Street Photography

Summer Reading – by Jack Kurtz

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Summer, at least in the northern hemisphere, is nearly over, but it’s never to late to start a summer reading list.

On Photography by Susan Sontag
On Photography by Susan Sontag

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.


William Albert Allard's books.
William Albert Allard’s books.

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.
Dancing on Fire by Maggie Steber.

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
Telex Iran

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's Nam.
Tim Page’s Nam.

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.

His time in Vietnam was turned into a television mini-series and he was allegedly the role model for Dennis Hopper’s amped up photojournalist character in “Apocalypse Now.”

Page is still busy producing new work in Vietnam and Cambodia and active in the search for Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, two American photographers who disappeared in Cambodia in 1970.

This is the most straight forward photojournalism book on this list.

Cuba by David Alan Harvey
Cuba by David Alan Harvey

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.

Kissing Cousins: Landscape and Street Photography – by Sabrina Henry

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Street photography is a genre that owes some of its enormous popularity to the growing urbanization of our spaces. As people move from rural areas and cities expand, finding landscape locations to photograph has meant traveling further distances, which isn’t always possible when you have limited time. When my mentor pointed out to me that street photography is akin to landscape photography for people who live in cities, I decided to test that theory by looking at the most common landscape photography tips and seeing if there were any similarities. Surprisingly there were more than just a few.

Foreground, middle ground, and background

One of the most common landscape tips is to pay attention to objects throughout your scene. By including something of interest in your foreground, you can draw the viewer’s attention into the frame and by incorporating objects in the middle, you can help their eye travel through the picture and hopefully include something of interest in the background as well. This tip is often cited to give a feeling of depth or three-dimensionality to landscape photographs. Street photographers have the same concept except they call it “layering”. This technique is frequently promoted to give depth of interest to street photographs but the goal is the same, to make use of the entire frame to engage the viewer.

silver falls park oregon

Capture movement

This is a favourite tip of many landscape photographers and is frequently applied when discussing long exposures involving water. By extending the length of time your shutter is open, you can give the feeling of moving water especially if all other elements within the scene remain stationary. Long exposures can also be employed to photograph star trails in a big open sky at night. If you live in a city, it is almost impossible to see the stars but you can still capture movement either through panning or by simply finding a background that works for you, setting a longer shutter speed, and letting people move through the frame. Street photographers often use this technique when they find interesting signs or buildings that aren’t going to move and they want to include a human element to juxtapose and infer meaning.

new york city panning

Skies and Skyline

Often the difference between an interesting landscape photograph and a boring one is the presence of a dramatic sky. Pending inclement weather or interesting cloud formations can change a scene so much so that seasoned landscape photographers will consult the weather report before deciding when to head out to specific locations. In the city the skies may not play as prominent a role when there are towering high-rises and seemingly little sky to see especially when they are polluted. If you treat the skyline as an extension of the skies, framing with that in mind can add the drama that might be missing. This could be as simple as including interesting architecture or historical landmarks at the top of your frame. Often these elements will give viewers an indication of where the picture was taken as geological landmarks often do in landscape photographs.

yellowstone national park wyoming

Go wide

When first starting out in photography, many people will buy a camera with a kit zoom lens i.e. 18-55mm or something similar. If you develop an interest in landscape photography, you will likely want a good quality wide-angle zoom lens such as a 16-35mm. Going wide allows you to capture big scenic landscapes that give the viewer a sense of the open space. The typical street photography lens is a medium zoom lens (Jay Maisel actually uses the Nikon 28-300mm) or a 50mm prime lens however some street photographers like to use a 35mm prime lens. This lens allows you to get closer without raising too much attention of those around you. It also enables you to incorporate much more of the environment which also makes it easier to use the “layering” technique mentioned earlier.

food stall at the Richmond Night Market

Shooting reflections

Water is an important element in landscape photography and many photographers find reflections irresistible subject matter. The best time to photograph reflections is early in the morning when the waters are calm and the light reflected has a different quality from the light that falls on the trees and landscape. You can often take a relatively ordinary scene and improve it by including a reflection. Shooting reflections is almost standard for street photographers because there are so many windows or reflective surfaces (such as cars) in urban environments. Here too the quality of light is important although photographing at high noon is preferable for getting reflections in cityscapes. You can take a relatively boring street scene and if you add in reflections of buildings or people, you can create more interesting pictures that will grab the attention of viewers. Here’s a link to getting creative with reflections by JJ Michael who teaches our Beginner’s Class.

