Two Thai models in traditional clothing qualities of a good photograph

Essential Qualities Which Make Photographs Good !

What are the Qualities of

A Good Photograph???

The qualities of a good photograph will be evident when the following elements are well executed in the picture:

  • Light/Exposure
  • Composition
  • Color/Tone
  • Timing
  • Relationship

You might choose to photograph the most amazing subject, but if these elements are lacking the photo does not contain the qualities of a good photograph. It will not captivate the viewer. The greater degree of skill with which these elements are represented in a photograph the more attractive it will be – regardless of the subject.

This article is written with a focus on what the qualities of a good photograph are. It has very little reference to post-processing and the results this has on our photos. I will at times use example photos and at other times I will not. I want readers to practice visualizing photographs.

Natural light outdoor photography studio portrait of a Karen woman smoking her pipe against a black backdrop. Qualitites of a good photograph

5 Elements of Good Photographs

Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how’, while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why’. Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information.” Man Ray, a visual artist most well known for his photography.

Everybody with a camera wants to take better photos, even seasoned professionals I know, (including myself.) We want to take better photos than we have previously taken. If you are reading this then I guess you are one of us who want to take better photos. We must ask “What are the qualities of a good photograph?” “How do we create better photos?” “What are the secrets of better photography? Good questions!”

Is the Subject One of the

Main Qualities of a Good Photograph?

Your subject is your choice. It might be a sunset? A pretty woman? A handsome guy? An athlete at their pinnacle moment breaking a world record? An iconic celebrity getting caught off guard pulling a funny face? A tiger about to pounce on its prey? A beautiful landscape? Any of these might be great photos, but, without certain photographic elements, you might not look twice at any of them.

Two Thai models in traditional clothing qualities of a good photograph

Our choice and taste in subjects to photograph is naturally incredibly varied. During this discussion I will aim to be reasonably generic concerning subject material. I wish to focus more on the qualities of a good photograph. The other elements a photo needs rather than focusing on what makes interesting and/or beautiful subjects.

Qualities of a good photograph of interesting/beautiful subjects are:

  • Great Lighting + Careful Exposure

  • Engaging Composition.

  • Careful Timing.

  • Pleasing color and/or tone range.

When we have an interesting subject to photograph, each of these elements can be studied and applied with a technical ‘correctness’. Creating pictures with such technique results will show qualities of a good photograph. But there is another important quality to factor into what makes a good photo unique. I’ll address it later in this article. First, let’s take a look at these four elements.

Integrating these elements into a single image is challenging. Learning to understand each of these qualities of a good photograph and their relationships will enable us to become better photographers. Sure, there are other aspects to creating good photos, but I believe these four, (plus one,) elements form the basis of good photographs.

1. Great Lighting + Careful Exposure

“Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” – George Eastman, founder of Kodak.

Light is the substance and essence of photography, not of photographs, but of photography. It is one of the essential qualities of a good photograph. Where there is no light it is impossible to make a photograph. Light is the raw material of photography. We are all very familiar with light and have been aware of it since before we were born. For most people awareness of light remains in their subconscious. They don’t really think about it. If we want to become truly creative photographers we must begin to consider light with our conscious minds.

The word ‘photography’ comes from the Greek language. Phōtós means light and gráphō meaning writing/drawing, so, together the meaning is drawing/writing, with light. To me photography is largely about story telling. We use light to tell a story with our images.

sunrise in the mountains qualities of a good photograph

Since I bought my first camera I’ve known the more I can ‘see’ and understand light and have a feeling for it, the better photographer I will become. Being able to recognize differences in lighting conditions aids us immensely as photographers. Superb light is one of the definitive qualities of a good photograph.

I do not subscribe to the popular belief that light in the middle of the day is not good for photography. If we’re out with our cameras on a summer’s day and the sun is high in the sky we can still make great photos! Wherever there is light you can make photographs, learning to manage the light, and your exposure, will determine in part the qualities of a good photograph. Some subjects and locations will inevitably photograph better in some light than others so we must learn to anticipate the lighting conditions and plan to shoot when the light is best for the type of photographs we wish to create.

Two Categories of Light

To help us understand light and how it affects the photographic process we can put it in two categories, ‘hard’ light and ‘soft’ light. Hard light originates from an apparently small source, is relatively bright and casts a shadow with hard edges. Soft light generally originates from an apparently large light source and casts shadows with soft edges or no shadow at all.

I say ‘apparently’ when I am talking about light sources because the distance the light is from our subject and the strength of the light must be considered. The sun on a cloudless day, for example, is a hard light source. Light from the sun casts hard shadows. Even though the sun is a huge light source, because it is so far away, it is apparently small. On a cloudy day we will see soft or no shadows because the clouds diffuse the sun’s light, scattering it and making it softer. Even though the clouds affecting the light are tiny compared to the size of the sun, because they are closer to our subject they create an apparently large light source.

