UPDATED 14 June 2005

Of roads, tour guides and such

Having just returned from a trip to China (April-May 2005) and having travelled twice to the orient and South Pacific, there are a few things the reader might want to know. Most of what follows is specifically about China, but most of the remainder of Asia follows suit.


Let's go to photography first, then advise you of road conditions and related information.

Photography in Asia

You need first to protect your film from X-rays at airport security checks. Forget the lead-lined or lead bags, they will open them and inspect what is inside. You need to be sure they don't X-ray your camera or film.


If you are going to photograph lots of architecture, you need a PC lens. "PC" for "perspective correction." You don't want to have your collection look amateurish, with parallel verticals converging because you have to tilt your camera up to fill the frame with a tall building.

This should go without saying, but I've met architectural historians and academics who have yet to figure out this simple matter.

The trouble is PC lenses don't come cheap. The wider the better. In so-called automatic systems, the best, almost the only, is the Canon EOS 24 mm Tilt-shift lens, which will run you upwards of $1100. You blanch. Well, them's the beans! Canon produces the widest PC on the automatic market (and it doesn't autofocus, but does auto meter), and it will take a front polarizing filter (which is the most important filter that you can own). This is actually quite unique, for it not only shifts up-down or left-right (30° increments in any rotation), which provides perspective correction, but also tilts, which gives you the kind of corrections you otherwise get only on view cameras. If you go to my exhibition "Medano and Raukawa" (click here) you will see many shots of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Colorado which could be taken ONLY with a tilt lens

There is no alternative other than, say, the Nikon PC 28, a manual lens that will work on most Nikon bodies; it will take a front polarizer, too. An alternative is to use a single-focal length ultra-wide angle lens (a zoom will have too much linear distortion) such as a 20 mm or 17 mm unit, and use it vertically. Aim the lens so the center of your focusing screen is at your eye height on the building, then crop out the bottom third of the resultant photo. This won't work, of course, for slides.

NEITHER of these lenses is much good on a digital SLR body unless you have a full-frame professional body (12 or 16 megapixels), for the 24 becomes a 36mm, the 28 a 42mm.

By the way, I do not "take" pictures; that is theft! I make photographs.

Once you've gotten the TS or PC lens situation satisfied, you'll probably want a standard wide angle lens or zoom. Again, the best is from Canon, their 16-35 mm f 2.8 L-series EOS unit, at $1370 (the "old" 17-35, if you can find one, should be quite a bit cheaper, and is a true 17 mm). It is a true 16 mm, while competing lenses marked 18-35 or 19-35 are 19 or 20 mm lenses (this much "cheating" is allowed under Japanese regulations!), and the Canon is more linear (namely, has less barrel distortion at the wide-angle end). It is also fast, at f 2.8 throughout its range. Before this lens came on the market, I'd used Canon's 20-35 mm f2.8 FD (non-autofocus) lens. If you can find a store with a 17-35 Sigma on the shelf (about $470), buy it, or the slower Canon 20-35 mm f3.5-4.5 (about $370) if you need to save the money. Tokina, from which I've never had a bad lense, makes a new professional f2.8 20-35 mm for $600, so if you want speed, or constant f-stop over the zoom range, consider this one. If you really want wiiiide, Sigma makes an f3.5-4.5 15-30 mm lens (about $580) and an even wider 12-24 ($$670, for digital only).

One warning about linear distortion at ultra-wide angle focal lengths. The wider you get, the more a sphere distorts from round to oblong, looking almost like a football at 17 mm. Which is why I never recommend the 14mm "linear" lenses for architecture, and use anything in the 16-18 mm ragne carefully for interior shots almost exclusively. For this reason, you might wish to limit your wide-angle choice to a 20/21-35 mm zoom.

For details at great distances, indluding detail on tall buildings, you need a telephoto lens. Asia does not have many tall gargoyle-covered cathedrals, and their tall buildings have relatively little detail, but if you are doing bird watching, tele is good. The 28-200 and 35-300 and such lenses loose so much speed at their long ends (as well as quite a bit of resolution) that you may not be happy with your photographs. If you are shooting only negative film, Kodak Gold Max or the Fuji equivalent are excellent, but my most recent test show Konica's 800 and 400 speed films to be outgrageously sharp. At 800 ASA, even slow lenses can work satisfactorily. If you are shooting only slides, nothing over ASA 400 is any good unless you are willing to spend quite a bit both for the film and for push processing. In this instance, get the new professional ED 200 Kodak Ektachrome, shoot it at ASA 640 but have it processed at 2 full f-stops push. That will give you outrageously saturated color and high resolution you won't believe at such speed.

Canon's "Barcelona zoom" lens now has serious competion from Sigma with its f4-6.3 80-400mm range or its 50-500mm f4.5-6.3mm range. You may need the Canon EOS-3 if you want autofocus at the long lens (where it is f6.3; most autofocus cameras autofocus only to f5.6). Canon's "Barcelona zoom", designed especially for use by professional sports photographers under the bright sunshine of northeast Spain at the Barcelona Olympic games, is a 35-350mm zoom, f3.5 at 35 mm, holding that out to around 100 mm, then dropping to f5.6 for most of its longer range. You may find a used one on the market, because Canon has replaced it with a 28-300mm for the digital age where digital cameras push the focal length out by a factor of 1.6. You can use Canon's 1.4 extender to help either lens reach out to almost 500 mm (manual focus). Of course, these spectacular lenses are not cheap; but good news, the price, once $1900 for the 35-350 dropped to $1500. The newer lens, designed for digital cameras, 28-300mm, however, is $2200. The 2x extender, once $450, is now $280.

