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.
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.
Here is an eternal question, one of the few that is inevitably asked by any perspective photographer. At least those that invest in a camera with interchangeable lenses.
This is a topic that applies to all camera systems, rangefinder or single lens reflex. I will be making comments on 35mm cameras only, as those of you that have medium format cameras would’ve already made this decision years ago.
The first question to ask if you just invested in a DSLR is should I buy a zoom lens or fixed focal length lens (or prime lens). My recommendation nowadays is invariably a fixed focal lens. Of course if you just brought your first rangefinder camera, then you have no choice but to get a fixed focal lens and you can skip the next couple of paragraphs.
Ironically, despite my current recommendation the first lens I brought for my Canon 5D Mark II was the Canon EF 24-70/2.8 L Zoom Lens, it wasn’t a poor choice, in fact it was a very reputable Zoom Lens with relatively good performance as Zoom Lenses go, it is a lens in the stable of many professional photographers for its performance & versatility. What I didn’t know then that I know now, is that no zoom can match the quality of an equally priced fixed focal length lens. I discovered this fact to my chagrin when I purchased my first fixed focal lens, the Canon EF 35/1.4 L, boy was I freaked out when I first saw the photos. The sharpness and resolution of the fix focal lens just blew my zoom away and the creative option of a fast lens was something I would fall in love with.
The 24-70/2.8 Zoom Lens was an excellent first lens choice, as its performance peaked between 35mm & 50mm which means it covers the standard focal lengths well, with still the wide 24mm option and the tele 70mm option when needed. (All zoom lenses have a certain focal length where its performance peaks and it is usually not the extreme ends, in this case 24mm and 70mm, but somewhere in between)
I still own my 24-70/2.8 L Zoom Lens, its flexibility is still useful on certain occasions where changing lenses and carrying two cameras isn’t practical. But If I only have one camera and one lens, it would be my Canon 5D Mark II and that very EF 35/1.4 lens.
This leads me to the second thing to consider (the first if you are using a rangefinder), and that is which focal length to choose first. My recommendation is 35mm for any full frame camera, this focal length is slightly wide and more flexible than 50mm as your first lens in its application. There are many advocates for 50mm as your first lens, it is a personal choice and many of my favorite photos I’ve taken were with a 50mm lens. You can’t really go wrong with either, but 35mm is no doubt more flexible and that is why it is the more common focal length lens on point and shoot cameras.
The reason to buy a lens between 35mm and 50mm is because these are considered standard focal lengths, as oppose to wide-angle or telephoto lenses. Standard focal length lenses closely emulate our normal field of vision and are the most useful lens for general photography. Most photographers will tell you that 80% or more of their photos were taken with either a 35mm or 50mm lens and there is good reason for this.
Also fortunate is that these standard prime lenses are the kit lens that comes with many cameras or if brought separately they are the cheapest and most often the sharpest lens in any system’s lens range. Standard focal length lenses are easier to make, with simpler builds and hence cheaper.
Remember to take into account the crop factor of your camera if it has one, so for EF-S cameras like the Canon 450, you need to multiply the lens’ focal length by 1.6x to get effective 35mm focal dimensions, in other words you’ll need to purchase a 21mm lens (x1.6 = 35mm). Here you’ll strike some problems with DSLR with crop sensors, you will find that 21mm fast prime lenses are inordinately expensive and not as good as standard 35mm fast prime lenses. You will probably have to compromise and buy a EF-S or AF-S zoom lens that cover 35mm and 50mm, for example Canon EF-S 17-55/2.8 or the Nikon AF-S 17-35/2.8. The problem with these lenses are as mentioned lesser performance compared to primes and their relatively slower apertures. I would consider F/2, F/1.4 as fast but F/2.8 is a little pedestrian.
For full frame Canon, Nikon or other DSLR, your default choices are your brand lenses as these retain autofocus and are good enough quality. There are Zeiss made versions in Canon or Nikon Mounts, the ZE or ZF 35/2 biogon which is a fine lens, but you will lose autofocus which I think is too costly a loss for a standard focal length that you use all the time.
For a full frame m-mount rangefinder camera, like the Leica M6, Bessa R2A or the Leica M9, there are many many options too numerous to list, these cameras can fit virtually hundreds upon hundreds of lenses build since the 1950s. Lenses that I can safely recommend with almost zero risk of regret are the various Summicron 35/2, the six lens element version is probably the most cost effective and the Voigtlander 35/1.4, 35/2.5 or the discountinued 35/1.7 ultron and the Zeiss ZM T* 35/2 Biogon are all very fine choice.
For micro 4/3 cameras like the Olympus EP-1 the Olympus 17mm prime lens or the Panasonic 20mm prime lens are both a good start (I like the Panasonic better as it has better optics in this specific case). The Panasonic m4/3 lenses works fine on the Olympus m4/3 body.
For the Leica M8 with a 1.3x crop factor I recommend getting the Voigtlander 28/2 or a Summicron 35/2 (whichever version that suits your budget, the 6 element version is good value, but the 7 element is my favorite, but the newer lenses with aspherical elements are good for digital as well but pricey. ) as fine first lenses. There exists Leica 28/2, 24/1.4 & 21/1.4 lenses, but I can’t recommend these due to their relative cost and size on the camera. Size may not be an issue with everyone, so I recommend trying these out in a store on the camera before laying down funds. For me any lens that blocks the viewfinder is a big minus. If you can afford a M8 and 21/1.4 lens, you are much better off with a M9 and 35/1.4 asph lens. Another disadvantage of using a 21mm or 24mm on the M8 is the need for an external viewfinder which can decrease the spontaneity of your shots.
For the Epson R-D1 with a 1.5x crop factor sensor, I will stray from my recommendations a little bit, I have brought a Zeiss 25/2.8, Various 21mm lenses for my R-D1s but none have given me the fast prime lens feel I am looking for. My recommendation is a Voigtlander 28/2 lens or any fast 35mm lens, the latter becomes a little too tele for my tastes but makes a great portrait lens. Once again using any lenses aside from a 28/35/50mm will require an external viewfinder which is cumbersome. Those lucky not to wear glasses, have the option to use a 25mm lens instead using the whole viewfinder as an estimate of the view, with the caveat that 25mm lenses are F/2.8 or slower usually.
There are some who will advocate a wide angle lens or even a telefocal lens, but they are in the vast minority.
Another question to consider is the speed of the lens, or the widest aperture the lens can be used. Speed comes with an associated cost and in most situations size and weight as well. Also fast lenses tend to perform not as good as the slower lenses at slower apertures. In the world of digital ISO, where using an ISO 800 or more doesn’t degrade your photo too drastically, the need for ultra fast lenses has lessened, the lost in quality using a fast lens wide open doesn’t quite equate to the increase noise at using high digital ISO. So extremely fast lenses like F/1.0 or F/0.95 which cost a monumental amounts of money is relegate for specialty functions, like shooting in the dark with unique bokehs (background blur). I contest that a F/2 lens is often sufficient with a good quality F/1.4 lens as slightly better. I have found f/2.8 or f/4 standard (35mm or 50mm) prime lenses as too pedestrian and lack creativity of faster lenses that allow you to throw the background further out of focus.
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.