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Contact Sheet #16

Close up action shot of Vietnamese farmer near Hoi An

Contact Sheet #16

Last weekend was yet another 3-day photography workshop around Hoi An. The timing was perfect (if you don't think about the rain we had!) as it matched the time of the peanuts harvest. After a superb morning witness some crazy fishing activity South of Hoi An, we headed into the fields to meet the farmers working in the peanut fields.

This contact sheet is talking about dealing with the light available, deciding what story you are trying to tell, and anticipating your subject's actions.

Starting wide, capturing the story

As soon as we arrived in the peanut fields we got very excited about the amount of activity we found. There were groups of 2 to 3 people working in different fields, which allows us to spread around. As we had quite an advanced group of photographers we were already working on trying to tell better stories by including more elements into our frame. Enough with the “one subject thing”, we were trying to shoot wider to include more things into our frames, thus telling more interesting stories and creating more interesting compositions.

I was using the 23mm on my Fuji Xt-2, which is equivalent to 35mm. This way I could capture more of the actions. And this is just what I started doing.

peanut field farmer


The sun was shining and giving us this golden glow. It was an ideal light to shoot wide as we could get our subjects and sky correctly exposed. The sky was offering some nice cloudy textures and our subjects were dynamic, sorting the peanuts out. I started by filling my frame with the action that was happening before us, thus creating some leading lines going through the diagonal of the image (from one subject to the other).

This was ok but surely was something I already shot in the past. I needed to find something else to do. I tried a few different options, moving around my subjects and waiting for them to move.


Things were just not working out for me: the composition was all right but nothing amazing was coming out of that; I either couldn’t capture the right “moment” nor create a very original composition, as things were pretty simple (2 people working in a field).

On top of that, some big grey clouds showed up behind us and covered the late afternoon sun, giving us a less interesting light. Time to go home? Surely not…

Dealing with the flat light

There are several ways to deal with a flat light, as I discussed already in this article. The problem with the flat light is the high contrast it creates between the sky and the ground, meaning our subjects are getting too dark or our sky is getting too bright. And what’s the easiest way to deal with this? Get rid of the sky.

I also switched my lens, from the 23mm to the 35mm (equivalent 50mm). Being less wide would make it easier for me to remove unwanted elements of the background and any piece of sky. I would also play with a shallower depth of field given that particular lens can open really wide.

But wait a minute!

I was just talking about trying to shoot wide to capture more interesting stories, including more layers and elements. And now I am doing the opposite?

Well, being able to shoot wide and capture as many elements as possible works well when the light is right. In our case, we had just lost the nice late afternoon light and couldn’t possibly have everything into the frame, correctly exposed. Also, I am not allowed to shoot any silhouette in the coming weeks as Drew Hopper is about to arrive in Hoi An and I know he will give me a very hard time for having shot that many silhouettes in the last year or so… Yes, I am very much under pressure!

On top of that, all the previous images I took with the 23mm lens didn’t excite me much. The idea was there, trying to fill my frame with all my elements, but these elements lacked of dynamism, originality and lacked the decisive moment! The action was quite slow, with everyone doing the same things over and over again.


After changing┬ámy lens, of course, I had no idea what to do. I sat with Mr. Thanh, the cowboy hat farmer, and starting to chat about this year’s harvest. Apparently, the lack of rain made the peanut plants dry up and they had to hurry to harvest them all before they turned too dry. It’s incredible the stuff you learn in the fields.

Mr. Thanh was sorting out peanuts, removing them from the plant and throwing them on the floor. I took a few frames of that action, still trying to create a more interesting composition by not only including his hands but also his face as a foreground, giving more depth to the image.


See that ugly white bag in the background? Yes I know, it’s terrible and I didn’t even see it when I took the shot. Hum hum… What a teacher!

Anyway, that didn’t work, too simple, too boring, done way too many times before. Plus the fact that the light was getting flatter and flatter, if I didn’t manage to capture some very dynamic action, a real “moment”, how could I make my image dynamic?

So I turned back to the woman who was working with Mr. Thanh and was getting very busy throwing peanuts into a basket to remove the dust from it.


Surely that was a more dynamic subject, and I knew I had to keep working on her. But I also knew that with the available light I needed to get even closer, removing the sky, and focusing on the “moment”.

Getting close and isolating elements

I still managed to get a nice texture in the clouds, which were becoming darker and darker (offering us a lovely 24 hours of rain the next day!) so I thought about trying to keep them in the frame. My subject would, of course, be a little dark, but that would be an easy fix in Lightroom.


Hummmm the pleasures of using fast lenses, creating this creamy bokeh! I know that this isn’t the best way to tell stories and make photographs more interesting. But this is a great way to isolate a subject, bringing all the viewer’s attention on that particular action, moment, you are trying to capture. I knew I was getting on the right track, and it was now only about waiting for the right moment, focusing on the right spot and getting the shot.



Waiting for the moment

That was the only thing left to do. I was happy with the composition, but there was a serious lack of the “wow” element (also called decisive moment, but I like the wow moment more). And this is how it went. All this happened in 13 seconds:


“Oh nice, I really like the hands and the dust, I need to capture more of that. How about placing her on the right side of the frame to leave a nice empty space on the left to show her hands, using the simple clouds as a background?”

“Oh my! Look at that hand in the background, the shape of the fingers, the dynamism of the movement, etc… Now I need that sharp, let’s see if I still have the manual focus skills I used to!”

close up action shot of Vietnamese farmer



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

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