Focus on Vietnam and Cambodia [Encore Publication]: One of the friendliest and most beautiful regions in the world, offering surprises at every turn

A monk pauses to reflect outside Angkor Wat.  After asking his permission, I positioned myself at his level and captured the portrait using a narrow aperture (high F-stop number) so as to keep the temple in focus in the background.  Buy this image

My wife and I recently returned from an amazing 3.5-week adventure traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia.  Operated by Overseas Adventure Travel, the trip’s diverse itinerary took us from the bustling capital of Hanoi to the glorious mountains jutting skyward from Halong Bay, then to the former imperial capital of Hue and the quaint festival city of Hoi An, on to the mountain retreat of Dalat and to modern Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and finally to the indescribable temple complexes at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  While it was wonderful to view the region’s gorgeous landscapes and fabled monuments, what made this adventure truly unforgettable for us was its many opportunities to interact with Vietnamese and Cambodian people from all walks of life: a Buddhist nun, an older couple whose homes were confiscated by the Communist Party, a former South Vietnamese soldier who survived the re-education camps and rose to become major of his village, eager students at Dalat’s rapidly growing university, former Viet Cong fighters, and ethnic minority hill tribes rarely contacted by outsiders.  Vietnam and Cambodia are a photographer’s dream, filled with magnificent scenery and friendly, diverse cultures.

In today’s post we will take a look at some of my favorite images from this adventure.  I’ll include some brief discussion about who or what is included in each image and, where appropriate, a few words about how each image was made.

Our north-to-south adventure began in the capital and second largest city, Hanoi.  Hanoi strikes a lovely balance between bustling modernity and soulful history.  Steeped in French Colonial architecture, the city has an old-world charm, and the busy streets are shared by countless commuters on motor scooters and vendors selling their wares from the backs of their bicycles.

A Hanoi street scene.  The city’s cyclo-rickshaws are a great way to photograph local people because you are shooting from eye level and from a relatively stealthy vantage point.  Have the camera set up in advance with a fast shutter speed and a narrow aperture so as not to miss any good shots.  Good street photography requires capturing just the right moment when the people and the places come together in a meaningful way, such as these young people enjoying a meal in front of the advertisement promising such a lifestyle.  Buy this image

Phan Tranh Liem is one of the few remaining practitioners of the 1000-year-old Vietnamese tradition of water puppetry. He makes his own puppets, creates the shows, and performs them with his wife in their home in Hanoi.  To make an environmental portrait like this one, back up a bit to include the elements of the subject’s life in addition to the subject themselves.  Here I used a fast normal prime lens at a high ISO sensitivity setting and a touch of off-camera flash.  Buy this image

The village of Tho Ha is 20 miles north of Hanoi but worlds different culturally. We visited the home of a family who make rice paper, the main occupation in the village. Spring rolls are extremely popular throughout Vietnam, so there is high demand for rice paper.  Here, travel companion Mary C. tries her hand at the local craft.  Buy this image

Lion dancers perform for the Hanoi crowds in the days leading up to the harvest moon.  Handheld photography of fast-moving action after dark is challenging due to the need for a fast shutter speed in low-light conditions.  Don’t be afraid to crank up your camera’s sensitivity (ISO) setting.  You can reduce most of the resulting noise using software later.  Buy this image

Leaving behind the urban bustle of Hanoi, we drove to the shore of UNESCO World Heritage Site Halong Bay, where we boarded a traditional wooden junk for an overnight cruise.  Halong Bay boasts some of the most dramatic landscapes anywhere in the world, with more than 1600 jagged mountains jutting straight up out of its emerald waters.  This is a travel photographer’s dream location.

Don’t forget to include yourself in some of your images.  To make this portrait of my wife and me, I set up the camera in advance and then asked a fellow traveler to compose and shoot the image.  Buy this image

Glorious as Halong Bay’s mountainous scenery appears on its own, to make a great landscape image there should be other elements in the frame, too.  Here I waited for a traditional fishing boat to sail across the frame, using a deep depth-of-field (high F-stop number) to allow the whole scene from foreground to background to be rendered in sharp focus.  Buy this image

I hired the captain of our junk to take out the skiff at 5 AM in order to photograph sunrise on Halong Bay.  Any photograph is only as good as the light striking the camera’s sensor, and the light is nearly always best near sunrise and sunset, so sometimes it’s necessary to forego a good night’s sleep in order to capture that “golden hour” light.  Buy this image

En route to the Hanoi Airport for our flight to Hue, we stopped to say hello to several farmers harvesting rice by hand.  Careful attention to composition can make or break a wide-angle portrait like this one.  I found a vantage point that lined up the two farmers and included some of the beautiful green hues of the rice harvest.  Buy this image

We then flew to Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam.  This was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty during a period of great cultural and economic flourishing.  The food, architecture, and performing arts in Hue are unique and very appealing.

Hue’s landmark Thien Mu Pagoda is best photographed from the banks of the Perfume River.  Whenever shooting tall architectural subjects using a wide-angle lens, pay careful attention to the vertical lines, as lens distortion can cause the subject to appear to be leaning.  Buy this image

We had a lovely visit with a Buddhist nun at the convent of the Dieu Thanh Pagoda in Hue. It was fascinating to learn about her life in the convent and her decision process to give up worldly life as a young teen.  This is the sort of meaningful encounter that would be nearly impossible to set up if one were traveling on one’s own.  After obtaining her permission, I made this portrait using natural light only (no flash) and a fast prime portrait lens.  To capture really great portraits, it’s important to spend some time first getting to know your subject and putting them at ease.  Buy this image

En route from Hue to Hoi An, we visited a Cao Dai temple. Cao Dai is a rapidly growing religion in Southeast Asia that integrates teachings from many other world religions.  We were fortunate to have the priest himself tell us about the faith.  I chose a wide-angle lens and high ISO sensitivity setting to capture this image of the priest in the temple’s ornate sanctuary.  Buy this image

Our next destination, Hoi An, is a charming town adorned with tens of thousands of brightly colored lanterns, giving it a festive appearance year-round.  Hoi An is also the gateway to the remarkable Champa Kingdom ruins at My Son.

Hoi An’s traditional central marketplace is a photographer’s candy store, filled with wonderful portrait subjects.  I shot this image of a food vendor using natural light only: she was busy and couldn’t be bothered to pose, so it was important to have the camera set up in advance with a high ISO and a fast shutter speed.  Buy this image

Traditional fishing practices on the Thu Bon River, just outside of Hoi An.  During post-processing, I increased the image’s vibrance a little bit to help saturate the colors.  Buy this image

At My Son Sanctuary, site of the most significant ruins from the Champa Kingdom, we attended a performance of ancient Cham dance.  To capture this image of the lovely dancers, I used a fast portrait lens with a wide aperture (small F-stop number) to freeze the motion and help isolate the dancers from the background.  To further emphasize the dancers and to saturate the colors in their costumes, I added just a touch of fill-in flash.  Buy this image

Heading further south, we next flew from Hoi An to Nha Trang.  The many rivers and rural villages in the area afforded us the opportunity to experience village life and even to visit a floating fishing village.

Visiting Dien Phu Kindergarten outside Nha Trang gave us a chance to learn about Vietnam’s education system.  Here the kids greet us as we arrive.  Buy this image

We had a fascinating discussion with the chief of Xom Gio Village, a former South Vietnamese soldier and survivor of the re-education camps who managed to work his way up to a high-level position after the war.  The key to making portraits that truly capture the spirit of the subject is to get to know them first, have your camera all set up in advance, take your time, and shoot plenty of images.  I used a fast portrait lens with a wide aperture to blur the background and emphasize the subject.  Buy this image

Our next stop was Dalat, a mountain retreat popular since French colonial times as a respite from the tropical heat found in most of Vietnam.  Our stay in Dalat was extremely memorable thanks to a visit with university students, a home-hosted dinner with a local family, tours of the region’s thriving agricultural industry, and a side trip to a mountainous village that is home to the Kho Chil ethnic minority.