Where there is more than one light source and/or reflected light affecting our subject, this will have an influence on how hard or how soft the light appears. The relative brightness of each light source and location of the light source also has a significant effect on how we see our subject and how our camera will record it.

In situations with hard light, on a sunny day, using our camera’s exposure meter set to ‘spot meter’ taking a reading from the brightest part of our composition, we might get a reading of 1/250th sec, f16 at ISO 100. Taking a reading from the darkest part of the same composition we might get a reading of 1/60th sec, f2.8 at ISO 100. That’s a seven stop difference. Most cameras will not be able to produce acceptably well exposed detail in both the highlight and the shadows. Because of this limitation we need to be more creative to produce good photos in these conditions. We must be more creative in our exposure and composition.

Photographers often prefer to shoot in softer, rather than harder light because camera sensors and film have a limited ability to record detail at the extreme dark and extreme bright ends of the tonal range produced by hard light. If we were to take an exposure reading of the same composition mentioned previously on a cloudy day we would get results showing a lower contrast range. We might get a reading from the brightest part of the composition of 1/60th sec, f8 at ISO 100. Taking a reading from the darkest part of the same composition we might get a reading of 1/60th sec, f2.8 at ISO 100. That’s a three stop difference and well within the capability of most digital cameras to produce an acceptably well exposed image with detail in the brightest and darkest parts of the composition.

Making photographs where the light is softer, with a narrower dynamic range, affords us a greater flexibility, and is generally easier, as we are able to capture more well exposed detail. But easy isn’t always best and we will not always want to see all the detail. I believe it’s possible to make our best photos when we are able to light our subject with me most appropriate light source for the style of photograph we want to create.

Buddhae statue face at Wat umong, Chiang Mai Thailand qualities of a good photograph
Photo #1

Buddha statue face qualities of a good photograph
Photo #2

My favorite example I like to share to illustrate this is my two photos of the same Buddha statue taken on different days. Photo #01 was made at 3pm on a sunny October day at Wat Umong in Chiang Mai, Thailand. My shutter speed was 1/8000th sec, aperture was set to f2.8 and ISO was 400. Photo #02 was made at 2:15pm on an overcast day in June at the same location. My shutter speed was 1/60th sec, aperture was set to f5.6 and ISO was 640.

Photo #02 reveals far more detail across the whole composition with a tone that fits well within my Nikon D800’s dynamic range. Nice subject, but it’s pretty boring. Photo #01 where the tonal difference is vast and obviously reaches far beyond my camera’s dynamic range is a much more satisfying photograph. Photo #01 displays more qualities of a good photograph than Photo #02.

The relationship between the light and the subject is highly significant. Some subjects will photograph better under hard light, others will not. Some subjects will photograph well under either hard or soft light, just returning significantly different images. For example, a landscape might appear vibrant and alive when photographed on a sunny day, creating a warm and inviting image. The same landscape photographed early in the day, before sunrise, when the light is flat and dull with very little contrast, might appear more sullen and drab, but still result in a pleasing image, just one with a very different mood.

Not Just Black + White

Variation in light between the hardest and softest is immense and it’s within this range and variation we must find the most pleasing light to create our photographs, with what ever subjects we choose.

Photographing with a single light source with little or no reflection we are somewhat limited in the options we have. Our light will be hard or soft. Once we introduce more than one light source or make use of reflected light to affect our subject, then our creative options become far more diverse. By adding light from alternative angles and any manner of sources (soft or hard,) we are able to manipulate the tone range within our photographs.

If we are making a portrait of a person outdoors in the middle of a sunny day using only the sun as our light source and no reflector, we will be faced with some challenges. We can have our subject stand facing the sun, which will result in dark shadows around their eyes and under their nose and chin. They will also be squinting their eyes. If we turn them sideways any degree we will have some of their face in shadow and some in the sun light. If we stand them with their back to the sun we will have even light on their face but may encounter problems with the sun’s light flaring in our lens, an over exposed background and possibly some color cast reflecting in their face. If we were to introduce even one more well placed light or reflector our options broaden as the tone range in our composition will be narrower, (because the shadows would be diminished by the additional light,) and our camera will more easily capture a fuller dynamic range of tone and the shadows will be .

Many factors effect the quality of light. The more we are able to see and appreciate the light we have to work with when we are making photographs the more creative we can be and the more they will display the qualities of a good photograph.

two Kayan long neck women laughing

2. Engaging Composition.

“Now, to consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravity before going for a walk.” Edward Weston, photographer.

