The Hunt (The day-long search for “The Shot”)

Just when I thought it was safe to put my feet up and relax (all my shots had been submitted for the December issue of the magazine) I made the mistake of checking my email…

Waiting for me was a message from the creative director with a request. The magazine’s media pack was to be revamped, and they were looking for a photo that “screams Saigon” for the cover. Immediately I started clicking through the photos I’d been accumulating over the last six months, sure that I had something that fit the bill.

I didn’t.

So with a day to come up with something, I cranked my brain up a gear and set to thinking of what I’d shoot for the request…

Hmmm… Ho Chi Minh City… well, there’s the motorbikes and crazy traffic… there’s Ben Thanh Market, but that’s overdone… hmmm…. think…. Saigon River? No, need something more… what about Bitexco tower?

Then it hit me. Why not create a photo that combines a few of those elements? What about a cityscape that incorporated Bitexco Tower – the newest and most recognisable addition to the Saigon skyline – the river, and the flow of motorbikes and traffic on the roads? Not the most imaginative shot, but with a one-day timeframe, I knew I could go home by the end of the day with something that would work for the cover. And I did.

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But it took some legwork to make it happen (literally)!

I had to find a good vantage point to take the shot from, but being relatively new to the city, I didn’t have a list of spots I could use up my sleeve. So out I went on my scooter on Friday morning with the task of finding a good spot, with a mental list of requirements the location had to have:

1. Bitexco tower had to be visible and prominent enough to make it clear the cityscape was Saigon’s.

2. The river had to be in the shot, hopefully leading the viewer’s eyes toward the tower, and positioned so that some lights (city lights or street lights) illuminated it with their reflections.

3. Traffic had to be visible and the roads had to run in a way that created nice light trails once the sky had grown dark.

Seems like a simple list to fill, but as the day progressed I discovered things weren’t so simple…

I rode to District 4, which lies directly across the river from the city centre and set out on foot after parking my scooter. My first instinct was to check out one of the bridges that spans the river.

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I checked out the view both above and below the bridge – nice enough for a tourist snapshot, but not right for the purpose of the shot. I knew if I came back to take the shot at night I would not be able to capture all the elements I’d been looking for, especially the traffic.

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So off I trekked to the next place I had spotted as I was riding across to District 4. A tall building that seemed to offer a perfect view of the city. Before I arrived at the building, I put away my camera and then walked straight in to the elevators as though I knew exactly where I was going. Looking lost always raises security guards’ suspicions, but I also have the advantage of being a foreigner, while most security guards speak little English – but this can work for or against you, so it’s best to avoid them altogether.

Entering the elevator with a pack of office workers I was happy to see that some of them were already headed to the 20th floor – the highest level the elevator reached. It was inevitable there would be a fire escape that led right up onto the roof.

I climbed up onto the top, and was pleased to see there was a glass window in the barrier around the edge of the roof that afforded a view of the exact spot I was looking to capture.

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Unfortunately, the window was caked in a thick layer of crud that had built up on the outside for what must have been quite some time. While all the elements on my list were there, there was no way I’d get an image of the quality I was after through that glass.

Looking across, I saw another building that looked like it may also provide a good vantage point (the one with a round top to the far right of the photo above), so I headed back down and started in it’s general direction.

I played it cool, casually strolling in to the foyer and to the elevator, pressing the highest floor’s number with the expectation of repeating the successful trip to the top I’d just had.

It wasn’t to be.

The design of this building meant there was no secretive stairwell that could take one up to the highest level. It could only be accessed internally, and was the office of the head of the company. I spoke to the guard about my intentions, but understandably he had his suspicions about this random foreigner trying to take photos from the building, and so did his boss. I was promptly (but politely) sent back down on on my way.

Hmmm… still haven’t found the spot. Maybe I should start building a backup of daytime shots just in case…

I decided to cross yet another bridge into the downtown area with the hope of finding some inspiration for something different I could do with the building there.

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I wasn’t feeling it near the river, so I thought I’d try to get something interesting shooting up from the base of the building.

The brief was for the shot to be in landscape orientation, so I was hoping to combine something symbolically Vietnamese – preferably something traditional – in the foreground, with the tower rising up behind it.

After wandering around for about half an hour, I had no inspiration whatsoever, so I took a couple of shots for my personal collection and decided to get back to finding somewhere to shoot the cityscape from.

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The above image shows the building with some of the electrical wires that are an ubiquitous part of the cityscape. Just for my memories, nothing I’d submit to be published anywhere! The good thing about this line of work is that you’ve always got something to remember your journeys, and there’s no rule about not taking some shots for your own personal collection!

