Category Archives: Myanmar Travel Blog

Notes from my photographic trip to Myanmar in 2017

The British Government Reviews Its Brexit Strategy

Poly-tickle commentary
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 24-11-2018 09:49 | Resolution: 2409 x 3213 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/500s | Aperture: 4.9 | Focal Length: 193.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

Sorry it’s a bit fuzzy and not properly focused, but that’s nothing to do with my photography!

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3D Photos from Myanmar

Small temple at the Swedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 10-02-2017 08:22 | Resolution: 5240 x 3275 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/80s | Aperture: 14.0 | Focal Length: 21.0mm | Location: Shwedagon Pagoda | State/Province: Wingaba, Yangon | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

I’ve just finished processing my 3D shots from Myanmar. If you have a 3D TV or VR goggles, download a couple of the files from the following link and have a look.

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Travel Blogging and Photo Editing

Weaver's hand
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 17-02-2017 11:39 | Resolution: 5184 x 3456 | ISO: 1600 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/40s | Aperture: 4.5 | Focal Length: 30.0mm | Location: Weaving village at In Paw Khone | State/Province: Inbawhkon, Shan | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

I’ve been asked a number of times recently how I manage to write my blog during the often hectic schedule of my trips. It is sometimes a challenge, but it’s something that I want to do, and so I make it a priority for any "down time". I don’t see it as a chore, but as a way of enhancing my enjoyment, re-living the best experiences, working through any frustrations, and building valuable memories. If I’m travelling without Frances then there’s a lot of overlap with my report home, and if we’re travelling together then drafting the blog has become an enjoyable joint activity for coffee stops and dinner times.

That said, there are a few tricks to make the task manageable, and I’m happy to pass on some of those I have developed.

There’s no great magic to the writing. The main ingredient is practice. However I do spend quite a lot of time thinking through what to say about a day, trying to draft suitable paragraphs in my mind. If it was good enough for Gideon it’s good enough for me :). It is useful to capture ideas and even draft words whenever you get an opportunity, even on the go: travel time in buses and coffee stops are ideal. I just start drafting an email to myself on my phone, which can be saved at any time, reopened to add more as the day goes on, and sent before I start writing the blog.

The other important tool is a blogging app on your device which works offline and can save multiple drafts locally. I use the excellent Microsoft Live Writer on my PC, and the WordPress app on my phone and tablet, but any decent text editor would do. I would strongly counsel against trying to do travel blogging directly onto an online service – you will just be too obstructed by connectivity challenges.

Images are the other part of the equation. It’s very easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of images, especially if you shoot prolifically like I tend to do, and if you have a relatively slow processing workflow. The first trick is to shoot RAW+JPG, so you always have something which you can share and post, even if it’s not perfect. As I observed in a previous post, you don’t need perfect in this context, and it would be rare if you didn’t from a day’s shooting have a least one image good enough in camera to share.

However, as long as I have at least some time, I do try to perform a basic edit (filter) on my shots, and process at least the one or two I want to publish to my blog. That requires a robust but quick and efficient workflow. Different photographers work different ways, but the following describes mine.

Importantly, I don’t use LightRoom or the image management features in Photoshop. Neither do I use Capture One’s catalogue features. All my image management takes place directly in Windows, supported by the excellent XnView and a few tools of my own making. I find that this is both quicker, and puts me in direct control of the process, rather than at the mercy of a model which might not suit.

The first step is to copy (not move) the images off the memory card. If I have only used one card in a session, I find it perfectly adequate to just connect the camera via USB – this works quite quickly, and avoids fiddling with card readers. As long as I have sufficient cards I don’t re-format them until I’m home (just in case something happens to the PC), nor do I do much in-camera deleting, which is very cumbersome.

In terms of organisation I have a top-level directory on each laptop called "Pictures" under which is a directory called "Incoming". This is synchronised across all my computers, and holds all "work in progress". Under that I have two master directories for each year or major trip, and then subdirectories for each event. So for Myanmar I will have top level directories called "Myanmar 2017" (for output files and fully-processed originals) and "Myanmar 2017 – Incoming" (for work in progress). Under the latter I would typically have a directory for the images from each day’s shooting, e.g. "Lake Inle Day 2". On the "output" side I will typically have a directory for each location, plus one for all the originals (RAW files and Capture One settings), but I could easily also end up with others for video, and particular events or topics such as the group.

