The ones that didn’t make it (December 2013, Part 2)

Part 1 here

In November, disaster struck on one of my shoots – an embarrassing mistake that led to some drastic cosmetic surgery and that will haunt me for some time to come. But first, the background…

The cover story for the December issue was about unique boutiques in Saigon. The total of fifteen boutique stores to be covered was divided equally between the three photographers that were working on the article. So I had five stores, and the brief was to take one photo of the store’s interior, one of the owner (or one combining the two), and then the writers would pick one item the store sold, and we would take one photo of it on a plain white background, and one of it displayed in the store. The different product shots were to give the design team different options for the layout and so that there was some uniformity in the shots taken by the three photographers to unite the article.

My assigned shops were Gingko (a store that specialises in unique and high quality goods that are made locally), Ethophen (a fashion boutique/beauty salon/cafe all in one), Mekong Creations (a(n apparently) not for profit organisation that sells handcrafted items to support local communities in Vietnam and Cambodia), Yim Bader Jewelry (quite unique handmade jewelry) and Saigon Kitsch (a store that specialises in products inspired largely by Vietnamese propaganda art, and the store in which the disastrous events mentioned above transpired).

In covering these stores and their products, I discovered some of the challenges of working with writers…

On arriving at Ginkgo, I was impressed with the store and many of its products. The range was diverse and unique. Here’s how it appeared in Oi:


While the store was full of stunning products, the writer chose one of the least photogenic and plainest items. Now don’t get me wrong, those backpacks are quality products – well-made from the best materials – but they are freaking difficult to photograph. For one, they were too big to fit on the white background I’d brought (a large roll of white cardboard), and they had no features that really stood out. All I could really do was try to show the bags – that they had more than one colour and that they were indeed a backpack. The only way I could think to do this clearly in one shot was to take them into the changing rooms of the store and shoot the bags next to the mirror, so both the front and the back of the bags could be seen. I was not happy with the image – it’s certainly not my best shot – but this line of work is kinda like bad mashed potato, and this was one of the lumps. Sometimes you are limited by external factors (such as the writer’s choice) and you just have to make the most of a bad situation. My lesson learnt here: communicate more with your writer early on, so they understand what products work best visually, as I was to discover that some writers can be flexible (more on that later).

As I was unable to shoot the products on a white background, I just removed the background in photoshop later. So based on the brief, here’s the photos of the product I submitted:

Ginkgo Oi Pick DetailGinkgo Oi Pick in Store 1Ginkgo Oi Pick White 1

To give you some idea of what could have been, here’s some other details from the store…

Ginkgo Store 1 Ginkgo Products 4 Ginkgo Products 6 Ginkgo Products 3

My personal favourite were the stylised buddha figures – I’m not really into having religious figures in my home, but I like the design so much I may just purchase one before I leave Vietnam!

Ginkgo Products 1

As per the brief, I also took a couple of shots of the owner, Ben.

Ginkgo Ben 2

Ginkgo Ben 1

We didn’t end up using those photos, as Oi had run a separate article in the previous month’s issue on one of his products which included his photo, and he wanted to make sure the article this month focussed on the products only.

Ethophen was the next store on the list. This time I negotiated with the writer and ended up shooting a ring which the manager of the store had told me was part of a new range of jewelry they were selling.


This store is really three stores in one. The ground floor is a fashion boutique that specialises in one-off designer items from Thailand. The second floor has a small nail salon, as well as an area that serves as a cafe. I tried their special Thai tea, which was amazing. It tasted a little chocolaty and nutty – this sweet, milky drink had a complex mix of flavours that worked together perfectly. I took a bunch of pics to show the various aspects of the store…

Ethophen Store 10 Ethophen Products 2 Ethophen Products 3 Ethophen Products 4 Ethophen Products 5 Ethophen Store 5

There just happened to be a local model in having her nails done, so I took advantage of this when I shot the nail salon area.

Ethophen Store 3 Ethophen Store 1 Ethophen Store 2

I took the Lion luxe ring – the highlighted product – in store and on my white cardboard (with a single speedlite reflected off the ceiling).

Ethophen Products 6 Ethophen Oi Pick White 2

The store owner, Rattana, was really nice and I related to her not only in having married a Vietnamese person and then moved here, but also in our shared dislike of posing for photos. But she was a good sport.