Composition is how we arrange the elements within the frame of our photograph. It’s about what we include within our frame and what we leave out. We can control our compositions by our choice of lens, our point of view from where we take our photograph and sometimes by moving the physical elements we are photographing. Compostion is another one of the essential qualities of a good photograph.

Rules of composition can be studied and used rigidly or as guidelines when we look through our camera’s view finder or at it’s monitor. But following these rules does not always produce the most engaging compositions. The more we can incorporate our chosen subject material within the four corners of our frame so everything we choose to show is a meaningful part and suitably balanced, the more engaging our compositions will be – regardless of whether we follow the rules or not. I hope this does not sound too abstract! Let me explain …

Using the rule of thirds, drawing the viewer’s eye to our photo’s subject with leading lines, lining up your camera so your subject is framed perfectly symmetrical and other learned techniques will give us well composed images when we can apply these techniques meaningfully. But using the rules of composition just because we think we have to will not necessarily mean we are creating engaging photographs. Truly creative composition does not come about by merely applying a few rules and techniques.

If we are trying to apply some compositional rule to an image we are creating and stick to it rigidly, because think we must, we may find other aspects of our photograph will suffer and the end result will be unattractive. For example, if we have a subject framed up and there’s a strong leading line drawing our eye to the subject, but there’s a distracting background, then we’d be best to abandon the idea of using the leading line and explore other possibilities to compose our photo. If we are constantly looking for situations we might be able to apply the rules we’ve learned, we may well miss seeing what could make the best photos. I rarely will think of composition before I have selected a subject and I occasionally continuously think of compositional rules to apply when I am shooting.

Many photography teachers expound the benefits of the rules of composition and then tell you to break them. I would encourage you to learn the rules so well you can put them into practice subconsciously, so you can make use of them in your photography most creatively.

Samlor Rider with his tricycle in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Why Do We Have These Rules?

Compositional rules have been developed over the centuries traditionally by painters. These rules have been tested and applied by students and the great masters with their paint brushes on their canvas. Our tools for creating pictures are significantly different, as is the amount of time we would typically take to create our pictures. Not many of us will spend years or hours to make a photograph the way a painter can. The qualities of a good painting will differ from the qualities of a good photograph.

Another significant difference to consider here is the ability a painter has to manipulate all of the elements they choose to include in their paintings. For example, they can pose a person in their studio in Paris for a portrait painting and for the background paint in the Sydney Opera House if they wish to. The painter is unbound from their location, as photographers we are bound to ours. Take note, I am not considering post processing here, this is only relevant to composing and shooting single photos with our cameras. Yes, it is possible if we are working in a photography studio or working with scale models to have a large degree of compositional control over what we include and exclude from our photographs, but I am talking broadly here as most photographers do not physically manipulate the subject matter of their photographs.

Painters, particularly those who paint with oil color, have infinite opportunity to compose and recompose their paintings. One day a painter might like the idea of including a building as a background to a portrait they are painting. The next day the painter could decide they don’t like it and paint over the building and replace it with a tree and a river. The painter has the ability to manipulate composition far more exhaustively than we as photographers do.

The rules of composition have developed over time with a different medium. As photographers we can adopt and adapt these rules to our advantage as we create images, but not separated from the other three elements I am discussing here. As we balance our compositions of our beautiful/interesting subjects with lighting, timing, color and tone we will be creating engaging photographs.

3. Careful Timing

“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” Henri Cartier-Bresson, photographer.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous term (and book title) ‘The Decisive Moment‘ sums up what is regarded as another essential element in creating good photographs. The moment we choose to open our camera’s shutter has a significant influence on the qualities of a good photograph. Depending on our chosen subject this could be a split second decision or it may even take weeks and months of planning to finally reach the right moment.

Cartier-Bresson, regarded as the godfather of photo journalism and street photography, said “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” (as translated from his book The Decisive Moment.) Cartier-Bresson didn’t do much landscape photography, so his reference to recognizing the fraction of a second is more relevant to his chosen genre of photography than it is to others. This, however, does not diminish the importance of careful timing throughout other photographic genres.

hot air balloons over Bagan, Myanmar qualities of a good photograph

cart racing at Hmong new year festival near Chaing Mai, Thailand qualities of a good photograph

Waking up early to arrive at a suitable vantage point when visiting Bagan to photograph the hot air balloons at sunrise, is important to capturing the decisive moment as is reacting quickly when something unexpected happens which makes an interesting photograph. Obviously the urgency of timing my shot when the wheel from the cart came flying off is far different than on the morning I photographed the balloons at Bagan. With the balloons, as with any moving subjects, timing our shots when all the elements form an engaging composition is critical.

