Monk teaching school students at Wat Umong, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Be Prepared

Being prepared means knowing your camera and how to adjust the settings quickly whenever you need to. This does come mostly through practice, but initially it comes with some study of your camera. If you have a new camera get the manual out and read it while you have your camera in your hands. Doing this you will learn where all the controls are – especially those used make a well exposed photograph – your shutter speed, aperture, ISO and exposure meter controls. Once you have studied these and are familiar with how they function, practice using them. Before long you will be able to set your camera quickly without having to think which way the dials turn to increase or decrease the exposure. You will be able to choose your settings and make a well exposed photograph every time.

Whenever you head out to take some photos be sure to set your camera to the approximate correct exposure for the lighting conditions – even before you lift your camera to your eye. If you have your settings close to where they need to be you can make adjustments quickly if you need to. When you change locations and the light is significantly different be sure to adjust your settings again so you can be ready to shoot.

Monk teaching school students at Wat Umong, Chiang Mai, ThailandRecently I was shooting in the underground tunnels at Wat Umong and had my camera set for the dark interior of the tunnels. As we emerged from the tunnels I was busy teaching a customer and did not make the adjustment to my camera’s settings to be ready to shoot outside. As we approached the steps a monk walked in front of us and was nicely isolated against the dark background of the large trees. I’ve got lots of photos of monks, they are great subjects, but these days I don’t photograph them unless the situation is particularly photogenic – this one was. As I brought my camera up to my eye I realized my exposure settings were still set for indoors and a long way off for the light outside. Quickly I brought my shutter speed to 1/500th of a second and altered the aperture a little to f2.8 and took two shots. When I looked at the image on the camera monitor I thought it was too underexposed, maybe 1/250th or 1/125th of a second would have been a better shutter speed choice.

A few days later I decided to see if I could rescue the image, so I began to work with it on my computer. I lifted the exposure value and highlights a little and dialed down the blacks, to get the background nice and dark. I cloned out a few minor distractions and selectively darkened the path. I am pleased with the results.

I only managed to get this one shot before the monk walked down the steps and his feet and legs were no longer visible to me. If I had set my camera as we came out of the tunnels so it was prepared for the outside lighting conditions I would have had more chance of shooting at least one or two more frames. I told myself again “Kevin, be prepared!”

Buddhist monk walking at Wat Umong, Chiang Mai, Thailand


man on a motorcycle with a side car full of trays of eggs

Be Patient and Anticipate

It's very easy to be a snap shooter, especially when you are traveling. Being out and about away from your normal walk in life, you see more things that are different and interesting. It's very easy just to grab a quick snapshot and move on. However, if you take your time to look at your subject, consider where the light is coming from and how it falls on your subject. Move your point of view to find the best spot to shoot from. Change you point of view - lying on the ground or crouching down may give you a far more interesting perspective. Rather than grabbing a quick snap, take a little time to make a more striking photograph.

Be aware of the background. Look at it carefully as you move around your subject. Is the background distracting? Will it be less distracting if you move to your left or right? If you move up or down?

man on a motorcycle with a side car full of trays of eggs

Once you've chosen your angle, wait. Is there some movement or action that will happen to make your photo more interesting and tell more of a story? Take you time, be patient, wait for a decisive moment to shoot your photo. Don't just take one shot either, keep shooting until you are satisfied you have at least one or two good photos.

Photographing the historic White Chedi near Muang Mai Market in Chiang Mai early one morning I chose my angle, framed it up and shot a nice balanced image. Then I waited. I knew if I stopped there a while I would be able to include something else in the photograph to tell more of a story. Before long a tuktuk passed - flying a Thai flag, which added even more to the shot than I had anticipated. The tuktuk was perfect because it is so synonymous with Chiang Mai. My timing could have been a little better to have the tuktuk centered against the chedi. A tricycle taxi, red taxi truck or market vendor with their motorcycle over laden with produce would have served well to enhance my photo also. Just the chedi on it's own is a nice image, but being patient and anticipating that the right traffic passing would add story to my photograph has made it a stronger picture.

historic white chedi in Chiang Mai, Thailand


tricycle taxi rider, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Tuktuks, Temple, Monks and Markets

Tuktuks, temples, monks and markets are all great to photograph when you come to Chiang Mai, but there are other fabulous photo opportunities to discover in Thailand’s ‘Rose of the North’.

