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Camera Class by Harry Flashman


Shooting people - legally

What is the most frequently played piece of music in the world?  It isn’t Hotel California (that comes second), it is Happy Birthday (groan).  So since you are now in the ‘quiz mode’ - what is the most common subject for personal photography?  If you said “family”, then you are correct.

Here are the 10 simple rules for Better portraits.  Follow the 10 golden rules and you too can get results just like the local “professional” photo shop.  It doesn’t depend upon what type of camera you have, it just needs you to do a little planning.  In fact, photocopy this page and keep it in your camera bag!

Rule 1.  Walk in closer.  It is the single most important tip to better portraits.  Even with a point and shoot compact, walk in till the subject fills the viewfinder from the waist up.

Rule 2.  If you have a camera with a “portrait mode” then use it!  This is one area where I and the manufacturers agree.  The portrait mode with modern cameras does work.  It maximizes the settings to produce the most pleasing effect, gets rid of backgrounds and sets the exposure to allow for the best skin tones.  Use it.

Rule 3.  Use the flash in daylight.  If you have a fancy camera with “Fill Flash” facility, then turn it on and you will see the final images you get have now got sparkle and punch.  If you have not, but have a flash you mount on top of the camera, use it, and turn it to around f2.8 to f4.  This will not overpower the daylight, but will give catch-lights in the eyes.

Rule 4.  Watch for horrible backgrounds.  It is so easy to concentrate so hard on the subject that you do not really “see” the background, which can be confusing and cluttered.  Try to keep the subject as far away as possible from all backgrounds and if you have manual mode or aperture priority mode, then set the aperture f stop at around f 4.  Also get the subject to stand/sit at an angle to you - not straight on, and only then to look at the camera.

Rule 5.  Shoot in the early mornings or in the late afternoons.  At both of these times the light is more flattering than it is at mid-day, where you will get harsh shadows cutting across the face from the nose.

Rule 6.  If you have a zoom or a telephoto lens then now is the time!  Using around 135 mm, this is called by some people the ideal ‘portrait lens’, then you again flatter the face and help throw the background out of focus - particularly if you have followed Rule number 4.

Rule 7.  Turn the camera on its side so you have the viewfinder in portrait mode as well.  People are taller than they are wide, so it makes sense to have the maximum dimension vertically, doesn’t it!  By all means, take a couple of shots in the so called horizontal “landscape” view, but the majority should be verticals.

Rule 8.  The nose is not the central point of any portrait.  In the center of the viewfinder there is generally a small area which you can use for getting the focus point.  After you have set the focus, move the central point off the person’s nose!  The more likely central point will be the mouth or chin.

Rule 9.  Super trick!  Use a gold colored reflector to give the skin that healthy glow.  Just glue some gold wrapping paper to a piece of cardboard about 1 meter square and get an assistant to move it so it reflects “golden glow” into the subject.  This is particularly flattering for pale skinned folk.

Rule 10.  With older subjects stretch a piece of nylon stocking tightly across the lens.  This will act as a soft focus filter and smooth out many of the wrinkles we like to pretend we haven’t got!

Follow those ten simple hints and you will soon be taking shots as good as, if not better than, the local neighborhood portrait photographer.  After all, he’s only following those 10 steps as well.

A computer geek?

Dear Hillary,

I’ve met this woman in a city shopping center and she is obviously very interested in me, keeps touching me and the like.  I’m from the UK and I’ve told her that I’m married already to a Thai lady but now she says she wants to be my geek.  I’m not really into computers, so she can’t help me there.  She doesn’t even seem like the type to be all that computer literate either to be into the geek world.  Am I getting the message wrong, or what?  I don’t want to embarrass myself here.  I don’t want her to be embarrassed either.  What do I do here?


