A Franco-Vietnamese Cabaret in Saigon – Heaven and Hell in one job

It was a day of extreme highs and lows on my first assignment of the year…

I was given the task of shooting the food and performances at Bo Nong – a new French-owned cabaret-style restaurant here in Ho Chi Minh City.

I arrived and started trying to figure out where I was gonna shoot the dishes. The light was pretty low, but I noticed they had a large fish tank near the entrance, so I asked them to turn on the light that illuminated the aquarium and set up a table just below it.

It was perfect! The plants in the aquarium reflected onto the glass tabletop giving some great green hues that contrasted beautifully with the red seats in the background, and the light from the tank was enough to provide general illumination to the area. I set up a Speedlite 580ex II flash behind the table to the left and slightly above, so that I could hit the food with a strong white light from behind. I’ve found this generally works well, catching the tips and edges of the food to make it “pop” just that little bit more.

Finally the food arrived, and it looked great!

Food - prawns with salad and spring roll entree

As the photographer for a lifestyle magazine, it’s my job to make the readers start salivating when they see the dishes in my photos so that all they can think of is jumping in a taxi to go and try the food. It’s such a help when the presentation of the food does most of that work for you, and that was the case with Bo Nong.

Food - soups 1

I quickly got to shooting the dishes, both individually and in various combinations.

Food - beef 1

Food - beef 2

I added a flute to some of the photos to draw reference to the fact that this was not just an ordinary restaurant. Each night they put on a special performance that combines traditional Vietnamese music and dance with some more Western forms of entertainment such as magic and comedy.

The food was amazing! The dishes had been created by one of the city’s best Vietnamese chefs with a western palate in mind, combining the spectacular flavours of traditional Vietnamese food with cutting edge culinary style and technique. I was in love! It looked great, and tasted even better! My favourite was the asian apple salad with prawn (I don’t remember the exact name, actually, but it’s this one):

Food - prawns with salad 2

I was in heaven! I had the opportunity to try some amazing dishes and had come away with some photos that I was happy with for the magazine. I left the establishment on a high, knowing that all that remained was to return in the evening to shoot the performance…

…little did I know how quickly things would all fall apart…

You see, I had never encountered a phenomenon that is the new bane of event photographers around the world. A phenomenon that is becoming increasingly common…

That evil creation is known as LED lighting.

To the human eye, the lighting looks great, but to a camera sensor, the very narrow range of colours has a terrible effect on how everything is recorded (and yes, I always shoot in RAW).

The green ones were not too bad, and seemed to act in a similar way to regular stage lighting (perhaps it was a combination of green and white light)…

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…but the ones that were used for most of the performance were a combination of red and blue LED lights. The lights seemed to affect not only the contrast and colour, but also the sharpness of the images. I don’t really understand much of the science around the effect the lights have on a camera sensor, but the resulting photographs were not something I was proud of, and nothing I did in Photoshop did much to redeem them.

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I tried using my Speedlite to bring some white light into the scene that could help balance things a little, but due to the stage layout and distribution of performers, had I pumped up the power to illuminate all of them, it would have been too strong for the performers closer to it. The subtle white light was far from enough, and the LED lights overpowered it.

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The photos would have had this kind of unflattering light had I pumped up the speedlight power:

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So once the performance was over, I headed home despondent. I felt I had failed as a photographer. It was only when I Googled “LED lighting photography” that I discovered just how many other photographers had struggled with the same thing around the world. Unfortunately, due to the low cost and convenience, we will only see more of this kind of lighting. I suppose that’s the beauty of photography as a craft, as new phenomena create new challenges, and we have to develop new skills and techniques to deal with them.

For me, I’ll be investing in more off-camera strobes (flashes for laypeople) so that I can control the lighting environment more effectively should I encounter this kind of situation again, but for someone who likes to use more ambient light, it’s sad that I have to do so.

It’s easy for us to beat ourselves up over jobs that we know could have been better, but in this case, the magazine and the restaurant were both satisfied with the shots I handed in, so I need to just let it go and move on knowing I am more ready for the next challenge that pops up. In any case, I got to try some world-class (at least according to my tastebuds) food and to watch highly skilled musicians perform, all the while getting paid to do it!

I will be back soon to sample some of that delicious food once again. If you’re in HCMC, maybe I’ll see you there!

In the meantime, if you wanna check out the article in Oi magazine, you can download it here or view it online here.