Hey streettogs, thanks for staying tuned in for the “Saigon Diary” series.
For the sake of getting sleep and having higher quality posts, I’ve decided not to keep a daily diary– but to update every 2-3 days (depending on how interesting my days are).
Some people are asking me why I’m showing bad photos in these series. So to clarify, I am trying to make this process of taking photos in Saigon as transparent as possible. So I am purposefully putting out bad photos, critiquing my own work, and sharing some of my thought process. My hope is that this is helpful to you!
So the last few days in Vietnam have been quite awesome. I haven’t made any good photos yet, but being in Saigon has been a good chance for me to learn more Vietnamese and try awesome food. I just enrolled in an intensive 40-hour course (in which I study 4 hours a day) and one of my goals is to become decent at conversational Vietnamese by the end of the summer.
Let me start this post with some more good food:
Note to self: the Fujifilm x100s in macro mode is the ultimate food photography camera.
Anyways moving on, warning: the next photo might make you sick (it is photos of a dead rat).
Stuff on the ground:
About 2 years I worked on a project that I called “Stuff on the ground.” It literally was a bunch of random photos I took at similar angles of stuff on the ground. Here are some photos from the project (I never published):
Photograph of dead rat:
When I was walking down the street, I saw a potential photo of a dead rat on the ground. Here is the first shot I took:
The good thing about taking photos of dead things is that they don’t move. So I had all the time in the world to photograph this dead rat– with a better composition.
Around frame #7 I took out the leaf away from the rat, because I thought it took away from the minimalism of the scene. Call it “altering the scene” — but I don’t mind taking out leaves from photos.
I took a bunch of shots, rotating my cameras with different compositions and frames:
My favorite shot of the rat is this one below:
I used a flash in the shot, which causes the rat to pop out a bit more from the background, and it also adds more contrast. I also quite like the orange leaves around the dead rat– which look quite elegant. But of course, the dead rat is quite gruesome. So I like the juxtaposition between the ‘death’ and ‘beauty’ of the shot.
In terms of composition, I have been trying to incoporate the “golden triangle” which I learned from Adam Marelli. The concept is connecting a diagonal with two reciprocal lines (that intersect it at a perpendicular angle). The “golden triangle” originates from the “golden ratio.”
If you use Lightroom 5, you can access the “golden triangle” by accessing the “Develop” mode (hotkey is “D”) and then going into the crop mode (hotkey is “R”) and then changing the overlay (hotkey is “O”). If you want to change the orientation of the overlay, you can press “Shift+O”:
If you press “O” a bunch of times, you can change the overlay. Here is the fibonacci spiral over the image:
So when I was shooting the photo of the rat, I didn’t see the red spiral of the fibonacci spiral in my viewfinder. But I am quite conscious about keeping the “golden triangle” in my mind while shooting:
Also here is where you can see the fibonacci spiral and the golden triangle overlap:
An overlap of my rat photo again, fits it quite well:
So you might be wondering: Eric, you can’t just expect to put all these red spirals on your photos after you’ve taken them.
For me, I didn’t see the fibonacci spiral in my head when shooting this photo, but followed the “golden triangle” instead. And after taking the image, I noticed that the fibonacci spiral fit the photo well, which confirms to me that the composition is well-framed and balanced. But just because the composition and framing is good– doesn’t make it a good photograph.
But for me, I still like the image because of the emotional content of the photograph— the disgusting visceral feel you look at when you see the image. It is a photograph that makes me uncomfortable– and I think striking that emotional chord for myself is a good indicator that it is an interesting photograph.
However the question I need to ask myself is: what does this photo of a dead rat have to do with Vietnam? Possibly nothing at all– but I’ll just hold onto the image for now, and see if it will fit into my final edit of Vietnam. If not, I can just add it to my on-going “stuff on the ground” series.
Reunification palace photo:
Another day Cindy and I were walking by the reunification palace. I saw a woman with a red umbrella, and the colors immediately popped out to me. I loved the red umbrella against the green grass, and the blue sky. Here is the contact sheet of the entire series:
I will analyze the photos more in-depth below:
When I first saw the scene, I took a photo quickly by gut:
The first photo I took doesn’t work, because the frame in the far left is a bit too messy in my opinion. The second shot below is far stronger:
This shot is now much stronger because there are good leading lines from the gate leading to the woman with the red umbrella:
When I was taking the photograph, I was semi-aware of the leading line. But not 100% sure how it would turn out. Afterwards looking at the shot now, I can see some more leading lines leading your eyes to the woman in the red umbrella:
In the next shot, a man runs into the photograph. I take 3 shots quickly:
Out of these three shots, the first one of the man with the legs split in a “V works the best. But I don’t know if a man running in the shot adds any interesting context to the image.
I take another with just the woman in the shot:
I like the simplicity and minimalism of the photograph, with the red flags prominent in the background, and you can slightly see the yellow star in the red flag in the middle of the frame. The frame is a bit empty on the bottom of the frame, and it is a bit too simple. But I like the minimalism of the photograph.
I also get another photo of a guy whizzing past in a motorbike. To me, the motorbike doesn’t add– but just distracts from the photograph.
I take another of just the woman by herself. But now the flag in the middle of the frame is down, and you can’t see the yellow flag. This one is a ditch:
Another by herself, flag is still down. Ditch.
She starts walking away– and I click.
Walks away more:
About to exit the frame, this is my last shot:
Looking at all the shots I took of the scene, the two favorites of mine is outlined:
The first shot I like the leading lines, and how the vietnamese flag is fully-extended (you can see the red flag and the yellow star). What I find is a bit distracting is the crooked horizon.
