Myanmar-with a Leica X1 and “Kodachrome”
By John Shingleton
I have just returned from two weeks in Myanmar over Christmas and the New Year.
Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is the land that time has passed by.Once a jewel in the British Empire it gained independence from Britain in 1948.A military coup in 1988 led to estrangement from the West and the imposition of economic sanctions. Since 2010 Myanmar has moved back towards democracy. Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton visited late last year and sanctions are being lifted.
The sleeping beauty is waking up and re engaging with the world .
And what a beauty it is .The years of sanctions have had a wonderful side effect leaving a beautiful country suspended in a less frantic time .No obsession with brands,no KFC, McDonalds, Starbucks ,Coca Cola or even a mobile phone system connected to the outside world and a beautiful, friendly, modest and highly religious people.They are very poor but seemingly content and their culture remains intact .On the other hand the infrastructure is very poor and the education and health systems are even worse and large sections of the country are still closed to tourists as the government fights separatist and insurgency movements in the north and west.
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Myanmar has a basic mobile( cell) phone system but it is not connected to the outside world and anyway it uses old 2G and CDMA technology which is not compatible with western phones .There is internet/wi fi access in the main population centers but it is slow apparently.It is not a place for tourists who want 24/7 connectivity. I left all my mobile devices at home.It was so liberating and so much easier at airline security.I’ll do it more often.
Since the sanctions were lifted tourism is expanding very rapidly but it needs a big investment to handle the projected numbers.Sadly the portents are not good for this growth being tasteful with massive, crass overdevelopment of tourist facilities in nearby Thailand,Bali,China and particularly Vietnam showing how easily beautiful places can be wrecked.The Myanmar I saw may have been a once ever opportunity.All the precedents suggest that in 5 to 10 years it will be gone .I count myself very lucky to have seen it now.
If you are considering visiting go now but only visit if you are prepared for an extraordinary experience involving third world conditions.Don’t even think about going if you want “home away from home”or you don’t like dust and the smoke from cooking fires in the morning and evening.
I flew into Yangon( formerly Rangoon) then upto Mandalay and then sailed slowly down the Ayeyarwady ( formerly the Irrawaddy) River on a traditional river boat for 8 days stopping at towns and villages on the river banks which are not usually accessed by tourists.It was an extraordinary trip.
For this trip of a lifetime I took my Leica X1 compact camera with a Voigtlander optical viewfinder,one spare battery ,battery charger and just one SD card .I also ,wisely ,took a Kiwi filter tube,lens hood ( $40 off eBay) fitted with a B&W clear filter.I used this the whole time and it protected the camera and the lens from the all-pervasive dust.I had my Canon G9 in my bag as a reserve for any mishaps..
For readers who are not familiar with the X1 it is a Leica made compact camera with a fixed 24mm (equivalent to 35mm on a full frame 35mm) F2.8 lens and an APSC sized sensor.It is a much maligned camera and as I described in an earlier post on this site see http://www.stevehuffphoto.com/2012/02/13/from-leica-3a-to-x1-a-51-year-journey-by-john-shingleton/ I struggled with mine in its early days but now I love it although I sometimes feel that Steve Huff,myself and one of my friends are its only fans! At the end of the day I don’t care what all the forum “experts” think of it because it takes beautiful images and it has simple controls and easy to access menus.It does not have IS,GPS,WI FI or take movies.It just takes superb still pictures which suits me .Having just a fixed lens does involve compromises but in so many ways it makes things easier as I do not have to make any decisions on which lens to use and it is so light to carry -a critical factor after years of carrying bags of gear around.Been there done that-had a sore back to prove it.
Not having a long lens means that I really have to be in a subject’s face when taking people shots and so I developed a technique for doing this without ,hopefully, causing any offense .In fact it invariably generated smiles all round as well as some great images.
I took about 320 photos over the 14 days of the trip .Pretty restrained by most people’s standards equivalent to 9 rolls of 35mm film but I am trying to adopt a more deliberate and considered film photography like approach to taking digital photos.I deleted about 100 of these on the trip and then culled them down to 110 when I put them onto the computer back home .I ended up with 110 images which I am really pleased with including perhaps some of the best photos I have ever taken in the past 50 years.I am a great believer in being a very tough editor .It’s easy to take bad photos so why keep them? They just use up hard dive capacity .So I am brutal and discard everything which is not “very good” or at least “very good” by my criteria.
I have always been a big fan of the photography of Steve McCurry who has shot many great photos in the Middle and Far East including the iconic Afghan girl photo which graced the cover of National Geographic magazine and has since been published thousands of times .McCurry was the master of Kodachrome slide film with its big,sharp ,supersaturated images.In fact Kodak selected him to shoot the last roll of Kodachrome manufactured in 2010.
I loved Kodachrome and if we were still all using film I am sure that I would have used it on my Myanmar trip to try to emulate Steve McCurry.Anyway I did the next best thing I emulated Kodachrome as far as possible by shooting all my pictures as both RAW and JPEG files.I shot the JPEGS on the Leica’s vivid setting and they are the big surprise .They really are vivid and they remind of Kodachrome.They may not be natural but to me they say very loudly “this is Myanmar” and that’s what I wanted.I hope that you appreciate my personal take on a very unique place.
