16 days in Chiang Mai’s Old City

pedestal with the map of Chiang Mai’s old city on top

Chiang Mai’s “Old City” is the area, roughly 1.6 km by 1.6 km, surrounded by a moat and at one time walls. There’s not much left of the original walls, only the bastions on each corner and at remnants at the 5 gates. All look like they have been mostly restored, you know they look old but not as old as they should look according to how old they are supposed to be. Also some look too straight and symmetrical for that time period. Anyways, Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city nestled in a valley next to the Ping River. Thailand’s highest peak is about an hour or so drive away which is one of the tourist attractions of Chiang Mai. It’s call Doi Inthanon if you’re interested in checking that out. I tried, it didn’t work out, more on that in my post entitled, Did I get scammed in Chiang Mai? Chiang Mai is listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage candidate list has been granted the title of Creative City by UNESCO. Not really sure what that means, but it sounds cool.

So what is it that makes Chiang Mai such a hot tourist destination and blogger destination? I’m really not sure. Maybe its the cost of living being so low coupled with the adequate internet Wi-Fi service? Maybe its the allure of potential legal marijuana? The flower farmers were opium poppy farmers before so you know they have the know how to grow stuff. As for the tourists there are a ton of things to do in Chiang Mai from temple visiting to mountain hiking, a water park in a canyon, river rafting, atv riding and taking cooking classes, paintballing and zoos. Then there are tours on Segway’s, bicycles and mopeds/scooter in addition to the bus/van tours. If you’re not into tours, you can rent cars (need an international drivers license), mopeds/motorcycles, bicycles or those electric skateboard things with the handle. The more unique activities would be the elephant sanctuaries and tiger sanctuaries. I’ll let you decide for yourself whether they are “good or bad”. I personally don’t mind them if the animals look well treated but I never got around to going. What I’ve listed is probably only a drop in the bucket as to the amount of activities there are judging by the display of brochures I see in the shops. The reason why I went to Thailand, this trip, was because I needed some dental work done and I was informed that Thailand’s dental practices were top notch and inexpensive. I chose Chiang Mai over Bangkok because Chiang Mai was cheaper both in dental prices as well as accommodations. If you’re interested to know more, here’s my post about it, Dental Holiday in Chiang Mai. Wait what? SERIOUSLY?!?! Overall, I found Chiang Mai to be less ‘hustle bustle’ and less traffic than Bangkok but more “touristy”. What do I mean by that? Well, many Thai people in Chiang Mai, can speak Mandarin. I thought it was because of the amount of Chinese tourists at first until I was kind of forced on a hike (Details in my upcoming failed Doi Inthanon excursion), on which I had to pay for a local hills tribesman to guide me on, told me (in very broken, sporadic English) that people on the mountain speak Mandarin because of their proximity to the border. He tried explaining it in Mandarin to me but I can’t understand Mandarin. Although I tried to reason it out, I couldn’t. The northern borders of Thailand are Myanmar (Burma) and Laos, I didn’t think they spoke Mandarin there. Anyways, I was quite startled to be spoken to in Mandarin by customer service staff in many, many shops/restaurants I visited. Another indication of the large number of tourists are the sheer number of shops offering tour packages, it’s like there’s one every 10 shops as you walk down any street. If you’re interested to visit the Hills Tribes people, there are plenty of tours. The “Golden Triangle” tours will take you to the area/river delta where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. Don’t worry if English is your only language, I’ve found that speaking English in Chiang Mai isn’t an issue as everyone could understand me and for the most part I could understand them. The only time I had a language barrier was the time I had a tour guide, yup, I don’t understand that either.