Having copied the pictures over to the right working directory, I fire up XnView. The first step is to run a batch rename process which sets each image filename to my standard, which includes the date (in YYYYMMDD format), the camera and the number assigned by the camera, so all shots from a given camera will always sort alphabetically in shot order, and I can immediately see when an image was taken and on which camera. After that I run a script which moves all "multi-shot" images into sub-directories by type (I shoot panoramas, HDR, focus blends and 3D images each using a distinct custom mode on the camera) and takes these out of the main editing workflow.

The next step is to "edit" the images, by which I mean filtering out the bad, poor, and very good. Because I have JPG files for each shot, I can set XnView to sort by file type, and quickly scan all the JPG files in full screen mode, tagging each (using shortcut keys) on the following scheme:

  • Two stars means "delete". This is for images which are beyond use: out of focus, blurred, subject not fully in the frame. These will be moved to the wastebasket, and once that’s emptied, they are gone forever.
  • Three stars means "others". This is for images which are technically viable but which I don’t think merit processing. The obvious candidates are things like alternative people shots where the expressions weren’t ideal (but I have a better shot) or where I took a few slightly different compositions and some obviously don’t work. However this is also where I park duplicates or the unwanted frames from high-speed sequences. When I get home the JPGs will be deleted and the RAW files moved to an old external hard drive to free up disk space.
  • Four stars means "OK". This is for technically and compositionally adequate images, albeit which may not be the best, or may need substantial processing work.
  • Five stars means "good". These are the images which leap out at a quick viewing as "yes, that’s going to work".

Having tagged the images in the working folder, I have another script which deletes the two star images, moves the "others", and creates a .XMP file marking the five star images with a colour tag which can be read by Capture One. I can also copy the in-camera JPG versions of the 5 star images as a starting point for my portfolio, although these will be replaced by processed versions later.

The thing about the tagging process is to keep going, quickly, but err on the side of caution (so tag borderline delete as 3 star, and borderline others as 4 star). I can usually work through at an image every one or two seconds, so the first filter of an intensive shoot of 500 images takes less than 20 minutes. At this point I have typically reduced the retained images by 40-60%, but that varies by subject matter and the percentage of rejects can be much higher for challenging subjects such as high-speed action but also people other than professional models, where a lot get rejected for poor expressions. The reason I’ve chosen the image at the top is that I love trying to capture hands at work, but that’s another subject with a high "miss" rate. I also find that I fairly consistently mark about 4-5% of shots as 5 star.

I don’t just delete the "others", because there is the occasional case where my selected shot of a group turns out to have a major flaw, and it’s worth reviewing the options. More importantly, for family events, weddings and the like there’s the occasional "didn’t anyone take a picture of Aunty Ethel?" I rescued a friend of mine from a serious family bust-up when it emerged that the official photographer at his wedding hadn’t taken a single photo of my friend, the groom’s parents! On the case, I found a shot in "others" which after processing kept everyone happy.

At this point, and only then, I start up Capture One and navigate to the target working directory. It takes a minute or two to perform its first scan, and then I can change the sort order to "colour tag", and there are the best of the day’s images, right at the top of the list ready to select a couple for the blog and process them. 90% of the time I restrict processing changes to the crop and exposure (levels and curves) – I wouldn’t usually select for the blog any image needing more than that. Finish the words, and I’m ready to post my blog.

From plugging in the camera to posting typically takes around an hour. There’s some scope for multi-tasking, so I can work on the words (or get a cup of tea) while the images are downloading from the camera, or while posting the images to my website (which in my case is a separate step from posting the blog). As a by-product, I have performed my first edit on the shoot, and have more or less the best images prioritised for further processing.

And I have an enduring and sharable record of what I did on my holidays!