We spent a lovely afternoon with students from Dalat University. I had the opportunity to get to know English teacher Trung and his bright young students Nhi , Diễm, and Giang.  For this photo we were joined by my wife and several other students.  Buy this image

Visiting the village chief’s home in Buon Chuoi Village. His wife, in her eighties, still passes most days by weaving while smoking her pipe.  Buy this image

Boys from the Kho Chil hill tribe run after our tractor (a “Vietnamese limousine”) as we descend from Buon Chuoi Village.  A fast shutter speed and jaunty camera angle give this image its frenetic and playful appeal.  Buy this image

In the courtyard of the Linh Phuoc Pagoda outside of Dalat, Lady Buddha observes this young woman checking her text messages.  When I saw this special juxtaposition lining up, I moved into a favorable position to capture it and waited for the perfect moment.  Buy this image

Our final destination in Vietnam before flying to Cambodia was the largest city and financial hub of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).  A chaotic metropolis of 13 million people, Ho Chi Minh City is thoroughly modern yet holds remnants of a colonial past.  It is also the location of many of the iconic photographs taken during the Vietnam War.

Saigon’s splendid Central Post Office.  Good interior photographs should have a symmetry and leading lines that direct the viewer’s eye around the image.  I used a wide-angle lens to compose this image, shot parallel to the ground so as not to introduce too much distortion.  Buy this image

The food was uniformly delicious throughout Vietnam, from the most elegant French-Vietnamese fusion restaurants to the lowliest pho shops.  The simple but perfect pho we enjoyed in this small shop in Saigon was the best I’ve ever tasted.  To photograph food, get in close and compose so as to include some contrasting elements of colors and shapes.  Buy this image

Very interesting learning about the wartime experiences of these three former Viet Cong fighters.  They lived for years in the subterranean Cu Chi Tunnels, which they considered much safer than being exposed to US bombing and infantry attacks above ground.  Our travel companion Don, pictured with them here, is a Vietnam War veteran. It was very moving to witness his experience meeting these former enemy fighters.  Buy this image

Leaving Ho Chi Minh City behind, we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Travelers come to Cambodia primarily to see the justifiably famous Angkor temple complexes, but there is so much more to this beautiful country.  We were fortunate to have time also to explore the rural villages in the region and to get to know some of the people there.

In a small village outside of Siem Reap, an elder greets us.  This portrait is a favorite of mine because of the beauty and personality of the subject, but it’s also successful because the background is clean and uncluttered.  Always pay attention to your backgrounds, especially when shooting people and wildlife, as unwanted background elements can distract from the power of the image.  Buy this image

Visiting the floating village of Mechrey on the huge freshwater Tonle Sap Lake, we got a closeup view of lives lived entirely on the water.  As we floated by this family’s houseboat, I captured this image of their daily life.  Buy this image

At last, we toured the world wonder of Angkor Wat.  I’m always on the lookout for unusual vantage points to shoot iconic monuments, so as to avoid the dreaded “postcard shots”.  Here, I framed the temple complex in the window of an ancient outbuilding across the moat from Angkor Wat.  The compositional elements from front to back include the window frame, the Cambodian people sitting on the wall, the reflection in the water, and the temple itself.  Buy this image

Angkor Wat Temple is by far the most visited of the temple complexes around Angkor, but the others are well worth a trip.  Unlike Angkor Wat, which has been cleared of vegetation and excavated, the nearby Ta Prohm Temple has been left mostly in a state of nature.  A key scene in one of the “Indiana Jones” movies was filmed here.  Buy this image

I arranged a visit to a performance of traditional Cambodian Apsara dance. In the days of Khmer empire, only the king and queen were allowed to see these dances.  When shooting indoor dance performances, I use one of three different fast prime (non-zoom) lenses, opened up to a wide aperture, and a high ISO sensitivity setting.  This ensures a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action even in the low light conditions of an indoor venue, since flash is almost never allowed during live performances.  Buy this image

In Siem Reap we learned about the traditional art of folding flowers to present at the Buddhist Ang Chorm Shrine.  The young daughter of the flower stall owner demonstrates with these flowers she folded herself.  Buy this image

Have you visited Vietnam or Cambodia?  Please share your fondest (and least fond) memories here, along with your thoughts about how to capture the region’s vibrant diverse scenes in images.

Want to read more posts about travel photography destinations?  Find them all here: Posts on Destinations.

 

Faces of Vietnam and Cambodia, Part II [Encore Publication]: Showcasing the diversity of Vietnam and Cambodia’s people

My wife and I recently returned from an amazing 3.5-week adventure traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia.  Our itinerary took us from the bustling capital of Hanoi to the glorious mountains jutting skyward from Halong Bay, then to the former imperial capital of Hue and the quaint festival city of Hoi An, on to the mountain retreat of Dalat and to modern Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and finally to the indescribable temple complexes at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  While it was wonderful to view the region’s gorgeous landscapes and fabled monuments, what made this adventure truly unforgettable for us was its many opportunities to interact with Vietnamese and Cambodian people from all walks of life: a Buddhist nun, an older couple whose homes were confiscated by the Communist Party, a former South Vietnamese soldier who survived the re-education camps and rose to become major of his village, eager students at Dalat’s rapidly growing university, former Viet Cong fighters, and ethnic minority hill tribes rarely contacted by outsiders.

Yesterday’s and today’s posts showcase some of my favorite portraits, some of them not yet previously published, featuring a wide range of people we met during our adventure.  The portraits will be presented as a photo essay, but I will include brief descriptions of each and occasionally some commentary about how they were made.  You can click on any of these images to view or purchase them and many more from the Vietnam and Cambodia trip.  Yesterday’s post featured Part I, and today’s post comprises Part II.

A wonderful visit to village of Buon Chuoi, home to the Kho Chil ethnic minority. We were among the very few foreigners ever to visit this hill tribe area.  Kids are great fun to photograph.  The key to making authentic portraits of kids, as of adults, is to make a personal connection before starting to shoot.  Get to know your subjects first, be playful and interactive, and only then take out your gear.

School was not in session due to parent conferences when we visited the mountain village of Buon Chuoi, so many of the schoolkids were playing in the courtyard.  I captured this portrait of a girl with her little brother during a game of marbles.

Visiting the village chief’s home in Buon Chuoi Village. His wife, in her eighties, still passes most days by weaving while smoking her pipe.  This is one of my favorite portraits from the whole trip, because it truly captures the spirit of the subject, offers a rare view into rural Vietnamese village life, is illuminated by lovely natural light, and represents a memorable and striking image.

Kho Chil boys run after our tractor as we descend from Buon Chuoi Village.  Not all portraits need to capture a stock-still subject.  This portrait gains its vitality through the boys’ motion, and its jaunty, slightly off-kilter composition adds to the sense of kinetic energy.

Dalat is much cooler than the rest of Vietnam. This mom and her daughter are dressed appropriately for the higher elevations.  Busy backgrounds can distract from a good portrait, but here I mitigated some of the distraction by using a shallow depth-of-field and by applying a bit of post-crop vignetting during post-processing.

In the courtyard of the Linh Phuoc Pagoda, Lady Buddha observes this young woman checking her text messages.  Good street photography is characterized by capturing just the right viewpoint, framing, and moment (what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “The Decisive Moment”) when the people and the space come together, and I believe I caught that conjunction nicely here.

A young Buddhist monk-in-training.  Often, the person appearing in a portrait is more colorful than the background elements, but here the opposite is the case.

At Saigon’s Post Office, I asked this lovely young woman to model the traditional Vietnamese costume, the ao dai.  I made no attempt through depth-of-field, supplemental lighting, or vignetting, to set off the model from the cluttered background.  That’s because I wanted to feature the glorious French colonial architecture of the post office as much as the model posing before it.

