My First Photoshoot in Vietnam With a Glam Model

by Tom Nguyen in , ,

So it's no secret that I've been to Vietnam earlier this Spring (my second trip overall--ongoing updates in my Vietnam photography album).  Through a Facebook-ignited friendship, I met a cool stud named Dang who would eventually become my connection to his bevy of beautiful women in his socialite life. 

Me on the left, my new friend Dang on the right as we party it up VIP-style in Ho Chi Minh City.

Me on the left, my new friend Dang on the right as we party it up VIP-style in Ho Chi Minh City.

Long story short, Dang gave me great treatment and introduced me a some of his high-up friends (which included said beautiful women).  This would eventually result in a photoshoot that is the subject of this blog entry.  However, this entry is more of a two-part subject: the shoot experience, and the issue of photo retouching once it's out of the photographer's hands.

Let's flashback to April, towards the end of my 3-week trip in Vietnam.  Specifically, the very last day of my stay.  On the previous night, Dang introduced me to Aaron, a rather famous stylist over there who seems to have worked with plenty of gorgeous Viet models.  Aaron would be working with me on this particular shoot.  "You're going to shoot with Maria, a famous model over here," Dang says.  Sure, who am I to say no, I thought.  Not a bad way to get my foot in the door over there.  After meeting Aaron (who shows me Maria's photos, and goes over what style he's looking for), I ask him where the shoot would take place.  "The zoo," he says.  

I should also say that before my trip, I did indeed pack for the possibility of a photoshoot.  I relied on a couple small light stands, 3 speedlights, a 43-inch shoot-through umbrella, and a collapsible 5-way reflector.  Pure strobist style, so I had to pack light.  Anyways..

"I have lights I should bring," I said.

"No need, we'll be shooting in the daytime," Aaron said.  This worried me because I have no idea how good/bad the existing light will be, and am a stickler for controlling my lighting.  Also, it told me that this dude had no idea what photography lighting can do.  Needless to say, I brought one light stand, my umbrella, and a couple speedlights just in case. 

Fast forward to the next afternoon, and Dang has given me a ride on his motorbike (the main mode of transportation over there in Vietnam) to the city zoo.  We met up with Aaron, who introduced me to Maria and her assistant.  Stunningly beautiful and I couldn't keep my eyes off her, um...things.   

OMG the HCMC Zoo.  No animals were harmed during my shoot.  Camera: Oly E-PL5. 1/800 sec, 45mm, f/1.8 jpeg SOOC. 

OMG the HCMC Zoo.  No animals were harmed during my shoot.

Camera: Oly E-PL5.
1/800 sec, 45mm, f/1.8 jpeg SOOC. 

After being hassled by one of the zoo gate employees because I'm from America (it doesn't matter that I'm Vietnamese-American; they always look for petty ways to extort money from foreigners), Dang and Aaron aggressively talked their way into letting us shoot there--no permit required.  

Hastily walking our way to the a more private area of the zoo, I got the impression that the shoot would have to be wrapped up quickly.  Which means that I was under more pressure to shoot ambient and not tinker with lighting.  Sure, I could waste more of everyone's time and try to explain the integrity of how I work, but truth be told, my Vietnamese sucks and I don't have much leverage in this situation that is supposed to be a good opportunity for me.  Thankfully, the skies were overcast and there was no direct, harsh sunlight at this time.  

I should add, by the way, that there were many people stopping suddenly and snapping away photos with their phones at us, so I knew this was kind of a big deal.  Kind of a paparazzi feel to it.  

Let's finally get to the gear: 

I used my Olympus OMD-EM5 and what I call the "Sublime Prime," my Oly 75mm f/1.8 lens.  This meant I had to stand back a little further to get 3/4 length shots (crop factor of 2X, which gives about a rough equivalent of 150mm angle-of-view on full-frame).  Sure, I could have stood closer and used my trusty 45mm or even my Panasonic 12-35mm/2.8 since she would be posing right in front of green planty stuff and didn't give me much reason to use background separation.  But honestly, I don't get much of a chance to play with the 75mm, and this was a good excuse to.  