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The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

Buddha at Pa-Hto-Thar-Myar Pagoda, camera lying on bag!
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 11-02-2017 12:14 | Resolution: 4072 x 5429 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: 0.66 EV | Exp. Time: 1.6s | Aperture: 4.5 | Focal Length: 7.0mm | Location: Pa-Hto-Thar-Myar Pagoda | State/Province: Nyaung-U, Mandalay | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 7-14/F4.0

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good. I’m not sure who first explained this to me, but I’m pretty sure it was my school metalwork teacher, Mr Bickle. Physically and vocally he was a cross between Nigel Green and Brian Blessed, and the rumour that he had been a Regimental Sergeant Major during the war was perfectly credible, especially when he was controlling a vast playing field full of chatty children without benefit of a bell or megaphone. However behind the forbidding exterior was a kindly man and a good teacher. When my first attempt at enamel work went a bit wrong, and some of the enamel ended up on the rear of the spoon, I was very upset. He kindly pointed out that it was still a good effort, and the flaw "added character". My mother, another teacher, agreed, and the spoon is still on her kitchen windowsill 45 years later.

I learned an important lesson: things don’t need to be perfect to be "good enough", and it’s better to move on and do something else good than to agonise over imperfections.

I also quickly found that this is a good exam strategy: 16/20 in all five questions is potentially top marks, whereas 20/20 in one and insufficient time for the others could mean a failure. The same is true in some (not all) sports: the strongman who is second in every event may go home with the title.

Later, in my training as a physicist and engineer, I learned a related lesson. There’s no such thing as an exact measurement or a perfectly accurate construction. I learned to think in terms of errors, variances and tolerances, and to understand their net effect on an overall result. When in my late 20s I did some formal Quality Management training the same message emerged a different way: in industrial QA you’re most interested in ensuring that all output meets a defined, measureable standard, and the last thing you want is an individual perfectionist obstructing the process.

Seeking perfection can easily lead to a very low (if high quality) output, and missed opportunities. It also risks absolute failure, as perfectionists often have no "Plan B" and limited if any ability to adapt to changing circumstances. "Very good", on the other hand, is an easy bedfellow with high productivity and planning for contingencies and changes.

I adopt this view in pretty much everything I do: professional work, hobbies, DIY, commercial relationships, entertainment. I hold myself and others to high standards, but I have learned to be tolerant of the odd imperfection. This does mean living with the occasional annoying wrinkle, but I judge that to be an acceptable compromise within overall achievement and satisfaction. Practice, criticism (from self and others) and active continuous improvement are still essential, but I expect them to make me better, not perfect.

The trick, of course, is to define and quantify what is "good enough". I then expect important deficiencies against such a target to be rectified promptly, correctly and completely. In my own work, this means allowing some room for change and correction, whether it’s circulating an early draft of a document to key reviewers, or making sure that I can easily reach plumbing pipework. If something must be "set in stone" then it has to be right, and whatever early checks and tests are possible are essential, but it’s much better to understand and allow for change and adjustment.

In the work of others, it means setting or understanding appropriate standards, and then living by them. After I had my car resprayed, I noticed a small run in the paint on the bonnet. Would I prefer this hadn’t happened? Yes. Does it prevent me enjoying my unique car and cheerfully recommending the guys who did the work? No. Professionally I can and will be highly critical of sloppy, incomplete or inaccurate work, but I will be understanding of odd errors in presentation or detail, providing that they don’t affect the overall result or number too many (which is in turn another indicator of poor underlying quality).

So why have I written this now, why have I tagged it as part of my Myanmar photo blog, and why is there a picture of the Buddha at the top? In photography, there are those who seek to create a small number of "perfect" images. They can get very upset if circumstances prevent them from doing so. My aim is instead to accept the conditions, get a good image if I can, and then move on to the next opportunity. At the Pa-Hto-Thar-Myar Pagoda I (stupidly) arrived without my tripod, and had to get the pictures resting my camera on any convenient support using the self timer to avoid shake, in this case flat on its back on my camera bag on the temple floor. Is this the best possible image from that location? Probably not. Am I happy with it? Yes, and if I have correctly understood Buddhist principles, I think the Buddha would approve as well.

It is in humanity’s interest that in some fields of artistic endeavour, there are those who seek perfection. For the rest of us, perfection is the wrong target.

