June 26, 2010

Still around Patan Royal Palace

In Nepal, time is both your friend and ememy.  You can take your time for your subject, but there is always not enough time!  I have my usual quick action set up - 2 cameras, each on one side of my shoulder. This morning I got my trusted Canon 1Ds III with a fixed lens (change from 35mm to 100mm, depend on the area I am working on my pictures), and a Canon 5DII with a zoom - typically change between 24-105/4L IS or a 70-200/2.8L IS.  Indeed the picture quality from either 1Ds III or 5DII is hardly distinquishable, but the solid feel and superior focusing mechanism gives you a kind of mechanical quality that is joyful to use, albeit at heavier weight - but it is not heavier than my other medium format camera, so it is quite bearable, sometimes preferred - as an work out exercise!
This image, a pair of cute Nepali sisters, shot with Canon 1Ds III with EF 85/1.2L, the aperture set to f/3.2 so it gives the subject a nice sharp record, while a little blur on the vibrant brick wall.  Nepali girls really like to be photographed, just ask them.  Some may ask for rupees, more common on a tourist attraction, I prefer to give candy to girls and boys, not their preference, but perfectly acceptable. Make sure you got some in your pocket.

Another image of this cute pair of sisters, still with Canon 1Ds III with 85/1.2L. A little flare on the image, does not bother with it, at least I don't. Falre is sometimes one of the judgements over a lens character and optical quality, but very seldom a factor of a picture quality. In fact some picture intended to have flares.  Picture quality is not lens quality, because you don't shoot for lens reveiw, you shoot for something of interest to you.  So my suggestion to a lot of photographers, look at the quality of image beyond the way one typically read at text-book-type lens review.  Remember, those who can't do, TEACH.  Those who can't teach, TEACH GYM.  No offence to the real gym teacher, I am not saying you.
One more image of the younger sister, same camera and same set up, and this time with the Canon 5DII mounted with EF 70-200/2.8L IS as a prop.  One may notice I use Arca Swiss ballhead, on a carbon fiber Gitzo tripod - my most often use travel tripod.  My Arca Swiss ballhead is almost 20 old years old, still being heavily use, says about the qaulity of the tool.  And it is so good, and I got so acustomed using it, I don't care if there is a better quality one (doubtful) or cheaper one (plenty copies in the market), the fact it has served me for so long, it is cheap enough.  What one might also found on this image is the use of a RRS L plate and the lens quick plate.  Highly recommended!  Go to the original source RRS. One more thing, since most of today's DSLR or the EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) or pocket cameras feature live view: turn it on, you get picture like this a lot easier.
I made quite a few more images on these little sister, with different ways of shooting them.  My advice is: target your subject, work with them, perhaps with different variety of images, don't just machine gun shooting too many of smae images.

June 24, 2010

Patan Royal Palace

Nepal, as I have and will say for many more times, is a paradise for photography. The only limitation is time.  But when you are there, presented in front of you is endless photography opportunities.  But of course, it is the religious life that makes Nepal such attractive and charm, yes, there are several world heritage sites in Kathmandu along, but the most charm is the Nepali people.  Complete nature in front of camera, well, there are some - as many other countries, ask money for picture, but in general, not an issue. So make sure you have a camera handy.  My suggestion is: try not to bring a new camera to Nepal, of course you could, but my point is to make the most out of it, birng one that you are most familiar with. There are kind of people always have a new camera for a trip, not included in my recommendation. It is not a crime for new camera for trip.
This image, took in the small square at the Patan Royal Palace, very early in the morning.  I use a Canon 5D II mounted with EF 24-105/4L IS, ISO at 200, lens setting at around 95mm, f/6.3 at 1/10s. I shot mostly manual, it is preference, but you can certainly use the "S" shutter priority mode, because this shot is about a contrast of still and motion. Using 1/10s will be able to reasonably freeze the still or near still objects while it will not over blur the moving objects, such as pigions.  The only rule in photography is that there is no rule.  My preference resulted the image such as I took.  Other's preference will result different, perhaps better than mine. But to me, photography is also about personality, I prefer to take the pictures the way I want, others do their own. My other suggestion is, you will probably just need a few good shots in each of the spot or on an object, prepare for it, take your time, don't just machine-gun shooting.
This image, a Nepali woman pray to her Hindi god, a morning routine I beleived. I spot this scene, compose the image in mind mind, adjust my Canon 5D II, still with 24-105/4L IS, carefully frame the picture and wait (repeat - WAIT) for a Nepali to come around the same spot with the color of dress to harmonize the final image.  The choice of shooting at setting around 73mm is to achieve a more natural perspective, also, I am able to stay a little further patiently wait for the image I want, and be less disturbing.
Another image of a Nepali woman doing her morning Hindu practice, shot inside the Palace area.  Restricted to tourists, but talk to the guard nicely, ask for a few minutes inside, that's what I did.  Still with 5D II, I selected a slower shutter speed to register her hand movement, rather to make this a perfectly still image. Enough for here, time to move on to other spots.

