Friday, May 29, 2015

More Olympus Goodness

Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II, 40-150mm f2.8 Pro Zoom with the matched 1.4X teleconverter. 1/10th (one/tenth, not 1/100) of a second @ f4, ISO1600

I covered a conference about the Rohingya boat people this morning. The conference was in the event rooms at one of Bangkok's better hotels. The room was nice but very dark and I was forced to use high ISO and slow shutter speeds, not a combination I usually like. But the in body image stabilization in the E-M5 Mark II saved me.

How effective is Olympus' in body image stabilization? Very effective. The top photo was made with a 40mm-150mm f2.8 lens and a 1.4X teleconverter. The focal length was 210mm, which because of the 2X crop of Micro 4:3 compared to "full frame" works out to a 420mm lens. The exposure was 1/10th of a second @ f4, handheld. Think about that for a moment. A 400mm lens handheld at 1/10th of a second. And this was not a fluke or one off success. Here are two more samples.
Same lens combination, 1/15th of a second. ISO1600 @ f4. 
Same lens, again 1/10th of a second. Handheld. The woman on the left is blurry because she was moving, But the man on the right, the subject of the photo, is sharp. 

This pretty much blew me away. I've been impressed with the in body image stabilization in my E-P5s since I started using them. But I never would have expected to get sharp pictures at 1/10th of a second handheld with a 400mm lens, even with the in lens stabilization used by Canon (or Nikon). Amazing.

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

One Month with New Cameras

A sort of mini review.
A worker in an Ybor City cigar factory. Made with an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II and an Olympus 75mm f1.8 lens. ISO800, 1/160th @ f2. 

I've had my E-M5 Mark II bodies for a month now and thought I would post a short review of the new cameras. This is based on my day to day use of the cameras and comparing them to my Olympus E-P5 bodies, and, to a lesser degree, the Canon 5D series bodies I no longer have or use. This is based entirely on my experiences with the camera and does not involve any "pixel peeping." Your mileage and experiences may be different. 

I got the E-M5 Mark II bodies because while I was very happy with the E-P5 there were some shortcomings that made it less than ideal for what I needed. 

The E-M5 Mk2, and all of the Olympus OM-D bodies, feature faux SLR styling with a "mirror hump" housing the viewfinder. Since these cameras are mirrorless, there is, by definition, no mirror. The hump accommodates some electronics but could have been eliminated by moving the electronic viewfinder to the side, like the Panasonic GX-7 and some of the Fuji mirrorless bodies have done. On the other hand, the hump gives the camera a very retro faux SLR look (like the Fuji XT-1). 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

On a small soi off Sukhumvit

Ajarn Neng Onnut prays before starting his day tattooing people who come to his home in Bangkok.

Ajarn Neng Onnut is a master of the spiritual Sak Yant tattoo. He is one of the most famous tattooists in Thailand. People who believe in the power of the tattoos come from across the Kingdom and around the world to get a tattoo from Ajarn Neng. 
The Ajarn's assistants steady a young woman getting a tattoo while the Ajarn tattoos her. His studio is  really more of a chapel. The walls are adorned not with pictures of tattoos but with religious paraphernalia. 

Ajarn Neng's work has been featured in the book "Sacred Skin." He is a regular at the Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Blessing Ceremony in Nakhon Pathom. A visit to his home (he works out of his home) is nothing like visiting a tattoo parlor in the US. There's no music. No whirring of the tattoo guns. In fact, aside from people praying and the occasional small talk, it's silent. 

Ajarn Neng uses long hollow stainless steel needles. He dips the needle into a reservoir of ink and goes to work on his subject's back, arm, neck whatever. He sanitizes the needles between tattoos by putting them into an open flame and a disinfectant. There is no autoclave or similar sterilizing device. The tattoos are all, every single one of them, done by hand. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


Is not all it's cracked up to be. 
A motorcycle streaks past diners at a street food stall on Sukhumvit Soi 38. 

One of the great things about Bangkok is the extraordinary street food. It's almost everywhere and it's usually very good. They're usually mom and pop type places where you can get a stir fry, like pork and basil, or curry for between $1 and $1.50. Some elaborate dishes, especially seafood, might cost as much as $5.

These eating spots are scattered through the city. I have small favorite haunts that I visit in most of the neighborhoods I've photographed in. One of the best gathering of street food stalls in the entire city is on Sukhumvit Soi 38, a longish walk from our apartment. 

The food stalls on Soi 38 run the gamut from Chinese inspired noodle soups to curries to Thai stir fries to western favorites like hamburgers and Turkish kebabs.
Diners on the sidewalk on Soi 38. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Not a Happy Anniversary

Thai police scuffle with protestors at a demonstration against the coup at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC). Friday, May 22, was the one year anniversary of the coup that deposed the elected civilian government. Thailand's second coup in the 21st century.

