Hard at work near Long Hai on the southern coast of Vietnam.
I know that many other travel photographers would disagree with me, but I'm convinced that a great deal of success in this genera comes down to... luck. I've spent a week or so at one or other location without getting the photograph I want, only to have a tourist who's been there half an hour show me a killer shot on his cameras LCD screen. On the other hand one photograph does not make the kind of story or portfolio that most clients demand. Success is born of consistently taking good photographs. While that wonderful serendipitous moment can never be removed from the equation, some careful preparation can go a long way. Morton's first rule of travel photography is the '3T' rule... and the 'T' stands for time.
The first 'T' is for the time of year. I know that many people, be they enthusiastic amateur photographers or professionals, live lives constrained by a wide variety of commitments. There's work, there's family and of course there's the simple issue of finance. Global travel is cheaper today that it has ever been, but once you add up flights, hotels, restaurants and local travel etc. it still adds up to more than pocket change for most of us. All these things, and quite a few others, make it almost impossible for someone to just pack their bags and travel whenever the itch need scratching. This, however is exactly why the time of year you visit your destination region or country is so important. To take time away from work and family and spend that hard earned cash on a trip to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) only to arrive in the middle of the summer monsoon would be a disaster.
When you first start to plan your trip, do an online search to check out the weather conditions. This doesn't just mean is it summer or winter, but more importantly things like precipitation, hours of sunlight and cloud cover. These are the things that really matter when you're standing there with a camera in your hands. One of the best travel photographers I know was once sent by a client to Ha Long bay to photograph a cruise ship among the islands... in the middle of the winter rains! An addendum to this first point has to do with regional travel. Here in Vietnam, for example when the weather is best in the South it's terrible in the North and vice versa. If you see online advertising for a photo tour of Vietnam that offers you the whole country in ten days, don't bother reading the fine print as it'll be a waste of time. If you're planing to travel within a region pay attention to local weather conditions also.
The second 'T' is for time of day. This one is just as important, but often more difficult to plan for. Obviously the best times for photography are usually early morning and late afternoon. On more than a few occasions I've risen long before dawn and spent an hour or two hiking through the dark to an iconic location only to find that there's a mountain to the East which blocks out all direct sunlight until eight or nine in the morning. Another common mistake is to plan to photograph some special location or building only to discover when you're there that the angle you want to shoot from is facing the rising or setting sun and you have nothing but a silhouette.
To overcome these and other similar problems local knowledge is always most helpful. There are, however, other options. The easiest is probably to do an image search on somewhere like Flickr or 500px and when you find an image that looks like the one you have in mind, simply send an in-media message asking the photographer what time of day they took the photograph... and what time of year, to avoid the trap of the first 'T'. I'm sure you'll get a few helpful responses. Some locations have their own specific time demands that need to be considered, especially buildings. The ancient and visually stunning Jade Emperor pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, for example is only worth visiting between about 11h00 and 13h00 depending on the time of year. Why? Because it's only at this time of the day the the sun is almost directly above and can enter the building through holes in the roof and lighten the windowless worship halls and their incredible altars.
Interior of the Jade Emperor Pagoda (Chua Ngoc Hoang) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The final 'T' is for time on location. To find, compose and take a good photograph, more often than not, requires time. You need time to explore the location, to find interesting subject material, experiment with composition and then to set up and take a great photograph. Add to this that sometimes the clouds are wrong or that you have to wait for other people to take their own snapshots and move off you will rarely have as much time as you would like at a particular place. Also working against you is the fact that you probably want to fit as much into your trip as possible. By giving one location time you are automatically denying yourself time at another. It's not easy.
It's best to admit that you probably can't shoot everything you would like to. Having said this, however, with the aid of something like Google Maps you can probably manage a lot more than most visitors. Start by prioritizing the subjects you most want to photograph and then identify the other places you'd like to photograph nearby. Plan a route that you can accomplish in a single walk or excursion. Remember that the estimated travel times provided by Google Maps are never ever going to be accurate. Always give yourself more time to move from location to location. Planing your travels this way might sound too regimented and more like hard work than pleasure, but it is the one way to ensure that you maximize the limited time you have available and come home with the best photographs you could have taken. Kugara zvakanaka!