Ansel Adams, the famous American landscape photographer, was well known for carefully timing his photographs. He understood the qualities of a good photograph. He timed his work with the seasons and the sun. Choosing the optimal time of year and time of day, (or night,) when he knew he could achieve the most pleasing exposure. In his work we see careful timing in relationship to lighting and composition. Calculating the best time for the right light he could obtain all the tonal detail he desired in his stunning, large format, black and white photographs.

Anticipation and planning are two important factors in achieving well timed photographs in any genre. Not many remarkable action shots happen purely in the spur of the moment. There’s usually a certain amount of preparation. In sports photography the most successful photographers specialize. They will study their sport, they will know the teams, they will know the players and their style, so as best to anticipate how the action will be played out during the game or event. Wildlife photographers will research locations, track their ‘prey’, position themselves in concealed locations premeditating the arrival of the species they aim to photograph. Being prepared to capture the decisive moment usually takes far more effort than just bringing our cameras up to our eye and squeezing the shutter release.

It does not always need to be so complex. Our preparedness can be rather more casual depending on what we are photographing. Frequently when we take photography workshops at the local fresh markets I am capturing fleeting slices of life. We’ve been visiting the same markets for a number of years now and I’m used to the flow and rhythm of the place and it’s people so it’s easier to predict the action than when visiting for the first time. Whatever situations we find ourselves in to make photographs, it’s important to observe what’s happening around us and anticipate when the most interesting action to photograph will take place.

Composing our image in anticipation of the action we hope to capture is a method employed by most of the best street photographers and photo journalists. Finding a location that will afford us an interesting composition, with strong element to support our subject, good lighting and a pleasing background will inevitably help us produce more captivating photographs. There’s nothing wrong with shooting on the fly, but if we are able to incorporate as many of the four elements we are discussing into our photographs the more satisfying the results will be. Precise timing is certainly one of the qualities of a good photograph.

novice monk lights candles and is surround by smoke as he poses for photographers.

4. Resonant Color and/or Tone Range

“The ability to see the quality of color and it’s different relationships is an art, as well as a skill that must be honed through continual exercise.” Nevada Wier, travel photographer and author.

Where light is the essence of photography, color and tone, (tone only when we work in black and white,) are the expression of reflected light captured by our cameras. If light is the raw material of photography as flour, yeast, salt, sugar and water are the raw materials of bread, color and tone are like the baked loaf of bread. Color and tone are what we see when we look at a photograph. In reality we do not see light, we see what light is reflecting off, and this is represented by color and tone in our photographs.

Incorporating resonant color and/or tone into our photographs will result in better pictures. When we are looking to make photographs, seeing the color/tone within the frame of our composition is just as important as seeing the physical shapes and elements that make up our composition.

Referring to ‘resonant’ color in our photographs I am meaning color which affects the viewer because it is significantly incorporated into the photo. The same goes for ‘resonant’ tonal range in our black and white photos. These are further qualities of a good photograph.

Cream Rose Soft Tones filling the frame

The color of this cream rose resonates a romantic, gentle softness. While the red rose is less subtle to our eye. Maybe we still see it as romantic, but not with the same gentle, softness of the cream rose. In both images color is the key element in how we perceive the flower.

Deep Red Rose close up filling the frame

Rendering the same two images in black and white, see how the tone of each photo results in considerable differences.

black and white image of roses close up

As we incorporate a diversity of color into our photographs we must be aware of the relationships between the colors. Asking ourselves if the color in our frame supports the over all composition and makes a more interesting photo because of it. If we find the color we are seeing within our frame when we are lining a shot up is not pleasing we will need to recompose or consider rendering the image in black and white. If, for example, we were photographing a summer landscape and we have chosen to convey a soft, harmonious feeling with our photo, we must take care to ensure the colors within our frame support what we want to convey. Within this composition, which is made up predominantly of soft green and golden colors, if there were an object of contrasting color, say electric blue, we would need to move the object or recompose so as to exclude this object from our framing to ensure we are able to convey the desired harmonious feeling.

In another scenario the interruption of harmonious color may well be advantageous to us. If, for example, we were on our way to a football match and everyone in the crowd are wearing our home team’s signature bright yellow color. Then we come across a small group supporting the opposing team and they are wearing their team’s signature electric blue color. The contrast in color would add a rich dynamic and resonance to the photographs we could make of our experience of going to the football match.

In each of these two examples it would be unlikely we would consider rendering the images in black and white as the role the color plays in each photograph is fundamental to the feeling we want the photos to convey.

The absence of color in a photograph leaves a far greater reliance on the tones in the image to make it work. I found when I started shooting black and white, a few months after I bought my first camera, I began to appreciate how important it was to pay careful attention to the light. I started to understand tone.

Many photographers who work in black and white learn to visualize in black and white. Looking at a scene and disregarding the color as we think about it helps us to be conscious of how the light is affecting our composition. It does take some practice, but if you enjoy producing black and white photos it will be worth the effort.

