Sunday, July 30, 2006

In praise of flash

Funny how the first thing people who like taking pictures figure out is “I don’t like flash”. I can’t blame them, direct flash, at night, is often very, very ugly. But I do have to make a case for bounce flash and fill flash. First off, sometimes there just isn’t much light and if you still want to take a picture home, well you’re going to have to make light. More light also means a lower ISO and less noise. So instead of just skipping those pictures, or taking them with loads of motion blur and noise, get yourself the kind of flash that has a head that rotates in every direction and try to bounce it off a wall or ceiling. Have a look at this:

Thames and his buddy whose name I forgot, of defunct Thai boy's band 3+1

This was shoot with a Panasonic DMC-FZ30 in the Sony BMG building in Bangkok. That’s a crap camera, and Sony’s offices are, well, offices. This is actually the kitchen. The windows are stained very dark (this is Bangkok), and even if they provide some diffuse indirect light coming from the right of the frame, it was quite weak. Let me add that that Panasonic is a very noisy camera which really can’t deal with high-ISO. Not only the locale and camera were shit but so is my flash, a Vivitar 3200A (guide number 28 at ISO 100). I cost me about two or three thousand baht (40-60 euros) two years ago when I got it to shoot peel-apart Polaroids of Muay Thai boxers with a 600SE—but that’s another story. The flash is supposed to be automatic (there’s a light cell on the front that tells the flash how much light is bouncing back) but that never really worked in real life. I just put it in manual, so that it fires all it can, and then play with the camera settings.

The shoot looks quite pro and studio-like, I’d say. I had like 5 minutes to shoot it as these guys were doing lots of interviews that day. It’s far from perfect but it certainly doesn’t have that violent “in your face” look people equate with flashes.

former Miss Thailand representative at the Miss Universe competition

A week later, I had my Canon 350d and tried the same thing. By squeezing between a white column and a white wall, I had both a white background and a white surface to bounce the flash off of which was not above but behind me—a very nice setup indeed! The convex shape of the column was very hard on the flash which turned out to be underpowered for the job (convex shapes diffuse light too much) but again, you must realize this shot was taken in a shopping mall and in 5 minutes time! Does it look that way?

I had a hard time getting the right exposure on these, and screwed most of them up, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can get a nice flash of your camera’s brand that will fully communicate with your camera to get perfect exposure, whatever the light is bouncing off of. You can even control other flashes with high-end flashes and make set-ups, in the field, of several lights. Again, everything is automated and adjustable. Nikon’s high-end flash is the SB800; Canon’s is the 580EX. These cost the price of a decent single focal lens but I think they’re worth it if you want to get creative with light. Remember that even outdoors and in sunlight, fill-flash can greatly improve your pictures.

I haven't really had time to experiment with fill-flash yet (direct flash, usually outside and in sunlight). You can see examples on Dave Black's site. He does amazing stuff with his Nikon SB800's.

In praise of DSLRs (as if they needed it)

There are good reasons why the press switched to digital years ago and they all hit me in the face last week. Film is expensive, doesn’t allow you to check your pics until it’s too late, each roll of film requires two trips to the lab plus scanning (since I do that myself), and the result is much better than what is needed in but the best of glossy magazines. Everybody knows this but sometimes you just need to figure things out for yourself.

Actually, I didn’t really suffer from the “can’t check until it’s too late problem” apart from the stress it induces. I’ve been using my Mamiya 645e and then Mamiya Pro TL for 6 months now so I sort of know what I’m doing. That’s not a bad talent when you switch to digital because small crappy LCD screens are not to be trusted. Besides, looking at your LCD too much distracts you from what you should really be looking at, the real world.

Still, I really need to buy a digital camera to be fast enough in my work. I wasn’t too thrilled about this because I already own a Sony DSC-P200 (a compact) and have a Panasonic DMC-FZ30 at work, a superzoom that goes up to 420mm in 35mm equivalent. But I don't like either camera and figured only a DSLR could do the trick. This was a bit of a wild guess. Since nobody bothers to “cross-compare” cameras, I didn’t really know what to expect from the switch to a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) except that as a “sorta pro” a DSLR was what I was supposed to get. Many stress how DSLRs rock at focusing and how they offer better control over all the functions that go into digital camera. But I think I never read anything like, “The image quality is ten times better than non-DSLRs—-the noise, the sharpness, the colors—everything will leave you amazed.”

