Without an H

Photography from south-east Asia by Jon Sanwell

Bangkok: ten days, one lens

A few days in Bangkok on the way back to Vietnam from the UK.  My idea was that this would be a kind of interlude, a blank space of time between saying my goodbyes at home and getting my life together in Saigon, with none of the emotional wrench of the former or the practical stresses of the latter.  An opportunity to chill out for a short time; not that Bangkok is the most relaxing place in the world, but it provided the chance to escape life’s obligations for a while.

Also, and just as importantly, it was a chance to reacquaint myself with my camera.  Ten months in the UK was a fairly fallow period for me photographically.  I’ve got some nice pictures of friends and family to show for my time there, my niece and nephew especially, but I never felt the same urge to get out and about and make pictures that I feel when I’m away from home.  They say that the best photographers can find good pictures in anything anywhere, and that’s probably true; but the rest of us need a little help, a little inspiration, and I wasn’t finding that inspiration in Tunbridge Wells, or even in London.  Although I wasn’t taking many pictures back at home, I was reading a lot about photography, from Scott Kelby’s super practical – if slightly irritating – Lightroom manual to a scholarly tome on composition by Michael Freeman (both of which found their way into my 20kg luggage allowance, at the expense of frivolities such as underwear and toiletries).  I also spent a lot of time reappraising my old pictures, trying to be brutally honest with myself about which ones worked and which didn’t, reworking some old favourites, trying to make them as good as they could be.  The results can be seen on my homepage; you be the judge, I can’t look at them any more.

So I felt ready to take on Bangkok, photographically.  I set myself a challenge.  For the ten days I was there, I would shoot only using my 50mm lens, with no cropping later, and only in black and white.  Why 50mm?  I like the simplicity of it; what you see with the naked eye is broadly what you get through the viewfinder.  I wanted to force myself to think about composition, rather than just relying on my zoom.  And for such a simple lens, it’s incredibly versatile, suitable for portraits, street scenes, details, abstracts, almost anything.  Why black and white?  I wanted to avoid the cliches and concentrate on textures, contrast, and light and shade.  I also had an idea about photographing statues, potentially a very boring subject for a photograph, as if they were people, using a shallow depth of field and focusing on the eyes.

Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted that the picture above is in colour.  What can I say?  There was just too much colour to ignore.  The gold of temples, the orange of monks’ robes, the pink red yellow green of taxis.  I abandoned the black and white thing after a couple of days, although there are a number of monochrome images that I’m very pleased with.  I stuck with the 50mm rule though, which was no hardship.

I love taking portrait pictures, and I like the way 50mm lets you include plenty of background, giving context while keeping a human subject.

As well as the city’s people, I also wanted to capture details…

… movement…

… street scenes…

… and some more people.

There were many things I wanted to do while in Bangkok: buy t-shirts, nap after lunch, eat as much Thai curry as my body could handle, while away afternoons reading in cafes, wander the streets with no clear destination in mind, and get more of a feel for the city than I’d managed on my two brief previous visits, five years and ten years ago.  I did all of this, I had my little oasis of calm, Bangkok-style, and I took a lot of pictures, some of which I’m happy with.  I won’t leave it another five years before my next visit.

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259 Responses to “Bangkok: ten days, one lens”

  1. wrightjp

    Love the photographs! Glad you decided not to go exclusively monochrome (I’m loving that shot with the food in the foreground, and also the one with the green tricycle), and yet the B&W shots do seem to be lot more powerful.

    I did some photography in Italy over the summer, and only took my 50mm – you’re right about the way it forces you to think more carefully about composition, and I also found that the simplicity enhanced the creativity.

    Good stuff!

    Reply
  2. Rory

    Great stuff. I was in Bankok only briefly. Chaing Mai was more fun for me. Vietnam was a blast for rock climbing, but the food wasn’t nearly as good as what I had in Thailand.

    roryseiter.wordpress.com

    Reply
  3. hks987

    I have just found your blog and I have to say – your pictures are amazing! Which camera are you using? You seem to have found a lot of inspiration and posted some really artistic pictures. I particularly love the picture with the dishes of food – looks exotic and tasty and it is so well captured all on different levels.

    Reply
    • Jon Sanwell

      Thanks! I’m using a Canon 5D – the old mk 1, bought second hand. It’s been around for over five years, which makes it a bit of a relic in digital terms, but it works for me.

