Capturing The Hmong Spirit With My X-Pro2

· 24.August.2017

A few months back in February 2017 I was in Vietnam with a bunch of amazing photographers and my dear friend Eric Kim, and his wife Cindy. We were traveling around the remote parts of north Vietnam between Hanoi and Sapa skirting the boundaries of Southern China. It was really beautiful reconnecting with old friends and making new ones along the way. I was traveling with my trusted Fujifilm X-Pro2 a couple of batteries and SD cards. I’m a huge fan of the 35mm f/2 on the X-Pro2 but since my focus was capturing street and documentary, I chose my newly bought XF23mm f/2 for this entire trip. Another amazing lens from the Fuji family. There is a huge payback when you use the one camera and one lens for many days on the go. Allow your judgement to frame and your foot to zoom in and out. Keep things simple. Talk to strangers and be genuine… the rest becomes all so easy. Soon my camera was an extension of me. I blended in the very scene I was trying to capture. The villages in the hills are cold and misty in February but I was so ready for my north Vietnam adventure.

The Hmong spirit

Hmong is one of the 54 ethnic group in Vietnam. The Hmong people occupy the mountainous regions of North Vietnam and are often spotted in the provinces of Ha Giang, Lao Cai, Sa Pa, Lai Chau, Son La.

On average Hmong women seem to work much harder than men and neither freezing cold or rain seem to dampen their spirits. Hmong women are extremely smart and mostly muti-lingual. They speak fluent English, French, German, sometimes Spanish and Russian too apart from their native mong and a few local dialects. Yet, they live humble lives selling their handicraft.

Capturing the simple beauty of the lives of these amazingly gracious people in Lao Cai was quite a humbling experience. To see them up close and walk a little in their shoes was truly amazing but it wasn’t without its challenges. I’m not the usual stuck-up traveller. I love the rain, I don’t mind dirt and mud. I also enjoy street food and love language barriers. It excites me! To see these beautiful faces in their traditional gear and simple way of life it takes the experience to yet another level. It was cold, misty, dark, damp, the wind chill was high but these faces carry an enormous strength of resilience and hospitality. They trudge those muddy terrains welcoming strangers with open arms.

B/W love

It has been a bit over two years now that I have been shooting in black and white. Even when I try to force myself to the beautiful Provia or Classic Chrome  simulations in camera, I still crave the Acros grain! Fujifilm has created beautiful film simulations, particularly the wispy B/W tones that Acros deliver. B/W done right is like a thousand emotions wrapped up in a frame. It makes my heart stop. Its poetic – I wrote about it here. Once you know how to find your exposure and contrast in B/W  – colour photos feel insipid. I even shoot B/W consistently even when I want colour in my final shot. The reason being B/W takes away all other distractions for me helping me hone in to capture the emotion in my frame. And without emotion and soul, a photo is pretty much meaningless.

My process

I usually shoot RAW + JPG. I rarely keep the JPG files but they serve as a good reminder for what I want my final RAW to look like once processed. When using Film Simulations I stick to ACROS – R most of the time, but if I’m shooting skin tones for an extended period I change it to ACROS – G. It doesn’t matter much if the settings aren’t right in your camera as with shooting RAW. Because you get a second life re-adjusting everything in Adobe Lightroom. Perhaps this is why RAW shooters make lazy photographers (I digress), but it does help ‘see’ the mood you are trying to create in B/W more precisely.

I usually keep my exposure between 1/3 to -1. This setting works well for me. If shooting in JPG only I create a little S-curve in the camera by deepening the shadow tone to +2 and the highlights tone to -2. In Lightroom I use my custom made presets to bring in that look to my RAW file. Feel free to check my site for preset downloads. I almost never crop my photos as this completely wrecks the frame I composed initially.

I hope you enjoy my ‘Hmong Spirit’ series. Feel free to ask any questions or send me an email at amit@23-north.com.

Thank you Fujifilm for listening to user feedback and creating an amazing masterpiece – the X-Pro2. I have had 4 mirrorless Fujifilm cameras since 2014. And nothing has surpassed the magic of X-Pro2 yet. I look forward to making more memories with it.