Dear Rod,

You certainly are getting the message wrong here, my Petal.  What this woman is telling you is that she wants to be your “gik”, which is a Thai slang word for a “bit on the side” as you would say in the UK.  So if your marriage is important, I suggest you give your gik a goodbye kiss and high tail it out of that shopping center!  The association with her will not be to your advantage.

Brain surgeon wanted

Dear Hillary,

As far as I can see, most of the writers to your column are definitely in need of help, but not from you Hillary, but from a brain surgeon.  Mainly to put one in their thick heads.  What’s with these guys?  They meet a woman here and next thing they’re buying houses and motorbikes, and then after that they lose the lot and come crying to you.  Don’t they read anything?  It’s not even the fine print.  Everybody knows that foreigners can’t own houses over here, and here they go buying a house for someone they met weeks ago.  Would they do that in their own towns with a girl they just met in a ‘bar’, without putting too fine a point on it?  Do you know why this happens, Hillary?  Is it the beer?  Or is there some secret Thai herb the girls put in the man’s tea cup?


Dear Ricky,

You are a fortunate fellow, being able to think this conundrum through.  Taking last first, there is no Thai herb that I know of that can stop a foreigner’s brain from working.  It has been said that many of these chaps check in their brains at the left luggage department at Suvarnabhumi airport, after getting a visitor’s visa stamp in their passport.  I have to agree with you, Petal, it does look as if a brain transplant might be needed, but I like to think that, in my own little way, I might have stopped some of the crazy behavior and saved some farang’s bank account.  Now, if I could only find a way for them to channel some of their wealth in this direction… any ideas Ricky?

How not to lose your money

Dear Hillary,

I will be coming to Thailand later this year and I am not sure how to handle the money side of things to take over with me, so I hope you can help me (you seem to be able to help everyone else)!  I have heard that it is dangerous to use credit cards because there is a lot of credit card scams in Thailand.  Is this correct?  What should I do, I won’t be bringing much with me because I haven’t got much to spend, but I don’t want to lose it either!  I used to use travelers checks a few years ago, but they were really a pain.  What is your suggestion?  I’m sure you know the best way.

V. Sa

Dear V. Sa,

I have to tell you right from the start, Petal, that I don’t have these sort of credit card problems, because I don’t have a credit card, mainly because the lousy editor pays me in one baht coins, so I just carry it all in my purse.  A small purse at that too.  But being serious for a while, as I know you are honest and earnest person, as a tourist the easiest way to carry money is to have deposited your holiday money in a debit card account in your own country and then draw on that when you are here at ATM’s, as you need it, and then pay cash at retail outlets.  This way, nobody gets your card numbers on a merchant’s carbon copy, and by using the debit card, rather than “credit” card you won’t overspend.  That is, as long as you are not buying a house for Lek from the local beer bar.  As far as scams are concerned, we get our fair share, as do all countries in the world these days.  Crime does not recognize international boundaries!  Finally, if you are still worried about the security for your hard-earned money, you can try posting large numbers of unmarked notes to Hillary.  Just put “chocolate bars” on the outside of the parcel, and the postman will not be suspicious.  On second thoughts, do include choccy bars, and then I won’t be tempted to spend your money on chocolates (though champagne could be a problem)!

The Bangkok Connection

The last few weeks have brought books to the reviewer’s table dealing with the American involvement in other parts of the world.  This week it is a book called The Bangkok Connection written by Ron Chepesiuk, (ISBN 978-1-905379-74-3, Maverick House, 2011).  It covers the life of Ike Atkinson, a drug baron, also known as Sergeant Smack.  It also covers, in much depth, the ‘heroin in the cadavers’ issue, on which everyone seems to have had some input or ‘first hand’ knowledge.

Its origins were in the film ‘American Gangster’, a typical celluloid tale, using the small-time gangster Frank Lucas’ claims that heroin was shipped back to the US in the body bags (and body cavities).  Chepesiuk convincingly (for me at least) debunks the entire myth that this ever happened.  In fact, Ike Atkinson describes it as “a big lie... the biggest hoax ever perpetuated.”  And Ike should know.  He was, at that time of the Vietnam War, running the largest drug smuggling ring bringing Thai heroin to the USA.

