By Graham K. Rogers
I had not intended to buy a new lens, but there you are: some products almost sell themselves. With a day off work, I thought that the ideal way to try the lens out would be to take a trip on the railway to Mahachai, although with so many people shopping, it was far more busy than usual.
I made a trip to Central Pinklao on Sunday to pick up some of the essential supplies I thought I would need for the new year holiday to add to what I had already bought in Siam the day before. While in Central, I made a small detour to the camera shop I always use there: Sunny Camera.
On Xmas Day I had dinner at a friend's apartment in hi-so Bangkok. All of the guests were connected in some way with news media and had some interesting stories about experiences: good and bad. I had a chat with a freelance photographer (most of the others were video guys) and we talked lenses among other things.
There was some good advice. The best suggestions I have ever had about taking pictures, have come from people who do the job and not books. Published help can fill in some gaps, but the hands-on ideas come from those who are involved on a real level.
The subject of closeup photographs came up and he showed me a lovely picture, taken with a Nokia phone (it was good) of a lady in Vietnam. "You have to get in their face," he said. I do not like this and use a telephoto lens for many face shots. This is OK, he explained, if you are further away; but the problem with many pictures is that there is "too much air" between the lens and the subject.
The idea of the best lens for this type of photography came up and it was pointed out that the 24mm lens I have would produce distortion in a face (true), so a better lens would be a 50mm or 85mm. I have a 50mm lens but I am not too struck by this. He suggested that the 85mm gives a nice effect with the background nicely out of focus, while the face is nicely proportioned. Cropping? "Get in their face."
In Sunny Camera I asked about a catalogue, but instead of this, the salesman reached for the display cabinet and brought out a Nikon 85mm lens then suggested I should try it on my camera. I was half-way to being seduced. I took a few shots of him and he took a couple of me. I don't want to say that vanity had anything to do with this, but they were good. I do not like to be photographed, but these caught me well.
I also liked the way the motor in the lens adjusted the automatic focus faster even than my 24mm lens. The 70-300mm telephoto lens I also use is slow to focus. The price at just over 16,000 baht was within reach, although I had not intended on such a purchase at this time. I was almost sold. A slight discount finished the job.
At home, I tried out the lens some more, including some macro shots with the extension tubes I have; and a night shot of a temple nearby was another confirmation that this lens was going to be a new favourite. But I needed an extended try; and Monday was a free day, just before new year. Using the railway also had the advantage that I would avoid the roads, which are lethal at this time of year. I had also made this trip earlier in the month; but this was to be quite different
From my apartment I can hear the trains go in and out of Bangkok (17 times a day each way), although I am now so used to them that the early morning ones do not disturb me; and the others just register for a moment.
The line was built to bring produce from Samut Sakhon to Bangkok and was privately owned. It is now part of Thai State Railways, but it is separate from the rest of the railway system. There is also a second section that runs from Ban Laem and Samut Sakhon, but this has fewer trains and is having much overdue maintenance right now.
I heard the 09:44 train leaving Bangkok and that was my signal for the shower. By the time I was dressed, I had about 15 minutes. It is a 5 minute walk and I arrived at Thaladphlu Station in plenty of time. A short walk in the other direction brings me to Thalad Phlu BTS station (note the different spelling) which is part of Bangkok's growing suburban rail system.
I had not seen (or heard) the train go in to Wongwian Yai, so waited at the road, hoping to catch a couple of photographs. When I heard it behind me, I ran to the ticket office as the train pulled in, but the clerk told me to pay on the train. In the end, I did not as the ticket collector missed me each time, to the great amusement of other passengers, one of whom said that this was my Happy Xmas from Thailand. 10 baht: but it made them happy. I later spoke to one of them in the street at Mahachai - an older lady - who came from Bangkok just to shop in the street market.
The carriage was almost full, but I managed to find a seat on the left side, but facing the way we had come. This side of the train does not have so many reasonable photo opportunities. Siting facing the way we had come makes this worse as by the time I see anything, it has gone.