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Myanmar Musings (What Worked and What Didn’t)

Scarf seller at Thaung Yoeu
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 15-02-2017 17:37 | Resolution: 3888 x 3888 | ISO: 1600 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/25s | Aperture: 9.0 | Focal Length: 33.0mm | Location: Thaung Yoeu ladies and pagoda ru | State/Province: Indein, Shan | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Well, I’m back! Apart from a mad dash the length of Bangkok airport which got us to our plane to the UK with only a couple of minutes to spare, the flights home were uneventful and timely. Here’s my traditional tail-end blog piece, with a combination of “what worked and what didn’t” and more general musings.

This was a truly inspiring photographic trip, with a combination of great locations, events and people to photograph. We had a very capable “leadership team” who got us to great locations in great light, and the Burmese people were only too happy to participate in the process. No praise can be too high for our local guide, Nay Win Oo (Shine), who is not only a great guide and competent logistician, but has a good feel for what makes great photography, and a real talent for directing the local people as models.

If I have a minor complaint, it’s the observation that the trip was largely focused on interiors and people to the occasional exclusion of landscapes and architecture. I had to declare UDI a couple of times to get a bit more of the latter subject matter in front of my lens. Bhutan was perhaps a better match to my own style, but that didn’t stop this trip being a great source of images.

Cameras and Shot Count

The Panasonic GX8 was the workhorse of the trip, and took approximately 3690 exposures. That’s about 20% higher than either Bhutan or Morocco, both of which were slightly longer trips, and reflects the more “interactive” nature of the photography, with a rather higher discard ratio than normal. As usual the total also includes raw material for quite a lot of multi-exposure images, mainly for 3D and panoramas. I expect to end up with 100-200 images worth sharing, which is about the norm.

I took around 84 stills on the Sony RX100, mainly “grab shots” from the bus, but it came into its own for video, and I have a number of great video clips, more than  on previous trips. I also took a handful of images using the infrared-converted Panasonic GX7, but whether due to the subject matter or the lighting they weren’t terribly inspiring.

I used my Ricoh Theta 360-degree camera several times, mainly in the markets and at the group mealtimes. I’m treating this as “found photography” – I haven’t had much of a look yet at what was captured, and will look forward to exploring the output over time.

My equipment all behaved faultlessly. I used all the lenses a reasonable amount, with the Panasonic 12-35mm doing the lion’s share as expected, but the 7-14mm, 35-100mm and 100-300mm all getting substantial use. I didn’t use the camera on my new Sony Experia Ultra phone, but its excellent GPS was a vast improvement over the Galaxy Note’s poor performance in Bhutan.

I also did not use the Panasonic GX7 which I was carrying as a spare, but was able to lend it as a complete solution to another member of the group when her Canon L Series zoom lens started misbehaving. Having been burned previously I always carry a spare everything, and that’s a lot easier with the diminutive Panasonic kit.

Human Factors

While technology was broadly reliable, human systems were more challenged. The combined effects of the intensive schedule and the expected risk of tummy bugs led to as fairly high attrition rate. At least half the group missed a shoot or a meal, and a couple were quite ill for a couple of days. I was lucky that my own “wobble” was brief and started within a quick walk of a five star hotel. I would advise most travellers to think in terms of “when” not “if”, and definitely avoid all uncooked food.

Hotels and restaurants were clean, and even out and about most washrooms were acceptable. Similarly temple areas were kept clean, with the fact that all shoes are removed at the entrance a clear contributor. The challenge is in the more general areas, especially in the towns and cities, where any surface you touch may also have been touched by many others. Money is a particular challenge. All you can do is to keep sanitising your hands, but also bags, cameras, wallets and other items which you may have to touch with dirty hands.

