In early 2018, a renowned fine art travel photographer David Lazar took up a 10 day challenge – to successfully photograph what many consider to be over-touristed areas of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. David was keen to open up a Southeast Asia photo tour workshop, (to include Vietnam), convinced it still had a lot to offer and was currently being underserved. Not too long ago, the region was in huge demand by photography enthusiasts, but that demand has waned in recent years. The number one reason cited was that they had already “been there, done that.” The number two reason was the perceived general overabundance of tourists, which they thought would severely limit their photo opportunities.
As an experienced professional, David was not the slightest bit deterred by these concerns and was excited to get started. As long as the popularity of certain destinations persists, the demand for new and compelling images from travel and in-flight magazines will persist. A necessary part of the travel photographer’s job description is the ability to capture beautiful and creative images in popular and even over-crowded places. Places like the Taj Mahal or Eifel Tower have been photographed billions of times, and yet the demand remains, especially for something “new”. There is no limit to creativity and possibility, and it should be considered a positive challenge to any photographer worth their salt, not a negative excuse to stay away.
Any good travel or culture photographer will tell you that returning to certain places again and again is an essential aspect to developing their best work. Re-experiencing destinations for which you have an affinity very often becomes more rewarding with each visit. Of course you can get some excellent images on a single trip, but generally speaking your best work will emerge as you dig deeper over time.
For David’s 10-day challenge to prove successful, he knew he would have to answer the two main concerns expressed by amateur photographers above, and that these answers would be most effectively expressed in images.
I chose the Southeast Asia itinerary based on both iconic and promising off-the-beaten path locations within two hours’ reach of the major sites. Then I made a list of tactics and techniques I could use in order to meet the challenge. Of course more than one tactic and/or technique might come into play in any given situation. I hope you enjoy the results from this trip. They will only get better with each return visit!
Table of Contents
Beat the Dawn
To beat the crowds, the sunrise, and/or get a great position.
The village of Damnoan Saduak is riven with waterways and is a very popular tourist destination near Bangkok. When David showed his Thai guide a similar image to the above taken by Art Wolf, she not only said it was “staged like Hollywood”, but that it would be impossible to capture these days. Never one to take “no” for an answer, he set out well before dawn the next morning. Clearly she was not correct. The key in this case as in many, is beating the dawn on the way there, and being first on scene. There are numerous other image opportunities around the waterways as well, where few bother to explore.
At Angkor Wat everyone tries to beat the dawn! So if you are keen on getting lucky with the light for this classic angle over the lotus pond, you have to beat it a little earlier to get prime position for your tripod. Bring coffee and croissants.
Framing with Patience and Precision
A million people might be there but if they are not in your frame, they don’t exist.
Taken from between tables at a crowded bar on the Chao Phraya river, sans tripod. The fireworks show is schedule to return to here on December 31, 2018.
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Ayutthaya is understandably a popular tourist destination. The Buddha head wrapped in Banyan roots was first made famous by Steve McCurry decades ago when the site was not well known outside of Thailand. These days there are always visitors milling and posing and moving on, plus you cannot get any closer to it than from where David kneeled here. This is where patience comes in, even more than framing, as you can shoot wide and have space to crop and clean up any clutter later. In this case the monk was waiting for a small crowd to clear so he could approach the shrine, and David was able to take advantage as he passed.
Large crowds are impossible to avoid during high season in the Angkor Wat area these days, but you wouldn’t know it from this shot! There are numerous heads of tourists taking photos just under the bottom of the frame.
The picturesque town is Laos’s most popular tourist stop, but you wouldn’t know it by this picture. The tourists are simply out of frame. See monk enter, imagine the exit shot, position, and wait. And hope nobody walks into the frame at the worst possible moment!
Go Against the Flow
To be in choice places when others are not. If the crowd normally goes to a particular place at a particular time, find another place! You never know when another unexpected gem might reveal itself.
This village is on the tour bus route, but most tourists don’t arrive until late morning or afternoon. There was a group there when David arrived, but when they went left he went right! And didn’t see any of them for quite some time. Never an issue.
Side Note: Don’t listen to those who insult Kayan woman by calling them “human zoo animals”. It’s not only flat out rude, it’s ridiculous. The Kayan (commonly and somewhat pejoratively called “Padaung”) are refugees from Myanmar that have been in Thailand for decades. While it’s true many have been put together with other poor hill tribes to form cooperative villages to reap the rewards of tourism, (why shouldn’t they?), it’s NOT true they have done so against their will. It’s not an ideal situation due to Thai government restrictions on many of the Hill Tribes, and they do not receive much from entry fees. But they choose to stay because it’s better than a subsistence living deep in the mountains or the rough conditions of a border refugee camp. These are working villages where the people live, raise their kids, and make and sell their wares.
