Photographing South-East Asia, 2011

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As some of you may know, I’ve been fortunate enough to go on a few longish trips to SE Asia in the past few years. I love this part of the world and it is a great place for photography. My biggest and most travel-oriented trip was Summer 2011, when I practically brought the kitchen sink along. Tired of being stuck with the perspective of one lens (generally my Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8), I brought a variety of cameras and primes. I actually got good use out of a lot of them, but the heat and weight made it at times very tiring. So for the next trip I had a rethink.

So to save my back and increase my sanity, less came with me in the second trip. I was partly helped by having a new and smaller DSLR (the D5100) that had a better sensor than my D300 and also decent features. So here is what I took and, more importantly why I took it. The fact you want to use something you own is a poor excuse for bringing it ‘on the road’ and bringing something ‘just in case’ may make sense for a band-aid, but not in the world of camera gear. I’ll also add, with the benefit of hindsight whether I found it all that useful.

(I actually wrote this two years ago and have been slow to get it polished for publishing, but never mind, here it is!) For the gear in Summer 2012, please see here. I’ll make a post about 2013’s trip, too, but want to get this out the proverbial door first.

The Summer 2011 Trip

Cameras

D300

To have a weather-sealed body, as sometimes out in the rainy season. on beaches or boats. Also, to have autofocus with my new ‘street-shooter’, Nikon’s venerable 24mm f/2.8 AFD. Right, that’s AFD, no autofocus motor and pretty much useless in any kind of hurry on a smaller body, which I generally prefer to have in my backpack. I also hadn’t always been happy with my D3100 in Europe, not being sure exactly why, but perhaps it’s relatively flimsy feeling, tendency to overexpose and the smaller viewfinder ended up with me wondering if it alone would do this trip justice, though I definitely prefer it’s weight.

* In hindsight… now I have it, I prefer to use the D5100, as it reduces a lot of weight and I can make do with its small viewfinder.

Nikon D3100

Originally intended as my backup, it got used most days and especially when doing a lot. It is light, reasonably fast and good at focusing. It is for me a world away from a compact and can mount some serious glass, like the Tamron 17-50mm I brought along for it. Probably I should have gotten the better D5100 for this trip, but it had just come out and was really expensive, plus I’d only just gotten the D3100 in February.

* This camera is inadequate as a main tool for me, mostly because of the poor dynamic range, but also the lack of bracketing for HDR and poor video abilities. Yet it does score highly for lowish weight and low light abilities. Newer models are a lot more satisfactory.

Panasonic Lumix LX5

Sometimes you are just heading out for dinner, going for a stroll. you don’t necessarily want a backpack even and this will fit in the pouch around my neck. Also, it’s no slouch, with its 1.1/7″ sensor, it has pretty good dynamic range and low-light ability, for a compact at least.

* A handy little camera, rendered somewhat obsolete by my m43 bodies, which have much better sensors and are still pretty small.

Panasonic Lumix TZ7

This was my pocket superzoom. At 25-300mm, it could compliment whatever else I brought along, especially the LX5 or a D300 restricted to a prime lens, as well as taking decent 720p video. The image quality is way below what I would really want, especially as you zoom in, but it can be nice as a memory-catcher. Having such a range is a lot of fun to have, especially compared to the fast-and-wides I started off with. It really does need good light, even with its VR, due to the dark lens and poor high ISO (more than 200 is pushing it, but I did use it up to 400, just to get the shot).

* Another handy camera, yet the low IQ means I got few keepers, especially above ISO 100. I find the P510 does much better here and without adding too much weight.

iPhone 4

Often all I needed for food photos, quick snaps or whatever. It has decent enough image quality for its size and it saves standing up like a moron, with a colossal camera over my noodles. Unfortunately, the so-called ‘flash’ is pretty much unusable and it is really, really bad in low light. But you know what? It gets the shot and you can always run it through Instagram or something to make it artistic. I’d venture to say all I’d really need would be an iPhone and maybe the LX5…  though the truth is I’m not such a genius as to be satisfied with such tools. The best camera is indeed the one you have with you. But that doesn’t mean to say that it’ll be a good enough to do everything you want! (Chase Jarvis, the originator of that saying, generally uses loads of them, but can get by on a lot less when need be-

* While I find the 4S to be a much better camera in this role, a smartphone generally is very handy for quick snaps.In fact, I got some real keepers with this and can understand many replacing their compacts with one, especially now they have evolved with much better sensors and faster speed.