The Thai Army overthrew the elected civilian government on May 22, 2014. The coup came at a strange time in Thailand. The elected Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, had already been ousted by the courts (on corruption charges), but there was a "caretaker" government comprised of her political allies running the government. Suthep was still leading the anti-government protests, but it was a standoff. 

Suthep didn't have the power (either constitutionally or politically) to completely overthrow the government and the government didn't have the power (politically) to control Bangkok.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Electric Wonderland

Shopping on the left, shopping on the right and a river of cars in between. Bangkok and its malls consumes about 40% of all electricity used in Thailand. 

Sometimes it seems like Bangkok is a vast sea of shopping malls. Thailand is stereotypically thought of a country of markets. Markets can still be found in Bangkok and, especially, upcountry, but increasingly Thailand, and particularly Bangkok, is a land of malls. There is a mall of some kind attached to almost every Skytrain and MRT (subway) stop in the central city. 
The main entrance to Siam Paragon, one of the most exclusive malls in Bangkok. The glittering lights and comforting air conditioning come at a price. Paragon, one shopping mall, uses almost twice as much electricity as the entire province of Mae Hong Son, along the Myanmar border in northern Thailand. 

The malls, with bright lights and blessed air conditioning, have a dark side though. They consume massive amounts of electricity. Electricity that originates in Laos and Myanmar (because Thailand doesn't generate enough electricity to meet its own needs).  
Night becomes day on Ratchadamari Road near CentralWorld, one of the largest malls in Thailand. This picture was made after 19.00 but there is so much light coming off the surrounding buildings that I only needed to use ISO400 to make the picture. 

The power that comes from afar is extracting a price on the environment. Thailand has an active environmentalist movement and Thais wouldn't accept the kind of development in Thailand that is taking place in Laos. There are plans to build dams along the rivers of Laos, most of which feed into the Mekong River. Downstream countries - Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam - have expressed concern that the dams will hurt agriculture and fisheries. But Thailand, and Laos' other big neighbor, China, are desperate for the electricity. The construction continues. In Myanmar, villages are being uprooted to build power generating stations to send electricity to Thailand and China. 

The irony is that most people living in Myanmar and Laos, the source of Thailand's electricity, don't have regular supplies of electricity in their homes. Power cuts, even in Myanmar's biggest cities, are common. Smaller communities have routinely scheduled power cuts. In some towns, power is out more than it's on. 
A street food vendor near Central World lights up his cart with an electric light while he cooks on charcoal. Similar food carts in Laos or Myanmar are frequenly lit with kerosene or natural gas lamps. 

This is not a situation with easy solutions. No one in Bangkok wants to go without air conditioning. We try to live responsibly - we use mass transit or walk instead of taking taxis. We shop in local stores rather than at big chain department stores or Amazon. We eat at street food stalls rather than chain restaurants. But when push comes to shove, Bangkok, in all of its unsustainable glory, without the malls wouldn't be Bangkok at all. It's up to Thais to figure out how to make this city fit in with the reality of the 21st century environmental concerns. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Faces of the Opera

A performer at a Chinese opera at a Chinese shrine in Klong Toie, one of the most infamous slums in Bangkok. 

I went to another Chinese Opera Thursday night. This one was at a small Chinese shrine the Klong Toei district of Bangkok. Klong Toei is famous for its sprawling market - one of the best in Bangkok and its equally expansive slum, which stretches from the Bangkok port (also known as Klong Toei) almost to Emporium, a high end Bangkok mall.
A young performer with his toy gun. 

I like photographing Chinese opera. More accurately, I like photographing people getting ready for the opera. I don't understand the actual opera, since it's performed in a Teochew, a Chinese dialect. I enjoy the camaraderie backstage and the ambiance of being amongst the performers. 
Performers on stage. 

I've photographed a lot of Chinese opera in the last couple of years. Most of the photos are available from my archive

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Best Laid Plans...

A woman looks out the window on songthaew on the road between Mahachai and Mae Klong in Samut Sakhon. 

One of the best train trips in Thailand has been the commuter train that runs from Wong Wian Yai station in Thonburi to Samut Songkram (also known as Mae Klong). The train chugs through the Bangkok suburbs into agricultural country before coming to an end in Mahachai (Samut Sakhon). Then you take a ferry and walk to Ban Laem station and hop a second train to Samut Songkram. 

It was a relatively easy trip that passed through a lot of Thai countryside, close to Bangkok yet far removed from the city's hustle. 
The ferry from Mahachai to Ban Laem. 

