To love shooting street, candid or any ‘as it happens’ photography in Bangkok is to love a losing game. As cities go, the sheer number of things happening before you simultaneously is at times just hard to comprehend, let alone keep up with. This seems to be the case much more so than in many other of the world’s cities that I have been in. Those who have tried to tame it before their lens know exactly what I mean. Bangkok is a wild tropical animal, restless and risky at night, remaining perilous and unpredictable by day. She is not easy to approach, can punish you without warning for your contact with her she and eats her young.
I want you to get more of the shots that you want in this environment, I want you to score with a higher success rate and feel that you are making progress in your photography in Bangkok. It’s tricky to be so focused on your subject spotting, planning the shot and then making it work whilst also not getting run over, hassled by touts or pickpocketed by somebody whose gender is hard to pinpoint. Let’s try though, let’s get better. I‘m writing this because I truly want to help, I mean this sincerely. Down to business, in Bangkok street work in general, one needs to be uber-familiar with ones equipment at all times. We’ve all heard the usual clichés about the camera ‘being an extension of your arm’ or ‘it just gets out of the way and lets me shoot’ but these are borne out of the truths about being able to work very fast and smoothly against those fleeting moments we all encounter that are masters of escapism. If we are to catch them, we have to be on point. A good litmus test to find out where you rank is to see how you can set up and handle your camera for a shot without looking at the camera itself and working by feel alone. This may seems like a request somewhat akin to any cheesy eighties action movie with a martial arts theme. The restless and impatient young apprentice turns his nose up at having to endlessly repeat such a seemingly banal and humdrum menial task and can’t understand why the wise old master (yeah right) refuses to teach him anything else until he has perfected it. The hidden relevance of mastering the aforementioned chore suddenly becomes all too obvious in some grand final scene whereby the hitherto innocuous skillset now becomes the key to unlocking all conquering power against a formidable challenge. If you haven’t seen the link between that and success in street/candid photography in public yet, go back and read that last bit again.
I repeat, know thy camera well, by hand and touch. This is easier for manual camera shooters on film, Leica Ms, Nikon FM / FE’s, Olympus and Pentax SLR’s of the same era, these are all easy cameras for this exercise. You are not exempt if you shoot digital, set up the menus in such a way so that they are ready for street and practice using your hands only to push the right knobs and buttons, and turn the right rings correctly to get you ready for street work. So as to avoid charges of elitism, I shall avoid giving the run down for a Leica M body and concentrate here on the generic film SLR body type, but honestly much of this could be applied to a whole smorgasbord of modern digital cameras. Pick the camera up; rotate the lens all the way to one side, and then back all the way to the other, how many turns from lock to lock? Hopefully, you have some focus markings and some DoF markings on there too. How far do you have to turn it back from one of the sides to get to a spot that is familiar to you for shooting street? For me I like to be at around two metres and I know almost exactly how far to rotate my 28mm f2 Nikkor to get me at the two-metre mark. I can do it ten times without looking at it and get it almost perfect nine times. The other time, I would still have been close enough. How many clicks for the f-stops does this lens have? Again, stop it right down, or open it right up, go to one extreme or the other and count how many clicks you need to rotate it before you find yourself at a good street aperture, that might well be say, f8. Again, on my Nikkor 28mm (and 35mm lenses on other bodies and brands) I can do this without thinking about it. I can pick up the camera, not look at it and move it to be at f8, and bang on focus at two-metres dead ahead. Practicing this is free and incredibly effective. All one needs to do is sit at home in any room in a comfortable position and mess up all of the controls on your camera, put it down. Then pick it up back up again and see how quickly you can get your camera back into the optimum street ready condition that you prefer without looking at it. With practice it soon becomes very quick and natural. Next step is understanding depth of field in and how to make it work for you (not against you) in shooting publicly in fast moving situations. I like to work at ISO 400 or thereabouts. I won’t include the full theory of depth-of-field here (Google depth of field calculator) but at that ISO, and with my 28mm example lens stopped down to f8-f11, I find myself not only having the subject at exactly two-metres in focus, but also anything from one metre in front of them all the way out to nearly five metres behind them will also likely be acceptably in focus too. This is a great way to work in these situations. It’s also better than relying on modern auto focus systems to focus on the right thing, they sometimes get it wrong as only you really know what your intended goal is. Set your camera to manual focus. Don’t leave it to chance. Assuming you are still sat in that same comfortable spot fondling the camera, here is the next step of your training: Now look around the room at large objects, preferably those with straight vertical lines. Estimate how far away you think they are, using your preferred unit of measurement, feet or metres. If you see the leg of a table that you think is two metres away, try turning the barrel of the lens to that distance (without looking at the camera) and then bring the camera to your eye. If it’s a typical split prism SLR kind of finder, you will see the subject appears correct in the finder if your guess was accurate. If not, it might be split in two and need further refining adjustment. It is also possible to do this with many different kinds of smaller digital cameras but you’ll have to consult the manual to find the best approach on a case-by-case basis. It’s amazing how quickly you can get good at it, it’s most satisfying after a while. Once you’ve got a solid feel for your favourite set distance, it then becomes really easy to over or under compensate if you feel the subject is one metre or three metres away accordingly. Or you can also simply keep your camera at the two-metre mark and get used to moving yourself nearer or closer to the subject instead. Assuming you are well versed in exposures on manual mode (something for another post perhaps), or perhaps using aperture-priority shooting, this now means that pretty much all of the technical stuff is out of the way and you can concentrate on the really important factor of composition, putting everyone and everything exactly where you want them in the frame becomes the main task and you are free to concentrate on this to the fullest. This is how I work in my humble, botched attempts at street shooting BUT this is also how so many of the grand masters of this photographic genre shot for decades to give us many of the best images of the twentieth century. Have the camera ready to go and the framing of the shot in mind either before or at the same time as you lift the camera to your eye. If you use the same lens often enough, you’ll likely already have a pretty good idea of what the framing will look like through the finder before it’s even in your sightline…again this expediency all helps. All of the above means that you can keep your eye on the scene rather than looking down and messing with your rig, plus because you are ready to rock and roll before the camera is at head height, it means that you won’t need to keep it there for very long at all. The less time you have the camera to your eye, the less likely your subjects are to notice you shooting them and the more natural your shots are likely to be. There’s nothing worse than having what you know is a great shot in the making ruined because you had to fiddle with the camera more than you needed to or you held it up longer than was really necessary. The subject sees you and reacts accordingly, destroying the moment forever. Only when we think about all these things do we really see just how tough shooting anything naturally occurring on the street can be. Your shots need to be carefully, solidly constructed with precision and awareness, not hastily assembled with paper glue and indifference. This genre is made to look oh so easy by its masters but woe betide anyone who thinks that they can gingerly stroll down the street for a half hour and come back with photographic street gold. There’s a lot to be learnt and practiced if we are to be ready when the proverbial ducks start to stand in front of one another.
Shooting in Bangkok (as with any big city) might well be a game of luck, and one in which the odds are surely stacked against us, but we can do much to improve our chances. Knowing your equipment intimately, having good technique and engaging in regular practice will all help transform you from inept neophyte to adept in flight, ready to swoop down and seize the moment with grace. In the words of Seneca ‘ Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity’, take your shots with elation and impunity in the City of Angels . You might not be punished by the frames that you couldn’t quite make, but you will surely remember the ones you didn’t take.