by Harry Flashman
Documenting the neighborhood
The Chedi Chiang Mai, circa 1953.
You may think that your particular neighborhood has nothing
interesting in it. So why photograph rows of shop-houses, for
example? Because it is interesting to know what was there before
you came to live there.
It is considered part of progress that old buildings are knocked
down to make way for another expressway, even though some may
not agree. However, no matter which way your opinion slants, the
subject ‘progress’ makes for a great photo project.
The great thing about this project is that not only does it make
you ‘work’ to produce a particular image, but the final images
are eminently marketable. Even if taken with a point and
shooter. Interested? You could even make money out of this!
All you have to do with this project is to show the progress
that has occurred in any area - particularly the region that you
live in - for example, Bangkok, Chiang Mai or Pattaya suburbs!
The concept is simple - contrast a “now” shot with what was
there before. Sounds too easy? Well, it is not quite that easy!
There are a couple of snags.
Probably one of the hardest aspects is getting the “before” or
“then” shots in the first place. This will take some scrounging
around, particularly in this region of the world, where not much
stock was placed upon the particular moment in time. Buddhism
tells you that all of life is change - so why get excited about
recording the moment.
However, one of the greatest sources of the “then” images are
postcards - particularly tourist market postcards. These were
generally of reasonable photographic quality and depicted the
subject from a good angle.
So where are they? This is where you begin asking all the Thai
people you know if they have any old photographs or postcards.
After that, look in second hand shops, the dusty back corners of
old Chinese chemist shops, funny old stores in outside of town -
anywhere. But you do have to get these images first. Remember
that you can always have photographs scanned these days and you
do not need the negatives. So all you have to do is borrow, if
you cannot beg or steal! Do not worry about image quality,
because no one expects old photographs to be pristine, in fact a
little bit of fading and staining looks good in the final
result, particularly the sepia tints.
Next part of the project is to find the original area that was
photographed and work out where the shot was taken from. The
concept is to get as close as possible to the original, so that
the difference between the “then” and “now” is just the
progress. This does mean looking critically at the original and
working out if it was taken by a wide angle lens or whatever. If
the shot is more than 50 years old, it was probably taken with a
“normal” 50 mm lens, so try that first and look critically
through your own viewfinder, while looking at the original as
Of course, some will be easy; others will be harder - just what
angle did they take it from? It is also good to try and
duplicate the time of day. Late afternoon or morning? Look at
the shadows and you can work it out!
Now having done all your homework, go out and re-take all those
shots from yesteryear. Again, be very critical with yourself.
You do want to be able to see that this is a re-take of the
original. Near enough is not good enough. Some pictures may be
too confusing if there are no landmarks and you will have to
reject some of them, unfortunately, but you will score some
These new ones are worth having printed as at least 10”x8” and
mounted side by side with the faded originals. This is what
makes them so interesting (and so saleable). Believe me, these
will sell! Everyone wants to know “life as it was” - it’s up to
you to do it first in your neck of the woods (before they cut
down the trees)!
Coming out from the shadows
though photography is often called ‘painting with light’, in actual fact it
would be just as good to call it ‘painting with dark!’ Shadow is just as
important, if not more so than brightness.
At the start of your indulging in the hobby of photography, the biggest
mistake is too much ‘light’, not too little. With automatic flashes that pop
up out of the camera, and others that come on as soon as the sensor decides
it is getting too dark, it is difficult as a raw novice not to have shots
that are very bright and absolutely bathed in light. Unfortunately, this is
not the best way to show shape, form or evoke an air of mystery.
Undoubtedly the subject will now be well lit, but you have also removed
shape and form from the photograph. You see, the way to convey shape is by
showing the shadow the object casts. No shadow and it looks flat.
Incorporate shadow and “Hey Presto!” you have invented 3D.
Shadow has another benefit - it gives an air of mystery to any picture. Dark
shadows allow the viewer to imagine what is being hidden. Your photograph
“hints” at something and the viewer’s mind does the rest from there.
My first proper studio I painted all white. The light levels were fantastic,
until I began to see that I was lacking shadow. Adding shadow (or taking
away light) is very difficult, and I never made that mistake again.
My next studio was painted all black, and it was so much better. The final
images had plenty of form and mystery.
So now, let’s put some shadows into your photographs with a portrait to
paint with dark. And let’s do this indoors and without flash guns or any
fancy equipment, and get a ‘professional’ look to the final print.
Find the largest window in your house or condominium and put a chair about
one meter away from it. The chair should be parallel to the window, not
Place your sitter in the chair and position another chair facing the sitter.
This one is yours, as you will take the photo sitting down. Reason? This way
you keep the camera at the same level as your subject’s face and you will
get a more pleasing portrait. If you photograph from a position below the
subject you tend to give them “piggy” nostrils and it shortens the look of
the nose. In a country where ‘big noses’ are considered desirable, this is
not the effect wanted.
Now, make sure that your auto flash is turned off. This is important with
point and shooters that can fire off as soon as light levels are lower than
usual. Look through the viewfinder and position yourself so that the sitters
face is almost filling the frame. Notice that the side of the face away from
the window light source is now in shadow. If you have the ability to meter
from the lit side of the face, then do so. But if not, just blast off a
couple of frames on auto and let the camera do the worrying.
To change the brightness to darkness ratio is quite simple too. Use some
black velvet close to the sitter’s face, on the side opposite the window.
The black velvet absorbs the light that wraps around the face, emphasizing
the shadow. Painting with ‘dark’!
You should also slightly angle the sitter’s chair so that one shoulder is
closer to the camera and get the subject to turn their head to face the
camera again. Try angling in both directions so you will get a choice of
Another variation to try is to place a thin voile net over the window, or
draw any transparent curtains. This will soften the light and is
particularly effective when taking shots of women. Again go through the
For a portrait study such as this it is worth taking many shots. Remember
that you are not doing 20 identical shots - you are making variations in
pose, lighting and exposure. There are also facial expressions to change -
laughing, smiling, serious or sad. It is very easy to end up with 20