The whole trip was a real bargain. Train fare on each portion was 10Baht (.30¢ US) and the ferry ticket is 3Baht (.01¢ US). So for 46Baht (four train tickets and two ferry tickets) you could go from the heart of the city to one of the more picturesque fishing ports and most unique markets in Thailand. It was one of my favorite day trips. 

Sadly that's all in the past tense. The second leg of the route, from Ban Laem to Mae Klong is shut down for repair and renovation of the tracks. The repair is expected to take six months and is desperately needed. The tracks haven't been overhauled in a long time. The train has derailed a couple of times and the track bed has been weakened by repeated flooding.
The station master in Wong Wian Yai waits on an incoming train. 

My plan was to ride the train Wednesday and make a picture story on what was reported to be the last day of service. Except service ended Tuesday and Wednesday was the first day of the songthaew (a songthaew is a truck converted to use as a bus by putting bench seats in the back) replacement service. 

The songthaew going down to Mae Klong went along dirt roads next to the tracks. A scenic, if very uncomfortable and dusty 90 minutes. Coming back the truck roared up a divided highway. A less scenic but also more comfortable ride. 
A bicyclist in the back of the songthaew to Mae Klong. 

I went down to Mae Klong, wandered through the market, had a nice bowl of noodle soup for lunch and then made my way back to Bangkok. It wasn't the trip I was hoping for but it wasn't bad. 
The conductor in the back of the songthaew. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Still Has the New Camera Smell

The first picture I made with my new OM-D E-M5 Mark II and the 40mm - 150mm f2.8 Pro Zoom, along Minnehaha Creek in Minnetonka. 

I'm working out the kinks on my new camera bodies. As regular readers might know, I've been using Micro 4:3 gear for years now. First as a complement to my Canon full frame cameras and lenses. For the last eight months or so I've been using the Micro 4:3 as my main cameras and the Canon gear as a complement to them. I've been very happy with my E-P5 bodies but there were times when they weren't quite up to the task in the same way that my Canons were, especially when it came to spot news and using flash. I bought the E-M5 Mark II bodies because they should fill in the blanks left with the E-P5 bodies. They're both Micro 4:3 bodies, so they use the same lenses. They also happen to use the same batteries which is important when you're carrying multiple cameras and batteries. 
The entrance to Tabanero Cigars, a cigar factory/coffee house in the Ybor section of Tampa. E-M5 Mark II and 12mm f2 lens. 

The new bodies offer several advantages over the E-P5 bodies. 

They're much better weather sealed. They're not waterproof, but there are some crazy videos on the internet of people subjecting their E-M5 Mark II and E-M1 bodies to ridiculous amounts of abuse

They offer a built in hot shoe and better flash integration. This is a tricky one. The E-P5 has a built in hot shoe AND a built in pop up flash (the E-M5 Mark II doesn't have a built in pop up flash). But I use my E-P5 bodies with the VF4 viewfinder, which sits, you guessed it, in the hot shoe. So when I have the viewfinder on the camera, which is pretty much all of the time, I can't use an external flash. The little pop up works okay, but is pretty weak. Also, the pop up part of built in pop up flash, significantly degrades the weather proofing on the camera because water and dust can get into the body from the seam around the flash. 

The E-M5 Mark II has an electronic shutter that offers completely silent operation. Dead silent, not even a soft click like the Canons do in their quiet mode. This is great in temples and churches or for some sports (golf) where an audible click can be annoying. 

The E-M5 Mark II offers a unique "high resolution mode" which outputs 40mp files. File size has been the Achilles Heel of Micro 4:3 systems. They're currently limited to 16mp, which is on the smallish side of modern digital cameras. The 40mp mode, although it has caveats, allows the E-M5 Mk2 to compete, sort of, with the Nikon D800 series or Canon's coming 5Ds series cameras. (I haven't tried this hi res mode yet, but the tests others have done look promising.)
A tree branch reflected in Minnehaha Creek, E-M5 MkII, 40-150mm f2.8 zoom. 

The E-M5 Mk2 is a tiny bit smaller than the E-P5. Their weight is so close that it's not a factor, but the VF4, which is a class leading electronic viewfinder, is pretty big (in comparison to the rest of the body) and because the EVF is built into the E-M5 Mk2, it has a slightly smaller profile. 

Both cameras use the same sensor, but the E-M5 Mk2 has an improved processing engine. Both cameras have similar image quality which makes it very easy to use them side by side on an assignment. 

I've used the E-M5 Mk2 bodies exclusively for the last two weeks and so far they've been flawless. The only issue I've had has been battery life, which is not as good as the E-P5's. 

I don't know why this is, but others have reported the E-M5 Mk2 battery life is pretty short. I can squeeze about 300 frames out of one of the Olympus batteries, which is enough for a normal day's work, but when I'm covering a big event or working especially hard is not. I now have 11 batteries for my Olympus cameras. I carry 2 or 3 spares with me at all times. 