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I have to say I quite liked this shot and I could have probably captured some interesting images for my personal collection had I hung around and really searched, but I had work to do, so off I set again. I crossed back to District 4 along a third bridge and continued my quest.

Looking up as I walked along the river, I saw an old decrepit building – only about 5 floors high or so – that looked like it may be promising. After arduously climbing the stairs to the roof, I was rewarded with a great view of the city.

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While it was a nice spot, I was not satisfied it was what I was after. There was too much empty space in the skyline, and the other building still under construction makes the tower much less prominent. I wanted to find a spot where I could get more of the city into the shot and fill it with more busyness, as that’s what this city’s all about.

While I’d been walking for quite a few hours now, I was determined to get the shot, so on I went…

I walked back to the bridge I’d originally ridden over in the morning, hoping it would give more of the city in the foreground to deliver what I was after for the photo.

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It didn’t.

So I walked back to where my little Honda Vision and set out to the other side of the river in District 2 opposite both District 4 and downtown Saigon in the hope that I would find my ideal vista there. On my way, I noticed a building complex that looked like it may provide exactly what I was after, so I filed that away as another possibility.

Emerging from the tunnel that crosses under Saigon River into District 2, it was immediately apparent this was not the spot for my shot either.

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Now it was about 3:30, I hadn’t gotten around to grabbing lunch, and I was beginning to get tired. How did I feel? Still felt great. Crazy? No. Just doing what I enjoy doing, and I knew I would get what I was after. At least I had at least 3 spots for some “OK” shots if I didn’t find the perfect vantage point. But something told me those towers I’d seen would make me happy…

I rode back to the towers and parked the Honda in the underground parking lot. Now on automatic pilot, I found the elevator lobby and pressed the top floor once more. Climbing the last turn of the staircase and out a small door, I knew I’d found the spot. It was perfect – exactly what I’d imagined.

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I was concerned about the bamboo ladder that happened to be there and if it was designed to hold the weight of a westerner who likes his Burger King, as I was about the precarious way I had to set my tripod up straddling the wall. I was not keen on seeing what my camera would look like after a 21-storey fall, nor the trouble that could ensue were an unfortunate individual to be standing below when it went!

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I must have tested the stability of the tripod at least twenty times, but it was very secure. Still I went back and tried to shake it again. No, it wasn’t going anywhere.

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I hooked up the flash remote which can also double as a remote to trip the shutter so that at least I wouldn’t have to stand on the ladder to take the shots. Then I sat and set to work crushing candy while I waited for the sun to go down.

As I was waiting for time to dawdle it’s way to sunset, I discovered a second ladder I hadn’t seen that went up to the very top of the tower above the water store. I rushed to take down my camera and tripod and made my way to the peak.

I must say that as storm clouds rolled in, I was a little hesitant about standing right next to the lighting rod of the tallest building for about a kilometre. Just how much did getting the right shot mean to me? Enough to risk my life? Well, let me just say, the first raindrop or sound of thunder would have sent me packing in microseconds!

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One thing about hunting – ’cause that’s really what photography is, stalking and capturing that ideal shot – that people don’t always think about is the waiting. When you’re up on a rooftop alone with your thoughts, and no way to speed up a setting sun, your mind wanders to some amazing places. But when you made the amateur mistake of not having lunch or bringing snacks or water, all you can really think about is getting off that building and to the nearest convenience store!

But soon enough the sun had disappeared below the horizon, and vehicles on the road had started to turn on their lights. This was the time I was waiting for…

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The lights created beautiful trails, and there was enough light in the sky to illuminate the city. It was a great sight to behold, but it wasn’t the shot I was after.

For one, the lights of the city – and more importantly, Bixteco Tower – hadn’t all come on.

Eventually the lights came on, and the increased darkness made the lights of the traffic stand out even more, but there was one more thing I was waiting for to truly light up the scene: street lights. It was just too dark and blue without them, at least for the Media Kit cover.

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It was another long wait, but about half an hour later, the streetlights came on, and I knew I had my shot.

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Once I had it in the bag, I packed up and took off to capture my back up shot – but more on that next time.

So next time you look at a nice photo in a magazine, ask yourself what actually went into making that single image possible. You never know how many kilometres of running around, how many negotiations, and how many hunger pains the photographer endured before that instant they pressed the shutter!

OK, so not making time for lunch was a dumb mistake that most photographers wouldn’t make, but the legwork and research and trial and error is part of the story behind many great photos. We don’t just show up somewhere, press the shutter a few times, and go have a steak dinner and pretend we have a real job. It is work.

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