If you would like to see many more images from the trip go to therollingroad.blogspot.com
Pleasant images. Though having shot lots of real-film Kodachrome, I’d have to say its hues aren’t “vivid” as you alluded to. Fujifilms Velvia film was vivid yes, but not Kodachrome. Properly exposed and processed I’d say Kodachrome was realistic, possibly slightly saturate. But not vivid.
A most enjoyable article. I’m not an owner of the X1 but I wondered whether you would expand on your technique for getting in close (which you allude to above).
Loved your post and images. I also just returned from Myanmar and made some of my best images there. Traveled to Mandalay, Bagan, and Yagon in 5 days. Just redid ticket to Asia in fall to include Myanmar again to go Inle Lake as our stay was too short. The people were wonderful and easy to photograph.
I traveled light with M8, 2 lenses, and Sony RX 100. Used Sony 2 to 1 and images from all were beyond my expectations. Although the coming increase in tourism to the area would be good for the Burmese economy it is fortunate for us that we got to see the area before the onslaught.
Thanks for the article.
Gorgeous pictures, John. I think the vivid color matches the subject matter perfectly, and aren’t at all overdone. I find amusing the comment that using a standard setting on a Leica camera has produced results that are not “Leica -like..” Of course, one can’t put too much stock in comments from folks who won’t even give their names.
Wonderful photos, John! Thanks for sharing.
Funky colors! – not at all sure though that the ‘kodachrome’-label is really appropriate here however they seem to work quite well nonetheless with the subjects and scenery at hand – dusty & warm in Myanmar, eh?
I didn’t realize that there were that many ‘haters’ of the X1 nor X2 – actually I think there’s great lenses on that series – the prize for sure can put a lot off but hey, it is what it is;o)
Enjoyed looking at the shots!
Lovely photographs and interesting writing.
I can assure you in today’s world it won’t be the Japanese tourists who come in their tens, then hundreds of thousands, it will be Koreans and Mainland Chinese! Siem Reap in Cambodia is an example of how things are and will be. Such is the new economic world.
But as you said, this is about pictures and you are right. I commend you for travelling light and shooting selectively. I do agree that the colours or perhaps a little overdone but you can reprocess as you like, whenever you like.
love your photos man! great adventures!
I travelled to Rangoon and Bagan in 1996, when it was more closed. However, it was one of the best trips I ever went on, as no one hassled us, there was an absence of commercial brands, although Labatts Blue beer was available! I don’t think the lack of cell phone compatibility is a big deal, as we were there when these mod-cons weren’t widely available. The only other place I have been that compared was Bhutan. I guess I better go back soon before it becomes too modernized and turns into Cambodia or Thailand.
I used a Fuji 645 with a fixed 60mm lens and Provia film for most of trip in SE Asia. The pictures turned out very well.
Very interesting and pleasant to read article, John. Bravo! Congrats! I have to agree with Chris Noll, that I don’t really get the Kodachrome vibe, but nonetheless great pictures from a great traveling experience !
The Posts on Steve’s website are getting better by the day 🙂 Let’s keep them coming
I’ve shot a lot of Kodachrome (yay for its longevity in storage after processing) but the saturation evident in these shots is waaay past the Kodachrome “look”.
Problems arise when small colour shifts are emphasised by ratcheting up the vibrance; some of the skin tones appear somewhat overdone and not true.
Great subjects and scenes.
X1 jpegs though better than X2 (out of camera) they should not be anywhere as good as ‘X’ series DNGs + RPP’s simulation of Kodachrome. But getting the Leica look does require some, no make that lots of tinkering.
One of the best posts I’ve seen on this website so far. Congratulations.
Doesn’t look like Kodachrome. At all.
John, overall some nice shots in terms of composing. Nonetheless, I think you don’t explore the full potential of your X1. I know my X2 very well and I know exactly how I can get this dramatic Leica look out of its DNGs – I miss this look in your fotos, they are too bright and the color is somehow weird. The X1’s DNGs can be developed easily in such a way that they become Leica-like.
Another hint (I recently left a similar comment related to a bad Sony RX1 shot): If people are looking into your camera and expect to be part of the image, do not drop them out of the sharpness zone. By this approach you only state that you know that depth of field exists but that you don’t know how to work with it skillfully.
Thanks for your kind comments re the composition of the pics.However you have rather missed the point of the post.As I have owned Leicas since !967 ( yes really ) I am very familiar with the Leica look and usually shoot in DNG nowadays but as I say in the article–“I shot the JPEGS on the Leica’s vivid setting and they are the big surprise .They really are vivid and they remind of Kodachrome.They may not be natural but to me they say very loudly “this is Myanmar” and that’s what I wanted.I hope that you appreciate my personal take on a very unique place.”
So I clearly understand that they are not natural and to some/many the colours may appear weird-it is my attempt at a “personal take”.
I can’t accept your comment re depth of field . On the photo in question there was only very limited dof available I was that close to the subjects.Each to his own.As a matter of interest that particular photo was taken in a very isolated village and from their reaction I suspect that the children had not seen a digital camera before .