Technical purists will tell that we must show a full tonal range, from black to white and a substantial variance of grays, in our black and white photographs for them to be acceptable. I don’t agree. I don’t believe a good photograph can only happen if it adheres to a set of technical rules. Shooting in hard light and exposing for the highlights can produce powerful black and white images with little or no grays at all. A lot of popular street photographers employ this technique very well.

As we develop our awareness of the tone range and colors we’ll be able to better frame our compositions and choose how we wish to expose our photographs. In doing this we are combining the qualities of a good photograph into one frame.

+ 1. Combining The Elements with Intuition

“Photography is the art of observation. It has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” Elliot Erwitt

abstract photo of a tricycle taxi in Chaing Mai, Thailand qualities of a good photograph

As I stated previously, qualities of a good photograph can be very elusive and difficult to integrate into a single image. As we learn to look for these elements, appreciate them and incorporate them into our photographs we will see a marked improvement in our work. Implementing these techniques will be easier the more intimate we are with our camera equipment and become easier as we practice. In any form artistic expression has more impact the more the artist is familiar with and has practiced their technique and can create intuitively.

Knowing our camera intimately, how it functions, what dials to use to set the exposure well, (and understanding why we need to,) where the most essential settings are in the menus and when we are best to adjust them, will free us up to be more creative with our cameras. If our brains are pre-occupied trying to figure out how to use our spot meter so we can expose for the highlights, for example, we will be distracted from really connecting with what we are photographing and the situation. The more using our cameras becomes second nature, the freer we will be to connect with our subject and follow our intuition as we make our photographs.

The qualities of a good photograph tend to reach past visually obvious clichés and will stimulate a response from the viewer. I believe achieving this quality in our photographs depends very much on the relationship we have with our subject, whatever our subject may be. If we are distracted trying to figure out our camera settings we will not be so open to the environment we are in or be so ready to relate to who or what we wish to photograph. Once we have learned the technical functionality of our cameras we will be more ready to explore the way we see our subjects and begin to express our experience through our photographs.

Having learned to use our cameras so we can make well exposed photographs intuitively will free us up to focus on creating photographs that convey not just what we saw, but the way we saw and our experience of that moment in time.

If you have enjoy reading this essay and are interested to learn more, please take a look at our Online Photography Workshops or visit us in Thailand for a photography workshop.


Buddhist monk taking a photograph during the annual Chiang Mai Flower Festival parade.

Best Tested Tips for Travel Photography Etiquette in Thailand

Tips For

Travel Photography Etiquette

in Thailand

  • Can you photograph monks in Thailand?
  • Is it okay to photograph Buddha statues in temples?
  • Are there restrictions on photographing in shopping malls in Bangkok?

Many people travel to Thailand with their camera and want to know they are following proper etiquette. Thai people are generally very polite. I’ve found if you are also polite you will most often get better photographs.

Buddhist monk taking a photograph during the annual Chiang Mai Flower Festival parade.

In this article I will give you the essential photography tips on how to be a photographer with good etiquette in Thailand.

When traveling to a foreign country photographers often have questions about photography manners. Being aware the of culture you are in and how to behave can help you create better photos.

1st Tip:

Buy A Book On Thai Culture

Before you travel you might like to invest in a book. Don’t buy a postcard type book, you will see all that when you are here. Buy a book which teaches you some of the unseen nuances of the people and their culture. You will find this far more beneficial. “Thailand – Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture” is a great companion to any foreigner who comes to Thailand.

Thai people are very polite and will not often point out to a foreigner when they are behaving or dressed inappropriately. Doing so would mean you lose face, and this is not culturally correct for them to do to you. It is important to study some and learn what you can.

Buying a book is much better than reading a few travel blogs. I so often read bad information written by well-meaning travelers on their blogs.

Tips For Travel Photography etiquette in Thailand. Temple Ceremony

2nd Tip:

Learn a Little Thai Language

Picking up at least a few basic phrases in Thai, or the language of where ever you are traveling, will help greatly. Approaching people to take their photo and speaking to them in their own language will usually bring a smile. Even if you say things incorrectly most people will truly appreciate your effort. The photographs you make will be better for your linguistic endeavors.

Tips For Travel Photography etiquette in Thailand. Samlor Tricycle Taxi

3rd Tip:

Photograph Monks Politely

Probably the one question people who take our photography workshops ask is: “Is it okay to photograph monks”

Yes

is the short answer. Yes, and be polite and show respect is the slightly longer answer. Read more later in this article for more detail regarding correct etiquette for photographing monks in Thailand.

