Monday, June 18, 2012

Fujian Pt 2

Traveling with the OMD & G3

Hey fellow photo travel fans, welcome to the second part of the post on my recent trip to the Fujian region of China. Just to recap, I spent eight days on the road in the Fujian region of Southern China shooting with a pretty lightweight kit consisting of the Olympus OMD, Lumix G3, Fuji F600 and a good assortment of M43 primes along with the marvelous, inexpensive Lumix 45-200 zoom. The zoom saw a lot of service for the pattern shots that I mentioned in the last post and I got so much reaction to those shots that I decided to include some more and also add in the overall context so that you can get a better idea of how the shots work. To conclude on the trip I will also take a look at the Hui An coastal region and the stunning Earth Buildings at Tian Luo Keng. So lets get going......

The Pattern Shots

First up here is is the set up for the shots that I took of the boat in the 's' shaped channel created by the poles that protect the waterway and provide the support for the nets to catch crustaceans and shellfish.

The shot is taken from a vantage point on the roof of the local schoolhouse that we were lucky enough to get granted access to - again why you need a local guide. Here is a different variation on the shot that doesn't work quite as well as the others because the pattern and shape is not as strong in the composition. Hopefully you can now get a better idea on how the shot was created though and why a long zoom is simply essential. Most of my traveling companions shot with tripods but I found that the OMD IS worked superbly well and there was enough light to maintain a decent shutter speed. Just remember to switch off the stabilization on the lens if you are using a Lumix OIS version. Full marks to the OMD & Lumix 45-200 combo which worked a treat giving me nice crisp shots. 

For a final look at this set up, here is a shot that works better but I still prefer the vertical shot from the original post.

On to the next location and this was one of my personal favorites for a number of reasons; firstly, the patterns were fantastic, secondly, the boatman rushed back with his catch and also turned out to be a very fine chef who ran a little cafe (more later) where we had lunch. Anyway, here is the context shot for the setting and you can see quite clearly how the sandbanks sit from the vantage point which was a pretty steep climb up a hill behind the estuary.

As with the other location, I think I preferred the vertical shot that I showed in the last post but here is a tighter crop version that works well in Hi Key. Again, the huge pull of the 400mm equivalent on the long end of the Lumix is vital to making this work and while I was shooting with the OMD on a pistol grip with the relatively tiny Lumix zoom, my fellow travelers were all on tripods with 2X extenders on their 70-200's. That's a huge difference in weight to carry up these hills and to be honest I don't think there is much to choose from in the results.

I mentioned in answer to a comment that I got from the post that Steve Huff did that, for me these pattern shots are 'being there' takes, in that any competent photographer could get similar ones if they could find the same locations. Part of the technique on these shots though is timing and the one above is just slightly off as its better to catch the boatman pushing the pole at full extension. On the timing issue, I found the OMD to be highly responsive and much easier to move the focus points on than the G3. It was also capable of nice little bursts and the bracketing is relatively simple to implement although not in the league of the outstanding GF1, am I alone in thinking that the GF1 shooting dial should be copied on every camera? I mentioned previously that the boatman in these shots was a damn fine cook and he rustled us up a marvelous lunch in his little cafe before relaxing to enjoy his own work with his mother watching over. A quick point here, Steve Huff and others pointed out that the Jpg's in vivid mode can be a little over-saturated, particularly in skin tones and this is spot on. I had to use some Jpg's prior to Adobe releasing the RAW converter for Lightroom 4 and also found this to be the case. Vivid renders bright punchy colors that are useful in certain scenes but it doesn't work well on Asian skin so just be careful if you are using it. Apart from that, I thought the Jpg's looked great out of the camera.

Here is the final location and context shot and this turned out to be a very challenging shooting situation as it was wet and overcast. Much has been made of the water resistance of the OMD and its a pretty handy feature. Even although I don't have the weatherproofed kit lens I had the camera and lens in a ziplok bag and felt a sense of added confidence that even although my hands were wet, there would be no problem with the camera. Well done Olympus and its crazy to read critics complaining about the control buttons being a little spongy, that to me seems an obvious consequence of the water sealing and a small trade off to make. Personally, I think dust sealing is more important for the kind of travel work I do and I have never had a single dust related problem with any of my M43 cameras. The OMD looks to take that to a new level of robustness, a big plus in my eyes.

I left the negative space and blueish cast in this photo as I felt it gave a sense of the misty, damp morning and huge expanse of the scene. I tried a few different takes on this location because I loved the shapes and textures but in all honestly the light was just too bad, this is about the best of the efforts. 

