As a photographer, one of the most useful things you can have in your back pocket is not even piece of photo gear. But rather a broadly useful framework under which to be making photos.
When I was a photographer for the Baltimore Sun, that “in” came with the territory. As a photographer who now has been working independently for the past 13 years, I’ve learned to build and use other tools.
That was the idea behind HoCo360: it’s a vehicle, both internal and external, that gives me both a framework and a reason to photograph whatever I want.
Over the past few years, I’ve increasingly been shooting for Google Maps. Nothing unusual, just an more deliberate version of what you might already be doing with your smart phone. I have learned that there is no better entré for introducing yourself into a wide variety of places and situations than to constantly be shooting photos to add to Google Maps. Nearly everyone sees the value in this process, so both your reason to be there and the value proposition that you create is pre-established.
Using Google Maps is one of several vectors for insertion that we teach our photographers in the very first class of an X-Peditions trip. This is even before we start to get into the actual mechanics of photography stuff. Because before you can aim a camera or choose an f/stop or compose from a point of view, you have to find a way to be in the room.
Van Tribal Heritage
A couple blocks away from our home base in Hanoi, there is a unique little shop that stands out in a sea of the more touristy offerings that fill the city’s Old Quarter. The moment you walk into Van Tribal Heritage, it feels like you have stepped into an Indiana Jones movie. That is all down to the hunting and curation skills of Nguyen Thuy Hanh, the spritely proprietor who is pictured above.
Her shop is filled with a unique timeline of items that ranges from current hill crafts to beautiful, centuries-old artifacts. It’s a wonderful place to discover. I had bought something from the shop on a previous trip to Vietnam, and stopped by for a return visit earlier this month.
Hanh was there, and we struck up a conversation. On a whim, I went to find out the Google Maps listing for her store. I did not see one. Later, I would find the listing existed but it was improperly located and contained only a couple photos of a modern office setting. The photos were clearly not taken here.
In addition to being misplaced, the listing was also unclaimed. So I knew I could help her by editing the location for the listing, removing the errant photos and adding some of my own. I could also show her how to claim the listing, to be able to edit it and learn more about the people searching for stores like hers via Maps’ built-in analytics. (It’s super-easy and self-explanatory, once you claim your listing.)
I told her that, while I don’t actually work for Google Maps, I’d be happy to make some photos for her and add them to her corrected listing, which I could also help her to claim. She happily agreed, even though I was literally standing in front of a sign that said No Photography when I asked her.
So we spent a few minutes grabbing some detail shots. I showed her the photos on the back of the camera and told her I’d fix her maps listing when I got back to the hotel. Also, I’d be happy to come back later to show her how to claim her fixed listing and bring some better gear to make a nice photo of her to add as well.
A Case for Improvisation
Back at the hotel, I took stock of the gear I had on hand with which to make a photo.
Lighting-wise, I had brought two “fun-sized” (i.e., Fuji-sized) Godox TT350F flashes. They are not very powerful but are quite small and have built-in transceivers, so they travel great.
To them I had gaff-taped some basic gels. I also had a small transmitter and a diffusion dome. Due to a tight gear-pack (we practice what we preach at X-Peds) I had not brought a light-softening mod.
But that was no problem, as the hotel had helpfully/involuntarily supplied me with a white(ish) pillow case. This would suffice.
No stands, but I had a travel tripod with a cold shoe on top. In the end I wound up not using it. Also, it’s probably a good sign that I can leave the travel tripod at home and travel lighter going forward. Live and learn.
Lighting a Dark Shop
Here’s Hanh again. From the outset, this was not going to be a fancy photo. It’s a portrait of an interesting and knowledgeable woman in an environment that speaks to many years of traveling the rural areas of Vietnam in search of interesting artifacts.
Van Tribal Heritage is dark, warm-toned and smells of old wood and textiles, just like you’d want. But it is lit with a variety of off-color flourescents and LEDs, which is not what you would want. So the first order of business was to get rid of these lights via my ambient exposure.
Now that my ambient photo is black, we start by adding light via flash from the back. We kept the power dialed down on the flashes, and kept our number of frames to a bare minimum, to help protect the more delicate items in the store from potential UV light damage.
In the far back on the floor, pointing straight up, goes light #1. It has the diffusion dome and gets a 1/2 CTO gel to fill the whole area and make the warmth of the room sing. The dome makes it light omnidirectionally, and introduces some shadow areas coming forward as well.
Next is our main light, for Hanh. I had Linh, her assistant, hold the pillow case vertically in front of her, arms extended high. I held flash #2 just above Linh’s head and fired it through the pillow case. That became my soft key light.
The pillow case was a warm white, approximating a Rosco 08 gel. Perfect. (But had it not been, I could have gotten it pretty close with the assortment of 1/4-to-full CTBs and CTOs I had with me. There’s always room for lots of gels…)
Here’s the overhead view:
The resulting photo is not particularly sophisticated. It is appropriately busy and connotes both the warmth and clutter of the shop, and the personality and experience of its owner. Which is what I wanted.
From the “My Contributions” panel in Google Maps, I can see that the photos have already been viewed thousands(!) of times since I posted them only last week. Which means that Hanh’s prospective customers are getting a more accurate feel for her place and the right sort of people are more likely to visit.
Amazingly, she already had gathered a handful of reviews even from the misplaced maps listing with the random, incorrect photos. Going forward, all of those pieces will be pulled together and her maps listing should be working much better for her.
Fine, you say. But what’s in it for me?
First off, my trip to Hanoi was richer for having met and photographed Hanh. Because meeting and photographing people is what I love to do, especially when traveling.
Even better, Hanh is now on the lookout for other, similarly interesting people for me to meet and photograph when I return there in November. Which is exactly what any photographer in a far-flung city would want.
This approach is core to what we do at X-Peditions: learning to build the positive feedback loops that elevate your experience from that of a random tourist to one of an immersive traveling photographer.
But even when not traveling, using Maps in this way can quickly integrate you into just about any community, distant or local. After all, Google has a listing for pretty much everything.