Published on July 1st, 20132
Re-learning Photography in Hoi Anh
Indeed. Back in the days of f.i.l.m. and all-manual cameras I was arguably quite the crack photographer (running an int’l tour company with requisite slide shows and brochures rather does that to you). Shoot, I even once ran my own photography tour to Costa Rica – hiring a true pro photographer of course to handle the technicals – while I happily grabbed my Benbo tripod and escorted the group of 12 amateur Galen Rowells through beaches, jungles and cloud forests.
Ah yes, I knew my f-stops and ISOs like the back of my hand. But that was then…
In time of course, digital became the norm, and I slowly (at first reluctantly, nay kicking and screaming) slipped into pixelated line and… swiftly embraced the marvels of auto focus, 12x optical zoom, and the immediate gratification of point ‘n shoots. No more bundles of Velvia film canisters to hand-carry through airport x-ray machines, nor gobs of dough spent on film and processing – YAY!
Oh yes, I missed my beloved Pentax LX with its (then one-of-a-kind) sweet depth-of-field preview button – not to mention, the beauty of an actual VIEWFINDER! But by the time I solo backpacked across South Africa and Mozambique in 2004 – it was with a digital point ‘n shoot alone.
(which… actually, didn’t do a half bad job of capturing this amazing dawn stumble upon a pride of lions munching a freshly-killed wildebeest):
Still… I never really got over my angst with the exasperating glare off a sunshiny LCD screen not to mention the separation anxiety from not having an all-manual mode to play with. Thus when the opportunity to trade one of my spare digital point and shoot cameras with a chum who was frustrated w/ all the bells and whistles on the Olympus E40 DSLR his local camera shop had talked him into – the result was a win-win for both of us. Now he had a simple, yet powerful little travel camera, and I finally had my hands on a camera that I could manually fiddle with from here to kingdom come.
Nonetheless, in the intervening (near dozen) years of my previous romp with tiny PnS’s, I’d become a good bit photog-lazy. After lugging the E40 all the way here to Asia, I found myself reluctant to drag it obtrusively out amid the clamor of Saigon streets, the sweltering heat at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and rickety buses in rural Laos. I’d grown too spoiled with my bitty (and excellent) little Panasonic Lumix ZS3.
But determined to change my wayward photog ways, I sucked it up and spared precious space in my backpack for the E40 and a tripod when I headed to Mongolia last summer, figuring… If ever there was a wide-freeking-open, amazing-landscapes country that deserved a REAL camera, that was surely it. But sadly, at the last moment I (wisely, as it turned out) opted to lock up the E40 at my hostel in Ulaanbaatar as the month I spent in the Gobi and riding/trekking from ger to ger in the Altai mountains was simply too physically arduous to cope with a heavy/bulky DSLR and tripod.
So… when I opted for a quick dash to nearby Hoi Anh last May I decided enough was quite enough. It was time to get serious and learn to use the DSLR already. It does indeed have a dizzying array of perplexing bells ‘n modes ‘n whistles, but I was determined to finally give it a go, get back to my manual photog roots, and learn how to use the silly thing.
And happily, in my research of things to do in Hoi An (said to be very photogenic, touted as the “Land of a Thousand Lanterns”) I unearthed a most perfect match for my new re-learn photography quest: Hoi An Photo Tours – offering both sunset and sunrise photo workshops. At $35 for each 4 hour, small group workshop, the price was most reasonable. But the sunset tour offered entirely different photo ops than the sunrise tour, and on my slim retired pensioner/part-time EFL teach income, I couldn’t afford to take both, so…
I gently asked for a “2 for 1” discount – in exchange for a (totally unbiased, honest) post about my experience of the tours here at TravelnLass. Happily, Etienne the owner of the company (and judging from the magnificent images hanging in his studio – a seriously extraordinary travel portrait photographer) agreed.
So it was settled. I had just 3 full days and 4 nights in Hoi An, so the day after my arrival I headed to the 3pm appointed meetup and found Pieter our photography instructor, along with a most photog diverse crew of 8 fellow travelers from all over the globe. Their cameras ranged from (amazingly) a simple iPhone, to an array of point ‘n shoots, all the way to spiffy DLSRs that made my humble E40 look like a neanderthal from the distant digital past.
Pieter proved to be not only most knowledgeable about the technos of photography, but – more importantly in a photog instructor – extremely approachable with even the most seemingly basic question. Great patience and attention to each and every tour participant. We started with a general intro to basic camera operation (no simple task for our instructor, given the diversity of iPhones to swanky DSLRs) along with tips on composition, exposure, etc. Then it was time to board a small ferry destined for the rural village of Thanh Ha. There, our small group were the only foreigners and the locals seemed especially welcoming and happy to pose for photos.
Indeed, the very BEST tip that I got out of the workshop was how to honestly and politely interact with the locals in order to achieve better travel portraits. No stranger to interacting with the locals most anywhere on the Planet, nonetheless like many, I have long been hesitant to poke my camera in the face of locals that I meet – as I’ve now personally learned how intrusive it feels when the Vietnamese pester ME to pose with them for pictures. Talk about feeling like an inanimate object. ;( But suffice, Peter taught us how to do it so that the interaction is genuinely fun for both photographer and model – not to mention taught me another new Vietnamese word: “dep” which means “beautiful”.
The other highlight of the sunset tour was an excellent lesson in night photography at the finish of the tour. Upon our return from the village, the streets of Hoi An were aglow with colorful lanterns reflecting off the river. But what’s a backpacking shutterbug to do without a tripod? No problem – Pieter gave us lots of simple tips (like setting the timer, and positioning the camera along the edge of a curb to get something like this:
The only downside to this rare mix of rural village and urban night photography, was that it began to rain lightly the moment we arrived in the village. Not so heavily to prevent us from capturing some privileged images of the local villagers, but alas, many of my images on the Sunset tour were marred by telltale raindrops on the lens. ;( Still, I managed to get a few good portraits.
The Sunrise tour on my last morning in Hoi An proved even better than the Sunset tour, with clear skies and completely different photo ops. Granted, a 4:45am meet-up isn’t for sleepyheads, but when it comes to photography, there really is no better time to shoot. For the Sunrise tour we likewise took a ferry – this time to a rural fishing village with tons of excellent photo ops. Again, we were the only foreigners and the locals seemed to enjoy our photog antics. After shooting most every conceivable angle of the captivating morning fishing catch scene, we strolled through the village, had breakfast at a little eatery, and wandered through a small (and not surprisingly pungent) fish sauce factory. But the best part of the second tour were the pre-arranged bicycles that were waiting for us at the edge of the village after the tour. Instead of returning to Hoi An by boat as we had come, we each pedaled leisurely back amid picturesque lanes and paths along the river.
All-in-all, both the Sunset and the Sunrise tours proved excellent in every way (and I’m not saying that just because I received a discount on the two tours). Seriously. I highly recommend either tour and ideally both as they were completely different. In short, even the most beginner shutterbug with a smartphone camera will find these tours great fun. Likewise veteran photographers will learn a ton – and more importantly will enjoy rare photographic access to untouched rural life in Vietnam.
|Note, in addition to the small group Sunset and the Sunrise tours that I took, Hoi An Photo Tours offers a night workshop each month on the full moon (same $35 price, min. 2 pax; max. just 5! – there’s even a listing on their site of the full moon nights throughout the year). Indeed, I may well return to Hoi An one of these months – just for that Full Moon Night Photography workshop alone.|
And now (you just KNEW it was coming) I leave you with a sampling of some of my somewhat successful shots: