24 Dec 2013

6 days, 6 skies: views from my windows

Since I moved to this condo, four months ago, I have realized one thing that had remained somehow hidden to me before: how beautiful the skies of Bangkok usually are. One would expect that such a big city would have dull, grey, polluted skies all year round and, though it's true that the air is not that clean, due in big part to the thousands of cars and motorbikes that roam around the city 24 hours a day, it's not uncommon to find vibrant, colorful and bright skies often, specially around the golden hours. This entry is just a small proof of that. Living in a high floor offers some beautiful rewards!

06:48, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
07:10, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
10:33, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
13:57, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
17:24, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm
18:01, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm

22 Dec 2013

Bang Kachao: the lung of Bangkok

The day started with a bang: a terrific breakfast at a friends' house. We had delayed that meeting for a while and today we finally cleared all our appointments and met at their place at 8:00 am. Their table was already set and appetizing when I arrived, offering all sorts of fruits, bakery, juices and coffee. We ate and talked at the table for a couple of hours, enjoying our postponed chit-chat, but eventually it was time to move on and continue a day that promised to be photographically intense, as I was about to visit an area of Bangkok that I had heard a lot about but I had never had the chance to visit yet. But as I left their condo and I walked down the street, looking for a taxi, I caught a glimpse of a busy market in an adjacent soi and, obviously, my photo-journey started a bit earlier than expected. Welcoming detours as always!

The brightest flower in the bunch I, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
The brightest flower in the bunch II, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Markets are ubiquitous in Bangkok; big or small, crowded or quiet, cleaner or dirtier, early-rising or vespertine, they all have something in common: they are always diverse and surprising, colorful, suggestive, photogenic. It doesn't matter if you pass by in a hurry or wander around the wet, smelly aisles for hours, odds are high that you will grab a few nice pictures. This time I spent about half an hour strolling in and out of the shaded area of the market, letting my camera make a few friends, until I decided to move on.

Atrezzo, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
In & Out I, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
In & Out II, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm 
In & Out III, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
15 taxi-minutes later, I was at Khlong Toei Pier. After taking a precarious boat to cross the mighty Chao Phraya river, I finally reached my intended destination: Bang Kachao pier,  in Phra Pradaeng peninsula. Surrounded by a long meander of the river and linked with the mainland by a distant stretch to the West, Bang Kachao is a somehow hidden expanse of green land in the heart of Bangkok. It's surprising how undeveloped and wild this big area has remained despite Bangkok's rapid growth in the last decades; signs of construction can already be seen in some parts of it, but even today, Bang Kachao truly remains a small oasis of rural Thailand mere minutes from the city center.

Lady with umbrella I, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm 
Lady with umbrella II, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Expect narrow roads and small moobans (villages in Thai language), farmers plowing the fields and wild jungle patches, wooden huts, fishing villages and street markets. But you will also find guesthouses and coffee shops here and there, scattered along the single road, as the place is slowly becoming a popular tourist destination, specially appealing for those looking to scape the noise of the city without traveling too far, and also for the bicycle lovers, as the area is quite traffic-free and vast enough to let cyclists enjoy kilometers of quiet asphalt and ground.

Sunny day I, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Sunny day II, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Don't worry, as soon as you cross the river the first thing you will notice in the pier is, precisely, a bicycle rental shop. Bicycles are quite old and rudimentary (as are the prices, by the way), but all the area is completely flat, so they are more than enough to enjoy a nice day exercising the legs and the eyes. The fact that Bang Kachao is part of a peninsula on the other side of the river makes it quite isolated from the city, which means that you will not see the skyscrapers nor other traces of the urban metropolis from here: the vegetation is thick enough to erase any presence of Bangkok's skyline; you will really feel as if you have left the city well behind you.

Water caprice I, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Water caprice II, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
There is a popular landmark in Bang Kachao, and that is Sri Nakhon Khuean Khan Park. However, the second detour of the day was about to happen, this time a much longer and unexpected one, therefore the park had to wait for a couple of hours more: I spotted a small garden on one side of the road, so I guided my bicycle there, curious to see what it was. It turned out it was a small fishing gallery which contained a camping area in one corner and it was bordered by Chao Phraya river at the end. There was literally nobody around it (Saturday afternoon with a merciless sun above) which seemed to indicate the place might not be of much interest, but maybe it was precisely this abandonment that attracted me. Whatever the reason, I parked my bike at the entrance and walked inside.

