Maybe more than anything else, a photographers use of light can make or break an image. Light is everything. It’s not simply a question of using the correct exposure settings. It’s much, much more than this. Light is fundamental to composition, it adds warmth or coldness, it creates shadows and depth and gives colour it’s magic. When a person picks up a camera it’s all about the light. As photographers we have two choices when it comes to using light. We can use controlled light, as in a studio shoot, for example, or we can use natural light as provided by the sun and sometimes the moon and milky way. Sometimes it’s possible to combine the two, but basically, that’s it… controlled light and natural light, that’s all we have.
I have a good friend who is an outstanding photographer. He did some wedding photos for my wife and I at his studio here in Ho Chi Minh City. While he was setting up his lights and adjusting a massive boom light. I glanced over his bookshelf. He had rows of books all about lighting and lighting techniques. It was amazing and a little intimidating; I studied lighting when I trained as a forensic photographer almost thirty years ago, but I didn’t even understand the contents page of some of those books. Anyway, after a minute or two he was ready, positioned my wife and I and took a shot. It was fantastic! One shot and he had it in the bag. I was more than happy with it, but he insisted on taking a few dozen more. I wish it was as easy as that when I went to work.
I however, am a travel photographer, and I’m pretty much limited to natural light. It’s almost never easy. I too have a bookcase full of photography books at home, but look at my books and you would be forgiven for thinking I was a geography teacher. I have books about the solar system, about climatology, about the weather and about clouds. This is the reality of lighting if you’re a travel, landscape or almost any kind of outdoor photographer. After over twenty years of living in Vietnam I know the seasons quite well and can read the sky better than most, but that doesn’t always mean very much. If a studio light blows it can easily and quickly be replaced, but if a tropical storm hits the area where you’re working you might as well pack up and go home. Two decades of spending almost every day outdoors with my camera, however, has helped me evolve a reasonably productive workflow. What follows is a simple summary of how to get the most out of 24 hours of natural light.
Planning is the key. While no one wants to ignore the unplanned serendipitous opportunities that present themselves, planning your day is essential to maximizing your potential imaging outcomes. Nothing new here, I know. I have found it most effective to divide my time into seven distinct ‘light’ periods, each with its own photographic advantages and possibilities. The simple diagram below illustrates this.
First, obviously, I divide my day into two major periods… night and day. That’s the horizontal line across the bottom of the diagram which represents sunrise and sunset. As you can see, and I’m sure you know, this provides us with the famous ‘Blue Hours’ and ‘Golden Hours’. One in the morning and one in the afternoon. Two things to consider here. One, the direction of the light is opposite; where you will have frontal light in the morning you will have backlighting in the afternoon, or vice versa. Important for planning. Two, and this is more important, the quality of light is very different. Morning light is colder and often much clearer. By the time late afternoon arrives the land has warmed up and there’s often a kind of haze, which while inhibiting image clarity, can cause refraction and create dramatic and very warm sunsets.
So, blue light in the morning. Make sure you know what direction it’s coming from and plan the start of your day. You don’t want to be running around half-asleep in the dark looking for something to photograph. Sunrise is my favorite time to shoot. The light is cool and more yellow than the orange of the afternoon. The shadows are long and there’s often less human activity. It’s the best time for landscapes. If you’re lucky there will also be low clouds which catch the first light as the sun creeps over the horizon. This moment of lighting perfection doesn’t last long, so as far as possible try to plan your subject matter so that you don’t waste too much time travelling from one location to another.
After sunrise you have a few hours of usable light for outdoor shooting, but as the sun rises the harsher it becomes, the greater the contrast and the shorter the shadows. Generally, after the sun reaches 45 degrees in the sky the light isn’t optimal. As a rule of thumb, I follow the ‘Short Shadow’ rule as far as outdoor shooting goes. It’s really simple, and if you don’t already know it, you should make it a standard in your personal photography toolbox. It goes like this: stand with your back to the sun and if your shadow is longer than you are tall, shoot. If your shadow is shorter than you are tall, then pack it in and get yourself a well-earned cup of coffee.
The middle of the day, however, isn’t a total write off. It’s the ideal time to shoot indoors. The light is high and doesn’t stream in through doorways and windows so there is a little less contrast and fewer problems with dynamic range. It’s also a great time for portraiture. Position your subject next to a doorway or window and the softer sidelight will illuminate them beautifully. The light is usually bright and white and this help a lot with accurate skin tones. Midday is also the best time of day for one specific kind of outdoor photography. Shooting from height. If you are photographing city streets from a very tall building the streets are all well-lit and pedestrian traffic or whatever is easily visible. Likewise, if you are shooting straight down with a drone the same applies, midday is your best friend. To be honest, however, after a 04h00 wakeup and a whole morning shooting, I usually just use this time to download my SD cards and have a nap.
The afternoon is the reverse of the morning. When the shadows are long enough it’s time to grab your camera and go out shooting. Again, consider the direction of the light and plan your locations accordingly, with as little travel time between them as possible. Often the afternoon light is much more orange than in the morning and while this might be perfect for a sunset, remember to pay attention to your white balance if shooting people or buildings. In many parts of the world there is frequently an afternoon convection thunderstorm. These usually start breaking up around sunset. offering scattered clouds for the sun to illuminate. What travel companies call the ‘shoulder season’ are often the best time to travel for photography. Sometimes better even than the sunset shot, is the ‘Blue Hour’ which follows.
Of course, it doesn’t really last an hour, but that doesn’t matter. The biggest mistake most photographers make here, however, is packing up and going for dinner too early. Long after the sun has sunk below the horizon there is still great potential for incredible light. You might no longer see the sun, but it’s light is bouncing off the thermosphere above you and this can reflect all kinds of magical colours, which you can’t always see with your eye. When you use a long exposure you will sometimes be amazed with the results. One last way to make most use of the blue hour if you’re shooting a location with artificial lighting, such as a cityscape, is to use multiple exposures. Place your camera on a tripod and take a photograph of your subject bathed in the warm evening light, with the sun behind you. Wait until the street and window lights all come on and take another long exposure shot. In post blend the two (or more) images and you should have a beautiful photograph clearly showing details and illuminated windows and maybe car light trails.
Well, if you’ve read this far, thank you. A few photographs to go, and you're done. I hope that there was something helpful. Kugara zvakanaka!
Long after the sun has set its light bounces off the atmosphere and adds colour to the sky above the Independence Monument in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The setting sun back-lights the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Low clouds catch the sunrise as locals perform their morning exercise routine on the riverfront in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Shooting in this windowless Taoist temple the high sun provides top-light to illuminate the interior.
This time last week I was sitting outside a little pub in Westminster, London, enjoying a pint of good British bitter. It was a sunny evening and I was surrounded by a crowd of locals who had taken off their suit jackets and even rolled up their sleeves to enjoy the unseasonable heat. Not me. I was frozen. I had to keep my hands in my windbreaker pockets and had a hard time not shivering and stopping my teeth from chattering. I had planned to spend a week exploring the city, but an hour later I was in my hotel room searching online for the very next flight back to South East Asia. Thus I arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the following evening. Walking out of the modern air-conditioned airport was pure joy. The air was hot and humid, it smelt of rotting jungle vegetation and coconuts and the muddy waters of the Mekong River, along with less than subtle overtones of exhaust fumes… I was home!
