Without an H

Photography from south-east Asia by Jon Sanwell

Posts tagged ‘bangkok’

Bangkok interludes (II)

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Some more pictures from my visa run wanderings around Bangkok last year. I’m not sure I could live there, but I always enjoy spending time in Bangkok; there’s always something new to discover, and now familiar places that are worth revisiting.

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Bangkok interludes (I)

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One of the features of expat life in Myanmar is the visa run. Every ten weeks (or longer if you’re lucky and your employer has sprung for a longer term visa) you have to leave the country and pick up a new ten-week business visa at the airport on your return. This means that over the last year and a half of living in Yangon, I’ve made a number of short trips to Bangkok. It doesn’t have to be Bangkok of course, but it’s just a short, cheap flight away, and there are a number of things about the Thai capital that appeal after spending time in Yangon, such as 24-hour electricity, excellent food and lack of feral street dogs. That’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed living in Yangon; but a change of scene is always welcome, and I’ve appreciated these Bangkok interludes, these little slices of time when I can step away from my everyday life and see things a little differently.

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Bangkok miscellany

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A collection of portraits, street scenes and details from my visit to Bangkok at the start of the year.

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Lunar new year decorations

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Wat Arun, my favourite temple in Bangkok

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Beware of falling elephants

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Chinatown

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Thailand is in a one year period of mourning for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died last year

Metal and charms in Bangkok

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Back in January of this year, I spent a few days in Bangkok. It was the Tet holiday, or lunar new year, here in Vietnam, which is always a good time to leave Hanoi in search of warmer weather. In Bangkok, I met up with my dad, who was visiting from the UK for a few days, having just been on holiday in Myanmar. We spent an agreeable few days being tourists, visiting the obligatory temples and treating ourselves to Thai cuisine. After Dad went back home, I had a few more days to wander around by myself.

One of my favourite parts of Bangkok is its Chinatown, the network of streets around Thanon Yaowaraat, where these pictures were taken. At the south-east end of Thanon Yaowarat, near Wat Traimit, there are a few streets of hardware stores, selling metal pipes, rods, tubes, girders and sprockets (probably). I always enjoy taking pictures in streets like this; I like the patterns. Not far away, there’s a streetside amulet market, where you can buy lucky charms and talismans. I think that these traders have been relocated from their old market near the Grand Palace.

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A year (and a bit) at 35mm

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(Hanoi, 2014-5)

Since I came back to Hanoi in September 2013, I’ve been shooting only with a 35mm prime lens. I wanted to test myself by limiting my camera to one focal length, 35mm, for an indefinite period of time. I like to set myself challenges or projects occasionally, whether it’s sticking to one lens for a particular trip, shooting in black and white for a while, or photographing a specific neighbourhood. It helps me to think about things in a different way and to take pictures that I otherwise wouldn’t have taken.

Having spent four months mostly using my zoom lens while travelling down the Mekong in the summer of 2013, I felt like it was time to do something different by the time I came back to Hanoi. I’m proud of the pictures that I took on that trip, and some of my favourites are environmental portraits, wide angle pictures that show a person in context. These pictures were often taken at around the 35mm mark on my zoom, and it was largely these pictures that prompted me to invest in a 35mm prime.

The 35mm is perfect for these environmental portraits, where you see a person in their everyday surroundings, such as a market stall or cafe. I’ve taken a lot of this sort of picture over the last year or so, as I’m always inclined to take portraits, whatever lens I’m using. When searching for this kind of picture, I’m not just looking for an interesting face, but also for a complementary background, one that either says something about the subject’s life or one that simply has an interesting colour or texture. With a 35mm lens, the image can be about the place, not just the face.

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(Hanoi, 2013-4)

There’s plenty of not-very-interesting discussion online about what exactly constitutes a standard or normal lens, and which focal length most closely matches what the human eye sees. I don’t want to join this debate, but I will say that, for me, a 35mm lens on a full-frame SLR gives a very natural field of view. It’s wide, but not too wide; you can get close to your subject, and still include plenty of background, without any of the distortion that is sometimes produced by wider lenses. It’s also a very versatile lens, good for photographing street scenes, details and patterns, as well as the portraits that I most like to take.

From a practical point of view, the 35mm – or any other physically small prime – is well-suited to city shooting. I love to take street portraits in Hanoi, and I always try to engage a little with the people I photograph; I like to get physically close to the person whose portrait I’m taking, without invading their personal space. While my standard zoom lens, a big, serious-looking 24-70mm, can be quite intimidating for the person at the other end, the 35mm is smaller and friendlier. This is especially useful in Hanoi, where people are often understandably wary of camera-wielding strangers.

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(Bangkok, February 2014)

I don’t often write about the technical or practical side of photography on here, as I prefer to show the pictures themselves, rather than dwell on the processes behind them. This site isn’t intended to be a “how to” site; the last thing the internet needs is another self-appointed photography expert. I’ve also deliberately avoided mentioning specific brands and models in this post, as it’s certainly not intended to be a product review; but for the benefit of those who are interested (and I know that I’m always interested in what cameras and lenses other people are using), these pictures were all taken with a Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM lens on a Canon 5D mk I.

Now it’s time to move on. Over the last week or so, I’ve started using my 85mm lens again, to take some tightly framed head and shoulders portraits (coming soon to the blog), and next month I’ll be taking my standard zoom with me when I go away for the Tet holiday. I stuck with my self-imposed 35mm challenge for a lot longer than I expected, and it’s been a rewarding experience, but now it’s time for a change.

All about the red

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I spent a little time in Bangkok at the end of January and beginning of February, because of some not very interesting but still quite annoying problems with my Vietnamese visa. My visit coincided with the Lunar New Year, so I made a couple of visits to the area around Yaowarat Road, Bangkok’s Chinatown.  The area was awash with red: kids’ pyjamas, lanterns, envelopes for ‘lucky money’ and, confusingly, anti-government protesters.  While red has been adopted as the signature colour of the pro-government faction, the other side seemed to use the new year celebrations as an opportunity to reclaim the colour, temporarily abandoning their usual yellow shirts in favour of red.

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A few more from Bangkok

Back in October last year, I spent ten days in Bangkok, a trip that reignited my enthusiasm for photography.  Thanks to the nice people at WordPress, my Bangkok: ten days, one lens post was featured on Freshly Pressed over the Christmas holiday, and I was overwhelmed by the response.  A big thank you to everyone who commented on or liked the post, and a warm welcome to everyone who has started following the blog.  It means a lot to me to know that there are people out there who like my pictures, and I hope that you’ll enjoy my posts from Vietnam too.

The response to the Bangkok post prompted me to look again at my pictures from that trip.  Here’s a selection of shots that didn’t make it last time, not because I don’t like them, but because I don’t think that anyone wants to look at more than about twelve or fifteen pictures at a time (I assume, probably unfairly, that everyone else’s attention span is as short as mine).  As before, these are all uncropped shots, taken with a 50mm lens.

I love taking pictures in markets, big or small, indoors or out.

The rush hour in Bangkok seems to last all day.  A taxi ride is safer, cooler and more fragrant, but there’s something childishly thrilling about travelling by tuk-tuk.

Buddhas aren’t only found in the wats…

… although they are found there too.

They call him Amulet Man.

Fertility amulets are available in all shapes and sizes.

This monk was sitting in the back of a small truck, sprinkling water on passers by.  He was accompanied in the truck by a life size gold statue of himself.

Bangkok’s wats are crammed full of buildings and statues, not to mention people.  Rather than taking in the whole scene, I tried to focus on some of the details.

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.