Thursday, August 31, 2006

Employee of the Month

Remember all those light tests? It was pretty boring stuff, right? Well the day has come when you can see what it was all about.

My boss was thrilled, my boss's boss was thrilled, everyone was thrilled and everyone told me that everyone was thrilled. These pictures were taken in one day and I had no assistant. There were 2 hairdressers and 2 makeup artists. There was an artistic director and a coordinator, there was an assistant stylist, there was a bunch of PRs from the Airport Authority of Thailand (this shoot is all about promoting Thailand's new airport opening next month), but no assistant photographer. I lugged around my four slave flashes, my tripods (2 nice ones and 2 of the kind you get free with some cameras), my white and transclucent future-board, my duct tape, my Vivitar 3200 flash and its silly mini-lightbox, etc. At one point I bumped into a photographer using a Mamiya RB67 and a digital back. Once I stopped drooling, I noticed he had two assistants. Then again, his tripod alone probably weighed as much as all my gear combined. Occasionaly, someone would pity me and help me carry some of my stuff. It was pretty insane come to think of it. We finished late but we finished. It was yesterday and I'm still tired.

If I saw this shoot in a magazine, I'd probably say it's utter crap and the photographer should be hanged and it's a bloody shame random assholes can pretend to be photographers and get away with it. In my defense, I wasn't anywhere near having full creative control on this thing and the models are not models but Suvarnabhumi airport's "ambassadors". But that's not even the point. I did it. It's mine. I worked hard to make sure it would at least be technically feasible and there were no bad surprises. Look at the light tests, it's more or less the same light as on these shoots. Oh and I even had one cool idea, putting flashes in the X-ray machine. I like that shot.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

It's just my luck, really: 5 Golden Rules for Buying Photo Gear

My photographic equipment breaks down, makes it to my home broken when I first order it (when it makes to my place at all), or falls and breaks.

Some people may think I'm doing something wrong but no. I just have really bad luck. In Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton wrote:
"...pointing to luck as an explanation for what happens in our lives has, regrettably, become unacceptable. In less technologically sophisticated eras, when mankind respected the power of the gods and the unpredicatable moods of nature, the idea of our having no control over events had wide currency."
Hence, I will hold on to this primitive belief that I am not favored by the gods and that I shouldn't be too hard on myself.

Still, I've devised a new set of rules to live by that might make things a little better.

1.) Don't buy on ebay

E-bay sucks. Sure you can get good deals, maybe even ten times in a row, but it usually takes one mess-up to cancel all your wins. You may think the feedback system is the best thing since slice bread but since sellers wait for buyers to leave feedback before leaving you feedback, in effect they're silently threatening you with "you badmouth me, I badmouth you". I'd be surprised if even 50% of below average buyer experiences ever make it into a neutral or negative feedback. Of course, it's completely unfair. As a buyer, your only duty is to pay up. The second the seller has your money in his hand he should give you a +++ rating. But who said life is fair? Think about it--it's in ebay's interest to rig the system so that sales happen. For example, where on e-bay is e-bay user-rated? Nowhere. The website oozes with "go ahead, it's safe, it's fun, it works" and it's all written by e-bay. Feedback is just one more marketing trick in the same vein. The dirty secret is e-bay is not safe, not fun, and doesn't work. Did you know that if you buy in the US but are not located in the US, e-bay doesn't offer you any protection and neither do the 3rd party "fair trade" services that some sellers flaunt? BH photo and Adorama both sell used equipment with a premium but with service, guarantees, and hassle-free returns. Use them instead. Adorama even sells on e-bay if you must absolutely use the darn thing.

1. I ordered a bellows polaroid that never made it to my house. I waited so long for it to turn up it was too late to even leave feedback to the seller! The seller then ignored my e-mails.

2. I ordered countless cameras that looked ok on the pics but looked like shit in real-life, or looked fine but didn't work. The bright side: I'm very good at fixing Polaroid bellows cameras now.

3. I ordered one camera from England and the guy took 6 weeks to ship it and it was broken! I gave my first negative feedback ever. He slapped me back with my first negative feedback ever, something like "Gave me negative feedback. Why? I don't know." He was so evil that he quickly had to cancel his profile and go make a new one. In short, he's gone, my negative feedback to him is gone (and those of countless others), but his negative feedback to me will stick for life. So now I know. Don't give negative feedback. It doesn't solve your problem and it gets you negative feedback. This also means other ebayers live by this rule as well and that seller ratings are bullshit, as I mentioned above.

4. I just ordered a Sigma lens on e-bay from the US because it's not sold in Thailand. It doesn't work. The seller won't take it back until Sigma says it's broken. But Sigma won't say it's broken until they've tried to fix it. But they can't fix it. So now I have to wait for someone in Japan to tell us what to do next.