      Reply
  4. skotrhythm

    Great photography! Love what you’ve captured. I also love my 50mm but i use it on a cropped sensor Canon 60d. What is your camera body? Your images just seem to jump out of the screen. Thanks

    Reply
  5. jjhausman

    Your photographs make for a good meditation on the simplicity of form. You lay the truth bare. The picture of the woman on the bottom in the pink checkered shirt emotes the most depth of humanity, I think. The other ones make for rich still life portraits. Also the young man with the afro and the stubbly mustache standing in front of the corrugated metal garage door makes an impact. He’s looking at the camera from the deep. That’s the visceral stuff. Should prompt another trip for you to hone your study of people abroad.

    Reply
  6. Joe Cyriac

    Bangkok is up there in my bucket-list of places to visit and photograph. You’ve documented the life there really well. Kudos!

    Reply
  7. kindalonely

    i love the pictures it’s taken with mastery … ive been planning to go to bangkok alone but scared i might not make it or know where to go but ill give it a try i think bangkok is one of those places that my camera will love …. nice.

    Reply
    • Jon Sanwell

      I was in Bangkok alone myself – it’s maybe the best way to travel if you want to take pictures. It’s a big and sometimes confusing city, but not a scary one. Get a good map and take it slowly, and you’ll love it.

      Reply
  8. zavara

    WOW! These are some awesome photographs – I absolutely loved scrolling through them. I loved how I was transported to those places through them!

    Reply
  9. andrewamiet

    Beautiful photographs! You’ve done a marvelous job at capturing the character in the faces of the individuals you photographed.

    Reply
  10. Peter Parkorr

    A great collection of shots, you obviously have the knack for getting people to relax while you shoot. Been too long since I was in Bangkok too!

    Reply
  11. George Sylvanus Niikoi Neequaye

    I cant wait to start travelling, to give me a broader writing topic and also get my own camera and start blogging on Picture too. I really love reading your blog and you have awesome picture too, Thank you. 🙂

    Reply
  12. Joshua

    Great shots – you have a way of getting in and showing daily life. I especially liked the panning tuk tuk and monks at their school desks.

    Reply
  13. joahnadiyosa

    Awwwww! Looking at the gorgeous photos made me miss Bangkok…. The street foods are great! I hope you tried some. 🙂

    Reply
  14. thefrustratedmonkey

    you captured each scene with their own story to tell. I love it 🙂

    Reply
  15. pnwauthor

    You certainly made up for your lost time in London. Your photographs of Bangkok are spectacular. I enjoyed how you brought out local culture, flavors, faces; the photographs of food left me feeling hungry.

    Reply
  16. machinegunmeat

    Your photography is beautiful. I really feel a close relation to your work – not in a completely literal sense, but in the sense that I too love the simplicity of my 50mm lense and the beauty of shooting in black and white.
    I’m glad you strayed from your all black and white rule, because such rich and colorful culture should be viewed from many broad spectrum’s.
    And I’m glad I found your post randomly on the main page, you have inspired me.
    Happy Holidays,
    D.

    Reply
  17. mycoignofvantage

    I especially liked the one that was a page of some sort flying in the breeze and revealing the words “Difficulties exist.” While I don’t know much about the current state of politics there, just the photo of the man in camo seemed to be a specter of the past.

    Reply
  18. Michele LMS

    Really enjoyed your varied collection of black and white and color photos! . . . Although I’ve been to Phuket in Thailand, I haven’t spent any time in Bangkok – as I’m normally not a “big city” person. Your pictures, though, have made me want to put Bangkok on my list of places to visit!

    http://arabianmusings.wordpress.com/

    Reply
  19. sheisblue

    wow nice photos, i like how you apply the contrast in you BW photos and the way you capture the people expression. Legit

    Reply
  20. aryakuro

    This is what i love from street photography, simple but capturing things efficiently. Very nice! Greetings from Indonesia.

    Reply
  21. Wina

    Being an Asian expat living in Africa, knows exactly how you feel being “uprooted” from my comfort zone. Yet, little did I know that I actually found my little paradise here. Hope you enjoy living in Asia as I am proud to be born there. Thanks for the pictures.

    PS: Planning to take pics inside Ben Thanh?

    Reply
    • Jon Sanwell

      Yes, I very much enjoy living in Asia. It’s challenging sometimes, but also inspiring.

      I haven’t taken any pictures in Ben Thanh, but I have been to the markets in the Cholon area quite a lot – pictures coming soon!