reflections on main street vancouver

Spend time scouting

If you listen to the stories behind some of the strongest landscape photographs, you will find the photographer has spent a lot of time researching the location. This includes a great deal of time scouting the location in terms of vantage points and understanding how the light and different weather conditions will work to create a better photograph. It is not uncommon for them to come back repeatedly to the same location in pursuit of more ideal conditions. Street photography can also benefit from location scouting especially if you are photographing in your neighbourhood where returning on a regular basis is easy to do. Research when the light is ideal and look for patterns in foot traffic or times of the day when local merchants might be following their routines such as receiving deliveries. Not only will you improve your chances of making a stronger photograph but you might also find something interesting that would have been missed otherwise.

Get into position

The other night I was out trying to figure out the best spot for me to photograph the Super Moon. I used an app called Light Trac to figure out the best place to be in relation to the landscape and the moon. JJ Michael wrote about a simple app here. Figuring out when the moon would rise and where it would be on the horizon when it would appear the largest was important to make sure I was standing in the right spot for the best opportunity to make the photograph I had envisioned. While there is no such app for street photographers, thinking about your scene and figuring out the best spot to make your picture takes away the randomness that leaves almost everything up to chance. Maybe that is the allure of street photography for some but to me, you shouldn’t be relying on happy accidents to become a better photographer. For his series “Dream Life” Australian photographer Trent Parke understood the light he needed to achieve his vision to the point of being obsessive in finding the right spot to make this photograph.

The parallels between landscape and street photography may not be apparent at first but like many aspects of photography, technical skill and “seeing” can be transferable. Our next Beginners class starts August 27th and JJ Michael will be teaching the fundamentals and maybe a few tips in this post. We still have some spots available so register today!

Photo Tip: Gesture in Photographs – by Sabrina Henry

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Gesture will always reveal narrative, which light and color alone find it difficult to do. Gesture can tell a story. ~ Jay Maisel

The goal of most photographers is to make pictures that say something about a subject we feel is important. We do this in any number of ways, one of which is using gesture. Gesture is basically body language and in many cases, it is universal. That is why it can be very powerful when used effectively in a photograph.

richmond summer night market

This is an image I made as part of my night market series. It is one of my favourite images from that series. Because of two important gestures within the frame, this picture evokes emotions through implied sound and it tells a story about what it is like to be at the market. The first gesture is the woman to the left of the frame who is calling out to people to try the BBQ squid. The market is a lively place where people are in friendly competition to sell food to hungry visitors. That is an important part of this market and indeed many markets you see around the world. Often sales are made only by engaging with buyers and gesture is necessary to catch their attention especially when there are language barriers. The second gesture is subtler. It is the woman the right of the frame looking at the squid on the grill with her finger at the corner of her mouth. This gesture indicates she is thinking about making a purchase, which effectively completes the narrative within this picture.

Gesture is usually captured in one of two ways: by accident or with a whole of patience. Much of the gesture I see in street photography is often by accident and the narrative is applied only after the picture has been made. If you want to be a good photographer, you cannot rely on this method to create a meaningful narrative. Putting content into your photographs requires understanding what you want to say so that you can recognize it when you see it (or you can create it yourself when you choose to pose people). This picture at the market was made towards the end of my two-year project photographing there. I spent almost every weekend during the summer months getting to know the people who worked at the booths. In this case, Lucy who owned the booth allowed me into her space to photograph from that perspective. I studied how she would go about selling her BBQ squid and we would talk about her competition five stalls down, how a location closer to the entrance would increase sales, and next year she would find a way to be in a better booth and maybe sell other items. I spent weeks making pictures at her stall with her niece who is the one in the picture. After I made this picture, I stopped because I knew I had the one that said everything I wanted to say about her stall. 

One of my favourite images that demonstrates effective storytelling through gesture is from William Albert Allard. It is this picture from his Peru collection on his website, which can also be found in his book Five Decades: A Retrospective on page 104. Again there are a couple of gestures here, the first is of the man putting on his hat but it is that second gesture that makes this picture priceless. The man in the middle of the picture is looking at a thread on the cape being carried by the other man. That attention to detail is part of the show that is bullfighting. The elaborate costumes they wear are decorative while at the same time, they must allow the matadors to move with ease. And if I’m not mistaken, this may be where the expression “dressed to kill” originated.