AF is where I told the auto-focus to focus, RF is where the image turns out to be really focused.

5. I ordered a camera from Adorama through e-bay and there was a loose screw in the viewfinder, jingling about. Adorama was very sweet and paid for the reparation right here in Bangkok because it would have cost so much and taken so long to get it shipped to New York and back BUT it tooks months and countless trips to the Mamiya service center here to get it fixed. These last two examples bring us to golden rule number two.
2.) Don't buy anything that can't be fixed where you live.

I don't live in Europe or North America. Sure we have dealers and service centers for just about every brand you can think of right here in Bangkok but the question is, how much can they service? Unfortunately, you usually get the answer when it's too late.

1. The broken Mamiya I got from Adorama, the Mamiya people here just couldn't fix it. I had to demonstrate it was broken over and over again until they just ordered a whole new viewfinder from Japan which took weeks.

2. My new Sigma lens is toast and they can't recalibrate it in Bangkok. Again, the Sigma people didn't just acknowledge the lens was toast. I had to go there twice, make a whole bunch of test shots and diagrams. Again, we're going to have to wait on Japan. Count at least a month. As this is an e-bay order, all my buyer protections will have run out by then and I'll be screwed deep if the lens can't really be made to work as well as I want it to. Sigma Bangkok's comment on a lens which focuses at 3 meters when you try to focus at infinity, "Let's wait and see if Japan says the lens is out of specifications."
3.) Buy new and with an international warranty or with a warranty of the country you live in.

Only consider second-hand for things that are not in production anymore. Lenses usually come with international warranties so you can buy them wherever it's cheapest BUT ONLY as long as you can test the lens when you buy it and return it after a week or so of "test-driving". In other words, don't buy in Hong Kong and catch the next flight out. Yes, your guarantee will work abroad and yes, getting a lens serviced is better than nothing but it certainly doesn't beat just handing the lens back and saying "your lens may be new but it doesn't work". As for cameras, they almost always have national guarantees. Buy your camera where you live.

1. For once I got this right, buying a Sony DSC-P200 in Thailand. It went to the service center three times. No it wasn't fun and yes again I had to spend hours demonstrating the problems to incompetant receptionists who have no idea what they're talking about and who are paid to send back as many people as possible without providing any service to them. But at least it was free.

2. To save 5,000 baht (100 euros, 120 dollars), I got my Canon 350d second-hand from a local shop with a three-month guarantee. I'll tell you all about it breaking down in the fourth month and how it will take weeks to get fixed and cost over 5,000 when it happens.
4.) In the civilized world, you can order online from places with "no questions asked" return policies. But if you live in a shithole like me, forget about international orders, and make sure you get to hold the damn thing in your hands before you buy it.

1. That Mamiya from Adorama, I would have noticed there was a loose screw in it and not bought it.

2. Those crappy Polaroid bellows cameras, I would have noticed they were crappy.

3. That Sigma lens, I would have noticed it doesn't focus. It's not entirely exact that the lens could not be had in Thailand. I could have ordered it and waited 45 days for it to get here. That sounded too long but now I'm pretty sure it's going to take at least that long to get it fixed. If I'd ordered it, I would have handed it back saying, "doesn't work, sorry, not taking it."
5.) When people are actually performing polls on to find out who got a working copy of a particular product, don't buy it.

1. Yes, I'm that dumb, uh, I mean unlucky. I ordered the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 despite hordes of people warning that these lenses are very very often not calibrated out of the box. Read the forums on dpreview and trust them--but not the reviews on that are written by marketing interns.
For a second opinion, Ken Rockwell's buying tips are here. But some of his advice only works if you live Europe or in the US where there are online dealers with good return policies.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Santhiphap Park on Fuji Instax film

I think you can count the parks in Bangkok on an old yakuza's hand, which prompted me to do a story on them for BK Magazine. To spice things up, the story will double up as an investigation into the joys (and pains) of alternative analog photography.

Alternative analog photography is quite simply the art of taking pictures with any camera but a digital--preferably a cheap piece of Russian junk--and producing images that are technical failures: screwed up colors, blown-out highlights, vignetting, etc.

Our first camera in this line-up is neither Eastern-European nor even vintage. It's a big, ugly, piece of plastic. People will actually burst out laughing when they see it; the Fuji Instax 200. It's also one of the very last instant film cameras in production which means I could get hold of it through Fuji. It's not that I don't like vintage Polaroid (I have a gorgeous black leather and brushed steal SX-70 back in France) but I couldn't find a single working Polaroid camera in Bangkok--and I did quite a few shops. Even if I had, SX-70 film is now only available in Hong Kong. You can use 600 film instead but that requires some hacking.