Aside from the abundance of non Thai speakers everywhere, so are the local forms of transport, songthaews and tuk tuks. Songthaews are pickup trucks with the bed converted to benches on either side and a roof. The red ones service the general vicinity of the old city and the yellow ones travel further out, although you can hire a red one to take you wherever you want provided you can agree to terms on the price. I’ve also seen black ones and maroon colored ones, but have no clue where they go. Songthaews operate like shared taxis, anyone can flag one down, negotiate a price and hop on. Usually, the more riders, the cheaper the fare gets. Although all the red ones have $30 TBH fare written on the side in English, the rest of the wording is in Thai and I’d like to think it means minimum amount because every time I’ve flagged one to ride in the vicinity of the old city, the first amount the driver would say was $100 TBH. For some reason I was always flagged the empty ones. Note: I always check the price on Grab before I try to flag a songthaew, so if I can’t get a ride on a songthaew for significantly cheaper, I just book the Grab taxi. Having said that, I only rode the songthaew’s two times in the 16 days I was there. There were a few occasions when the songthaew was $20-$30 TBH cheaper than the Grab but I took the Grab anyways because I didn’t want to deal with the heat, sit on a bench in the back of an enclosed pickup truck (the small little side windows didn’t help much, and the exhaust smell ain’t that great either) and I got motion sickness the two times I rode in the songthaews plus it gets so tedious to negotiate a price every time. I tried taking the tuk tuk’s (motorized rickshaw) too, the motion sickness for me was not that bad, much more ventilation and the driver doesn’t stop to pick up passengers. Tuk tuk’s are usually more expensive than songthaews which puts them in the Grab taxi price range, unless you’re really far from the old city. You have to negotiate a price before you get in too. Thank goodness for Grab because while exploring on foot, I found myself in many places where I didn’t see any songthaews or tuk tuk’s around. If you do plan on using Grab keep in mind that you can’t use the funds in your Grab wallet to pay for your ride because it’s not available at the time of this writing. Almost forgot, there are metered taxis but the only place where I saw them was at the airport and only once, in town, that was dropping off tourists at a hotel.

Hailing a songthaew, then negotiating the fare with the driver.

View from the inside a songthaew

Neon lit Tuk Tuk’s available for hire

Metered taxi

Languages and transport aside, I found Chiang Mai to be abundant in artistic stuff like paintings, drawings, carvings, crafts. I even found some graffiti! There are many night markets that open up on the streets/sidewalks in different areas around Chiang Mai and they all start around 7pm and you can watch them start setting up around 6pm. You’ll find a lot of hand made stuff along with all the art stuff. The big nightly street market is the Night Bazaar which is East of Tha Phae Gate, lots of stuff to see there. There are a handful of vendors at Tha Phae Gate too but mainly just handmade souvenirs and an artist or two. On Saturday’s just outside the Chiang Mai Gate (also called Pratu Gate) is where, from what I was told, the silver smiths peddle their works. I went there once didn’t see much silver. Saw a lot of street food vendors though! If you’re into silver jewelry, there are plenty of shops all over the place, good prices too. On Sunday’s is the mother of all night markets. They close off streets within the Old City to facilitate this night market, it’s pretty awesome, I got to see it three times! Prices are low and then you can bargain if you so choose to, they kind of expect you to anyways. It gets really crowded but civilized. For the most part people try not to bump you and give an apologetic gesture if they do. The vendors aren’t pushy and genuinely nice, IMO. Never did I feel threatened or mobbed by a bunch of kids asking for money, nor were there homeless/less fortunate people sitting/lying around unlike Bangkok. Most of the less fortunate were actually trying to earn instead of beg by playing a musical instrument, dancing or singing.

Street artists selling his drawings in front of Tha Phae Gate in Chiang Mai, Thailand

If you’re into seeing/visiting temples, then Chiang Mai is for you. They have big ones, small ones, new ones, centuries old ones, and nationally recognized ones. It’s impossible, I think, to walk 10 minutes in any direction and not see one. After a week and a lot of walking, I thought I saw them all which I later learned was a mistake. One evening as I was returning from one of my walk abouts, the front desk clerk asked me how my trip was thus far. I told him it was awesome, I loved all the temples and stuff and now that I’ve seen them all, didn’t know else I should do. You should have seen the wide eyed look on his face as he said, “all 300?!” You should have seen the wide eyed look on my face as I said, “300?!?!” I think I visited maybe 30ish. In my defense, I was only looking at the ones with stupa’s and missed a lot of the smaller ones because I just didn’t see/notice them. So upon further “inspection” on my walk abouts, I don’t know if there really are 300 temples but there are a lot, some are really, really small as in just a small shack or two housing a statue or two and a space for prayer. Anyways, it became an adventure of sorts. Speaking of adventure, there is also an area where excavations have yielded ruins of temples. You can take a buggy ride, for a fee to visit them all or you can try to find them all by yourself. If you do try to find them all yourself, please, please don’t walk! I tried didn’t get very far, plus there are loose dogs (don’t know if they were wild or not), a lot of them not too friendly, had to fend a couple off with my tripod once. I did find a few pretty cool looking ruins though, made it worth it for me coupled with being able to see how the local people live because these ruins are scattered in residential areas (found horses in some yards too)! Wish I had more time to go back and take the buggy ride though. If you’re interested in that area, it’s called Wiang Kum Kam, I’ll make a separate post about it soon.