I also bought the two Olympus Pro zooms. The 40-150mm f2.8 and 12-40mm f2.8, equal to 80-300 and 24-80 in full frame terms. 
A busker in Ybor City, Tampa. E-M5 Mark II, 17mm f1.8 lens and off camera flash. 

I use my prime lenses for most of my work. But there are times when primes are not practical, like spot news, weather (rains and typhoons) and sports. For those times I have the zooms. The zooms are excellent but they are, by M4:3 standards, pretty big. 

The 40-150, in particular, is comparatively huge. It's about the same size as the Canon 70-200 f4 (but still half the size of the Canon 70-200 f2.8). It's saving grace is that it's it's a 300 f2.8. The Canon and Nikon 300mm f2.8 primes are behemoths that cost more than $4,000. The Olympus zoom, while not cheap at $1,500, is quite a bargain compared to the CanNik 300mm lenses. And I will say this about the Olympus lens. It is an amazing piece of glass. Very sharp with excellent contrast and color. I didn't buy because it's a zoom. I bought it because I needed a 300mm lens. This one happens to be in a zoom. 
A mallard drake in Minnehaha Creek. E-M5 Mk2 with 40-150 zoom and matched 1.4 teleconverter = 210mm. Full frame equivalent 420mm. Uncropped. 

I haven't used the 12-40 much yet. I made some family snaps with it in Minnesota and the results were very nice. It's a very sharp, very fast focusing lens, but I haven't put it through a ringer yet like I have with the 40-150. It will get a lot of use in a couple of weeks, when I expect there will be some spot news in Bangkok. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

And We're Back!

Reflection of tree branches in Minnehaha Creek in Minnetonka, Minnesota. One of the first photos I made with my new Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II bodies. 

We're back in Bangkok after our visit to the US. We went to see family, take care of some paperwork and shop. The shopping thing might seem a little out of place since Bangkok is a shopping hot spot but some of the things we wanted are more expensive here. 

I got a new set of cameras on this trip. I've been using Olympus E-P5 bodies and Olympus' excellent prime lenses as my main cameras for more than six months now, since back problems forced me to start carrying less heavy gear.  

One of the first stops I made when we got back to Minnesota was take all of my Canon gear, every single piece of it, to National Camera Exchange and trade it all in for two E-M5 Mark II bodies, the 12-40mm f2.8 Pro Zoom (equivalent of a 24-80 in full frame) and a 40-150mm f2.8 Pro Zoom (equivalent of an 80-300 in full frame). I worked with Erik, who evaluated my Canon gear and set me up with the Olympus gear. 

Some people might ask why I did trade in rather than sell my gear through Craig's List or on Facebook or something similar. There are  several reasons: 

1) I didn't want to deal with the scammers that inhabit the marketplaces of the Internet. 
2) Time was important. We only had a couple of weeks in the US and I didn't want to get into a situation where I had all of the new Olympus stuff while I still had the Canon gear. 
3) (and most important) Although I took good care of my Canon gear, the reality is that camera gear used by photojournalists gets beat up. My bodies had hundreds of thousands of clicks on the shutters and my lenses, some of which were over 20 years old, had issues. A couple of my lenses had fungal growth in them (it's so humid in Southeast Asia that fungus and mold grow inside lenses on the glass elements). It would have cost me close to $1,000 to get my lenses cleaned and brought back to factory specs. National Camera will take those factors into account when they prep my old gear for resale. By working with a professional camera buyer, like Erik, there were no surprises. I knew what I was giving him and he knew what he was getting. I know he won't come back and say that I sold him a piece of defective equipment. 

The next question might be why a brick and mortar store rather than the internet and something like Amazon or B&H? I'm glad you asked. I think it's important to support local merchants as much as possible. They provide jobs for our neighbors, they give back to the community, either through taxes paid or support of little league teams, scouting organizations or other nonprofits. In the case of camera stores specifically, they serve as a place where we (photographers) can go for help with new gear or just drop in, a meeting place of sorts. Many local camera stores sponsor workshops or contests. You can't get that from Amazon.

I bought gear at National when I was a puppy photographer starting out, way back in the early 1980s, I like and trust them. When I was in Phoenix, I bought most of my gear from Foto Forum or Tempe Camera. There wasn't time on this trip to go back to them for this transaction so I went to National. I did shop at the B&H store when we lived in New York, but they were our local brick and mortar store back then. For me, buying gear through Amazon is the last option. 

Now I'm prowling the streets of Bangkok with the Olympus stuff and learning a new system. 
The first photo I made the OM-D E-M5 Mark II in Bangkok. Wong Wian Yai train station waiting for the 05.30 train to Mahachai. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.