Sticktoitiveness – by Jack Kurtz

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Chinese opera cast members relax backstage before their performance at a small Chinese shrine in Bangkok.
Chinese opera cast members relax backstage before their performance at a small Chinese shrine in Bangkok.

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.

The opera starts with performers making an offering in the shrine.
The opera starts with performers making an offering in the shrine.

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.

A performer puts on his makeup in the middle of the street. Most operas set up a small stage in the middle of the street. Dressing rooms are nonexistent. Performers get into character where ever they can.
A performer puts on his makeup in the middle of the street. Most operas set up a small stage in the middle of the street. Dressing rooms are nonexistent. Performers get into character where ever they can.
A man on a scooter drives past the opera stage before the performance.
A man on a scooter drives past the opera stage before the performance.

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.

Chinese opera in a neighborhood near Chulalongkorn University.
Chinese opera in a neighborhood near Chulalongkorn University.

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.”

A member of the audience relaxes while she watches the opera.
A member of the audience relaxes while she watches the opera.

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.

Getting Creative with Reflections – by JJ Michael

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Building Reflections

The rainy season in Bangkok will soon be upon us, which is a great time to get creative with your compositions. After a big rain there are plenty of opportunities to create interesting images using reflections from the puddles (or sometimes rivers) in the streets.   Typically your reflection images should be fairly symmetrical so that the object being reflected and the reflection itself are equally distributed in your image.  In order to accomplish this you may need to change your viewpoint by either crouching down low or possibly getting up high on a bench or some other elevated surface.

The “rules” of photography exist for a reason.  When followed correctly they can result in engaging and beautiful images.  But rules are meant to be broken.  Try getting creative with your reflections by only photographing the reflection itself and then flipping the image vertically using Lightroom or Photoshop.  By flipping the image vertically the viewer is able to see the object as it appears in real life, but the reflection will add an abstract element to the photo.

tree reflections

The image above is of the reflections of some trees in Phu Kradueng National Park in Northeast Thailand.  After a heavy rain the night before this area was filled with small puddles, reflecting the surrounding trees nicely. I started photographing the reflections, but no matter how I composed the shot I didn’t like any of the images with both the trees and their reflections.  I finally decided to exclude the actual trees and instead just photographed the reflections themselves with the idea that I would later flip them vertically in Lightroom. The fact that there were several small puddles instead of one large puddle helped break up the reflections and enhanced the abstractness of the image.

Why Did You Stop? by JJ Michael

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Enlightment Buddha


Anytime you bring your camera up to your eye to take a photo there is something about the scene in front of you that makes you want to stop and capture it.  Maybe it’s an emotion you’re feeling.  Maybe you’ve come across a stunning landscape or beautiful building. Or maybe it’s the innocence of a child at play.  Whatever it is that caused you to stop in your tracks and push that shutter release button it’s important to know why you’re taking the picture. Understanding the reasons for taking a picture will lead to better choices about composition and framing, lens choice, and exposure settings so that the mood and subject of your image are exactly what you visualized.

The image of the large Buddha statue above was taken in Surin, in the east of Thailand.  I found the statue down a quiet tree-lined, dirt path off of the main highway.  At the time there was no one else around, and with a slight breeze blowing through the trees it was a very peaceful setting.  I took a few photos of the full statue but those images seemed more impressive and grand, and they didn’t convey the sense of tranquility I was experiencing.  As I continued to try different compositions and settings I found myself drawn to the hands at rest, resulting in the image you see here.  The mood of this image is much more in line with what I felt at the time.

So the next time you’re out with your camera and you stop to take a picture, ask yourself why you stopped and what type of image you’re trying to create.




Essential Reading for Photographers

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Years ago I received a piece of advice from my mentor that at first, made me laugh but I can tell you today that it was a very good suggestion.

I was told to read my camera manual.

When we first acquire our cameras, the last thing we want to do is still down and read 120 pages of technical jargon especially if we have been photographing for a while and we think we are quite competent. There is however a very good reason for reading your manual.

In photography, time is measured in fractions of a second and once the moment has passed seldom do we get another chance to make the picture that flashed before our eyes. We need to understand our equipment to intuitively respond to the situation and adjust our camera settings without a second thought. There is no time to dig deep into the camera’s menu to change one item that could make the difference between a good picture and no picture at all. Here are a few things I learned to use after reading my camera manual.

