Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Making Merit

About 10,000 Buddhist monks walked through a sea of people Sunday during a mass merit making ceremony in Ratchaprasong Intersection at Central World

I spent Sunday morning covering a mass merit making ceremony in the center of Bangkok. About 10,000 monks, most affiliated with the Dhammakaya Movement and Wat Phra Dhammakaya, collected food, juice and cash for Buddhist temple in Thailand's "Deep South," the three southern provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, where anti-government insurgents have limited monks' freedom to go out on their alms rounds. 

Monks walk through the crowd. I used a slow shutter speed on the bottom photo to blur the motion. (ISO200, f18, 1/20th of a second with a 75mm lens).

I've covered several of these mass merit making ceremonies. They're very interesting and photogenic and I enjoy the time spent at the them. 
Women pray before donating cash during the merit making

There are more photos from the mass merit making in my archive or available from ZUMA Press
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, November 24, 2014

Why Olympus?

My Olympus kit. Two E-P5 bodies with VF4 viewfinder, 25mm f1.8 lens, 75mm f1.8, 45mm f1.8, 12mm f2 and small Olympus flash. 

One of the questions I've gotten since my switch to using Olympus gear for my day to day go to cameras is why Olympus? Why not Sony, Samsung, or, especially, Fuji?

Photographers buying gear now have a wealth of choices. The most interesting things coming out in the photo industry right now are in the mirrorless realm.

Olympus/Panasonic (they collaborate on Micro 4:3, Panasonic lenses work on Olympus bodies and vice versa) have been promoting Micro 4:3 for about five years now. Sony has jumped on the mirrorless bandwagon in a big way and has multiple choices in multiple formats. Fuji has captured photographers' imaginations (and wallets) with state of the art technology in very well received, wonderfully retro, bodies. Samsung, the TV maker and mobile phone copier, has jumped into the deep end of the photography pool with their new digital bodies.

I ended up with Olympus and Micro 4:3 for several reasons.

1) Micro 4:3 was the first mirrorless system to get significant public acceptance.* Olympus and Panasonic have been designing and introducing M4:3 bodies and lens for a long time and the system is the most mature, with the greatest number of native lenses** and selection of bodies. If you want a fisheye lens, there's the Panasonic 8mm fisheye. If you want a telephoto lens, Olympus has a 75mm - 300mm zoom. Because of the 2X crop of M4:3 this lens is like using a 150mm to 600mm on a traditional "full frame" body.

Panasonic has an excellent mid range zoom in the 12mm - 35mm zoom and Olympus has professional caliber zooms in the excellent 12mm - 40mm f2.8 zoom and well reviewed 40mm - 150mm f2.8 zoom (remember that because of the 2X crop of M4:3 this lens is like using a 80mm - 300mm f2.8 zoom on a traditional "full frame" body). At about $1500 (US) this lens is not cheap, but a Canon or Nikon 300mm f2.8 lens will set you back about $6500, so $1500 doesn't seem so bad.

I use prime lenses exclusively, especially with M4:3 and I'm not likely to buy the zooms, but the M4:3 makers already have a nice set of primes with more lenses in the pipeline.

2) I made this switch because I wanted something smaller, lighter and easier to carry. M4:3 is the smallest sized sensor of the group, which means it has the smallest bodies and especially lenses. Sony, for example, has some very well received full frame mirrorless bodies in their A7 series. The bodies are not much bigger than the E-P5 body. But since they're full frame (sensor size is 24mm X 36mm), their lenses are essentially the same size as Canon or Nikon lenses for traditional dSLRs.
E-P5 with the 25mm f1.8 lens next to my 5D Mark III with the 50mm f1.2 lens. 

The same thing applies to Fuji and Samsung lines. They use an APS sized sensor, which, with a 1.5X crop, is sort of midway between "full frame" and M4:3. Their lenses are a little smaller than CanNik lenses but not as petite as M4:3. Lens size is one of the reasons I use prime lenses instead of zooms. The Olympus 12mm - 40mm f2.8 zoom is tiny compared to either the Canon or Nikon 24mm - 70mm  f2.8 zooms, but compared to the Olympus primes it's a handful.

3) I've been working with M4:3 gear since 2010. I was searching for a more capable replacement to my Canon G series point and shoot cameras at that time and M4:3 intrigued me. I've been selectively adding M4:3 gear to my kit piecemeal through the years. Switching to Micro 4:3 was less costly than switching to another format, which would have required buying a couple of bodies, a set of lenses, flash, batteries (I have eight batteries for the E-P5) etc all at once.