Let me add here, for those of you who may be reading this and don’t know me well, that I know Phnom Penh like the back of my hand. Indeed, much better, as I’ve never spent much time studying the back of my hand. This sprawling, booming, chaotic and unique city is one of my favorite places in the world. So here I was, and while I was eager to return to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and my wife, I have to admit to being happy and a little bit excited to be back in Phnom Penh. Things weren’t perfect, however. I hadn’t been able to get a room at my favorite guesthouse right over the road from the Kings palace, and far worse, I’d arrived in the middle of the rainy season. For a photographer this is a big thing in South East Asia. It can rain in the morning or the afternoon, at dawn or at sunset. It can pour down for an hour, for a whole day or even a whole week. There’s no guarantee that you can even take your camera out of your bag, no matter how long you are here… and I only had two days!
So the question was; what to photograph? Since this was my first trip here with my new Fujifilm X-T3 I considered reshooting the standard tourist sites (which sell well) such as the Royal Palace, the Art Museum, S21 and so on. On that first night, however, on the way to dinner I saw that the Royal Palace was covered in scaffolding and bright blue netting. Scrap that idea. No problem. Let’s do something different. Let’s do the opposite, I decided, after a truly delicious fish amok (Google it!) and more than a few beers at my favorite watering hole; Harry’s Bar on the riverfront. I would try, weather allowing, photographing a variety of locations around the city that most tourists never get to see – not because they can’t, but because they simply aren’t advertised. This is in reality, the difficulty of trying to photograph Phnom Penh. Wherever you are, whether you head North, South, East or West there is an incredible plethora of photographic opportunities; markets, people, pagodas, ancient ruins, stunning new buildings, landscapes, streets, food… anything and almost everything. OK. That was sorted; the difficult thing was deciding where to go and where not to go. The only thing remaining was to wait and see when the monsoon would permit me to photograph.
Well, I’m back at Harry’s enjoying a cold beer and typing these words. Tomorrow morning I fly home. Unfortunately, however, I’m convinced the Khmer Gods hate me. It’s rained a few times each day, but not for long. Not long enough to keep me indoors or prevent me from exploring and taking my camera out. I haven’t had much luck though. The clouds have hidden the sun for all but an hour or two… even when there has been only one small cloud in the sky it’s almost always carefully and knowingly positioned itself between me and whatever I’ve wanted photograph. No direct light. No shadows. No colour. Not that I can really blame Cambodia. Everyone, but for the bus loads of ignorant tourists, knows that that it’s daft to visit at this time of year. Still, I’m not really complaining. I’ve had two great days, seen some great sights that most people will never visit, enjoyed some fantastic Khmer food and tomorrow night I’ll be home with my wife again. What more could I want?
The photographs that follow this short blog will never win any Travel Photographer of the Year awards, but they do give a little idea of a few of the photographic opportunities that await you here in Phnom Penh – and all in only a few hours at the height of the rainy season… I hope you enjoy them… and if you’re ever tempted to visit, please feel free to contact me (using the About page) for any locations or information you might need. Kugara zvakanaka!
The main entrance to Moni Brosithvong pagoda nearSangkat Preaek Pnov in the Northern Suburbs of Phnom Penh.
A contemporary Angkor style temple near Svay Odom.
Tiger at the Gate. A temple guardian at Svay Odom.
Guarding his Gods. At Svay Odom.
Rraksmay Sophonaram Buddhist pagoda near Krasang Village in the Southern Suburbs of Phnom Penh.
Raksmay Sophonaram Buddhist pagoda from the front showing the two (very tall) flag poles.
Entrance to the 12th century Angkor period temple at Tonle Bati - which is still in use today.
Detail from the temple at Tonle Bati.
The modern Buddhist pagoda at Tonle Bati, a short tuk-tuk ride from the city centre. The pyramid-like structures set around the building are the tombs of monks.
Buddha sits under a tree in the garden of the pagoda at Tonle Bati.
Photography tours are popular. It’s easy to find pages of possibilities with a quick internet search. Not so easy, however, is finding the one that will be best for you, and it’s really important that you do. You’re investing your hard earned cash and probably vacation time away from the family to go on your tour, so it makes sense that you want to pick the very best tour you can. The first thing to consider is what type of tour is best for you. Type of tour? That’s right. They are not all the same. It’s important that as you begin filtering through the options you have, that you are very clear about your desired outcomes. What do you want to have achieved once your tour is over? To have learnt something new and to have broadened or improved your skills or to have created a comprehensive portfolio of great images from a bucket list location? These and other goals are not mutually exclusive, but it is essential that you have a clear idea in mind before you begin to avoid disappointment at the end. Let’s take a quick look at some of the options.
The first kind of tour is what I call the celebrity tour. These are tours where a well-known photographer acts as a tour leader. They can follow either a workshop or photo tour format, but the important thing is that you will hopefully get to spend some quality one-on-one time with a photographer whose work you respect. This can be an incredible experience in and of itself. In recent years these tours have become much more popular and common, primarily due to the emergence of some excellent YouTube photography channels. If these appeal to you, and you can get yourself a booking, I would really recommend a tour like this. I must add, however, a word of warning. Some large and well established companies (who should really know better) sometimes headline a famous photographer, but when you arrive your tour may be led by someone you have never heard of. “Oh, he led the June tour and you’re doing the July one” is not what you want to hear upon arrival. Always check who will lead the specific tour you book.
Next is the teaching tour. If you are just starting out as a photographer or maybe want to learn about a new genera of photography, then maybe a tour which emphasizes a learning experience, like a workshop, would be best for you. Workshops generally include more tuition and most also have informal ‘classroom’ time and shared image reviews and feedback. This can be very constructive and really help you to develop your skills. Indeed, some such tours might not always include much actual touring, but focus on a specific location where a particular skill can be practiced. The issues to check before booking a tour like this are pretty much common sense. Inquire about the ‘level’ of the tuition. You don’t want to be sitting in a room full of people discussing ‘photo stacking’ if your goal is to learn how to shoot in manual mode. More specifically, you might not get as much as you would like out of it, if your tour leader is teaching you how to use layers in Capture One and you use Lightroom. The point here is to know what you want and to make sure that you will get it before you pay the deposit.
Third is the straightforward photography tour. This is the classical idea of a tour. You travel to explore a particular destination in depth, under the guidance of a guide who knows the area well. The goal is for you to come away with a well balanced portfolio of images of which you are proud. And if the tour is well organized, you shouldn’t have to worry about anything except taking fantastic photographs. All the boring logistics are taken care of by your tour leader. And more than that, if he or she is good, they should be able to provide you with access and opportunities that the normal visitor doesn’t have, thus adding a very important element of uniqueness to your images. On tours like this you will probably work harder than is the norm and you might occasionally miss the odd meal. After all no self-respecting guide would have you eating a hotel breakfast while you miss a sunrise. Sometimes, depending on where you are, the accommodation might also not be up to the expected standards, simply because some of the best landscape or culturally interesting places don’t come equipped with five star hotels. The thing you most need to be aware of on tours like this is the experience of the guide, but we’ll look at that a little later.
Finally, and deserving of a dishonorable mention, is the tour with ‘photography’. This is the tour you probably trying hard to avoid. This is simply a normal hop-on-hop-off tour for non-photographers with the word photography thrown into the marketing material. Competition for tourists is stiff and tour companies know that ‘photography’ is a very productive key word. On tours like this you will find yourself surrounded by cell phone shooters with selfie sticks and arriving at iconic locations when the light is all wrong and being herded back onto the bus before you’ve had time to set up your tripod. If you are traveling with your family, this might be exactly what you want, but not if you’re serious about taking good photographs. The best way to spot this kind of thing is to make a careful investigation of the company’s website. If they have half a dozen similar tours to the one you’re looking at that make no mention of photography, it’s normally a good indication you should close the page on your browser and look elsewhere.