Frequently I encourage people not to be travel snap shooters. Don’t rely on your subject to make a strong photo. Take your time, think about lighting, background, timing and composing an interesting image.

Sure, when you visit Chiang Mai, you have to get a photo of a tuktuk, because they are an iconic part of the city’s character. So why not hire one to transport you to some photogenic locations you can use as backdrops for your tuktuk photos?

Start at Wat Chedi Luang in the heart of the old city. Get your driver to park in front of the main temple building for a photo and then head behind to photograph the tuktuk in front of the chedi as well. Doing this you are creating more interesting photos of both tuktuk and temple.

Wat Sisuphan is another of my favorite temples to photograph in Chiang Mai, especially at night when they have the ordination hall lit up. Saturday evening is your best bet to see the lights which scroll through many different colors making the building look almost surreal.

Another superb night photo opportunity is the historic Iron Bridge which is also wonderfully lit up every night. From the east end of the bridge looking back towards the Bus Bar is a good angle to capture the beautifully lit structure and the reflection of the lights in the Ping River.

The north east corner of the moat with the old city wall is another place to get a real classic Chiang Mai photo. Again, it’s great at dusk and also worth taking a look at in the the day time. If you position yourself right you can line your shot up to include part of the old wall, the moat and one of the fountains and see the mountain in the background.

If you are an early riser one of the best places to photographs monks is on Huey Keow Road near the zoo. Each morning at dawn many monks walk down from Wat Si Soda to receive alms from the faithful. The most important thing to remember about photographing monks (or any people) is to be respectful and not interrupt or disturb them in any way.

After this you can head over to the Warorot Market for another classic Chiang Mai photo – the samloor riders. A samloor is a tricycle taxi, and a fading part of Chiang Mai’s culture because young men are not taking up this occupation. The hard working gentlemen are always ready with a smile and generally don’t mind posing for a few photos. I always like to tip them well!

Right there on the opposite corner you’ll find a mass of color that’s begging to be photographed in the flower market. Be careful as you go not to step back into the traffic while you get lost in the beauty of the blooms. Get in tight and focus as close as you can to capture the color and texture of the bouquets.

Of course there’s many more places around the city to get great photos, but these I find to be some of the most stimulating environments to document the look and feel of Chiang Mai. If want to learn how to best capture these memories of your visit booking a photo workshop is a sure way to gain some new skills and creative insights.


market proter at Muang Mai Market, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Grow Your Photography Skills

Sometimes I find myself stuck in a bit of a rut, unable to flow creatively and producing images that are uninspired. I find I must challenge myself frequently to produce more imaginative images. Images that draw the viewer’s attention and hold it. Images that inspire.

Teaching our workshops here in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I return to the same locations, with the same people doing the same things. I have to push myself to come up with fresh ideas and angles and keep improving on the old ones too.

Visiting the local fresh markets so frequently on our workshops means people there have become accustomed to me taking their photos. Many of them are a lot more relaxed than they used to be so it’s easy to photograph them. But I don’t want the easy shots! I have been pushing myself to make portraits of people I might not normally photograph and even setting them in an interesting pose. This can be a lot of fun, but it can also be a real challenge as more often than not the other market vendors will be teasing my subject because I am photographing them.

A few weeks back I saw one of the porters leaning on his trolly. The guy has an interesting face and traditional tattoos on his arms and neck. I asked if I could make his portrait and he said OK, but he put his hands down by his sides. I could not see his tattoos so well and the composition was not strong. So I got him to lean on the trolly again, (just by mimicking the way he had been standing.) I made one exposure before the pressure from those around us voicing their opinions of the situation became too much and he pushed his trolly away. Our whole interaction would have lasted less than a minute. I had pre-set my exposure so knew it was good, and thankfully I got my focus correct first time. I saw him at the market last week and he gave me a big smile. I’ll have a print made of his portrait and give it to him.

market proter at Muang Mai Market, Chiang Mai, Thailand

By engaging my subjects with more intent I am pushing myself to make more interesting, slightly controlled portraits. This is just one way I am seeking to become more creative and build my portfolio stronger.