Long time parked, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Silent intruder, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
The garden itself consisted only of a little pond with a bridge and a pier for pedal boats, a winding cement alleyway over a small canal, and a main, gravel road under the arched canopy of big, aligned trees. Cozy but average. Nevertheless, I kept on walking ahead, unsure of where exactly that was leading. There were no fences or gates whatsoever blocking the way, so I continued my walk until I reached a dead end: the river. Only now I could see the distant monsters of the city and remember that I was still in Bangkok, after all. But it was just momentarily, for I was about to live one of the most bizarre experiences I have encountered in this city so far, camera in hand.

Deserted watchtower, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
The light is off, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Stairs to an unknown world, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
I backtracked a bit, trying to resume my walk, when I suddenly saw what looked like a big, wooden boat, moored on the border of a small pond. Seconds later, as I walked in that direction, the trees cleared and I realized the boat was connected to a Thai style house that was standing on top of columns in the same pond. A few steps further the small pavilion revealed to be escorted by a perfectly blue swimming pool. Finally, a bigger building took shape behind and it all made sense, all of a sudden: obviously, that was a resort, but I had no idea how I had ended up there and how to leave, for I had seen no signs or indications at all on my way there.

Framed boat, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Thai styles, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Island suite, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
It was indeed a bizarre feeling, walking through a luxurious resort that was, apparently, completely abandoned. I could spot no signs of human presence around me, nor cars or other vehicles, either parked or moving; there were no lights on or doors open. It was all still, quiet, silent. Frozen at 33 degrees. Yet, and this was the most weird thing of all, everything seemed clean and ready, perfectly arranged and maintained to receive the guests at any moment. It was like walking through an amusement park where suddenly everybody had vanished while the attractions were still spinning and the fountains spitting water. That place was alive, yet there was nobody visible. It was just me, and it.

Symmetries, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Hot both sides of the glass, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Searching for light, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Ghost recess, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm 
I slowly walked through the empty galleries and passed by the transparent pools, I saw the tidy bars and admired the lush plants and flowers, cautiously trying to find the way out of that captivating yet creepy place. Maybe an invisible volcano had burnt that resort to ashes and had preserved it in its pristine state but devoid of all human life. Maybe everyone had turned into ghosts by a mysterious curse and were now looking at me with vacant, stareless eyes. I felt uneasy and thrilled with equal measure, but we are humans, after all, and curiosity is always stronger than fear. So I continued for a while, touching nothing, just walking past in the most discreet, unnoticed manner.

The gap, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm 
Music, rest, and water, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Concealed music, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Phantom staircase, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
A cozy corner, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
And then all my suspicions came to life right at the end, when I finally found the magic gate that would return me to our usual human world; disguised between some tree trunks, a hedge and a water pit, there was a gap. I crossed to the other side and then, big and clear, I saw the resort's entrance from outside, totally locked, threatening in its retirement. Wondering no more how all that had happened and what was the meaning of it, I walked away at a faster pace, as if the air around me was less dense now and my body less self-aware of its movements and sounds. In a question of minutes, I was back by my rusty bike's side, relieved. And hungry. Time for lunch and a very cool drink, then!

The way out, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm 
Small maze, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Once my stomach was full, I was ready to go to the place I was supposed to visit all along, the park. It was actually later than I had imagined, sunset was fast approaching, so it was the perfect time to end my journey with a ride along the park paths. Sri Nakhon Khuean Khan Park is very vast and during the weekend, as I soon discovered, quite busy with couples, families, cyclists and photo groups. It is not as well maintained as other parks in the city are, maybe due to its isolation and size, though it is signaled and kept well enough, and its relative wilderness gives it a touch that none of the other urban parks possess, thus making it somehow different and special, in sync with the whole peninsula.

Distant bridge, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
The tiny peninsula, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
Shelter for the unrepentant walkers, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm
And that's how I concluded my long, eventful day. A day I will not forget easily, if at all!

