Vietnamese cultural sensitivity and portrait mode.
July 12, 2005 8:30 AM   Subscribe

I want to take some photos of locals around Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). I have two questions: One, is there anything I should know about taking pictures of people like this? I want to be as uninvasive and polite as possible, but I don't want to be a big dumb American screaming "HAY GUYS CAN I TAKE YOUR PHOTO?!" and acting like they're animals in a zoo. Two is a technical question about my Canon Powershot A35...

What kinds of things can I fiddle with on my Canon Powershot A35 it to get the best photos of individual people? I saw the post about how DaShiv did his portraits, but I don't have any fancy lenses or anything to work with. I know there's a "portrait" mode, but I have no idea how it really works or what it does differently from the auto mode. What can I do to give my pictures a little extra something without any equipment?
posted by borkingchikapa to Society & Culture (9 answers total)
I would always ask politely before hand before taking anyone's picture in a foreign country (well, and in my own country at that). I haven't been to Vietnam, but in places like Guatemala or Morocco, the locals were usually pretty open to this (especially if you tipped them a bit). If they're not open to it, you'll offend them a lot less by asking rather than just clicking.
posted by Staggering Jack at 8:35 AM on July 12, 2005

In Saigon you can't take a picture ANYWHERE without having five million people in the shot.

Vietnam is one of the most amazing places I have ever seen -- I hope you enjoy your trip immensely. Also, let me know if you need any hotel/tour guide/or other recommendations.
posted by hummus at 8:46 AM on July 12, 2005

Wikipedia has a good entry on street photography, including a section on the general theories about how to interact with subjects.

I've never been to Vietnam but I lived for a time in Thailand and Laos. Obviously, the cultures are alot different, however I would go with the baseline belief that you should show your subjects the minimum amount of respect you would expect in return. Popping out from behind bushes with flash a-poppin' might be a bad idea.

On the second question: is a good place (here's his page on Canons) to start for anything photographic.
posted by docgonzo at 9:05 AM on July 12, 2005

I don't know from Vietnam, but this thread has some good advice. It'd probably be helful even with language and social barriers.
posted by Plutor at 9:06 AM on July 12, 2005

Oh, and rereading your question, the broad answer to auto/portrait setting is that under portrait the camera will attempt to optimise its settings (exposure time, flash, ISO, etc) for a portrait sit'n. This means a faster exposure and larger aperture in order to place the foreground object (i.e. the person) in sharp relief to the fuzzed-out background behind. Each digital camera does this differently; that's the general idea.

If you want more control over your pics, you'll want to shoot with an SLR that allows specific control over apertures, exposure times, flash, ISO, etc. etc etc.
posted by docgonzo at 9:11 AM on July 12, 2005

I'm trying to look up your camera but my google-fu is failing on 'Canon Powershot A35'. I see the Canon A35 F Rangefinder and Canon Powershot A30 Digital but none in your spec. Can you recheck the model or ridicule my poor Google skills?
posted by junesix at 9:26 AM on July 12, 2005

I took a lot of photos in Vietnam and was there quite a while. If I was hoping for a portrait of someone or a few people I would always ask. Sometimes (not often) they said no. Be prepared for those people, particularly street kids, who will ask for money - that's a matter for yourself how you choose to handle it. I took a lot of photos of kids and always got their parents' permission if they were around. I believe it is much easier to take photos in Asia for westerners than it is taking them when we are at home - Asian people in my experience are more interested and affable. I would also get email addresses when possible and forward a jpeg. And people love of course to see the result on the camera screen.
If you look real hard on my profile page you may even find a link to some of my Vietnamese pictures.
posted by peacay at 10:02 AM on July 12, 2005

In taking pictures in Saigon and elsewhere in Vietnam, I never had a problem. If I'm trying to take a picture of someone unobtrusively, I'll often shoot a bunch of pictures from the hip, so it doesn't look like I'm aiming a camera at them. If they just look like interesting people, I'll ask them ahead of time -- catch their eye and hold up your camera with a questioning look. I often would tip them a small amount afterwards (people would often ask for a little something, and I didn't mind doing it since I had SO MUCH FREAKIN' MORE than everyone I met.)

And I'll echo hummus -- when I was trying to take a wide shot of a square or a building, it's sometimes hard to get the street kids, vendors, et cetera out of the shot. (But one of my favorite pictures in Saigon is one I was taking of the Opera House, and there's a vendor in the foreground who has clearly just noticed me and is on his way over to sell me coconut milk.)

It's a great place. Enjoy your trip.
posted by Vidiot at 11:16 AM on July 12, 2005

Photographing people in Vietnam is fun. It IS possible to photograph without
having a million other people in your photograph. Get close to your subjects
and use a wide aperture. This will add intimacy to your portraits. Shooting
from across the street will not yield the same results. Learn a few phrases
in Vietnamese and greet your subjects first. Be polite, make eye contact, smile. Regardless
of the limitations of your camera, you'll get the best results with the best
light: early morning and late afternoon. The light will be very harsh after
early morning, but shooting in the shade with natural light is also possible.
Overcast days are also good. Turn off the flash in your camera. Show your subjects
their photos in the camera display. Pick a good spot and let the photos come
to you. They will. After a while your presence will no longer be interesting
and people will relax. That's when you'll get your best images.[self-link
to some Saigon portraits
posted by ig at 12:25 PM on July 12, 2005

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