I guess that I need to start somewhere. The question is really, where's a good place to start. I'm pretty sure no one is interested in my life story, so there goes fifty years of possibilities. This is a photography website, so maybe I should begin with my introduction to photography... "I was about twelve years old when my father gave me my first camera..." nah! Boring! This blog business isn't as easy as I thought it was going to be. I mean, why do people write blogs? More to the point, as I'm not a pathological narcissist, what makes me think that other people will want to wade through blog after blog of badly written English to explore the brain farts of a mediocre and relatively unknown photographer living in South East Asia? Beats me.
This, of course, is part of the reality of being a photographer in the social media age. It's no longer enough to be good at your craft and work hard. Now you need to have something called a 'social media presence'. (I'd like to meet the clown who came up with that idea in a dark alley, on a dark night and with a baseball bat in my hands.) Social Media! For me it started with facebook. Start a page, post your pictures, follow other photographers, litter the internet with positive comments, collect a sea of loyal followers and soon the whole world will be knocking at your door, I was told.
Did that. Sort of. No one knocked. Not once. My mistake, it seems. Well meaning friends explained that facebook wasn't for professionals... I needed LinkedIn. No problem. I eagerly signed up and padded my profile, blackmailed friends into becoming contacts and waited for the flood. I even moved my bed next to the front door in case I missed that first knock. I didn't miss it. It never came. Turns out it was my own fault. I wasn't on Instagram. A few clicks on the keyboard and then this problem was also solved... until I learn't about twitter. I guess that by now you can see where I'm going with all of this.
The reality is that I've been sucked down into the basement level of Dante's social media hell. I spend my days and nights feeding this hydra pathetic scraps of my professional life, praying that they will be enough to placate it's infinite appetite. All the time hoping that day by day and hour by hour I'm pushing back that terrifying moment when I will have nothing left to offer, and it will turn on me and devour me whole. Having survived wars, floods and a whole host of angry African wildlife, I can see my epitaph: "Here lies Ian Morton. 1963 - 2019. Taken from us by his keyboard." What a way to go.
So, in case you were wondering, although there's no reason why you should be, that's the reason I'm starting this blog. You see, it's a new beginning for me... or rather a return to my roots. I've spent the last twenty years photographing Vietnam for other people. Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. The clients I've worked for have given me the opportunity to do what I love; to travel and take photographs. I've had a great time and made a good living. The problem has been the photographs. Trying to convince frozen Europeans to visit sunny Vietnam for their winter holidays my clients have always required a particular kind of photograph. Clear blue skies, pristine white beaches edged with the stereotypical coconut trees and a uniform variety of luxury five-star resorts. This isn't the Vietnam I know and love.
My passion is for the original Vietnam, dare I say the 'unspoiled' Vietnam? Those secluded coves, rugged mountain peaks, remote jungle villages and unvisited ancient pagodas that have not yet been assaulted by hoards of the professionally unwashed clutching their copies of lonely planet. I want to photograph Vietnam as it has always been, a sublimely beautiful place abounding in its own unique history and culture. It's still here, almost everywhere hidden in plain sight, if you know where to look. This is what I want to explore and document, before it too is washed away by the rising tide of bland globalization. Fortunately for me, I now find myself at a place where a can do just this. To revisit all the amazing places I've discovered over the last twenty years, and to photograph them the way I want to.
I'm turning my back on all the things I've been told that I should do to succeed as a photographer. I'm no longer going to worry about how many 'likes' I have on facebook or Instagram. I'm just going to travel and take the photographs that I want to take. With this bimonthly rambling of poorly chosen adjectives and mixed metaphor's I'll share with anyone who might be interested where I am and what I'm doing. This little blog is it. My sole contribution to satisfying the infinite greed of the www vampire that lives beyond my keyboard. Ahh! The feeling of freedom just writing that gives me. It's almost as if the adventure has begun before I take a step out of the door. Maybe I chose the wrong title for this first blog. Possibly it should have been "Here goes Ian Morton 2019 - ?" Kugara zvakanaka!