Hmong New year taken by travel photographer Kevin Landwer-Johan

This is How I Make My Best Chiang Mai Photos #1

Kevin Landwer-Johan

Northern Thailand is home to many Hmong people. I photographed this Hmong racer during a new year festival near Chiang Mai. Speed like this poses many challenges. Capturing the decisive moment and having a sharp photograph requires planning. here’s how to capture the best photos while you’re in Chiang Mai.

If you’re looking for non-touristy things to do in Chiang Mai and are there around December or January, this is for you.

People often ask me how I made particular photos in and around Chiang Mai. In this series of articles, I will explain my thoughts and the photographic methods I used when making a featured photograph. In some ways it will become like a manual mode photography tutorial. I only use my camera on manual and always have done.

For some more background on what I consider to be the qualities of a good photograph, please read this article.

Hmong Pov Pod Game at a new year festival

Hmong New Year Racing

Hmong new year festivals are fantastic. The Hmong live in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and southern China. There are also a large number of Hmong people living in the USA. Each year, governed by the lunar calendar, Hmong people gather together for a number of new year celebrations. You can usually find one not far from Chiang Mai if you check with a good travel agent.

Festivities can include:

  • Cart racing,
  • Crossbow shooting,
  • Top spinning – a team sport
  • Pov Pod – a traditional ball game,
  • Parades,
  • And lots of photography.

Hmong girls at a new year festival taken during a Chiang Mai Photo Workshop

Focus on Cart Racing

Racing starts early, when it’s still cool in Chiang Mai’s winter season. Sometimes they compete side by side. Other times they are individually racing the clock.

These guys are serious. They move real fast. As fast as they possibly can. Carts construction seems to be strictly controlled and very basic.

Scouting the track for good locations can is vital. It’s a great spectator sport so the track’s lined with people so moving around is difficult. I look for where the best action will happen. Okay, I like the corners because there’s a greater possibility to capture a crash happening.

I positioned myself at this spot for a while. Then, when there was a break in racing I moved to another location where I could include a little more of the environment and capture the carts coming head on at me.

Cart crash at a Hmong new year festival taken during a Chiang Mai Photography Workshop

Being Prepared For The Action

I set up to frame the racers so I could also see the ramp, (top left,) and some of the crowd. Including a more than just the man and his machine adds some context to the photos.

Coming hurtling down from the top of the ramp, these guys are flying. I needed a reasonably fast shutter speed so my photos would be sharp. This photo was made at a shutter speed of 1/400th of a second. Fast enough to freeze him, but still allowing some motion blur on the wheels which adds to the feeling of speed.

Focusing a moving subject coming directly at the camera is challenging. I was using a manual focus 180mm lens. Even if I’d had an auto-focusing lens I doubt my D700 camera would have been capable of tracking the racers as they came towards me.

As the racing started again I set my focus at the point on the track where my subjects were the right size in my frame. As they hit that mark, I made three or four exposures, hoping at least one would be in sharp focus.

Hmong cart racing action taken during a Chiang Mai Photo Tour

Number 10 Was My Winner

Number ten made my day. Just as he came into focus his axle snapped and he lost his wheel. Timing was perfect for me, not so good for him. Though, at the instant I took this photo he was not yet aware of his problem.

My problem was the solid teak wood wheel was free and coming straight at me. I had people directly behind me and was wedged in by the track barrier to my left and a tripod on my right. Sensing pending danger I lifted my tripod, (which had another camera on it,) and lifted my left leg. I felt the wheel brush the inside of the right leg of my jeans. A few centimeters closer and it probably would have broken my leg. At least I would have had the photo!

Action photographs are often pre planned. Setting my camera manually I knew I had my exposure right and that the movement of the cart would not be blurred. Luck is the biggest factor in this photo. If I had not set my camera up well I would not have captured the moment so well, if at all.

Hmong Girls with Parasol taken during a Chiang Mai Photo Workshop

What To Do In Chiang Mai

Catching a Hmong new year celebration is well worth it. Make sure you have your camera ready and plenty of space on your cards. This event is one of my favorite non-touristy things to do in Chiang Mai.

While you’re in Chiang Mai, don’t forget to check out our Chiang Mai Photo Workshops.

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Further Reading

If you’ve enjoyed reading this post you will also enjoy “Learning How to Photography People.”

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