But then again, I kind of like the crooked horizon– it makes it more ‘edgy’ in my opinion. It reminds me of a photograph by Garry Winogrand (with his famous “Winogrand tilt”):
The second shot is nice for the minimalism of the photograph. The little green bar on the far left is a bit distracting. I like how the woman is now faced more towards the Vietnamese flag, but the flash isn’t as fully extended as the prior shot.
If I could choose a favorite shot between the both, I would choose the prior image– because of the compositional strength of the leading lines and the extended flag in the shot.
The image isn’t particularly a ‘deep’ photograph– but I do like the colors and the elegance of the image. It also reminds me of another umbrella photo I took in Seoul in around 2009 (when I liked ‘pretty’ Henri Cartier-Bresson photos):
Funny how themes or subjects in your work can repeat over the years.
Today, I saw an old man with an old army hat in front of a modern advertisement for a cell-phone app. I thought to myself, this might make an interesting juxtaposition shot. So I got close to the subject, shot it as a vertical (not to get any clutter in the shot), and used the “EVF” (electronic viewfinder) in the Fujifilm x100s to get the framing more accurate. This is because the OVF (optical viewfinder) isn’t as accurate in terms of the framelines.
One tip I learned to get better compositions and frames is not to look a the center of the frame while you’re shooting, but to look and focus at the edges of your frame while you’re shooting. This helps you get cleaner backgrounds, and more focus on your subject in the center of the frame.
Of course you can always crop the images, but I think building a rigorous discipline of not cropping your shots but to frame the photo correctly “in-camera” is the best way to learn.
I think it is ultimately okay to crop, but I don’t recommend cropping more than 5-10% of a shot. Anything more than that can make you a bit lazy in the long run (you will always tell yourself, “Oh I can crop the shot later”). This is just a personal guideline, not a rule.
Here is the full contact sheet of the scene:
The first 5 photos I take are with the same composition and frame. I try to fill the frame with the cell phone advertisement, and get the man’s head in the bottom of the frame. I take different photos, as he starts moving his head up and down:
Out of these 5 shots, I probably prefer the photo below– as you can see a little of his face, but it still isn’t a great photo:
I then take a step back (to get his arm in the shot) and take around 10 photos — at different moments while he’s moving around and changing his body gestures.
He first looks up at me, hand on his mouth, and arms stretched out. Interesting expression, but the far left of the frame is a bit distracting.
He then starts to ignore me, and looks away. I kind of like the shot in the sense that it looks more candid. I get a few of him like this:
He then turns to the other side, which changes the movement of the image:
Then he starts to get up— and then I take the last shot, and move on.
Out of the shots,I probably prefer the last photo– as it is more engaged. His body language is a little more active, and I like how I got both of his hands in the shot– I can feel the tension in the shot.
For me I like the image in the sense that you can see the juxtaposition between the “old Saigon” (old man wearing what looks like a war helmet from the Vietnam War) and the “new Saigon” (of the woman in the iPhone 5S advertisement).
One thing I’m trying to do is take more “unique” photos of Saigon. Which means, I don’t just want photos of people riding around in motorbikes around the city. But how can I take a “unique” photo of Saigon?
I think when people see photos of Saigon or Vietnam– they only see photos of rice patty farmers, Vietnamese hats, and poor people on the streets. What I hopefully want to show is more of the “rich” Saigon– the part of Saigon that a lot of foreigners don’t know about. The Gucci stores, the BMW’s, the Rolls-Royce’s, iPhone/iPad culture, etc.
A photograph of the construction happening in the downtown, and rapid economic development:
The last contact sheet I am going to show you is in front of a Versace store in Downtown Saigon:
I was walking in Downtown with Cindy (in the fancy and rich area) and I see this uber-fancy Versace store. I then see a guy washing/cleaning the store from outside. I immediately thought about the juxtaposition between the wealth and the poor– and started to take photos from different angles:
One of the earlier photos (#3) I tried to get leading lines of the Versace logo and the man in the background cleaning. But it was a little hard to see what was going on, this photo doesn’t work:
By frame #8, I moved around and got a better angle:
I far prefer this image, as it is clearer to see the man wiping the walls, and the Versace mannequins on the far right looking at the man, and also the advertisement on the far left looking over too. But it bothers me that I didn’t get the full “VERSACE” sign on the top right corner.
I do take another photo framed more to the right (getting the full “VERSACE” logo):
However I prefer the shot I took before this one, as I like having the advertisement of the woman in the far left in the frame.
Towards frame #16, I took another step further to the left, and get even a cleaner frame (with the woman int he advertisement in the far left, the man wiping the wall, and the full “VERSACE” logo on the far right:
I also get another photo of another man stepping into the frame, which adds more depth and layers to the photo– but doesn’t add any context or meaning to the shot:
Out of all the shots I took of the scene, I probably prefer the photo below, as I like the advertisement of the woman in the full frame on the left, and the man wiping the walls, and how you can see the full “VERSACE” logo on the far right. To me the shot has some sort of statement of Vietnamese society: the “have’s” versus the “have not’s”.
As a general point I’d like to mention: When you see a potential good photograph, don’t just take one photograph. Work the scene, and take a lot of photographs.
One of the mistakes I made early on in street photography was to only take one photograph of a scene. I did this because either I got nervous, or worried of pissing someone off. But if you see a good potential street photograph, you will only see it once in your life. Don’t live life with regrets, so work the scene.
Thank you guys for following this on-going “Saigon Diaries” series. You can see prior entries below:
- Saigon Diary #1: First Day in Vietnam
- Saigon Diary #2: Learning Vietnamese, Seeing Common Threads, and Triangles
- Saigon Diary #3: Motorbikes, Vietnamese Coffee, and Night Shooting
Which one of these photos in this article do you think is the best? Which should I keep and ditch? Share your thoughts in the comments below!