Preparing to board our sampan on the Mekong Delta.  The weather was overcast and rainy, so I used a slower shutter speed (1/50 second) and fairly wide aperture (f/4) to saturate the colors.

Ben Tre Village is famous for its coconut plantations.  We enjoyed coconut meat, coconut milk, coconut whiskey, and of course coconut candy.  I used a small amount of fill flash to fill in the shadows on the subject’s face and to help set her off from the background.

A stall-keeper at Saigon’s bustling central market.  I used a fast portrait lens at a wide aperture along with a high ISO setting in order to soften the busy background.

Very interesting learning about the wartime experiences of these former Viet Cong fighters. They lived for years in the Cu Chi Tunnels, which they considered much safer than being exposed to US bombing and infantry attacks above ground.  This portrait is effective because it captures the officer in a candid moment with beautiful available lighting and sets him against a solid colored background.

We visited a farm outside Siem Reap, Cambodia, where women still thresh rice by hand.  The farm family’s six-year-old daughter stopped by to check us out.  

We are welcomed to a small village outside of Siem Reap by this elder.  I made an environmental portrait showing her in the context of her work weaving baskets.  The image works very well because the composition is intimate and engaging, telling the subject’s story in a concise way, and because the simple solid contrasting color of the wall behind her offsets her colorful clothes in a pleasing manner.

Visiting the floating village of Mechrey on the huge Tonle Sap Lake.  I made this image of a local family in their houseboat as we sailed by.  By placing the family in the context of their home and daily activities, the image serves to capture a slice of life rather than to feature any individual member of the household.

A monk pauses to reflect outside the Angkor Wat temple complex.  I spoke with him (using our guide as a translator) to make a personal connection and to obtain his permission to make the portrait.  The contrasting colors and textures of the monk and the temple buildings, as well as the leading lines that guide the viewer’s eye from front to back, make this a memorable portrait.  I made the image using natural light only and incorporated a polarizing filter to deepen the colors and add drama to the sky.

At a home-hosted lunch in rural Kravan Village, I made portraits of the whole family. Here is the oldest daughter, Lia, a flight attendant and gracious hostess.  Classic portrait techniques applied here: make a personal connection first, use a fast prime 85mm lens at a wide aperture, and light the subject with the most beautiful light available in the situation.  

I arranged a visit to a performance of traditional Cambodian Apsara dance. In the days of Khmer empire, only the king and queen were allowed to see these dances.  During live performances, use of flash is almost always prohibited (and almost always rude), so use a fast prime lens, a high ISO setting, and a steady hand.

We learned about the traditional folding of flowers to present at the Buddhist Ang Chorm Shrine in Siem Reap.  The young daughter of the flower stall owner folded these flowers herself.  While a bit on the busy side, this portrait succeeds by capturing a riot of colors and an intriguing story.

Have you visited Vietnam or Cambodia?  What were your favorite photographic subjects?  Please leave your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling?  Find them all here: Posts about what to shoot.

All of these photos and many more from Vietnam and Cambodia are available for viewing or purchase here: Vietnam and Cambodia image gallery.

Missed Part I of this story in yesterday’s post?  You can read it here: Part I of this story.

Faces of Vietnam and Cambodia, Part I [Encore Publication]: Showcasing the diversity of Vietnam and Cambodia’s people

My wife and I recently returned from an amazing 3.5-week adventure traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia.  Our itinerary took us from the bustling capital of Hanoi to the glorious mountains jutting skyward from Halong Bay, then to the former imperial capital of Hue and the quaint festival city of Hoi An, on to the mountain retreat of Dalat and to modern Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and finally to the indescribable temple complexes at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  While it was wonderful to view the region’s gorgeous landscapes and fabled monuments, what made this adventure truly unforgettable for us was its many opportunities to interact with Vietnamese and Cambodian people from all walks of life: a Buddhist nun, an older couple whose homes were confiscated by the Communist Party, a former South Vietnamese soldier who survived the re-education camps and rose to become major of his village, eager students at Dalat’s rapidly growing university, former Viet Cong fighters, and ethnic minority hill tribes rarely contacted by outsiders.

Today’s and tomorrow’s posts showcase some of my favorite portraits, some of them not yet previously published, featuring a wide range of people we met during our adventure.  The portraits will be presented as a photo essay, but I will include brief descriptions of each and occasionally some commentary about how they were made.  You can click on any of these images to view or purchase them and many more from the Vietnam and Cambodia trip.

Here is Part I, and tomorrow’s post will feature Part II.

Street portrait of a little girl petting a small dog in a Hanoi store.  While still a source a food in Vietnam, dogs are becoming more common as pets in urban areas.  This image was shot from a cyclo-rickshaw, a great way to travel in urban areas of Southeast Asia and an especially good platform for street photography, as this way you travel at eye level of people on the street but will not be noticed as you pass by.

Motor scooters are the major form of transportation in Vietnam’s cities. Whole families of three, four, and even five people commonly share rides.  I’m always looking for striking color palettes, and here I loved the family’s vibrant colored clothing, each person wearing a different colored mask.

Phan Tranh Liem is one of the few remaining practitioners of the 1000-year-old Vietnamese tradition of water puppetry. He makes his own puppets, creates the shows, and performs them with his wife.  I made this environmental portrait of Mr. Phan, surrounded by a few of his puppet creations, in the workshop of his Hanoi home.

At a local market outside of Hanoi. Dog meat is a local delicacy (and quite pricey).

In the village of Tho Ha, 20 miles north of Hanoi, we visited the home of a family who make rice paper, the main occupation in the village. Spring rolls are extremely popular throughout Vietnam, so there is high demand for rice paper.  An environmental portrait is framed to include not only the subject but also enough of the surroundings to give the viewer a sense of the subject’s life.

The head of the household plays a traditional Vietnamese stringed instrument.

In the village of Bat Trang outside of Hanoi, we visited the home of Mr. Duc and his wife.  After the war, their homes were seized and they were persecuted as “landlord oppressors” even though they had never exploited others.  They recovered one of their houses decades later.  It can be a challenge to make a candid portrait of a couple.  Here I used a fast normal (50mm) prime lens with a medium aperture so that both wife and husband would be rendered in fairly sharp focus but without requiring a very slow shutter speed or very high ISO setting.

En route to the Hanoi Airport for our flight to Hue, we stopped to say hello to several farmers harvesting rice by hand.  A good portrait doesn’t need to include the face of the subject, nor even the subject’s head at all.  This portrait works because of the strong composition and lovely color palette, and one feels a connection to the subject even without seeing her face.

We had a lovely visit with a Buddhist nun at the Dieu Thanh Pagoda in Hue. It was fascinating to learn about her life in the convent and her decision process to give up worldly life as a young teen.  To make her portrait, preparation was important.  I had my gear all set up while we were having our discussion, so that when we were comfortable together I could simply ask if it was okay to make her portrait and then shoot without interruption.

Aboard a “dragon boat” on Hue’s Perfume River, we attended a private performance of a cultural show featuring traditional Hue song and dance.  A fast prime portrait lens (85mm) allowed me to shoot this musician using available light with a shallow depth-of-field to offset him from the background.

Hoi An is a charming city adorned everywhere with colorful lanterns. This bride and groom were posing for photos, so (with the permission of the couple and their photographer) I jumped in and captured this portrait.

I chatted with these twin three-year-old cuties and their Mom as we browsed in her shop.  With young kids, it’s important they feel at ease before you start shooting, and you should then shoot many frames quickly in order to increase the likelihood of getting one that captures the mood well.

Hoi An’s central marketplace is a wonderful space to capture portraits of the many vendors selling traditional wares.  The natural light was lovely, but required some finesse due to the bright background relative to the dim lighting on the subjects.

At My Son Sanctuary, site of the most significant ruins from the Champa Kingdom, we attended a performance of ancient Cham dance.  I used a fast portrait lens at a wide aperture and a high ISO sensitivity setting so that I could capture the dancers using a fast shutter speed.  In addition, I used a touch of off-camera fill-in flash, not as the primary light but to fill in the shadow areas and obtain more color saturation.

