Recent Work: Octo Tapas Food Photography by Lee starnes

I just realized while we’ve been doing lots of food photography lately, there hasn’t been a post here about it. We’ll remedy that moving forward with some more interesting stories including some BTS shots and technical breakdowns for the photographers out there.

I also want this to be a place to say thank you to some of the great people we get to work with on a daily basis. We were recently tapped to shoot some lifestyle and editorial food photography for the fine folks at Octo Tapas here in Saigon. Already one of my favorite places to expand my waistline, I was excited to create some new visuals for their newly launched menu. We truly appreciate the trust to do justice to their food. Here a few of my favorites from our first round of shooting.

For the photographers, I’m sorry I didn’t shoot any BTS for this, but these were all shot with a Godox ad200 through a gridded softbox (sometimes through only the inner diffusion layer) flagged off here and there with a couple of bounce cards for fill.

Europe Photo Diary, Part I: Amsterdam by Lee starnes

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My wife and I headed to Europe in May to meet up with some of my old friends (congratulations on your engagement Matt and Liz!) as well as my parents whom we haven’t seen in a couple years. Before we met up with friends and family, we had a few days in Amsterdam to ourselves to decompress from jet lag. We chose the “wander around without too many expectations” method, and it was perfect way to get lost, explore the city and ease into an amazing trip.

Making the Monotonous Memorable by Lee starnes

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I hear it all the time, “I’m bored of shooting the same old stuff.” Most of the time its from my own mouth and I’ve said it more times than I’d like to admit.

As photographers, we want to see new things, shoot new locations, create new art. That’s all well and good, but there is so much beauty in the seemingly mundane that we could shoot the same location for weeks on end and still find something unique and interesting. We just need to shift our perspective. Coming up with something fresh and different is a challenge, but shooting repeatedly in the same location pushes us to dig deeper, look closer, to slow down. It allows us to become intimate with a place and its people. “Seeing old things with new eyes” can add layers into a story that perhaps a first look had missed.

If you’ve been reading here long, you’ll have likely heard me go on and on about the importance of slowing down. It has enabled me to enjoy the sheer act of shooting. It’s a ticket to exploration, to meeting new people, to getting to know my neighborhood better. Half of the images below are within a block or two of my apartment and all of the images are from places I’ve been to many many times before. Taking the initiative to shoot around my immediate surroundings left me immediately annoyed with myself for not recognizing the beauty in what had become monotonous after living on the same block for 5 years. Going to locations I’ve shot over and over again challenged me to look further, to ask more questions and look for subtleties previously overlooked.

Even if the resulting images never see the light of day, merely shooting and being present serves as good practice and while many say quality over quantity, but quantity equals practice and practice leads to quality. If you look at your daily outings as opportunities for practice, the quality will come far quicker than if you just wait until you “have the time” or “have the perfect location” or any of the other myriad of excuses we all tell ourselves.

Leave an image or comment down below showing us how you find beauty in the mundane and push through creative ruts!

Central Vietnam Workshop and Tour Roundup by Lee starnes

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We just wrapped our most recent central Vietnam photo workshop and tour for Pics of Asia and we couldn’t have been happier with the students, locations, and the endless supply of coffee we had this year. Starting off in Hoi An, we ventured a bit south to one my personal favorite fishing villages before heading back up north to Hue to explore the old capital and the surrounding countryside. Striving to keep things interesting, we discussed travel, portraiture, street and landscape photography. Whether we were photographing frenetic wet markets or peaceful sunset vistas, we always came back to the importance of slowing down, enjoying the moment, being prepared for when the shot presents itself, and forming relationships with the people we came across on our journey. What we lacked in sleep, we certainly made up in spades in the form of unforgettable experiences. In case you haven’t checked out my article on the importance of slowing down and breaking bread, click here!

Here are a few images from the tour and then a gallery of some behind the scenes of all the locations we shoot. If you’d like to come along, it just so happens we have another 3 day tour in August that we still have a few spots left - hint hint hint. We’d love to have you along and shoot in these stunning locations.

Behind the Scenes

click on each photo for a full size pop up!

Slowing down: Building Relationships through Photography by Lee starnes

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Last week, I headed back out on the road with Pics of Asia for another workshop and tour in Central Vietnam. We expanded our tour this year from 3 days to 5 days and included stops in the former capital Hue, the ancient town of Hoi An, and their surrounding countrysides. One of my favorite tours of the year, we explore serene lagoons, energetic markets, dabble in street photography, witness incredible sunrises, and drink far too much coffee.

