Behind the scenes – Oi Vietnam’s cover shoot

Vietnam is a unique place, and so when it comes to pulling together a cover shoot for one of the most popular English language magazines in Saigon (and I would argue the best quality one), when things go wrong, they’re not likely to be your run-of-the-mill problems. I discovered this in the process of producing the cover shot for the December issue of Oi.

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Firstly, the nature of the developing market here means that even major publications tend to run with lighter staff. What that meant for me was that instead of delegating tasks to my team, I had to make many arrangements and carry them out myself, which can be a challenge in an environment where my ability to communicate with locals has undeniable limitations due to their limited English and my virtually non-existent Vietnamese!

At the start of November, Paolo – the magazine’s talented creative director – gave me the brief. The cover story was going to be about shopping to coincide with Christmas. I was shown some sample images of the kind of vibe they were looking for – something clean and simple, and with a stylish, sophisticated feel. The magazine had made an agreement with a local boutique to feature a handbag and perhaps some accessories in the cover photo to promote their business, so I had to ensure that featured prominently in the shot along with the obligatory shopping bags the model would be holding. Not a big deal, really.

The next steps were to arrange the venue and the model and creative team. There was only one choice in our minds for the shoot’s location: Crescent Mall – the newest shopping mall in the city, which also had a much more relaxed (but diligent) security staff than the other place we may have considered (Vincom). So I set to scouting the location, trying to find the best spot for the shoot.

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While there were a lot of great spots, I thought it would be best to do the shoot in front of the western entrance to the building, as it was instantly recognisable as Crescent Mall, so it would be clear it was in Saigon. I liked the curves and lines of the facade as well, and thought it would add some dynamism to the image. I didn’t really find a spot inside that sang for me, but I kept a few locations in my mind, as we’d take two approaches, and pick the best from the two. In my mind though, I already knew I’d get a great image – the best image – from the outdoor location. Paolo had a contact in the mall’s management, so he got to applying for permissions.

Next, it was time to book the model and creative team.

This was a challenge, as we didn’t have a firm date for the shoot. Our initial model choice was one the powers that be were quite happy with, but I wasn’t completely feeling the vibe I was going for with her. I think she’d be great to work with, but the look didn’t really fit with what I had imagined in my mind. Thankfully, once the date for the shoot was set, we found that she wasn’t available on that day. To my relief, we found a replacement – Jenny Lai – who was perfect for the gig.

For the rest of the team, we contacted the makeup artist and stylist we’d worked with on the previous cover shoot – Kent Nguyen and Phi Phi. While I didn’t shoot the last cover, I’d seen them in action and was happy to have them on the team.

Once all that was arranged, I met one of the biggest challenges (and I warn you, there’s a little [somewhat simplified] technical talk ahead)…

This shoot was to be outside (at least partly) in full sunlight. This can be a challenging situation, lighting-wise. In my mind, I planned to use very strong strobes to overpower the sunlight, and to bring the exposure of the whole thing down by placing a variable neutral density filter on the lens (basically two pieces of glass that make things darker and darker as they are rotated in front of the lens). This would allow me to still shoot at a wide aperture so that the shallow depth of field would make the model stand out a little from the background, and a slower shutter speed of 1/160th of a second, as my camera doesn’t sync so well at speeds above that (while technically I could attempt 1/200th or even 1/250th, I like to play it safe) without overexposing the shot. The effect would be that the background would be a little darker and cooler than it looked in reality, and the model would “pop” out of that background as she was illuminated by the studio lights. This meant I had to have lights that had some serious kick, as they would also have to be some distance from the model to allow for a wider shooting angle.

Just one problem: I don’t have studio lights.

So then began the task of sourcing the lighting. I’m new to both the city and the language, so I had not idea where to start. Thankfully one of the staff photographers knew a guy, so I jumped on my scooter and went to see what he had to offer…

Great! Not only could he speak reasonably good English, but he had the kind of stuff I needed. I could hire two strobes with stands, battery packs for the lights, softboxes (although I was hoping for one beauty dish), a wireless trigger etc. Just one other problem: the cost was double the allocated budget to lighting.

At this stage I faced quite a dilemma. Should I pay the difference out of my own pocket and get the shot I was after, or get lights that fit into the budget, but delivered second rate results?

After much mental tug-o-warring, I decided that since my name would be on the image, I had to do what I could to ensure my reputation (which I am only beginning to build in this city) was not tarnished by poor quality work.

I was about to make the booking, when the date of the shoot came through, and I found the lights were not available on that day!

Back to the drawing board!

So I got to using Mr Google to help me search for alternatives. The first was hard as hell to find (my phone’s data connection had issues, so no Google Maps to help), and when I finally arrived I found… it had closed down!

I was happy when I found that alternative no.2 was a well-stocked supplier of photographic lighting equipment for hire. One more hurdle: the staff spoke virtually no English!