Pick one or two aspects of photography you wish to improve on and make a point of working on them whenever you pick up your camera. It might be that you’ve noticed your images are not always sharp. Next time you go to shoot some photos, don’t concentrate so much on composition, lighting, exposure etc, but mainly work on getting your images really sharp. Once you have become more consistent with your focus, move on to concentrate on another aspect of your photography you wish to improve. Or it might be that you want to improve your portrait shooting or landscapes, so focus on developing your skills in those areas. Don’t try to up skill in every aspect, but zero in on just one or two and in time you will be encouraged by the growth of your photography.

market proter at Muang Mai Market, Chiang Mai, Thailand


Experience Thailand!

Typically our workshops range from a few hours to two days, with our one day workshops being the most popular. I find we can fill people’s minds with more than enough fresh information about photography in a day, but we don’t often get to experience what they do with that information. For our first ever 5 Day ‘Experience Thailand’ Workshop we were super blessed to have three lovely ladies return to Chiang Mai to be immersed in photographing elephants, models, dancing, monks, ethnic minorities and all the while showing us how much they had progressed in their photography since participating in a few of our short workshops a year ago.

Three family members had crossed the globe (from Florida to Chiang Mai) toting a serious amount of Canon DSLR equipment. One of the first things they announced to us, after big hugs greetings, was two of them had only been shooting on Manual mode since taking part in our workshops the previous year. Yeah! More converts! Joyce, however, was still most happy shooting in Program mode as her totally focus is producing photos she can then use as a basis for creating her stunning paintings. She was so eager to get new photos to paint from she booked us for two extra days on top of the 5 day workshop (and now thinks it will take more than two years to complete all the paintings.)
http://www.joycebirkenstock.com/

Our ‘Experience Thailand’ workshop is designed to offer participants unique opportunities to photograph a lot of models. We know of no other travel photography workshops or tours which provide this in the same way. Thai people are generally comfortable being photographed, so when we have beautiful young women dressed in stunning traditional costumes with their hair and make up looking perfect, great photos are produced with ease. For some variety we had session with two models together one one with an elephant. When we asked our model if she was prepared to climb up and lie on the elephants she replied that she was scared, but that she would do it! I love that commitment!

Pansa had organized all the logistics exceptionally well and most all went to plan. We love to have a mix of control and spontaneity during our shooting sessions, as it provides for more variety, and in each session we were able to achieve this. One problem we had, which was well out of our control, was the weather. November is the start of the dry, cool season in the north of Thailand, so we thought we’d be safe. We were wrong. However, there was not much rain and it only really disrupted one of our shoots. Pansa made up for it by quickly organizing another model to attend an extra shoot which resulted in some excellent shots.

Overall with our workshops we tend to avoid very touristic events and locations. For this longer workshop we had included one or two sessions at touristic places and were encouraged by the outcome not to do this again. Dealing with large numbers of people who have no regard for when you are wanting to take a photo is tedious and the dinner and show we’d booked provided little opportunity to shoot as it was very lack luster. For future Experience Thailand Workshops we’ve done a little re-shuffling of our itinerary as we are always looking to improve our service.

Working together with these three passionate photographers was a fabulous experience for us. For them to share the excitement and creative energy with us was a real gift. To see how their skills and style is developing serves as a strong motivation to work on building up more of an online community so we can participate in encouraging everyone who takes part in our workshops beyond the time they spend with us here in Chiang Mai.

Have a look at a gallery of image from the workshop here:

Experience Thailand


Kayan girl having her makeup applied in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Meeting Malu

Malu was by her mother’s side the first time we met her. We often saw her there. Malu lives with her parents and her little sister in Baan Thong Luang in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Her older brother attends a school in Mae Hong Song, up in the north near the Myanmar border. During our first visit to this village Malu befriended us and quickly discovered that our cameras were fun.