What’s next? The second issue to consider is time. This is important at a number of different levels. A good rule of thumb is to always give yourself as much time as you can reasonably afford. This is especially true if your tour involves an expensive air ticket to a distant or exotic location. The duration of a tour doesn’t necessarily correlate to its quality. Generally teaching tours or workshops are a little shorter than location driven photography tours. Looking through the marketing material of tours I know to be good, it seems that five to ten days is about the norm for workshops and about two weeks is average for photography tours. Having said this however, three days to three weeks might suit you better. It’s all about what you feel best fits your personal situation and meets your needs.
Irrespective of how long you decide to spend on tour, time is important. Especially, think about what time of year will you be at your location? Travel to the iconic Victoria Falls in October and you’ll be faced with a massive wall of grey rock and almost no water to mention. Arrive in Myanmar during the monsoon and you’ll be photographing the inside of your hotel room. Get the idea? You can use one of many good weather websites to check on things like precipitation, cloud cover and hours of sunlight per day. In addition, if you are traveling within a region, remember to compare local weather reports. In Vietnam, for example, when it’s great to shoot in Saigon it’s often terrible in Hanoi, and vice versa. If the tour company you’re looking at only has one or two tours to a location per season, it’s a good indication that they know what they are doing. If they offer the same tour at any time of the year, look very carefully into the weather before you sign on the dotted line.
The next thing to consider, and although it’s number three it’s probably the ‘big’ one for most people, is cost. Photography tours of any kind don’t come cheap. First, let’s consider long haul flights. In recent years there has been a move away from including flights like these within a tour package. This is a good thing. The price of airline tickets fluctuates wildly and to avoid losing money on an upswing most companies buy tickets at expensive rates; if the price is high they’re OK and if it goes down they make more money. You can usually get a better deal yourself. Flights within your tour area from one location to another, however, should be pre-booked by the operator and included in the cost of your tour.
Also, check to see if your tour has exclusive transport throughout your trip. The odd trip on a public bus might be fun, but you don’t want to join one hundred and sixty other people on a large boat to photograph whales. Something to check carefully is what else is included or excluded. Most important is probably meals. Many tours include the free hotel breakfast, but leave you to take care of yourself at other times. This can be enjoyable, but if you don’t know your way around and can’t speak and read the local language, you can occasionally find yourself in difficulties. Also, depending on where you are, eating out can add up to quite a large chunk of unplanned cash on a two-week tour. If your tour does include meals, make sure in advance that your tour leader is aware of, and can accommodate, any dietary requirements you may have.
One last brief, but important, point about costs. For obvious reasons the larger the group the cheaper your tour is likely to be. This, however, comes at a price. In a celebrity or workshop kind of tour it means that you will get less face time with the tour leader or instructor. On a photography tour it may limit your access to certain locations or leave you surreptitiously fighting with other tour members to get that perfect spot for the shot that you all want. In spite of the extra cost, it will almost always be better to join a small group. My own thinking is that anything over twelve participants should be avoided.
It goes without saying that this next point is the one that probably interests you the most; the itinerary. I’ve already mentioned that if you are on one or other kind of teaching tour you should make sure that the content is exactly what you are looking for. The same is true of photography tours, maybe even more so. Read through the itinerary carefully. On most tours it has been carefully planned and is pretty much set in stone. After all, the tour company has to book accommodation well in advance to guarantee you have somewhere to sleep. The things to check are what time you will arrive at each shoot and how long you will have there; if a landscape is the fourth item of the day you are probably going to arrive long after sunrise when the light is high and harsh. Related to this is how far a particular location is from your hotel. How long will it take to get there? If you have to get up early and have breakfast on the road to reach your destination at the optimal time, is this mentioned in the itinerary? It should be.
If your tour offers a niche specialty, such as street photography or food photograph, work out how much time you will actually be doing this. If it’s not clear, them write and ask. More to the point, what degree of customization does your tour offer? Any experienced tour leader who is familiar with their location should be able to make little adjustments in the daily schedule to allow for group members particular interests. Another thing which should be planned into the itinerary is downtime. Yes, really. The best time to shoot is usually early morning or late afternoon. A few days of early starts and late finishes and you will start to get tired. You will need time to relax, get the laundry done, maybe catch up on a little sleep and of course load all the images from your camera onto your laptop.
Now we come to the point that I think is the ‘biggie’, your tour leader. The tour leader literally makes or breaks your tour experience. Unfortunately, unless you have met your tour leader previously or have a positive recommendation from someone you trust, this is also very difficult to establish beforehand. Website testimonials can’t always be trusted as no company is going to post a negative review. You can try looking at places like Trip Advisor for tour reviews or just do a simple internet search, but this isn’t often very productive. One thing you can look for is how long a tour has been running. Photography tours suffer a pretty Darwinian process and the bad ones don’t last long. You should also try to look at your tour leader’s website and social media pages. Does he or she have photographs or blogs about the tours they guide? Do they interact with previous clients online? This can be very revealing.
Next, depending upon where you’re going, is whether your tour leader is international or local. There are potential advantages and disadvantages to both. International guides often have a better cultural awareness of their client’s expectations, but don’t always know that much about the place where they are taking you. Local guides are usually much more at home and have loads of little photographic extras up their sleeve, but sometimes don’t understand the little cultural nuances that create a truly great experience. Again, it’s a case of researching your tour leader and maybe emailing him or her to get a sense of how well you relate to them. One comment about this though. If you are on a teaching tour, study your instructor’s photographs carefully. If you don’t like what you see, it might be best to look elsewhere. If you are on a photography tour, study the content of the photographs rather than the style. If you like the subject matter in the images you are probably fine. You can shoot the same material in your own style when you get there.
Finally, before you pay any deposit, take a good look at the terms and conditions. What is in the fine print. What are the refund conditions etc.? More than this, any good operator should provide you with advance information about many of the things we’ve looked at, including simple things like suggested clothing lists and so on. They really should also have some kind of form or questionnaire, inquiring about your basic fitness, photographic equipment and specific interests and desired outcomes. Their sole job is to make sure that you get everything out of your tour that you want, and hopefully a lot more. They need to know what it is you want to do in order to make this happen. This is really the crux of the matter. As you go through the process of interacting with the tour operator before finally booking your tour, do you get the feeling that they are really interested in you as a photographer? If the answer is yes, then go for it and have a great time. Kugara zvakanaka!
Exploring a floating market in the Mekong delta, Vietnam.
Photographing in the little back streets and lanes of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Walking with elephants in the Southern highlands of Vietnam.
Capturing the light in a pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
It’s dark. It’s pretty cold. There’s an icy wind from the North West. I can’t see, but I guess there’s low cloud overhead. Maybe even some rain on the way. It’s just past three in the morning and I’m blindly feeling my way around the hotel car park, hoping to find my rented motorbike. I’m in Bao Loc, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam.
There are those who think that travel photography is all about staying in luxurious hotels or romantic resorts; shooting a few frames and then relaxing by the pool while sipping a cocktail… the James Bond school of photography. The reality is very different. I’ve been in Bao Loc for three days. Up at three every morning to capture a mountain sunrise. This is my fourth morning. I still don’t have the shot I want.
By luck rather than design, I find my little rented Honda Cub: I step out into the dark and fall over the damn thing. My fingers search out the ignition (I really can’t see a thing) and I try to slide in the key. It’s the wrong way up. It’s jammed! I’m tired. I don’t need this kind of hassle. A few four letter words and a minute later I give the starter a good kick and the ancient engine splutters into life. I’m off!
Bao Loc is a beautiful little place surrounded by green forested hills and misty rugged mountain peaks, just off highway 20, about six hours North of Saigon. For the last three mornings I’ve headed West into the wild highlands around the famous Dam’bri falls Today, I’m trying something different. To the East of town, on the other side of a deep valley littered with coffee plantations, there’s a solitary mountain with a peak which seems to always rise above the morning cloud. It’s my destination today. Only one little problem… I’m not sure how to get there.