A scene in the park, GH3 + Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm

21 Dec 2013

GM1 & Me: Review of how we met each other

Since the first time I heard about it, I felt curious. I already had a partner, and I was very happy with it; it was not a question of unfaithfulness or betrayal, it just caught my attention at first glance because I had been unconsciously waiting for something of that sort for a while. It's the kind of feeling that you have when you think that you don't need something but, once it is presented to you, immediately you realize that's exactly what you needed all along. And you have no other choice but to stretch out your arm, and grab it. So that's what I did: I preordered it and when, 3 days before the scheduled launch day, I received a call from the store saying that it was already with them, I took a bus and went there in no time, ready to pick it up. It was Friday afternoon and I had a long weekend ahead with nothing to do but to go out, and shoot as much as I could.

Confrontation, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm 
Spinning heads, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
The fact that obviously grabbed my attention at first sight was its diminutive size; not that my regular camera is big, since GH3 is still smaller than most DSLR's and it is really comfortable to hold and to carry over extended periods of time without issues, but after being shooting exclusively with it for almost a year, I had realized that the bulk was still larger than what I would like in some instances; those moments when you don't want to carry with you a dedicated camera bag (as small as that might be, and I use a lowepro flipside 200) but you would still love to have your full camera at hand and not compromise image quality (I'm not a fan of smartphone photography).

Locomotion, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Gardener's tools, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Yes, a camera to carry along with me anywhere I go, unnoticed inside my small handbag along the tablet, the wallet and the customary foldable umbrella; a camera that will always be within reach for those unexpected occasions that pop up when you are off guard: on the way to work, dozy in an early taxi; coming back from the supermarket, hands packed with plastic bags; or even while you enjoy a coffee, reading a book, in your favorite café. I had lost countless stills during the course of the last months for not having a camera at hand, and this was the main reason why this tiny beauty ended up in my possession as soon as it landed in stores. No more wasted opportunities, I told myself. From now on, you can blame none else but your own laziness if this happens again, Gonzalo!

Geometry & color, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
The branch that caught the light, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
That same afternoon, as soon as I reached back home and unpacked the camera, I felt the unstoppable urge of going out and simply shoot. The battery was naturally half depleted, and considering its size, I knew it would not last very long, but I didn't want to waste the last couple of hours of sunlight while it charged, so I grabbed it without any strap or grip, and left my room. I would just stroll around my condominium grounds, testing my new little mate in an environment that I know too well but that, ironically, I had never photographed properly before.

A hollow with views, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
The camera with the kit zoom lens is so small that you don't really need any grip to hold it because the position I found more natural to hold it is with two hands, as you handle a smartphone when you are taking a picture in landscape orientation. However, a strap is helpful; I found the one provided in the package too big for such a small camera (it's actually a neck strap) so I decided to buy a small wrist strap, and that's how I have been carrying the GM1 ever since, hanging from one hand. Don't worry about the swing, it's small and light enough not to swing too much. You will most of the times forget it's there! So on Saturday, with the battery fully charged and the wrist strap ready, I went out again, ready to shoot more and to get to know the handling and responsiveness of the camera better.

Waiting line I, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Waiting line II, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Somehow I ended up in a vast bus repair garage that I had no idea it was there; I entered the spacious and empty terrace and walked amongst the old, damaged buses, taking my time to explore the area, taking pictures along the way. The fact that the camera has no viewfinder (nor hot shoe to attach an external unit) bothered me much less than I had previously anticipated; when I shoot with the GH3, 90% of the time the screen is closed and I shoot exclusively through the EVF; but the GM1 is so different in terms of appearance and handling that I never had any issues at all shooting through the fixed screen; the same way that I naturally handle the camera with 2 hands, very differently to how I handle the bigger GH3, looking through the screen quickly became natural and I can say I have never missed having an EVF in this camera since day one.

Afternoon doze, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm 
Greetings, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
It's like wearing contact lenses or glasses: both aim and achieve the same goal, though they do so following two completely different paths, and the experience of wearing one or another is completely different, specially at the beginning. We all know one thing for sure, however: after a few minutes, who is aware of what he or she is wearing anymore? In my opinion, the mistake, as I have read in many reviews/forums online, is trying to use the camera the way it's not naturally fitted to do, forcing the gear to work in a way that it's not designed to do; we are all different, but isn't is wiser to play to one's strengths rather than trying to use a tool in ways that are uncomfortable for it? 

