland Asia (not as a photographer) and ended up in Laos where he started photographing the then “secret war.” After making an exclusive series of photos of an attempted coup in Vientiane, Laos, he was hired by United Press International, transferred to Saigon and, barely out of his teens, produced some of the most iconic photography of the war years.
This is the most straight forward photojournalism book on this list.
There aren’t many books on this list that can be credited with restarting a travel industry, but Cuba, by David Alan Harvey can. Harvey had virtually unlimited access to Cuba for a while in the late 1990s and created this masterpiece for National Geographic.
Americans are barred from freely traveling to Cuba because of a US imposed travel embargo (technically, travel to Cuba is not prohibited but spending money there is, it’s enforced through the Trading With The Enemy Act. “Trading with the Enemy” is another excellent non photographic book about Cuba) and this book whetted the appetites of thousands of Americans who wanted to experience the forbidden country 90 miles south of Key West. It started the trend of photo workshops in Cuba, led by Harvey, Allard, Steber and other photographers and was the only way many Americans could travel to Cuba without breaking the law (because educational and cultural trips were permitted under the terms of the embargo).
This is a very short list of the photo books that I most enjoy. If you see one of them in your local bookstore, pick it up, enjoy and be inspired.
Most of the stories I work on are ones I assign to myself. I read something in a local newspaper or stumble on something on the internet that piques my interest, do some research and start photographing. Sometimes it’s a news event, like the exodus (and subsequent return) of Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand. Sometimes it’s an issue related story, like drought in Thailand. Other times, it’s just fun stuff. Sometimes it just takes a lot of “sticktoitiveness” to get the story done.
Chinese opera definitely falls into the fun category. This is Ghost Month in Chinese communities around the world. Thailand has a large Chinese community and Chinese holidays, like the Chinese New Year or the Vegetarian Festival, are usually cause for a big celebration here.
Chinese opera, called “ngiew” in Thailand, is popular and I thought that Ghost Month would be a great opportunity to photograph some Chinese opera. The problem with photographing Chinese opera, though, is finding one. It’s not that the operas are secret, but they’re held at small Chinese shrines and temples and they are not usually advertised. They’re as much religious as they are entertainment and announcement of a coming Chinese opera is usually limited to posters in the temples. The posters are frequently in Chinese, which for me is a problem because while I don’t read Thai I can get it translated. But Chinese? It’s all Greek to me.
I’ve photographed a couple of Chinese operas since coming to Thailand. If I can, I collect contact information from every opera I go to, but it’s always been a challenge to pin down the exact time and location of a Chinese opera.
Last month I started sending emails and making some calls on Chinese opera. I contacted an opera “source” who had always been very helpful. She told me there were probably no Chinese operas in Bangkok for Ghost Month because Chinese opera during Ghost Month was not a big part of the Thai Ghost Month tradition. She told me that most of the Thai Chinese opera troupes went to Malaysia for Ghost Month, but that a couple of opera troupes might be performing in Bangkok and told me at which shrines they might be performing.
So I put on my walking shoes and went on a research mission. I went to a Chinese shrine on the riverfront in the Dusit district. No one in the temple spoke English but iPhone to the rescue. I showed people in the temple pictures I had on my iPhone from other Chinese operas I photographed and used the Translate app to ask about opera. People in the temple liked the photos and thought the app was amusing. But said no, they had no opera for Ghost Month. They did say they had one coming in December. I added that to my calendar but left disappointed.
Then I went down to Chinatown and Talat Noi and wandered through the alleys and shrines looking for evidence of a Chinese opera. It was nice but fruitless stroll. I found no operas.
My last stop was a small shrine in a neighborhood behind Chulalongkorn University, between MBK shopping center and Hua Lamphong train station. My opera “source” said there had been Chinese operas in the neighborhood for Ghost Month in years past but the neighborhood was being torn down (urban renewal Bangkok style) and she wasn’t sure if the neighborhood shrine was still open.
On my first visit the shrine was deserted. It was open, candles and incense burning inside, but there was no one there and no sign of a coming opera. Although the shrine is still open, the neighborhood around it is being razed to make way for condominiums and shopping malls, which I took as a bad sign.
On a whim I went back to shrine over the weekend. There were a couple of new posters in the shrine in Chinese but more importantly there was a charming woman who thought it was quite nice that a foreigner had wandered into her temple. (This is way, way off the tourist trail.) I started the whole iPhone translate routine of asking about Chinese opera and she said, “you want to photograph a Chinese opera?” In English.
I told her that I did, that I was a journalist working on a story about Chinese opera and Ghost Month and asked if she knew of any Chinese opera. She said her shrine was having a Chinese opera in 18 days. That didn’t seem right because it would take us out of Ghost Month so we hunted down a calendar and I counted ahead 18 days. While I was counting, she stopped me at August 18 and said “Here. In 18 days.” And I said, “you mean on August 18?” She pointed to the poster (which was in Chinese) and said, “yes, August 18.”
Yesterday I went down to the shrine. There was a small stage blocking the street in front of the shrine. It was the Chinese opera I was looking for and the performers couldn’t have been nicer. When I started photographing they thought I was just going to make a couple of snapshots and leave. After about 90 minutes, they realized that I was in this for the long haul. So they pulled up a chair for me, offered me dinner and regaled me with stories about their lives in greasepaint. Of course, no one spoke English and I speak neither Thai nor Teochow (Chinese) so our conversation was limited to my laughing and nodding but it was a great evening and good experience. All thanks to a healthy amount of sticktoitiveness.
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.