Tibet is full of surprises and apart from coastlines, there isn’t a geoscape that its missing, from the rain forests in the far east to the sub-alpine and alpine areas to eternal glacial ice and to this a desert landscape. The Tibetan plateau is a place of wonder. During my travels in Tibet, there were long periods where I was stuck in the 4WD looking out the window. I remember when I was young in Australia and my parents and I would go on long drives in the country side, I can still feel the acute monotony of the out the car window landscape, miles and miles of flat farm land with intermittent small clumps of Eucalyptus trees. Not so in Tibet, the vista outside the car window was beautiful and different around every corner and in every valley. The journey to our destination was as much the destination as the destination, sort of like life really. If I stopped the 4WD every time I saw something photo worthy out the window, we wouldn’t get very far, very fast. I had to stop the 4WD when I saw this scene though. It was a study in tones, the subtle tonal changes in the sand, with stark harsh shadows in the foreground and the surreal low contrast aerial perspective in the distance, and all in one photography was just too good to miss. It also gave the driver and guide a few minutes for a smoke and a piss. There are huge rolling dunes on the Tibetan Plateau and the government is planting trees to stop its spread. It is remarkable how well the M9 sensor performed.
This photo was taken at a local cemetery in Siam Reap, Cambodia, armed with my medium format 6×6 square format camera, I was in for a treat. 6×6 square format is my format and lends to its own unique sort of composition. No longer are you restricted to rules of thirds and now the image in front of the photographer will dictate the best composition for framing. The photo just flows on to the frame. There are landscape or portrait options, freeing your mind. Here I was using slide film, knowing that I would be shooting indoors in low contrast environments. The only challenge was fighting camera shake hand-holding a such a large and heavy camera. As with all spontaneous portraits, you need to be quick off the mark and this fully automatic medium format camera was simply made for the job compared to a relatively slower Hasselblad manual camera. If I was using a manual camera I am sure this image would just remain in my memory and never have made it on to film!
Here is something you don’t see everyday, no its not my rare and beautiful cat I am talking about, nor is the hint of my left hand in the frame, its the half-frame Olympus Pen, made back around 1954, this camera was the Japanese’s answer to raising film and developing prices, a roll of 135 format film could take 74 exposures. Its actually quite like a digital camera in the sense that you don’t really care about wasting film because it just goes on and on. This little camera is actually a SLR and functions like one. The lenses are extremely sharp, they need to be for better enlargements from a half-frame. I use these lenses most often now days on my modern micro four third system (M4/3), unlike many other lenses adapted to M4/3 these lenses are small and have a nice fit. 40 years apart and they still make a great pair. No wonder so many people are camera and lens collectors. Combined with the modern extremely fine grain Kodak Ektar 100, you have enough resolution to make good enlargements. By scanning the half-frame into two frames you introduce a new form of creativity, the dual nature of the cat in slightly different positions result in a dynamism that is lacking in a single frame.
Another photo taken in Phnom Penh street side, the weather was steamy and there were lots of people just relaxing on various jumbles of makeshift furniture. Here is a powerful photo, with the man in the foreground in deep thought, the diagonal line drawn by the bench draws the viewer into the photo. The lens’ shallow depth of field isolated the main subject, with classic compositional placement of objects, makes for an emotive expression of the man contemplating.
Photo of a lime grocer in a street market of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The biggest impression from my first trip to Cambodia is the people, after the long struggles during the evil Khmer Rouge regime the people’s morale is high and even in poverty the mood is uniformly happy everywhere. The Cambodian people are friendly and wasn’t photo shy, a smile from the photographer goes a long way. I made a concerted effort to show the picture I just took on the LCD display of the camera to the subject and that would invariably elicit laughter all around. It is important to make it easy for the next photographers to come along, so I always try to leave a happy trail.
This photo is one of my favorites of the trip, the natural spot lighting, the genuine smiles, the vibrant colors of the lime and various articles splayed about makes for a colorful photo. This lens is probably one of my favorite and most used in the Canon stable. It is sharp and high contrast with beautiful out of focus areas, if its the only lens I own I would be a happy man.
Here is a third photo from the same event, the man in the picture is holding the lure that is the way the villagers use to direct the fiery dragon, at the end of the festival the fire dragon is extinguished by returning it to the sea. The geometric shape of the lure, made of incense makes for an interesting composition, though the handler is in the bokeh you can still feel his intensity.
