Hitchhiking Vietnam
travel tips
Taking Photos

Good equipment is important, but the best camera in the world won't take great pictures for you. Only you can do that.

Here are a few things to think about when you're taking photos.
Fill Flash
Unusual Lighting
Low light
The Cute Factor
Depth of Field
Shock Value
Daily Life


  • Grab shots - you see an image, snap your camera into position, focus and shoot in one fluid motion. This is an essential skill with children, Sunday markets, processions - almost anything but scenics and inanimate objects. About 90% of my photos were grab shots (even some of the scenics - I was sometimes hanging out of the window of a bus). The key to grab shots is to be prepared - have you hands in position on the camera and don't hesitate. Auto focus comes in extremely handy here.

  • Don't take shots you know are lousy. This also seems obvious (most of this stuff probably does) but I've heard plenty of people say "oh, this won't turn out but I'll take it anyway just for the memory). Then it becomes another gray shot that probably won't make it into an album and even if it does, nobody looks at it.

  • On the other hand, if you find a scene with lots of potential, go for broke. Take lots of pictures from lots of angles. You may only get two or three really perfect ones out of an entire roll but they will be photos you want to hang on your wall.

  • The camera can as easily be a barrier to experience as it can be a recorder of magic memories. Don't hide behind your camera or ultimately your photos won't mean anything to you.

  • If I want to photograph a particular person (especially an elderly person) I sit and chat with them for a while first. Then I ask permission to take their photo (and often take their address to send them copies). Not only is this the polite thing to do, it is much more likely to get you a smiling portrait.

  • Take risks - try low light shots, night shots, deliberately blurred shots. If you don't try it now, when will you do it?

  • Stolen cameras don't take good pictures. Safeguard your camera. If I'm in a flophouse or some other unsecured area, I sleep curled up around my cameras - with the straps wrapped around my wrist.

  • Lousy light (fog, mist, rain) can make great photos.

  • Find an easy and comfortable way to carry your camera. I sewed special snaps onto my backpack so I could hang the camera from my pack (but still within easy reach). If it's uncomfortable to take along, chances are it will stay behind.

  • What kinds of photos you take will be largely dependent on your goals. If you wish to eventually publish, consider carefully your target publication. Study the kinds of photos they accept. Particularly if your photographs are going to illustrate a story, make sure you have all of the necessary angles... Set shots - the wide shots that set the scene
    • Close-ups and details.
    • People and faces
    • Mundane moments that illustrate the story (the farmer gathering his sheep, etc.)
    • Stock shots - the marketplace, the pigs in the barn and the rooster on the fence. All those images that are old hat to you but will define the place for someone who hasn't been there.
    • Stunning scenery

  • If you are going to shoot people, try to get avoid having them look directly into the camera. Natural shots go over much better and are much more likely to demonstrate that all -important attribute...

This is the essence of every great photograph. Lots of good photos have color and composition, texture and framing. A few have that almost unique characteristic of having captured a moment when something is happening - eye contact between mother and child, a fisherman's smile as he catches his first glimpse of the tuna at the end of his line... Think out of the box. Turn the camera 90 degrees (publishers love vertical shots because almost no one takes them). Crouch down or climb a tree. Capture a unique point of view. Be creative.

Have fun.

·Nikon 8008s with 35-135 zoom lens.
·SB25 flash
·Five filters
polarizor, ND, skylight, 6 pt. star, red and yellow enhancer
·An amazingly heavy Bogen tripod
·125 rolls of slide film
·5 rolls of print film
·50 AA batteries
(every piece of equipment operated on AAs, including the flashlight)
·Lens cleaning kit
·70 ziplock bags
(to hold used film)
·Pelican case
·lead-lined bags
·camera manuals
·Backup point-and-shoot
·tripod bag
·carrying bag
·silk/drying system

The six point star filter and the lead-lined bags got very little use. The Pelican case was in storage except in transit to and from Vietnam (it was too bulky to take in the backpack). The backup point-and-shoot luckily wasn't needed (the Nikon didn't break down until I got home and sent it to the factory for cleaning). Everything else was worth taking. I came home with 17 rolls of unused film.

I am not a professional cameraperson. What I would take with me is a function of what equipment I'm already comfortable with, the fact that I'll be carrying a large amount of video gear and have limited space and weight left in my pack, and my personal preferences in the types of photos I take (i.e., I love close-ups).