Malu’s family are Kayan people, speaking their own language and with their own culture and tradition. They are also known as the ‘Long Neck Tribe’. Originally from Myanmar they make their home in Thailand to work and because they have access to better health care and education than they have in their ancestral village. We were recently in Myanmar and met Malu’s grandfather at their family home, but that’s a whole other story.

Malu is six years old, but she doesn’t like being six, so she tells people she’s seven. She’s a spirited, bright, intelligent little girl who loves life. Malu is everybody’s friend in the village and when she’s not close to her mum, she’s off visiting and playing with the other girls in the village. She’s learning to weave. When Malu is sitting with her loom she does not like to be interrupted, she is totally focused. I have not often met six year old children with the ability or desire to concentrate on learning, unless they had a smart phone in their hands or were sitting in front of a computer game.

We’ve enjoyed teaching Malu a little photography. Our cameras are rather too large and cumbersome for her small hands, so we started taking along a smaller camera for her to use, which she was delighted with. The first place she chose to go to photograph with this camera was to the church. Her family are Christian as are a number of other families in the village and there’s a small church at the top of the hill. We gave her instruction on how to use the camera and how to compose her pictures. It’s a wonderful experience to teach a child who loves to learn.

For a number of months we’d not been up to the village and, as we arrived one day with customers on a photo workshop, Malu’s mother greeted us with the news that Malu had been asking after us and wondering why she had not seen us for so long. We’d bought with us some snacks, readers, pens and pencils and some make-up for the kids. The girls love to do their make up, a mix of traditional and western styles.

During the next few months we had quite a number of workshops that took us to the village, so we enjoyed time teaching photography there and building our relationships with the villagers. One day as I walked up the hill towards Malu’s home, I noticed something different. Pansa was already sitting there chatting with Malu’s mother and as I go closer I saw Malu from behind. She was wearing jeans and a tee shirt and her hair was down. I’d never seen her like this before as she is always wearing her traditional Kayan clothing and has her hair up in a scarf.

Karen girl with a front tooth missing

As she turned around to greet me I saw that she no longer had the rings around her neck. Her smile was somewhat subdued, so I joked with her a little, pretending for a second or two that I did not recognise her. We chatted a little and as I squatted down next to her I asked if I could take her photo today. Normally I wouldn’t ask. She has become so accustomed to being photographed and really enjoys it, but the feeling outside their home on this morning was not normal. She nodded a yes and I shot a few frames. I was using my Nikon D800 with my 35mm f1.4 lens, so to make her portrait I was fairly close to her.

I know this girl loves to see her picture, so I flipped the camera around to show her the images on the monitor. As she looked at them I realised she had not seen herself without the neck rings on. The story was unfolding. Her father had only just taken them off half an hour earlier. A couple of weeks later our customer posted the photo she had shot at this moment on Facebook, I had not known she’d captured the moment, so it was special to see it.

As Malu viewed the photos, she reached behind her head with one hand to pull back her hair. She was showing me her neck. This was my photo.

Having some relationship with your subject affords opportunity at times that is just not possible otherwise. Malu trusts us, she likes the photos we make of her and her family. To teach how to achieve this kind of intimate photo is one of the most challenging aspects we face as we run our workshops. I find teaching composition similarly difficult as both these aspects of our craft are best expressed through your own intuition.

Sure, you can study the rules of composition and work hard to relate to your subjects as best you can, but at the right moment, when your connection with your subject has vitality and meaning, you must have an intuitive sense of how to compose the image and the decisive moment to make it. If you can connect strongly with your subjects and illustrate this in your photos, others will see that connection when they view your images and be drawn to what you have created. Connecting strongly with your subjects does not necessarily take a long time, occasionally it can happen in an instant, but I am cherishing building relationships and photographing many of the same people during our photo workshops here in Chiang Mai.

Malu’s neck rings were removed because she was going to join her brother in school … in Mae Hong Song. This is around six hours drive from her mum and dad and sister. The lack of normal, cheerful feeling that surrounds this family was becoming more evident the more the story unfolded. All the while dad is cuddling the younger daughter in the hammock and trying to comfort her has she screamed and cried. She had just fallen over and bumped her head. Malu’s mother was barely holding it together, as were Pansa and I! So we didn’t linger too long, gave them a small donation towards Malu’s education and continued on with our customer.

