This time last week I was sitting outside a little pub in Westminster, London, enjoying a pint of good British bitter. It was a sunny evening and I was surrounded by a crowd of locals who had taken off their suit jackets and even rolled up their sleeves to enjoy the unseasonable heat. Not me. I was frozen. I had to keep my hands in my windbreaker pockets and had a hard time not shivering and stopping my teeth from chattering. I had planned to spend a week exploring the city, but an hour later I was in my hotel room searching online for the very next flight back to South East Asia. Thus I arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the following evening. Walking out of the modern air-conditioned airport was pure joy. The air was hot and humid, it smelt of rotting jungle vegetation and coconuts and the muddy waters of the Mekong River, along with less than subtle overtones of exhaust fumes… I was home!
Let me add here, for those of you who may be reading this and don’t know me well, that I know Phnom Penh like the back of my hand. Indeed, much better, as I’ve never spent much time studying the back of my hand. This sprawling, booming, chaotic and unique city is one of my favorite places in the world. So here I was, and while I was eager to return to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and my wife, I have to admit to being happy and a little bit excited to be back in Phnom Penh. Things weren’t perfect, however. I hadn’t been able to get a room at my favorite guesthouse right over the road from the Kings palace, and far worse, I’d arrived in the middle of the rainy season. For a photographer this is a big thing in South East Asia. It can rain in the morning or the afternoon, at dawn or at sunset. It can pour down for an hour, for a whole day or even a whole week. There’s no guarantee that you can even take your camera out of your bag, no matter how long you are here… and I only had two days!
So the question was; what to photograph? Since this was my first trip here with my new Fujifilm X-T3 I considered reshooting the standard tourist sites (which sell well) such as the Royal Palace, the Art Museum, S21 and so on. On that first night, however, on the way to dinner I saw that the Royal Palace was covered in scaffolding and bright blue netting. Scrap that idea. No problem. Let’s do something different. Let’s do the opposite, I decided, after a truly delicious fish amok (Google it!) and more than a few beers at my favorite watering hole; Harry’s Bar on the riverfront. I would try, weather allowing, photographing a variety of locations around the city that most tourists never get to see – not because they can’t, but because they simply aren’t advertised. This is in reality, the difficulty of trying to photograph Phnom Penh. Wherever you are, whether you head North, South, East or West there is an incredible plethora of photographic opportunities; markets, people, pagodas, ancient ruins, stunning new buildings, landscapes, streets, food… anything and almost everything. OK. That was sorted; the difficult thing was deciding where to go and where not to go. The only thing remaining was to wait and see when the monsoon would permit me to photograph.
Well, I’m back at Harry’s enjoying a cold beer and typing these words. Tomorrow morning I fly home. Unfortunately, however, I’m convinced the Khmer Gods hate me. It’s rained a few times each day, but not for long. Not long enough to keep me indoors or prevent me from exploring and taking my camera out. I haven’t had much luck though. The clouds have hidden the sun for all but an hour or two… even when there has been only one small cloud in the sky it’s almost always carefully and knowingly positioned itself between me and whatever I’ve wanted photograph. No direct light. No shadows. No colour. Not that I can really blame Cambodia. Everyone, but for the bus loads of ignorant tourists, knows that that it’s daft to visit at this time of year. Still, I’m not really complaining. I’ve had two great days, seen some great sights that most people will never visit, enjoyed some fantastic Khmer food and tomorrow night I’ll be home with my wife again. What more could I want?
The photographs that follow this short blog will never win any Travel Photographer of the Year awards, but they do give a little idea of a few of the photographic opportunities that await you here in Phnom Penh – and all in only a few hours at the height of the rainy season… I hope you enjoy them… and if you’re ever tempted to visit, please feel free to contact me (using the About page) for any locations or information you might need. Kugara zvakanaka!
The main entrance to Moni Brosithvong pagoda nearSangkat Preaek Pnov in the Northern Suburbs of Phnom Penh.
A contemporary Angkor style temple near Svay Odom.
Tiger at the Gate. A temple guardian at Svay Odom.
Guarding his Gods. At Svay Odom.
Rraksmay Sophonaram Buddhist pagoda near Krasang Village in the Southern Suburbs of Phnom Penh.
Raksmay Sophonaram Buddhist pagoda from the front showing the two (very tall) flag poles.
Entrance to the 12th century Angkor period temple at Tonle Bati - which is still in use today.
Detail from the temple at Tonle Bati.
The modern Buddhist pagoda at Tonle Bati, a short tuk-tuk ride from the city centre. The pyramid-like structures set around the building are the tombs of monks.
Buddha sits under a tree in the garden of the pagoda at Tonle Bati.
In my last post I ranted and raved about how photographers can be so divisive and sometimes downright unpleasant (to put it mildly) about other peoples choices when buying into a camera system. I argued that there are no really bad cameras on the market today but that some cameras are better suited to particular photographic tasks than others. I am sure that you agree with me... that is until I write that the system you use is not my favorite. Then I instantly become some ignorant hack filling the internet with pages of mindless drivel. Nevertheless, I'm going to explore some of the issues related to cameras for use in travel photography and I'm also going to nail my colors to the flag post and explain the specific choices that I have made regarding the photography on display on this site. Let me seal the bunker door, put on my flack jacket. helmet, grab my trusted FN 7.62 and begin...