Outside our restaurant in Nha Trang, our waitress checks her messages.  I was drawn to this framing because it succinctly captures the modern life of young working urban Vietnamese people.  

Fascinating discussion with Xom Gio Village’s chief, a former South Vietnamese soldier and survivor of the re-education camps who managed to work his way up to a high-level position after the war.  To capture this striking portrait, I used a fast prime lens almost wide-open to cast the background into soft focus, and I waited for dramatic moments during our conversation to shoot.

The wife of Xom Gio Village’s chief.  I used the same technique, described above, as for the portrait of her husband.  This portrait has a lovely color scheme, beautiful framing, and nice bokeh (the soft, out-of-focus parts of the background).

The beautiful city of Dalat, high in the mountains, has been a favorite escape from the tropical heat since French colonial times.  We spent a lovely afternoon with students from Dalat University. I had the opportunity to get to know English teacher Trung and his bright young students Nhi , Diễm, and Giang.  For this portrait, we were joined by my wife and several students she accompanied.  To include yourself in a group portrait, first set up the camera carefully, then either mount it on a tripod and trigger it remotely or ask a trusted person to release the shutter for you.

A wonderful visit to village of Buon Chuoi, home to the Kho Chil ethnic minority. We were among the very few foreigners ever to visit this hill tribe area.  

Have you visited Vietnam or Cambodia?  What were your favorite photographic subjects?  Please leave your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling?  Find them all here: Posts about what to shoot.

All of these photos and many more from Vietnam and Cambodia are available for viewing or purchase here: Vietnam and Cambodia image gallery.

Look for Part II of this story in tomorrow’s post!

Faces of Vietnam and Cambodia, Part II: Showcasing the diversity of Vietnam and Cambodia’s people

My wife and I recently returned from an amazing 3.5-week adventure traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia.  Our itinerary took us from the bustling capital of Hanoi to the glorious mountains jutting skyward from Halong Bay, then to the former imperial capital of Hue and the quaint festival city of Hoi An, on to the mountain retreat of Dalat and to modern Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and finally to the indescribable temple complexes at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  While it was wonderful to view the region’s gorgeous landscapes and fabled monuments, what made this adventure truly unforgettable for us was its many opportunities to interact with Vietnamese and Cambodian people from all walks of life: a Buddhist nun, an older couple whose homes were confiscated by the Communist Party, a former South Vietnamese soldier who survived the re-education camps and rose to become major of his village, eager students at Dalat’s rapidly growing university, former Viet Cong fighters, and ethnic minority hill tribes rarely contacted by outsiders.

Yesterday’s and today’s posts showcase some of my favorite portraits, some of them not yet previously published, featuring a wide range of people we met during our adventure.  The portraits will be presented as a photo essay, but I will include brief descriptions of each and occasionally some commentary about how they were made.  You can click on any of these images to view or purchase them and many more from the Vietnam and Cambodia trip.  Yesterday’s post featured Part I, and today’s post comprises Part II.

A wonderful visit to village of Buon Chuoi, home to the Kho Chil ethnic minority. We were among the very few foreigners ever to visit this hill tribe area.  Kids are great fun to photograph.  The key to making authentic portraits of kids, as of adults, is to make a personal connection before starting to shoot.  Get to know your subjects first, be playful and interactive, and only then take out your gear.

School was not in session due to parent conferences when we visited the mountain village of Buon Chuoi, so many of the schoolkids were playing in the courtyard.  I captured this portrait of a girl with her little brother during a game of marbles.

Visiting the village chief’s home in Buon Chuoi Village. His wife, in her eighties, still passes most days by weaving while smoking her pipe.  This is one of my favorite portraits from the whole trip, because it truly captures the spirit of the subject, offers a rare view into rural Vietnamese village life, is illuminated by lovely natural light, and represents a memorable and striking image.

Kho Chil boys run after our tractor as we descend from Buon Chuoi Village.  Not all portraits need to capture a stock-still subject.  This portrait gains its vitality through the boys’ motion, and its jaunty, slightly off-kilter composition adds to the sense of kinetic energy.

Dalat is much cooler than the rest of Vietnam. This mom and her daughter are dressed appropriately for the higher elevations.  Busy backgrounds can distract from a good portrait, but here I mitigated some of the distraction by using a shallow depth-of-field and by applying a bit of post-crop vignetting during post-processing.

In the courtyard of the Linh Phuoc Pagoda, Lady Buddha observes this young woman checking her text messages.  Good street photography is characterized by capturing just the right viewpoint, framing, and moment (what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “The Decisive Moment”) when the people and the space come together, and I believe I caught that conjunction nicely here.

A young Buddhist monk-in-training.  Often, the person appearing in a portrait is more colorful than the background elements, but here the opposite is the case.

At Saigon’s Post Office, I asked this lovely young woman to model the traditional Vietnamese costume, the ao dai.  I made no attempt through depth-of-field, supplemental lighting, or vignetting, to set off the model from the cluttered background.  That’s because I wanted to feature the glorious French colonial architecture of the post office as much as the model posing before it.

Preparing to board our sampan on the Mekong Delta.  The weather was overcast and rainy, so I used a slower shutter speed (1/50 second) and fairly wide aperture (f/4) to saturate the colors.

Ben Tre Village is famous for its coconut plantations.  We enjoyed coconut meat, coconut milk, coconut whiskey, and of course coconut candy.  I used a small amount of fill flash to fill in the shadows on the subject’s face and to help set her off from the background.

A stall-keeper at Saigon’s bustling central market.  I used a fast portrait lens at a wide aperture along with a high ISO setting in order to soften the busy background.

Very interesting learning about the wartime experiences of these former Viet Cong fighters. They lived for years in the Cu Chi Tunnels, which they considered much safer than being exposed to US bombing and infantry attacks above ground.  This portrait is effective because it captures the officer in a candid moment with beautiful available lighting and sets him against a solid colored background.

We visited a farm outside Siem Reap, Cambodia, where women still thresh rice by hand.  The farm family’s six-year-old daughter stopped by to check us out.  

We are welcomed to a small village outside of Siem Reap by this elder.  I made an environmental portrait showing her in the context of her work weaving baskets.  The image works very well because the composition is intimate and engaging, telling the subject’s story in a concise way, and because the simple solid contrasting color of the wall behind her offsets her colorful clothes in a pleasing manner.

Visiting the floating village of Mechrey on the huge Tonle Sap Lake.  I made this image of a local family in their houseboat as we sailed by.  By placing the family in the context of their home and daily activities, the image serves to capture a slice of life rather than to feature any individual member of the household.

A monk pauses to reflect outside the Angkor Wat temple complex.  I spoke with him (using our guide as a translator) to make a personal connection and to obtain his permission to make the portrait.  The contrasting colors and textures of the monk and the temple buildings, as well as the leading lines that guide the viewer’s eye from front to back, make this a memorable portrait.  I made the image using natural light only and incorporated a polarizing filter to deepen the colors and add drama to the sky.

At a home-hosted lunch in rural Kravan Village, I made portraits of the whole family. Here is the oldest daughter, Lia, a flight attendant and gracious hostess.  Classic portrait techniques applied here: make a personal connection first, use a fast prime 85mm lens at a wide aperture, and light the subject with the most beautiful light available in the situation.  

I arranged a visit to a performance of traditional Cambodian Apsara dance. In the days of Khmer empire, only the king and queen were allowed to see these dances.  During live performances, use of flash is almost always prohibited (and almost always rude), so use a fast prime lens, a high ISO setting, and a steady hand.

We learned about the traditional folding of flowers to present at the Buddhist Ang Chorm Shrine in Siem Reap.  The young daughter of the flower stall owner folded these flowers herself.  While a bit on the busy side, this portrait succeeds by capturing a riot of colors and an intriguing story.

