Smoke and Prayers - worshipper at Ba Thien Hau Pagoda, District 5, HCMC Vietnam, 2020. Fuji X-H1, Godox TTL fill flash, 16-55 @ F2.8, 16mm, ISO 400, 1/420th.
I recently arrived back from my annual, end of year holidays. I travelled most of the journey with my wife, but also spent part of the time alone in Cambodia. I ended up in three countries and had a wonderful time exploring with my cameras. I have been travelling now for over 14 years photographing parts of this wonderful planet. I have been to Cambodia 13 times and countless times to other parts of Asia. I think after slowly honing my skills and my equipment this was the first time in my life where I returned not being frustrated with some part of my gear or wanting to change anything. Consequently, I missed a lot less opportunities because of being very familiar with my equipment, having the two best lenses on the planet (for me), and the new X-H1’s with the IBIS just lifted my photography to the next level. This all combined to make this trip unforgettable.
For this blog I want to concentrate less on the cameras and gear (though I will touch on it briefly for those who may be interested) – most of my other blogs have always be gear centric. However, this time I really noticed the grace and kindness of people, allowing me to photograph them in their natural environment and different cultures. I am so blessed to be able to do this often and I was humbled by some of my experiences. This time I will talk more about the actual act of photographing people, and the hilarious, sad, irreverent and holy sights that one witnesses along the way.
Golden Girl - street market, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2020. Fuji X-H1 & XF 90 @F2, ISO 400, 1/120th.
Where did I go?
My wife had been pestering me all year to go to China. She had spent the last six months muttering away in the lounge room every night learning Chinese (or so she told me). I reluctantly went, because even though I really had no interest in China, my wife graciously goes where I want to most years so it was my turn. We spent about a week in the old city of Lijiang, and then about four nights in the ancient city of Shangri La. I had just experienced a week straight of over 40deg Celsius in the Western Australian desert town where I abide. You can imagine the shock I got on the first morning in Shiangri La, when I awoke to thick snow and -15°. We really loved China - the people were awesome, the place was spotlessly clean, and everything ran like clockwork. This is the antithesis to most of the rest of Asia. I read recently where Steve McCurry said that China is the easiest place in the world to take photos – methinks he is correct!
My wife is Vietnamese so we spend a lot of time there. Vietnam is lovely and the people beautiful but it is absolute chaos there! The motorbikes rule the road, the footpath, they run red lights, drive up the wrong way. I never saw one traffic infringement the whole time in China. I also had many different types of photographic opportunities in China that were different from the rest of Asia. Mainly the snow shots, the way people dressed, the bikes and vehicles they drove and the way they reacted to my cameras.
The 'Holy Thief' - Catholic Church, streets of Quy, Nhon, Vietnam, 2020. Fuji X-H1 & XF 16-55 @ 2.8, 16mm, ISO 800, 1/100th.
As mentioned, I do live in a Western country, and it has almost become impossible to point your camera at random folk in the street (in spite what people tell you, it is not illegal to do so). I came back from this almost 6 week trip with nearly 15K images. If I had taken that many photos here in Australia I would probably have been arrested by now, beaten up or had my camera wrecked. I took a photo on the street here in my hometown just at the end of last year (2019) - the maniac I pointed my camera at objected, so he thought he had every right to grab my beautiful X-H1 and 16-55 and try to wrench it from me. I held on for my dear life as he tried to twist, break and smash my camera. I’ve had experiences like this here before and have just about given up doing street stuff around home. In traveling Asia for nearly 15 years now, having taken hundreds of thousands of images, I’ve only ever had one bad experience for that whole time. It was in Vietnam years ago, and my wife explained to me after it happened that gambling is illegal there. I tried to photograph a bunch of guys playing a gambling board game on the road. They picked up rocks and chased me out of there quick smart. Now that I’ve been enlightened I never point my camera at them.
Don’t even mention taking photos in the West around children. I’ve had security called on me many times, just because I happened to be festooned in cameras, near some place where kids were - people thought I was a menace (I never point my camera at kids in the West). It is the total opposite in Asia. If folk see me anywhere around kids, they ‘wheel’ them out for me to photograph. I’m a teacher so I’m very at home working around kids. In the nearly 15K images I took on this trip I never had anybody objecting to me photographing near or around children/families. There were only a handful of other times where folk just put up their hand if they did not wish to be photographed - of course I always respect that. I think you can see now why I love so much to photograph in Asia.
Holy Consternation - me distracting little girls at church service, Quy Nhan, Vietnam, 2020. Fuji X-H1 & XF 16-55 @ 2.8, 55mm, ISO 800, 1/60th.
The holy the mad and the serendipitous
It became very obvious to me on this trip the rare insights that one gleans into humanity, when intimately photographing people in their own space. I absolutely love the photo I took of the guy ‘running off' with Mary – from the scene in the manger. He almost looks like a ‘Holy’ thief! I was struck by the incongruity of it all – the Holy scene being disrupted, the church clerk scampering off when he saw me with the camera. The Divine and the mundane meeting somewhere in that church yard in Vietnam. The young Monk descaling Buddha with household detergent – as I happened along. I couldn’t believe my good fortune and that serendipitous moment has now been captured forever.