I putter out of town on the road towards Da Lat, the tiny light on the Cub feebly attempting to illuminate the road for a meter or so in front of me. After about two klicks I realize that I must have missed the turn off I’d been looking for and turn around. There it is! If I follow this road the whole way I’ll end up at the beach in about ten hours, but that’s not my plan this time. The road twists and turns as it descends to the valley floor. It’s too dark to see, but I know that just a meter to my right there’s a sheer two hundred meter drop. I go slowly. It’s much colder on the valley floor. My teeth are chattering and my fingers are frozen stiff – god help me if I have brake quickly.
After about 40 minutes I make another turn to the right. Now I’m on a dirt road passing by dark and silent coffee farms. Even the chickens are still asleep and the dogs (more intelligent than me) are warm in their kennels. The only sound is the put-put of my little Honda. The road starts to rise and narrows to a track just wide enough to walk on. The bike is struggling to move upwards in second gear. The overhanging bamboo casts strange ghostly shadows. I’m back in the clouds, icy water runs down my face and soaks my shirt. Still the path winds upwards.
It’s getting harder now: guiding the bike between large stones I can barely see. The Honda slips to the right. The front wheel connects with a small bolder and the handle bars are violently twisted from my grip. Over I go! It’s not a bad fall, as falls go. I’m a little bruised and the skin had been scraped off the knuckles of my left hand. My ‘trigger’ finger if fine, so no real damage done. I upright the bike, kick the starter and climb back on… oops! There’s no light. I try the switch a few times. Nothing. I smack it a few times. No joy. I attempt to feel my way around the wiring to find a broken connection. Nada!
It’s almost five. I’ve been climbing an almost non-existent path in the dark for the past half hour. The bike is propped up against a tree some three hundred meters below me. I know already that there is no way I’m going to get to the top of this little mountain by sunrise. Now I’m looking for some vantage point from where I might at least get a few photos of the valley and distant peaks as the sun gives birth to a new day. Off to the East there’s already a noticeable lightening of the sky: a beautiful deep velvet blue where only minutes ago it was an impenetrable blackness.
The sky is now quite light. I have to find somewhere to shoot soon. Through the misty grey gloom I can see an open area off to the left. I force my way through a thick clump of wet bamboo. My left trouser leg catches on something and I give it a good tug. My soaked khaki pants rip apart from just above the knee to the hem. I tug again, but they’re caught fast. On closer inspection I find they are hooked up on some rusted barbed wire. I can’t be bothered with this now. I reach for my knife and cut off a large patch of cotton. I’m free. Let’s get a move on.
As the light improves I realize that I’m on the forward part of a spur, not yet high enough to see the distant mountain peaks. Now I’m pissed off with myself. Should have planned better. Not that it would have made much difference, anyway. The cloud is so thick there is no sunrise. All I can see is a faint pink glow on the other side of some bamboo and small trees. Well. I’m here, so I’d better photograph something! I unpack the tripod, set up the camera and wait for better light. I wait. And wait. And wait. After almost two hours I have… nothing! No landscape, no interesting subject, no beautiful light. Nothing! I shoot off a few frames anyway, and set off on the long trip back.
Such is another morning in the life of a travel photographer. Sometimes it works… and sometimes it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter that much, really. Here in Vietnam there is always tomorrow and somewhere wonderful to go. Even more than that, however, is the joy and excitement of ‘what’s next?’ A morning like this is not a disaster. It’s a great memory. It’s a reminder that I’m alive. It’s all part of what makes up my work and my life. I love it!
A view of Bao loc town in Lam Dong province, Vietnam.
Clouds and wet bamboo... another morning of travel photography!
Maybe I plan too much? Maybe it's not a good thing to do if you're a photographer... I mean isn't photography all about waiting for that exact moment when whole universe comes together to provide that 'perfect' image. Don't the gods of photography smile on those who randomly wander the surface of the globe with camera in hand and hunger in their eyes... waiting with their trembling finger on the shutter release for that one defining vision of the world to smack them in the face?
I mean, take for example, my last trip to the coastal resort city of Nha Trang. Here in Vietnam one of the most important factors for a photographer to consider is the weather: when it's sunny in the South it's raining in the North, when the sky is blue in the mountains we have cyclones on the coast. My year is planned out even before most people a thinking about scratching around in the attic to find last years christmas tree lights.
For those of you who might be considering a trip to Vietnam a rule of thumb is to visit the South (Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta) between November and March, to visit the North (Hanoi, Ha Long and Sapa) around June or July and to visit Nha Trang at almost any time of the year. The warm waters and golden beaches of Nha Trang enjoy over two hundred and fifty days of sunshine a year. It's almost impossible to go to Nha Trang at the wrong time of year
I had booked my air ticket to this tropical paradise and then sat down to plan out my 'script'. This involves creating a day by day schedule of where I want to be at what time, what I want to shoot and from what positions or angles, an idea of how many shots I think I'll need in landscape or portrait format, wide angle or detail... whatever might be relevant to ensuring that at the end of the day I have a complete collection of beautiful, interesting, informative and descriptive images.
Anyway the morning of departure arrived and I woke in a great mood, brushed my teeth, packed my bags... clothing and toiletries 3.5kg, tripods 7.5kg, camera and equipment bag 12kg... and set off for Tan Son Nhat airport and a wonderful week in Nha Trang. The flight took less than an hour and as the airbus flew over the coast of Cam Ranh bay I could see nothing but blue water, kilometers of white beaches backed by green mountains. Here and there white walled houses showed through dense coconut trees, fishing boats ploughed through the ocean leaving long white wakes and close to shore I could see the darker lines of coral reefs and sandy bottomed lagoons through the crystal clear waters of the South China Sea.
Cam Ranh airport is about thirty minutes from downtown Nha Trang and after five minutes I had cleared baggage collection and was tearing down the new coastal highway. On my left rugged mountains cloaked in dense jungle rose to meet the deep blue sky and on my right lay untouched coves and rocky little peninsulas which jutted out into the endless blue of the sea. Although classified as a city, Nha Trang is in reality a small town with only one main road which runs along the beach. I stayed at the same hotel where I always stay; two stars for $14 a night can’t be beaten, and it’s only a two minute walk from the beachfront. By the time I’d booked in, unpacked and had a shower it was mid afternoon… time for a walk.
I took my beloved little Fuji with a nice f/2.8 wide angle lens, slung my small tripod over my shoulder and eagerly set off. The main public beach runs for kilometers on either side of the city; a 50m belt of clean white sand bordered by landscaped gardens and coconut trees. Here and there are clusters of thatched umbrellas to provide shade for overweight lobster colored tourists. Every few hundred meters or so, set well back into the trees, are rustic cafes, bars and restaurants. As a matter of tradition I wandered down to my favorite; the Nha Trang Sailing Club. This place is a Nha Trang institution.
The Sailing Club consists of two large thatched areas open to the beach, the one is a bar and lounge with comfortable sofas which make you want to sit there all day, the other is a more formal restaurant complete with an amazing wine list and romantic lighting in the evening. The service here is as good as anywhere I’ve ever been. It wasn’t long before I had a delicious ‘sinh to’ or Vietnamese fruit smoothie in front of me; a tall glass of fresh apple and blueberry mixed with crushed ice and cream. Having missed lunch I also gave into temptation and ordered a light smoked turkey breast salad with crisp bits of crunchy bacon and blue cheese… it’s a hard life sometimes.