While gesture is usually attributed to humans or animals, it can also be found in landscape photography. Body language can only be implied in nature but what is the same for us as photographers is the intention of conveying an emotion or feeling through some kind of motion. We see it in the wind blowing through a field of rye or the light rays bursting through the clouds at sunrise or even the way branches on a willow tree reach out and gently touch the grass.

Want to learn how to make stronger pictures using gesture? Sign up for one of our private workshops and we can show you how.

A Nod and a Smile by Jack Kurtz

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A passenger on the Yangon Circular Train. I was riding the train, leaned in the doorway of the railcar and made his picture.
A passenger on the Yangon Circular Train. I was riding the train, leaned in the doorway of the railcar and made his picture. He doesn’t look very happy, does he?

When I’m photographing on the street I sometimes ask permission to photograph and sometimes don’t depending on the scene I’m working.

In the photo above for example, I was riding the Yangon Circular Train and I saw the man looking out the window. I leaned out the door of the rail car and made a couple of frames of him while the train chugged down the tracks. After the first couple of pictures, while I was still leaning out the door, I put my camera down and thanked him. Then I brought the camera back up to photograph some more and he smiled and nodded okay.

A few seconds later, after nodding and smiling at the young man, I made this photo.
A few seconds later, after nodding and smiling at the young man, I made this photo.

That’s when I made this photo. He knew I was there (he also knew I was there in the first photo) but the few seconds I took to engage him made all the difference. I prefer the latter photo. I like his smile and body English. To me, the second photo feels more natural and less confrontational.

Sometimes it’s more disruptive to ask permission before photographing, this is especially true when it’s a moment, like the photo below.

A man prays at Botataung Pagoda in Yangon.
A man prays at Botataung Pagoda in Yangon.

I was at Botataung Pagoda in Yangon. I was watching people make offerings and praying at a small chapel in the pagoda. People would make offerings of fruit, say a prayer then touch their foreheads to the statue’s finger. I slipped into position during a break in the line of people praying. I waited for prayers to resume and made this picture when this man came up to the statue to pray.

In a similar situation at Shwedagon Pagoda I asked a couple of monks if it would be okay to photograph them.

Monks at Shwedagon Pagoda.
Monks at Shwedagon Pagoda.

I saw the monks sitting together in front of the Buddha statue. I walked up to them, showed them my camera and asked if I could photograph them. They nodded yes, I made five or six frames and then showed them the photos (using the LCD on the back of my camera).

The hardest part of photographing strangers is just doing it. I don’t have a hard and fast rule about when I will or will not ask permission before making a photo. In general, if asking permission is more disruptive than not asking permission, I won’t ask first I’ll simply photograph. Even then though, I almost always try to position myself in a way that I can work without being disruptive and so people know I’m there. In the photo from Botataung, I was standing about a meter from the statue. I got into position at the statue before people started praying and I didn’t leave until after people finished. People knew I was there photographing and I tried to be as discreet as I could under the circumstances.

Are You Ready for Prime Time?

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If you are like me, when you started out in photography chances are you bought a compact camera with a zoom lens or an entry level DSLR with a zoom kit lens. When I became serious about photography my first digital camera was a Canon G9 with 35-210mm lens equivalent and soon after I moved up to the Nikon D80 with a wide angle zoom 18-55mm lens. It wasn’t long before I picked up my next lens, a telephoto zoom that took me from 55-200mm. For about fifteen months, I made photographs with only these two lenses until a friend loaned me his 50mm f1.8 prime lens to take on a photographic safari to Kenya. As soon as I returned home, I bought that lens for myself. It was light and fast and there was no excuse not to take my camera with me because I could just throw it in my bag and take it everywhere.

Today my carry around camera is the Olympus OM-D EM-5 and recently I decided to add two new prime lenses, the 35mm equivalent and the 50mm equivalent (I already have a 28mm equivalent). These lenses weren’t cheap but they have not left my camera body since I purchased them and they have been money well spent. During a recent trip to New Orleans these lenses performed beyond my expectation and I came home with plenty of good photographs.

The Spotted Cat New Orleans
The Spotted Cat, New Orleans 50mm 1/60 sec f1.8 ISO 2500

So how do you know when it is time to add prime lens to your camera bag? Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help decide if you are ready to make the investment.