      Reply
  22. Elle of Chellbellz

    These are great pictures, and I totally understand what you mean by not being inspired at home. I’m in DC, and I never feel inspired to go out and take pictures, but I really want to, but I never feel like going out and doing it. But I have a 50MM, and I now want to get out and see what it can really do. The portait photos are really great, those are my favorite photos when you can look into the eyes of someone, some of the women look so sincere, and kind just because of their eyes.

    Reply
  23. Cat

    Lovely post. Stunning photos, and a great back story. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

    Reply
  24. afedap

    very good capture of what BKK is, very good pix , it gives the envy to have a magic carpet and be there, in BKK, one of my favourite city in Asia

    Reply
  25. worldbetweenthelines

    I like the variety. The essence of a place isn’t just the scenery, it’s the people and their life and you seem to have had moments of capturing those in your lens.

    Reply
  26. chilliandmint

    Really stunning photos. I love the way you have really captured the essence of Thailand in them.
    May I ask what camera and lens you use?

    Reply
  27. Sheherzada

    Don’t get me wrong I love the pictures of the food and the tuk tuks…. I love both but Bangkok has so many beautiful things to see and all I see are pictures of the markets… and not even the floating market… Thailand in general has an amazing contrast between old and new… while the pictures are fantastic there are certanly more opportunites for dramatic pictures…

    Reply
    • Jon Sanwell

      Fair point. I had hoped to get more pictures of the modern city, that contrast between old and new, but I’m easily distracted by bright colours and the smell of food. I guess those shots will have to wait till my next trip.

      Reply
      • Sheherzada

        There is a beautiful buddist temple in Chang Mai if you go again. Also, the palace in Bangkok does tours… just FYI. There are a lot of parks and gardens spread throughout the city with statues from hundreds of years ago that are amazing. they place them amongst flowers of all sorts and colors which would make for some great color shots but also black and white due to the different textures…

        also… there is the floating market and a river tour that goes quite a few different places… its a full days trip but its amazing. I would even try to get to the seedier places like pep pong and do some late night shots of the riff raff down there… just be careful… everyone will try to get you in their club to watch the “shows”

        there is a place in pep pong called the pink panther that does old school thai boxing too… awesome photo ops!

  28. abseitsdesmainstreams

    those meaningful expressions convey how beautiful a different culture can be.

    Reply
  29. beckfull

    I love your idea of wanting to photograph statues, especially in Thailand! There are amazing wood Buddha statues that would look awesome in black and white. The photo of the concrete statue at the top is lovely. Pat yourself on the back!

    Reply
  30. Menaka

    At the risk of being the 1001th person saying it; fantastic piccies! I had to laugh when I read that your camera gear took precedence over other essentials like underwear…as that’s exactly what I had blogged about a few days ago regarding tips for travelling! 🙂

    Reply
    • Jon Sanwell

      Thank you. And I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one with slightly skewed priorities when it comes to packing.

      Reply
  31. MedalSlut

    Nice. I spent he only hour of my Christmas Day not on a plane in Bangkok Airport. No fancy cameras but I got a cracking shot of my gate! 🙂

    Reply
  32. Jon Sanwell

    Wow. I’m genuinely overwhelmed by all the comments, likes and new followers that I’ve received over the last couple of days. Thank you all so much – it means a lot to me to know that people like my pictures. Apologies if I don’t reply to everyone individually, but please know that your comments are really appreciated.

    And thanks to the nice people at WordPress for featuring me on Freshly Pressed.

    Reply
  33. ariana

    Absolutely amazing photographs! you have a great web blog , so keep up the good work with your great words and good ideas.

    Reply
  34. Jody and Ken

    Beautiful shots, both color and b&w–and excellent post-production. Just upgraded to a 5D Mk II and my favorite lens is my 50mm 1.2. Love the headshot of the smiling woman and the guys staring down into the street vendors offerings. Lovely work. Ken

    Reply
  35. Joe Labriola

    Wow, some pictures. My uncle’s going here next month. I will show him these!

    Reply
  36. theartofus

    I’ve just come back from Thailand and wish I had taken some beautiful shots of everyday life. Fantastic photos, I swear the lady in red looks like my local pad thai lady!

    Reply
  37. rafyu

    nice pictures.it reminds me 20 years ago when i was in Bangkok as a foreign student in civil aviation training center.

    Reply
  38. Clare M

    I love your use of context in your portraits. I’m looking in to more street photography type shots, but I’m always too shy to shoot, for fear the subject won’t approve! Thinking of going in to photography after high school, and I’d really appreciate your input on some of my shots. If you have a second, I’m at http://www.claremcconnell.wordpress.com. Thanks so much!