Author Chepesiuk is certainly an investigative journalist.  Amongst other interesting facts he dug up, were items such as the famous fighter Joe Louis who spent his entire life paying off his back taxes, and was denied deductions such as the $3,000 he gave away in ticket sales to servicemen.

He details the corruption in the military and in war zones.  “Saigon was also awash with corruption.  Just around the corner from the US Embassy was the black market known as ‘PX Alley’ where one could find anything from vintage champagne to exotic cameras.”  The racketeering was shown in a six-part Associated Press series, showing that both the Americans and the Vietnamese were creaming off 40 percent of the 1.2 billion USD ‘aid’ coming from America.

Chepesiuk explains the rationale behind corruption in Thailand and shows that it is steeped in history, ending up where, “This created a situation where the wealthy controlled the government.”  Has anything changed, I wonder?  But that corruption additionally existed in the US, and is also brought to the surface.

It was a fascinating book in many ways.  Author Chepesiuk has done his homework well.  The interviews with Ike Atkinson show the now octogenarian to be a well mannered gentleman, who should best be called an opportunistic hedonist, rather than a hardened criminal.  That he would use underhanded means to gain wealth for himself is without a doubt, but it would seem the American military system left itself so open that anyone with half an eye for an opportunity could abuse the system.  Atkinson at no time questions the morality of his involvement in heroin trafficking, but when you read of the corruption which allowed the Bangkok beginning of the connection, and the corruption in the American end of the connection (including the DEA itself), it is difficult to see any aspects of morality in either side.

If you are into real-life stories of just how low societies will go in the pursuit of the almighty dollar, you will enjoy this book.  At B. 530 on the Bookazine shelves, it is a very good read.

Composition and cropping - in the camera or post-production?

All good photographs follow the rules of good composition. The best known one of these is the Rule of Thirds, which by following, I guarantee will improve your final photographs. Mind you, this rule does expect that you have moved close enough to your subject to fill the frame! Tiny people against vast expanses of background cannot be saved by any rule, other than the one that goes, “Walk several meters closer!”

But for those of you who are not aware of the Rule of Thirds, here it is. Position the subject of the photo at the intersection of one third from the top or bottom of the viewfinder and one third in from the right or left side of the viewfinder.

By just placing your subject off-center immediately drags your shot out of the “ordinary” basket. The technocrats called this the “Rule of Thirds”, but even just try putting the subjects off-center. While still on the Rule of Thirds, don’t have the horizon slap bang in the center of the picture either. Put it one third from the top or one third from the bottom. As a rough rule of thumb, if the sky is interesting put more of it in the picture, but if it is featureless blue or grey include less of it. Simple!

With some cameras where you can make a grid pattern on the viewing screen from the menu, such as on the DMC FZ series Lumix, it makes it even easier to position the subject. With the vertical lines, you will soon see if you have the subject vertical, and for horizontal subjects incorporating the horizon, you can also make sure it is level. With other cameras, you can actually draw the two vertical and two horizontal lines on the viewing screen with felt tip pen. It does improve the final shots, believe me. And what is more, this composition is something you can do in the camera as you take the shot. It does mean that you look critically through the viewfinder and position the subject correctly.

Now, that is not the only item you should think about with your photographs, though it is obviously a good start! The next item is cropping, where you get rid of non-important items from the final photo, by literally slicing them away. These are items which do not add anything to the photograph you have in your mind’s eye. This can be extraneous details, such as a rubbish bin, which never does anything for landscapes. There are two ways of doing this. One the old-fashioned, but easier to work with, and the other all electronic, but can take longer and is in some ways more clumsy. Hard to imagine, but hard copy is easy and quicker.