Tips For Travel Photography etiquette in Thailand. Buddhist Monk Sweeping

4th Tip:

Temple Photography Etiquette

Taking photos in and around temples is a must for everyone who visits Thailand. Temples are everywhere and an integral part of the culture. There are deep traditions associated with Buddhist temples. It pays to be aware of these when you are taking photos.

  • Dress appropriately
  • Don’t turn you back to the Buddha (no selfies with the Buddha)
  • Don’t climb on anything to get a better vantage point
  • Don’t stand inside the temple when monks are seated
  • Don’t step on the temple threshold
  • Check if Women are Allowed

Read more later in this article regarding correct etiquette for temple photography in Thailand.

Tips For Travel Photography etiquette in Thailand Buddhist Temple

5th Tip:

Ask Before Photographing Someone

People, especially in Thailand’s north, are often happy to be photographed. It will depend a lot on your manner and how you approach them. As I mentioned earlier, a little local language can go a long way.

Be polite, smile, make it obvious you want to take someone’s photo, and watch for their response. If they nod their head and flash you a smile, you know it’s okay. They may tell you ‘no’ or they may just put their head down and look away. Take this as a ‘no’ also.

If you get a positive response, take a few photos, then show them their picture. This will most often bring a smile to their face if there was not one present already. Enjoy the experience and don’t think of it as taking a photo but having a fun interaction. Thais love this.

It’s not considered to be offensive to take candid photos. If I am doing so I make sure the person is not aware of me, or they are not interested. I never hide my camera or try to conceal it when I am photographing.

Tips For Travel Photography etiquette in Thailand Cooking

6th Tip:

Pay When It’s Appropriate

Give a tip if it’s asked for or when you’ve had a particularly enjoyable time. If any, it will only be poor people who ask for money in exchange for letting you photograph them. Think about the camera in your hands and how little they have. 20 baht is not much to you and can be a lot to them.

Tips For Travel Photography etiquette in Thailand Old Lahu Woman

I was in a Lahu village in the far north and this woman saw my camera and immediately started shouting “haa baht, haa baht”. She was asking for 5 baht to take her photo, (despite holding up all her fingers.) I made some pictures of her and gave her 40 baht. She was so happy she introduced me to her neighbor and we spent about an hour with them taking photos as he played his bamboo instrument for us. Being even a little generous can have tremendous advantages.

In very touristy areas, (which I generally avoid,) I try not to take photos of people who are there to take you money in exchange. They can make a good living this way, but you will not often get a great picture.

Tips For Travel Photography etiquette in Thailand Flute Player

7th Tip:

What About the Hill Tribe Tourist Villages?

I’m glad you asked. I used to be uncomfortable with the notion that these were human zoos. They really are not. We have been visiting on when we teach some of our photography workshops for many years now. We have built some precious relationships with the people. We have heard many of their stories and know the most of them are happy to be living there.

Some stay for the day and head to their homes off-site again in the evenings. Others a migrants and live on site, returning to their home countries from time to time.

You may read some negative articles about this. Most I have read are by ill-informed tourists while others have been poorly researched. One of the most sensitive pieces I have seen is this video by filmmaker Marko Randelovic : Kayan: Beyond the Rings

Tips For Travel Photography etiquette in Thailand Kayan Mother and Daughter

8th Tip:

Photographing on Private Property

In most countries you need permission to photograph when you are on private property. This is true, strictly speaking, in Thailand. Shopping malls are private property and often display ‘No Photo’ signs. However, it is very common to see people taking selfies and group photos in front of displays and decorations which appear to have been installed for that purpose.

Rocking up to the mall with your big camera, bag of tricks and tripod you might well be tapped on the shoulder and reminded there’s no photography allowed. It’s all in your approach. If you really want a photo and play it low key you will probably not be moved along.

The Skytrain platforms are another place where this happens. I have been told there it is okay to take photos, but not us a tripod.

Tips For Travel Photography etiquette in Thailand

9th Tip:

Take a Workshop

Hire a guide or take a photography workshop. In Chiang Mai and from our home in Chom Thong, (just south of Chiang Mai,) we run photography workshops. Within our photography teaching we offer cultural information and are happy to answer questions.

For more details of our workshops please click here.

Tips For Travel Photography etiquette in Thailand Chiang Mai Photo Workhsop

10th Tip:

Ask Before You Photograph Kids

Thai kids often love having their photograph taken. Their parents are quite happy about it too. They love showing their kids off. It always pays to ask first, before you start taking their photos. It’s only polite and appropriate.

Tips For Travel Photography etiquette in Thailand Photographing Kids

11th Tip:

It Can Be Different in the Mountains

If you find yourself on a trek or up in any of the mountainous villages it pays to be more careful who you take photos of. It is becoming more uncommon, but many older tribespeople are afraid of having their photograph taken. I have not encountered this for a number of years now, but it is certainly worth being aware of. If you are guests in a small remote village overnight the last thinkg you want to do is annoy the head man’s old mother in law!