By about 16h30 the sun was low over the mountains and the light was nice, clear and warm. I took a stroll along the beachfront. A short walk provided a few standard stock images of white sand, deck chairs and blue water. A few minutes later my week and life almost came to a rather unplanned and abrupt end. A rather large American tourist had been parasailing over the bay, and the crew were struggling to land him on the beach. The speed boat had tried twice already and was now slowing for the third attempt. The service crew were out in force to catch the now nervous and cursing tourist, and bring him back to earth without too much of a thump. I’ve watched these same guys do this hundreds of times, and it was obvious that even they were getting worried… I mean who wants one hundred and twenty odd kilos of panicking Westerner to land on you?
Well, with the white sand, turquoise ocean, deep blue afternoon sky and the vibrant reds and whites of the parasail I just had to get a shot. I rushed in and tried to compose a portrait format picture with the parasail filling the top two thirds of the image. Blast! Wide angle lens… not the best thing for this kind of work. I moved in closer… click… click… One of the service crew I knew flashed me a rather sick smile which didn’t reach his eyes. The speedboat cut it’s engine and the parasail lost lift, he was coming down… click… click… hands reaching up to grab his legs… click… click… Suddenly the day grew dark. I was in shadow. He was coming down right on top of me! I scrambled backwards and almost tripped over myself in haste. The guy was down and on his feet, A perfect landing. It wouldn’t have been had I still been there… he landed on the exact spot where I had been standing!
Now everyone was smiles. The American was patting the crew on their backs and laughing. I casually turned and walked slowly away. I’d just made one of the oldest mistakes in the book. When viewing the world through a camera lens perspective changes. A wise photographer always keeps his other eye free to get a better view of reality. Well, no harm done. I thanked my lucky stars, however, that he hadn’t landed on me… I mean I would never have lived it down. To have survived combat, firefights, riots and all manner of extremely angry wildlife, only to be taken out by an obese American falling from the sky. My friends would die laughing if that’s the way my obituary read.
Further down the beach I found a nice spot. Set up my tripod, composed a picture; dark palm trees, sand and sea with Hon Tre island in the distance and a large sky just waiting to turn every pink, red and gold in the rainbow. This is the reality of most of what I do. Find the spot, get ready and wait for the light. Light is everything. If you are prepared to wait, to sit around for an hour or two doing nothing, to let nature do it’s thing in it’s own time you always get the shot you want. Only one problem this time. It never happened. The sky went from a beautiful pale blue to dull gray. Storm clouds had moved in over the mountains behind the city and the sun was gone for the day.
Oh well. That’s the way it goes. Nothing to worry about. I had another week to get my sunset shots. I packed up and contentedly wandered back up the beach. My favorite sofa at the Sailing Club was free, so I sat back, a smile on my face and ordered an ice cold tiger beer. Ahh… a soft chair, a balmy sea breeze, the sounds of quiet jazz and the distant crash of waves… and a good larger. Almost an hour later a summoned up the energy to move, only to walk a few minutes into town to a restaurant I’m rather fond of. So the day ended with another salad and a delicious sweet and succulent lobster. Seafood is so fresh and cheap in Nha Trang (along the whole coast, to be honest) this is not the extravagance it might seem to be. And I do love lobster. After that it was off to bed… I had plans to be up early the next morning and head out to the Hon Chong peninsular for some shots of sunrise over the sea.
I’m a morning person. Around 04h30 everyday my eyes pop open, I’m wide awake and can’t wait to get out of bed. Today was no exception. I rose and made my way through to the bathroom… halfway, I stopped… what was that noise? No! It can’t be…. yes it was… rain! I stood on my balcony beneath low gray clouds and stared at the colorless vision before me. After muttering a few choice words which would have done my Australian friend Peter proud, I headed back to the bathroom. I’m nothing if not persistent. Twenty minutes later I was crouched under a dripping beach umbrella waiting to see what the day turned up. Morning cloud is not uncommon along the coast, and by eight or so it’s normally been burnt off by the hot tropical sun. But no sunrise shots today. No problem, I have a whole week…
…My eyes blinked open, and almost closed again. Today was Monday, in five hours I’d be back on a plane and heading towards Ho Chi Minh City and home. In the last week there had not been one clear, cloudless sunrise or a single decent sunset. Sure, there had been a few hours of sun here and there that I’d been able to use, but the score was clearly: Nha Trang 10 - VinaPix 0. I had spent more time reading cheap paperback novels and drinking coffee than anything else.I had even been reduced to watching terrible cooking shows in Spanish on the hotels cable TV. I was fed up.
Lethargically I made my way to the balcony and parted the curtains to behold a dark, but cloudless dawn. Not today! My last day! What have I ever done to be tormented like this? No shower…forget the teeth… grab the camera… oh… don’t forget the tripod… Go… go… go… By the time I reached Hon Chong the sun was already above the horizon, but it was a beautiful morning. The air was cool and clear, the sea a gorgeous translucent turquoise and the sky an infinite canopy of rich blues. Find my spot, Set up my tripod, bracket my shots… click…. click…click. Nice, now where’s my polarizer? Where’s my polarizer!!! (On the table in my hotel room where I’d left it after cleaning my gear last night). Took the shots, then I was racing a few kilometers up the coast as fast as my rented scooter would take me.
I captured most of the shots I wanted. Not as nice as I had hoped, and not as many as I needed, but usable. A weeks worth of work crammed into just under five hours. Not the first time I’ve had to do it, and probably not the last, but it was done and the images were safe on my hard drive. I made the airport just before final call, and as I sat on the plane and gazed out the window at the beautiful clear waters and endless, unspoiled white beaches of the Vietnamese coastline, I wished that I’d brushed my teeth. Kugara zvakanaka!
The Ba Ponagar Cham Towers in Nha Trang, Vietnam.
Travel photography is, by its very nature, difficult to define. An even harder, if not impossible task, is to identify and define a ‘travel photographer’. I have done the impossible. Following are five distinct and definitive schools of travel photography.
The Usain Bolt School
The title gives this one away. Acolytes of the Bolt school of travel photography attempt super-human imaging results by being on location for less time than it takes to unpack a small suitcase. Speed is everything. Photographers of this bent usually arrive out of breath after a last minute budget flight. They visit a local tour agency before checking into their hostel and book three one-day sightseeing tours in a row. If they’re lucky they can even fit in a half-day city tour before sunset. The methodology is simple: jump out of the coach before everyone else, shoot wide-angle to get the ‘hero’ shot and then use a standard prime to get the ‘detail’ shots while hopefully avoiding the other three dozen tourists that the bus also spewed out. Total time on location: thirty minutes. Repeat six or seven times a day over the following three days and these productive individuals hop back onto the plane to return home happy in the knowledge that they can cross another country off the list.
The James Bond School
In essence, the James Bond school of thought maintains that a photographer must be flown first class and then booked into a luxury hotel by his or her client. After rising late and enjoying an extensive breakfast, they stroll out to the hotels pool area and snap off a frame or two (blue cocktail in the foreground with out of focus blue swimming pool and cloudless blue sky in the background) before returning to the lounge to order a morning coffee. Exhausted after such productivity they wait until the Michelin quality lunch is served and then take a much deserved nap. Being true professionals and determined to give their clients value for money, they rise at about five and take a short stroll to capture that obligatory sunset image. Having achieved more than could reasonably be expected within any twenty-four-hour period, they retire in satisfaction to the pool deck for an alcoholic beverage, which they add to their generous expense account. This doesn’t mean that they days hard work is complete, however, they still need to decide on whether to have the duck or lobster for dinner.