An ornate white and gold stupa with a cloudy blue sky in the background

Chiang Mai’s famous bar street has a lot of bars and happy ending massage shops (you can tell because you can’t really see into the shop and there are plenty of girls trying to entice you inside) on both sides of the street. The other massage shops that are on the up and up, in case you’re wondering, has people, usually female that just greet you or just smile and nod as you walk by. You can see into the shop and you’ll notice it’s an open area, many times not even curtains to separate the patrons. So you can be pretty sure there’s no “extras” in those. Back to the bars, on the weekdays, it’s really, really quiet like I’m one of 5 guys walking around and there aren’t many customers in the bars either, maybe 1 in 5 bars and the few bar girls around won’t even bother to look up. The weekends aren’t much better although there are more bar girls hanging out in front of their shops and more enthusiastic about trying to get patrons plus the music is louder. There are days when there’s Muaythai bouts held in the boxing ring which is located down this sort of alley lined with bars that opens up to a sort of cul de sac in which the boxing ring is in the middle surrounded by more bars. Those days make it more interesting although you have to pay an entrance fee but since some of the bars have a back entrance off a side street, you could enter those, buy a beer and sit close enough to see the action thereby skipping the entrance fee to see the fight. As much as I love beer, I didn’t see any bar that was interesting enough to drink in. It was much more fun sitting in a restaurant facing the street near Tha Phae Gate and watch the tourists or head into the Night Bazaa where there’s this area like a huge outdoor food court and beer stalls. Much, much more people here than on the bar street. They have live bands too which (I don’t mean this in a mean way) perform covers in the local style English which I found very weird yet interesting. Some people get up and dance when they hear their jam, so that’s fun to watch too.

Muaythai Chiang Mai Boxing Stadium.

There are (as far as I saw) 3 shopping malls, two modern ones with global brand name shops and one older, more local one. I went to one of the newer ones, called Central Festival, to extend my phone plan since the sim chip that I got from the airport was only good for 8 days (there’s one kiosk selling sim chips where the luggage belts are and one after you exit customs). Central Festival was pretty new looking and prices were not local prices, I checked out some camera gear and it’s pretty much the same price as in Singapore. The local mall, named Kad Suan Kaew, I literally just walked into it without knowing it at the end of one of my walk abouts. Most of the shops were closing up so I didn’t get to see much. The local shops prices looked reasonable, the recognizable, global brand names were the usual price so really nothing special about the shopping malls. I much prefer the street markets.

One of the newer shopping malls in Chiang Mai

Local style shopping mall in Chiang Mai

The more I think about it, the more I’m thinking that Chiang Mai is my favorite destination thus far I think Chiang Rai has something to do with it too. I’ll post a write up of Chiang Rai soon too. So consider following me for updates to find not only my other travel bloopers, blunders and shenanigans but also photography related news/reviews and the occasional contest entry. The only thing I have to “complain” about is that, to me (and don’t flame me for this) I found that in general, it’s all about the money in Chiang Mai. What I mean by this is when you’re going about paying for your songthaew/tuk tuk ride and don’t give exact change, don’t be surprised if they don’t give you your change unless you ask for it or remind them what the agreed upon fare was. I’ve had this happen when buying food or souvenirs from street vendors too. In the temples I found the sheer number of donation boxes somewhat of a let down. Some temples have an entrance fee too with different prices for locals and tourists. It’s my theory that your attire will have an impact on pricing as well and be aware of this in the shops that don’t have price tags on their items. Grab drivers may try to offer you their services for your other trips which is good, but the prices may not be. Best to know where you want to go and a general idea of how much it would cost via other modes of transport. Almost forgot, if you take pictures of locals who look dressed up in cultural garb, chances are they will ask you for money afterwards, especially the kids. If people offer to take your picture, they’ll ask for a tip afterwards. The amount of the tip they ask for depends on what they do to get  you a nice shot (more on this in a later post). Don’t be put off by this though, it’s just a part of life, I suppose and happen everywhere too.