June 18, 2010

First Light

Most people aware that the last light of the day is usually the best of the day while fewer people looked the same way for the first light of day, I decided not to be one of them, so I started my 2nd day in Nepal by getting up early, went to Patan Royal Palace.  The Patan Royal Palace was built at a time historians consider the flowering of indigenous Newar (Kathmandu Valley) culture in the 17th and 18th centuries. The royal palace dominates the east side of the Royal Square, whose Malla period temples and other earlier features underscore the historial importance of Patan as an urban crossroads from as early as the 2nd century AD.
Again, in Nepal, one will find out the world heritage side is not something inside a fence, it is part of Nepalese life.  Getting there before daybreak, a larger sensor camera with low light ability is the choice, and mine is Canon 1Ds III and 5D II. Indeed, the 1Ds III is considered aged by today's digital camera development, but it is still a fine performer. Not to mention the 5D II, especially with its breath taking capability in motion pictures. This image, taken with Canon 5D II with EF 35/1.4L, is a good example. Here the rich color of Nepal fully reproduced, the ancient wood doors, the brick houses, the stone street, the vibrant shrine, the traditionally dressed Nepali woman walking by.......
And one more here, taking at the exact location.  And here a tip for readers: as advised: "Working on your subject!" I positioned myself in this set up, patiently waiting for the people passing by to get the right color, composition I need.  This one, again I picked a Nepali woman again dressed in red, walking from the left hand side of camera to the other side, while waiting for the dog turning its head to another direction.  Still captured with Canon 5D II with 35/1.4L, ISO setting at 800, manual setting f/4.5 to get 1/20s speed to enough to freeze the dog and allow the Nepali woman to have some motion blur.

And one more here, this time a Nepali man whose dress color in harmony with the background color. This time I around 10 meter from the spot of shots above, same camera, lens and set up, except this time there is no shrine, but 2 small lamps, to tell the time. I have also adjusted the while balance so the overall tone is better, a subject matter here.
And this is the street where all these shots made. One more tip: study your location carefully, picture in your mind, and prepare for the shots. There is really no secret or luck in photography. Start your day early!

Getting Closer

I have no other secret to share when shooting a human object except "getting closer", as one will see on this blog going forward, as well as on my other image blog. I shot lots of people, in travel or for professional work, and I always try to get close than to stay away because human subject is not about a person, it is about the interaction and communication, this is the significance of being human or for that matter, as being animal. And this is also the reason I often use macro lens for human subject, usually not because I want to get into macro scale, although sometimes I do, but I don't want the closest focus limit of a regular lens to obstruct the spontaneous process.  When it is time to make the image, make it, rather than step back, focus and shoot.  But if you are having a camera and lens not having adequate close focus capability, practice yourself to work on its range.  And this is why today's smaller sensor digital camera is so useful, because most of them allow a much closer focus distance than those film camera.
Background blur?  Yes, yes, yes, background blur is not the only way to shoot portrait, and yet there are many ways to achieve it rather than a so-called portrait lens, shallow depth of field and so on, these are all too academic, and I will cover this later.
In addition to those images on last subject, GF-1, with example of getting those images at rather close distance - they are not cropped, the camera+lens to subect is typically aroud 1/2 meter (1-2 ft), this is another one also took with GF-1 with the beautiful 20/1.7 Pancake lens, on a Nepali girl, at Swayambhunath Stupa, shot at dusk.  This is one of the last picture of the day, ready to get back to city for dinner.

June 7, 2010

Panasonic GF-1, how good it is?