Midst the clamour and stench of the fish market I caught the lady staring into her makeup mirror giving herself a ‘touch up’, and totally oblivious to the incongruity of the whole grubby scene. I could go on but suffice to say these are just snippets of numerous examples of humanity just getting on with things as best they can. This is the part of photography I really love the most. People ask me why I have zero interest in sunsets or scenery or landscapes. It is humanity that truly intrigues me and I am so blessed to be able to not only witness these special moments, but record them so they can be shared and recalled at will.
The other amazing thing too is that not only are there serendipities that one can stumble upon, but often there are also other surprises awaiting when one checks out the images on the computer. I took the photo of the little girls smiling at me during the church service. I grabbed a quick shot but it wasn’t until later I discovered the nun scowling at me. This turned a normal mundane photo into something very special. My wife asked me to take a photo of her sitting at the table of an old historic house in LiJiang in China. It wasn’t until I got home and looked, I saw the man staring down at her with the magnifying glass – again, a mundane image turned into something special.
I am truly grateful to all the wonderful, gracious and kind folk who allowed me to capture them in their personal space – often in not very flattering poses or circumstances. If all of these gracious folk had shooed me away (my wife said she would if somebody poked a camera in her face) – I certainly would not have the beautiful collection of images that I now posses, to forever remind me of this wonderful journey that I have just completed.
Don't tell my wife she's in here, I'll be in trouble! Ancient City, Lijiang, China, 2019. Fuji X-H1 & XF 16-55 @ 2.8, 16mm, ISO 800, 1/80th.
Man I really love this part. My gear totally rocked this time and the few changes that I made, really made a difference. I’ve photographed the last couple of years with my marvellous 16-55 and 90mm lenses. They are so embedded in my M.O. that not even a crowbar would prise them off my cameras. However, swapping over before I left for the two X-H’1s was a totally magic move. The bigger grips, the faster handling, and the IBIS, all helped to put me in the zone and keep me there. I shoot a lot in dim places, temples, markets and dark streets. It was very obvious on this trip that I had so many more keepers because of being able to shoot in lower light and use lower ISO settings. As I don’t even own a tripod this is a really big deal. The 90mm lens was always hard to use on my X-T2, I had to try and keep the shutter speed up around the 250th sec but this was not always possible. Except for people movement, I can now shoot way down to 1/15th sec now with the IBIS. This really is a game changer.
I made a few other changes to settings and things that also made a big difference. Up until this trip I have always shot in ‘matrix‘ metering, or whatever the Fuji equivalent is. I used it on all of my Nikon cameras and it seemed to work satisfactorily. However, when it came to post processing lots of my shots always seemed to have blown out highlights. The last few years I started to try and use the minus compensation on overly bright images. This helped a bit but was always a pain. For this trip I shot everything on the average metering (the one with a pair of square brackets). This was totally transforming. Hardly any of my shots had blown out highlights, and I never had to use the + or -. After starting to post process some of my images I can clearly see that they are metered more perfectly for the scene. Of course the marvellous sensor in the H-1’s can easily handle the rest of the differences between shadows and highlights (if they are a little on the dark side).
De-scaling Buddha! - Wat Bo, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2020. Fuji X'H1 & XF 16-55 @ 2.8, 22mm, ISO 800, 1/105th.
I also started experimenting a bit with ‘zone’ focus. Man – it was really fantastic. Up until recently I always used the small ‘single’ focus, but of course I had to frenetically move it around the frame using the D pad. Sometimes I would be a bit slow and miss the focus. This time I used the smallest ‘zone’ focus and had some really good results. Of course the area it covers is much bigger than the ‘single’ zone, so one does not have to move it around too much. I thought I would get a lot of out of focus shots because it may latch onto the wrong area to focus on – but not so. I had very few images that were not perfectly in focus. However there is one big proviso – do not use it with the 90mm at F2. There is such a slim area of focus or depth of field at this focal length, that ‘zone’ is not precise enough. If I pointed it at a face it may focus on the chin or forehead, but the eyes would be slightly out. I found I could only use the 90mm with the ‘single’ focus mode. However, the ‘zone’ was fantastic on the 16-55. I mainly always shoot that at the wider end, and even at 2.8 there is enough depth of field in whatever focus point is chosen, for things to be perfectly sharp. What I mean is if I point it at a face, no matter what part of the face it latches onto, the whole face will be in focus. All of these things were small changes, but they all allowed me to work a bit faster, a bit smarter and helped me to achieve the results that I was after.
