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No photos for peanuts! A photo walk in Hoi An.

As our photography tours with Hoi An Photo tour and Pics of Asia have been on pause, we began organizing monthly free photo walks in Hoi An old town and around in 2020. The idea was to keep the spirit of travel photography alive, to keep taking and sharing all things about photography and meeting the Hoi An photo community and to visit the best photo locations in Hoi An. I also wanted to go and visit the farmers of the area, whom I did not often meet for the past 2 years. So last week, Hoi An Photo Walk ventured into the countryside.

In this post, I will describe our fun afternoon in the fields and will give you some really cool photo tips on how you can handle a busy scene when taking photos of people.

Hoi An Photo Walk gets wild

We started running Hoi An Photo Walk a little bit after the beginning of the pandemic. The walks started in the old town, either early morning or late afternoon, to take photos in the best spots in Hoi An old town at the best time of the day, something we normally do on our morning walks or private photo workshops. And Hoi An old town has been magical since all tourists left and remains a wonderful town for all kinds of photographers.

A woman rides a bicycle in the quiet streets of Hoi an old town during the Covid pandemic

 

As summer is coming back, we decided to run this photo walk in the countryside around Hoi An

And so we went to explore the countryside and drove to a location that, if you joined our sunset photo tour, you would know. This is one of my own personal favourite areas to photograph at sunset as it is very close to Hoi An yet very rural and tourist-free. Well… everywhere is tourist-free nowadays!

As usual for Hoi An photo walk, we started in Snapstay cafe where my good friend Ernest welcomed us. You know there is no better way to start a photo adventure than with a good cup of coffee, or two! 

Ernest actually wanted to join us to discover a new area around Hoi An and closed his cafe for the afternoon.

That is dedication for his photography 🙂 

We drove about 15 minutes and stopped in a little drink area along the river. From there we began our walk through the alleyways of the village that I had visited so many times. The group went ahead, led by Jean, in the fields, as I stayed behind catching up with all the people I had not met in about two years, wishing a happy new year, and reassuring people that I had not been back to my country recently, that I stayed in Vietnam! 

We got into the fields pretty early, around 3.30 pm, and the sun was still high. We met a great group of (mostly) ladies taking the peanuts out of the ground. This was a really fantastic photo opportunity, as they were all sitting next to each other. We all said hello, and once again, spent a bit of time answering all the women’s questions about where have I been in the past 2 years. Yes, I am still married, yes I still have 2 kids. The usual!

I’d like to shout a big thanks to Ivy who instantly started chatting and joking with everyone, establishing a great atmosphere through the whole fields. Ivy has been joining Hoi An Photo walk several times in the past and it’s always great fun to have her around. Yes, that’s her here!

How to handle a good photo composition when there is no interesting background?

Here is an image I took as we arrived and I was chatting with all the ladies. As you can see, apart from a dead tree, there is not much we can play with in terms of composition, except of course for our subjects themselves. There is no pretty mountain in the background like I experienced recently in North Vietnam.

As I usually say, when there is nothing in your background when you take a photo of a particular subject, you have to be more creative with your actual composition. And when it’s about people photography, you are going to have to use the people as background and foreground elements. Which makes things a little bit more difficult when all the people in your frame are moving.

Many people, no clear background… How to handle a good composition?

This is basically what went through my head when I started taking photos:

  • “Wow this is brilliant, all these women sitting next to each other, perfectly alinged!”
  • “This electric wire and dead tree don’t inspire me…”
  • “the green peanuts as a background would be very nice… so would the sky!”

As you can see, I did spend more time selecting my background as I arrived. In such cases, when the situation is busy and messy, it is necessary to use the right background if you want to compose clear images of the action happening. I think this image will show you exactly what I mean by “messy backgrounds”.

You can see that all my subjects here are placed in front of a background that has many details, the peanuts, the corn, the plastic tarp, etc… which makes it a little bit more difficult for the viewer to read.

Now look at this other image that I took a minute later:

You can see that this is the same woman, doing the same thing in both images. Yet they are very different. the second image is so much more striking, clear, easy to look at.

Let’s list the things that I have done here to get a better image:

  • Moving to a different angle to place the light behind me
  • Getting low on the ground in order to have the blue sky as a background
  • Getting close to my subjects and filled my frame with them (I wish I had a little more space on the right but there was another photographer there!).
  • Making sure all my subjects were separated from each other
  • Waiting for the action when the woman is dropping the peanuts for a cleaner storytelling line.

These simple steps instantly allowed me to come up with a much cleaner composition

Obviously, I am talking here about shooting a busy scene with many people in my frame. The fact that the ladies were all sitting next to each other, and often moving, allowed me to really work on my compositions, waiting for the best moment when the elements come into place into my frame. This is my favourite type of photography: taking photos of busy scenes involving moving people! Super fun and a great way to learn about photography and compose better!

A travel photographer’s paradise

Anyway, all of this is to tell you that it was a fantastic photo opportunity and we were not going to miss it. We were actually not missing it as we started taking photos. The different scenes were so great. There were some dusty peanuts in the wind, flying peanuts in a cloud of dust type of photos there! Do you understand?