A whole lot of illustrations, phone calls and crazy body gestures later, I had managed to secure the strobes I needed, softboxes, wireless triggers AND a beauty dish! Not only that, but the total price was half of the previous company’s, putting it exactly on budget.

No out of pocket for yours truly! Oh happy day! Bring on the shoot!

I loaded up a taxi on the morning of the shoot and headed for the mall. On arriving I discovered something that I found quite upsetting…

Right outside the entrance, they had set up a small altar with flowers, incense and food offerings on it. Right in the background of where the model would be standing! Only in Vietnam!

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I got to setting up the lights, hoping it would all disappear by the time the model was made up and ready to rock…

As expected, the sun was bearing down on the courtyard, and setting my aperture to 3.2 with ISO100, it was clear I needed to use the neutral density filter!

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Without the filter and with the filter.

It’s pretty hard to get the lighting right without a model, but with a harsh Saigon sun throwing all it had at anybody foolish to not be under cover, there was no way I could expect the model to stand out there for half an hour while I shift and move and tweak lighting!

Staff photographer Ngoc Tran was the one to take one for the team. I’ve gotta say it was kinda fun seeing her unique brand of “modelling” while I tried to get the strobes set up!

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I settled on the beauty dish to camera left as key light, a softbox to camera right for fill, and the sun was almost directly above but slightly towards two o’clock (shadows on the building give an indication of its position).

So we were ready to rock with the outdoor shoot. The team came out and we fired through a bunch of different poses. The thing to keep in mind for a cover shot is to leave room for the logo and text. Here’s a few raw, unprocessed shots…

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Once the outdoor shots were done, the model went off to get changed and touched up… OK, poor choice of words… her MAKEUP touched up… and I got to setting up the lights for the indoor shot after a quick visit to the bathroom (there’s a reason I mentioned that part…). My “assistant” Ngoc had gone off for another shoot of her own by now, so I was left alone to get the lights set up. Thankfully, my wife – who happens to work in an early childhood education centre in the mall – came down to see how things were going. She became my model as I tried to get the lights set up, but if I put any of the photos here, it’ll be the sofa for me for the next month!

Things were complicated further by the fact that they had constructed a big ugly monstrosity of a stage in the centre of the mall for some fashion promotion that day, and a separate team was shooting video in a more aesthetically pleasing part of the mall. I had no choice but to still try to get a few shots with what we had to work with, ensuring I kept the stage out of the shot (not an easy task).

Honestly, I got nothing I was satisfied with, and I was having some technical issues with the lighting, but without assistants and with a ticking clock, there was little I could do to get the perfect setup. I think I should work on hooking up with some photography enthusiasts who would be happy to be involved in such a shoot so that I don’t have to run back and forth (shoot… walk to light 1 and tweak… back to original position, shoot… walk to light two and tweak… back to original position…). This gig doesn’t pay enough for me to hire a helper, even in Vietnam!

Anyway, here’s one raw, unprocessed shot from the inside shoot just so you know the whole thing wasn’t a figment of my imagination! I’m very troubled by the absence of a kicker light from behind to bring some definition and lift her from the background, but don’t get me started on that…

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While I was not impressed with the situation, I knew I had enough strong shots from outside to not be too concerned with the interior ones – they were just backup anyway.

The shoot was done, and after obligatory snapshots with the team (why are photographers so awkward in front of the camera?)…

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…everybody went their own way and I rushed off to the bathroom again. What I hadn’t let on to anybody during the morning was that I was actually battling a stomach bug whose symptoms you do NOT want me to describe here. Another challenge I can thank Vietnam for! Of course, the food here is generally AWESOME, and in six months, this was only the second time I’d been rendered a victim this way despite my penchant for food from unhygienic street stalls! Of course it had to be today!

After that, all that remained was to select the image we would go with, and get to work on it in Photoshop…

I don’t believe in extreme Photoshop on an image – pick a good model and get the lighting and in-camera settings right, and you’ll only need minor touchups. Here’s the raw and photoshopped images:

A Raw Shot

The Chosen Shot

Main differences are the removal of brand names on the shopping bags and removal of the ugly fold lines on them; removal of the ugly pink sign to the left; slight blurring to make the cafe names less prominent; lens profile correction; bringing out the detail in the handbag a little more, and then general tweaks with contrast etc. I didn’t do any of the infamous leg-lengthening, breast-enlarging, waist-reducing photoshop work. I just don’t roll that way. It was nice the way the umbrellas in the background to the left were the same colour as Jenny’s dress, and the umbrellas to the right were the same colour as one of the shopping bags, so it all tied in together nicely.

I was pleased that the final image had come out pretty much how I’d imagined it all along, so I submitted it to the creative team (ie. Paolo) to get to work on the layout of the cover, and the rest is history.

You can check out the December issue of Oi online here (I have more images inside), or download it here. If you made it all the way to the end of his account, thank you! That’s probably more than I would manage – I generally just look at the pictures – I guess that’s partly why I’m a photographer and not a writer!