Chromacoma just checking in on you this (very hot) month with the next chapter of places to shoot in Bangkok. This month I must confess to including one of my own personal favourites, the wonderfully busy and uber-hip microcosm that is simply known as ‘Siam Square’.
You might recall (as I think I do?) somewhere waaaay back in the original ‘Ultimate Photographer’s Guide to Bangkok’ article (click the link at the very top of this page) that I said Bangkok has the unusual distinction of being a large capital city without any real ‘centre’ per se. I still stand by that statement (because it’s certainly true) but I would like to perhaps qualify it a little further by saying that there are perhaps centres for certain things. For example, if you wanted the commercial banking and finance centre of Bangkok, it would probably have to be Sathorn and the back end of Silom (and subsequently there are some great finance buildings/architectural shots to be had down that way).
Likewise, if you wanted the centre of ‘looking cool and hip in your best outfit on the weekend’ whilst hanging out and meeting your equally cool young peers going on dates and trying out new clothes/drinks and snacks…Siam Square is most definitely where it’s at. Every city has it’s trendy ‘to be seen in’ kind of district and Bangkok is no exception.
Of course, Siam Square is certainly not the only one (Thong Lor, I’m looking at you) but it’s one of the most well-known and I must confess to have an extreme bias for this particular locale as I think it is especially well suited for straight ‘street photography’ in the more classical tradition. It is essentially a grid of small streets laid out in an almost mini North American ‘block’ system and this means that you can choose to be walking into or away from the sun with the light right at or behind your (often cool looking) subjects. You can also walk parallel with or ‘across the light’ and catch cool shots of it peeking through at trendy people via all the little walkthroughs and alleyways that link it all together. The best time to visit is definitely the weekend, or public holidays (and there are MANY of those in Thailand of course) when all the hip youngsters are out in full force. Over the years I have also noticed that it’s especially bountiful for great shot opportunities in the cooler months of November through to December (there are sometimes events on during this time which also take over the whole area and draw in even larger crowds, great for people watching and even better than normal shooting) when the Thai population fully embrace the less hot time of year and come out in greater force than normal. It’s still in full swing the rest of the year though of course. Otherwise, not much else to say warnings wise other than of course it suffers from the same problem that all outside shoots in Thailand do insofar as it’s often just too darned hot after mid-morning until late afternoon.
The best time is probably late afternoon most of the year as when it’s still cool earlier in the morning, nothing much has really yet opened and so it’s too often too quiet for the best people shooting opportunities.. That’s not to say that you can’t get stuck in with the first wave of people around midday though, but once it gets going for lunch, it’s too hot to be outside all the time. The overhangs from all the shops help a little shadewise although be warned that on hot days the pools and drips of air conditioner water dropping down from overhead are something to be wary of getting on your equipment. A way around the heat is to bear in mind that with so many cool little shops and cafes and the like, you can easily nip in and out of places (like the large IT and fashion malls linking back and forth from the BTS Siam platform) to cool down and recharge before heading out again for another half an hour or whatever. This also works fine if you pace yourself.
If you catch it on a good day weather wise, the general quality of light in the late afternoon can be downright beautiful and frankly sublime, in the philosophical use of the word. It only helps enhance the really cool people and make them appear even better in your photos. Another lucky break weather wise at this venue is if you get a rare, but oh so perfectly consistent overcast day, offering pretty much unchanging exposure in every direction for hours at a time...it’s what Tri X was made for! These are also fantastic for photographers and should be exploited to the fullest. A quick word of warning if you are on a holiday shooting in Thailand: You can get badly sunburnt if outside for hours at a time EVEN on an overcast day in Thailand, without even having seen the sun once. Ignore this at your peril, especially if you are caucasian. This often comes as something of a shock to guests from countries where such a thing isn’t really possible, the UV here is no joke and it plays for keeps. Wear a hat and go for a bit of sunblock when shooting outside even if the sun’s not out, especially if you are fair-skinned.
I shot a project at Siam Square that just kept on ticking along and by the time I was happy with it, it had taken me five years, which came as a pretty big surprise to me at the time! Even more surprising perhaps is that the aforementioned project is only a few years old and already looks out of date now as Siam Square is one of the fastest changing retail areas even by Bangkok standards. You can find it under the 'work' section of this site, sorry for re-using the odd image from that project again on this page also but I think it was more than justified by the plot with this month’s posting. It’s a great feeling to be at Siam Square on a weekend or public holiday when things are busy in full swing and you have your most used ‘old faithful’ camera with you, the one that you can use quickly and the most naturally. This is the kind of environment where there are lots and lots of great photo opportunities coming your way all the time, around the many corners… and often just when you think they aren’t coming. Keep loose and well practiced and you should be good to go. This is perhaps a good place to go for a classic street rig kind of set up such as a fixed semi-wide (or normal) lens on a simple manual body with some zone focus (deep depth of field) action going on to help catch things quickly and in relatively decent focus.
As any regular to this site will surely know by now, I am a heavy user of film (almost exclusively) and so I really do think that Siam Square is just screaming out for some Tri X or Delta and all the lovely gritty 35mm graininess that comes with it but it doesn’t really matter what camera set up or medium you prefer, just make sure it’s a camera that you know well and can use efficiently ‘off the cuff’ at a moment’s notice. A good day at Siam Square can offer up a lot of chances, a great day can even be like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s a place that has the potential to really keep on giving until you have had enough or run out of film (or battery!). On that last note, you can even pick up some film at the branch of ‘Siam Digital’ located within Siam Square itself (already mentioned in ‘The Guide’ so far) but be informed that the old branch has moved (yet still very much within Siam Square) to now be on Siam Square Soi 2, up near the BTS end of the street/soi. They have an okayish selection as of March ‘18 (used to be a bit better stocked) although I have always noticed that it’s rarely (never?) kept in a fridge there so make sure it’s well within date. To be fair, that shop is air con so the film is pretty much stored at cool temps at least during the daytime. For more digitally orientated people, the IT mall that was opened up in the middle of the Siam Square front row around 2010 has lots of camera shops selling digital cameras and accessories so you are very well catered to if you decide to combine the shoot with some photographic shopping.
Obviously, we won’t be needing a map this month. ‘Siam’ BTS Skytrain station is the main route change station that two entire lines of the skytrain intersect at and revolve around so just get on the BTS anywhere and get out there. Simply disembark and walk down the stairs the opposite side to the big malls and ‘...it’s on like Donkey Kong’ as soon as you get off the train on a weekend. Enjoy it, I do and always will. As an extension to this little project, also note that in late afternoon sun, the areas on the opposite side of the main road to Siam Square (cross via the BTS station)that are out in the open in front of (and between) the high end malls such as ‘Siam Paragon’ are also pretty good for pictures of people and can help cast a slightly ‘wider net’ on the same shoot.
Everything on this post was shot with two fairly simple (but wonderful) rigs: A Leica M6 classic and 35mm pre-asph Summilux OR a Leica M2 and 35mm Summaron of the same vintage.