I would normally use a battery grip (especially for more big-time shoots) for show, but I didn't pack it for this trip.   

The ambient lighting wasn't too bad!  There was decently soft light where Aaron wanted us to shoot, thanks to the clouds.  What a relief!  I believe I set the lens to f/2.0, bumped up the ISO a bit to compensate for a reasonably fast shutter speed to prevent any "shutter shock" that I have personally experienced with this particular lens at moderate shutter speeds.  To be sure, I set the "1/8 second shutter delay" option in the menus for that extra piece of mind.  I also turned on the face detection feature to detect the eyes--that was really helpful in speeding me up because I didn't have to focus/rescompose; it nailed focus every single time!

And we were off!  In my crappy child-like Vietnamese, I instructed the model how I would be shooting her, and how I would indicate a need to adjust her posing if necessary.  Aaron the stylist would kind of direct in rapid-fire instructions, and then quickly paused the shoot at times to do wardrobe/hair adjustments.  Before I knew it, we were done.  It seemed like 20 minutes, it was pretty fast and he had to get going. 

Here are the results (my final pre-selects) of the shoot:

The 75mm is quite impressive in its sharpness/details.  Here are some 100% crops:


Only recently have these photos been slowly leaking into the Vietnamese news/gossip outlets online.  Here are a couple links, it might interest you to take a peek at those photos there:

-Link 1
-Link 2

Notice anything different in those photos? :)  A-ha!   

They're horrendously retouched.  In fact, I knew the moment I saw them that something wasn't quite right; a "parents' intuition" if you will, as if somebody stole your kid and tried to swap him with a doppelganger.  If you need a clearer example of what I mean, let me just show you:

A little too crazy with the liquify tool there, guy.

A little too crazy with the liquify tool there, guy.

And that was only 4 of them...!  Now, I should preface this with a full disclosure by saying that I unabashedly do retouching on all my models' photos.  That's just part of the game.  But to have a third party take it even further after it's out of my hands...well, I don't know what to say.  I certainly can't complain about it now.  I just know that the ones released in the articles are not representative of what I do.  Never mind the desaturation that was also applied (I preferred the warmer, more vibrant tint).  I realize we're trying to sell an image, but there's a point where it crosses the line and becomes too fake looking.  It's not as though Maria was "fat" at all--not at all!  She has a gorgeous figure. But I'm going to toot my own horn a bit here, because if you're going to Photoshop a female figure, then you'd better know your anatomy and have some semblance of an artistic eye, because you ain't gonna fool this cat.  (Which reminds me: perhaps the retoucher should have bought a copy of my Incredible Comic Book Women With Tom Nguyen, nyuk nyuk plug plug)


I get so worked up about this issue because ultimately it's just not my final work.  I'm very Type-A when it comes to how my photos (and artwork) will look.  I guess that's because I'm a professional artist by nature; I retouch my own stuff, and if I draw comics, I prefer to ink my own pencils.  I know how things need to look in my head, and how to get them on paper or on screen.  Simple as that.  I've been like this ever since college when I did a shirt design for a formal dance thing, and some stupid designer student wannabe thought that he should add some extra lines here and there ::face palm::

Legendary adult photographer Dean Capture (totally NSFW link to his Tumblr here)  had said that when he shot for Penthouse magazine, they would immediately ask for the RAW files after the shoot without him having the chance to retouch his own photos.  So I know this happens; it's just that this is the first time it's happened to me.

Anyways, I'm over it now.  Lesson learned: next time, I will set conditions on the retouch.  Hopefully this will lead to more sexy shoots in my future trips to Vietnam, and ultimately to my 2 holy grails, Ngan Khanh (who I have spoken to!) and Dinh Ngoc Diep!!  :P

Ngan Khanh and Dinh Ngoc Diep are waiting for my dreams huhu :(

Ngan Khanh and Dinh Ngoc Diep are waiting for my dreams huhu :(

Overall, still a fun and interesting experience.  And Dang still kicks ass!  See ya next trip, buddy--and thanks for everything!