Do you need a fast lens?
I love to photograph at night and in low light environments. Prime lenses have large maximum apertures, some open to f/1.2, compared to even the fastest zoom lenses, which typically go down to f2.8. In low light conditions, you can adjust your shutter speed and ISO in addition to your aperture but at some point you will see noise at the higher ISO settings and camera shake will be a problem at slower shutter speeds. This is when a fast prime lens will outshine your best zoom lens. I used both my lenses to photograph New Orleans at night including in jazz and music bars and I was able to get sharp images at the maximum apertures of f/1.2 and f/1.8. By contrast I tried my fastest zoom lens and most, if not all of those images, were unusable.

Is Weight An Issue?
One of the biggest distinctions between primes and zooms is in the weight of these two types of lenses. Prime lenses generally weigh less because they have fewer moving parts and optical elements. If you have back, shoulder or neck issues that are preventing you from going out to make photographs, these lighter prime lenses will make a difference. You will be able to pack two or three prime lenses and a camera body in a bag that normally takes one body and a standard telephoto zoom.

What kind of photography do you do?
Depending on what you want to photograph prime lenses could be a big help. Because they are smaller, they are less intrusive and more discreet. While some street photographers like to use zooms because they can reach without being “in your face”, others prefer a wide angle prime lens such as the 24mm or the 28mm because you can be close to your subject matter and they remain unaware you are taking a picture. If you are interested in macro photography, a prime lens is a must (it is sometimes called a fixed focal length macro). There are very few true macro zoom lenses (the Nikon ED 70-180mm is one) and if you want 1:1 magnification, a prime macro lens is what you need. Sure you can buy a close-up filter but the quality of your images won’t match those taken with a macro lens. Popular macro focal lengths are 55mm, 85mm and 105mm depending on the availability in each camera brand.

Is cost a concern?
Prime lenses are sometimes seen as more expensive than zoom lenses because you have one fixed focal length per lens. In order to cover the focal range of a traditional 24-70mm street zoom lens, you would need to buy a 24mm or a 28mm, a 35mm, a 50mm and possibly a 85mm. That adds up so if cost is a concern, you might want to stick with your zoom lens and slowly upgrade as your budget allows. In the meantime there are relatively inexpensive prime lenses you can buy that are probably faster than your zoom—the 50mm f1.8, for example. Sure you can buy the f1.4 or even the f1.2 but for many, the f1.8 is the perfect lens to transition to working with primes. It was for me!

How lazy curious are you?
One of the most common complaints about working with primes is the need to switch lenses to get the focal length you think you need. This is a hassle if you only have one camera body and you need to remove one prime lens to replace it with another. Zoom lenses allow you to stay in one place and make your photograph at different focal lengths. While that is easier than switching out lenses, if you are curious about how your camera sees at various focal lengths, spending time with one prime lens is a great way to improve your understanding of how your camera works. (Jack Kurtz wrote a great post on one camera, one lens that you should check out.) The fact is your prime lens can be a zoom lens of sorts using a term called “foot zoom”. Yes you can treat your 50mm prime like a 35mm prime if you just move closer to the subject matter and compose your photograph. These approaches come down to how curious you are about finding out what something looks like photographed from various distances using different lenses. Doing this will help you become a better photographer.

At the Bangkok Photo School, we are often asked what camera or lens to buy and students think they need to buy new equipment before signing up for our Beginners Class. We actually advise students to wait until they’ve attended the class so we can have a discussion about the most suitable camera and lenses to purchase. Our next class starts May 28 and we have some spots available. Click here for more information or email us with your enquiries.

If you aren’t ready for prime time yet, take heart. One of the best photographers around today, Jay Maisel photographs using the Nikon 28-300mm telephoto zoom lens. Here is a blogpost about his favourite lens and here is a link to his wonderful work.

Less Than Perfect

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A tuk-tuk in Chinatown.

In general, photographers don’t like pictures that aren’t sharp. Whether it’s focus or motion, we usually try to make sure our photos are sharp.

I was walking through Bangkok’s Chinatown recently, not on an assignment just photographing with my Micro 4:3 gear. I was at the corner of Ratchawong and Yaowarat Roads photographing tuk-tuks, the ubiquitous three wheeled taxis that putter around Bangkok hauling freight and passengers.

I have lots of tuk-tuk photos, some sharp, some not. I usually photograph tuk-tuks at either a fast enough shutter speed that they’re sharp and in focus or in a way that has some motion but is still recognizable as a tuk-tuk, somewhere around 1/30th of a second.