Exposure Metering Modes
Cameras today are very good at assessing all the light within a scene and achieving a good exposure so people are comfortable with choosing the evaluative or matrix metering mode and never exploring the other options. From previous posts on visual design, we know light is one of the most important elements of visual design. When we know how to control the way the camera reads light, we gain new approaches to making better pictures. Below is an example where I used spot metering to add a three-dimensional feeling to this stall in the Thai fishing village of Mahachai.

mahachai fishing village thailand

Function (Fn) Buttons
If you are using a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, you probably have at least one or even two function buttons. The Fn button is a button the user customizes to allow faster access to a predetermined menu option. Think of it like a short cut on a computer keyboard. Since I often like to photograph at night and in low light environments, I always set one function button to spot metering. It allows me quickly change between matrix and spot metering and I can do it without even taking my eye away from the viewfinder. If your camera doesn’t have a separate ISO button, you can program the second function button to change your ISO. If you need more ideas of what to program, your manual will have other options.

Custom Settings
If you have attended our classes or private workshops, you know we love to pan with our cameras. In a chaotic city like Bangkok, panning allows us to isolate our subject matter and simplify the scene. Did you know you could program the settings needed to pan using the custom settings of your camera? The custom settings (C1, C2 on Canons or U1, U2 on Nikons) are like the Fn button but instead you can program a group of settings you frequently use instead of just one setting like exposure metering. You aren’t limited to just one option either as many cameras have two or three possible custom settings so you can program setting changes that would normally take too long to do otherwise.

Back Button Focus
For the longest time, I used my shutter button to focus that was until I learned about back button focus. Normally we focus our cameras by pressing halfway down on the shutter button and then we press down fully when we take the picture. By using the back button to focus, we relieve the shutter button from focus duty and instead assign that task to another button. Not everyone likes to use the back button and it took me a while to get used to using it because memory muscle had firmly implanted the shutter button as my focus button. Why would you want to use the back button to focus? By separating the auto focus activation from the shutter release, you won’t need to refocus each time you release your shutter. You can be much more effective with your focus because if something moving enters your frame while you are making your picture, your focus remains locked.

Final Tips
These are just a few things I learned to do on my camera by reading my manual. No one really wants to read the entire camera manual and I certainly did not. What I did do is keep my manual handy and read short sections when I had a few spare minutes. I also downloaded my manual to my iPhone so that I could reference it whenever I needed it.

If metering modes, back button focus and panning have your head spinning, join us at our next Beginners Class starting in at the end of this month and we will explain it all to you and show you how to set up your camera. Oh and bring your camera manuals please!

Introduction to Visual Design

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The sun sets at the border between Thailand and Myanmar

When I first started taking pictures, I never knew about the concept of “visual design”. I was perfectly happy snapping away what looked nice to me and I felt pretty good about my pictures. Ignorance sure was bliss. It was only when I began to get serious about photography that I learned there was a difference between taking a picture and making one.

One of my favourite photographers, William Allard, often draws analogies between photography and writing—good photography and good writing actually. It is also a great analogy to use to help understand visual design. Writing can be considered linguistic design that is, how we place and use words to communicate facts, feelings, or ideas. Words can be arranged to create a specific kind of communication, for example, lyrics, poetry, prose, etc. and can re-arranged to improve the communication. Visual design is the arrangement of visual elements to communicate facts, feelings, or ideas. These too can be moved around to improve the visual expression, which in our case is the photograph but also includes drawings, lithographs, paintings, and movies.

Over the next several weeks, I will discuss the six elements of visual design: tone, colour, line, shape, texture, and perspective and share some examples of how these can be used in making photographs.

Photographers, as the Greek translation goes, write with light. Light is actually the source of these six visual elements. Without it, we would not be able to see these elements, to recognize and to frame them to create a photograph. Light has its own qualities that are of interest to us, basically the quality and the direction of light.

When we talk about the quality of light, we are referring to its harshness or softness. Although there is a perceived value in the way these are described, hard light can be good and soft light can be bad and vice versa depending on what you are trying to communicate. As you become more comfortable with using the elements of visual design, you will begin to recognize which quality of light you need in order to create the photograph that expresses your idea.

The direction of light is usually described in three ways: front lighting, back lighting, and side lighting. It is often a key ingredient in creating mood through the illumination or concealment of the things you include in your frame. Like the quality of light, the direction can, and should, be used to help create your visual expression.

The vast topic of light is beyond the scope of this post but it is very important to understand as you grow in this craft. If you want to take an in depth look at the subject of light, the book Light: Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting would be an excellent addition to your library.

Next week: The Elements of Visual Design – Tone