Have you visited Vietnam or Cambodia?  What were your favorite photographic subjects?  Please leave your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling?  Find them all here: Posts about what to shoot.

All of these photos and many more from Vietnam and Cambodia are available for viewing or purchase here: Vietnam and Cambodia image gallery.

Missed Part I of this story in yesterday’s post?  You can read it here: Part I of this story.

Faces of Vietnam and Cambodia, Part I: Showcasing the diversity of Vietnam and Cambodia’s people

My wife and I recently returned from an amazing 3.5-week adventure traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia.  Our itinerary took us from the bustling capital of Hanoi to the glorious mountains jutting skyward from Halong Bay, then to the former imperial capital of Hue and the quaint festival city of Hoi An, on to the mountain retreat of Dalat and to modern Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and finally to the indescribable temple complexes at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  While it was wonderful to view the region’s gorgeous landscapes and fabled monuments, what made this adventure truly unforgettable for us was its many opportunities to interact with Vietnamese and Cambodian people from all walks of life: a Buddhist nun, an older couple whose homes were confiscated by the Communist Party, a former South Vietnamese soldier who survived the re-education camps and rose to become major of his village, eager students at Dalat’s rapidly growing university, former Viet Cong fighters, and ethnic minority hill tribes rarely contacted by outsiders.

Today’s and tomorrow’s posts showcase some of my favorite portraits, some of them not yet previously published, featuring a wide range of people we met during our adventure.  The portraits will be presented as a photo essay, but I will include brief descriptions of each and occasionally some commentary about how they were made.  You can click on any of these images to view or purchase them and many more from the Vietnam and Cambodia trip.

Here is Part I, and tomorrow’s post will feature Part II.

Street portrait of a little girl petting a small dog in a Hanoi store.  While still a source a food in Vietnam, dogs are becoming more common as pets in urban areas.  This image was shot from a cyclo-rickshaw, a great way to travel in urban areas of Southeast Asia and an especially good platform for street photography, as this way you travel at eye level of people on the street but will not be noticed as you pass by.

Motor scooters are the major form of transportation in Vietnam’s cities. Whole families of three, four, and even five people commonly share rides.  I’m always looking for striking color palettes, and here I loved the family’s vibrant colored clothing, each person wearing a different colored mask.

Phan Tranh Liem is one of the few remaining practitioners of the 1000-year-old Vietnamese tradition of water puppetry. He makes his own puppets, creates the shows, and performs them with his wife.  I made this environmental portrait of Mr. Phan, surrounded by a few of his puppet creations, in the workshop of his Hanoi home.

At a local market outside of Hanoi. Dog meat is a local delicacy (and quite pricey).

In the village of Tho Ha, 20 miles north of Hanoi, we visited the home of a family who make rice paper, the main occupation in the village. Spring rolls are extremely popular throughout Vietnam, so there is high demand for rice paper.  An environmental portrait is framed to include not only the subject but also enough of the surroundings to give the viewer a sense of the subject’s life.

The head of the household plays a traditional Vietnamese stringed instrument.

In the village of Bat Trang outside of Hanoi, we visited the home of Mr. Duc and his wife.  After the war, their homes were seized and they were persecuted as “landlord oppressors” even though they had never exploited others.  They recovered one of their houses decades later.  It can be a challenge to make a candid portrait of a couple.  Here I used a fast normal (50mm) prime lens with a medium aperture so that both wife and husband would be rendered in fairly sharp focus but without requiring a very slow shutter speed or very high ISO setting.

En route to the Hanoi Airport for our flight to Hue, we stopped to say hello to several farmers harvesting rice by hand.  A good portrait doesn’t need to include the face of the subject, nor even the subject’s head at all.  This portrait works because of the strong composition and lovely color palette, and one feels a connection to the subject even without seeing her face.

We had a lovely visit with a Buddhist nun at the Dieu Thanh Pagoda in Hue. It was fascinating to learn about her life in the convent and her decision process to give up worldly life as a young teen.  To make her portrait, preparation was important.  I had my gear all set up while we were having our discussion, so that when we were comfortable together I could simply ask if it was okay to make her portrait and then shoot without interruption.

Aboard a “dragon boat” on Hue’s Perfume River, we attended a private performance of a cultural show featuring traditional Hue song and dance.  A fast prime portrait lens (85mm) allowed me to shoot this musician using available light with a shallow depth-of-field to offset him from the background.

Hoi An is a charming city adorned everywhere with colorful lanterns. This bride and groom were posing for photos, so (with the permission of the couple and their photographer) I jumped in and captured this portrait.

I chatted with these twin three-year-old cuties and their Mom as we browsed in her shop.  With young kids, it’s important they feel at ease before you start shooting, and you should then shoot many frames quickly in order to increase the likelihood of getting one that captures the mood well.

Hoi An’s central marketplace is a wonderful space to capture portraits of the many vendors selling traditional wares.  The natural light was lovely, but required some finesse due to the bright background relative to the dim lighting on the subjects.

At My Son Sanctuary, site of the most significant ruins from the Champa Kingdom, we attended a performance of ancient Cham dance.  I used a fast portrait lens at a wide aperture and a high ISO sensitivity setting so that I could capture the dancers using a fast shutter speed.  In addition, I used a touch of off-camera fill-in flash, not as the primary light but to fill in the shadow areas and obtain more color saturation.

Outside our restaurant in Nha Trang, our waitress checks her messages.  I was drawn to this framing because it succinctly captures the modern life of young working urban Vietnamese people.  

Fascinating discussion with Xom Gio Village’s chief, a former South Vietnamese soldier and survivor of the re-education camps who managed to work his way up to a high-level position after the war.  To capture this striking portrait, I used a fast prime lens almost wide-open to cast the background into soft focus, and I waited for dramatic moments during our conversation to shoot.

The wife of Xom Gio Village’s chief.  I used the same technique, described above, as for the portrait of her husband.  This portrait has a lovely color scheme, beautiful framing, and nice bokeh (the soft, out-of-focus parts of the background).

The beautiful city of Dalat, high in the mountains, has been a favorite escape from the tropical heat since French colonial times.  We spent a lovely afternoon with students from Dalat University. I had the opportunity to get to know English teacher Trung and his bright young students Nhi , Diễm, and Giang.  For this portrait, we were joined by my wife and several students she accompanied.  To include yourself in a group portrait, first set up the camera carefully, then either mount it on a tripod and trigger it remotely or ask a trusted person to release the shutter for you.

A wonderful visit to village of Buon Chuoi, home to the Kho Chil ethnic minority. We were among the very few foreigners ever to visit this hill tribe area.  

Have you visited Vietnam or Cambodia?  What were your favorite photographic subjects?  Please leave your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling?  Find them all here: Posts about what to shoot.

All of these photos and many more from Vietnam and Cambodia are available for viewing or purchase here: Vietnam and Cambodia image gallery.

Look for Part II of this story in tomorrow’s post!

Focus on Vietnam and Cambodia [Encore Publication]: One of the friendliest and most beautiful regions in the world, offering surprises at every turn

A monk pauses to reflect outside Angkor Wat.  After asking his permission, I positioned myself at his level and captured the portrait using a narrow aperture (high F-stop number) so as to keep the temple in focus in the background.  Buy this image

My wife and I recently returned from an amazing 3.5-week adventure traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia.  Operated by Overseas Adventure Travel, the trip’s diverse itinerary took us from the bustling capital of Hanoi to the glorious mountains jutting skyward from Halong Bay, then to the former imperial capital of Hue and the quaint festival city of Hoi An, on to the mountain retreat of Dalat and to modern Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and finally to the indescribable temple complexes at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  While it was wonderful to view the region’s gorgeous landscapes and fabled monuments, what made this adventure truly unforgettable for us was its many opportunities to interact with Vietnamese and Cambodian people from all walks of life: a Buddhist nun, an older couple whose homes were confiscated by the Communist Party, a former South Vietnamese soldier who survived the re-education camps and rose to become major of his village, eager students at Dalat’s rapidly growing university, former Viet Cong fighters, and ethnic minority hill tribes rarely contacted by outsiders.  Vietnam and Cambodia are a photographer’s dream, filled with magnificent scenery and friendly, diverse cultures.