What you have to do is chop up some cardboard to give you two letters “L”. Place one on one side of the print and the other upside down on the other side. Now you can move the two letters “L” around to give you different areas of cropping. Very quickly you will see what combination is the most pleasing, and with a guillotine you can slice the unwanted areas from the print.

Of course, for those with post-production ‘edit suites’ or even a good Photoshop style program, you actually do just the same, but with electronics. Call up your print on the computer screen and with the cropping tools you can move them around until you feel you have the correct (most pleasing) crop. The problem comes that after doing this, you may find (usually find) that the crop is not quite what you wanted, so you have to call up the image and go through it all again. This is time consuming, whilst working with the two “L’s” and a physical print, you can explore all the various combinations more quickly.

So this week the messages were simple. Remember to fill the frame to give your photos more impact, so walk in closer. Remember to position the subject at the intersection of thirds, and learn how to crop for dramatic effect. That will improve your shots immeasurably.

Pentax K10D

Pentax is one of those camera manufacturers that always seems to be just on the second tier, and not the top one. This may not be really correct, but is the impression one gets when talking with other photographers, where the spoils are generally shared by Canon and Nikon.

However, if you are looking for a camera with many advanced features and inexpensive to purchase, then perhaps you should be considering something like a secondhand Pentax K10D rather than a new model from the Big Two. The K10D was released in 2006 and ran through till 2009, and these days can be purchased for around $300.

Let’s look at the K10D’s basic features:

10.2 megapixel CCD
Pentax K AF bayonet lens mount compatible with the full range of Pentax K lenses, plus M-series lenses via an adapter
Digital SLR design with true optical viewfinder
2.5 inch color LCD monitor for image and menu review
Full Manual through Automatic exposure available, including Aperture and Shutter priority
Built-in flash with five modes and an intensity adjustment
Topside external flash hot shoe
SD/SDHC memory storage (no card included)
JPEG, RAW, DNG file formats
USB 2.0 High Speed computer connection
D-LI50 Rechargeable lithium-ion battery and charger
Software for Mac and PC

But on top of those features, found in many cameras these days there are special features:

Shake Reduction technology to minimize blurring from camera movement
Digital filter options for creative effects post-capture
Continuous shooting mode and Auto Exposure Bracketing
Self-timer for 12 or two-second delayed shutter release
Optional remote control (wired and IR)
Shutter speeds from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds, plus a Bulb setting for long exposures
Image Sharpness, Saturation, and Contrast adjustments
Post-capture filters for color, black and white, sepia
Metering modes with Spot, Center-Weighted, and Multi-Adjustable AF area and two AF modes
Auto ISO setting or 200, 400, 800, 1,600 ISO equivalents
White balance (color) adjustment with 10 options, including a manual setting with each white balance mode adjustable
Adobe RGB and sRGB color space options.

32 Custom Menu settings, including options for non-CPU Pentax lenses
DPOF (Digital Print Order Format) and PictBridge printing compatibility

With 10 megapixels, it covers a handy range, and is good to hold, but here comes the first negative. It is not just handy, it is downright hefty at over 700 gm and that’s just the body. I almost gave up testing because of the weight, but I’m glad I persevered.

Photographers who are after the tops in quality are turning to RAW images more and more. JPEG is a fine ‘utility’ image, but you can do more with RAW. Simple switching gets you into RAW and you can alternate with the format.

Another feature which is not obvious, but very important, is that the K10D has a dust-proof, weather resistant body with a stainless steel chassis and 72 seals that allow the camera to be used in dusty and/or rainy environments.

Shake Reduction is attained by the sensor sitting on a free-floating electromagnetically controlled platter that can move horizontally, vertically, and even rotationally (the same principle as the MAGLEV trains). This is the basis for the Shake Reduction, where the K10D can offer image stabilization with every Pentax-branded lens that can be fitted to the camera. Pentax says you will get from 2.5 to 4 stops of compensation. In other words you could, in theory, hand-hold at 1/8th second exposure.