Our Burmese travel agents certainly did everything they could to reduce stress.  Once we arrived in Burma responsibility for our large luggage and travel documents began and ended with putting our bags outside the room at the appointed time. Then we just got on the bus, walked through the airport picking up a boarding pass as we passed Shine, and that’s about it! I could get used to travelling that way…

With someone else doing the “heavy lifting” (quite literally in the case of my case), you can get around with two phrases and 3 gestures:

  • Minga-la-ba, which is a polite “good day” exchanged between any two people who make eye contact. The choruses in the school and markets were fascinating! This can be used to cover a multitude of sins, and works very well as “please can I take your photograph?”
  • Che-su-ba, which means “thank you”. ‘Nuff said.
  • The smiley face and thumbs up, which work when you’re not close enough to use Minga-la-ba and che-su-ba.
  • A gesture consisting of the left hand held out at table level, palm up, with the right hand held about a foot above it, palm down. This is universally interpreted as “I would like a large Myanman beer, please” 🙂

Burmese Bizarre

Myanmar is a bit bizarre in a number of ways. Let’s start with the name. Myanmar (pronounce “mee…” not “my…”) is a relatively recent invention, and is not universally adopted. It doesn’t help that Aung San Suu Kyi (the popular and de-facto leader) tends to use “Burma” herself, and there’s no common adjective derived from Myanmar, whereas “Burmese” works, and is officially valid if it relates to the dominant ethnic group and language. It wouldn’t surprise me if “Myanmar” goes the way of “Zaire” and “Tanganyika”, and we’re all back to “Burma” in a few years.

The Burmese really do “drive on the wrong side of the road”. In another anti-colonial dictat a few years ago, one of the madder generals decided to change from the British practice, and instructed the country to drive on the right. On it’s own, that’s not a problem. It works fairly well for the Americas and most of Europe. However the Burmese are trying to do it with the same almost completely right-hand-drive vehicle supply as the rest of Asia and Australasia. So all of the drivers are unable to see round corners or larger vehicles in front, and every bus has a “driver’s assistant” who’s main job is to stop passengers being mown down by passing traffic as they disembark into the middle of the road!

At a daily level Myanmar is almost entirely cash-based, with effectively three currencies in circulation. Major tourist transactions are conducted in US Dollars. These must be large denominations and absolutely pristine – they may be rejected for a tiny mark or fold. Next down, most day to day transactions by tourists and the more wealthy are conducted in Kyat (pronounced “Chat”), in round units of 1000 Kyat (about 60p). 10,000K and 5,000K notes tend to also be quite tidy. Transactions with and between the poorer people are in tens or hundreds of Kyat and the money is quite different. It’s absolutely disgusting, clearly and literally passing through a lot of hands in its lifetime. It’s all slightly reminiscent of the two currency system in Cuba, but with one currency used two distinct ways.

Uniquely among the countries I have visited, Myanmar has no international GSM roaming. However we had good straightforward Wifi connectivity at reasonable speeds and without any obvious restrictions at all the hotels and in several other locations. I suspect this is a transitional state, as the enthusiastic adoption of mobile phones in the local population will inevitably drive a standard solution fairly rapidly.

One thing which did amuse me – one of the primary providers of Internet services is a company called SkyNet. Shine say’s they’ve all seen the films, so I’m assuming the founder is a Terminator fan…

The usual Asian approach of throwing people at any problem showed mixed results. Bangkok Airport is an enormous hub trying to run on small site processes which don’t scale just by adding people. The role of “bus driver’s assistant” does find employment for young lads with a helpful attitude but few exams. However we did have one very delayed meal where the problem seemed to be one of short staffing, despite a lot of people milling around the restaurant with nothing to do, most of the order taking, cooking and serving was being done by one or two individuals who were run ragged. It will be interesting to see how the approaches vary as the economy grows.

Guide books describe the food as “a rich fusion of unusual flavours” and “a repertoire of ingredients not found in any other cuisine”. Yeah, right. I’ll admit that I was being a bit cautious and avoided some of the more unusual fish and hot curry dishes, but basically it was Chinese or Thai food with a few local variations (more pineapple), alongside a number of Indian, Italian and Anglo-American favourites. One member of our group survived almost the whole trip on chicken and cashew nuts, and I’ll admit to a couple of pizzas!

To Sum Up

Lovely country, lovely people, great photos, but keep cleaning your hands and stick to the Chinese food (and beer)!

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The World’s Worst Panorama – 2017

The Light and Land Myanmar 2017 Tour Group
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 17-02-2017 19:29 | Resolution: 18092 x 2401 | ISO: 3200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/10s | Aperture: 4.0 | Focal Length: 12.0mm

As per tradition, I’ve compiled a group photograph from a series of hand-held shots taken by the members of the group in turn, in low light and high alcohol conditions. I’m moderately pleased with this year’s which was taken using the Sony RX100.