As you know so far, I use many systems but this setup with this lens is the fastest low light monster I own (with the exception of the equally good Canon 1D mark III), even a Leica 50/0.95 is a few stop slower if you take into account the ISO 3200 that I am using with confidence on this mobo. Not to mention the rapid fire of the camera, even the relative slow Canon 5DMk2 can manage 3.9 fps with a much larger memory buffer than the digital Leica M9. This photo depicts the man manning the tail, it is the most active part of the dragon and needed a new person to handle every minute as its very tiring. As the tail is swooshed around the sparks fly! It’s actually quite dangerous for prospective photographers! Note that unlike the other photo, there is no faux film grain added to this photo as the grain with compete with the point sparks for the viewer’s attention.
Here I had the privilege of a press pass to get close and personal with the Tin Hau firedragon, it is a part of the full moon festival that occurs annually around April, but in Tin Hau, Hong Kong there is a twist to the usual dragon, its a fire dragon. The story goes that the old fishing village that was Tin Hau had a plague, a seer advice the villagers to raise a potent fire dragon to frighten away the disease and as the myth goes it worked and it has been a tradition ever since. The dragon itself is huge needing hundreds of volunteers to manuveor, the body core is made up of a very long roll of straw and stuck in the straw all along its long length is tens of thousands of burning incense. It was painful to photograph as the smoke of all those incense stung the eye badly and I was weeping all the while. The results were worth the pain though. Here is one of my favorite photos, its composition turned out perfect with dynamic subjects this is very difficult, or should I say fortunate. The photo retains the vital energy of its subjects and it is this dynamism that attracted me to this photo. With all these people basically running through the scene, the high ISO, f/1.2 aperture and rapid autofocus was essential to keep the shutter speed up to capture this scene. The gritty black and white look was added post-processing.
Following up on my post of Mount Shishma Pangma, the tallest mountain solely in China, this photo taken with a 90mm lens was taken near the other photo in my previous post, but this photo was taken with a lowly six mega-pixel camera that shares the same sensor as the venerable Nikon D100, which is almost a decade old! I have blown this photo up to A3 and it looks even better in print. The details evident in this photo is simply phenomenal and it is a testament to the engineering of this old sensor and this ultra-sharp lens. It would’ve been impossible to take a photo like this in most places around the world, the mountain was actually very distant to where I was standing and usually haze would have given me an aerial perspective which leads to drab colors and low contrast, but the crystal clean air at 26,286ft in the Himalayas made it all possible.
Lesson learnt here is don’t just chase after more and more pixels, for most amateur folks its totally unnecessary and a waste of money. When you buy your next camera, ask yourself two questions: What is the most common output of the photos taken with the camera? If like most people nowadays, you share your photos solely online on a computer monitor, there is no need for a camera to have more than six mega-pixels. Its laughable since many mobiles have greater than six mega-pixel cameras! If you print small 3R type prints you can get a contact print from a six mega-pixel camera and you can get good enlargements up to A4 or even A3! Second question is does the new camera change the way you take photographs? Does it have a unique function that your other cameras don’t have, that will expand your creativity? Answer these questions and you may think twice about laying down your hard earn cash next time!
This photo was taken at the southern tip of Hong Kong at a sea side village call Shek O, its a popular spot for budding photographers to visit, it has a very laid back atmosphere, good food and friendly locals. The area is full of picturesque locales and the villagers of late have been painting their houses in bright primary colors. The photo is of a freshly painted green fence. It was taken with a medium format digital back that have a dynamic range of 12 stops and capture color with 16 bits per RGB channel, which translates to 16 thousand colors per channel compared to 4096 colors per channel of a professional Nikon body producing a 12 bit per channel NEF file. On top of that the sensor of this professional digital back is 33 mega-pixels and resolves much more detail than its current DSLR counterparts. What this means for this photos is a lusher greener fence with more color detail than possible with a DSLR. All this power doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t use it wisely and produce good compositions! In the hands of a child it’s still a toy!
I frequently use many different cameras, both large and small. If it was a planned photo outing, I would always try to bring the best tool for the job and that usually means the camera with the best sensor. But it is the small cameras that shine through and save the day for that impromptu and unplanned shot. I am unlikely to have my Rollei 6008AF with me on my tram ride past Victoria Park on this rainly day and I would have miss this shot if I didn’t have my little Olympus E-P1 with me.
As the tram went pass the park, a thought flashed past my mind. The wet green asphalt of the football grounds in the park would make a wonderful reflective surface and the interesting cloud formation would be spectacular in this otherwise a rather uninteresting scene. I haven’t reached my destination but I jumped out of the tram anyway! Life of a photographer! I was wet from head to toe, but I was able to capture this photo just as the sky was clearing up. I converted the photo to black and white to make the clouds stand out more, and left the color green in the photo to give attention to the reflections in the wet asphalt.