    Reply
  39. Nabilla

    Perhaps it’s the novelty of being in a new, strange place that inspires and encourages discovery? Whatever it is, i think these are beautiful photos. Especially love your subject matter and composition. Bangkok-10 (of the young monks studying) is gorgeous!

    Reply
    • Jon Sanwell

      I’m not really an expert, as I’m fairly new to WordPress myself, but there are loads of different themes available (this one is Modularity Lite), some of which I’m sure would be good for a news website. The best thing to do would probably be to search for some news sites on WordPress, and see which themes they are using. Hope that helps.

      Reply
  40. Jo

    Jon I loved your photos. The people look fascinating and your compesition really capture their characters. The photos make me want to visit and explore and you can’t ask for much more than that.

    Jo

    Reply
  41. Tania

    Absolutely incredible, from the fleeting moments , to raw emotion, to the taste and smell of the city. You have managed to capture it all. Brilliant!

    Reply
  42. India pied-à-terre

    Beautiful photos! I love Bangkok — same as you, for whatever reason we happen to go every five years and hope the next visit isn’t so long away. This has inspired me to take more black and white photos of people, wherever I travel next.

    Reply
  43. lpphotosblog

    Thailand will be my next travel destination and your post has only confirmed this plan I have in my head for now! Thanks for sharing these colorful and detailed pictures…

    Reply
  44. bohol

    Bangkok has a population of 11 million. Ten days are not enough. Hope you could stay longer there and take more amazing shots like the ones you posted here.

    Reply
  45. Douglas Barkey

    Do you remember when all you had was a 50mm lens and were dying to have a zoom lens? I remember that time, because there were times when I knew I had the wrong lens for the image in my mind. But now the limit of the 50mm lens has clearly freed you up to respond to scenes and people in a creative way and it has forced you to move in close and interact with your subject. Good travel images.

    Reply
    • Jon Sanwell

      I’m a fairly recent convert to photography, so I’ve been spoilt by having a zoom since I first got an SLR. I still lke using a zoom, but as you say, using a 50mm lens forces you to think more and do things you wouldn’t otherwise do. It sounds illogical, but the limits really do free you up.

      Reply
  46. mariaarenas

    This is wonderful! I love that photo with the yellow arrows pointing to the man. I currently live in Bangkok and it truly is an inspiring place to live in! Everywhere you go there is surely a photo to be taken

    Reply
  47. aunaqui

    I also prefer b&w photos. My favorites: the “table of food” and the candid shot of the lady (final picture on post). You have a great eye!

    Aun Aqui

    Reply
  48. Jacqueline Wolz

    Amazing candids! I always want to snap candid shots but I am afraid of a reaction if I am caught. Any tips?

    Reply
    • Jon Sanwell

      My usual approach is to be completely upfront about what I’m doing. I like to get close to people and interact with them while taking their picture – that way I can get some good eye contact in the shot, or the person will get used to me being there and carry on with what they were doing, and I’ll get something more natural. The only one of these shots where the subject wasn’t aware of me is the guy with orange arrows pointing at him. I wanted to get that shot quickly, before he changed position. I showed him the picture on the camera screen afterwards though, and he liked it.

      Reply
  49. Osaru-yo

    You have a great gift for photography my friend ,The Contrast and diversity of the enhanced colors in your pictures are enchanting.I look forward to seeing more of you 🙂

    -Osaru

    Reply
  50. suburbanmisfit

    I would say mission accomplished! Hearing you say London wasn’t inspiring you photographically made me laugh, because what I wouldn’t GIVE to take some photos in London! (I’ve never been there) However, i’m starting to feel the same way about Colorado. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  51. farsidetravel

    yes, like your premise that u need to move to get inspired, i think that’s a hall mark of a great photographer, leaving the comfort zone and being challenged! really enjoy your site, and i think philip blenkinsop also only works on a 55 mil lense, no zoom lense, he uses a leica, and it pays off, u r forgiven for shooting in color, glad u got that flexibility!

    Reply
  52. sarnaj

    The one with the papers blowing is by far my favorite. The dramatic simplicity captures what I think you were looking for.

    I do think you should have stuck with the black and white though. Those pictures are my favorite.

    Reply
    • Jon Sanwell

      In the end, I decided to look at each picture individually and decide if it was better in b&w or colour. It wasn’t always an easy decision, but those papers in the wind are definitely best in b&w. Black and white shots from Vietnam coming soon though!