I love Chiang Mai mural by the roadside at night

Consider following me for updates to find not only my other travel bloopers, blunders and shenanigans but also photography related news/reviews and the occasional contest entry.

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Comments & Critiques are always welcome, as are upvotes and resteems.

Thanks for viewing and best wishes!

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My journey to the Pingyao International Photography Festival 2017

Documenting my journey into China. I thought it would be a good idea to visit some historic sites on my way to the Pingyao International Photography Festival 2017, which is the largest photography festival in China and set within the ancient city walls of Pingyao in the Shanxi province. Hopefully my exploits will help some of you if you happen be in similar situation(s). I will put my visit to each tourist site in separate posts with links in this post. It was quite a privilege for me to participate as part of the Photographic Society of Singapore’s curated contingent. Here’s me with my entries:

My large prints on exhibit at the Pingyao International Photography Festival 2017

My large prints on exhibit at the Pingyao International Photography Festival 2017

NOTE: Yuan and Renmenbi are used interchangeably as the name for China’s currency. Yuan is the official name, I think.

My daughter and I flew out of Singapore on China Eastern Airlines into Shanghai’s Pudong Airport and had a few hours layover before our flight to Datong so we got some breakfast and ate it at the gate lobby. Although the flight was on time and we were sitting outside the gate, we almost missed the flight!!! Between my daughter and myself we heard only one call to board roughly 30 minutes before the printed boarding time on our boarding pass. As we got to the counter, we noticed that we were at last call with roughly 10 minutes left and being rushed and a bunch of people were starting to stir behind us. Apparently, there were 2 flights leaving from this gate and the attendants were sifting through the passengers. So we got through with a bunch of other people and had to get on a bus, there was enough of us stragglers to fill the bus! Then it took us roughly 25 minutes to get to the plane. We all boarded the plane, no hassles, plenty of overhead cabin space and the flight went by smooth. No horror stories, no bad service, zip. Three hours later we land in Datong

View of Datong Airport’s terminal from the runway.

Datong airport has a tourist transportation kiosk that you can see as soon as you step past security after collecting your bags, it’s a big red sign in English. The lady we spoke to didn’t speak English though but we managed to ascertain that the free bus that goes into the city had just left and that a taxi would cost 50 yuan. So instead of wait 30 min. for the next free bus (which would have stopped in front of our hotel) we chose to take the taxi she walked us out to get the cab and made sure the driver knew that the fare would be 50 yuan. The ride by (speeding) taxi was roughly 30 min. I imagine the bus would take twice as long.

NOTE: I was told prior to leaving for this trip that everything was negotiable and that it is imperative that you ask for the price BEFORE you get into the taxi. This lady dictating/reinforcing the fare really set this process in my mind.

Our Itinerary (will link to reviews when I write them):
First Day: Yungang Grottoes.
Second Day: Wooden Pagoda, Hanging Temple, Hengshan mountain
Third Day: Datong Great Wall and inner city walk around.
My full review of Datong Hotel

So we got to the hotel, Datong Hotel, roughly 20 minutes later and was able to check in early. There was a guy (tall with glasses) that could speak a bit of English that helped us check in. He took my Booking.com details and was quite pleasant. He informed me that I had to use my credit card for security deposit and I understood a charge of 1/3 the quoted price would be charged. He actually charged 1/3 over the quoted price and said the difference would be “returned”. I didn’t really think I’d get ripped off and if I did I can dispute, right? Not really. Anyways, got the keys and went to the room to drop off our suitcases. We were excited and wanted to go see stuff already. We spent roughly 3 days and 3 nights in Datong. There are many eateries around but none looked like they would have English menus so we just picked a joint that had pictures on the wall and pointed out our order. Here’s a picture of the hotel front yard:

Datong Hotel

Front view of Datong Hotel.