David had a wonderful time interacting with the various tribal peoples this day, and especially with the charming Kayan. And that’s the key – when you go don’t go as a gawker. Respect, engage and enjoy.
Khmer pilgrims receiving a water blessing, very near the crowded Bayon.
Just a few minutes’ walk from ancient ruins, going against the tourist flow…
While the crowds (actually fairly light in Laos) enjoy the town and the usual tourist fare, welcoming, rarely visited tribal villages are not far away.
Events – Blending Crowds with Shooting Techniques
Use your camera to creatively take advantage of the crowd with motion blur, zoom blast, panning, and depth of field.
Veering east and away from the “challenge” for this category, David decided to employ motion blur to blend the crowd and add an element of movement. He used a tripod at a slow shutter speed to blur moving people. For most slow shutter shots with people, you want at least one person who is still and stands out sharply. In this case with people milling more than walking, David wanted to use a longer shutter speed of 5 seconds to give enough time to create motion blur. At f/14 the lady meditating in orange as well as the pagoda would be acceptably sharp, and an ISO of 125 kept the light to the sensor in check, with the result being a near perfect exposure.
This was taken at the 2018 Domkhar spring festival, with settings of 1/30 sec, f/20, ISO 400. The technique is known variously as zoom-blast, zoom-burst or zoom-blur to create a sense of motion and/or abstraction. To perform the technique you need a zoom lens. Zoom in and focus lock on your subject with shutter priority ranging from 1/30 for moving subjects to 4 seconds for stationary subjects. Press the shutter release and zoom out! The faster your shutter speed the quicker you need to zoom out, and vice-verse.
It takes patience and practice to get an image that really works, especially with moving subjects. There are a number of variations you can try with zoom-blast, including blasting in instead of out, and getting more psychedelic by rotating the camera during the zoom.
Other crowd blending techniques include shallow DOF using a long zoom and a near subject, or a short zoom wide open with near subject and crowds at a distance. Panning on a moving subject can also blend crowds and really make the subject pop when you get it sharp.
Get Off the Beaten Path
With a little extra effort it’s remarkable what gems you can discover nearby major locations that tourists don’t know about. It just takes a sense of adventure and a willingness to engage with locals.
Not too distant from the popular town of Luang Prabang.
12th century Khmer rock carving of the god Vishnu God and his wife. It’s located near Kunlun Mountain 80km from Siem Reap, along with a few other rock carvings. Tourists are very rare – so rare in fact that the family who tends the place doesn’t sell so much as a bottle of water!
Khmer boy getting a roadside haircut in a small village an hour from Angkor. The price was 3,000 riel, or about .75 cents.
Mom is checking for lice while the cups on the father’s back are pulling toxins from his muscles to the surface. It’s a Chinese treatment that dates back millennia.
While it’s true it’s extremely difficult to impossible to get this kind of shot with monks and tree roots shrouding a temple in the Angkor zone anymore, you can venture outward to those that were built prior. There are seldom any tourists in these areas – David saw exactly zero – and no security guards or barriers or poorly placed signage! At least for now…
There are still a number of traditional villages in northern Thailand that an intrepid photographer can access, contrary to popular belief. While some are quite remote, others are not far off the beaten path. Villagers told David he was the first photographer ever to visit them, and invited him back next year (with his group) for a traditional Akha celebration with music, dance and feast. He will be bringing copies of the images he took of them as gifts, which is always a very much appreciated gesture for a retuning photographer.
While Thailand in general and Angkor Wat in particular can pose difficulties with crowding, we have seen through the lens of David Lazar that such locations can be managed to one’s advantage. Combined with off the beaten path research and exploration within reach of major sites, the tactically creative photographer stands to be very well rewarded for his or her efforts. The heart of Southeast Asia remains a vibrant, colorful and culturally rich region worthy of any passionate travel photographer’s attention, beginner to professional.
David Lazar is a fine art travel photographer from Brisbane, Australia. His award winning travel images have appeared in top tier publications around the world, including National Geographic, Lonely Planet, Practical Photography, and Australian Photography, just to name a few. He also conducts highly praised Asia photo tours several times a year.