Matt Brandon Vlog 13: Photographing Iconic Scenes

In this video I look at my struggle to photograph the iconic Tak Bat, alms giving ceremony that takes place every morning in Luang Prabang, Laos. The inherent problem with photographing something that has been photographed millions of times is there is very little chance of making a unique photo.

In this video, I explore my struggles at photographing an event that has been happening every day for who knows how long? This was not an easy task, and frankly, one that I think I failed at. But we learn from our failure, and this is why I am sharing the experience. The big difficulty is the culturally sensitive limitations that are put on the visitor during the Tak Bat, and rightly so. Here are just a few are:

  • Keep your head below that of the monks.
  • Don’t touch a monk.
  • Don’t use flash
  • Keep a distance from the monks.
  • Be respectful of the devotees.
  • And a few more.

 

This was my first time to watch this event. We choose to go out where there were not tourists. It was an area that my host knew and had relationships with the devotees. We check with the devotees if we could sit where we sat. They granted us permission. Honestly, I was extremely tempted to use flash, but I resisted and did not use it. Granted, I did push the boundaries on proximity to the monks and in looking back, I probably wouldn’t do that again. But in my defense, we asked, and we got the locals devotees approved. I sat on the ground, so I was never above even the smallest monk. I say all to help you understand the extent we went to be both culturally sensitive and still get the photo.

In this video, I also give photographers a quick tip on how to better view your vertical (portrait) images on the back of your camera’s LCD.

Below are the images that appear in this week’s video.

 

Here I was literally sitting in a drainage culvert to get this angle.

 

This was close to what I imagined. But without using a flash, the morning clouds proved why too bright and overpowered the scene. My attempt to burn in some sky was useless and did more harm than good.

 

By switching locations and shooting across from the procession I focused on the devotees rather than the monks. This was better but I don’t like her hand in front of her eyes.

 

This is perhaps the best image as I manage to arrange all the element close to what I want.

 

Later that same day we stumbled on a gathering of monks. It was like a school assembly.

 

Children get bored with assemblies no matter what the culture.

 

This photo is my favorite image of the trip. So much emotion and life in this photo.

 

Here is one of those images that you see a setting and you wait for someone or something to enter the frame. That is just what I did here.

 

Early the next day we went back out to my host’s neighborhood and saw a group of local monks leaving the local Wat (temple). Knowing they would return in 30 minutes or so I set up across the street and got this.

 

 

Interestingly enough, this image was taken at the precise moment the florescent light in the archway was going off. Thus the yellow glow and the lack of light. It also gave it the best look and feel. The only real issue I have with either of these photos is that I have lost the story. These pictures don’t tell the story of the Tak Bat. These are just images of monks walking through a gate in the early morning.

 

Kuang Si Falls, another location that is practically impossible to get a unique photo of.

 

Downriver of the falls is this water wheel. I used off camera flash to light the wheel. Alou acted as my VALS (Voice Activated Light Stand).

 

 

Saffron Coffee Shoot

From Mountain to Cup – The Journey of Saffron Coffee from Matt Brandon on Vimeo.

This last week I traveled to Luang Prabang, Laos. There’s a small but very significant social enterprise based there called, Saffron Coffee, that benefits both Laotian and tourist alike. Saffron Coffee is Lao-owned, Western managed and Lao staffed. The team that runs Saffron Coffee is a mix of Lao, American and Australian (I don’t think I left anyone out.)

Flying my borrowed DJI Inspire drone to shoot the footage for the video above.

Flying my borrowed DJI Inspire drone to shoot the footage for the video above.