I was carrying two cameras: the Nikon D7000 I usually use, and my older Nikon D70. The new 85mm lens was attached to the D7000, with the Tamron 70-300mm lens on the D70. After a few missed shots, I switched the Tamron for the wider angle 24mm lens.
I had missed a couple of shots trying to use the 85mm as they were too close and I was unable to frame the images. Even at the relatively slow speed the train was going, it was difficult to focus at times, so there were limits to what I was able to do, especially as on this line, there is so much high plant growth near to the track at times.
At Mahachai, the train used Platform 2. There was a train at Platform 1 waiting to go. The number of passengers getting off the train and others milling about at the station which is adjacent to a busy market, meant that leaving the environs was slow going.
I looked at the station yard for a couple of minutes, then changed the lens again on a bench. As I was working, the kids of a man sitting on the bench came up and were really friendly. The girl was 4 and the boy was 6. She is a natural and was quite at home being photographed even if he was a little more shy.
Outside the station, the going was slower still. It was the busiest I have ever seen Mahachai. The street runs parallel to the river, so some seafood processing factories are nearby, and most of the street is given over to selling sea foods: fresh and processed. There are also some fruit stalls and close by I also some some duck for sale as well as other fowl.
It was in this environment that the 85mm lens was at its best and I was able to take a couple of hundred photographs quite easily without much interference of those walking by, and who were the subjects of the pictures.
At the end of the street, it is a short walk to the ferry which takes people to the Ban Laem side. That is where the other section of the railway starts. It is under repair right now and the maintenance should be ended by February, but I will be checking back to see when this is done as I have another ride planned for that line.
Before taking the ferry, I always stop for lunch at a noodle shop that is on the left here, opposite the small park. The vegetables used in the bowl are fresh and not overcooked, while the pork is sliced thickly and all is in a rich gravy. With a bottle of ESP (the brand that took over when the company here dumped Pepsi), the lunch was 50 baht (under US$2). Normally, I come just before noon and there is a choice of where to sit. Today, it was packed like the rest of the town and I had the last free table.
Like everything else, the park, the Chinese temple there, and the ferry were all teeming. Everybody had to wait while the foot passengers and motorcycle riders disembarked; then we loaded up and made the slow trip across the river.
I had expected that, as it was New Year, the fishing fleet would be in, but the whole river area was almost empty. Perhaps Mahachai is just the factory port and the boats are based in other places. There were a few more birds than I had seen last time, but not as many as in April or May. As in any estuary, there were gulls.
Across the river, Ban Laem is far quieter, but there were still a significant number of people around. As trains were not running at this time of day - although there was a new sign to help tourists find the station - I walked in the other direction, first coming across some rickshaw drivers: the one I spoke to was 70 and still fit. There were other younger people and most over this side seemed quite happy.
I only stayed on the Ban Laem side for a short while, then headed back to the ferry and Mahachai where I sat in the riverside park for half an hour. I checked the time of the next train on the timetable I keep on my iPhone. Although I was back at the station in plenty of time, there were already scores of people waiting, but at the end of the platform.
This time, I did buy a ticket, then moved to the middle area of Platform 2. The train would arrive at Platform 1, but doors both sides were always opened, so while most struggled to alight one side, we could start piling on the other.
With this strategy, I found a seat, on the right side, facing the way the train was going, so if there were photo opportunities, I would be better placed. Westerners who live in Bangkok, sometimes joke about "the last seat on the bus" as some Thais are reluctant to sit next to us; but today, I had the last section in the train as some debated whether to join me in the four seats available, or stand.
When one couple did (reluctantly sit), they were looking around still. When another seat became vacant, they were off. I find this amusing, but still offensive in a way.
The journey back to town was quiet, but there were not too many good photo chances for me. Just before my station, I packed the cameras away and when the train stopped, got off the wrong side and walked the short distance home.
While in Mahachai, I checked with the sellers. It was busy today, but the market will also be open on New Year's Eve (31 December).
And a Happy New Year to all.
Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.