      Reply
  53. Laura & Rick

    Very nice photographs. I will be in Bangkok soon and I hope to make some great photographs there also. For the new year I decided to use my 50 mm more often. I also have a photoblog whilst I’m travelling in Asia. Greetings Rick

    Reply
  54. rachelmolenda

    Whew, fantastic images! I’ve been working on limiting myself to my 50mm lens as well. I normally shoot wide, so it’s been quite the challenge. Keep shooting!

    Reply
    • Jon Sanwell

      Thank you. I think I’m the opposite – I have a tendency to zoom in, sometimes too much, so using the 50mm was a good way of making me shoot wider than normal.

      Reply
  55. Kaweka

    Beautiful pictures, Jon. I’m just starting to take portrait pictures too and I was wondering how you approach people? Do you ask your subjects for permission beforehand or do you just judge the situation and take the shot? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    Reply
    • Jon Sanwell

      I tend to ask permission, especially if I’m taking a tight head and shoulders portrait shot. I like to try to establish some sort of connection with the person whose picture I’m taking, even if it’s only for a couple of minutes, and even if it’s only through the international language of nodding and smiling. It’s more fun that way, for me and hopefully for them too. If I’m taking a wider street type shot (like the guy with the arrows in this post) I may not ask first, but I will often show people their picture afterwards – the reaction is nearly always positive. I guess I judge each situation on its merits, but my general rule is to smile and be friendly. A purist street photographer would say that you should never ask for permission as it spoils the moment, but I would argue that it can create the moment. I would never have got the second shot in this post if I hadn’t been upfront about what I was doing, as the nice smiley lady was sitting on a tiny plastic stool. If I hadn’t sat down and said hello, I would have missed that smile altogether. I’m not saying that there’s a right or a wrong way to go about it, but this is what works for me. I hope that helps, and thank you – you’ve got me thinking about a possible new blog post.

      Reply
  56. Audrey

    These are absolutely beautiful images! So much heart and sincerity in them. Thanks for sharing, and all the best on your current endeavor – it can’t be easy making a new life halfway around the world.

    Reply
  57. driver1954

    Beautiful…thank you…I like the natural poses in the portraits.

    Reply
  58. Polly

    WOW! You really captured the feel of Bangkok. I was there last fall and feel like I met some of the same folks! Beautiful work!

    Reply
  59. JayShep Photography

    Very nicely done! I too love my 50mm lens! I dont leave home without it!

    Reply
  60. blepfo

    Brilliant photographs! I mostly do street photography with a 28mm, but I’ve been meaning to get out with a 50 & shoot.

    Reply
  61. hueoflife

    A warm hello from Malaysia… Just bump in your blog through freshly pressed. Congrats.. Great contrast in your photos. Gone through your photos in Saigon too. A beautiful one. Have some photos of Hanoi in my blog.

    Reply
  62. skitalica

    great story! thanks for reminding me of my own trip to BKK, your photo sequence helped me visualise some moments that have been buried somewhere in my memory

    Reply
  63. Bulldrogs and Bulldogs

    My boyfriend and I are heading to Vietnam and Thailand in February. These photos are incredible and inspiring. I hope to be able to capture images as good as these!

    Best!

    Reply
  64. newfoundimage

    First, I like the choice you made for one lens. Second, AWESOME way to challenge yourself…sounds fun. Third, love the photos-especially the panning movement photo.

    Reply
  65. Ben

    Beautiful, engaging photographs. I’m passing this post on to some friends of mine who are visiting Bangkok this month. These pics provide ample incentive to visit BK!

    Reply
  66. Rachael Smith

    Stunning images, I love the way you can capture a moment of someone’s day forever like this, brilliant. Are you going to do more?

    Reply
    • Jon Sanwell

      Thank you! I was only in Bangkok for a few days, back in October, but I’ve had a such a great response to this post that I am going to add some more images from that trip at some point soon. I’ll definitely be taking more pictures here in Vietnam and posting those too.

      Reply
  67. Kate

    That last picture is stunning! I also shoot almost exclusively with a 50mm and absolutely love it. It’s such a versatile lens – if I could only have one, that would be it.

    Reply
    • Jon Sanwell

      Thank you, I think that last one is probably my favourite too. There were times in Bangkok when I wondered if I really needed any other lenses, but I’m not quite ready to give up on zooms just yet.

      Reply

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