 

The hotel is old, but not dirty. A bit dark in places but overall, ok. It’s kind of close to many of Datong’s attraction.  Only ran into 3 staff that could converse, kind of, in English. All were front desk staff. Although the hotel’s rates are relatively inexpensive beware of this scheme:

My quote from Booking.com was in the amount of 684 Yuan for 3 nights. Upon checkout, they did not reverse the security deposit charge and charge the subsequent correct amount of 812 yuan (we room charged dinner one night in the amount of 128 yuan). When questioned, they punched a bunch of stuff into the machine it spit out a long paper that had the correct amounts on it but was difficult to read. Now going on at the same time, the taxi we had arranged, had not shown up yet (20 min late) and I was worried we would miss our train to Pingyao. So I figured I would give them the benefit of the doubt and deal with this through my credit card if necessary. Also the converted potential loss would be around $38 dollars (my currency) which would be cheaper than missing my train.

UPDATE: As of 9/30/17 The security deposit is gone from my credit card statement and the proper charge is reflected.

So we got the hotel to get us a taxi to the train station. It cost 15 yuan and took roughly 20 min. We got to the train station, went through security, bought some drinks and took a toilet break, 10 min later it was boarding time. Here’s the train station:

Datong’s railway station.

TIP: get your tickets early and try not to get the standing or hard seats (standing literally means standing in the aisle of the hard seat section). I used Ctrip.com (their website’s in English and you can pay via Mastercard or Visa) and collected the tickets the day before the train ride (again 15 yuan from Hotel). Take a picture of your ticket(s) before you board.

Although the sign says pick up tickets here (where the lady in yellow is in the above picture), behind all those doors is the security line of bag x-ray machines and security personnel with metal detectors. To pick up tickets, go through security and walk down the corridor on the right (as if you had walk straight through the doors where the lady in yellow is in the photo above). The corridor opens up and you’ll see ticket counters from which you can get your tickets. If you’re catching your train, after security check, show your ticket to the last security personnel and they’ll point you in the direction you need to go. Well at least that worked for us, the lady security guard even spoke the directions in English.

We booked the Hard Sleeper seats which are bunk beds three high on either side of a cubicle. One train car has like 4 or 5 cubicles. I couldn’t pick seats so we got one way at the top and one on the opposite side bottom (at least we were in the same cubicle. Don’t be surprised if someone is on your bunk, they will move when you get there if not show your picture of your ticket. The person who took your ticket when you boarded the train will give you a plastic card when the train starts moving. This card is what you will need to show if you get questioned when/if you walk around. There is a dining car, but was locked when we tried to get food. You give back the plastic card when the train personnel comes by presumably to tell you your stop is coming up.

Train tickets from Datong to Pingyao

Plastic cards given on train with seat/bunk number

TIP: Know how many stops and keep count of the stops you’ve passed. There are either NO SIGNAGE or they are very hard to see/find or not in English. Arrival time may be off by 15 min (ours was and we almost didn’t get off the train, a fellow passenger my daughter befriended told us that we needed to get off the train). Some train stops seems really close together so it may not be obvious even though the train personnel came to take the plastic card. Here’s the Pingyao train station (slow train) the high speed train station is some where else.

Pingyao train station platform.

Outside of Pingyao Train Station.

The outside of the station had some construction going on so I couldn’t get a better frontal shot. But all you would need is the characters on top of the building to show anyone if you needed to get to Pingyao’s regular train station (as in not the high speed train station).

So we booked a hotel (Hong Changyu Inn, review here) within the ancient city walls and while it is technically possible to walk from the train station, I’m guessing 30 min walk. I wouldn’t. We tried and abandoned the task within 5 min. We both had wheeled carry on sized suitcases and the surface is not conducive to rolling them on. The way is a patchwork of nice brick surfaces, to cobblestone to dirt patches. Then the “sidewalk” would end and you’d have to walk on the street (that in itself is a harrowing experience). Better just to get one of those “tuk tuk” looking taxis for 20 yuan or better yet have the hotel go get you some hotels offer it for free mine didn’t.

Due to time constraints I had to limit our stay in Pingyao to 3 days and nights. The Pingyao International Photography Festival spans a week. Within the city there are 22 tourists spots which you can enter using one ticket. Which usually costs 130 Yuan. This ticket  during the festival was on sale for 65 yuan and has a bar code on it that gets scanned at the entry of each tourist destination (sometimes scanning is self service). There are some attractions that aren’t included with the ticket (so look for the turnstyle gate thing). We allotted a whole day (our last day) for the attractions and only finished 11. We did see an additional 2 attractions (temples) from the outside because they were closed. The attractions close around 18:00 / 18:30. So keep that in mind. Pingyao Ancient city is way bigger than it seems especially if you plan to walk everything.