Lenses

I brought a fair few of these, some I used a lot, others occasionally. On a shorter trip it is easier to do this as you can walk around with two cameras, but here I would likely only bring one a day.

LX5 Wide Adapter (DMW-LWA52)

Before I left, I contemplated bringing my 12-24mm, especially for cityscapes, Angkor Wat and other various temples. even a beach could reveal itself through this lens. But you know what? It ‘s all wide, it’s heavy and I don’t really like it all that much. In practice, ultra-wide is hard to use and I often found myself zooming in a bit. Plus my Tamron goes out to a fairly generous 17mm (unlike any other lens I had when I originally bought this). So I hit on a compromise- the LX5’s esteemed wide adapter.

It makes for a very portable 18mm equivalent. Now that’s wide! Plus, it is corrected in-camera, stabilised and extremely sharp, being designed only for this task, not even to zoom. The small sensor’s DOF means it is all in focus, all the time. So, to avoid changing lenses on my big boy, I brought this and got some interesting shots, but I still think I don’t have a clue how to use such a wide lens.

I ultimately wasn’t as happy with the shots from this as I’d hoped, partly because I’m not so adept with ultra-wides and prefer the intimacy from a true panorama. It’s also as big and heavy as the camera, which makes it counter-intuitive. It is an interesting option, though. Despite soft corners emerging, I used it on my Nikon lenses as well.

Nikon 24mm f/2.8- The same 35mm equivilent as my iPhone, I figured this would be the best ‘summary’ point of view. I decided to use it for street photography, to get up close and personal and tell the stories of the people I encountered. I could take a quick snap in low light thanks to the brightness and wideness of it. Also, unlike a zoom it is simple and forces me to think. Some of my best photos are taken with primes and after all, isn’t quality better than quantity? Yes and no, the fact it needed a D300 to focus and couldn’t do everything if sightseeing meant it stayed at home at times, but I’m glad I got to use it all the same.

Looking at the statistics in Lightroom (which can show how many photos you took with each lens at a glance), I ended up using it quite a bit, especially for documentary-style shots of city life, many of which weren’t ‘pretty’ enough for me to want to post them online, but they do show something of the way people live there.

Definitely a great lens for serious photography, it’s too bad it lacks an AF-S motor. 

Canon 500D Close-Up Filter

This may sound like overkill, but it came in very handy in the butterfly farm, where otherwise I wouldn’t have had much photo-fun. I list it as a lens, as it is almost as heavy as one and not something you bring lightly.

An interesting substitute for a macro lens, it adds so much weight to the mix, I’d need to know I’d be using it.

Nikon 35mm f/1.8 AF-S DX

For low-light usage and maybe walkabout, I brought this baby along. At 200g or so, it doesn’t need much thought and is great for night markets, snaps, semi-macros and so on. It’s a pity Nikon doesn’t make a wider equivalent, but it is a little gem on a small body, being fast, sharp and simple. Not wonderful in the bokeh stakes, but generally you need a longer lens (like a real-world 50mm f/1.8 FX or more) for that, so I can’t complain too much. I basically ended up not using it, with only 3 shots out of a total of 10,000.

*  Essential for low-light photography and sharp snaps.

Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8

This has been my travel workhorse for a while. It is incredibly sharp, does all the wide-angles I generally need and is pretty good for portraits, too. I like it’s bokeh, colours, ‘character’ and the fact it isn’t too big. I have a newer version, not softened like the even newer VR version, but with a whinny little AF motor that works on the D3100/D5100 and is incredibly accurate (not sure why, exactly, but it’s worth the wait). Unfortunately, this suffered rather a nasty fall in a Cambodian temple as I tried to disentangle my hat, bag, camera and umbrella, (it’s mended now, though) so I fell back for a bit on the…

* Another essential lens, but with a bit of a boring range. Overall, if I have one zoom I’d prefer something like the 18-105mm VR, which has the benefit of stabilisation. I can always use the primes, which give more of a bokeh effect anyway, as does the long end of the 18-105mm. 

Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6

Small and handy, with VR this is actually a great lens, though not quite up to the Tamron’s quality or, of course, light-gathering ability. It served me well for a bit and generally lived on my girlfriend’s D3000. It took some of my best photos of the trip, perhaps even the best photo. It was a bit of a relief after carrying something heavier and especially for the VR, which often lead to more keepers.