4) The Olympus line of M4:3 bodies are the most responsive, fastest focusing mirrorless cameras I've tried. It feels to me like the E-P5 is faster than my Canon 5D Mark II bodies were. It's may not be quite as fast as the 5D Mark III, but it's very close.***

And,

5) Muscle memory. I've been using M4:3 for a while now. I can change camera settings, change lenses and memory cards with my eyes closed. It's what I'm comfortable with and why I insist on having identical camera bodies.

* I'm not including Leica, which live in a universe of their own, in this discussion.

** By "native lenses" I mean lenses designed to work with the bodies. Because of the way mirrorless bodies are designed, most of them can accept a huge number of lenses from almost any maker through the use of adapters. Most of these adapted lenses lose their electronics interface and so won't autofocus or use autoexposure.

*** All of the mirrorless manufacturers want bragging rights for the title of fastest camera. Before settling on Micro 4:3 I tried the Fuji X series and some of the Sony bodies. At the time that I tried them, they were substantially slower than the M4:3 gear I was using. Both Fuji and Sony have worked very hard to improve the autofocus speed and responsiveness of their bodies. The experiences I had two years ago, the last time I tried either Sony or Fuji, may not be applicable now. I have no experience at all with Samsung. 

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, November 20, 2014

A Movie Premiere

An anti-coup protestor displays the three fingered salute from the "Hunger Games" at the Bangkok premiere of Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I

A big Hollywood opening made an even bigger splash in Bangkok today. Hunger Games: Mockingjay opened and a movie about a plucky heroine with mad archery skills in a dystopian future became a flash point in Thailand's convoluted politics. 

The three fingered salute used by Katniss Everdeen and the others in her resistance are used by anti-coup protestors. Thais in the US and Europe who are opposed to the coup have used the movie's premiere to draw comparisons between the fictional "Panem" and Thailand. 

Retired General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, leader of the coup and current Prime Minister, was greeted by five college students yesterday upcountry who used the Hunger Games salute when the PM took the stage in their community. They were promptly arrested. (It's been reported that they sang a song from Les Miserables during their interrogation.)

There have been rumors circulating for a weeks now that there would be protests at the opening of the Hunger Games. One of the theaters that booked Hunger Games cancelled it and is showing Woody Allen's "Magic in the Moonlight." 
Police officers in the lobby of a theater that cancelled the Hunger Games. 

There was a large police presence in central Bangkok today around the theaters that were showing the movie (or had planned to show it). There was also a large media presence. There were more photographers and reporters at the opening than there were police. And there were a lot of police. There were more police than there were protestors. There were very few protestors. 

Police ended up arresting at least three people at different sites. Two were arrested early, allegedly for talking to reporters and carrying George Orwell's 1984. The third was arrested walking into the movie at Siam Paragon, an upscale mall in central Bangkok. She had spent time before the movie walking around the lobby flashing the Hunger Games salute and talking to reporters.
A protestor walks through the lobby of the theater flashing the salute. 

Plainclothes police were waiting for her at the door to the auditorium and walked her out of the theater. 
Moments later she was pushed into an elevator and taken away in police custody. 

Usually when people are arrested at these protests they're taken to a local police station or military camp for "attitude adjustment." Most are released within a few hours. 

There are more photos from the Hunger Games protest in my archive or available from ZUMA Press

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, November 17, 2014

Burma With Olympus

People watch soccer practice on a dirt pitch in a IDP Camp near Sittwe

My recently concluded trip to Myanmar was the first reportage work I've done without a digital SLR in more than a decade. Regular readers will know that I switched to Olympus gear and Micro 4:3 as my principal photographic tools a few weeks ago. This comes after years of using M4:3 to complement my Canon full frame bodies. 

Back in the days of film I used to travel with either my Leica M series exclusively or, towards the end of the film days, my Contax G cameras exclusively. I worked with the Leica and Contax cameras for the same reason I like the Olympus M4:3 - they're smaller, lighter, and less intimidating. 

I made the move to M4:3 because I wanted something lighter and easier to carry. The Micro 4:3 cameras are ⅓ the weight of the Canons. I have to admit, I was a little nervous about going on a trip like this with just the M4:3 cameras. Would I miss the responsiveness of the Canons? What about the high ISO performance? Or battery life? 

I am happy to report that the Olympus E-P5s exceeded my expectations in almost every way. 

There were no problems with autofocus, even when I photographed Ashura observances in the middle of the night (and it's very dark on the streets of Yangon). High ISO was better than I expected  (although I limited myself to ISO1600). 

And battery life? Well battery life is what it is. Olympus estimates about 300 exposures from a fully charged battery, but that depends on things like use of flash, use of the LCD and how you use the camera. I must be pretty conservative in how I use my E-P5s because I averaged about 320-350 exposures per battery, which is still about ½ to ⅓ of what I can get out of a Canon battery. 