Remains, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Maybe that's the reason why GM1 and me have connected so well since the beginning: it came to fill a gap that I had in my shooting habits, not to replace or collide with my other camera; it allowed me to expand my photographic reach, offering me opportunities that I didn't have before for not carrying my camera around with me at all times; it has broaden my experience and has taught me some tricks I didn't know before, simply by staying always by my side, concealed in my handbag. My advice is clear: embrace the difference and adapt to it, shape your shooting conditions to the tool you have at hand. If it doesn't work for you, chances are you were expecting something that it never was meant to deliver. I discovered this pretty quickly, and it helped me avoid misconceptions or frustrations. I just preferred spending my time going out the next few days, and shooting some more.

The edge of the realm, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
The castle, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
After the first week of intensive walking and shooting, my idea of what GM1 was became much clearer, and the way I wanted to operate it and work with it took shape: everybody praises the responsiveness of the touch screen, yet for me it was an inconvenience more than a helpful tool; changing the focus point indadvertedly with the right thumb, due to the tiny chasis of the camera and the small frame around the screen, was far too frequent; in the same vein, pressing accidentally the video button that sits exactly in the middle of the grip area for the right thumb was annoying. Faults of the camera design? I would rather consider them sacrifices due to the diminutive size of the camera, and that advantage alone is worth all these small quirks. Solution? I completely disabled both of them.

Portable store, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Converging lines, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
I don't need the touch screen at all (as I said, I never use it in my GH3 either); the kit zoom lens has no focus ring, and the on-screen focusing system is cumbersome at best, so I trust the very fast and accurate autofocus when I shoot with this lens and, believe me, using the proper autofocus settings and aids, it's hard to miss a shot. When I mount another lens with a dedicated focus ring (such as the Olympus M Zuiko 45mm f1.8, which fits this camera like a glove), I switch to manual focus and I work directly with the focus ring in the lens which, in combination with the camera's peaking and other focus helps, works like a charm. The camera has enough physical buttons to assign functions to (and, despite their small size, I don't find them difficult to work with), so I don't need the extra fn buttons of the touch screen, either; and concerning the video button, I don't shoot video spontaneously, and for the planned video shootings, well, I have the GH3.

Mourning for the deceased umbrella, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
In search of assistance, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
All in all, it's been 3 weeks since I got the GM1 and, during these days, it has come with me anywhere I have been to. Taking a few days to get familiar with the camera helped me figure out how to better shoot with it and, once I customized and arranged the different buttons to do what I wanted, it's been a breeze. Obviously, it has some issues that I would like to see improved or corrected, the most notorious for me being a slight shutter delay that I haven't seen mentioned in any review that I have read so far. Since you half press the shutter to lock the autofocus until you press fully and the shutter is released, capturing the picture, there is a small delay; it's not consistent and, when it occurs, is quite small, yet it's noticeable and, during these three weeks, it has cost me a few shots. Nothing too serious, but it's there.

The tongue does not feel what the fingers are touching I, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
The tongue does not feel what the fingers are touching II, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
And, finally, something that I have deliberately ignored up until now: what about image quality? I have mostly used the camera in conjunction with the tiny kit zoom lens (Lumix G Vario 12-32mm) because, as I have already mentioned, that's the purpose I bought the camera for, in the first place: to have a small, portable yet capable system with me at all times. Has it fulfilled its promise? You bet!  I will let the images speak for themselves, but I can confidently say that not only is this combo fast and reliable, but the images produced by it are surprisingly sharp and punchy. I always shoot raw and process in lightroom, and my first impressions comparing this combo to the equivalent one, GH3 + Lumix G X vario 12-35mm f2.8, it's obvious that you loose speed, sure, but the sharpness is almost the same, and both are optically stabilized. The images out of the GM1 seem to me a bit more contrasty and saturated, as well.

Sunrise, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Office view, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm
Having 2 cameras from the same system, each of them focused on a different goal, has definitely let me achieve things that were out of my reach before. At the same time, both cameras can overlap and work concurrently if needed, as well, and both being small, carrying the 2 of them at the same time doesn't feel like a torture at all. You hardly notice the second one, after all! What I can recommend to conclude this self-evaluation is, above all, to get to know your camera inside out, play to its strengths, and minimize its weaknesses. If you get familiar with it, it will become second nature very quickly, all the mechanical part of the process will disappear and all that will remain in the end will be, simply, the pure joy of making photographs.

Falling branches, GM1 + Lumix G Vario 12-32mm