* An under-rated lens, I’d be quite happy with it in a two-lens/camera set-up, but I often want something longer if it’s the only show in town.

Nikon 18-105mm VR

Near the end of my trip, I decided to do something about just using the 18-55mm or (before the fall) 17-50mm Tamron. I also had always felt a bit restricted by the usual DX lenses I’d used, which topped out at 55mm. So how about something longer? Hmmm, the 16-85mm is good, but expensive and not really all that long, though nicely wide. Also it is infamous for nasty bokeh (a pet peeve for me, as I think it is often sacrificed for enhanced sharpness in modern designs). 18-200mm too soft and heavy… so… I went for the 18-105mm.

I immediately enjoyed the long view, the VR, the rich colours. No longer would I need to have a 70-300mm along just to see into the distance or bring things up close! Probably this will be my main travel lens, as it is much better for people shots if you can’t get close and the VR is effective. I know it’s dark, but with today’s DSLRs going to 3200, or even 6400 without too much trouble, it is very usable. The range is just delicious and I enjoyed using it a lot in our last 10 days or so.

A very nice travel lens, capable of good enough and sharp enough results, in my view. A very nice, affordable compromise.

The Winter 2011-2012 Trip

As I said, this time I kept it simple!

Cameras & Lenses

Nikon D5100

Used this just as the D3100 before, but in many ways it is better. I brought the 18-105mm and 35mm f/1.8 only, using the latter a lot more this time around, it being my only prime. I also was able to make some interesting creations on the camera.

A fantastic travel camera, good up to ISO 3200 if need be, with in-camera editing and all the essential features, whilst knocking off half the weight of the D7000 series. The incredible dynamic range mean a lot of photos can be rescued from oblivion.

Panasonic Lumix LX5

Brought as before, though this time with no adapter. Having the added flexibility of the 18-105’s longish zoom inspired my to leave the TZ7 at home, too, though I’m not sure about the wisdom of that decision as it is a handy little ‘toy camera’. I actually brought the wrong battery charger for the LX5, but it’s batteries are so good the two of them lasted the whole trip and around 950 photos with a bit to spare!

I pushed this to the limit as a street-shooter, as I’d go outside with only this, expecting to just take a couple of shots of some BBQ chicken and end up taking the equivalent of rolls and rolls of street snaps, In terms of size and controls it’s good for this and it has that bright lens. The only thing lacking is the sensor, but you know, you can get by. I love having something so discrete at times.

With no distraction from other cameras, this turned out to be very handy, though again, it’s hard to recommend in the face of today’s mirrorless cameras.

iPhone 4

As usual, for snaps and foodography. I think I used it a bit more than before, though, especially for HDRs on the fly.

Just as these phones keep evolving, so does the software. Thanks to some great HDR apps, this came into its own, multi-sampling to get over its small sensor’s limitations. 

Okay, now that is over, here are some images I took and what I used. The vast majority were taken on that massive summer trip.

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3 Comments

  1. Arnold Pulver

     /  September 16, 2013

    I am heading to Southeast Asia in October and am considering adding the Tamron 17-50 f/2.8 to my equipment. I currently use mostly my Nikon 18-200 but am looking for something faster, particularly for night and interiors. What did you mean by your comment on having “a newer version, not softened like the even newer VR version?” It looks like there is a VC and non-VC version. Which would you recommend?

    Thanks,

    Arnie Pulver

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment, Arnie. The one I use is the second version, with a built-in motor, for use with Nikon cameras lacking one in the camera (such as the D3***/D5*** series, mine being a D5100). It is optically the same as the excellent original, yet the VC version features optical changes that make for a softer lens, judging by all the reviews and user reports I’ve read. If you want such a lens with stabilisation, I’d suggest Sigma’s latest 17-50mm HSM OS, which from what I’ve heard is at least as good than Tamron’s older models, but stabilised and coming with a fast, quiet ‘HSM’ focusing motor as well.

      The Tamron I use has slow ‘though accurate) focusing that makes annoying whiney sounds. The price and IQ is excellent, but if I was buying now, I might well go for the Sigma over it.

      Thom Hogan’s review

      Photozone review

      Reply
      • Arnold Pulver

         /  September 16, 2013

        Thanks for your explanation. I had in the past heard general comments that Tamron was better quality than Sigma, but at your suggestion I have read many of the reviews on this Sigma lens and they sound pretty good.

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