All in "X-T3"
A Keeper or Not?

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!

A Camera to Travel

In my last post I ranted and raved about how photographers can be so divisive and sometimes downright unpleasant (to put it mildly) about other peoples choices when buying into a camera system. I argued that there are no really bad cameras on the market today but that some cameras are better suited to particular photographic tasks than others. I am sure that you agree with me... that is until I write that the system you use is not my favorite. Then I instantly become some ignorant hack filling the internet with pages of mindless drivel. Nevertheless, I'm going to explore some of the issues related to cameras for use in travel photography and I'm also going to nail my colors to the flag post and explain the specific choices that I have made regarding the photography on display on this site. Let me seal the bunker door, put on my flack jacket. helmet, grab my trusted FN 7.62 and begin...

First, out of all the recognized genera of photography, travel photography must be the hardest to define. I mean we all know what is meant when people talk about landscape photography, or street, food, portrait and documentary photography. Travel photography can be all these otherwise distinct things and much more. How do you define travel photography? In addition is the issue of what the photographs are being taken for. A person wanting some lovely photographs to remember their holiday will have very different requirements to a professional putting together material for an exhibition. Irrespective of these and other issues, I believe that travel photography should leave the viewer feeling that they have been somewhere themselves, and that great travel photography should make people wish that they could go there... hopefully even move them to arranging their own visit. Nothing, and I mean nothing, gives me greater satisfaction than when I get an email from someone who's viewed my images and emailed me for advice on planing their own trip to Vietnam.

Anyway, back to the topic. Due to the vast variety of possible subject matter when you travel to a new destination with your camera, it's essential that you have a lens selection capable of meeting a wide range of demands. On the other hand, most people don't want to carry around a heavy bag with two bodies, seven lenses, two flashes, spare batteries and a laptop. Oh, and don't forget the tripod. You might laugh, but for many years this is exactly what I did. In fact, before the advent of digital photography it was even worse. My gear in those days consisted of two Pentax 67 bodies, a Fuji 617 panoramic camera and what felt like 600 kilos of lenses. Obviously I was younger, fitter and a lot more stupid. The principle remains, however. decide what you think you are likely to shoot the most and select the appropriate lens or lenses.

For many a single super-zoom might be the perfect answer or maybe a long kit lens with a variable aperture. The advantage of this is that it eliminates the need for extra lenses and leaves the photographer with a more upmarket kind of point-and-shoot system which can cover most eventualities well enough. Improving on this might be a two lens selection. For example, a mid-range zoom like a 24-70 provides adequate wide to almost portrait possibilities. Then add to this a second lens that best meets your interests. This could be anything from an ultra wide angle for a landscape photographer or a telephoto lens for wildlife, sports or details. A 70-200 is not a small lens, but many manufactures offer an f/4 version which is both cheaper and lighter. At a push this can be combined with a small tele-converter which adds range with very little loss of image quality. For many years after switching to digital this is pretty much what I did. I carried a Fujifilm body with a Nikon F mount and the Nikon 14-24 and 24-70. For my needs this was a perfect combination. On some trips I would also take a 70-200, but even then I rarely used it. Having said that, a camera body and the 'holy trinity' of lenses isn't a crazy amount to carry and will fit into an average shoulder bay or small backpack quite easily. There can be no doubt that with a set up like this you would be ready for anything and everything your travels present you with. Modern technology has, however, presented us with another choice, and maybe a more difficult one.

Should the travel photographer carry a DSLR or mirrorless system? I am very aware that many people are asking this question, but I'm going to duck it. well, not really. What I will say, is that if you have already invested in a DSLR body and lenses, you should probably stick with them for now. Maybe, if you're a Canikon shooter you can think about changing to mirrorless next time you want to upgrade your body. You can still use your current lenses with the native built mount adapters, and you won't have to replace your entire system at one time. Did you notice what I've just done? I've suggested that no travel photographer would want to replace his or her present DSLR body with another. The future is mirrorless! You might disagree with me, and that's fine, but as someone who spends over half the year away from home and carrying almost all his kit everywhere he goes, you won't get me to change my mind. To be honest with you, for me the biggest advantage of going mirrorless is not the smaller and lighter system, although make no mistake I really feel and appreciate the difference. No, what I enjoy the most are the other advantages of mirrorless systems. A 3.69 million dot 'what-you-see-is-what-you-get' EVF is a game-changer for me. In many culturally sensitive situations a totally silent shutter also  allows me to make photographs that I could never have created before. I could go on, but yeah! That's right. I'm one of them.

I mentioned earlier that I used to shoot Fujifilm bodies with Nikon glass. The day eventually came when my fourth or fifth S5Pro body finally gave up the ghost and I just couldn't find another. They had been out of production for some time and I think I'd already bought all the remaining ones in Vietnam. So i switched. No, not to mirrorless. At that time the few mirrorless offerings on the market were laughable wannabee cameras. I bought the Nikon D800E. Wow! What a camera. I though that I'd died and gone to camera heaven. That was eventually relegated to back-up status and I got the D810. Bigger wow! The problem was when the time came to upgrade to the D850. In my opinion it is probably the best DSLR that has ever been produced, but I couldn't do it. I genuinely wanted to, but I just couldn't bring myself to purchase it. I'd been seduced. Some would say I'd lost my mind, but I hadn't. I'd lost my heart. I sold or gave away everything I had... and bought a Fujifilm X-T3. And that is the point of this whole story. The best camera is not always the best camera. It's the camera that enables you to take the best photographs you can take in the specific situations you shoot. Kugara zvakanaka!