I use lots of cameras, much more than I really need. From all kinds and sizes of film cameras to many different digital cameras or capturing devices, 60mpx medium format digital back, multi-shot medium format digital back - use on technical cameras, medium format cameras, Leica M8/M9, and the best Canon or Nikon can offer, to small ones such as Contax TVS Digital, Canon G9/G10....I must say, the Panasonic GF-1 is a sweet spot camera to me, for what it can do.
Initally I bought Panasonic GF-1 as a studio snap-shot camera and for video clips, or for a travel compact, it quickly found its space in my computer backpack, becomes my everyday camera.  Half way into my Nepal trip, I reconfirm it to be an excellent production tool.  Yes, it cannot reporduce the size of picture from my bigger Canon and medium format digital backs, but it is close to a Leica M8, and the image it can produce has no problem for common coffee table book pictures, or magazines.  But it has a lot more appeals.
Full manual control, fast to focus, excellent pancake 20/1.7 lens (all but 3 images from my Nepal trip - thousands, produced from this tiny yet powerful lens).  It is so small that it is always in your hand, and seldom let go a photography opportunity. With Leica closely associated with Panasonic, this is to me a camera Leica should have done - the Leica spirit of image making, except - it is autofocus, and auto many things else!  But this is 2010, photography today is a lot differnt from those old days, and we need to move on.  As this blog goes, I will certainly cover more story with images from GF-1.
Few images taken with Panasonic GF-1 + 20/1.7 to share, all taken at the Swayambhunath Stupa, first day of the Nepal trip.
A young Nepali man.
A kid just finished his private thing. In public, but this is Nepal.

A young monk.

June 6, 2010

Work on your subject!

This is one of the reason I hate group travel - your name get to be called when you are high on making your favorite image.  I like to take my time, if I find a subject, I will work on it, until I get the shot I want, or when the subject no longer available.
This image, taken at the Swayambhunath Stupa, the afternoon I arrived Kathmandu, if fact the first location I start to shoot, I take my time.  Many of my travel companions, hurry take out their camera, and fired off like machine gun, as if more pictures in the memory cards will make the trip?  No, more pictures will not make the trip worthy, it only waste more time in later editing.  Only more good images will make the trip more worthy. So take your time, focus on getting the image.
I spot this Nepali woman sat under the shelter of the temple structure, I saw a nice dark color on the wall, the ground, a nice harmony to the traditional dress she wore, while she started to smoke. Picking up the Canon 1Ds III mounted with EF 100/2.8L IS Macro, I preset it to ISO 200 and made a quick set up to f/3.5 and allow a 1/60 shutter speed.  Typically, for resolution of a full frame DSLR reached over 20 mpx, the traditional reciprocal rule - ie. 100mm go to 1/200s or 200mm got o 1/200s is not so effectively applied, because the image blur will be more visible with higher resolution of sensors.  My own experience is, for DSLR of over 20 million pixels, the facor would go up 1.5X, then if the resoltion upped to around 32mpx on the rumored 1Ds IV, I would push up the safe shutter by one stop.  Yes, my 100 macro is the IS version, which would give me 4 stops, but I rather believe it is less, so I set the speed to 1/60s, and just right aperture, I made this image.
As one know well when travel with other photography friends, you started to shoot and sooner or later, there are more photographers join in, sometimes until it totally ruin the scene, no difference here.  But I found, although I am the first to start shooting this Nepali woman, I am also the last one to leave her.  I waited until her almost finish her smoke, with just a small tip on her cigarette, with the right puff of smoke.

June 5, 2010

Picture! Before Picture

No, this is not a grammatic mistake.  Phototography, in general, is not machine gun shooting, especially street or portrait photography.  Typically, there are few elements will be in a picture;  the background, the subject, the proportion between the subject and background, the color...... Certainly, not luck; OK, sometimes you may but don't count on it.
For example, this is an image of pilgrim turning the prayer wheels.  I shot the image using a Canon 5D II with 24-105/4L IS, it was a bright afternoon so to achieve the picture I want, I have to switch to ISO 50,  f/13, so I can get the shutter speed at 1/10s to show the motion. And you need to wait!  Wait for at least one of the wheel is not turning so it shows the contrast between still and motion, then you have to wait for a pilgrim in the color that is helping the picutre, here it is red, the picture will look less appeal if it is blue or pink.  To shoot the pilgrim on his back, and place him at the far left side also allows more story telling.
This is another image, still a Canon 5D II with 24-105/4L IS, this time I do not need the lower speed so I adjust the ISO 100 which is its base setting and of the lowest possible noise.  This time I did not wait for a pilgrim in strong to stop in fornt of the shrine, in stead, I picked an elderly with simple, earth tone dress to display a simple message that common people in Nepal, their sincerity in their religion, also, to avoid a bright and strong color not to overtake the color of the gold and the proportionally small buddha statue.  Both shots made inside the Swayambhunath Stupa.
So this is the beautiful process of picture before picture.  You need to know what you want, and to get what you want.