Saffron Coffee contacted me a couple of months back and asked me to bid on a photo job. The company needed some new photos for an upcoming promotional campaign. I made a passing comment how I think that I might have a drone by the time they wanted to shoot in November. Apparently, the thought of drone footage sealed the deal; I got the job. The only problem was I didn’t have a drone yet. I wanted a small drone that was easy to fly and had a good camera. DJI just announced their new Mavic Pro and compact portable drone just days before. As it’s only the size of a water bottle, it fits perfectly in a backpack! Two weeks before I was to arrive in Laos, I received an email informing me the drone I ordered was back ordered for 6 to 8 weeks! What was I going to do? Penang is not like the U.S.; we don’t have places to rent drones or even camera gear. Luckily, Max, the guy I ordered the drone from was reluctantly (I don’t blame him) willing to rent me his personal DJI Inspire. The Inspire is massive and costly! He requested I not check it in the hold of the aircraft, so I schlepped this beast all the way from Penang to Luang Prabang as an unauthorized second-hand carry.

Here I am shooting video of a long black. I was very pleased with the focus of the 35 mm f/1,4 lens.

Here I am shooting video of a long black. I was very pleased with the focus of the 35 mm f/1,4 lens.

I was also shooting the new Fuji X-T2 as both a still camera and a video camera. Frankly, I was just as scared of using the X-T2 as a video camera as I was this borrowed drone. I knew the X-T2 would perform flawlessly as a still camera. I had just used it in Europe, and it was incredible. In the past, Fuji x-series cameras have never had a good reputation for their video, but everyone was telling me how the X-T2 can now shoot 4K video and was far more intuitive.

Well, they were right. The video function of the Fujifilm X-T2 was very impressive. It handled low light and high ISO like a champ. The manual focusing was easy and swift. Everything about it was close to perfect. I do need to clarify; I am NOT a videographer. So I can not speak to this as a pro, but as a newbie videographer it was easy to use, and I was very pleased with the results.

One of the many hill tribes farmers partnering with Saffron Coffee.

One of the many hill tribes farmers partnering with Saffron Coffee.

The coffee cherry is high in sugars and thus becomes quite sticky and will often cause the picker's hands to become covered in whatever it touches.

The coffee cherry is high in sugars and thus becomes quite sticky and will often cause the picker’s hands to become covered in whatever it touches.

The camera performed unbelievable as a still camera, though I never had any doubts about this. The focusing is faster than the X-T1, and the high ISO is very usable. My only issue was remembering that there is now a “un”-lock on the ISO and shutter speed dials. I would keep forgetting to relock it after changing the ISO or shutter speed, and the dial moves quite easily when not locked. So I found myself shooting at 800 ISO when I needed to be shooting more like 200 or 400. But since the X-T2 handles high ISO so well, it wasn’t really a problem. But I have yet developed that muscle memory to remember to relock the dials after I unlock them.

Som Phet inspecting the freshly pluped coffee beans.

Saffron Coffee employee Som Phet, inspecting the freshly pulped coffee beans.

 

Thongsai, shoveling the cherry husk. This will be dried and sold to make cascara tea.

Thongsai, shoveling the cherry husk. These husks will be dried and sold to make cascara tea.

 

I love my job. I get to work with amazing people from all around the world. The staff at Saffron Coffee are an amazing work for and with the Lao hill tribe farmers. A few years back the cash crop of Laos was poppies for opium. The Lao government shut down all the poppy farms and the farmers were left without any income. Illegal logging filled the income void for some farmers. The farmers can cut down trees and make some good money. They also grow rice as a cash crop, but that is seasonal. In the southern part of Laos people have been growing robusta and sub-standard Arabica coffee for years. The folks at Saffron Coffee saw all this as both an opportunity to help the farmers.

Som Phet, is a master roaster for Saffron Coffee.

Som Phet, is a master roaster for Saffron Coffee.

They knew that shade grown highland Arabica coffee could provide a constant income for Northern Lao hill tribes. The altitude and climate around Luang Prabang was perfect, and the people needed a new crop. Today Saffron Coffee is partnering with 784 farming families in 18 villages in growing their coffee. They make specialty coffees with the highest quality Arabica beans.

Coffee and it's lovely crema being extracted through a bottomless or naked portafilter.

Coffee and it’s lovely crema being extracted through a bottomless or naked portafilter.

The traditional Lao brew has been an important part of the country’s coffee culture for years – but Saffron Coffee doesn’t see why specialty coffee can’t find a home in Northern Laos as well.