The Bear Grylls School
Although easily identifiable these travel photographers are rarely seen. Clad in khaki and wearing combat boots, they are usually festooned with National Geographic branded equipment. The underlying premise of this group is that every image must arise from an ‘authentic’ experience. Not for them is the tour bus and local guide. Meals must be taken at restaurants (preferably on the street) where other tourists cannot be seen. Travel is conducted with paper maps and as many different forms of local transport as possible, to cover the shortest distance. All communication must also be conducted in the local language by use of a phrase book – irrespective of how well the locals speak English. The photographic goal is not the final image, but rather the time, confusion, misunderstandings and discomfort it took to arrive at taking the image. In addition, the one imaging virtue prized by these photographers above all others, is to take a photograph that no one else has taken before – even if that is because no one has ever seen any merit in taking such a photograph before.
The Bill Bryson School
In the words of the great man himself the modus operandi of these travel photographers is to visit the most beautiful places and have the worst possible time. The key to their success is an almost total lack of preparation and planning. Logistically it’s important to always find the worst accommodation possible and technically it’s essential to have left the lens they most need at home. Vital to artists of this school is the ability to arrive on location the day after a unique local festival has ended or, failing that, to at least arrive during the winter rains or monsoon season when sunlight is limited to less than ten minutes a day. Visually their work is well composed and exposed, but by its very nature cannot contain any distinctive cultural elements. Indeed, if done well, it should be almost impossible to know where the photograph was actually taken. Where they excel, like their master, is in writing and publishing blogs of their excruciatingly painful experiences, accompanied obviously, by rather boring images.
The Arnold Schwarzenegger School
These individuals are the true heroes of the travel photography community. Not only do they pack, bring and carry every bit of photographic equipment they own everywhere they go, followers of Arnie take great pride in buying kilos of new ‘essential’ kit for every trip they make. Online, ‘Arnie’s’ are well known for their long forum discussions regarding how to avoid airline weight restrictions. On location they are barely visible, buried as they are, under a bulging Lowepro backpack and one or two more shoulder bags and of course, a massive tripod bag. An obvious advantage to this is, that while they arrive at a location dizzy with dehydration and fatigue, they are so late that all the other tourists and photographers have already left. Sadly they are rarely able to create the photographs they had hoped to, as by the time they have searched through their various bags, found the lens they wanted and a body to attach it to, the sun has gone down and the opportunity for that blue hour photograph has long since passed. Undaunted they will look forward to the next morning’s sunrise shot, although by the time they have arrived and set up lunch is invariably being served at their hotel.
As I write, somewhat tongue in cheek, I am reflecting upon how many of you will recognize, or even identify with, one of these ‘schools’ of travel photography. I am confident, however, that many of you are also wondering upon which group it is that I belong to. Sadly, truth be told, over the last twenty-five years I have flirted with all of the above. Without, I should mention, becoming a certified card-carrying member of any. Travel photography is an evolutionary experience. We all have to start somewhere, and most pass through various phases before arriving at the place which, for the present time, best combines our resources, skills, temperament and photographic goals. The important thing is not so much where you are coming from, but rather, where you are figuratively and literally going, Kugara zvakanaka!
Fishing boats in the dawn light at Van Gia on the southern coast of Vietnam.
Lak Lake lies below me and to the east the sky is rapidly brightening. A beautiful sky, soft with warm light reflects on the water. Some fishermen in their dugout canoes are making their way across the lake. It’s a lovely sight, but I’m a little too high up the side of a hill to create a composition I’d prefer. Today is my last sunrise here. It’s time to continue my meandering trip to the coast. The plan is that today, along with my friend Duong, I will ride west into an area I haven’t visited before. He knows a number of Ede ethnic minority villages around here and wants to introduce me to them. I’m keen. Then we will turn north and visit some waterfalls before overnighting in the provincial capital, Buon Ma Thuot.
We set off after a good breakfast. The road is good and with the exception of a few suicidal chickens there is no traffic. The rice fields are emerald green, contrasting with the dark greens of the forested hills and the sky is a deep blue with a light scattering of white clouds. It’s a perfect day to be on the road with nothing to do except explore and hopefully make a few photographs. It doesn’t last. We turn off the tarmac onto a dirt track which winds up the side of a hill. The bright red soil around here is the product of countless eons of erosion of volcanic rock. It’s nutrient rich and great for the local farmers. It’s not so good for motorbikes. Within a few meters the front wheel of Duong’s bike locks up, held fast by thick mud. There’s nothing else for it, we head a little way into the jungle and break off a few small branches with which to gouge out the mud. A few minutes later we’re on the move again, but covered in almost as much mud as the bikes. We make it almost to the top of the hill before were forced to stop again and then it’s out with the sticks once more and we repeat the whole process.
The first village we visit is a bit of a disappointment. The people are wonderful and very welcoming to some strange westerner they’ve never met before. The problem is that they, like most others, have benefited from Vietnam's rapid economic growth. They have understandably replaced their drafty and leaky traditional wooden homes with nice new brick built ones. No one can begrudge them their improved living conditions, I certainly don’t, but it doesn’t make for a good photograph. With a final wave goodbye, Duong and I continue down the track. It’s the same story at the next two villages. It doesn’t matter. The countryside is beautiful around here and I’m enjoying myself. By late morning we have almost reached dray sap, one of a series of impressive waterfalls on the Serapok River. I know that this isn’t the best time of year to view the falls, but with all the recent rain maybe there’s more water than is usual. It turns out there isn’t. I find one composition I like; a view of the falls with a nice rocky river in the foreground to add interest and a leading line. The only thing is that to get this photograph I have to position myself on a rickety old suspension bridge which is swaying in the breeze. No neutral density filters this time. No long exposure and no great photograph. Oh well, onwards to Buon Ma Thuot.
Our plan had been that when we reached the city Duong would return to Da Lat and that I would continue alone. The thing is that we spent longer at Lak Lake than intended and I had told my wife that I would be home… today! A quick phone call sorted that out. She has learnt through experience never to believe any times I provide when I’m on the road. My record to date is arriving home about two weeks late. That’s not bad. Before I was married I never even used to bother making a schedule. My friends were used to me disappearing for three months at a time. Anyway, back to business. It’s getting late and I’m hungry. Eating well, when you’re on the road, is important. It can be quite physically draining and meals are often missed due to very early starts or the long distances that need to be covered. Luckily eating well in Vietnam is not only cheap and easy, it’s an absolute pleasure. A delicious dinner washed down with a few cold beers and I’m ready for anything.
It’s almost time for dinner again. Tonight, however, I’m in Ninh Hoa. I arrived here after a long, slow and pretty uncomfortable ride on a local bus. The driver was obviously of the belief that as long as you used the horn it wasn’t necessary to touch the brake pedal. Fortunately the engine had not been serviced since the liberation of Saigon in 1975 and so we weren’t able to pick up much speed, except for the downhill stretches, which were terrifying. Nevertheless, I had arrived safe and sound with nothing more to show for the experience than a few more grey hairs. I’ve arranged with the guest house where I’m staying to rent a scooter in the morning, so now I walk into town to find a food stall I know well from previous visits. They serve a stunning fish broth and noodle soup with five different kinds of fish balls, along with a liberal sprinkling of fresh herbs and green chilies. It’s one of my favorites and I have two large bowls. Delicious! Tomorrow is intended to be an easy day. Ride a short distance up the coast to a little village called Van Gia and then wait until I can get a nice cloudy sunrise over the bay. Simple, as long as the weather cooperates.