There is an annual flower show here in Hong Kong every year during spring time, I am sure its nothing compared to those in Holland but its all we’ve and its very popular with photographers, both professional and amateur. Tens of thousands of people with cameras in toll flock to the event every year. I myself have been to five shows over the years and it can get pretty monotonous after a while. The pavilions on displayed is offered by various floral organizations, embassies and government departments and as you can imagine, apart from a few exceptions, the displays tend to be similar from year to year. It was particularly hot this year and even though I was there on day-one, many of the flowers have seen much better days after being baked under the noon sun. In the past two years, I have made an extra effort to take photos no one would’ve thought of to take at the flower show, which is difficult when you consider how many budding photographers go through the turnstiles. I have learnt that by challenging yourself with difficult themes, limiting your photographic potential to uniqueness, is an excellent way to sharpening your photographic eye. The above photo is another example of looking for a natural frame, the foliage around the pond with a curious and lonesome goldfish was just perfect and not a single flower in sight! The hour was getting late and as with many of my photos, it was taken on a tripod. It may be a bother to carry around, I find a tripod slows me down a little and makes me think about composition, framing, lighting and contrasts of the subject more, which tend to lead to less photos but better photos.
Living in Hong Kong street photography is a way of life for most photographers, we have an abundance of streets if nothing else. The the local forums here in Hong Kong are packed to the rim with budding street photographers, many are exceptionally good. Everyone has their own theories and its the sort of thing that certainly doesn’t have any rules, I have found that spontaneity and rapid focusing the key to capturing good photos. Discretion, speed and stealth are all very important factors here in Hong Kong as much of the population here are very photophobic, but these skills learnt here in Hong Kong is even more effective applied anywhere else. The photo above is a piece of street life in Lhasa, Tibet. It was unfortunate how defensive the people there were to having their photos taken, but not surprising given how many cameras were hanging around the many tourists’ necks. I have tried many different types of camera gear in my street wanderings and many things work, but there is nothing quicker in the world of photography than a rangefinder with a wide-angle lens used with zone focusing at a smallish aperture like f/8 or f/11. With a digital rangefinder, like the Leica M9, M8 or Epson R-D1, I can even keep the shutter speeds up with a little touch of high ISO. With practice you can get subjects in frame without putting the camera up to the eye. The reasonably high pixel count allows you to crop a little to make a better composition. That is how the above photo was taken (but without cropping). In the past when I used mainly a digital SLR, my favorite combo for street photography was very similar, a wide-angle lens set on hyperfocal distance, zone focusing is rather difficult on DSLR lenses, their DOF scale is usually too short to be accurate enough to use. The other way that worked nicely is a little naughty, I would set a camera gear across a busy street or scene, sometimes even on a tripod with a gimbal tripod head to allow me swing the camera around quickly. Mounted on the camera is a long lens, usually 400mm and longer. After a patient wait of 15 minutes or so you become part of the landscape and people no longer notice you, its like magic, they think you are a surveyor on some official business. No one in the their right mind would be using heavy gear like that just to take photos of me, most people will think. I have taken many wonderful shots this way. It’s a little cheeky but it gets those birding lenses out, the sun is good for fungal prevention.
This “macro” was taken during a birding trip in Mai Po, Hong Kong. I had found a good high vantage point from a tree to take photos of a few water fowl swimming past under me and as luck would have it, a helicopter flew overhead and not surprisingly frightened the birds to flight, as always I was the prepared scout as a bunch of feathers were let loose from the fleeing birds. I snapped away as the feather that was floating down into the marsh and this was one of the magical moments that was the result. You could imagine my surprise when I uploaded the photos into the computer. The reflection was pitch black and the reflected fronds went in to a crazy Bokeh with the feather remaining crispy sharp. Rendered by this wonderful prime lens like Photoshop magic, but without the computer. I have this printed up and framed in perspex at home and it is stunning.
This photo was taken on Lamma Island, Hong Kong after a long hike around the island. I came upon this magical scene and immediately saw the potential of the Tim Burton inspired tree. I thought: here was a scene straight out of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. I took a series of snaps, some focused to infinity some like this one was focused on the tree which threw the clouds into cotton ball Bokeh masses, the extreme vignetting was added post-processing for a telescopic effect which further directed the viewers attention and with the faux film grain made the sky look like a Chinese silk screen. The settings on the camera were intentional to get the tree in a harshly sharp silhouette that strongly contrasted against the fluffy sky. This was my favorite shot ever taken with the Canon EF 24-70 L lens, which has never been one of my favorites, but this shot has help much to change my mind.