I guess nobody bothers to compare cameras across categories because they expect people to know which category they’re shopping in and just need to know which camera is best in that given category. But I can think of a few people who hesitated or still hesitate between advanced compacts or megazooms and DSLRs--and even people waiting to make the switch from 35mm. So let’s just make this clear one more time, a DSLR, even with 6MP, will blow away any compact, even those with 8MP.

The fact people shop around for high megapixel counts is called the “megapixel myth”. The truth is that increase in megapixels is not as important as it seems because doubling the amount of pixels only increases resolution by half. What does matter is your sensor's size.

Bigger sensor’s have lower noise and do a generally better job at capturing sharp, colorful images. Sensors go from tiny (6mm on your mobile phone) to medium-format sized (6cm x 4,5cm, not in any normal human’s budget though). Most affordable DSLRs are 1.6 (Canon) or 1.5 (Nikon) times smaller than the traditional 35mm negative (24mm by 36mm), which gives us something like 15mm x 24mm. For comparison the aforementioned Sony and Panasonic cameras are a full 10mm less wide than that.

No, I’m not going to do test shots. I’m just telling you that if you like photography enough to have read this far, you should go out and buy a DSLR if you haven’t already. They really make better pictures, period.

Well except that if I were you, I’d wait a couple months. The Sony Alpha A (hitting shelves now) packs some nice goodies but I’m very suspicious of Sony as they are new to SLRs (even if they're building on the Minolta brand that they acquired earlier this year). Lets wait for its full review on Nikon’s response will be a new, I guess, entry-level DSLR to be announced in 10 days. And Canon’s own 350d is getting very old now as well (over 18 months, the usual life cycle of a DSLR). Canon will have to reply to Nikon and Sony ASAP. Expect a new Canon entry-level DSLR before the end of the year.

Too bad, I needed one right NOW. If you’re in that case, and depending on your budget, you should get a Nikon D200 or the much lighter and cheaper Canon 350D. Choosing one means you might have to stick with either brand for life though, as the flashes and lenses you buy will not operate across brands—another reason to think very hard before buying into any DSLR brand, and Sony in particular.

I read pages and pages of reviews, went to Canon and Nikon dealers to play with all their cameras and finally I got the 350d, second-hand with a 1GB compactflash, for 26 000 baht (that’s about 520 euros). I liked how ridiculously light it is, even if yes, the grip is a bit small which is not very comfortable and doesn’t look very pro either. I haul my gear around, with a tripod, all day long, so I don’t think a nice heavy feel in my hands is cool at all. Heavy busts my back. So far, I’m very satisfied with controls, focus, and speed of operation. The d200 will get you big improvements in those areas (but not really in image quality) and also a fantastic LCD (bigger, brighter, crisper).

With all the money I saved by buying the cheapest DSLR around, I can get stuff which is much more important to getting good pictures than the camera’s body: flashes and lenses mostly. The other good thing about getting a cheap DSLR is that you get a crap kit lens. Well that’s a good thing and a bad thing because those lenses are really a waste of plastic and glass but it means I don’t even have to get a lens right away. The kit lens is definitely good enough for my magazine. In Europe and the US you can always get body only versions of even the entry-level DSLRs anyway, not here in Thailand.

Here are my very first pics: Shan, a Chinese Restaurant on Thanon Thonglor that was absolutely delicious and reconciled me, at long last, with Chinese cuisine; and what may well be the next cover of BK Magazine, but then again, might not.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

good job guys

I caught these construction workers as they wait for the buses that take them out to their sleeping quarters--tin-roofed huts in a junkyard. They're building a "King Power" shopping mall in my street. It's a huge contruction site. There will be a skyscraper, and the mall itself, and something that looks like a big glass ostrich egg. People don't read or go to museums in Bangkok. They watch TV, and shop. So all the big projects are malls. But even though you might know the names of architects that have done museums, libraries, music halls, why even stadiums or hotels, can you name any malls designed by famous architects? I can't. Malls are just too ugly and boring. Unfortunately, they are all Bangkok has to offer when it comes to contemporary architecture. If you visit the Big Mango, you better like old temples.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

my teacher

 This is one of my teachers of Thai. In level 1, students aren't too good with colors and body parts so there's nothing like a makeup class to get them to put the words into action. Looking like that, and if it's late enough (or early enough) Kru Pong could actually make some good money in certain parts of Bangkok.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Online Stock: The foie gras I'll never get to eat.