Here's the final shot from this location and again, I just didn't have enough light in the misty conditions so went for an atmospheric shot instead. I think when you travel that sometimes you just have to make the best of what your given, although I must say I would love to go back here on a better day, its a great scene to shoot.

The next few photos are my personal favorites of all of the vantage point pattern shots and its mainly because we were eventually blessed with some decent light at this location. You can see the context below and get some feel for how high we were above the actual scene. Incidentally, these first two shots were taken with the Fuji F600 which I find to be a nice handy pocket camera.

As I hope you can see these two shots were taken in quick succession but look at how the impact changes when you zoom in and start to isolate the subject.

As I said, the light here was the best we had on the whole trip and it is just as well as, unlike the other pattern shots, there were no stakes or man made shapes to aid the shooting. This required the sunset light to make it work and give the required contrast. You can see from the following shot what I felt was the most interesting blend of the pattern and contrasty sunset light. This occurred in the area where the tide and waves had left a ripple pattern in the sand. At first I didn't think I was going to get the shot as none of the fisherwomen walked past that area until eventually, at long last I managed to catch one going across the best area. Like the other pattern shots its important to try to get a clean shot of the subject in good motion and also to get the full reflection if possible. I didn't quite make it with the reflection but I think there is enough there to make it work.

Ok, two non pattern locations to go and first up are the magnificent Earth Buildings at Tian Luo Keng.  The buildings in this complex are figuratively known as 'four dishes and a soup' because of their layout and there is a piece of local folklore that the American CIA located them from a surveillance satellite and believed them to be a missile installation from the unique layout. American visitors are therefore treated with humor as being 'CIA spies' come to verify. Either way, the buildings despite, being constructed from earth around a wooden skeleton, have been around for 700 years or thereabouts.

Again, the wet, misty weather followed us from the coast so it was very challenging to shoot anything meaningful. I did find that the drop down graduated filter effect in Lightroom can be a bit of a life saver for these kind of shots. This takes me to one of the few criticism's I have of the M43 system and that is that the lenses are too small to effectively use grad filters. I would much prefer to get the shot right at the point of taking it as, despite the advances in software, it always introduces a trade off of some sort when you start any kind of heavy manipulation. For this reason I find it best to keep use of the effect light. Interestingly on this subject, if you get a chance have a look at how the amazing Bert Stephani uses the Lightroom grad filter to give vignette effects in his portraits. All done with a GF1 and a tiny flash, great stuff Bert.

As I mentioned in the previous Fujian post, its always a good idea to force yourself to shoot a vertical as well and I am glad I did so here as I like the perspective.
Aside from the Earth Buildings, the main reason to come here as a photographer is to shoot the people of this area in their round village environment. Many fantastic street shooting style opportunities will come your way and I have to say that both the G3 and the OMD are great for this kind of shooting with their touchscreen focus and shoot, coupled with the lightening fast focusing. Here are a couple of good examples taken with the G3 and Lumix 20 F1.7. 

The subjects were a mother and daughter and, although they had no English, the universal tried and tested travel photography technique of patience, a warm smile and some simple gestures worked wonders. As did buying a small bag of their delicious tea :)

In the same building I also came across this superb musician who was carrying on the family tradition of making and playing these lovely wind instruments and flutes. He treated us to a virtuoso performance and was very happy to pose for these shots.

When I am shooting subjects like this I usually have two cameras round my neck, one with a widish angle and something like a 40 or 50mm equivalent to get tighter shots. The reason I do this is that I like to take a subject plus context shot first using the wider angle lens and then quickly tighten up with the standard type lens. This gives good variation and, as I have stressed before, don't forget to shoot both horizontal and vertical. For some reason I am a horizontal shooter by nature and I really have to discipline myself to shoot in vertical but it usually pays dividends.

This isn't a particularly good example of the point i am trying to make as it was very tight in the small shop but I did want to show the photo on the wall of what I assumed were the owners father or uncles. This helped a little with the story before going in tight to focus on him and the instrument.

Again, these were pretty low light shots and required faster lenses. This is an important aspect of the M43 system for me in that I find the lenses work great wide open with no compromise to the IQ. This is a major factor that is often overlooked and I read a lot about Nikon and Canon lenses working best when stopped down a little. This good IQ wide open appears to be a trait that the best M43 lenses share with Leica and its a huge advantage of the system. Here are a few final shots that will hopefully give some idea of what the earth buildings are like and also a couple of shots of the locals.

