Friday, February 3, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: Photography Journey -- Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia

We continue David Townsend's photography series this week with a journey to Southeast Asia. David is a professional photographer from Denver, Colorado. A self-taught photographer, David's journey started fifteen years ago when he captured the beauty of nature and landscapes in his home state.  He later became an accomplished portrait photographer and master of the digital darkroom.  Portrait photography eventually led him into photographing weddings, and now he and his wife, Lynn, own David Lynn Photography, a thriving wedding and portrait photography business.  David also teaches his skills to new and aspiring photographers with his Shootshops Photography Workshops. Travel and photography have always remained David’s true passions, and he takes every opportunity to combine these whenever possible.

David’s travels have taken him all over the United States, and to three other continents and fifteen countries: Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Costa Rica, Chile, Argentina, Italy, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.


My wife Lynn and I took a six week journey through Southeast Asia, feasting our eyes on the beauty of each country, taking every opportunity to sample the most amazing culinary tastes in the world. We soaked in the scenery with our senses and let our cameras capture it all. 

These images can be found at ~ world galleries

The wats (temples) in Thailand are abundant, and all of them contain an image of the Buddha in one of many poses.  In this image, monks are gathered in a wat for meditation. 

TIP:  It is always important to learn customs, traditions, and protocol in the country you are visiting.  It would have been very disruptive and disrespectful to walk in to the temple and shoot pictures, so I used a telephoto lens from far outside to capture this image.

These young novice monks were very intrigued by me and my camera, and they were very open to having their picture taken.  After asking them permission, I waited until they had these very thoughtful expressions.

TIP:  When shooting children up close while traveling, start by engaging them first, and then pick up your camera to take pictures.

This image in northern Thailand creates mood through warm sunlight, the mist rising off the river, and the smoke coming from one of the village homes.

TIP:  You can always shoot into the sun, and many times it gives interesting and artistic lens flare.  If the sun is just casting a hazy film over your image, use a lens hood or shade the lens with your hand when shooting.

Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is famous for its markets, and the night market is no exception.  There are loads of amazing crafts, clothes, sculptures and trinkets to stuff in your bag, and there’s always an amazing assortment of food to choose from.

TIP: Night photography is a fun way to liven up your evenings.  Using a tripod, choose a bright light in the scene to focus on, choose a “wide open” aperture (f2.8, f3.5 etc) and set your shutter speed for a variety of long exposures and see what looks the best!  Using your camera’s timer is a great way to prevent shaking the camera when you press the shutter.

Southeast Asia’s landscape is absolutely amazing, but the most beautiful part about the region is the people.  The people of Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia are some of the most friendly in the world, and I am always gravitating toward them as much as I am the landscape.  I chose the warm black and white tones for these images to draw the eye to the expressions and features of the people’s faces without the distraction of color.

TIP:  When travelling, photograph people using a telephoto lens.  It allows you to be non-intrusive, and let’s you get up close and personal without being in their space.

The city of Hanoi, Vietnam has a population of 6 million people, and they boast a population of almost 4 million motorcycles!  The city is a constant flow of motorbikes and cars, and it is one of life’s greatest adventures to try and cross the street.  Intersections are a chaotic pulse of vehicles with no apparent rhyme or reason, and I found myself just in awe of the bustle of this charming city.

TIP:  To capture movement, use shutter speeds to achieve different effects.  Fast shutter speeds will “freeze” action, and slower shutter speeds will create blurred movement.  How much of an effect will depend on the shutter speed and the pace of your moving subject, so experiment with different settings in each shooting situation.

I shot this Asian market scene on a typically foggy day in Sapa, Vietnam in the northern part of the country.  I pre-arranged the composition I wanted, and then waited until just the right subject walked through my image frame.

TIP:  Using creative tools like vertical orientation and an ever so slight tilt of the camera helps to lead the viewer’s eye toward a particular part of the image.

These images of Vietnam, one from Halong Bay and the other from rice fields near Sapa in the north, both capture a sense of place in addition to telling a story.  Halong Bay is an amazing natural wonder of Asia, with a dense collection of monolithic limestone islands that are covered with jungle vegetation. Among them you can find caves, lakes and secluded beaches.  There is also a population of people who call Halong Bay home, as in floating home.   Rice fields are abundant throughout Asia, and women hunkered over working all day are a commonplace sight in these fields.
TIP: Use wide-angle lenses to include important or dramatic elements in your image.  The halong Bay shot has the two people in the boat to tell the story of how people get around in the bay.  The rice fields show the workers small in the image, giving scope and perspective to the scene.

These kids in northern Vietnam were all about playing and being photographed, so I had an easy time playing with them and getting a couple good shots.  I chose to focus on the two laughing boys behind the kid in front, while still maintaining his expression clearly.

TIP:  Use larger aperture values (f9, f11, f16) to achieve greater depth of focus throughout your image.  Smaller aperture values (f2.8, f3.5, f4.5) will yield less depth of focus and beautifully blurred backgrounds. DSLR cameras also have an Autofocus tracking system that tracks a moving subject and keeps them in focus, a really useful tool when photographing action.

Strolling through a gorgeous city park in Hanoi, Vietnam, I was impressed by the amount of people of all ages doing Tai Chi. Until I saw them, it never occurred to me that it was regularly practiced in its region of origin!

TIP:  Use anything in your environment to “frame” your subject making a more engaging image.  Here, I placed the woman right in the empty space of tree branches, forming a perfect natural frame.