Sadly, Christine was missing as she wasn’t feeling too well. Otherwise here’s the Light and Land Myanmar 2017 tour group, from left to right: Julia, Andy, Geoffrey, Linda, Annette, Sara, Yours Truly, Neil, Fiona, Beverley and our leaders, Phil Malpas and Clive Minnit.

Please just don’t try and match up the beer bottles or count the legs too closely!

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The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game in New York

Transport, Lake Inle Floating Market
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 18-02-2017 08:45 | Resolution: 5602 x 3501 | ISO: 250 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 9.0 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

I am slightly disappointed to find that the "floating market" is actually on solid ground, and only "floating" in the same sense as the "floating crap game" in Guys and Dolls. However it’s still a bustling, vibrant place, with lots of both photo and retail opportunities! It’s Saturday, and we’re in a part of the world where many people don’t yet have ready access to refrigeration, so most of the locals buy fresh food every day or two. It’s definitely fresh: some of the fish come wriggling out of buckets, and some of the chickens are plucked squawking from baskets just before becoming quarters…

Another observation is that for anyone used to Chinese food, there’s nothing that unusual. Chillies aside, there’s nothing I wouldn’t eat, provided it was prepared cleanly and cooked well.

Despite expectations to the contrary expressed widely within the group, I manage to find a carved elephant plaque which will go nicely alongside the animal-themed masks from Venice and Bhutan. As they say in Apollo 13, "Failure is not an option" 🙂

Once back at the hotel we say goodbye to the very friendly and helpful staff and start the journey back to Yangon. The initial trip across the lake, lunch, and the climb up to Heho airport are uneventful and much more enjoyable as we arrived in fog and mist, whereas we now have a glorious sunny day and can see much more of what’s going on. The trouble starts when Shine announces an extra stop, to visit a paper manufacturing workshop, and it becomes apparent that our flight is going to be significantly delayed. At 5pm the other flights have all departed and the shops and cafes in the tiny terminal put up their shutters and quit for the night.

I discover there is a hidden step down into the gents. That’s right, I went headlong into a haha at Heho airport. He he.

Well after 6pm we are still waiting for our flight, very much on the "last one out turn the lights off" basis. There’s a loud cheer when the flight finally lands. We get to Yangon a couple of hours behind schedule and we have an early start. Oh well, this trip has been consistent in several ways.

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Drifting Along

A proper Burmese Gent!
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 17-02-2017 16:01 | Resolution: 4600 x 3067 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/250s | Aperture: 5.0 | Focal Length: 21.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

A decent night’s sleep! I am obviously now so knackered that I have just “tuned out” the boats.

After breakfast we go to a different area of the lake, to watch more leg-rowing fishermen but who use a different style of net (and who are quite obviously really trying to catch fish), and then the "island builders". Essentially they harvest "lake weed" (mainly a type of water hyacinth) and place it on the "floating gardens", which are essentially just vast vegetation bundles bound together with bamboo, but on which some of the islanders live.  These are very productive agricultural resources, for growing lots of things but tomatoes do particularly well. After about 10-15 years a particular area is left to disintegrate and return to the lake, and they start on another one.

This visit is followed by one of the more peaceful moments of the whole trip, drifting without engines down a "side street" of one of the villages. Great reflections, and observations of village life. It’s intriguing to see one crew demolishing one of the stilt houses, and another one building a new one. Their boats are all tied up neatly underneath, not unlike a row of white Transit vans at an equivalent site in the UK.

Then it’s a trip to weaving centre, where they create beautiful cloth of cotton, silk and from the lotus plant, which grows on the lake. Photographically it’s a bit of a challenge given the high dynamic range of the lighting, but everyone is very friendly and accommodating, and we make appropriate use of the well-stocked shop.

After lunch and a break, we gather in our longhis for the group photograph. I have also supplemented mine with a rather nice cotton top from the weaving shop, and look every inch the Burmese gent, once I’ve been reminded to remove my Italian mountain shoes and socks!