Dust and peanuts! It was a small Mecca for any travel photographer!

In terms of gear, I decided to shoot everything there using my wide-angle lens (the Fujifilm 10-24mm). First, it would allow me to compose using several of the women and create some cool layered images. Second, it was the lens that was on my camera and I was lazy to even think about changing!

This Photo Walk needed a better light

Yes of course! You know the importance of the best light in my photography and the way I teach travel photography. The situation was amazing but the light wasn’t. And you know it only is a combination of the best of the best that creates the best images!

We left the lovely group of ladies (and their cowboy hat bodyguard, more on him later), promising them that we were going to come back with drinks. It was perfect, we had a reason to come back later in a better light, and they would be surely enjoying their drinks after working so many hours in the sun. Win-win! 

After a short walk through the village, and a few photos later, we bought soft drinks (as we know they really like these) at the local shop. Another opportunity for me to catch up with the people there, and answer some questions you couldn’t imagine! Like where did I go for the past 2 years, and do I still have a wife and 2 kids, and things like that… Even though everything slowed down due to Covid, I saw a lot of construction sites in the village. Vietnam is ever-changing, which makes it such a dynamic country.

Later on, Hoi An Photo Walk headed back to meet the peanut farmers again. I don’t think they believed that we were going to come back as they looked so surprised when I handed them the drinks. 

The next 45 minutes were just wonderful. We chatted, joked, had so much fun with the farmers while they were working and we were taking great photos. This is such a great way of doing candid travel photography and having fun doing it while feeling you are doing the right thing with your subjects. And this is what we teach in all our photography tours and workshops, even in our online photo courses!

As the sun was going down and I tried to keep my background clear, I ended up facing the light…

And this is when I realised… that I had to shoot silhouettes!

Oh no! Silouhettes again!

How I got the shot?

I particularly enjoyed this scene, which I took a while to achieve. The idea was working to compose a picture filling my frame with a group of ladies. I found a small group that was angled towards the light (so I could have some flare if I wanted to). What I did is that I started working using the woman on the left as a “static frame”. This is something in your frame that is not moving and that you can already use to create your composition. Then you only need to wait for a few other things to come into place in your frame. 

So this is what I did, and I was hoping the woman on the right was not going to bend over too much to make her butt my biggest subject in this image! 

And then, out of nowhere, our cowboy hat man stood up. He just walked in the middle, stood there and stared at me. I readjusted my frame a little bit to make sure all my subjects were away from each other and took this image. 

Different compositions for different lights

Once again, this was an ideal situation for any photographer wanting to practice and apply different composition techniques to a scene. Because the women were regularly moving (after finishing digging up some peanuts from the ground they moved to the next patch of land) it was possible for us to readjust our compositions, move around and play with different angles of light.

Because yes, I am able to not take silhouette photos only!

As we were leaving, and the groups of farmers dispatched, I switched to my 35mm lens. Jean was having a chat with our 93 years old cowboy hat friend, and I couldn’t NOT take a picture when I saw the light on his face. 

I would not have tried to take a close-up portrait an hour earlier. The light was coming from a higher angle and would have created too many shadows in the dark areas. But now, this light was just calling to be captured on someone’s face!

As he was talking and listening to Jean and me, he was moving his head, angling it in different ways, and having different expressions on his way. This is what I recommend to you highly when taking portraits (and how I teach it in my Creative Portrait photography course). 

I changed my focusing area to tracking and turned on the eye detection

I switched to continuous focus

And I prayed really hard for my Xt2, that is not getting any younger, to be able to follow his movements. 

Most of them were in focus but the very last image I took, which is my favourite composition and moment, is soft. The lens stopped tracking as the man stepped backwards. Yes, I know, I do have an Xt3 at home, which has better autofocus… but at the moment it is still injured and needs more time to rest. 

One last Postcard for the road

We were off, on our way to enjoy a cold beer along the river, when I spotted a woman coming with her bicycle. Several of us who were walking together got into position! As the sun was very low on the horizon, it was CALLING US to take this postcard. I mean, what would you have done seriously? Just sit and watch? We HAD TO take these! 

The group was really excellent, everyone living in Hoi An and being into photography. The vibes were very cool and the light was superb. We took some great action photos of the peanut farmers cleaning the nuts and sorting them out. A big thanks to Ernest again at the Snapstay cafe for welcoming us and joining this very special edition of Hoi An Photo Walk, which turned more like a great photography tour!

By the way, if you pass by Hoi An, there may be a photo walk happening! Check out our Facebook page to find out about the upcoming Pics of Asia photo walks in Hoi An old town or in the countryside.

We ended up with a nice cold beer along the river, enjoying the colours of the sunset. One of the best photo walks we had ever done! And it felt like doing again the things that I love most. 

My photography tours start again next month and I am very excited to go back and meet the great people of Hoi An and central Vietnam.

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Etienne

Founder of Pics of Asia, Etienne is a teacher with a photography habit.

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