Angkor, Cambodia is one of the most amazing ruin sites in the world.  The ruins are from the Khmer Empire, 9th to 15th centuries, and span about 120 sq mi (323 sq km).  I spent three solid days from before sunrise to after sunset wandering through and photographing these amazing structures.

TIPS:  Angkor Wat – I photographed this enormous temple from another ruin site that afforded a breathtaking view of the temple from afar, allowing me to show its massive presence in the jungle

Ta Prohm Temple – This is the most dramatic example of the jungle actually taking over these ancient buildings.  I used a black and white tone in this image to highlight the contrast of the tree and the ruin and lends well to its ancient nature.

Bayon Faces – I used my telephoto zoom lens to crop in on just these three faces to highlight that specific feature in the temple.

Angkor Reflection – I photographed these lotus flowers using the reflection of the temple spires and the rising sun as an added element in this silhouette, being careful to place them right between the spires in the water.

I asked these monks permission to take their photo and they were more than gracious. Always be respectful of persons of religious nature or prominent individuals in a culture or society.  Particularly with children, offer to show them the picture on your camera after shooting it.  It’s an instant icebreaker and (usually) gets your subject more willing to have their photo taken.

TIP:  I used two simple composition techniques here to create an interesting image:  I placed the subjects slightly off center, and I tilted my camera slightly to create a more dynamic angle.

The giant limestone islands of Thailand’s islands always amaze me, and I love finding new ways to photograph them.  This was a great opportunity to shoot one of them with the boat shown for size comparison.

TIP:  When choosing a subject, use a wide angle on whatever lens you have and include another object or element that creates a sense of perspective or scale.

The island of Ko Phi Phi was a particularly rare visit for this trip, as it was one of the islands hit by the tsunami of 2004.  The devastation was massive, and as I photographed the middle of the island from up high, I was acutely aware of what it must have felt like to watch the event unfold.  It made me deeply thankful for all the safe travels I have had in my life.  Lastly, a trip to Southeast Asia’s islands wouldn’t be complete without an incredibly gorgeous sunset.

TIP:  Include a foreground element (like the palm trees) to add an appealing element to your image.  Also, when photographing water around sunrise and sunset, look for reflections of color from the sky.  Try to create unique images of just the colored water, leaving out the actual sunset sky.


  1. David, these are stunning. Thank you thank you for making them available for us to see. The slightly off center and tilted gives a great urban feel to monks who typically are viewed as mountaintop hermits. Love it!

    1. Thanks Rebecca, I was surprised and a little amused by seeing monks for the first time carrying on like any other citizen. They are really interesting people to talk to as well!

  2. Beautiful photos and some really helpful tips. I definitely need a telephoto lens for people. I never feel comfortable photographing strangers. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Yes, it is an invaluable lens, and you will consider the telephoto lens your new best friend! Enjoy!

  3. Once again we are treated to your spectacular photos. Thanks again for sharing more with us and the wonderful tips!

  4. Dave, I have a question. When you're trying to shoot in a place that is extremely humid, how do you stop your lens fogging up?

    1. Hi Alli...yes, humidity is tough on camera equipment. Temperature changes are usually the culprit. Condensation (fogging) will form when warm humid air comes in contact with your cooler camera & lens. You can keep your camera & lens in a plastic bag, then let the camera adjust more to the ambient temperature before taking it out of the bag. The same, but opposite, holds true for cold temperatures. Nikon makes "Nikon Fog Eliminator Cloths" that I haven't personally used, but colleagues of mine have sworn by:

    2. Thanks Dave! I remember tucking my camera close to my body in my down sleeping bag of a night time to when I was mountain climbing but had no idea what to do at the opposite end of the temperature scale. Great advice, thank you!

  5. Such breathtaking photos, David. You really captured the spirit and glory of these places. (Vietnam and Cambodia just made my bucket list, btw.) The pictures of the Angkor ruins, especially the tree roots growing over the temple---and okay, the lotus flowers in the water reflecting the temples and dash of light--just wow.

    The photo that most piqued my technical curiosity though might be the one of the kids looking through the openings of the fence. It looks like a black-and-white shot, but the taller girl...I see a tinge of color on her shirt and on her lips. Is that trick photography? How did you do that?

    As for the rest of your tips, I'll be taking them with me on my next trip. Can't wait to try them out. Er, can I borrow some of your equipment? ;)

    1. Hi Supriya...Thanks so much! I would go back to SE Asia in a heartbeat. I particularly LOVED Vietnam, and I've travelled Thailand twice. Highly recommended! I always shoot in color and do all of my tonal conversions in post processing. That image of the children is custom toned by desaturating the image almost to "zero" so there's still a subtle bit of color in the image. Then I added a slight yellow hue for a warm duotone look. With Photoshop, I also create my own custom presets for these tones to apply them quickly.

      I always have a hard time not bringing ALL my equipment with me on a trip, but generally i have a 24-70mm f2.8, a 70-200mm f2.8 telephoto, and a wide angle fisheye 15mm....and always a tripod! Another great travel lens is the 50mm f1.4, which is inexpensive, lightweight, and allows for shallow depth of focus and dreamy images.

  6. Thanks for sharing more of your travels and amazing photos with us, David! They make me want to get on the next plane to Asia. I'm saving all your tips for my next trip to an interesting place.