These are the best tips I can offer you on maintaining good photography etiquette when you are visiting Thailand. Please keep reading for more detail on photographing monks and at temples.

Tips For Travel Photography etiquette in Thailand

More About Photographing Monks

Every time we visit a temple in the more touristy areas I see people inappropriately dressed. Wearing short skirts or shorts is impolite when visiting a temple. Having nothing covering your shoulders is also considered inappropriate. If you are dressed like this you are offensive to the monks and culture even if you are not taking a photo.

Proper clothing is part of the respect that must be shown. This may seem very strange to many westerners. In Thailand they hold to these traditions firmly.

Too many times I have seen rude, disrespectful tourists getting right in the face of a monk just so they can get their photo. I do not know of any culture where this would be polite, at least where there is no relationship between the photographer and the subject.

Tips For Travel Photography etiquette in Thailand Buddhist Monks Receive Offerings

Think about the monk. Watch them carefully. If you feel they are not appreciating having you take their photo, then don’t. There are probably more Buddhist monks in Thailand than anywhere else in the world. It should be easy to find another one who is open to have you take their photo.

One of my favorite times to take photos of monks in Thailand is first thing in the morning. Each morning monks leave their temple compounds carrying their baat, round bowls for receiving alms. They will walk in the neighborhood as people come out with food and other offerings to place in their baat.

During this time the monks will walk along or in small groups. As they encounter a faithful local wanting to make an offering they will stop. The devotees will take off their footwear and place their offerings in the monks’ bowls. Women will be especially careful not to touch the monk, as this is inappropriate.

Tips For Travel Photography etiquette in Thailand Buddhist Offerings

Once the offerings have been made the people will kneel or squat down. The monk(s) will then chant a prayer over them. Some people will also have a small bowl and bottle or jug of water. The water will be tipped into the bowl at the end of prayers. This is in special remembrance of an ancestor.

Temples in Chiang Mai often will have what is called Monk Chat. This is so they can practice speaking English. It’s a good opportunity to sit and learn more about their lifestyle and a great bridge builder. After sitting and having an interesting cultural conversation it’s very easy to then ask the monk if you can take his portrait. He will most likely oblige.

Tips For Travel Photography etiquette in Thailand Buddhist Monks Receive Offerings

More About Good Temple Behavior

The temple has traditionally been the center of Thai society. Where this is not so strong now, customs remain very strong and it’s good to be aware of ones that will affect you when you visit.

Dress appropriately

This means having your knees and shoulders covered and nothing too sexy, skimpy or tight. These days you sometimes see Thai tourists at temples who are not so politely dressed. You can also hear the locals talking in disapproving tones about them.

Don’t turn you back to the Buddha

(no selfies with the Buddha)

You should not stand with your back to the Buddha. This is considered disrespectful of the Lord Buddha. This means no selfies with Buddha statues whether they are in a temple or outside. It is okay to photograph the Buddha statues.

Tips For Travel Photography etiquette in Thailand Photographer at an Outdoor Event

Don’t climb on anything to get a better vantage point

Climbing on anything to bring yourself a high view point is inappropriate. You should keep your head low, especially when you are walking past a monk or someone older than yourself. When passing try to walk behind or, when you cannot, bow as you are walking past as a sign of respect.

Don’t stand inside the temple when monks are seated.

When monks are sitting in prayer, keep your head lower than there’s. Don’t walk around looking for a better place to take a photo or be loud or disruptive in any way. Keep your voice low if you have to talk at all.

Don’t step on the temple threshold

When stepping into the temple be careful not to stand on the threshold.

Check if Women are Allowed

It’s not permitted for women to enter some chedis and smaller buildings at some temples. It is believed there are sacred artifacts buried under these structures. It’s told a woman’s reproductive system can be disrupted if she walks over them.

Tips For Travel Photography etiquette in Thailand No Ladies Sign

I hope this list of tips is helpful to you and allows you to be more comfortable when you come to Thailand to take photos. This is such a photogenic nation and culture. The people are warm and open. Photographing in rural areas at times as I have approached people to make their portraits they are excited at the prospect. They joke that when I take their picture back to my home country it gives them the opportunity to travel overseas with me.


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

How to Be Better Prepared to Take Great Photos

How to Be Better Prepared to Take Great Photos

How can you always be prepared to take your next best ever photograph?

The short answer is “You can’t be!” Not always, not for every situation. No matter how organized you. No matter how many times you have checked your photoshoot preparation checklist. Being prepared is more of a long-term commitment to knowing how to use your camera blended with your ability to interact with and respond to your environment.