In today’s post we will take a look at some of my favorite images from this adventure.  I’ll include some brief discussion about who or what is included in each image and, where appropriate, a few words about how each image was made.

Our north-to-south adventure began in the capital and second largest city, Hanoi.  Hanoi strikes a lovely balance between bustling modernity and soulful history.  Steeped in French Colonial architecture, the city has an old-world charm, and the busy streets are shared by countless commuters on motor scooters and vendors selling their wares from the backs of their bicycles.

A Hanoi street scene.  The city’s cyclo-rickshaws are a great way to photograph local people because you are shooting from eye level and from a relatively stealthy vantage point.  Have the camera set up in advance with a fast shutter speed and a narrow aperture so as not to miss any good shots.  Good street photography requires capturing just the right moment when the people and the places come together in a meaningful way, such as these young people enjoying a meal in front of the advertisement promising such a lifestyle.  Buy this image

Phan Tranh Liem is one of the few remaining practitioners of the 1000-year-old Vietnamese tradition of water puppetry. He makes his own puppets, creates the shows, and performs them with his wife in their home in Hanoi.  To make an environmental portrait like this one, back up a bit to include the elements of the subject’s life in addition to the subject themselves.  Here I used a fast normal prime lens at a high ISO sensitivity setting and a touch of off-camera flash.  Buy this image

The village of Tho Ha is 20 miles north of Hanoi but worlds different culturally. We visited the home of a family who make rice paper, the main occupation in the village. Spring rolls are extremely popular throughout Vietnam, so there is high demand for rice paper.  Here, travel companion Mary C. tries her hand at the local craft.  Buy this image

Lion dancers perform for the Hanoi crowds in the days leading up to the harvest moon.  Handheld photography of fast-moving action after dark is challenging due to the need for a fast shutter speed in low-light conditions.  Don’t be afraid to crank up your camera’s sensitivity (ISO) setting.  You can reduce most of the resulting noise using software later.  Buy this image

Leaving behind the urban bustle of Hanoi, we drove to the shore of UNESCO World Heritage Site Halong Bay, where we boarded a traditional wooden junk for an overnight cruise.  Halong Bay boasts some of the most dramatic landscapes anywhere in the world, with more than 1600 jagged mountains jutting straight up out of its emerald waters.  This is a travel photographer’s dream location.

Don’t forget to include yourself in some of your images.  To make this portrait of my wife and me, I set up the camera in advance and then asked a fellow traveler to compose and shoot the image.  Buy this image

Glorious as Halong Bay’s mountainous scenery appears on its own, to make a great landscape image there should be other elements in the frame, too.  Here I waited for a traditional fishing boat to sail across the frame, using a deep depth-of-field (high F-stop number) to allow the whole scene from foreground to background to be rendered in sharp focus.  Buy this image

I hired the captain of our junk to take out the skiff at 5 AM in order to photograph sunrise on Halong Bay.  Any photograph is only as good as the light striking the camera’s sensor, and the light is nearly always best near sunrise and sunset, so sometimes it’s necessary to forego a good night’s sleep in order to capture that “golden hour” light.  Buy this image

En route to the Hanoi Airport for our flight to Hue, we stopped to say hello to several farmers harvesting rice by hand.  Careful attention to composition can make or break a wide-angle portrait like this one.  I found a vantage point that lined up the two farmers and included some of the beautiful green hues of the rice harvest.  Buy this image

We then flew to Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam.  This was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty during a period of great cultural and economic flourishing.  The food, architecture, and performing arts in Hue are unique and very appealing.

Hue’s landmark Thien Mu Pagoda is best photographed from the banks of the Perfume River.  Whenever shooting tall architectural subjects using a wide-angle lens, pay careful attention to the vertical lines, as lens distortion can cause the subject to appear to be leaning.  Buy this image

We had a lovely visit with a Buddhist nun at the convent of the Dieu Thanh Pagoda in Hue. It was fascinating to learn about her life in the convent and her decision process to give up worldly life as a young teen.  This is the sort of meaningful encounter that would be nearly impossible to set up if one were traveling on one’s own.  After obtaining her permission, I made this portrait using natural light only (no flash) and a fast prime portrait lens.  To capture really great portraits, it’s important to spend some time first getting to know your subject and putting them at ease.  Buy this image

En route from Hue to Hoi An, we visited a Cao Dai temple. Cao Dai is a rapidly growing religion in Southeast Asia that integrates teachings from many other world religions.  We were fortunate to have the priest himself tell us about the faith.  I chose a wide-angle lens and high ISO sensitivity setting to capture this image of the priest in the temple’s ornate sanctuary.  Buy this image

Our next destination, Hoi An, is a charming town adorned with tens of thousands of brightly colored lanterns, giving it a festive appearance year-round.  Hoi An is also the gateway to the remarkable Champa Kingdom ruins at My Son.

Hoi An’s traditional central marketplace is a photographer’s candy store, filled with wonderful portrait subjects.  I shot this image of a food vendor using natural light only: she was busy and couldn’t be bothered to pose, so it was important to have the camera set up in advance with a high ISO and a fast shutter speed.  Buy this image

Traditional fishing practices on the Thu Bon River, just outside of Hoi An.  During post-processing, I increased the image’s vibrance a little bit to help saturate the colors.  Buy this image

At My Son Sanctuary, site of the most significant ruins from the Champa Kingdom, we attended a performance of ancient Cham dance.  To capture this image of the lovely dancers, I used a fast portrait lens with a wide aperture (small F-stop number) to freeze the motion and help isolate the dancers from the background.  To further emphasize the dancers and to saturate the colors in their costumes, I added just a touch of fill-in flash.  Buy this image

Heading further south, we next flew from Hoi An to Nha Trang.  The many rivers and rural villages in the area afforded us the opportunity to experience village life and even to visit a floating fishing village.

Visiting Dien Phu Kindergarten outside Nha Trang gave us a chance to learn about Vietnam’s education system.  Here the kids greet us as we arrive.  Buy this image

We had a fascinating discussion with the chief of Xom Gio Village, a former South Vietnamese soldier and survivor of the re-education camps who managed to work his way up to a high-level position after the war.  The key to making portraits that truly capture the spirit of the subject is to get to know them first, have your camera all set up in advance, take your time, and shoot plenty of images.  I used a fast portrait lens with a wide aperture to blur the background and emphasize the subject.  Buy this image

Our next stop was Dalat, a mountain retreat popular since French colonial times as a respite from the tropical heat found in most of Vietnam.  Our stay in Dalat was extremely memorable thanks to a visit with university students, a home-hosted dinner with a local family, tours of the region’s thriving agricultural industry, and a side trip to a mountainous village that is home to the Kho Chil ethnic minority.

We spent a lovely afternoon with students from Dalat University. I had the opportunity to get to know English teacher Trung and his bright young students Nhi , Diễm, and Giang.  For this photo we were joined by my wife and several other students.  Buy this image

Visiting the village chief’s home in Buon Chuoi Village. His wife, in her eighties, still passes most days by weaving while smoking her pipe.  Buy this image

Boys from the Kho Chil hill tribe run after our tractor (a “Vietnamese limousine”) as we descend from Buon Chuoi Village.  A fast shutter speed and jaunty camera angle give this image its frenetic and playful appeal.  Buy this image

In the courtyard of the Linh Phuoc Pagoda outside of Dalat, Lady Buddha observes this young woman checking her text messages.  When I saw this special juxtaposition lining up, I moved into a favorable position to capture it and waited for the perfect moment.  Buy this image

Our final destination in Vietnam before flying to Cambodia was the largest city and financial hub of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).  A chaotic metropolis of 13 million people, Ho Chi Minh City is thoroughly modern yet holds remnants of a colonial past.  It is also the location of many of the iconic photographs taken during the Vietnam War.

