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.

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Thailand in Summer 2- The Gear

I spent a long time considering what was best to take with me, but there is no getting around it- the best set up is one with two cameras, with different lenses. One taking care of wide, perhaps with a zoom to cover ‘the whole scene’ and the other focusing on details/portraits/ high quality captures. Now, that’s a lot of camera, even with smaller DSLRs and we aren’t always happy to rely on one being a compact. Hence, the advent of mirrorless and large-sensor (1 inch and up) compacts and in my case, my M4/3 babies.

Here was my trip kit-

Nikon

D5100
35mm f/1.8G DX
50mm f/1.8G
18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 DX

Panasonic

Lumix GF-1
14-45mm f/3.5-5.6
25mm f/1.4 Pana-Leica
Lumix LX5

0.75x Lumix Wide-Angle Adapter
CPL Polarisers
ND filters
Close-Up lens (for butterflies/flowers)
Gorillapod (for night scenes)
Underwater Case for LX5 (for snorkeling)

It sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? In reality, it’s more notable for what I left out than what I took. The Gorillapod is a lot smaller than a true tripod and more stable than a mini-tripod. The Nikon zoom took care of reach, enough for me, anyway, in a way a shorter zoom wouldn’t (goodbye 17-50 with 70-300 set). The primes are light enough to carry along and switch to and the configuration meant I could always have a prime on one camera and a zoom on the other. I could just use one camera this way and scale it right down to the LX5, which itself is pretty flexible, or scale up to the DSLR and zoom. Or just head out with a nice prime and see what happens. Just having all that variety was good to have, as I find using the same lens all the time pretty boring.

The GF1 was handy to carry around. It’s sharp, stablised zoom and decent I.Q. made it a great walk around camera.

Just before the trip, I picked up my Panasonic Lumix GF-1, with it’s excellent 14-45 zoom lens, held up as one of the best kit lenses ever made and much better than the newer m4/3 options. This, paired with the incredible Pana-Leica 25mm f/1.4 made my back-up, though with M 4/3 you get a good enough image for it to be pretty much interchangeable with a DSLR, except when it comes to editing, where the added richness of the larger APS-C sensors have a definite advantage. Also thanks to the GF1, I didn’t have to bring a compact around for snaps over dinner, etc. I really don’t like to bring a DSLR absolutely everywhere I go, when something smaller and more discrete will suffice. Alongside this, I had my nifty and reasonably light D5100, paired with either my 18-105mm ‘travel zoom’, or the 35mm f/1.8 DX. Thanks to the ability to have a good zoom in my pocket, so to speak, I felt freed to use the prime option far more than ever before and not just at night, it accounting for more than half of my shots. Meanwhile, I find the 18-105 to be a great travel lens. Not too heavy, it opens up a lot of focal lengths. You are losing a bit of quality, as with any wide-ranging zoom, but having some reach is very liberating.

A prime lens is a great way to communicate. I don’t know what it is, but it always feels more natural than a zoom.

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Thailand in Summer

I recently got back from another trip to Thailand and just think, wow, what an amazing place! The food, the people, the colours, the scenery, all add up to an amazing, phantasmagoric adventure in a land where everything is done so differently than elsewhere. Thanks to low-cost carriers, this time we flew from one place to another at not too much additional cost from our usual night trains/buses, which take so much time out of the trip. We might wake up one day by misty mountains and the next by crystal-clear, emerald seas.

Of course, I took a retinue of photo gear along for the trip, with the emphasis being on finding the right balance between image quality and weight/bulk. Usually this would have meant a combination of DSLRs and compacts, never really being able to rely on the latter, but getting something ‘better than nothing’ from them. Thanks to Micro 4/3, though and also to the new crop of smaller DX DSLRs, I was able to have a much tighter ‘daily kit’ with some very flexible lenses. My setup was basically my Nikon D5100, with a couple of primes and my trusty 18-105mm. For back-up I had a Panasonic GF1 I picked up the day before we left, with its excellent 14-45mm kit lens and the stunning 25mm f/1.4 Pana-Leica I already had. I’ll say a bit more about my choices in my next post, to spare non camera-geeks from it all, but suffice to say, I was very happy with both the variety and lightness this setup gave me.

A Tuk-Tuk ‘motor-tricycle’ taxi driver takes a break by a busy Bangkok street.

So, back to my trip, where did we go? We started off in Bangkok, hot dusty and Cosmopolitan, though more recently graced with beautiful shopping malls that are more like theme parks and a fast sky-train to navigate the city. Overall, my favourite moments are strolling through night markets to see all the goods on offer, from jewelry and Angry Birds t-shirts to fresh fruit and riding boat-buses through the city to riverside temples, like Wat Pho, with its enormous, graceful reclining Buddha. Seeing the astonished looks on people’s faces as they encounter it for the first time is worth a million and it probably is one of the wonders of the modern world, which I don’t think anyone should miss.

Golden Arhats (disciples on the way to full enlightenment), in Wat Pho Temple, Bangkok.

From there, we went to Chiang Mai for a short trip, where we explored the temples, including an incredible golden one in the mountains overlooking the city, from where you look down to clouds billowing like candy-floss along the green valley. There was some elephant trekking, white-water rafting and a Thai cooking course thrown in. I love the fact in Thailand everything is so accessible, we signed up for these things the night before and had a fantastic time with all of them.

Green hills overlooking Chiang Mai.

Then came the most ‘paradisiacal’ phase of our trip, with about a week in Phuket, including a few days spent on Phi Phi island, said to be one of the most beautiful islands in the world and definitely the most beautiful I’ve even seen, though based on my travels, it has to share that honour with Japan’s Matsushima. We were pretty careful about accommodation here, as after reading reviews we found a lot of it is very sub-par, but can definitely recommend s sea-view room in Phi Phi hotel as an affordable and unforgettable experience. If there are other places like that, I’ve yet to find them.

Approaching the beautiful islands of Phi Phi.

Lastly there were a few days in Bangkok, for shopping, massage and more dining, including a great variety of delicious foods and fruity drinks. Whilst I’m happy with kai yang (roast chicken, usually barbecued on the street) and papaya salad (a spicy,sweet and crunchy salad made with unripe, green papaya fruits), it was a treat to have Tai-suki (the Thai version of sukiyaki) and all kinds of exotic desserts as well.

A singing store-keeper. Bangkok, for all it’s noise and bustle, is a city full of life.

For me, Thailand is still simply the most exotic country I’ve been to. Whilst there are other places that are probably better to travel in simply because they are less touristy and hence less touched by development and commercialism, for fun and adventure Thailand still stands out for me as a place I’ll probably always want to go back to.

Dawn breaks over Phi Phi Island.

Now I have around 7,000 photos (!) and some video clips to sort through, taken on sea, sky and land and pretty soon I hope to post up some of my best shots, including some HDRs and panoramas that need processing. It’s kind of a shame with digital photography that you end up with so many redundant images (especially, I find, when a zoom is involved and you ‘experiment’ with different focal lengths), but I am glad to have the freedom to capture what and how I want. We now have easy access to some excellent gear, that whilst not being perfect, can make for very memorable images without making traveling around too burdensome in terms of lugging things around. I was glad to actively enjoy where I was and capture it, even on the fly at times!

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