Ethophen Rattana 1

Remember what I said in Part 1 about taking more photos in portrait format? Here’s an example of what I was saying – one of my shots of the interior of Ethophen was used full page in the contents to represent the cover story. Wouldn’t have happened if I’d only shot landscape orientation.

Lead Page

Things continued to go quite smoothly for my trip to Mekong Creations.


Mekong Store 4 Mekong Store 1 Mekong Products 6

For the featured product, I shot by the window for the ample natural light, and boosted it with a speedlite bounced off the ceiling again. I also used the trusty roll of white cardboard for the shots on white.

Mekong Oi Pick White 2Mekong Oi Pick White 1Mekong Oi Pick in Store 1

Fourth stop was Yim Bader Jewelry


Unfortunately Yim was sick and unable to make it for her photos, and as I had to fly to China to take care of some personal business, I had to have one of the other photographers take her portrait while I was gone.

The product was an interesting one – a ring made of twisted metal inspired by waves on the beach.

Yim Bader Oi Pick In Store 1 Yim Bader Oi Pick In Store 5 Yim Bader Oi Pick White 2

She had quite a few interesting pieces in her collection.

Yim Bader Products 2 Yim Bader Products 8 Yim Bader Store 3 Yim Bader Products 5 Yim Bader Products 7

Things were flying along, but then came Saigon Kitsch…

Saigon Kitsch

Audrey, the boss, was a fun-loving, charismatic woman and bursting with energy. I was happy with one photo I took of her in the store holding a glass they sell, but I also took a landscape shot of her with what she said was one of her favourite products so the team had more to work with. I admit I was a little sad they went with the landscape shot, as I really like the one with the glass.

SaigonKitsch Audrey 3

SaigonKitsch Audrey 1

But the worst experience since joining the Oi team was yet to come. We scheduled another day – right before deadline – to shoot a new product they wanted us to feature. It was a wax candle in the shape of a buddha’s head. While I thought the propaganda-inspired mugs/fridge magnets/coasters/note books/glasses/phone covers etc were more a signature item for this store…

Saigon Kitsch Products 6 Saigon Kitsch Products 7 Saigon Kitsch Products 1

… I agreed to come back to shoot the candles.

The day arrived, and shortly after I got there, Audrey arrived with a single sample fresh from the factory moulds. It was still warm, so the wax was slightly soft. She carefully unwrapped it and left it on the counter for me to photograph. I unrolled the white cardboard again for the shot on white and set up the flash to bounce from the ceiling again. With the solitary sample sitting on the card, I moved the cardboard slightly to alter the light reflection and then it happened…

The candle, still soft and a little sticky at the bottom, caught on the card and fell face down onto the it.

My mind was racing. There is only one sample! Deadline is tomorrow! I’ve destroyed it? There goes my career?

I picked it up and examined it. The face was intact apart from the nose, which was completely flattened and had broken apart. Damn!

I quickly set to work reshaping what was left into something somewhat resembling what a nose should look like. Fingers do not make effective wax-shaping tools!

I got it reasonably close to something acceptable, praying that I could fix the rest in Photoshop. Maybe I’d just get away with it without losing face after all! But I’m no Photoshop wizard!

Saigon Kitsch Oi Pick White Take 2 flat nose

So I got to work at the computer, and in the end, got it to the point where I think nobody would notice if I didn’t point it out.

Saigon Kitsch Oi Pick White Take 2

In the end, they went with the in-store shot, which I don’t feel I did quite as good a job on in Photoshop. So a lesson learnt: when you are on a professional photographic job, don’t destroy the product you’re shooting!

Thankfully, everything worked out in the end (at least I haven’t received any hate mail about the Buddha’s nose up to this point). Honestly, one thing I love about this job is all the stories I’ll have by the end!

This is possibly going to be my last post this year, as I’m heading back to Australia for Christmas tomorrow, and won’t be back in Vietnam until next year. I think I’ll be enjoying my time off with my wife and family during that time. The chances of spending time blogging during that time are fairly low, so I will take this opportunity to wish you a merry Christmas and happy new year! See y’all in 2014!