As usual, it’s dark as I leave Ninh Hoa. It only takes half an hour or so to reach the beach I’m headed for and there is no traffic on Highway One. This is a good thing as this road with its endless stream of speeding trucks is one of the few things in my life that truly terrifies me. I arrive without mishap and leave my bike at an early morning coffee stall which serves the early-rising fishermen. The sky is turning a deep blue to the east and I can just make out the shape of Diep Son Island in the dim distance. I can’t believe my luck. There’s a heavy blanket of cloud stretching across the horizon. This is exactly what I wanted. Now I just have to hope the sun breaks through. I set up my tripod and camera. One test shot and then it’s just a matter of waiting. That’s the story of my life. Hurry up and wait. It’s something I’m well used to and it doesn’t bother me. After all, that’s really what the job is: choosing the right spot and then waiting for nature to do the rest. My timing is perfect and I don’t have to wait long. Today nature decides to favor me. A bright yellow sun shines down on the sea. Four silhouetted fishing boats are perfectly positioned in the now golden water of the bay. The clouds are still dark and brooding. I couldn’t have asked for more. It’s not often that everything comes together on the very first attempt, but this morning it has. The last twenty minutes has made this whole trip worthwhile. I love my job. Kugara zvakanaka!
Dawn at Lak Lake in the Southern highlands of Vietnam.
A longhouse of the Ede ethnic minority group in the southern highlands of Vietnam.
A waterfall in the southern highlands of Vietnam.
Dusk over flooded rice paddies near Van Gia on the southern coast of Vietnam.
I have a friend. In fact, I have more than one friend, which is always a bit of a surprise to anyone who knows me. Anyway this friends name is Binh. I’ve known him for about ten or eleven years now. He works for a tour company here in Ho Chi Minh City. That’s how we met. I was doing a shoot for his boss and, as the accountant, he had to pay me. For some reason which I’ve never thought about too deeply, we just seemed to hit it off. His first suggestion of meeting sometime for a coffee, was followed by the odd night out on the town enjoying more beer than was good for us. Before long we were getting together every second week or so to drink, eat, chat or go somewhere. I remember the first time he invited me back to his home. That was when I first met his mother, Ba Hanh.
Binh’s mother had been born in the mountains North West of Na Noi. She’d had a hard upbringing on a poor farm. Her father owned a little land, but not enough to support his family. Like many, he worked the lands of the village nobles during the daylight hours and struggled to till his own small plot before dawn or after dark. Old Mrs. Hanh once described to me how the family suffered when the French colonial regime conscripted her father to work on a road in a nearby province. With no income, and unable to work the lands she and her children survived by slaughtering and eating their few chickens and ducks… after that they were reduced to scavenging for snakes, frogs and snails in the rice paddies around their village.
In 1941 with the world at war, the Japanese entered Vietnam. Three years later the Japanese army confiscated the rice harvest to feed their own troops and famine spread across the land. People were reduced to eating grass and old leather. Over a million Vietnamese perished. Among them were Mrs. Hanh’s two youngest children. The family walked, and at times even crawled, to the city of Ha Noi in the hope of finding food. But there was none. One evening her husband went out to search for food and did not return. He was never seen again. Over the next few months her two remaining children grew sick, and died. A family of six, reduced to one. After the Japanese came the Chinese, who stripped the city of everything of value and transported it North.
And then… the French returned. President Ho Chi Minh had already declared Vietnam to be a free and independent country, and established a popular government. The French, however, humiliated by the Germans in Europe sought to reclaim their colonial possessions. The result was what is generally called “the First Indochina War” which ended. as everyone knows, with yet another humiliating defeat for the French army at Dien Bien Phu. Following the Geneva conference in 1954 the country was divided into two. The family that Mrs. Hanh had been working for fled to the South, and almost by default she “inherited’ their small dressmaking business. It was five years later, that she married again. He husband had been a soldier at Dien Bien Phu, and after the war had returned to the capital to resume his career as a teacher.
The marriage was a good one. Two older people, both of whom had seen the worst that life had to offer, were more than content with their simple, peaceful existence. They had three children, the youngest being my friend Binh. The years of peace, however, did not last long. By the early 60’s the population of the South was resisting the ever increasingly dictatorial rule of Ngo Dinh Diem, and the North began to send men and munitions to the South. American marines landed at Da Nang in 1965, and the stage was set for another bloody conflict in a land that had known war for over a thousand years. Mrs. Hanh’s husband had wanted to “go South” but was deemed to be too old, and her children were two young. She did, however, volunteer to help at a hospital near their home.
Binh doesn’t remember much from the first years of the war, and by the time he was old enough to remember he had already been evacuated to the countryside. Old Mrs. Hanh remembers it all. She described the tiny bomb shelters build along the streets in which she would cringe alone in the dark as the bombs fell. She told me about the rationing, the shortages and about the sense of pride and purpose she and her neighbors felt in keeping the city running. She laughed as she explained how she kept shutting her eyes as she was taught how to load an anti-aircraft gun on the roof of a nearby apartment building. She once told me, with tears running down her old wrinkled cheeks, about the day she went to work at Bach Mai hospital… only to find it wasn’t there. Obliterated by bombs from a B52. It could very well be the same way that Binh’s older brother died in 1973. Missing in Action somewhere on the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Long after the war ended, after finishing university, Binh found a job in Ho Chi Minh City. He brought his new bride and his then widowed mother with him. Every time I visited, old Mrs. Hanh would be sitting in her favorite chair in the corner of Binh’s small living room. Most of the time she watched TV, she really loved TV. No matter what was on, her failing eyes and thick glasses were glued to the screen. Sometimes I’d find here playing with her two grandchildren, telling them Vietnamese folk stories and snippets of family history. And sometimes, she would just sit there. Her mind filled with memories I could not even begin to imagine. I always joked that one day I’d photograph her, and she would always reply that that would be one photo I’d never be able to sell.
Old Mrs. Hanh’s chair is empty now. She died last winter. I never did photograph her. And you know what? I’m glad I didn’t. No photograph, no matter how good it might have been, could ever portray the struggles, personal calamities and pain she had to overcome and survive. No single photo could ever have done justice to the wonderful, courageous and kind soul that she was. Kugara zvakanaka!
Two Ede ethnic minority women at Lak Lake
Da Lat is a delightful little city nestled among forested hills, some three hundred kilometers north of Ho Chi Minh City. At an altitude of fifteen hundred meters it has a cool temperate climate, which is always a relief when visiting from the sweltering tropical lowlands. I’ve been here for a few days, enjoying a short holiday with my wife, but now it’s time to get back to work and things are not looking promising. There’s a tropical storm off the coast and the television in our hotel room is showing images of uprooted trees, downed power lines and beached fishing boats. If that’s not enough, after two days of wonderful sunshine, we woke this morning the sound of falling rain. Dark clouds hang low over the city, hiding the hill tops. The rain isn’t that heavy, but it’s driven by a strong wind and just below our hotel window I can see a woman fighting with a pink umbrella which seems determined to take to the skies.
My wife, who is a lot more sensible than I am, has already booked a comfortable coach ride home. I’m wondering if I should join her. A friend, Duong, who lives here in the highlands, assures me the rain will only last for a day or so. We agree to meet in half an hour. Soon I’m in kitted out in wet weather gear. My rucksack, wrapped in thick black refuse bags, is strapped to the back of the bike and after a quick kiss on the cheek, off I go. Although the plan is to head north, the rugged terrain requires that for the first fifty kilometers or so we take a road south. The rain isn’t too bad, but the wind on occasion threatens to blow us right of the road. The first stop was to have been the beautiful elephant falls, but there’s no point in even stopping. Photography is impossible. About an hour later, Duong, who knows this area like the back of his hand, pulls over. A short walk through dripping green bushes and we are out of the rain, sitting in a makeshift thatched hut and warming up with a few mugs of the delicious local coffee. I could happily sit here all day, but the rain has stopped and the clouds are lifting. It’s time to go.