Saigon’s splendid Central Post Office.  Good interior photographs should have a symmetry and leading lines that direct the viewer’s eye around the image.  I used a wide-angle lens to compose this image, shot parallel to the ground so as not to introduce too much distortion.  Buy this image

The food was uniformly delicious throughout Vietnam, from the most elegant French-Vietnamese fusion restaurants to the lowliest pho shops.  The simple but perfect pho we enjoyed in this small shop in Saigon was the best I’ve ever tasted.  To photograph food, get in close and compose so as to include some contrasting elements of colors and shapes.  Buy this image

Very interesting learning about the wartime experiences of these three former Viet Cong fighters.  They lived for years in the subterranean Cu Chi Tunnels, which they considered much safer than being exposed to US bombing and infantry attacks above ground.  Our travel companion Don, pictured with them here, is a Vietnam War veteran. It was very moving to witness his experience meeting these former enemy fighters.  Buy this image

Leaving Ho Chi Minh City behind, we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Travelers come to Cambodia primarily to see the justifiably famous Angkor temple complexes, but there is so much more to this beautiful country.  We were fortunate to have time also to explore the rural villages in the region and to get to know some of the people there.

In a small village outside of Siem Reap, an elder greets us.  This portrait is a favorite of mine because of the beauty and personality of the subject, but it’s also successful because the background is clean and uncluttered.  Always pay attention to your backgrounds, especially when shooting people and wildlife, as unwanted background elements can distract from the power of the image.  Buy this image

Visiting the floating village of Mechrey on the huge freshwater Tonle Sap Lake, we got a closeup view of lives lived entirely on the water.  As we floated by this family’s houseboat, I captured this image of their daily life.  Buy this image

At last, we toured the world wonder of Angkor Wat.  I’m always on the lookout for unusual vantage points to shoot iconic monuments, so as to avoid the dreaded “postcard shots”.  Here, I framed the temple complex in the window of an ancient outbuilding across the moat from Angkor Wat.  The compositional elements from front to back include the window frame, the Cambodian people sitting on the wall, the reflection in the water, and the temple itself.  Buy this image

Angkor Wat Temple is by far the most visited of the temple complexes around Angkor, but the others are well worth a trip.  Unlike Angkor Wat, which has been cleared of vegetation and excavated, the nearby Ta Prohm Temple has been left mostly in a state of nature.  A key scene in one of the “Indiana Jones” movies was filmed here.  Buy this image

I arranged a visit to a performance of traditional Cambodian Apsara dance. In the days of Khmer empire, only the king and queen were allowed to see these dances.  When shooting indoor dance performances, I use one of three different fast prime (non-zoom) lenses, opened up to a wide aperture, and a high ISO sensitivity setting.  This ensures a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action even in the low light conditions of an indoor venue, since flash is almost never allowed during live performances.  Buy this image

In Siem Reap we learned about the traditional art of folding flowers to present at the Buddhist Ang Chorm Shrine.  The young daughter of the flower stall owner demonstrates with these flowers she folded herself.  Buy this image

Have you visited Vietnam or Cambodia?  Please share your fondest (and least fond) memories here, along with your thoughts about how to capture the region’s vibrant diverse scenes in images.

Want to read more posts about travel photography destinations?  Find them all here: Posts on Destinations.

 

Focus on Vietnam and Cambodia: One of the friendliest and most beautiful regions in the world, offering surprises at every turn

A monk pauses to reflect outside Angkor Wat.  After asking his permission, I positioned myself at his level and captured the portrait using a narrow aperture (high F-stop number) so as to keep the temple in focus in the background.  Buy this image

My wife and I recently returned from an amazing 3.5-week adventure traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia.  Operated by Overseas Adventure Travel, the trip’s diverse itinerary took us from the bustling capital of Hanoi to the glorious mountains jutting skyward from Halong Bay, then to the former imperial capital of Hue and the quaint festival city of Hoi An, on to the mountain retreat of Dalat and to modern Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and finally to the indescribable temple complexes at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  While it was wonderful to view the region’s gorgeous landscapes and fabled monuments, what made this adventure truly unforgettable for us was its many opportunities to interact with Vietnamese and Cambodian people from all walks of life: a Buddhist nun, an older couple whose homes were confiscated by the Communist Party, a former South Vietnamese soldier who survived the re-education camps and rose to become major of his village, eager students at Dalat’s rapidly growing university, former Viet Cong fighters, and ethnic minority hill tribes rarely contacted by outsiders.  Vietnam and Cambodia are a photographer’s dream, filled with magnificent scenery and friendly, diverse cultures.

In today’s post we will take a look at some of my favorite images from this adventure.  I’ll include some brief discussion about who or what is included in each image and, where appropriate, a few words about how each image was made.

Our north-to-south adventure began in the capital and second largest city, Hanoi.  Hanoi strikes a lovely balance between bustling modernity and soulful history.  Steeped in French Colonial architecture, the city has an old-world charm, and the busy streets are shared by countless commuters on motor scooters and vendors selling their wares from the backs of their bicycles.

 

 

 

 

A Hanoi street scene.  The city’s cyclo-rickshaws are a great way to photograph local people because you are shooting from eye level and from a relatively stealthy vantage point.  Have the camera set up in advance with a fast shutter speed and a narrow aperture so as not to miss any good shots.  Good street photography requires capturing just the right moment when the people and the places come together in a meaningful way, such as these young people enjoying a meal in front of the advertisement promising such a lifestyle.  Buy this image

Phan Tranh Liem is one of the few remaining practitioners of the 1000-year-old Vietnamese tradition of water puppetry. He makes his own puppets, creates the shows, and performs them with his wife in their home in Hanoi.  To make an environmental portrait like this one, back up a bit to include the elements of the subject’s life in addition to the subject themselves.  Here I used a fast normal prime lens at a high ISO sensitivity setting and a touch of off-camera flash.  Buy this image

The village of Tho Ha is 20 miles north of Hanoi but worlds different culturally. We visited the home of a family who make rice paper, the main occupation in the village. Spring rolls are extremely popular throughout Vietnam, so there is high demand for rice paper.  Here, travel companion Mary C. tries her hand at the local craft.  Buy this image

Lion dancers perform for the Hanoi crowds in the days leading up to the harvest moon.  Handheld photography of fast-moving action after dark is challenging due to the need for a fast shutter speed in low-light conditions.  Don’t be afraid to crank up your camera’s sensitivity (ISO) setting.  You can reduce most of the resulting noise using software later.  Buy this image

Leaving behind the urban bustle of Hanoi, we drove to the shore of UNESCO World Heritage Site Halong Bay, where we boarded a traditional wooden junk for an overnight cruise.  Halong Bay boasts some of the most dramatic landscapes anywhere in the world, with more than 1600 jagged mountains jutting straight up out of its emerald waters.  This is a travel photographer’s dream location.

Don’t forget to include yourself in some of your images.  To make this portrait of my wife and me, I set up the camera in advance and then asked a fellow traveler to compose and shoot the image.  Buy this image

Glorious as Halong Bay’s mountainous scenery appears on its own, to make a great landscape image there should be other elements in the frame, too.  Here I waited for a traditional fishing boat to sail across the frame, using a deep depth-of-field (high F-stop number) to allow the whole scene from foreground to background to be rendered in sharp focus.  Buy this image

I hired the captain of our junk to take out the skiff at 5 AM in order to photograph sunrise on Halong Bay.  Any photograph is only as good as the light striking the camera’s sensor, and the light is nearly always best near sunrise and sunset, so sometimes it’s necessary to forego a good night’s sleep in order to capture that “golden hour” light.  Buy this image

En route to the Hanoi Airport for our flight to Hue, we stopped to say hello to several farmers harvesting rice by hand.  Careful attention to composition can make or break a wide-angle portrait like this one.  I found a vantage point that lined up the two farmers and included some of the beautiful green hues of the rice harvest.  Buy this image

We then flew to Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam.  This was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty during a period of great cultural and economic flourishing.  The food, architecture, and performing arts in Hue are unique and very appealing.