This time I wanted something completely different, less literal and more impressionistic. I kept dropping the shutter speed and increasing the f-stop and ultimately made this picture. A quick check of the exif data shows it was made at 1/10th of a second, f10 at ISO 100. I kind of like it. It’s not the sharpest tuk-tuk photo I have but it is one the most atmospheric. Sometimes less then perfect is better.

I have lots of tuk-tuk photos in my archive.

Covering Songkran

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First Day of Songkran in Bangkok

My Songkran setup: 1 Canon 5D Mark II body (with 28-70mm f2.8 zoom), a Kata rain cover, a plastic water proof pouch for cash and iPhone, ThinkTank Skin pouches, my 16-35mm and 70-200mm zoom lenses are in the pouches, which are covered by the included water proof covers that come with ThinkTank products.

Songkran is probably the most famous holiday in Thailand. It’s the traditional Thai New Year and celebrated with raucous water fights all over the country. You can be walking down the sidewalk, minding your own business, and find yourself drenched when a pickup truck full of Thai teenagers throws water on you as they speed past looking for another target of opportunity.

Some neighborhoods, like Khao San Road, are closed to regular traffic and become virtual free fire zones of aquatic hijinks.

SongkranObservanceIf you’re going to photograph Songkran, you’re going to get wet.

On one hand, covering Songkran is the easiest thing in the world. Go to the water fights and start photographing. Mission accomplished. But when you’re covering Songkran, you have to make sure you’re covered or you’re going to end up covering some expensive repair bills for cameras that are not waterproof.

I’ve been covering Songkran for years now and I have never lost or damaged a piece of equipment. This is how I do it.

In my normal day to day photography I don’t use zooms. I much prefer using fast prime lenses, like the Canon 24mm f1.4 or 50mm f1.2. If I need to change the perspective, I walk closer to or further from what I’m photographing or change lenses. But when you’re in the midst of a water fight involving dozens of combatants, changing lenses is a really bad idea and you don’t have the mobility you’re used to.

When I photograph Songkran I break out my zoom lenses and older camera body. Just because I’ve never damaged a camera in Songkran doesn’t mean I never will and I don’t want to wreck my 5D Mark III covering something as silly as Songkran. I use my old Canon zooms, which I don’t normally use, because I can change up my field of view without changing lenses.

Normally I work out of a shoulder bag. What can I say, I’m old school. During Songkran though I leave the shoulder bag at home and work out of a ThinkTank set of “Skin” pouches. I carry my old Canon 16-35mm f2.8 zoom (version 1 of the lens, more than 12 years old) and my old Canon 70-200mm f2.8 zoom (I think this lens is about 15 years old). The lenses ride in the ThinkTank pouches. ThinkTank includes brilliantly designed waterproof covers for the pouches. When I get down to the waterfight zone, I cover the pouches with the waterproof covers. It’s not very stylish, but it keeps everything bone dry.

My workhorse lens, and the one that is on the camera for about 75% of what I do for Songkran, is my really old Canon 28-70mm f2.8 zoom, which has been out of production for more than 13 years. I use the zooms one week a year – Songkran. At almost all other times I use my Canon prime lenses.

For working on the street during Songkran I carry the camera and lens I’m working with in a Kata 702 rain cover. This is an exceedingly uncool way of carrying a camera but it keeps your gear dry and working. It’s a giant clear plastic bag. The “front” has a drawstring and Velcro closure which keeps water out of the front. There is no lens covering, so it’s important to use filters on your lenses to keep water off the lens itself. Your hands go into holes on the side, which also have drawstring closures. There’s water and dust proof zipper and the bottom that seals the whole thing. There is no eyepiece cover per se. The rain cover is clear, so you look through the plastic case when you look through the viewfinder.

It’s a little awkward and strange looking but it works. It costs about $70(US) and is worth every penny.

Finally, if you’re going out to photograph Songkran, or any other water fight, don’t forget your cash and iPhone. You will get wet. Really wet. Like last person off the Titanic wet. Anything in your pockets will also get wet, and your iPhone is not waterproof (neither is your Android if you were wondering). I bought a plastic waterproof case from a vendor at a BTS station for my iPhone and cash. It cost about 30Baht (one dollar) and keeps my smaller things snug as a bug in a rug.