Stock photography used to be a way photographers could make money--and photographers don't have that many (good thing people still get married). Royalty-free online stock libraries have put an end to that. There's been much boohooing on the professional photographers' part but it won't change a thing. Today, everbody can get professional-grade pics for a buck or less. That's compared to several hundred in a traditional agency, and I'm sure today's prices have been dragged down so it might even have been a thousand dollars or so. It's not that often that something real (not stocks) gets one thousand times cheaper legally. Let's celebrate.

But I make pics, I don't use them. So it is still a hard pill to swallow that a professional looking image is worth a dollar nowadays. Stock photographers have made the switch to working on commission only but even that has suffered from the cheap online stocks. Are you going to look up a photographer and ask him to shoot a piece of foie-gras, with the chance his pictures will be of poor quality, the delay involved, and the huge price-tag, or are you going to fork out a whole dollar and get your pic within seconds? I have a friend running a TV channel and he once told me, "We're not going to go and shoot cool stuff for this channel. Why should I take risks when I can just buy existing programs that I can review based on the program itself, not its script?"

My magazine, having a subscription to for US$299.95 a year, fully agrees. Faced with illustrating a piece that mentioned foie gras, my boss did what any sensible person would do. With a single click she got a picture which is probably better than anything I can do for them (I don't have strobes, a macro lens, or a white backdrop). Since my mag has a subscription and may well download over 300 pics a year, this foie-gras pic might well have cost LESS than a dollar, or 40 baht. That's how much a round trip on the skytrain right here in Bangkok costs if you're not going more than 3 stations away. Throw in 10,000 dollars of camera equipment and you've got a serious headache. Oh and the foie-gras, which you probably can't eat in the end anyway because foie gras fairs poorly in the warm environment of a Bangkok studio.

To add insult to injury, my boss asked to actually shoot myself in the foot and look up some more stock libraries. Not only that, but she asked if I could find FREE stuff. That's right, from one grand, to one buck, to free. That seems to be the next step in online stock. The worst is, I found it! Not just a few free pics to entice you to subscribe, a whole library of free pics, some surprisingly decent. Now I can understand why people would dump their stuff in the lap of the 1 dollar agencies (with some claiming they make up to US$500 a month thanks to them) but why would anybody bother to hand them out for free?

Here's a quick look at what's out there:
You pay per picture and according to size.

price / size in pixels (approx.)
US$1 / 800x600
US$3 / 1600*1200
US$5 / 3500*2400
You subscribe for up to 250 downloads per month.

price / size in pixels (approx.)
$159/month / up to 5000*6000
As low as US$0.77 per picture with subscriptions. Otherwise:

price / size in pixels (approx.)
US$3 / 800*600
US$6 / 3000*2000
Subscription service. Unlimited download.

price / max size
US$299.95/year / 2000*2400
As the price goes down, so does the quality. The pictures on this site are free but if you look hard enough, you can find some good shots.

price / size
free / varies

Now why would I shoot myself in the foot AGAIN and actually put this in my blog? Because I've made my mind up about how I can be a paid photographer. I'll never freelance. I'll only go ahead with this photography craziness if I can get hired in a newspaper. And if I do, my job might well be looking up which pictures I can get for free, or a dollar, rather than busting my ass shooting them. Don't resent technology, use it.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Review: Picasa Web Album

Have you made the switch to the following?

Gmail (e-mail by Google)
Picasa (picture browser by Google)
Firefox (web browser by Mozilla)

They’re all free and they’re so fantastic it would take pages and pages to explain why. Just try them, NOW.