Shooting the locals was a bit hit and miss, with some being ok and others actively discouraging it. This nice lady was very happy to be photographed and one of my traveling companions from Singapore speaks Mandarin and was able to chat to her while I shot. We also bought a couple of her fried bread sticks which are ridiculously cheap and very filling.

Last up, this guy was laughing because the woman who was sitting with them started to berate me and moved off as soon as I raised the camera, he found this hilarious and graciously allowed me to shoot. 

Final stop for this post was at Hui An and we were lucky enough to be able to photograph some of the local women in their colorful traditional costume. These women are famous for their work ethic and they can be found fishing and even laboring on construction sites. In fact the lovely ladies we shot headed straight off in the rain to a local building site.

This nice tight shot was taken with the very nice Olympus 45mm F1.8 which I am finding to be a lightweight marvel. Its not a focal length that I am very comfortable with as I prefer the 24 to 40 zone but I am working on it and there is no question in my mind that it is an extremely capable piece of glass. It works really well in combination with the OMD because of the in-body stabilization and fast aperture which also works really well wide open. 

This is an nice example of the colorful traditional costume hat and scarf combination. Unfortunately it rained heavily again at this location so the light wasn't very favorable. In addition to being bright and colorful the costume also has intricate embroidered detail which is complemented by lovely silver belts.

As I said, the weather was not favoring us and frustratingly we had to call it a day as the girls (and photographers) were getting very wet. I felt a bit frustrated as they were very approachable and photogenic and I think I missed out on what was potentially a very nice and relatively unique travel photography opportunity. never mind, always a good reason to go back :) 

One thing you can do when the weather turns bad is head to a local market and I managed to catch a nice candid of the this stall-holder as the light was fading.

Well that's about it from Fujian folks but I would like to finish with a similar shot to the opener which is of course one of the staged shoots much beloved by Chinese photographers who seem to thrive on smokey scenes. Its easy to be disdainful of these set ups but personally, although I don't see much photographic merit in them, I do thrive on the technical challenge that they represent and its not that easy to get this kind of lighting right.

I was really surprised at how well the OMD and G3 handled the difficult lighting and when I got the RAW files into Lightroom it was very easy to get them to look the way I wanted. I know that Steve Huff picked up on the dynamic range available in the OMD RAW files and I can certainly confirm that there is a lot of leeway to work the shadows and highlights.

Anyway, that's it folks, I hope that this has been at least a little interesting and informative to anyone thinking of going to Fujian. I mentioned in my last post that I was going to Tibet and Nepal at the end of the month but the Chinese Government have closed the border to tourists following some local unrest. That was a bummer but by sheer luck I managed to get booked onto a Peter Turnley workshop in Istanbul, every cloud and all that......

More on this in my next post along with some thoughts on what kit I will be taking for what is essentially going to be street shooting with a photojournalistic edge. In the meantime, please don't hesitate to drop me a note or leave a comment if their is anything I can help with or expand on in relation to this post.




  1. Lovely shots and worth the wait (after Part 1!) You mention early in the post that the JPEGS look great (agreed!) and then apparently you are doing RAW processing on others. I am diving into RAW post-processing on images from an OMD for the first time and wondering how you personally decide when you want to bring out more from an image and when you let the camera decide how to compress it. The patterns indeed, do evoke a Chinese brush and ink landscape feel. Unique and memorable!

  2. Hi, firstly, thanks for looking and I appreciate your very kind comment.

    On the Jpeg/RAW subject, I shoot RAW + Jpeg in the camera but only because I like to edit some shots on the fly in Snapseed on my Ipad and it will only work with Jpeg's. I would always take the RAW file into Lightroom for everything else. What I discovered to my pleasant surprise was that I couldn't improve the OMD Jpeg's in Snapseed, everything I did made them look worse !!!! So for me that's a huge testament to the OMD engine quality. depending on how you intend to use and save your work I would have thought there would be no problem with using these lovely Jpeg's as long as you are careful with the exposure. My preferance though is to shoot everything in RAW and that way I have the true data to store and it also gives much more flexibility in editing the robust OMD files.
    I hope this answers your question and happy shooting with the OMD.



  3. In the photo on the wall behind the musician, one of the two figures is Mao zedong if I'm not wrong.

  4. Hey, thanks. I couldn't recognise anyone in them so assumed they were relatives :) you might well be right though.



  5. Hey Colin--wonderful shots again and I'm glad I revisited.
    I wonder, for the people shots do you use the finder or find focusing via LCD a bonus as you can keep eye contact. Talking about the LCDs ... any opinion on the different interpretations of variable angel LCD in the G3 and the EM5?


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