Anyway, the Fuji Instax 200 came free, with film, as a loan from Fuji. I would have never guessed I'd get to write that one day. Fuji is lending me stuff and giving me film! Once you get over how ugly the Instax 200 is, you might notice it takes HUGE Polaroids--uh, sorry, Instaxes--of 6.2x9.9cm. That's nearly the surface of pro peel-apart instant film (7.3x9.5cm) and way bigger than Polaroid SX-70. It also explaims the dimensions of the Instax camera. This thing is half-way between a medium format and a 4x5 inch camera!

Colors are typical of instant film and the pictures have a pretty special feel "straight out of the box". An Instax picture is also a unique object that can only be reproduced through scanning and that alone makes it a very arty thing. But for a really alternative look, your Instax deserves some extra tampering (note how just because Fuji was nice to me I'm saying Instax instead of Polaroid).

Writing with a capped pen on the back of your Instax just after it pops out will just produce dark lines--not exactly what we're after. Rub it down for 20 seconds and then start doing your magic. I used something a little more blunt than a capped pen, the aluminum canister of a cigare. I find Cuban Cohiba or Partagas to work best. Ok that was a joke. Only experimentation can teach how hard, how much, and how long you should tamper with your picture.

Santhiphap Park is located between Th. Ratchawithee and Soi Rangnam, in Bangkok. It's open every day from 5AM to 9PM.

Coming Next:
Peel-Apart instant film on a Polaroid 600 SE
Holga with cross-processed film
Lomo Kompact Automat with cross-processed film
All in different parks of Bangkok!

Friday, August 25, 2006

Breakdance at MBK

These girls and boys are breakdancing every evening at BTS National Stadium, on the walkway connecting MBK to Siam Discovery.

Flash didn't fire here. This picture is retrieved from an almost completely dark shot.
I used a handheld Vivitar 3200A flash with fresh batteries but the recycle time was way too long. Now I understand why wedding photographers lug around huge shoulder-strapped battery packs for their strobes. Recycle time makes the difference between getting the shot and missing it. I just kept on missing it. Like I said, the flash was handheld, which implies using a cable. My Canon 350d has no PC outlet but there are hotshoe adapters that do the job just fine for $10 or 400 baht ( or Fotofile at MBK). Of course this flash is not even remotely E- or i-TTL and everything was done in manual--another source of missed picks.

There's nothing like screwing up to get wiser. One idea that struck me is, "How about setting the camera on full-auto and using the pop-up flash, moron?" Hmm... perfect exposure, instant recycle time, why this thing might even work in burst mode to capture the perfect moment! Pure genius.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

welcome to not only gives away sells your pictures for a buck a piece but they take a whopping 80% cut for doing it. You need to sell 5 pictures before you make your first dollar. Nonetheless, people are so desperate to feed them pictures, Istockphoto can afford to be very picky about the pictures they will accept. It took me 4 applications to get throught their initial screening process which consists in asking that you submit 3 images and screening them with the same criteria they use to accept any image. Here are the rejected pictures, with Istockphoto's reasons, and 100% crop views when the issue is artefacts or noise.

Attempt 1

Tea + Airport: Composition of your lighting could be better. Please show us something else.
Hmmm... The airport has large burnt out zones and large very dark zones. Only the bridge is properly exposed. I kind of like it that way but I guess I see where they're coming from. As for the tea, it's fine by me.
Temple door: is ok

*** Please delete the samples that were not OK from the uploads page and re-upload (2) replacement samples so we may continue to review your application. Thank You. ***
Ok'ed pics at the end of the post.

Attempt 2
• We could not find a clear center focal point and found this image to be out of focus. Try using a tripod at slower shutter speeds, even intentional blurs or shallow DOF (depth of field) should have a point of focus. For more information about focus, please see:
Lots of hot tips there but how about the center of the fan as a center focal point? Looks pretty damn sharp to me.

Arc: Nice composition
• Unfortunately this image contained unacceptable amounts of jpeg compression artifacts. Artifacts are most commonly caused by over-compression but may be a result of other factors. Be sure your camera is at its highest quality setting and remember to also save your JPEGs at the highest possible quality (level 12). For more information about over-compression or artifacting, please see:
That was pretty diplomatic. But it's not JPEG compression this pic is suffering from, it's from having been taken at 400 ASA with a compact Sony DSC-P200. I tried to reduce the noise in Photoshop but didn't do a very good job. There's so much of it! Now that I carry a tripod I shoot everything at 100 ASA.