The 2.5” LCD display has 210,000 pixels and a 140 degree horizontal/vertical viewing angle. The viewfinder is a pentaprism TTL optical design with 95 percent field of view, 0.95x magnification, diopter adjustment from -2.5m-1 to +1.5m-1, and a Natural-Bright-Matte II focusing screen. With 95 percent field, you get a little more than what you see, and that’s not a bad thing.

The K10D autofocuses with 11 autofocus points, while auto exposure metering choices are 16 segment multi, center-weighted, and spot. Shutter speeds from 30 seconds to 1/4,000 second are possible, and there’s also a bulb mode if you want really long exposures.

No, as I wrote at the beginning, if you are ready to move up into something which really is an advanced camera, a secondhand K10D could be your answer.

Viewpoint or point of view?

Any photograph is, or should be, a representation of what the photographer has seen, because photography really is all about the art of “seeing”. Successful photographers are very often ones who have discovered a “different” way of seeing the subjects they (and you and I) photograph.

A big truck for a three year old.

One obvious example was the British photographer Bill Brand, famous for photographing nudes by using a wide-angle lens on the camera. This gave a very distorted figure, but one that became “arty” and produced fame for Brand. Whether you find Brand’s viewpoint aesthetic does not matter - the important fact to remember was that it was different.
Now, this does not mean that I suggest you race down to Jomtien Beach with a fish eye lens on the camera and try and persuade people to remove their outer garments! Far from it. You should stop for a while and consider something unusual, compared to your “standard” way of taking shots.

You see, it makes no difference whether you have an SLR with multiple lens choices, or just a humble point and shooter with a fixed lens, we eventually get into a “habit” while taking photographs. Habits include the lens you stick on the front of the camera. I will wager that you have a favorite lens that stays on the camera body, and the others are only used when you cannot get the subject in the frame and have to use an alternative. And habits certainly do die hard, even if it is just always taking shots in the horizontal (landscape) format. Got you! Haven’t I?

What I am suggesting this weekend, is to devote one afternoon to some new or different ways of doing things. Many times it is impossible to predict what the final result may be. You may have discovered a radical new approach, a highly individualistic way of presentation. The end result may not be to everyone’s taste (like my idea about Bill Brand’s work), but you will never know till you try. And what is one afternoon worth compared to the fun (and fame and fortune, perhaps) that this weekend could produce for you.

To get you going, here are a few ideas you might like to explore. The first I will call the child’s eye view. Our viewpoint is generally around 1.7 meters from the ground. That’s where our eye level is and that is the viewpoint we use in 99 percent of our pictures. Now imagine you are a three year old child. Your viewpoint on life is very much closer to the ground. You spend more time looking up at the world. It would certainly be worth re-viewing some items from this very low viewpoint. OK, I know you will end up looking up people’s noses - but it just might work. You won’t know till you try.

The opposite end of the spectrum is the “Bird’s eye” view. This takes some more thought and planning - and sometimes a step ladder as well, but again you will get different shots. Ever noticed how many rock bands have photographs taken from above, with the members of the group looking up at the camera? It is because you end up getting a very powerful shot - and a different, memorable shot. Try standing on walls, on top of cars, or the aforementioned step ladder. Just don’t fall off! It is actually quite easy to become unbalanced looking through the viewfinder when up high.

For those who do have choices of lenses, or do have zoom facility in the point and shooter, you can try using the two extremes that you have, even though you may think that the lens choice is unsuitable for what you are photographing. After all, remember Bill Brand! It is even worthwhile taking the same subject matter with both of the two opposite extremes - wide angle and telephoto.

Even going back to the ‘landscape’ (horizontal) and ‘portrait (vertical) views, try taking a traditional landscape shot in the vertical format. It will make you see how much sky there is, and how much you want to contrast that with land. Likewise, a horizontal portrait is different.

Try another viewpoint this weekend and you might be amazed.