Hue’s landmark Thien Mu Pagoda is best photographed from the banks of the Perfume River.  Whenever shooting tall architectural subjects using a wide-angle lens, pay careful attention to the vertical lines, as lens distortion can cause the subject to appear to be leaning.  Buy this image

We had a lovely visit with a Buddhist nun at the convent of the Dieu Thanh Pagoda in Hue. It was fascinating to learn about her life in the convent and her decision process to give up worldly life as a young teen.  This is the sort of meaningful encounter that would be nearly impossible to set up if one were traveling on one’s own.  After obtaining her permission, I made this portrait using natural light only (no flash) and a fast prime portrait lens.  To capture really great portraits, it’s important to spend some time first getting to know your subject and putting them at ease.  Buy this image

En route from Hue to Hoi An, we visited a Cao Dai temple. Cao Dai is a rapidly growing religion in Southeast Asia that integrates teachings from many other world religions.  We were fortunate to have the priest himself tell us about the faith.  I chose a wide-angle lens and high ISO sensitivity setting to capture this image of the priest in the temple’s ornate sanctuary.  Buy this image

Our next destination, Hoi An, is a charming town adorned with tens of thousands of brightly colored lanterns, giving it a festive appearance year-round.  Hoi An is also the gateway to the remarkable Champa Kingdom ruins at My Son.

Hoi An’s traditional central marketplace is a photographer’s candy store, filled with wonderful portrait subjects.  I shot this image of a food vendor using natural light only: she was busy and couldn’t be bothered to pose, so it was important to have the camera set up in advance with a high ISO and a fast shutter speed.  Buy this image

Traditional fishing practices on the Thu Bon River, just outside of Hoi An.  During post-processing, I increased the image’s vibrance a little bit to help saturate the colors.  Buy this image

At My Son Sanctuary, site of the most significant ruins from the Champa Kingdom, we attended a performance of ancient Cham dance.  To capture this image of the lovely dancers, I used a fast portrait lens with a wide aperture (small F-stop number) to freeze the motion and help isolate the dancers from the background.  To further emphasize the dancers and to saturate the colors in their costumes, I added just a touch of fill-in flash.  Buy this image

Heading further south, we next flew from Hoi An to Nha Trang.  The many rivers and rural villages in the area afforded us the opportunity to experience village life and even to visit a floating fishing village.

Visiting Dien Phu Kindergarten outside Nha Trang gave us a chance to learn about Vietnam’s education system.  Here the kids greet us as we arrive.  Buy this image

We had a fascinating discussion with the chief of Xom Gio Village, a former South Vietnamese soldier and survivor of the re-education camps who managed to work his way up to a high-level position after the war.  The key to making portraits that truly capture the spirit of the subject is to get to know them first, have your camera all set up in advance, take your time, and shoot plenty of images.  I used a fast portrait lens with a wide aperture to blur the background and emphasize the subject.  Buy this image

Our next stop was Dalat, a mountain retreat popular since French colonial times as a respite from the tropical heat found in most of Vietnam.  Our stay in Dalat was extremely memorable thanks to a visit with university students, a home-hosted dinner with a local family, tours of the region’s thriving agricultural industry, and a side trip to a mountainous village that is home to the Kho Chil ethnic minority.

We spent a lovely afternoon with students from Dalat University. I had the opportunity to get to know English teacher Trung and his bright young students Nhi , Diễm, and Giang.  For this photo we were joined by my wife and several other students.  Buy this image

Visiting the village chief’s home in Buon Chuoi Village. His wife, in her eighties, still passes most days by weaving while smoking her pipe.  Buy this image

Boys from the Kho Chil hill tribe run after our tractor (a “Vietnamese limousine”) as we descend from Buon Chuoi Village.  A fast shutter speed and jaunty camera angle give this image its frenetic and playful appeal.  Buy this image

In the courtyard of the Linh Phuoc Pagoda outside of Dalat, Lady Buddha observes this young woman checking her text messages.  When I saw this special juxtaposition lining up, I moved into a favorable position to capture it and waited for the perfect moment.  Buy this image

Our final destination in Vietnam before flying to Cambodia was the largest city and financial hub of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).  A chaotic metropolis of 13 million people, Ho Chi Minh City is thoroughly modern yet holds remnants of a colonial past.  It is also the location of many of the iconic photographs taken during the Vietnam War.

Saigon’s splendid Central Post Office.  Good interior photographs should have a symmetry and leading lines that direct the viewer’s eye around the image.  I used a wide-angle lens to compose this image, shot parallel to the ground so as not to introduce too much distortion.  Buy this image

The food was uniformly delicious throughout Vietnam, from the most elegant French-Vietnamese fusion restaurants to the lowliest pho shops.  The simple but perfect pho we enjoyed in this small shop in Saigon was the best I’ve ever tasted.  To photograph food, get in close and compose so as to include some contrasting elements of colors and shapes.  Buy this image

Very interesting learning about the wartime experiences of these three former Viet Cong fighters.  They lived for years in the subterranean Cu Chi Tunnels, which they considered much safer than being exposed to US bombing and infantry attacks above ground.  Our travel companion Don, pictured with them here, is a Vietnam War veteran. It was very moving to witness his experience meeting these former enemy fighters.  Buy this image

Leaving Ho Chi Minh City behind, we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Travelers come to Cambodia primarily to see the justifiably famous Angkor temple complexes, but there is so much more to this beautiful country.  We were fortunate to have time also to explore the rural villages in the region and to get to know some of the people there.

In a small village outside of Siem Reap, an elder greets us.  This portrait is a favorite of mine because of the beauty and personality of the subject, but it’s also successful because the background is clean and uncluttered.  Always pay attention to your backgrounds, especially when shooting people and wildlife, as unwanted background elements can distract from the power of the image.  Buy this image

Visiting the floating village of Mechrey on the huge freshwater Tonle Sap Lake, we got a closeup view of lives lived entirely on the water.  As we floated by this family’s houseboat, I captured this image of their daily life.  Buy this image

At last, we toured the world wonder of Angkor Wat.  I’m always on the lookout for unusual vantage points to shoot iconic monuments, so as to avoid the dreaded “postcard shots”.  Here, I framed the temple complex in the window of an ancient outbuilding across the moat from Angkor Wat.  The compositional elements from front to back include the window frame, the Cambodian people sitting on the wall, the reflection in the water, and the temple itself.  Buy this image

Angkor Wat Temple is by far the most visited of the temple complexes around Angkor, but the others are well worth a trip.  Unlike Angkor Wat, which has been cleared of vegetation and excavated, the nearby Ta Prohm Temple has been left mostly in a state of nature.  A key scene in one of the “Indiana Jones” movies was filmed here.  Buy this image

I arranged a visit to a performance of traditional Cambodian Apsara dance. In the days of Khmer empire, only the king and queen were allowed to see these dances.  When shooting indoor dance performances, I use one of three different fast prime (non-zoom) lenses, opened up to a wide aperture, and a high ISO sensitivity setting.  This ensures a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action even in the low light conditions of an indoor venue, since flash is almost never allowed during live performances.  Buy this image

In Siem Reap we learned about the traditional art of folding flowers to present at the Buddhist Ang Chorm Shrine.  The young daughter of the flower stall owner demonstrates with these flowers she folded herself.  Buy this image

Have you visited Vietnam or Cambodia?  Please share your fondest (and least fond) memories here, along with your thoughts about how to capture the region’s vibrant diverse scenes in images.

Want to read more posts about travel photography destinations?  Find them all here: Posts on Destinations.