June 4, 2010

Into Swayambhunath Stupa

Nicknamed "Monkey Temple", so by obligation, I put a monkey shot here, captured with Canon 5D II, with EF 24-105/4 L IS. shot very close to sunset Frankly, this is a very good lens but somehow one I seldom use. I much prefer fixed focal length, but here in this temple, with varies objects, zoom is still more efficient.
The entrance of the temple is corwded with people, although Kathmandu is not a large population city by Asia standard, such scene is common. Nepali, as new comers will all soon to find out - seldom will they camera shy!  For those who into photography people, this is a paradise.  Of course, beggers alike or those mom with baby or small children, they all ask for rupee, or basically any money you can find out from your pocket. It is suggested, although not to promote it, bring some rupee just for convenience, I would say a quarter US dollar or something similar will do;  for kids, candy also welcome.  But I have to clarify this: you get to ask to pay just by the entrance area, after that, common Nepali is as friendly and picture welcome as you can ever meet, don't worry.
This little girl, lovely, although looks sad, shot with Canon 1Ds III with EF 100/2.8L Macro IS. So yes, I have a Lowepro Trekker camera backpack on my back with spare lens and a Panosonic GF1 for back-up and 2 Canon, a 1Ds III + 100 macro and a 5D II + 24-105/4L IS on my neck, heavy!  Also I have with me a Domke J-400 Long Lens Bag for the big Leica Apo-Tylet-Elmarit-R 400/2.8 - heavy and I only use it for the sunset Kathmandu panoramic shot - but well worth the effort to carry it.  Plus the tripod and a Arca Swiss B1 head.  A bit too many, so I move slowly, but also allow me to capture shots more carefully.
Here is one tip I would suggest: macro lens for portrait. It allows you to take shots even very close, in Nepali, get close, as close as you can!

These two shots of the temple itself, were from Panasonic GF1 - with the excellent pancake 20/1.7 lens. I will have a special chapter to cover how good this compact camera is later.  The GF1 has been with me for some months now, as my travel companion, during this Nepal trip, it only further convinces me.  For now, enough of GF1.

June 3, 2010

Travel Photography and Panorama Image

Picking a camera for travel is an easy advice to others, not to photographers themselves. Embarrassed indeed!  Because the decisions to which camera and lens to carry don't usually get made untl you really have to pack up and go!  I will leave this to later chapters.
Someone once say the landscape is the pageant of nature, true, and to me, panoramic image crowns it.
Put the digital photography to extend, panoramic is one of its greatest advantages.  With software available for stitching many single captures together, panoramic image no longer is camera sensor size limited, or even focal length limited.  For example my Kathmandu panorama image, it was stitched of 11 captures of Canon 1Ds III mounted with Leica Apo-Tylet-Elmarit-R 400/2.8, to make it a wide angle panoramic picture.  You can make even a 360 degree image, or a QTVR with a super-tele photo lens, of course, if you shoot enough of it. Anyway, we will leave the detail for later chapter to cover.  Here is some essential tips:
(1) Shoot RAW if you can - few benefits - you can temporary ignore white balance, sharpness, image size and etc. to be later coordinated. This can reduce the time you need to determine the right setting to cover the entire image. If you can't or insist to shoot JPEG, make sure to follow the next few tips.
(2) Manual everything.  Exposure, white balance, and focus. If your camera does not allow you to manual control your camera, just shoot, it might not matter for the smaller cameras.  Make sure you choose the right aperture to cover the depth of field you need. Don't go over on it, most of today's DSLR is OK between f/8-11, good luck if you go smaller, I don't suggest.
(3) Use a tripot and a pan-head - this is best, but of course you can hand-held the camera.
(4) Level your camera+lens with the field you want to cover.  You can train the camera across the field you want to cover for a few times for practice.
(5) Make sure each additional shot overlap 20-25% of the last.
Software is pure personal preference, but as a professional photographer, I have many professional reasons, they are not all commercial concern.
I use Phase One's Capture One Pro for RAW development, it is a great software for Phase One medium format digital backs, but also it supports all the cameras (from small to big) so I can work all those file in single environment.  Stitching software is either Adobe Photoshop CS4/CS5, very easy, just go: file-automate-photomerge, then it is time for a coffee or tea. Or, you might also use Phase One's script to stitch the captures, tips are available here. I also use Autodesk's Sticher Unlimited, also equally good, but with extra functions for special production such as QTVR and hot-spot enabled image.
But why panorama?  Why not?  To me, travel without a camera is a pity.  With a camera on hand, you eye starts to see the world as a picture, and go ahead to make it a picture. The whole process makes you appreciate certain details you oherwise won't bother, the world becomes nicer. And why panorama?  It allows you record the impact of the image, with practically any digital camera or phone on hand, just rememer the tips above. Remember, even a small 4-million compact digital camera today, shoot 50 shots of it, you can possibly get a final image equal to a 1 Giga-byte camera.  Sorry, no offence to film camera here, continue to use your X-Pan, 617 or field-technical camera, they are great!