I climb off the bike. I lost all feeling in my bottom some hours ago and it’s almost impossible to stand up straight. The rest of my body aches, I’m totally soaked and my fingers are so cold I can’t straighten them. I’m happy. We’ve reached Lien Son, a village on the shores of Lak Lake, one of the most beautiful spots in the southern highlands. To make things better, a blanket of stars twinkles across the heavens. The journey, however, has been less than enjoyable. After our coffee we turned north onto a bumpy tarmac strip generously littered with an assortment of potholes, water buffalo and a wide variety of domestic livestock. Highway 27 began by climbing hundreds of meters to the crests of treeless peaks where the winds forced us to seek shelter in a small K’ho ethnic minority village. While Duong drank tea with the headman in his longhouse, I played with the children outside, taking my first few photographs of the trip. A little later we made our way down the twisting road to lower climes where the wind was less ferocious, but the rain was heavier. Within an hour we were climbing through the clouds again and I swear my soaked shirt collar was starting to freeze, but Duong just laughed at me when I told him. None of this mattered now. We were here. A hot shower, dry clothes, a good dinner and a long sleep was promised. Tomorrow, as they say, is another day.
Duong is a great traveling companion, but he’s not a photographer. I leave him to his dreams and make my way along a muddy track to Y Jut village. In the predawn light I pass by the wooden longhouses of the Ede ethnic minority people who live around here, and make my way towards the lake shore. The silence is disturbed only by the occasional dog bark. I know exactly where I’m headed; a spot where I have a lovely panoramic view of the lake with the rising sun hidden behind some distant hills. If I’m lucky there will be some fishing boats tied up along the shore. These are carved out of a single massive tree trunk and many of them are far older than me. The Ede are no longer permitted to cut down these ancient trees to make boats this way. In the gloom I can see that I’m in luck. There are a few dugouts right here. Yeah! It’s time to get to work. I get out my tripod and set up. The light is getting quite nice, but I can’t find an angle I like. I can’t get low enough or close enough to the dugouts that I want to use as foreground interest. I take a shot and start looking for another composition.
It’s almost eight o’clock and I’m making my way back to the lodge for breakfast. The sky to the east is now covered with scattered clouds racing across the horizon, driven by the still strong winds coming in from the coast. Just up ahead I see two women preparing their boat to set off over the lake. This has potential. I pick up my pace and glance down to check my camera settings. Everything looks good. I raise the camera to my eye. Nice light, but the composition doesn’t work. A few more steps. Love the composition, but the light isn’t great. Too much back-lighting and contrast. I take a photograph. Another step and I take one more. Then the one woman notices me for the first time. I call out “Xin Chao” (hello) and as she looks right at the camera I squeeze the shutter release. I hope I got that one. Turns out they are taking breakfast to their husbands who are checking their fishing nets on the other side of the lake. I say goodbye and head off for my own breakfast.
Dugout canoes on the shore of Lak Lake in the southern highlands of Vietnam.
Fishermen on Lake Lake in the southern highlands of Vietnam.
Fishermen hauling in the overnight catch at Lak Lake in the southern highlands of Vietnam.
A K'ho woman and her children in a village north of Da Lat in the Southern highlands of Vietnam.
Entrance to the Hoi Quan Quang Trieu assembly hall
I’m lying in bed. It’s dark. The time is 04h00 and I’m wide awake. This isn’t a mistake. I wake at this time every day. A few minutes later I’m standing on my apartment balcony with a mug of hot coffee in my hands and I’m staring at the Eastern sky. I can see stars. Great! Well, to be honest I can’t see that many as I live in the center of the largest city in South East Asia, but even a few stars means that there will probably be little if any cloud cover when the sun rises shortly after six. Perfect shooting conditions for what I have in mind. I love this time of day. It’s cool and quiet and the unborn hours ahead are pregnant with possibilities. Maybe today I’ll get a shot I want – a keeper.
Getting that keeper is what gets me up every morning. I’m not sure if it’s easier or more difficult for me to get that keeper, than it is for other photographers. Well, obviously there are others who are much better at this than I am, but that’s not what I mean. You see, by and large, I’m photographing things that I’ve photographed before. My goal is to improve on my previous work and to create a new portfolio, a complete body of work that reflects the best of Vietnam and the best that I’m capable of. I’ve had many years to think about almost each and every single shot I want, to dissect and analyze and consider every element. The question is, can I live up to my own standards? There’s only one way to find out.
My destination today is a visual goldmine called Hoi Quan Quang Trieu. It’s an old Chinese community hall, built by immigrants from Guangzhou and Zhaoqing in Guangdong province, who migrated south around 150 years ago. The entrance courtyard faces east to welcome the rising sun and illuminate a statue of the goddess of mercy. Beyond this is an open area leading to the first altar. Here there are three large brass urns where incense sticks are offered as prayers. Behind this is the main hall and finally the high alter with a statue of Quang Trieu. With dark walls, red and gold lacquered woodwork and light from above streaming through clouds of fragrant smoke from coils of incense hanging from rafters, the opportunities for photography abound. But I’m only going for one shot. I want details from the roof of the first courtyard.
Coffee finished. I get dressed and check everything. This morning I’ll be taking a single X-T3 body, a 16-55 f/2.8 and more importantly the 50-140 f/2.8. This is the longest lens I have and it’s the one I’ll need to reach the details I’m after this morning. I consider taking a 14mm prime, but decide not to. All that was left was to throw a few fully charged batteries into my bag and grab a tripod. Fortunately, it only takes fifteen minutes or so through the almost empty streets to get to the temple. What makes this particular temple suitable for a low light shot is that it faces a new highway and a large canal. That might not sound very atmospheric, and it isn’t. It does, however, provide a distinct advantage as there are no tall buildings around to block out the beautiful morning light… and the light today is lovely!
The old caretaker, who lives on site, swings open the heavy wooden doors and makes his way across the entrance yard with his worn sandals slapping the cobblestones. He unlocks the gate and we exchange a short greeting. They know me well here. I used to live just around the corner. Oh well, out with the tripod. I’m using a ball head today as I don’t plan any panoramic shots. Mount the camera with the wide lens and a quick swipe on the touchscreen lets me set my horizon level. I start to compose my first shot, a symmetrical frontal view of the building to be used for context, and I can’t quite fit everything in. Damn. Should have brought the 14mm. Normally I’d just recompose, using my feet, and take a few steps backwards. Not possible here. I’d be standing in the middle of a road with what is now quite a bit of fast-moving traffic. Oh well. A good excuse to come again.
I take one shot. The building has a large overhang which hides a lot of beautiful detail above the entrance in shadow. Not much I can do about that. Maybe lift the shadows a little in post-production. Now it’s time to really get to work. I put the tele-zoom onto the body and start shooting the intricate little figures built into the roofing. Collectively they tell the story of the founding of the community hall, and tradition says that they represent real individuals. That’s easy to believe, as they seem to come to life through my viewfinder. I had worried that the 50-140 might not have had quite enough reach, but the images on my screen look much better that I could have hoped for. The low light casts strong shadows and each little statue stands out creating almost a three-dimensional effect. I’ve been shooting now for almost an hour. I can’t see anything that I’ve missed. Time to go inside.
I wander slowly through the halls, but there’s nothing much worth photographing right now. It’s too early. The temple interior has no windows. The only time light enters the inner sanctuary is around midday when it streams through hole in the roof. The effect then is amazing. It cuts through the thick clouds of incense smoke and reflects off the gold leaf script and creates an almost mystical glow. That’s still four hours into the future, however, and I hope that I’ve gotten what I came for today. I say goodbye to some of the staff and make my way home. Time to see what everything looks like full-size on my monitor. To tell the truth, I’m more often than not disappointed when I review my photographs, but I don't think that will be the case today. The only important question is, however, do I have a keeper? Kugara zvakanaka!