In the background the snow capped mountain is Mount Shishma Pangma (also referred to as Mt Xixabangma), with an altitude of 26,286ft. it is the highest mountain solely in Tibet, China. There are 7 other mountains that share boarder between Nepal or Kashmir that are taller. This photo was taken in Autumn where the fir trees and birch trees meet above 3000m, this sub-alpine region is the home of dwarf rhododendrons that are budding in the foreground. The ground has began to warm and the moss ground on rocks is thriving. the clash of colors, the deep blue of the high UV sky and the warm colors of the foliage make for a beautiful display of vibrant colors rarely seen elsewhere in nature apart from coral reefs. Even with the ultra-wide angle lens, I still used hyperfocal distance focusing to ensure sharpness from the foreground all the way to the background. There was a break in the tradition of the rule of thirds here, as I didn’t know what was better, the sky or the ground, both were equally stunning.
The bas relief sculpture on the walls of Angkor Wat is nothing short of remarkable, I highly recommend doing some research before going so you understand the stories behind the bas relief more, I would allot more time to study these sculptures while you are there. The story behind the bas relief starts on the eastern wall of the complex from the right hand side and go counter clockwise around the whole complex, it is a story about a war between demonic deities and Gods. The condition of the relief are in remarkable condition given their age and is a testament to the enduring craftsmanship of the ancient Khmer. This photo was taken in a rather dark and very narrow corner around the inner sanctum of the complex, its secluded position meant some protection from the elements and the deeper contours of the engraving remains and is more evident. The narrow confines made it difficult to take a photo, but with some tripod balancing act on the rubble and a wide angle lens I was able to capture this low contrast scene in stark relief. The small aperture on a wide angle lens made sure that the foreground and the background was in sharp focus. The original monotone nature of the rocks have been made vibrant not with post-processing but the multi-color hues of the lichen that has made its living for centuries off these forgotten women.
This photo was taken at a park adjacent to Wat Lang Ka in the center of Phnom Penh, this elephant has been a part of the local urban landscape for over ten years and is something of a celebrity in Downtown Phnom Penh. The photo depicts the elephants’ cranial aspects like those found in Egyptian wall reliefs sculpture. The body of the elephant is acting as a frame in the photo holding up three sides. The elephant is wearing sandals due to an injured paw, caused by wear on the hard concrete roads. You can tell this Cambodian elephant apart from its African counterpart from their much smaller ears. Elephants in the wilds of Cambodia are endangered and those in captivity are also diminishing in numbers. Elephant handling in Cambodia is an ancient art that is also in danger of extinction, these handlers are call Phnong, who traditionally use domesticated elephants for clearing trees for land cultivation, but as the value of the elephant increase with tourism, many Phnong are selling these elephants to large companies for use as transports around tourist sites like Angkor Wat.
As with most people my first foray to become a more serious photographer was with my decision to purchase my first Digital SLR (DSLR), my first DSLR was back in 2002 when I spent a boat load of money on a Nikon D100, it was a pretty expensive 6 Megapixel DSLR back then, it was a camera I loved, but as with most things digital it has been surpassed many fold since. Surprisingly it was still functioning normally when I sold it a couple of years ago.
Surprisingly it was a good camera and produced wonderful photos for all the time I had it for. 6 Megapixel is more than enough for internet display and if it were not for the need to print large prints, I would have saved a whole load of money and stuck to it. Of course it was a camera with 9-year-old technology, its ISO performance was very average compare to even the small sensors of the micro 4/3 (m4/3) system and new cameras have better tonal and dynamic range and response times, but it was adequate for my needs for 6 years.
During those 6 years, I wasn’t as intensive with photography and camera life as I am now and my photographic productivity was low. It did help me learn about the basics of photography and the instant feedback was a boon to my education compared to the film SLR cameras I had before.
An interesting lesson learnt here is, that 6 megapixel is more than enough if you are just showing off stuff online and view your photos on a computer screen mostly. Surprising 6 Megapixel prints up to A4 can be outstanding and quite adequate enlarged up to A3.
The spirit of this camera still lives on in my Epson R-D1s, the first ever digital rangefinder camera, this camera shares the same sensor as the Nikon D100 and produces similar files but with a different set of lenses.
I will not be reviewing my Nikon D100 since I doubt anyone in their right mind would still buy such a camera.