First, out of all the recognized genera of photography, travel photography must be the hardest to define. I mean we all know what is meant when people talk about landscape photography, or street, food, portrait and documentary photography. Travel photography can be all these otherwise distinct things and much more. How do you define travel photography? In addition is the issue of what the photographs are being taken for. A person wanting some lovely photographs to remember their holiday will have very different requirements to a professional putting together material for an exhibition. Irrespective of these and other issues, I believe that travel photography should leave the viewer feeling that they have been somewhere themselves, and that great travel photography should make people wish that they could go there... hopefully even move them to arranging their own visit. Nothing, and I mean nothing, gives me greater satisfaction than when I get an email from someone who's viewed my images and emailed me for advice on planing their own trip to Vietnam.
Anyway, back to the topic. Due to the vast variety of possible subject matter when you travel to a new destination with your camera, it's essential that you have a lens selection capable of meeting a wide range of demands. On the other hand, most people don't want to carry around a heavy bag with two bodies, seven lenses, two flashes, spare batteries and a laptop. Oh, and don't forget the tripod. You might laugh, but for many years this is exactly what I did. In fact, before the advent of digital photography it was even worse. My gear in those days consisted of two Pentax 67 bodies, a Fuji 617 panoramic camera and what felt like 600 kilos of lenses. Obviously I was younger, fitter and a lot more stupid. The principle remains, however. decide what you think you are likely to shoot the most and select the appropriate lens or lenses.
For many a single super-zoom might be the perfect answer or maybe a long kit lens with a variable aperture. The advantage of this is that it eliminates the need for extra lenses and leaves the photographer with a more upmarket kind of point-and-shoot system which can cover most eventualities well enough. Improving on this might be a two lens selection. For example, a mid-range zoom like a 24-70 provides adequate wide to almost portrait possibilities. Then add to this a second lens that best meets your interests. This could be anything from an ultra wide angle for a landscape photographer or a telephoto lens for wildlife, sports or details. A 70-200 is not a small lens, but many manufactures offer an f/4 version which is both cheaper and lighter. At a push this can be combined with a small tele-converter which adds range with very little loss of image quality. For many years after switching to digital this is pretty much what I did. I carried a Fujifilm body with a Nikon F mount and the Nikon 14-24 and 24-70. For my needs this was a perfect combination. On some trips I would also take a 70-200, but even then I rarely used it. Having said that, a camera body and the 'holy trinity' of lenses isn't a crazy amount to carry and will fit into an average shoulder bay or small backpack quite easily. There can be no doubt that with a set up like this you would be ready for anything and everything your travels present you with. Modern technology has, however, presented us with another choice, and maybe a more difficult one.
Should the travel photographer carry a DSLR or mirrorless system? I am very aware that many people are asking this question, but I'm going to duck it. well, not really. What I will say, is that if you have already invested in a DSLR body and lenses, you should probably stick with them for now. Maybe, if you're a Canikon shooter you can think about changing to mirrorless next time you want to upgrade your body. You can still use your current lenses with the native built mount adapters, and you won't have to replace your entire system at one time. Did you notice what I've just done? I've suggested that no travel photographer would want to replace his or her present DSLR body with another. The future is mirrorless! You might disagree with me, and that's fine, but as someone who spends over half the year away from home and carrying almost all his kit everywhere he goes, you won't get me to change my mind. To be honest with you, for me the biggest advantage of going mirrorless is not the smaller and lighter system, although make no mistake I really feel and appreciate the difference. No, what I enjoy the most are the other advantages of mirrorless systems. A 3.69 million dot 'what-you-see-is-what-you-get' EVF is a game-changer for me. In many culturally sensitive situations a totally silent shutter also allows me to make photographs that I could never have created before. I could go on, but yeah! That's right. I'm one of them.
I mentioned earlier that I used to shoot Fujifilm bodies with Nikon glass. The day eventually came when my fourth or fifth S5Pro body finally gave up the ghost and I just couldn't find another. They had been out of production for some time and I think I'd already bought all the remaining ones in Vietnam. So i switched. No, not to mirrorless. At that time the few mirrorless offerings on the market were laughable wannabee cameras. I bought the Nikon D800E. Wow! What a camera. I though that I'd died and gone to camera heaven. That was eventually relegated to back-up status and I got the D810. Bigger wow! The problem was when the time came to upgrade to the D850. In my opinion it is probably the best DSLR that has ever been produced, but I couldn't do it. I genuinely wanted to, but I just couldn't bring myself to purchase it. I'd been seduced. Some would say I'd lost my mind, but I hadn't. I'd lost my heart. I sold or gave away everything I had... and bought a Fujifilm X-T3. And that is the point of this whole story. The best camera is not always the best camera. It's the camera that enables you to take the best photographs you can take in the specific situations you shoot. Kugara zvakanaka!