The people are friendly, most can tolerate the language barrier and we found more English practitioners in Pingyao than in Datong. Food prices can very widely and coffee is scarce and when I did find it it was 48 yuan a cup, beer was only 18 yuan and bottle drinks 5 yuan. Street food stall prices vary too. I had a sausage on a stick for 15 yuan at one stall and at a different stall I had two on a stick for 10 yuan.

My review of Pingyao International Photography Festival 2017.

Even being able to speak Cantonese didn’t help with the language barriers as everyone spoke Mandarin, but according to my daughter the Mandarin we encountered is different than what she learned in school. If you can speak another Chinese dialect I would encourage you to try if only to negate the crassness of some people who find it unreasonable that a Chinese person can’t speak “Chinese”.

The hotel we stayed in was the Hong Changyu Inn and it was exactly as advertised on Booking.com. Shaw, the inn keeper can converse in English and was extremely helpful. He also (at my request) arranged a cab to drive us to Taiyuan Airport for 380 yuan (the driver was conscientious and safe). Payment inclusive of security deposit was paid in full upon check in (just remember to get your receipt and you should be fine). Deposit was refunded with no issues. Actually I got 6 yuan extra because neither of us had small bills. Here’s a photo taken from within the courtyard:

Courtyard of Hong Changyu Inn

My review of Hong Changyu Inn

From Taiyuan we flew to Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport, and had 10 hours layover so we rode the subway into town (peoples square), it was raining so not much happening in the park so we walked around the malls, then took the subway to Pudong Airport for the flight back to Singapore. Food prices and trinket stuff in the malls were not so bad but the branded stuff, I found, were more expensive than Singapore. There is a distinct shift in friendliness too, Shanghai being way less friendly than Pingyao, Datong or Taiyuan (though we only spent time in the airport).

There are a lot of bad reviews for China Eastern Airlines but for us, the only thing to complain about was the age of the plane, it was readily apparent. Some planes had no screens for movies, broken tray tables, broken cup holders, torn seats, lumpy seats (I used the blanket as a cushion on one flight). Other than that it’s not bad (especially for the price). Every flight had a meal, AWESOME!. My daughter and I love airplane food! Oh conversing with the flight crew in English may be an issue at times, for example, we asked for apple juice they said yes and gave us orange juice.

I really wish I had more time in both Datong and Pingyao. I really loved both places. The air quality everywhere we went was noticeably bad, especially in the morning. It literally leaves a bad taste in your mouth but by noon most of it was gone, not the taste though. Maybe that’s why people spit so much in China.

NOTES:
1. Horns, bells, whistles and verbal sirens are all indicators that the person is coming through and will not give way (for the most part) so it’s best if you move, especially if you’re a pedestrian.
2. Spitting is loud and everyone does it, it seems. Chances are quite high you’ll step in a big wad of spit/mucous if you don’t watch where you’re going.
3. Children (boys and girls) will pull down their pants and pee wherever. In Pingyao we saw numerous toddlers with pants that had no back side to facilitate the easy of relieving themselves I guess.
4. If you leave even the slightest gap, someone will cut in and think nothing of it, it’s normal. People will get mad or shove you through if you don’t do it.
5. You’ll be lucky if you get a sitting toilet, expect to squat. ALWAYS bring your own tissue.
6. For this trip (since I have a very intolerant digestive system), I followed the pharmacist’s advice and used Duolac then when my stomach got a bit queasy (only 3 times)  I took Imodium. My whole trip I had no problems and was even eating street food!!!
7. Smoking is allowed almost EVERYWHERE it seems.

More Datong photos in this Flickr Album
More Pingyao photos in this Flickr Album



The Photographer’s Lighting Handbook

Free Photographer’s Lighting Handbook from the good folks at Photoshelter and Profoto.

Link (if above doesn’t work): http://resources.photoshelter.com/photographers-lighting-handbook/



Improve your Chances of Getting Published

Lindsay Adler’s article on her website entitled “5 Ways to Improve your Chances of Getting Published” provides for an interesting read on getting published in the fashion photography sphere.