Tips on Photographing Strangers while Traveling
Working women in Southeast Asia – in the title – might conjure up mental images of a special brand of hospitality that Thailand is famous for but in the case of this post, it is what will be discussed.
It doesn’t take long, after the travel photographer starts roaming the streets of Vietnam to notice that women are seemingly working a lot harder than men. I never saw a female motorbike driver sleeping on her bike. I could of course be wrong but it seemed that women are doing the most back breaking work in this part of the world.
The following images serve as travel, street and people photography ideas. It is not hard to get inspired and find picture worthy scenes though. Travel photography is mostly a pretty fair deal: the photographer will get as much out of it as he or she is willing to put into it. The more one leaves the hotel room and tourist spots, the more great images will end up on the memory cards.
Women working at a Mekong River floating market in Can Tho, Vietnam
Acting like a tourist and participating on tours is usually against the approach of most travel photographers but if it is the only way to get to a great location, it is warranted. The floating early morning market on the Mekong river was such a photographic location. Strictly thinking in compositional terms, this scene had excellent lines, in the form of the boats, the paddles and the traditional conical hats.
Women working as landscapers in traditional Vietnamese conical hats in Hanoi
Talking about finding excellent geometry! These women were landscaping the well manicured park in front of the popular tourist attraction: the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi. Positioning the lines on the ground symmetrically was the best way to compose this photo. It represents the order and control of communist country – which I happen to know about being born and raised in communist Hungary.
Women doing back breaking work as brickmakers in Ninh Binh, Vietnam
Low vantage point, being close to the subject and the use of wide angle lens was the key for this picture of women working in a brick making business. I have seen a disproportionally larger percentage of back breaking work being carried out by women during my 9 month Southeast Asia travel photography trip.
The diagonal lines are great compositional elements which add drama and visual excitement. The placement of the working woman was according to the Rule of Thirds.
Woman working on ricefield wearing traditional Vietnamese conical hat
Women working on ricefields in the trademark Vietnamese pointy hats is a popular travel photography subject, and for a good reason. When shot correctly, the composition is almost always a minimalist one, without distracting element surrounding the subject, or cluttering the background.
Old rice field worker woman with muddy feet in Ninh Binh, Vietnam
This photo of an old rice field worker shows the invisible part of this backbreaking work: the farmers are actually knee deep in mud.
Women working sorting dry shrimp at roadside – travel photography in Vietnam
Not only a colorful but a somewhat shocking scene are these long strips of shrimp drying on the roadside in Vietnam. The shocking part comes into play when realized that there is nothing between the shrimp and the asphalt. This may look quite unsanitary for westerners but it is just another typical, ordinary facet of life in this country.
Fortunately these women were not phased by me photographing them so I was able to shoot as many frames as I needed.
Just like with any interesting scene – if possible – it was key to shoot the drying shrimp from many angles. Better compositions are often discovered after moving around, level changes, experiments with different focal lengths. With every little adjustment compositions can change dramatically. Usually there is a trade off, something is lost, something is gained.
On the photo below the busy and distracting background was eliminated which made the picture tell a more simple, more straightforward story. But some of that story was also lost by omitting the communal nature of the family working together.
Working woman taking a cigarette break wearing traditional Vietnamese conical hat
While the theme of this post is “working women”, I had to include this lady’s photo, who was taking a cigarette break from work. She was such a great portrait photography subject! The arrival of a western photographer with a big camera is met with many different emotions by locals. It’s not often that the emotion is stoic.
I love the confident eye contact, her body position and the soft light which was courtesy of the open shade underneath a bridge. During the midday hours in the sweltering heat, open shades are the prime street, people and general travel photography locations.
Old woman washing vegetables in the polluted Mekong River in Chau Doc, Vietnam
While tour guides discourage westerners to even bathe in the Mekong River in Vietnam, it was in stark contrast that I saw this old lady washing vegetables in the very same river. Placing her in the lower corner where the Rule of Thirds grids intersect is a sure way to create a balanced composition.
This doesn’t mean the Rule of Thirds is the rule for all photography but especially when quick decisions need to me made – i.e. during street photography – it is a great go-to move.
Vietnamese working woman pulling a cart and wearing face mask in Ha Tien
A quick snapshot of a typical Vietnamese working woman, pulling a cart. The face mask is common in heavily polluted areas. If I had more time to compose this photo I would have included more of the road, which would have added perspective and additional story line.
Young sales girl in a seed and spice shop – Saigon travel photography
It is possible to do street photography even after the morning hours, even in the blinding midday sun. Finding people in open shade – like this young sales girl – is not hard as most people will look for cover. The only issue is that this leaves the travel photographer often out in the sun. Usual hot climate precautions are advised.
The soft light that floods scenes in open shade are great for portraits as well as general street and travel photography.
Woman working at Saigon market selling larvae . street photography in Vietnam
Some markets where the stands are covered with tarp are quite dark but more modern markets with skylights offer optimal lighting. Soft, diffused light allows for photos with saturated colors and shadow-free portraits.
Next picture is a lady working in such a large market, selling herbs and delicious larvae. The best chance for snapping this photo was when she was interacting with a shopper.
Woman working at a roadside lottery ticket stand in Saigon
The numbers on the blackboard drew my attention to this woman at a lottery stand. I wish there was less clutter behind her head but sometime you only have what you are given during street photography.
Bored young woman working at a sweeper shop in Kenh Ga, Vietnam
For locals the village of Kenh Ga is probably not the most exciting place to live and the sight of this young woman selling sweepers perfectly expressed that. In other posts I already expressed my fascination with walls in Vietnam and this picture is no different.
Not having to worry about the background is great relief for travel, street and people photography. There are so many moving parts and quick decisions that have to be executed, that a ready-made studio quality backdrop is a real gift when stumbled upon.
Woman working at colorful dried seafood stand in Saigon Vietnam
Colorful orange dried shrimp and other dried seafood drew me to this market stand. I wish I could have stayed longer to have a better selection of photos, but it was essential to have a customer in the photo. With that said every photography subject has their own tolerance. Last thing I want to do is make people uncomfortable. During my 9 months stay and thousands of photos, that negative emery would’ve added up.
More colorful market stalls photographed in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Fresh, colorful vegetables held onto their vibrant colors under the soft, diffused light courtesy of the skylight of a modern market.
Small slice of life as business owner interacts with customer.
Woman working at roadside family restaurant in Soc Trang, Vietnam
As I was wondering aimlessly the streets of Soc Trang, I came about a typical street food vendor. I love Vietnamese casual fashion, it translates great on photos. After post production of thousands of images taken on this trip, I was not able to convert as many color images to black and white as I expected to.
With few exceptions the colors of Southeast Asia turned into different shades of mid-gray. If I ever return a different approach needs to be taken if I want to take more successful black and white images.
Women working as fruit vendors at roadside in Hanoi, Vietam
Using a telephoto lens, I tried to remain unnoticed but as usual I was spotted almost immediately. I would have liked to experiment with more compositions but Hanoi is a tourist trap and big city so the country-wide kindness of the Vietnamese people is less common here.
Old Flower Hmong woman cooking at a traditional Sunday market in Bac Ha, Vietnam
I got to the traditional flower Hmong Sunday market early to scout the location before the masses arrived. Photographed is an old Hmong woman, getting ready for the first customers and cooking a meal full of unidentifiable organs and meat products.
Smiling Vietnamese woman working as Mekong River tour boat operator in Can Tho
Genuine smiles are everywhere in Vietnam as my Mekong River tour boat operator can attest to it. It is a great country for travel photography and for a rekindled hope in humanity especially in places which are not the hottest spots in travel guides.