When it comes to photography, Halong Bay is a challenge. No question about it. On board the Emeraude, we’ve heard more than a few passengers voice frustration over not being able to capture through the lens what they feel in person.
Recently, we spoke with Kris LeBoutillier, a photojournalist who has worked with National Geographic Traveler across Asia and Australia. If you’ve seen the National Geographic Traveler guidebook on Vietnam, you’ve seen Kris’s work. He shot nearly all the images in that very handsome tome. He is also the owner of F8 Workshops, a firm that holds photography workshops across Asia led by National Geographic photographers.
Here’s what Kris has to say about taking pictures on Halong Bay.
What should photographers be thinking about as they make plans for Halong Bay?
If you’re going specifically for photography, you have to go at the best time of the year. Go for the optimal amount of good light. The second thing is a wide angle lens. You want as much of the beautiful bay at the right time as you can. Whether you are at water level, or on a hill looking down, the whole point is to get the wide shot to show vastness.
What else would you recommend before traveling to the bay?
Read up on the stories, the legends, the history. This will give you inspiration. As you appreciate how others, from a perspective of history or legends, see the bay, you’ll then have some impressions to go for in your pictures.
Except that in Halong Bay so many of the stories are about dragons. No one’s going to get to capture dragons.
No, but you may get mist and early morning light that’s very soft, or afternoons where you get that long light late in the day. With the right kind of weather, and the lovely limestone, you’re going to get the ambiance of an East Asian fairy tale. That’s where your dragons come in.
What, above all else, should someone bear in mind when taking photographs from a boat on the water?
You don't want too much water in your water picture. A lot of amateurs will put a lot of dead space in the image. You need a nice strong subject, whether of a boat, or kids swimming. Whatever you have on the water, make sure it’s prominent, and that you shoot early or late.
Are equally beautiful shots of sunrises and sunsets available on the bay?
I think the sunsets are easier because the light hangs a long time. When it comes up, it’s only there for a little time. But late in the day, it takes a long time for the sun to go down.
What are the top three things a photographer should steer toward as subject matter?
Climb to the top of Titov Island and shoot toward the sunset. It’s very touristy, but if you go early in the morning or late in the day, there’s no one there. You want to be the early bird or the late bird. Hang out until they’re kicking you off the hill. You can get great orange light off the water. My second choice would be a fishing village early in the morning. There have been people living there for generations. It’s like being in another world. As well, look out for that misty day. Misty days can be better than long sunlight because you get texture. Halong Bay is one of the best places in the world to capture texture.
What sort of picture should people avoid taking on Halong bay.
Some tourists, they get on the boat and they stick to it. Get off the boat. Climb a hill. Better yet, negotiate a price for another boat to get you out to some little island. Too much sky and too much water, avoid that. Put your camera away when there’s a hot white sky. Dead water is a downer, too, unless you have some cool reflections.
From technical point of view is there any kind of equipment in particular that you recommend people bring.
Bring a tripod so you can shoot from the hills. Often the best pictures are captured just after sunset in low light. Leave the flash at home.
Is there one picture, if any that stands out in your memory, as the most impressive shot of the bay.
One of my favorites is a sunset picture of the bay, with the Emeraude out there prominently. It was the only boat in the water. I asked them to swing it around and got that as the only subject on the water.
Best advice from a technical perspective?
You want a nice clear picture. Shoot with a low ISO setting. Control that so you don’t have too much grain. Open up the f-stop to f-12 and get a lot of detail. Open that shutter long enough, for a 10-second exposure, and the whole ocean becomes soft and gets ethereal.