·Nikon 8008s
·35 -135 lens
(because I have it)
·Wide angle lens
·SB25 flash
polarizer, ND, skylight, red/yellow enhancer, tobacco
·A much lighter tripod
·125 rolls of film
·AA batteries
(how many is a function of the length of the trip and the battery life in the camera)
·lens cleaning kit
·40 ziplock bags
(10 bags per month underway)
·carrying bag

I used to carry desiccant to dry out the camera. I have since realized that salt works just as well. If it absorbs a lot of moisture then you can dry it out in an oven. And if you get hungry you can eat it.

I always carry a piece of silk and, if possible, a hair dryer with me when I travel in humid climates. Then I open the camera, cover it with the silk, put it under a chair which I cloak with a blanket (creating an oven-like environment inside). I put the dryer inside (on a low heat setting) and keep one hand under the blanket to make sure the camera doesn't get too hot. The silk protects that camera from dust and dirt. Half an hour will dry almost anything out.

Slides vs. Print film. This depends entirely on your purpose in taking the photos. It used to be that most publications wanted only slides. This is slowly changing - check with whatever publications you have in mind. More importantly, understand that it will be quite expensive to convert slides to prints so there will be a considerable financial barrier to making blowups of all those fantastic shots you took and hanging them on your walls.

Keep your lens clean.

Many experienced photographers take multiple lenses. They certainly come in handy (and are sometimes essential) but keep in mind the following three things:
1) multiple lenses are heavy. You can't take shots with a camera you've left in your hotel.
2) Every time you change your lens you expose the inside of your camera to dust and dirt.
3) Many great shots have been missed because the photographer was busy screwing on just the right lens.

I went to Vietnam with only one lens - a 35-135 zoom. I cannot remember more than a handful of times when I really felt the need for a lens I didn't have, and then I probably wouldn't have had time to put it on my camera. Carrying multiple bodies was out of the question. Most of the time I was hard put to use my camera to its fullest potential.

Manual vs. Automatic camera. This is a difficult decision on a long and rugged trip. A manual camera is harder to operate and slower but is also lighter and less likely to break - and if it does you can still use it (with an external light meter). An automatic (programmable) camera has many useful options (multiple exposure, auto bracketing, etc.) and is much faster to operate. It also breaks down more easily and weighs a ton. In the end I opted for a fully automatic camera (with manual override) and was extremely glad that I did. I could snap off three good grab shots for every one someone else managed to take with a manual camera. Often I managed to get a shot in before my subject saw me and turned away while the manual camera operator was still trying to fine tune his focus. I paid for it with a much heavier and more obvious camera. And I got lucky - mine never broke down.

Small vs. large. Unless taking photos is very important to you, you can buy a small automatic camera that won't break your budget, will deliver fabulous pictures, and will fit into your pocket (and will therefore come along with you wherever you go).

A skylight is absolutely essential. A few filters are useful, especially the workhorses - polarizor and neutral density filters. The others are just toys you play with when you have time.

A tripod can come in very handy for scenics but can be a bear to carry around.

A really good flash can make an enormous difference (see section on tropical light). I used my SB25 for more than half my shots (mostly daylight) to lighten shadows. Fill flash is rapidly becoming a standard part of any photographer's equipment. If you buy a good one then it will do all the light metering for you.

Manuals: Unless you've had your camera for ten years, have rebuilt it twice and wrote the original specs, take the manual along. I didn't, and I regretted it. And if it's a new camera, read the manual before you're on the plane. I didn't...

If you're going on a long trip and photography is important to you, don't take a new camera you're not comfortable with. Sounds obvious, right? I bought my Nikon two months before I left for Vietnam. I was quite sure I would take many rolls of practice film before I left. Somehow errands, preparations, language study got in the way. Camerawork kept getting bumped down the list. In the end there I was, reading the manual on the plane.

Keeping your camera equipment dry is going to be one of your greatest concerns. See the survival tip on drying out gear.

Any time between 9 AMand 3 PM (approx.) the tropical light will take on a leaden glare that will make all of your photos contrasty and flat. Usually I concentrate my photography on the golden moments just after the sun rises and before it sets, and use the rest of the time to scout sites or travel. Film left in a hot place will deteriorate.

If you must take shots during the midday glare, use a fill flash to soften shadows. This is particularly important in countries where the people wear large overhanging hats. Filters help too. Always bring a dry bag or some other way to keep your camera dry and out of the dust.

If you must have your camera repaired in a third world country, do it in a reputable place. Then check the innards to make sure they are the same as the ones the camera had when you handed it in.

Cameras and passports are the two hottest items for theft.

Check expiration dates on film before buying. Try to see if they have been stored in a cool, dry place.

Huge cameras are a sign of huge wealth. Be discreet.