Attempt 3
Temple door: is ok
Tennis ball: is ok
- Unfortunately this image contains undue artifacts when viewed at full size. Artifacts are most commonly caused by over-compression but may be a result of other factors. Be sure your camera is at its highest quality setting and remember to also save your JPEGs at the highest possible quality (level 12).
This image was shot at 100 ISO but underexposed. Raising the levels brought out the noise lurking in the shadows. This pic might be still be saved though with noise reduction or by resubmiting it at a smaller size. The best size to submit a pic on Istockphoto is 2560x1920 but the smallest acceptable size is 1600x1200 pixels. That means if your pic is rejected for questions of noise, or for a slight sharpness problem, you can make it smaller and see if that fixes the problem. You might miss out on some juicier deals but it's better than nothing. Large format downloads cost 5$ (which means $1 for you) but but also tend to be less frequent than the $1 800x600 websized download. 1600x1200 is $3. There's also XL size (4200x2800,$10) and XXL size (4900x3300,$20-40) but these would require stitching or VERY expensive cameras/digital backs.

Attempt 3
Welcome to, the designer's dirty little secret. Congratulations, the iStockphoto administrators have determined that your images are commercially and technically ready for Please begin uploading at your convenience. There is currently a limit of 20 uploads per 168 hour period.

Have fun and welcome aboard.

Temple door: is ok
Tennis ball: is ok
Food: ok

Thank you for your time and effort.

Best Regards,

But who would pay a dollar for a temple door, a tennis ball, or a basket of vegetables?

Sunday, August 20, 2006

light tests, boring? no way

My fashion shoot at Suvarnabhumi (a transliteration of a word pronounced soo-wa-na-poom but never mind) airport is in ten days and this is the light I'll be going for. Two slave flashes are on fully extended tripods on both sides of Khun Fiat. With a double layer of exposed and processed film on the main flash, the slave flashes weren't always getting enough light to be triggered. I had to increase the light on Fiat which isn't exactly the intended effect but softens things out a bit. Anyhow, it will have to do.

I have no idea why Fiat puts a finger in his mouth when he yawns.

Previous episodes:
back-light test #2
back-light test #1
slave flashes

Friday, August 18, 2006

a sudden passion for tennis courts


Thursday, August 17, 2006


I finally got .jpg and .pdf exports of my work as published in BK Magazine.

Flower power came out a couple weeks ago (you got to see a bad scan of it at the time). This next one just came out this week:

If you're in Bangkok, do go to this bar-slash-vintage collectibles shop for a couple drinks. It's on Sukvhumvit 55 (Soi Thonglor), in the soi that's to the left of the Playground mall (Soi Taraom 2), and not too far from the main street (and these directions are actually better than the ones in BK Magazine).

Thailand Open Coming Up

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

the smell of money

Durians are spiky tropical fruits with pale yellow flesh that are so pungent that they are banned in Bangkok's skytrains and many hotels around the country. They smell of rot, or vomit, depending on who you ask. Being of a country where andouillette and rognons smell like piss, cheese stink of feet, and garlic breath is a national symbol, I wasn't afraid of tasting durian, but just never had had the opportunity yet. Then I got my first paid photography job ever, a catalogue for fresh and processed durian products destined for export to China.

This is a durian, not to be confused with a jackfruit. It (like everything else in this post except the icecream) was shot with natural daylight bounced off white cardboard sheets that also doubled up as reflectors. The fruit is standing on a tube of glass that has been photoshopped out, so that light hits the bottom of fruit as well.

Durian can be made into a paste and crushed almonds worked into the paste--delicious.

As these shots are for a catalogue, they are composed to go in the corner of a page that contains text. Hence, the image will only occupy a fraction of the page (1/3 or a 1/4). This shout would be the top right of a page, while the image above would be the bottom left of that same page.

The ice-cream couldn't be shot with natural light. I used flashes to allow a high enough shutter speed to freeze the dried durian flakes in mid-air. Of course, I used my slave flashes (see my previous posts, I've got 4 now). First I got a shot of the ice-cream with just the right amount of durian powder on it and then poured durian powder a dozen times until I got a good shot--which wasn't easy to time. Finally, I composited the spoon and falling powder with the ice-cream in photoshop. This way, I used only one ice-cream, and melting was not an issue.

This is what the powder comes from, dried durian. It cooks in a pot underneath which is boiling oil. I believe that's as close to an oven as things get in Asia. The oil doesn't come in contact with the durian so it's a low-fat snack.

Fresh durian, like mango, is best appreciated with sticky rice on which one pours coconut milk. The milk we had just went right through the rice--way to watery. We settled for white latex glue over which we poured some genuine coconut milk for a wetter look. So this is one dish I didn't eat.