Being prepared means knowing your camera and how to adjust the settings quickly whenever you need to. I need to know how to adjust my dslr camera settings for different situations as they occur. 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 to 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, Thailand

Recently 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 during a travel photography workshop 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

Please take a look at our Manual Camera Settings Cheat Sheet Infographic for Photography Beginners. This can be used with any cameras – Nikon dslr, Canon dslr, Olympus mirrorless, Sony camera, Fuji, Lumix … what ever camera system you own. This ISO, aperture, shutter speed chart pdf will be of great help to you as you begin to understand your camera settings. It’s almost like a camera tutorial for beginners as it shows you clearly how to adjust the settings. This cheat sheet will guide to choose things like your f stop for low light and your shutter speed for a moving subject.

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

Be Patient and Anticipate

Learn the Value of

Patience and Anticipation

in Travel Photography

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, 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.

Chiang Mai Tuktuks on a Chiang Mai Photo Tour © Kevin Landwer-Johan

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, Chiang Mai, Thailand © Kevin Landwer-JohanWat 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.

Tips For Travel Photography etiquette in Thailand Buddhist Monks Receive Offerings

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!

Chiang Mai, Thailand – September 26, 2016: Saamlor (tricycle taxi) rider at the market with a monk.

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.

Take your time to learn more. Our Chiang Mai Photo Workshops are a great way to see some of them more interesting out of the way places. Learn to photograph them and also be ready and knowledgeable to photograph the real character of all the places you travel.


market proter at Muang Mai Market, Chiang Mai, Thailand © Kevin Landwer-Johan

How to Improve Your Photography Skills and Take Better Photos

How to

Improve Your Photography Skills

and Take Better Photos

Every photographer wants to take better photos. I know you want to improve your photography skills. Do you find yourself trying to work on up skilling too many techniques at once? Take a step back. Review some of your recent photos you were not satisfied with.

You can improve your photography skills by concentrating on just one or two at a time.

Boy in a box taken at Muang Mai market during a Chiang Mai Photo Workshop © Kevin Landwer-Johan

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.

Man using a DSLR camera

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.

market proter at Muang Mai Market, Chiang Mai, Thailand © Kevin Landwer-Johan

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 trolley. 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 trolley again, (just by mimicking the way he had been standing.)

market proter at Muang Mai Market, Chiang Mai, Thailand © Kevin Landwer-Johan

I made one exposure before the pressure from those around us voicing their opinions of the situation became too much and he pushed his trolley 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.

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.

We offer a well rounded short course for beginner photographers. This course contain all the essential information and encouragement to give you confidence in using your camera. Click here to take advantage of the special deal we are offering.


Experience Thailand! Five Day Photography Workshop

Experience Thailand! Five Day Photography Workshop

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.)

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.

If you are interested in joining one of our five day Experience Thailand workshops, please take a look at this page.

Woman photographer shows a girl her photo on the comaera montior during a photography workshop in Chiang Mai, Thailand


Kayan girl having her makeup applied in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Meeting Malu - A Story About How Relationship Affects Your Photography

Meeting Malu

– A Story About How

Relationship Affects

Your Photography

 

My experience of meeting a little girl, from a very different culture to my own, is a marvelous example of how relationship with your subject will affect your photography. Knowing a person, and having them trust you, will enable you to take more intimate and meaningful portraits. Grabbing candid photos with a long lens, which many people do, especially when they travel, often results in cold, distant feeling pictures. I hope this article will encourage you to learn to build relationship, even if it’s for just a few moments, and start making more meaningful portraits. You may also be surprised how much doing this will enhance you travel experiences and provides you with many wonderful photographs and stories to tell.

Kayan girl having her makeup applied in Chiang Mai, ThailandMalu 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.

© Kevin Landwer-Johan Tips For Travel Photography etiquette in Thailand Kayan Mother and Daughter

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.

Malu Kayan Long Neck Karen Paduang Photographer using a Nikon dslr © Kevin Landwer-Johan

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.

Malu's Missing Tooth - Kayan Long Neck Paduang Karen Child © Kevin Landwer-Johan

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.

Kayan long neck girl without rings

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.

woman teaching a child to use a dslr camera

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.

Kayan girls holding a young baby

Take your time to learn more. Our Chiang Mai Photo Workshops are a great way to see some of them more interesting out of the way places. Learn to photograph them and also be ready and knowledgeable to photograph the real character of all the people you meet and places you travel.

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.

Cow and chedis in Myanmar

Avoiding The Tourist Crowds

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’.

Cow and chedis in Myanmar

Making The Most of It

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.

Blue house and reflection at Inle lake, Myanmar

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.

Temple and flag on Inle lake © Kevin Landwer-JohanBy 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.

For more information about our travel photography workshops and Asia photography tours please visit this page.

 

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