Myanmar: The Unknown Asian Treasure

· 6.April.2019

Being an airline pilot, and travelling for a living, you sometimes learn to manage your expectations when it comes to exploring new places. Although the Hot Air Balloon trip in Bagan had been in our bucket list for quite a while, we expected Myanmar to be another “nice” country of South East Asia. We could not have been more wrong, as it surprised us more than we could have ever thought! The landscapes, the history, the culture, the food, but must of all its people, conquered our hearts from the very first moment we set foot in the country!

Myanmar, formerly Burma, has been independent since 1948, but only recently opened to broader tourism as until 2015 it was quite complicated to obtain entry visas. This lack of massified tourism has kept the country and its “soul” still intact, which allow us photography enthusiasts to capture candid and genuine images.

X-T3 + XF50 at f/2, 1/18000, ISO 200

I can’t emphasise enough how incredible Burmese people are. They are happy to see tourists in their country, and they are sometimes also as interested in us as we are in them, especially the people that come from remote and small areas, and had limited exposure to foreigners.

You always start your photographic journey in a new country being a little shy, but our guide was very clear from the first moment: “If they are smiling to you, take the shot!”. It might sound very obvious, but it sometimes seemed like people enjoyed being photographed. It was incredible to see how only greeting people in their language, put a big smile in their faces and acted as an ice breaker. There are countless different dialects in Myanmar, but everyone speaks Burmese ( the national language), so remember the word “Mingalaba!”, which is their version of “Hello!”.

I tried looking around for some feedback on what camera and lenses to take with me for this trip, but I couldn’t find too much information. I started thinking and analysing my travel itinerary, and as it involved a significant number of flights, I decided to try and keep it as compact and simple as possible:

Fujifilm X-T3
Fujifilm X-T2
XF50mm F2
XF10-24 F4
Mitakon 35mm F0.95
Two spare batteries
Peak Design Travel Backpack and straps
Mini tripod

X-T2 + XF18-55 at f/9, 1/320, ISO 400

I got used to travelling with two camera bodies, and I must say that I think this was an absolute key to success on this specific trip. As Fuji users, we sometimes forget how lucky we are to have small and compact mirrorless equipment, but it is a significant advantage over the setups that I have used in the past. Having two similar bodies, like in this case the XT-2 and the XT-3 was actually a very beneficial thing, as more often than not I would find myself having to quickly adjust in-camera settings, going from bright outdoor areas to the inside of a temple, for example… and I really appreciated not having to think about where every switch was. Those of you that have different camera bodies understand what I mean.

I am not sponsored by any brand, but I have been a big fan of Peak Design products for a while now. I used their Everyday backpack before, but I always complained about the lack of space for other things that weren’t photography related. When the new Travel Backpack with the cubes system was released, a few months ago, I made the switch and could not be more happy about it! The versatility, safety features and space available are impressive. Their Straps system, with the anchor points, was also handy on this trip, as I would typically have one camera hanging alongside with the big strap, and then another one in my hand, secured by the hand-strap.

X-T2 + XF18-55 at f/9, 1/140, ISO 400

I didn’t find battery life to be an issue this time. I did carry enough spare ones to get me out of trouble if needed, but most hotels were well equipped to charge them at the end of the day. I got used to switching the camera ON and OFF every time, as opposed to allowing it to go into “Standby Mode”, as I found this way turns the camera on faster, and also saves battery.

When it came to lenses, the winning combination was to always have the 10-24 on one of the cameras and alternate the remaining lenses on the other one. Without any doubt, a wide angle was essential. The F4 limitation of our well-beloved 10-24 could be seen as a handicap, but believe me, with the current high ISO performance of our X-Trans sensors, it was not a problem at all. The quality this lens offers is superb, and the focal length was good for both landscape and some occasional street photography too.

X-T3 + XF10-24 at f/6.4, 1/170, ISO 640

Hindsight is a great thing, and looking back now I could have obtained the same results by not even taking the 18-55 along for the ride. Never the less, and considering the small size of this sometimes undervalued lens, I would consider carrying the extra weight, space permitting.

The big surprise of this trip was the 50mm F2, as it turned out to be an incredibly useful focal length. Whereas I have always been a big fan of getting close to the subjects, the sometimes crowded markets or temples, and the fences that protect some monuments or spots, proved to be the kind of situation where this lens brings out all its potential. It is a telephoto, and the fast aperture plus the possibility of isolating the subject if needed was incredibly useful on many occasions. It’s small, has lightning fast autofocus, and the quality is second to none. Absolute must have in my opinion.

X-T3 + XF50 at f/8, 1/480, ISO 400

X-T2 + XF50 at f/2, 1/60, ISO 200

The other revelation was the Mitakon 35mm F0.95… manual focus being, in theory, its biggest drawback one could say, it’s always tricky to decide whether to pack it or not. Well, I’m pleased to announce that it turned out to be a handy lens, mainly due to its wide aperture, as it allowed me to be a little more artistic at times. The quality of our EVFs and focus peaking made focussing easy, and believe me when I say I am more impressed with this lens the more I use it.

X-T2 + Mitakon 35mm at f/0.95, 1/80, ISO 800

X-T3 + Mitakon 35mm at f/0.95, 1/240, ISO 400

I found myself using aperture priority most of the time, with either manual ISO (400/800 most of the time) or, if going in and out of dark/bright places, limited Auto-ISO to (200-3200).

Another incredibly useful tool of our cameras, was the possibility of using Mechanical Shutter + Electronic Shutter (MS+ES setting), as it allowed me to shoot at F2/F0.95 out in the open during daylight, with the Electronic Shutter kicking in at high shutter speeds.

When on one of the numerous boat trips in the Inle Lake area, Continuous Autofocus was quite an excellent tool to have too, especially when tracking moving subjects.

X-T3 + XF50 at f/8, 1/500, ISO 160

Talking about Film Simulations is nowadays redundant because we all know how amazing this feature is. Once again it proved to be extremely useful, as it allowed me to quickly share edited photos with some of the subjects I was photographing.

If you decide to visit this incredible country, and depending on your available time, there are countless options for you to chose from. The must-see highlights are Bagan and its over 2000 pagodas, Inle Lake and its floating villages and gardens, and the Shwedagon Pagoda and the colonial buildings of Yangon. Do not leave Myanmar without trying the Hot Air Balloon over Bagan! I appreciate it is expensive, but I am unable to describe how magical and jaw-dropping the sight is when you are floating over 2000 plus temples at sunrise.

X-T2 + XF18-55 at f/9, 1/1600, ISO 400

I would also recommend visiting some of the large Buddhist monasteries in Yangon if you want to learn a little more about Burmese culture, as their traditional way of interpreting Buddhism is a crucial point to understanding why they are such special people!

X-T3 + XF50 at f/2, 1/120, ISO 160

X-T2 + XF50 at f/2, 1/500, ISO 3200