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.
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.
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!
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!
VinaPix at work in Long Hai on the Southern Vietnamese coast.
Much to my surprise, I received a grand total of three emails in response to my last blog. You could be forgiven for thinking that I’m being sarcastic, but you’d be wrong… no one has ever responded to a blog of mine before. Three emails. Wow! Would I be getting ahead of myself if I began to dream of future fame in online publishing? What do you think? Actually, don't bother answering that. The point is, however, that all three emails asked the same question. That surprised me, and for reasons I will explain it also disturbed me. Just so you know, I have replied to all three messages and I’m not trying to belittle or criticize their writers, but it might be a good idea to deal with this issue now, hopefully ensuring that we won’t need to address it in the future.
All three writers wanted to know what camera I used for my travel photography. That’s not a bad question, but I think it’s the wrong one. It sort of implies that it’s the camera that takes the photographs, and that anyone with the same camera will take the same photos. Sounds pretty stupid when it’s written like that, doesn’t it? It’s the person behind the camera that makes the photograph and the camera only does what it’s made to do by its user. A few things follow on from this. Firstly, it’s the photographer that really matters. Therefore, it’s not really important what camera is being used as long as, and this is the final point, the photographer knows how to use the camera well enough to create the image he or she has in mind. Let’s unpack this a little.
The word ‘vision’ is popular these days, and although I use it here, I dislike it intensely. What do we really mean when we use it? Does it mean your subject matter for a portfolio of work? Perhaps it means a distinctive artistic style? Possibly it’s the impact a creator wishes to have on their audience? I don’t know. I do know that when I go to a gallery exhibition and each and every photograph has a ‘vision statement’ two or three paragraphs long I instantly lose interest. If a photograph needs to be explained in detail, then there’s something very wrong with the photograph. Nevertheless, ‘vision’ or whatever other word you would like to use, it is important to have some organizing or collective principals to hold your work together and give it direction. Indeed, I believe that this is fundamental to being a good, and becoming a better, photographer. I know what mine is. What is yours?
The first thing that springs to mind when thinking about this, is passion. We need to be photographing something to which we feel a strong emotional connection. This could be almost anything; family, food, portraits, your hometown, sport, landscapes, birds or even something as specific as orchids. The reality is that if you can’t put some of your own heart into your photography is very unlikely that anyone viewing it will feel very much. Spending time and money creating images of something in which you have no interest is a chore and not a joy. Following on from this, we also need opportunity. Maybe you can take out your camera every evening after work or maybe you have to wait for autumn colors once a year to photograph your favorite forest, but either way, dreaming about it is not the same as actually doing it.
Ultimately, however, it is the way you see and decide to photograph a subject that really matters. What makes you take this photograph and not another? Why does one particular perspective or composition appeal to you while you ignore a dozen or so alternatives? These are important questions and ones we need to be able to answer for ourselves, if not for others. In the answer to questions like these, and many more, lies the evolution of our craft and product. Something I have found very helpful over the years in this regard, it to do online image searches using platforms like 500px. I used to type in selected key words and study the photographs that resulted. Why do I like this image or what is it that I don’t like about it? If I had been there how would I have done it differently? What is it that makes this one stand out from all the others I’ve looked at? These are good questions and we should all be able to answer them. A more difficult thing is to then look at your own work and ask the same questions!
Where are we? Oh yes. I said the camera doesn’t matter. Well, that’s pretty self-explanatory. The truth is that just about every camera on the market today is good enough for most of what we might want to do with it. It’s true. Sure, if you want to print fine art star trails, a twelve-megapixel sensor might not be the best choice. On the other hand, to use a medium format digital camera to post your pictures on facebook doesn’t make much sense either. The vast majority of images are viewed and shared online, however, and very few monitors or sharing platforms come close to matching the image quality of any contemporary camera. I think the real issue is one of finding the camera and lens combination that best meets your financial constraints and learning how to use them well. More about this in a moment, but first one more brief comment on cameras.
The real reason why I don’t like to chat about the cameras I use is that no matter what I write, well over half the people who read it will dismiss my thoughts and even my photographs because in their opinion I use the wrong camera. If I say that I use a Canon system for example, many Nikon or Pentax users will puff up their chests, look down their long noses and condescendingly pity me for not being one of the enlightened. If I write that I use a mirrorless camera, a multitude of DSLR shooters will shrug their shoulders and shake their heads and express regret that another has been lost to this horrible trend where traditional photography skills are being replace by computer chips. If I am foolish enough to admit that I use an APS-C sensor, instantly legions of full-frame DSLR and mirrorless camera owners will recoil in horror screaming warnings about poor dynamic range and high ISO noise. It really doesn’t matter what camera I have, I will never have the right one.
I don’t believe that we have good or bad cameras any more. I do think that some cameras are better suited to certain tasks, but that’s a personal opinion and really comes down to why a person is making photographs rather than which system is better than another. Much, much more important is knowing how to use your camera to get the most out of it. Someone with a cheap entry level camera and kit lens is far more likely to take good photographs if they understand the exposure triangle, than an individual with a massive medium format body and a five-thousand dollar lens shooting in program mode. If you ask me (I know you didn’t, but you are reading this) it is knowing how to use your camera, along with having a clear idea of why you take your photographs that separates a photograph from a snapshot.
This is all getting too long, however, and I’m sure if you’ve gotten this far you’re hoping that I’m almost done. So that’s it for now. Next time I’ll pick up on this and share some of my thoughts on camera systems for travel photography. Kugara zvakanaka!