Another change I made was to always have my little TTL Godox flash attached to the H1 with my 16-55 on it. I did not use it often but sometimes there were scenes where I was shooting into strong backlight and there was no way the camera could handle that dynamic range. I would flip on the little flash and voila. Some of my favourite photos from this trip would not exist if it were not for the flash. The photo of the guy sweeping the snow, the girl in the temples with the smoking Buddha sticks around her and some of my images from the dark Siem Reap market were only possible because of daylight balanced fill flash.
I also did not bother taking a backup hard drive. I just bought some extra cards and used the double slots in the H-1’s. This allowed me – after the two cards were full – to ferret one away in my camera bag and the other in a different hiding place. This gave peace of mind, because if I were ever robbed or lost a bag, I had another disk backed up somewhere else and I did not have to carry around a heavy hard drive.
Endurance - little girl getting hair ties, Dali, China, 2020. Fuji X-H1 & XF 16-55 @2.8, Godox fill flash, 21mm, ISO 400, 1/250th
However, I believe the best change of all that that I made was swapping over to Capture One. I did this about six months ago because the Lightroom CC I was using, had ground down to a snail’s pace on my 27” iMac. It was a total disaster to use and very frustrating. However, it caused me much angst to even think about changing programs. I had used LR for years and had hundreds of profiles saved away that I would go through when post processing. Anyway, I was forced to make the change and it was the best thing I ever did. Capture one works reasonably fast now on my fairly old computer. However, the difference this time was in the post processing of all of my images from the trip and how quickly I was able to get the look I wanted. In LR, the look of all of my images seemed to vary so much that I almost had to individually tweak or change each image.
Though I did not really have any styles for C1, I used some of the default ones that came with the programme and over a period of a few months I developed some of my own. Once I came to process the images from this trip I just went through my own ‘styles’ and found one that suited about 95% of all these shots. This was fantastic. I was able to attach that look to the images as I downloaded them and then all I had to do was slightly tweak each shot before uploading and using them. I also find that C1 is magic when it comes to the default settings for clarity, sharpening, saturation. With LR I had to fiddle so much with sharpening and clarity because some of the images looked terrible. I find for nearly all of the images the default settings on C1 are absolutely brilliant - especially those for sharpening, clarity, dynamic range and saturation settings. I found the settings were too critical on LR for the X files, but C1 is much more gentle and refined. If an image needs a slight tweak from my standard ‘style’, it is so easy to get it correct in no time.
Smoke Signals - homeless vagrant, streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2020. Fuji X-H1 & XF 16-55 @ 2.8, 27mm, ISO 800, 1/75th.
Go where others dare not go
My closing thoughts would be to challenge each of you to be daring and get off the beaten path. Steve McCurry alluded to this and it is also exactly what I do (get lost)! Especially in Vietnam – I leave my motorbike stored with my wife’s parents – each time we go there I head off into the mayhem and literally get lost. I just keep driving and stopping. As soon as I see a factory, place of work, market, farm business or people doing anything, I stop my motorbike, festoon myself with cameras, and start poking around. It is just the best feeling in the world. I purposely never take a guide or ‘fixer’. I’ve tried this and it’s a waste of time for me. The fixer can speak their language and can often get told that you are not allowed in, or it will cost you this and that.
Ignorance in bliss, so being a visitor (and obviously so because I’m a ‘White Man’), I am tolerated because it’s too difficult to have a discussion or conversation. I am never rude though or assume anything. I certainly do not want to offend or be precocious. I usually point to my cameras, smile and wave, and over 90% of the time I am allowed to enter and poke around and take my images. The photos here of the charcoal factory were taken by this M.O. I was just driving around ‘lost’, I saw and heard the factories operating. I stopped my bike, got all of my gear ready and just entered smiling and being friendly. There is always a bit of a fuss at the beginning but people always get used to you, and after a while you are free to click away.
Carbon Man - Charcoal factory, Ben Tre, Mekong Delta, Vietnam, 2020. Fuji X-H1 & XF 16-55 @ 2.8, 38mm, ISO 800, 1/125th.
I have travelled so much over the years now and I always avoid tourist destinations or on the beaten track. I always take off and get ‘lost’ – and these are the times that the real magic will happen for you. I always carry my google map (smart phone), and a card from the hotel or wherever, so if I am truly lost, I can easily find my way back. In Siem Reap, Westerners are not allowed to hire a motorbike (so that the tourist trade can benefit the local Tuk Tuk drivers). I just hired an ebike and was still able to head off by myself and find the magic sights. I even spent a day up at the Temples of Angkor, but I was still able to keep away from the thousands of tourists, get off the beaten track and find those magic moments.
Even if you can’t travel to these foreign climes, still get away by yourself. Wander around and get lost. Be a bit cheeky and poke your nose in where you would not normally go. The worst that can happen is that you may get a ‘no’ and you can just move on to the next destination. I challenge you for this year to get outside your comfort zone and start finding those ‘magic’ shots.
Snow Man - Streets of LiJiang, China, 2019. Fuji X-H1, Godox TTL Fill Flash, XF 16-55 @ F4, 16mm, ISO 400, 1/500th.