I carried six batteries and four chargers with me. During one of the days of photographing Ashura, I went through four batteries and ended up using all four chargers to get the batteries charged before the next day. 
 Ashura observances in the middle of the night in Yangon. ISO1600, 1/15th of a second, f4, with a little pop of flash

I would like to have better battery life, but none of the mirrorless cameras offer the same battery life traditional dSLRs have.

In fact, the only technical problem I had on the trip was Macintosh related. Power in Myanmar is unreliable (at best) and one afternoon while I was editing in Sittwe the power blinked off and on. The power adapter for my MacBook Pro (MBP) made a popping sound when the power went out and the computer shut down.

I unplugged the computer and pressed the power button and it turned on but some of the system settings were scrambled. I reset everything and plugged the computer in and it didn't get any power. Working on battery, I performed complete backups of the SSDs in my MacBook, then backed up the Myanmar photos to a second hard drive and shut down the computer. (I travel with two small external hard drives.)
A beggar on a railroad track at the entrance to the IDP camps. My E-P5 with the Olympus 75mm f1.8 lens (corresponds to a 150mm lens).

At this point I wasn't sure if the computer was damaged or if the power supply was dead and I couldn't find another Macintosh power adapter to use for troubleshooting. I didn't use the computer again for the rest of the trip (because I had no way of charging the battery and I didn't want to run it down completely), which meant I ended up coming back to Bangkok with a lot of work to edit.

When I got back to Bangkok, the first thing I did was plug the MBP into my work station at home and viola, everything was fine. Then I tried the power adapter I had taken to Myanmar with the backup MacBook Pro I keep in Bangkok and the power adapter didn't work. Whatever happened when the power blinked in Sittwe fried my adapter but not the laptop.

I carry a lot of backups when I travel. Two camera bodies, four or more lenses. Twenty plus memory cards. The only redundancy I don't travel with is a backup computer. There's a limit to what I can practically carry, and the second MacBook Pro hits that limit. (Although when I was working in the US and traveling by car I did usually carry a second MBP.) I might very well start carrying a second power adapter though. Southeast Asia is hard on power adapters (this is the second one I've blown out in a year) and in hind sight carrying a spare seems like a good idea.
A worker in a Rohingya "shipyard" melts tar into the seams between planks to waterproof a Rohingya fishing boat. E-P5 with the 12mm lens (corresponds to a 24mm lens). 

The Olympus cameras and lenses performed as well as I expected while I was in Myanmar and I carrying the much smaller load was a lot easier on my back. 
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. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Go West Young Man

People on a pier in the fish market in Sittwe. 

Sittwe is a small town in western Myanmar (Burma). I think it's about as close to the end of the road as you can get and still be in Myanmar. Foreigners can't even get into Sittwe by road, we have to fly - the Burmese government doesn't allow us to travel by road or boat from Yangon to Sittwe. 
The Sittwe water front

Traveling in Myanmar can be difficult if you're used to the well developed infrastructure in Thailand or Vietnam or even Laos or Cambodia. The country is still emerging (albeit at breakneck speeds) from 50 years of self imposed isolation. 

In that time, very little was spent on infrastructure. The roads are in terrible shape. The power grid barely functions. Internet access is spotty (and I'm being generous on this) and cell phone coverage is very limited. 

The further you get from Yangon, Mandalay, Naypyidaw or other big cities the more difficult conditions become. Sittwe is very far from a big city. 
Women draw water from a well in a residential neighborhood

Power in Sittwe is problematic. It's better to expect you won't have electricity than to count on it. Some of the buildings, those that cater to foreigners (some of the hotels and restaurants, the bank etc) have generators to provide power but most of the city gets power for only a few hours a day. Most of the city does not have running water. Instead residents walk to wells and haul water up in buckets. Cooking, even in restaurants, is done over wood fueled fires. 

Sittwe is not a place you go to by mistake. Despite, or maybe because of that, Sittwe is hauntingly beautiful. 
Door and wall of a Sittwe home

There's a ramshackle feel to the city. The sort of beauty tourists find in ramshackle. But then tourists don't have to live in it. They pass through. 
The "New Market" on Strand Rd in Sittwe.

Outside of the town, everything is green, colors are so intense it almost hurts to look at them. Greens are unrealistically green, the sky (on clear days) is deep blue, the light breathtaking. 
Harvesting rice near a Buddhist monastery in the countryside

Buddhist novices (young monks) in Sittwe.

The entrance to the largest pagoda in Sittwe.

I used my spare time in Sittwe to explore the city. There are more photos from Sittwe in my archive or available from ZUMA Press

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.