BUT WAIT. COMES THE REVOLUTION. IMAGE-STABILIZATION it is called. The Image Stabilization technology invented by Canon will stun you with its abililty to produce sharp images in only moderatly steady hands. Now they have several such lenses. Nikon has followed, slowly and at equally high prices. Hallelujah, Sigma has joined the fray with an f4-5.6 80-400mm. It will work, we are assured, with 1.4 and 2.0 tele-extenders. Sigma calls their system OS, for Optical Stabilizer. Any of the three systems adds two to three f-stops in terms of relative shutter speed for hand-held photography. So, if you are not experienced in hand-holding long lenses, you might find the Canon 75-300mm f4-5.6 USM IS at only $420 to be your best choice. You will then need a 35-70mm or wider mid-range zoom to cover the normal focal lengths to fill in the mid-range, but there are many choices in this highly competitive range.

To simplify what you carry and reduce weight, I offer the following, which I often use when I don't need to go beyond 300mm. Get the Canon f3.5-5.6 28-135 IS mm lens and the Canon 2X APO extender ($410 + $280 = $670 ). Slow, surely, and you will manual focus on those gargoyles, but very lightweight. This is all you need if you are shooting mostly people and scenics, and few or no buildings.

Consider what I recommend if you have the funds;

Now consider how you can save if you need to;

For film lovers

Canon EOS-3

$ 875

Canon EOS-Rebel K2

$ 150

Canon 28-300mm f3.5-5.6 IS zoom


Sigma 80-400mm f4-6.3 OS zoom


Canon 16-35mm f2.8 L-series zoom


Sigma f3.5-4.5 15-30 mm zoom

$ 580

Canon 24mm f2.8 Tilt-Shift lens


Canon 24mm f2.8 Tilt-Shift lens


Canon circular polarizer

$ 90

Tiffen circular polarizer

$ 75



TOTAL alternate


There are many other zooms in the 75/80-200/300/400mm range at very cheap prices, and many more that span 28-300mm, such as the Tamron 28-200mm f3.8-5.6, the Tokina 24-200mm f3.5-4.5, the Sigma 28-300mm f3.5-5.6 and Vivitar 28-300mm f4-6.3 at prices well under $300! None of these has optical stabilization, so require a tripod or very careful hand holding.

Digital kit

8 meg digital cameras are no longer priced out of amateur photographer range. If you wish to go digital, different choices are necessary due to the pushing of focal lengths in digital imaging. It takes a lens with a focal length of 10 mm to equal the 16 mm of a 35 mm film camera. Accordingly, Canon and others have produced lenses specifically for their digital bodies . The only problem is that they have not yet provided a Tilt-Shift lens of 15 mm focal length to equal 24 mm in 35 mm format. The 24 mm becomes a 38 mm lens. You will have to decide if this is acceptable. With digital, an ultra-wide angle lens can be cropped at the bottom and be used much like a PC lens.

Canon 10-22mm f3.5-4.5


Sigma 12-24mm f4.5-5.6


Canon 28-300mm f3.5-5.6 IS zoom


Sigma 28-300mm f3.5-5.6 zoom


TOTAL pro exclusive of camera body


TOTAL alternate exclusive of camera body


You now need to choose a digital camera body. For 20x30" exhibition prints, the new Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II providing 16.7 megapixels because of full-frame imaging (no multiplication factor for lenses; thus, get the 16-35mm zoom) is the only choice at $8000 retail, close to $4000 street price. But the new 8.2 megapixel EOS-20D will be suitable for large prints (up to 14x20") for only $1500 retail, about $820 street price. For inexpensive digital photography, the EOS new Digital Rebel at $1000 retail, about $600 street price, offers 8.0 megapixel resolution but in a mostly plastic body as opposed to the stronger magnesium alloy of the 20D.

General information about currency and such.

The Chinese currency is the RMB, traded only officially, and at 8 to the dollar. Forget any black market. Use your credit card almost everywhere in main Chinese cities, but not Tibet except at hotels and government shops.

Hotels have internet and even Yangtze river cruise boats have internet. Expect Japan to be even more connected.

Best buy film there; it won't be X-rayed. Then have it developed there. In every city, I got very inexpensive development in 3 hours or less. They sell mostly 200 and 400 speed color negative Kodak and Fuji and, if you are lucky, Konica film. Very few places have 50 ASA, 100 ASA or 800 ASA negative film. Slide film is Kodak's 200 ASA. Japan will have a wider range of choices, of course!

It is not easy to rent a car and go driving the countryside in China. Japan is open everywhere but a cup of coffee can cost you $5. Beer is as cheap as Coca Cola or Pepsi Cola in China. For most street-vended stuff, offer "one dolla" and stick to it. A Rolex will, however, cost $8.

Food is safe pretty much everywhere, but drink bottled water throughout southeast Asia except in Japan where tap water is safe in any city.

Shanghai is where to buy most everything for it is the commercial capital. Silk is special there. If you find art at a government store, you will not get a better price in a different store. Expect a 10% discount, more as the price goes higher. A good tour guide will know where to shop for a given item. Ritz tours are recommended by this traveler.