This past February, I took my first photo trip to Vietnam. Although I have traveled to over 40 different countries, I always get excited about international travel. As an avid photographer, I agonize for weeks before the trip as to what gear I should take, which lenses to pack, and even which camera bag to use. Should I pack a travel tripod or not? The clothes that I will wear seem to be the last thing on my mind.
I am a Nikon user and have only one camera body, the Nikon Z9. When you only own one of something it sure makes it easy to know what to pack. Since this trip was to be mainly about street photography, I limited my lens selection to three:
- 24-70 mm f4 S
- 85 mm f1.8 S
- 70-200 mm f2.8
My first city location was the beautiful small tourist town of Hoi An. I was meeting a friend for a week before I would venture off on my own to Hanoi. Neither of us spoke Vietnamese. Getting used to Vietnamese currency was also a big step. The amounts seem huge compared to our money. I had some 500,000 VND bills that each work out to around $30 Canadian. I had thought about what bills would be useful for tipping and eventually realized that a $50,000 bill or less is viewed as correct. A 50,000 bill works out to $3.00 Canadian. Everything is in bill form—no coins.
In Hoi An one sees many young people using their phone cameras to create what we might think of as Tic Tok videos or Instagram videos. In truth, I did not see many photographers like me—someone carrying a big camera with a camera bag on their back. We are a dying breed, I think. Phones are much easier to walk with and to use to create video content, and one can post immediately to social networks if one wants to.
One of my photography goals was to create nice portraits of the local people. I think as Canadians we are a shy but polite people. I did not want to secretly snap photos from a distance but to meet my subjects first—to try to have a conversation and push the shutter afterwards. To create a good portrait, you must engage your subject and have a connection. My philosophy in doing this kind of street photography is to be polite and quick. Take a couple of images and move on, thank your subject, and even show them the back of your camera.
Paying people for their picture is not expected but you may wish to buy a product from them if they are selling something. These are hard working people and paying a little for their time is not wrong in any way although I do not think they expect anything in return for a photo. This is where being polite, friendly, and quick come into play. A smile can go a long way. When you look at the portrait later at home you want to have a good memory of that photography experience.
The famous Japanese bridge in Hoi An is where many engagement photos are taken. The locals wear beautiful dresses and bring their own photographers. I met a husband and wife team, both dressed in fancy traditional outfits. Well, that was just a big invitation for me to say hello. Luckily, they did speak English and I found out they were from Thailand and were shooting for their own Instagram page. I asked if it was all right for me also to take some photos. We exchanged Instagram page sites and became instant friends.
At this same bridge, I met a wedding couple walking with their photographers. Once again, I started with a smile and hello to see where that would take me. The groom spoke English, but his bride did not. He and everyone else knew that when you look very fancy and are in a tourist district that people will stop. Everyone has a phone and pictures will be taken. Because I had a large camera around my neck I tried to get more than a snapshot. As we walked and talked, we got to know each other including that I was from Canada. I asked if it would be okay to take some photos. I also was very aware that a couple of professional photographers were working with this couple. I had my camera settings already locked in ahead of time so in just a few seconds I got my images of the man and his bride and moved on. Not inserting yourself into their schedule and keeping out of the way of the pro photographers is important. Like the invisible man, I should be in and out without anyone really knowing I was there. I wished this wedding couple great happiness and continued my search for more photo opportunities.
As you approach photo subjects, you improve your technique by introducing yourself. You become more confident and learn that you should have your dials set to where you want them before you engage in conversation, especially when you do not speak Vietnamese. Taking photos is not new to anyone but fumbling with your camera and settings might get a little awkward for the person on the other side of the lens.
One of my most successful portraits came in Hanoi at an attraction by the Hoan Kiem Lake. You pay to enter a small Temple where there are religious Buddha statues. At this location, there was a man who uses traditional inks and creates artwork of letters and symbols on red paper. These artworks are purchased by the visitors. This man was well dressed and had a fantastic long grey beard. He was currently finishing a Good Health symbol for a young couple. After he had finished I was the only one there and I pointed to my camera and smiled. He stood up and started to create a scene with a new piece of red paper; he held his ink pen and smiled with me. I loved the side lighting from the open door and the lettering on the wall behind him. I wanted to create some quick portraits and gave myself an internal clock of only a couple of minutes to be finished. He did not speak English, but I motioned him to turn slightly towards my side light. I believe he enjoyed having me take his photo; he was a proud and educated man. I stayed within my internal time limit and did not overstay my welcome with him. In reality, perhaps we could have worked for 30 minutes, and he still would have enjoyed my company. I think when you are an artist you feel comfortable and respect other artists. I made a mistake, though; I should have purchased one of his drawings. I returned the next day to show him the finished edited photo on my phone and to get a piece of his artwork drawn but he was not there when I arrived. An opportunity missed and a lesson learned.
You only have one opportunity to make a first impression. Be kind, smile, be gracious, and thank your subject when you are done. I met so many wonderful people on this trip. One will always come home and thinking one could have done more perhaps but sometimes you must just put the camera down and enjoy the reasons why you are traveling. We are only here for a short time so don’t sweat the small stuff.