Another hour on the lake at sunset is pleasant, and Shine has persuaded one of the waitresses from the hotel to model for us. Tomorrow morning we visit the floating market, then start the long journey home.

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A Broader View

Bagan Plain at Sunset: stitched from 5 pictures images
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 12-02-2017 17:43 | Resolution: 20235 x 3694 | ISO: 800 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/200s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 114.0mm (~108.0mm)

I really shouldn’t complain. I know the sleep deprivation thing is a bit annoying, but it’s just become a running joke. On the other hand, I am getting the opportunity to see and photograph some rather magnificent sites. Here, and with a rough nod to the title, is what I made of the Bagan plain at sunset.

We’ve been having a debate in the group about how different people see and make images. My temptation, which matches my usual professional role of taking complicated things and trying to put some unifying structure onto them, is to try and somehow capture the essence of a whole scene. Others have a perfectly valid but different approach of working out from details of interest. This is an example of mine.

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A New Twist

A "leg rower" fisherman, Lake Inle, Myanmar
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 16-02-2017 17:30 | Resolution: 5192 x 3245 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/250s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 100.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

The "Light and Land Burma Sleep Deprivation Experience" (TM) gains a new twist. While theoretically we have an extra hour and a half in bed, at almost exactly 4.43 am the little boats start powering past the hotel, single-cylinder engines going full chat. I manage to hold on until about 5.30 and then get up. At breakfast I suggest the tour is re-labelled "Burma, on even less sleep than the guys who built the railway". This is acknowledged as humorous and not inaccurate, but not in the best possible taste. Sorry.

However, such complaints seem churlish when the day gets going. The first stop is the local junior school (from kindergarten to about 12). Yet again, as on the Bhutan trip, we are welcomed in to photograph the students and their activities, something which would be almost inconceivable in Britain. We get lots of shots of happy little faces. Every year Phil presents a book of shots from the previous year, and then takes a cover photo of a group of kids with the book on display. Next year’s book should include a couple of my photos, and the cover will include a record of four years of visits.

After that it’s back in the boat again, and to the local village, where our first stop is a workshop run by the Kayan people. These are the group where the women wear brass rings around their neck and legs, which is now a dying tradition but we are lucky enough to meet and photograph a couple of older ladies, and a couple of younger practitioners who are also producing great weavings. The group goes on to photograph some novices at the nearby monastery school, but I prefer to get some exteriors of the village and its canals in wonderful light.

After lunch, we return to the hotel for our afternoon break. This is great in theory but the traffic on the lake is really busy, and we’re bang in the middle of it, so it’s rather like being buzzed by small military helicopters continuously for 2 hours. It’s a blessed relief to get back in the boats for the afternoon shoot.

This is quite magical. Our guide, Shine, has arranged to meet with half a dozen of the famous "leg rower" fishermen. Under his able direction, they perform over an hour of positively balletic moves in front of the setting sun, creating perfect silhouettes and also providing intriguing close-ups. My only slight concern is that we are in danger of creating communities in which modelling talent trumps, for example, the actual ability to catch fish. However for now we are the beneficiaries, and if it keeps at least the basis of the skill alive in a changing world, that’s maybe of some value.

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Land, Sea (Well, Lake) and Air

Riverside scene, Lake Inle, Myanmar
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 15-02-2017 16:15 | Resolution: 4969 x 3106 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/500s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 17.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Today we have a welcome opportunity to sleep a bit later. Unfortunately the Pavlovian conditioning has well and truly kicked in and I wake up at 4.43, although I do manage to get back to sleep for a bit longer before the Mandalay traffic makes sleep infeasible.

The first leg of our journey is uneventful, but I do wonder why Mandalay airport has to be over an hour from the city. At least I get a bit more practice trying to shoot motorbikes from the bus, although with limited results.

"Mandalay International Airport" does have the air of a vanity project – no busier than the others, and while there are fully equipped gates for large jets they are completely empty, and the small turboprop planes which comprise the bulk of the traffic have to park way out on the apron, serviced by transfer buses. The other regional airports feel a lot more sensible.

Our flight to the splendidly named Heho Airport in Shan State is delayed a bit, but smooth once it gets under way. The drive down from the airport (which is on a high plateau a few hundred metres above Lake Inle) is quite unlike any scenery we’ve seen so far, and reminiscent of Southern Bhutan.