Three years ago I was faced with the decision to buy a replacement DSLR and refresh my interest in photography, I first budgeted to spend on a semi-pro or professional camera body around US$2700 excluding lenses, so this rule out the top end professional bodies such as the Canon 1Ds Mark III or the Nikon D3. I had also ruled out other brands of DSLRs such as Pentax, Olympus or the then fledgling Sony, because of the simple fact that 90% of the market is dominated buy the two Japanese giants and that means accessories and used lenses will be more abundant and to take advantage of their economy of scale as they usually have the best technology at any one time.
Speaking from the perspective of the present, things have changed in the camera world and these second tier DSLR camera companies such as Sony, Pentax and Olympus are more mature now with better products, they are becoming a more viable choice than before. Although I have made my choice in systems, which I am stuck with now because of a rather sizeable investment. I am more curious than ever in the lenses offered by these second tier companies and will probably try some of them in the future.
So back to the past, I was face with a tough decision between Nikon and Canon, I knew at the time that the Nikons have better wide angle lens choices (which is still the case today) and Canon had arguably better super-teles which was going to be useful if I develop a liking for bird photography (not much mammalian wildlife photography to be had here in Hong Kong!). I liked the menu system of the more familiar Nikon cameras which also tend to have more customisable options. In the end I went with Canon. The reason being between the two full frame options at the time the Nikon D700 and the Canon 5D Mark II (5D2), the latter offered 22 mega pixels with the same picture quality as the much touted Canon 1Ds Mark III. I knew I wanted to print large prints and the extra pixels made the difference for me. I actually think that the Nikon D700 is a better camera overall, with its much better autofocus and its infamous wide-angle zooms. But the decision was made and I haven’t regretted ever since. I don’t think either camera I would have regretted buying.
I am writing about this here and so early is because I will be reviewing lots of Canon gear. But, my camera life isn’t Canon-centric, not at all. I think those readers that are Nikon-philes will not be lefted out, as I think my decision processes are valid no matter which system I was using and not to mention that most of my gear is not Canon, but other systems.
When I am asked which major Japanese brand is better, I answer that both the major players are perfectly acceptable options. It just depends on your budget, your needs and the choice of cameras at the time you’re buying. If my budget was more I probably would have gone with the Professional Nikon D3 body at the time. Such is camera life.
As long as I am on the topic, I have since acquired a Canon 1D Mark III body for its much improved autofocus for photography of fast-moving objects, still using the many Canon lenses that I own. I also got a really cheap, next to nothing Canon D350 for pinhole photography & for use with the Lensbaby lenses.
I wasn’t sure what was the best way to start this new journey into my camera life, so I figure I will start with the boy depicted in the header. The picture is that of a boy on the streets of Cambodia. It isn’t even a particularly technically proficient photo, its taken in harsh sunlight, the boy is squinting, its actually a crop of a poorly composed picture to improve composition. But what I’ve learnt above all about photography is that a good photo is comprised many elements, but the most important is that the subject is significant to the me the photographer. So a snapshot done by a mother of her precious child is as important and satisfying to her as it was for Ansel Adams to take photos of wild America. This photo has significance for me because it brings back a happy memory.
A friend and I arrived at Ankor Thom near Siem Reap in the heat of the noon day sun, not the best time to explore, nor to take photographs but sometimes when traveling with a time limit you don’t always have the luxury to take photos during dawn and dusk, so you make do with what you’ve got. We trekked through the ruins of Ankor Thom and this boy followed us from the car, we didn’t know what he was about as he clearly didn’t understand any English so we initially ignored him. As we were exploring the boy would tug our sleeves and point to interesting markings and areas in the ruins, so what we have here was an impromptu and unasked for guide. We continued to explore the ruins and it was sweltering hot and there weren’t many photo worthy scenes, so after a hour and a half or so, we were glad to be heading back to the air-conditioned car. We decided to get the driver to pick us up from under the shade of a large tree instead of walking all the way to the car with our heavy gear. It was time for us to say bye to the little boy that silently have been following us for all that time.
I don’t usually give money to street urchins, but he was different, he actually gave us a service. So breaking with tradition we gave the boy US$1.00. What we didn’t expect was the joy that one dollar brought to him. It was an unforgettable experience to see this boy joyously skipping away from us, waving that dollar in the air like it was a winning lottery ticket down his imaginary yellow brick road.
This photo and the header reminds me that it is the joy that we bring into another’s life that makes life worth living. It is through photography that I have captured a fleeting moment in time to forever help refresh my failing memory.