Entrance & Maintenance

Although you could apply visa to enter Nepal ahead of time, this beautiful country does provide rather convenient entrance with visa on arrival, many major currency accepted, but currency fluctuate; for example, one may pay US dollar, Euro, RMB, Indian Rupee and etc, but the real value of the currency is still down to the relative exchange rate. I paid 60 USD, and the process is reasonably quick, not much difference from those who with visa prepared, to go thru the immigration check spot.  Check anyway!
Nepal's currency is rupee,  many hotel accept international credit card, or the ATM machine accept one to draw money from their credit or debit card, with this convenience, suggestion is not to exchange too much rupee, you need them for street level purchase, but many of them accept major currency, this said:  "Nepali rupee is accepted, may not preferred!" Go figure!
I cleared my luggage, meet the guy sent from the travel company, get in a car, around 30 minutes later I am in the comfort of the reasonably nice hotel room - Yak & Yeti! Billed as a 5-star hotel, not quite, but I have no complain.  Kathmandu is capital city of Nepal, focus on people, culture and something not in your modern daily life;  this is not NY, Paris, Tokyo or Shanghai, OK!  In March 2010, there is no building over 6-storey, I can't say it is good, or not good, it is Kathmandu, it is Nepal. 
This is a Panoramic image of Kathmandu (Kathmandu valley) - shot from Swayambhunath-Stupa or nicknamed "Monkey Temple", this is among the highest point in the valley, if you want a similar full panoramic view of Kathmandu, get their before sunset!  I made the shot using a Canon 1Ds III mounted with a Leica Apo-Letyt-Elmarit 400/2.8, took 11 succession of shots to stitch them together for this final image, the original image in 16-bit RGB TIFF is 772.2mb, 48,876 X 2,633 pixels. Compressed to this web-friendly size of image to share.  I will cover more tips of producing panoramic in the next chapter.
Now let’s get back to Kathmandu. Like all the countries with ancient history and culture, Nepal certainly has many, and Kathmandu as a capital city, has a beautiful legend of her own. 
According to Swayambhu Purana, the Kathmandu Valley was once a large lake "Nagedaha" (Sanskrit: Naga Dah menas "Snake Lake"). Legend says, and many believed that Manjusri (Sanskrit name मञ्जुश्री [Mañjuśrī] can be translated as "Gentle Glory", Chinese 文殊菩薩, a bodhisattva associated with transcendent wisdom), saw a lotus flower in the center of the lake and cut a gorge at Chovar to allow the lake to drain.  The place where the lotus flower settled became Swayambhunath Stupa and the valley thus became habitable.
Here is a crop from the center of the panoramic image above, so it shows a little more detail on web.  However, anyone wants to have an idea of what detail on the original art, contact me.

June 1, 2010

Getting there!

Although one may travel to Nepal by foot, bike, or with automobile, most travelers fly there, I am among them.  Departing from Bangkok - where I live, Thai Airway daily service TG 319 departs around 10:35am to arrive Kathmandu at 12:45pm,  here is my first tip - book your seat ahead of time!
Thait Airway's route from Bangkok to Kathmandu will fly to a distance where you will be able to see the world's highest peak - more on this later.  To give yourself a most convenient view, seat on the farest right seat, usually it is "K", try to avoid those rolls around the wing! If you are not sure, check this.
Now, a heated debate between Chinese and the rest of the world, the name of the highest peak on earth. Let's not to repeat where the name "Everest" came from, most already know or can check easily online, here I just explain her native name - in fact in Tibetan, which pronounced "Chomolangma" - Goddess Mother of the World, to me, it is a much more beautiful name and one much more justified. Chinese adopted it, called it "珠穆朗玛" or by its meaning "聖母峰", petition to the rest of the world - respect the name in its mother language, OK? In Chinese written history and on Qing Dynasty's map, already identify this holy and beautiful peak, although did not define it as the highest peak on earth.  Reaching 8,848m (29,029ft) above sea level, is also around the cruising altitude of the airbus, and you would probbaly see the plume blowing off the top of the peak, and by now you are about to arrive Kathmandu!