I disagree, I thought the picture of ther three boys was probably the best of the ones above (I assume this is what your referring to?).
If all three were in focus it would just be a standard snap of some kids in front of a plain background. As it is, by focussing the viewer on the one boy it really stands out for me, particularly as he is not looking into the camera, so it really makes him seem apart from the other two, which I think reflects my experience of Burma very well; the slightly otherworldly and serene element, which the decision you made with depth of field in this picture emphasises.
Very nice and no doubt a great experience. Love the photo with the cattle pulling the cart especially.
Thanks for sharing your experience and well done. Getting away from the commercialism of the westernized nations sounds wonderful.
I’m not getting the Kodachrome vibe though. Still looks digital… not in a bad way, but if its what you like then keep running with it!
So Steve you went to Myanmar sponsored by Leica? Ahahhaaahaaaa :)))
Great post, great photos and an interesting read. I can understand you will not know everything about Myanmar just after a two week holiday, but who cares, sometimes the pictures speak louder than words.
First, Klaus should note that Steve Huff did not take these photos and these are not his opinions. That post should be deleted.
I went to Myanmar on a photo tour in 2011 and agree with all the comments in this post. I took a DSLR, a Leica M9 and a Leica X1. My wife ended up using the X1 most of the time and it is a very good camera. The legitimate criticisms of the X1 are its cost relative to options such as the Fuji X100 and the limited versatility, particularly a fixed 35mm equivalent lens and high grain at high ISOs. It takes very good photos, not as good as the M9 or DSLR, but very sharp and useable for such a small and simple camera.
Bandwidth was the problem I found with the internet in Myanmar. We often could not get on the internet if we tried during the day or early evening but could later on. We also had good, clean hotels and great food on our trip. At this stage a tourist really needs to go with a tour. Credit cards are not accepted due to US sanctions and the people there have a strange attitude about US cash. They will only take crisp unused bills. Some will take used bills but usually at a discount. Arranging hotels, picking restaurants and arranging transportation would be very difficult for an outsider.
The poverty is often mentioned when describing Myanmar but that is somewhat misleading. There is a difference between lack of wealth and the kind of crushing poverty that destroys culture and leaves people no time beyond the daily struggle to just survive. We did not see crushing poverty on our trip. We found an old and deeply devout Buddhist society that has simply not developed due to wars and isolationist dictatorship. We didn’t see people live in cardboard houses and begging or scavenging for food. It may have been there in some of the cities but we just didn’t see anything like that anywhere we traveled. The villages are mostly whole and healthy communities of farmers and their families living in well made bamboo houses. Their culture is strong and admirable. It is a culture frozen in time and imprisoned, until recently, by an exploitative military government. The people and the government basically exist side by side.
The photo opportunities are extraordinary and this post is correct that it will not last in such a pristine state much longer. Before long it will be difficult to get into places like the Shwedagon Pagoda for all the tourists that will jam the place, especially when the Japanese tours begin coming. See it now if this kind of travel and photography interest you.
Thank-you for shaing John Shingleton’s work. Very stong and compelling photography. It’s nice to see the work is about the art and not the gear. A simple camera in great hands can create beautiful images as opposed to great gear in the hands of a not so good photographer. I enjoy seeing blogs about the work of such talent. I will say, i do enjoy blogs about gear too especially when thinking about a purchase, but in the end, it’s about the talent.
Fantastic images from your trip:-)
I really like the bright colours you got, and some really great portraits.
You are not the only Leica X fan…I left my dSLR at home and only travel with my Leica X2. It is a joy to use and give great images without being a hassle to carry. Actually a lot more fun than a dSLR and less intrusive. I wonder if your subjects had been so willing to pose if you had a big camera?
Gee, I talk to my friend in Myanmar on her cell phone every week (I live in U.S.). Nice to know that I’m doing the impossible.
In my experience you can call in to countries that have older technology, but your modern hardware doesn’t work there.
I may have misundersood what my guide told me re mobile access to the outside world but I am right about “western” 3G/4G phones not being compatible with the Myanmar system-I tried it just to make certain.Anyway it does not matter as this blog is about photography not cell/mobile phones so no worries.
There’s no roaming, because the roaming agreements that are needed to allow use of a mobile outside of it’s home country were not possible to enter into with Burma’s telecoms companies because of the sanctions. There is also no mobile data network. Most hotels have free wifi though.
I work in a very blackberry heavy industry, so being in Burma for a week and a half would have been bliss even if it hadn’t been one of the most remarkable places I have every visited.
Lovely shots – you’ve really caught the friendliness of these people well, and the lighting in shot #5 is fabulous. It sounds like you found the single-focal length “limitation” quite liberating!
Just one slight correction: the military coup in Burma occurred in 1962, not 1988. What happened in 1988 was that the military dictators allowed an election to occur – one they were confident of winning, but in fact lost to Aung San Suu Kyi’s party; a result they chose to ignore!
Great set of images and on the website. I admire your restraint in not shooting and keeping everything. Taking photographs or making photographs – it is so easy just to take with digital when it does not cost anything to take the second and third best images just in case!