Halong Bay, lying some 3 hours drive west of Hanoi, is famed for its dramatic landscape of massive limestone rock formations and karsts jutting out from the sea. Because of their precipitous nature, most of the islands are uninhabited and unaffected by a human presence, the largest of which, named Cat Ba island, being the main exception.
Although World Heritage protected, the bay has suffered from over fishing and large scale tourism this past decade, making it just that bit harder to find a place of solitude to enjoy the spectacular scenery. Regular day trippers drive in from Hanoi to spend a day on a reconverted junk boat only to return mid afternoon, missing the very best times to be out on the water – twighlight and at dawn. A number of boat operators have been running overnight sailings for those that want to experience the bay at its very best and least crowded. For the photographer this is the only way to see the majesty of Halong Bay.
My first photographic foray to Halong Bay was in 1995 and, even though I returned literally dozens of times in the years afterwards, I never really captured the beauty of the place on camera. Many of my trips took place during the winter period when the bay is almost covered in a damp, perpetual mist. Moving forward to 2011 I decided that now was the time to give it serious coverage.
Rather than be restricted to the movements of a boat shared by other passengers I chartered a private two cabin boat to have a free reign of where I wanted to go and where the light best presented itself. Although still encompassing the Halong Bay region, I set out to head to Bai Tu Long Bay, almost in the opposite direction of many of the other boats so that I could work without the threat of large numbers of tourist boats blocking the scene.
Landscape photography itself is not my particular forte, hence I decided to bring a model with me to add a human and fashion element to the shoot and also to diversify the range of images I could take. This proved to be a blessing as the heavy winds that carried through the trip meant that the vessel I was on could not raise its red sails, depriving me of a planned photographic scene, although I finally got around that dilemma to a degree as you see in a number of these images here.
The winds meant I was in for some logistical challenges but, in hindsight, provided me with a visual element of drama and motion that I wouldn’t have been able to capture otherwise.
In certain, safe anchorage points in the bay there are oyster pearl farms and floating fishing village communities – the main form of transport between their homes and the larger boats being the ever-present sampan. With the beams of a striking morning light reigning down on us I photographed the model, in her traditional dress, rowing the boat through the azure waters of the bay. The backlit scene of the karst formations against her white and black dress made for a striking set up to photograph and resulted in the most pleasing shots of the trip.
In all, I felt I covered a hybrid selection of fashion, heritage and landscape in this shoot of Halong Bay so the end result was one of great satisfaction.
For the camera gear aficionados, it is worth mentioning here that I shot mostly with the new Nikon 24mm fixed lens wide open at f/1.4. I did this primarily to soften the scene and tone up the beautiful bokeh rather than shoot point sharp with the entire scene in focus. I was amazed at the result of this exquisite lens and certainly wouldn’t have had the same degree of success without it.