Behind the Lens: Richard James Taylor’s Journey to Capture the Magic of a Mekong Sunset in Laos

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Mekong sunset photography

This feature is courtesy of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Could you describe the image in focus?

This photograph was taken on the Mekong River in southern Laos, near the Cambodian border. My task was to document life along the Mekong, and it was during this assignment that I stumbled upon the scene in Si Phan Don — or ‘4,000 islands’ — a region revered for its simplistic and relaxed lifestyle.

Could you explain your process for capturing the image?

I used a Canon 5DS equipped with a 70-200mm 2.8 lens at 140mm for this shot. I have a penchant for photographing landscapes at extended focal lengths; I find it intriguing how it condenses the view, drawing the background into the frame and making the hills appear nearer and more imposing. I also utilized a LEE Filters 0.6 neutral density grad filter to preserve detail in the sky and establish a balance between the foreground and background. Shooting against the light instills vibrancy and warmth, but it’s crucial that the sun is low on the horizon for the technique to be effective.

What obstacles did you face?

Identifying the viewpoint was a task I had undertaken a few days prior. I determined that the sunset, slightly to the right of the frame, would lend the scene a gentle backlit ambiance. When I returned, I got there an hour before the sunset, which proved to be a tad early — in the tropics, the magical golden light only appears just before the sun actually sets. I was also on the lookout for human elements to animate the scene, but the islands are usually serene and I began doubting the feasibility of my plan. However, just as the light was about to fade, a local paddling a dugout canoe appeared, proving that patience indeed pays off.

What message did you aim to impart with this photograph?

The Mekong’s persona transforms in this section of Laos, diverging into multiple waterways, with inlets forming a labyrinth of tiny islands. Cars are a rarity on these islands, thus boats are the primary mode of transport. I sought to encapsulate this pastoral aura. This locale, bathed in the tender backlight of the setting sun, provided the perfect setting for my vision.

This article was featured in the Jul/Aug 2023 edition of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

To subscribe to National Geographic Traveller (UK) magazine, please click here. (Accessible only in selected countries).

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Mekong sunset photography

Where was Richard James Taylor’s photograph taken?

The photograph was taken on the Mekong River in southern Laos, close to the Cambodia border. The specific region is known as Si Phan Don or ‘4,000 islands’.

What equipment did Richard James Taylor use to capture the image?

Richard James Taylor used a Canon 5DS camera equipped with a 70-200mm 2.8 lens at 140mm. He also used a LEE Filters 0.6 neutral density grad filter to maintain detail and balance in the photograph.

What were the challenges that Richard James Taylor faced while capturing the image?

One of the key challenges was timing the photograph to capture the magical golden light that appears just before sunset. In addition, finding human elements to animate the scene was difficult due to the quiet nature of the islands.

What was Richard James Taylor’s intention with the photograph?

Taylor aimed to capture the bucolic and tranquil vibe of the Mekong River region in southern Laos. He wanted to illustrate how boats are the primary form of transport on the islands, shaped by the river’s numerous creeks.

Where can I find more of Richard James Taylor’s work?

You can find more of Richard James Taylor’s work in various issues of the National Geographic Traveller (UK) magazine. You can subscribe to the magazine online, available in select countries.

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8 comments

Off_The_Beaten_Track July 21, 2023 - 10:09 am

No cars, only boats, sounds like paradise! Richard captured the essence perfectly. One day I’ll make it to Laos, one day…

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Visions_by_Vera July 21, 2023 - 12:56 pm

Patience pays off! the local in the canoe was the perfect touch. Amazing work Richard!

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TommyG July 21, 2023 - 3:04 pm

mate, that golden light just before sunset, now that’s the magic hour. great to hear a pro talk about it too.

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LifethroughaLens July 21, 2023 - 8:47 pm

A Canon 5DS, huh? guess I need to start saving, that’s some serious kit. Totally worth it for that Mekong sunset though.

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DaisyMay89 July 21, 2023 - 11:33 pm

Wow! Always love to hear about the behind the scenes work in capturing those breath taking shots. Big fan of Richard Taylor’s work!!

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shutterbug_2001 July 22, 2023 - 1:39 am

I’m surprised he didn’t talk more about the challenges of shooting in the tropics, like humidity and bugs, am i the only one?

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Jill_from_the_hill July 22, 2023 - 1:57 am

why does he need a grad filter, wouldn’t hdr do the job? not a photog myself just curios.

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TravelBuddy July 22, 2023 - 6:27 am

I visited Si Phan Don a few years back. The simplicity of life there is just, wow… Makes me wanna go back. Thanks for sharing this, Richard!

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