I’m mentioning these for two reasons. One is that I use an eMac at my new job. The only program that crashed (without compromising overall system stability though, you have to hand it to Apple), was Safari. It just shut down at one point. It’s funny that Macs come bundled with two web browsers, Microsoft’s internet explorer and Apple’s Safari, and that both suck. I immediately installed Firefox which has been running fine since then (and runs Gmail with all its cool functions enabled, and displays my website correctly).

The bad news for Mac users is that there’s no Picasa in sight for Mac. I love this program so much I’d think twice about getting a Mac just because Macs don’t have it. Then again I’d think two-zillions times about getting a PC for a whole bunch of other reasons. Picasa’s website says they’re too busy making Picasa better to transport it to Mac. Apple does have Aperture, its own photography browser and organizer. It’s outrageously expensive and from what I read online, doesn’t do the job very well. Maybe it’s because it was designed for pros.

The other reason I mention Picasa is that Google is finally, and through Picasa, coming up with some kind of competition for Flickr. Flickr is the best thing around. It has a huge community, which means random people will find your pics, comment on them, and you can find other people’s pics (mostly using tags). Still, I tried Flickr twice and the system for uploading pictures was such a drag, I gave up.

I didn't expect much from Picasa Web Album (let’s call it PWA from here on) but once I had a full album of pics (that I'd already selected through Picasa's starring system) online within seconds and a single-click, I decided I liked it.

CNET has the downsides:

“…But there are small snags. While albums on Picasa Web Albums can be made either public or unlisted, there's no way that I saw to password-protect them. And although Web Albums will display slide shows, captions that you attach to photos don't show up in them.

But I have a bigger issue with this service: it's one way. Once you upload photos from Picasa to Picasa Web Albums, there's no link between them. If you write a caption or delete a photo on your PC, nothing changes on your online album (or vice versa). I'm spoiled by the technology of Sharpcast and Phanfare, both of which feature live synchronization between media files on your PCs and your online albums. I think synchronization is the only way to go if you're going to have the same images online and on your PC. I'm disappointed that Google did not more tightly integrate its Picasa software and Web service.

I'm also surprised that Google is being so stingy with online storage space for photos: Free accounts are limited to 250MB. That's adequate for a bunch of slide shows but it's not enough to be a serious online photo storage solution. Oddly, Gmail, which is also free, gives you 2.7GB to play around in. If you want more photo storage, you can get 6GB online for $25 a year. I don't think that's a very good value, and it's still not enough space to store a typical family's picture archive (Phanfare, one of the few photo sites that charges for storage, costs $55 a year but provides unlimited space).

I was hoping for more innovation and a richer feature set for Picasa's online product. On the other hand, for current Picasa users, I don't know of a simpler or faster way to share photos.”

I can tell you why they’re only giving out 250MB. The 2.7GB limit in Gmail is marketing. I’m only using 7% of that (even though I’ve been sending out pictures which take up space). That means they advertise 2.7GB but they only have to hand out 250MB or less in most cases. With pictures, advertise 2.7GB and people will be using 2.7GB! Which is too bad really. I don't want to see 2.7GB of anybody's pics except maybe some guys who are now dead and displayed in museums. I'm only taking up 10% of my 250MB so far and I'd already be pretty flattered if you went through all of that.

Actually, I don’t need an online album service at all (I already have a website AND a blog) but PWA made it so easy, I just went ahead and did it. Posting pics in my blog is a drag compared to this because if you try to post more than 4 pics in a single post, it just doesn’t work and you have to resort to all kind of tricks like posting on a second blog and retrieving code with the view source function of your browser. From now on, I may well not post pics here in my blog anymore, and just link to PWA.

Let’s hope the next version resolves the snags brought up in the CNET review. Synchronization would be particularly cool. I’m always changing my mind about my pictures. Which ones to include, the crop, saturation, levels… sometimes I even retouch something I missed. It would be nice if these showed up in the online albums automatically.

Go see the results for yourself:
PWA is so easy to use, I even threw in some old digital shots of China. The cool thing with digital (for photography buffs) is that each pic comes with camera brand and model, aperture, shutter speed, and focal length information!

Sunday, July 02, 2006


In all the blabla below, I'm afraid some of you missed out on the fact the better New York pictures are not posted on the blog but on the online portfolio thing. That or everyone just likes the B-list better...