Alone In Hanoi
There are many benefits of traveling with family and friends. But as a photographer, it is hard to have your cake and eat it too. When I am around friends and family, I am spread thin. With my camera in hand, I don't have the ability to fully concentrate on my loved ones. Likewise, my photography turns into garbage when I have companions an arm's length away.
I make it a point to get away for a few days by myself each and every year. Traveling alone, I can more readily reflect on my photography craft and portrait business in Tokyo. I get the chance to work on manageable photographic goals. I daydream. I stroll at my own pace and take the necessary steps to learn about a place in ways that are conducive to me. I force myself to take deeper breaths. I recharge. I make photos.
Last year I chose to head back to one of my favorite spots in Vietnam. If you enjoy good food and a great night's sleep as much as I do, then you will likely fall in love with Hanoi. The Vietnamese capital is one of the best spots in Asia for street, travel and editorial photography. With colonial architecture, textured walls and intriguing characters, Hanoi basically begs to be photographed.
Even though the rain continuously fell, I was intent on hitting the streets with the small amount of photo gear I brought with me. After several days of shooting, I had a memory card full of images and a deeper appreciation for Hanoi. Without a schedule, I also had the time to jot down my thoughts about travel photography. With these four tips, anyone will be ready for some solitary time clicking the shutter all over Vietnam's capital.
Travel Photography Tips for Hanoi
Sadly, many travelers completely fail to ever gain a sense of place. Place is much more than the tourist hotspots and historical monuments kept pristine for maximum appeal. Place is what remains when the layers of tourism are stripped away. Place is larger than the guidebook recommendations. Place is the essence of a location.
Why spend your little vacation time and thousands of dollars to head to a new locations only to never actuallysee it? I like to think of this in terms of the "all inclusive" phenomenon. Lets say you head to Mexico. Upon arrival, you say hello to the man holding the sign with your name. You hop on a bus with other tourists and get to your palace hotel next to the ocean. And there you stay until you get back on the hotel's shuttle service to the airport. Have you ever actually seen Mexico? No, you haven't.
I am not saying that plopping down on foreign shores for a little rest and relaxation is a bad thing. What I am saying is that you will never truly get a sense of place by resting on your laurels or by running around a place trying to capture it all in a day. The key to gaining a sense of place is observation.
Open your eyes and see your surroundings. Be aimless in your observations. The construction worker molding steel gives as much insight into a location as the dancer in traditional dress or an ancient monument.
2) Be Patient
In a recent article I wrote for Manfrotto, I detailed my vision of a perfect day. For me, the speed of the day directly relates to how much I enjoy it. I like to take it slow, real slow. For me, a creeping pace doesn't just make for a more relaxing time. A slow demeanor also positively influences my photography.
I get it. It is 2016 and everybody has places to go, money to make, people to meet and babies to kiss. But, not on vacation (or a travel assignment for that matter). As a travel photographer, a quick pace is anything but desirable. What's the freaking rush? You are traveling and your purpose is to relax and learn. Running around a foreign city spraying everyone and everything in continuous shooting mode will not yield the work you desire nor will it make you a better photographer. Instead, relax. Have a cup of Vietnamese coffee. Sit down for a chat. Walk slowly.
Before you know it, a scenes will catch your eye. That spot could be a bridge, crosswalk, statue or ice cream vendor. As a photographer, you already know what will make a great photograph. Perhaps the conditions are not quite right. There might be a missing an human element in the frame or perhaps the light is still a bit flat. Instead of shrugging your shoulders and making a snapshot, be patient. Don't just grab and go.
Patience is an attitude, a disposition. When you find a scene or a potential frame, have patience and trust that the universe will conspire to gift you the shot you envision.
3) Drop the Gear
Most photographers (from hobbyists to professionals) have a lot of gear, too much gear. Worse, we have trouble leaving the gear at home. We would rather pay extra luggage charges, take up carry on space and break our backs that to leave a single nicknack behind.
I imagine that every photographer has an inner dialogue when packing their bag for a trip. Have you ever caught yourself thinking, "What if I need this thingamajig for scenario x?" How about, "I should probably also take my 24-105 as well as my 24-70." I know that I used to hem and haw over each lens, each filter as a pack for a trip. But, not anymore.
Sure, having a specialized piece of equipment is great. However, these special pieces of gear are usually designed for very particular situations and have precise purposes that don't fit a wide variety of situations or conditions. You know the ones. That tilt shift lens you sometimes use and that fisheye you got last Christmas. You need to ask yourself what the likelihood is of that particular situation occurring on your trip. How much are you actually going to use each piece of gear you pack?
One of my photographic goals for my trip to Hanoi was to bring only a small amount of gear. Thankfully, I achieved my goal and used every piece of equipment that I packed. We have to remember that it isn't the gear that makes photographs, it is the photographer.
4) Shoot Portraits
My real start as a portrait photographer was on a trip to northern India. It was on that three month adventure that I really understood that a location is defined by those who call it home. Locals define locale. It might already make sense to you. At the time, the ideal was revolutionary to me as a traveler and as a photographer. With that realization, my focus shifted from taking pictures of places to making photographs of people.
Now, I spend most of my time as a travel photographer shooting portraits. If people define the place, I would be doing a disservice by not taking portraits. There are characters everywhere you go and with a keen eye and a little background knowledge, it is easy to spot the personalities that will give your audience a sense of place.
I liken making a portrait to making a friend. The more authentic you are as a person, the more genuine and trusting your subject will be. Spend the time to get to know your subjects and your portraits will be better for it.
Hanoi's Old Quarter
If you are you a photographer planning a trip to Hanoi, the easiest place to rest and get your bearings is Hanoi's Old Quarter. These city blocks are a light version of Vietnam and will help first time visitors tip-toe into the city. With plenty of tourist friendly accommodation, food and nightlife, the heritage streets of the Old Quarter will spark a deeper interest in Vietnam and will provide a great spot for your travel photography.
Do you have a favorite place in Vietnam (or anywhere else) for solo travel or another tip for travel photography? I would love to hear about it!