On our final day, we visited a craft cooperative where workers make handcrafted items from bamboo. Throughout the course of workshop, we talked over and over about slowing down and observing the surroundings before picking the camera up and snapping away. Upon entering the workshop, workers warmly greeted us, proudly presented their wares, and made fun of my Vietnamese. Men carved bits of bamboo before women completed the baskets. There were so many people at different phases of the process; it was a bit overwhelming to narrow it down to one subject.

Spending a few minutes walking around the workshop, it didn’t take long for it to become obvious as to what, or rather who, I wanted to photograph. Light dictates much of what we capture in travel photography, so as I came across a group of gentleman in a pool of soft light coming in from their left, it was a no brainer. Any one of these gents could have been a fantastic portrait, but one man in particular had a larger than life personality and I knew I had to know more. As I said hello, he grabbed me and asked me all the usual questions - my age, where I’m from, am I married, do I have kids… Upon the last question, I answered, “My dog is my child.” Apparently that was the funniest thing ever as he let loose a contagious laugh. We then sat down together and he showed me his craft. The cigarette hanging out his mouth, his calm, cool demeanor and the ease in which he carved the pieces of bamboo were all so photogenic - it was the impossible cool.

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It would have been quite easy to snap a single portrait and walk away. He was engaged, we chatted about life, work, and having a beer at the end of the day. The walls came down between us. Though I was happy with the first shot above, letting things unfold brought on the good stuff. He continued to work and chat with me as I tried to capture his process, different expressions, and little details along the way.

At the end of our chat, he shook my hand, placed his hand on my shoulder and wished me luck. I felt like I hadn’t “taken” anything; instead, I documented our time together. I also realized I was going to be spoiled for choice picking the one image I’d release out into the wild. Looking at them side-by-side, though, I soon concluded I didn’t need to pick just one. The body of work spoke much more than a single frame. Not only is the narrative more dynamic across multiple images, but I know the next time I get back to Hue, a warm embrace and a big smile (and possibly a cold beer) will be waiting for me. Scroll through below for the entire body of work.

This slow approach helps not only making more compelling images, but it also gives us a chance to break bread, form bonds, and give a piece of ourselves as much as the people with whom we come in contact give a piece of themselves to us. As travel photographers, it should be at the forefront of our thinking to not merely take photos, but rather make relationships and build bridges wherever our travels take us. The power of the camera as a unifying force and tool for telling stories has often been more meaningful than the resulting images from my encounters with so many unique people all over the world.

If you’re interested in pushing your travel photography to the next level and meeting some incredible people, we’ve got another workshop coming up in August and we’d love to have you explore central Vietnam with us. Head over to Pics of Asia to sign up and don’t miss out on some of the most picturesque areas of Vietnam.

Recent Work: Holland Preconstruction by Lee starnes

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Recently, a friend and fellow French Bulldog owner, Matthew Holland of Holland Preconstruction, reached out to us as he was looking to give the launch of their new website a lifestyle look and feel. He wanted to show his company’s personality - to eliminate the corporate wall between the business and the people who make them. The brief was essentially this - Show process in how we do what we do, a fun headshot, be a bit cheeky, and of course, let’s have a picture of Dobby the Frenchie - after all he is the Head of Staff Well-being. Talk about a dream brief.

We met up with Matthew at his office to chat about his company and what could be a very dry and seemingly cold industry. It didn’t take long to see how his ethos of being approachable and collaborative was the key to his new success. We were thrilled to be working with a company that puts as much value into the collaborative process as we do. After a quick coffee, the shoot went on seamlessly and we captured multiple different headshots, documented some process, laid out the tools of the trade, Dobby made a quite dapper appearance, and we let Matthew’s personality shine. It only goes to show the collaborative process leads to really meaningful work. People, take note.

For the photographers, here’s a bit of photonerdery. All of these were shot with a Sony a7iii. I used the Zeiss Batis 85 f1.8 for the headshots, the Sony 28 f2 for some of the overhead shots, and the Zeiss 55 1.8 for some of the detail shots. They were all lit with a Godox ad200 bounced off a white ceiling or through a scrim and balanced with the light coming in through the huge north facing windows.