After an impressively quick lunch stop (my pizza takes less than 10 minutes) we’re off across the lake by yet another form of transport  – essentially a teak gondola with a big single-cylinder outboard engine. Inle lake is a large body of relatively shallow inland water, with a combination of permanent and floating islands, on both of which the locals have established settlements, with full agriculture and so  on.  The crossing of the lake takes about an  hour and is colder and windier than expected, but the hotel location, on stilts in the middle of the lake, is great.

We have a few minutes to check in, and then go off to our first shooting location, a village which is home to a couple of necropolis – an ancient one several centuries old in which the memorials are now crumbling, and a new one in which new buildings are still being created. I favour the latter as an area of great shapes, colours and light, but others focus on the older monuments, and still others on photographing the locals. We all end up paying K500 (about 30p) for the official camera permit, and about K5000 (a bit less than £3) for the unofficial camera permit, purchased from the young lady vendors in the form of a cotton scarf.

I don’t know whether it’s good karma, but in four hotels I have now been in rooms 201, 202, 203 and 204.

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Capture and Visualisations

Fishermen casting their nets near the U Bein Bridge, Mandalay
Camera: Panasonic DMC-GX8 | Date: 14-02-2017 07:59 | Resolution: 2838 x 1892 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 1 EV | Exp. Time: 1/250s | Aperture: 9.0 | Focal Length: 18.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Today was not quite as restful as planned, and tummy grumbling slightly – this trip is quite hard work. That said, it’s another excellent day of photography.

After an early start – quel surprise – we go back to the old teak bridge first thing, and photograph locals coming and going, and then fishermen casting their nets. We then shoot (& I film) the farmed ducks being led to the lake for the day. It’s fascinating that a group of  several hundred ducks can be trained to follow a farmer from their pen to the lake, and then back at the end of a day’s "grazing". Phil has the idea of putting my little Sony RX100 in movie mode at ground level in the ducks’ path and it works quite well. When I’ve sorted the video out I’ll post it for review.

On the way back to the hotel, I start thinking about whether one can really plan travel photos or not. Photography textbooks are all full of a concept called "pre-visualisation", the concept of seeing the finished image in your head before pressing the shutter button. Set aside wrangles about semantics and whether "pre" has any role here (surely this is just "visualisation", or "envisioning"?) I suspect that this is a concept with limited value in our modern photographic environment. Firstly with live view and the ability to set picture styles and aspect ratios in camera, you can get close to the expected look of an image, and you probably only need to "visualise" when that’s not possible and you need to plan post processing work. However the main issue is that travel photography is more about "found" images. You may research a bit about your target locations, but the individual images are still tricky to plan.

As an exercise, I have set myself a target of capturing something about Mandalay transport. Shine, who originates from the city, has told us that Mandalayans are born riding motorbikes, and that certainly seems to be the case. I have started collecting images which represent this. I rather like the following one, but what I really want, which I have seen several times and "visualised", is an image of a bike with two attractive women sitting side-saddle on the back! Getting good images from the bus is tricky, but I’m working on it.

After a late breakfast and lazy lunch break we are back on the bus, first to visit where they carve all the alabaster Buddhas and other religious icons. This is done on a massive scale, out of a number of  small workshops but with the total volume being very impressive. After that we visit the banks of the Ayarwaddy (Irawaddy) river, where there are substantial migrant worker villages. Essentially most of the "heavy lifting" of moving goods around in Burma, whether by boat or other methods, is done by these people who move seasonally depending on the state of the rivers. They are very friendly, and we are welcomed into their village to take photos, but like many similar communities sanitation is clearly a bit of a challenge, and coupled with my slightly fragile state I’m happy to bail fairly quickly to the bar of the posh hotel over the road.

There we seem to have crashed the local Valentine’s day event. There’s a definite over-supply of roses, so much so that Phil and Geoffrey (not, as far as we are aware, any sort of an item) get one each, and that simply demands a photo, doesn’t it. I may post said photo, depending on how heavily I’m bribed with beer.

Slightly later start tomorrow, and we move on again to Inle Lake. Fingers crossed.

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