I’d often wondered what opportunities Malu would find in her life. There didn’t seem to be too much this little girl had before her, other than staying in the village and living a simple life. She is always hungry to learn. She is quick, witty and intelligent and I am sure she is making the most of her time in school. We are hoping to see her again when she returns to the village during school holidays and looking forward to the stories we are sure she will have to share with us.

Malu's portrait of Pansa and I


Tourist boat on Inle Lake, Myanmar

How To Make The Most Of Bright Light In The Middle Of The Day

Tourist boat on Inle Lake, Myanmar

Mid Day Madness

Many photographers avoid going out to make photographs in the middle of the day when the sun is high in the sky, the light is harsh and the shadows are strong. It certainly can be more challenging to make good pictures in these conditions, but it’s not impossible. Sometimes we have limitations and the middle of the day may be the only time we have to shoot in a particular location. While traveling and we know we will not be able to return to the same location in the morning or evening, at the times the light is more friendly, there’s no option than to make photographs in bright sunshine. Recently on our travels in

While traveling and we know we will not be able to return to the same location in the morning or evening, at the times the light is more friendly, there’s no option than to make photographs in bright sunshine. Recently on our travels in Myanmar we worked within these restrictions at Inle Lake.

Inle Lake is a terrific location for photographers. I was happy to see the sun bright in the sky as the previous time I had been there (back in 2004) it had rained continuously for two days. We made the most of the morning and evening there and produced some very pleasing photographs of the fishermen in the best light of the day. During the hot part of the day it’s extremely bright out on the lake, however, we were not content to sit at the hotel and set out to make the best of it.

Avoiding The Tourist CrowdsSave

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Cow and chedis in Myanmar

The lake and it’s many small village islands are set up for tourism and have all manner of displays of local craftsmanship. We did photograph some of this, but it’s very staged and crowded with tourists who love to get in the way of a good picture. Dodging the tourists and braving the hard light, we were able to find a few good locations to photograph.

Seeing a cow tethered amongst some pagoda ruins provided me with a good opportunity to create a number of high contrast pictures. Knowing the limitations of my camera helps when working in high contrast conditions. When I am working I have a good feel for how much I will be able to carefully manipulate my photos when I post process them, and this is something good to be aware of when making photos. Visualizing the end result, knowing how you will want to adjust the image later will help you to make the best exposures.

When photographing the cow and pagodas I had in mind to really push the contrast levels in post processing which would add to the drama. At some angles, when the sun was behind me and the cow and pagodas were well lit, I aimed to get an exposure that would give me a balanced result. With other angles, when the light was from the side or my subjects were in the shade, I opted to make my exposure so the highlights were well rendered and the shadow areas would fall into darkness. While I was making these pictures I was also thinking in black and white.

Once we were back on the boat I chose to make the most of the bright colors. The sun was high and off to one side, so the shadows were minimal and I found the combination of colors pleasing. Having a small flock of gulls enjoying some bread we were throwing them made some great additional ‘props’.

Making The Most of It

Cow and chedis in Myanmar

Reflections are strongest when the light is bright and finding a colorfully painted house made a nice subject to photograph. Waiting for other boats to pass and the water to calm gave us a nice sharp mirror image in the water.

For this image of the pagoda and temple I found and angle, where the white and gold building is mainly shade and the pagoda, is nicely lit from the side. I often look for alternative angle or subject to enhance a temple shot (living in Asia they get a bit samey after a while,) so I used the blue fabric awning that was blowing in the breeze as a foreground and main focus of my image. The Burmese text printed on it provides a sense of location as well as adding extra interest in my composition.

By this time I was sweating buckets, it’s not just the harsh light that is challenging in the middle of the day!

These are not the best shots from the short few days we spent on the lake, but, as I said, we were not content to sit out the heat and hard light in our hotel room. Any time you are faced with having no option but to make photos in the brightness of the middle of the day, treat it as a challenge and time to experiment – both with how you make your exposure and compositions and also to push your post processing skills to new heights.

 

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Blue house and reflection at Inle lake, Myanmar