Climbing for Charity: Fansipan by Lee starnes

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Over the past few weeks we’ve been raising funds for Saigon Children’s Charity as we prepared to climb northern Vietnam’s Mount Fansipan, Indochina’s tallest mountain at 3,143 meters. The time finally came to make good on our commitment and headed up to Sapa to start our journey this past week. We started the trek at Tram Ton, Vietnam’s highest pass at 2,100 meters, and arrived in high camp 12 kilometers and 6 hours later. A bit slower than the 1 hour 37 minute record some alien apparently conquered the journey, but we were proud and excited none the less.

The first day took us up through alpine forests, across creeks, and over some rather slippery boulders as we chased our H’mong guide (who I am convinced is part mountain goat) to 2,800 meters. As we climbed higher, we finally made it above the cloud line, which meant better visibility, but also a nice little drop in temperature to around 8 degrees Celsius. Not exactly what we’re used to down in Saigon, but thankfully we had toasty sleeping bags and plenty of clothes. A little bit of local rice wine to warm us up didn’t hurt either.

The next morning we woke up to clear skies and an incredible sunrise. Patchy sleep didn’t deter us and we got on our push to the summit around 6:30am. The morning climb over Fansipan’s adjacent peaks was by far the highlight. Views of the valley below, the red flowers of the Rhododendrons on full display, and glimpses of the peak through rolling clouds all made the seemingly endless steps feel secondary to the cause.

As we neared the summit, we entered into the temple complex that winds itself up to the peak. As we navigated the myriad of statues, temples and stairways, the clouds rolled in reducing visibility to near zero creating a mysterious gauntlet to weave through. Though we couldn’t see much more than a few meters in front of us, it was still such a fulfilling moment seeing that marker through the mist at the top of the mountain.

There are 4 ways to the top. 3 trails of varying lengths and difficulty and the cruisy 20-minute cable car from Sapa. I’m not going to lie, I was relieved to take the car down after a strenuous day and a half hike, but I did chuckle hearing those who thought the 600 stairs from the cable car to the summit deserved a medal.

If you’re a photographer planning on heading up to the roof of Indochina, I’d suggest packing light. Just to give an idea, I probably packed a bit too much as I took my Sony a7iii, both my Batis 18 and 85 as well as the Zeiss 55 in a Mindshift Backlight 26. I used the rest of the bag for clothes, a rain kit, and snacks. No tripod, I probably could have gotten away with leaving a lens or two behind, but hindsight is 20-20, yeah?

And finally, If you’d like to donate to the cause, we’d really appreciate it, and I’m sure the kids in the Mekong Delta benefitting from these funds would as well. The money we raise goes to building and repairing schools in some of the poorest areas of Vietnam.

Saigon Punk Chronicles : Cut Lon, The Dumpies, District 105, 7 Uppercuts, Pick Supplier by Lee starnes

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This past weekend, Hanoi’s Cut Lon had their record release here in Saigon at Soma Art Cafe. This was a classic example of hearing a band and then seeing them being a bit…different. Clad in Pikachu costumes, Cut Lon got on stage and absolutely shredded. Think youth crew meets thrash - circle pits, sing alongs, and stage dives. Yeah, a bit of cognitive dissonance with the whole Pikachu shtick, but one of the things I love about the scene here is the complete lack of elitism that plagues so many scenes in the States. Kids having fun and saying something while they do it… how can you not love it? So bring on the Pickachu.

Local anchors District 105 and 7 Uppercuts, as usual, had insanely energetic sets with District 105 bringing the breakdowns and 7 uppercuts the pop punk fun times. Newcomers Pick Supplier had their first show ever opening up the evening and had a guest spot from former singer of Knife Sticking Head covering one of their songs. Circle Pits and rad singalongs ensued. Give these kids a bit of time and everything will tighten up for some fun moshy fingerpointing goodness. American punk outfit, The Dumpies, followed it up with a bit of beer spraying shirtless shenanigans. Think a bit like Jawbreaker, the Pist, and throw in some Frank Black in the mix for good measure. All in all, a really fun night despite the aircon shitting the bed turning the venue into a sauna. That said, it felt a bit nostalgic to sweat your ass off at a show considering every show I’ve been to in Vietnam has been well climate controlled.

District 105

The Dumpies

7 Uppercuts

Cut Lon

Pick Supplier