Photography from south-east Asia by Jon Sanwell


Hanoi street portraits (#3)



Serious young men of Hanoi.

Hanoi street portraits (#2)


I don’t think these two know each other, but I think they make quite an elegant couple.

Hanoi street portraits (#1)


Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been taking some simple, uncrowded, black and white portrait photographs in the streets near my home in Hanoi, using an 85mm lens. Having just used my 35mm lens for more than a year, it’s refreshing to be doing something a little different. My camera feels new again.

A year (and a bit) at 35mm

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(Hanoi, 2014-5)

Since I came back to Hanoi in September 2013, I’ve been shooting only with a 35mm prime lens. I wanted to test myself by limiting my camera to one focal length, 35mm, for an indefinite period of time. I like to set myself challenges or projects occasionally, whether it’s sticking to one lens for a particular trip, shooting in black and white for a while, or photographing a specific neighbourhood. It helps me to think about things in a different way and to take pictures that I otherwise wouldn’t have taken.

Having spent four months mostly using my zoom lens while travelling down the Mekong in the summer of 2013, I felt like it was time to do something different by the time I came back to Hanoi. I’m proud of the pictures that I took on that trip, and some of my favourites are environmental portraits, wide angle pictures that show a person in context. These pictures were often taken at around the 35mm mark on my zoom, and it was largely these pictures that prompted me to invest in a 35mm prime.

The 35mm is perfect for these environmental portraits, where you see a person in their everyday surroundings, such as a market stall or cafe. I’ve taken a lot of this sort of picture over the last year or so, as I’m always inclined to take portraits, whatever lens I’m using. When searching for this kind of picture, I’m not just looking for an interesting face, but also for a complementary background, one that either says something about the subject’s life or one that simply has an interesting colour or texture. With a 35mm lens, the image can be about the place, not just the face.

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(Hanoi, 2013-4)

There’s plenty of not-very-interesting discussion online about what exactly constitutes a standard or normal lens, and which focal length most closely matches what the human eye sees. I don’t want to join this debate, but I will say that, for me, a 35mm lens on a full-frame SLR gives a very natural field of view. It’s wide, but not too wide; you can get close to your subject, and still include plenty of background, without any of the distortion that is sometimes produced by wider lenses. It’s also a very versatile lens, good for photographing street scenes, details and patterns, as well as the portraits that I most like to take.

From a practical point of view, the 35mm – or any other physically small prime – is well-suited to city shooting. I love to take street portraits in Hanoi, and I always try to engage a little with the people I photograph; I like to get physically close to the person whose portrait I’m taking, without invading their personal space. While my standard zoom lens, a big, serious-looking 24-70mm, can be quite intimidating for the person at the other end, the 35mm is smaller and friendlier. This is especially useful in Hanoi, where people are often understandably wary of camera-wielding strangers.

bangkok x9

(Bangkok, February 2014)

I don’t often write about the technical or practical side of photography on here, as I prefer to show the pictures themselves, rather than dwell on the processes behind them. This site isn’t intended to be a “how to” site; the last thing the internet needs is another self-appointed photography expert. I’ve also deliberately avoided mentioning specific brands and models in this post, as it’s certainly not intended to be a product review; but for the benefit of those who are interested (and I know that I’m always interested in what cameras and lenses other people are using), these pictures were all taken with a Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM lens on a Canon 5D mk I.

Now it’s time to move on. Over the last week or so, I’ve started using my 85mm lens again, to take some tightly framed head and shoulders portraits (coming soon to the blog), and next month I’ll be taking my standard zoom with me when I go away for the Tet holiday. I stuck with my self-imposed 35mm challenge for a lot longer than I expected, and it’s been a rewarding experience, but now it’s time for a change.


downriver collage

My photobook, Downriver, is still available through

In the summer of 2013, I spent four months following the Mekong river through south-east Asia. From the Xishuangbanna region in China’s Yunnan province, I travelled into northern Laos, crossed the river for a brief visit to Thailand, then continued down through the southern tail of Laos and into eastern Cambodia, before finishing my journey in the Mekong delta region in southern Vietnam. The book is a collection of my photographs and thoughts from the trip.

The 136 page book is available as an 8×10 in softcover book or as a PDF download. Click here to order or to see a limited preview.


Night market morning


Long Bien night market is where Hanoi’s market traders come to buy their fruit, vegetables, fish and meat. Every night, trucks come in from the countryside, piled high with fresh produce. It’s a frenetic, chaotic place, full of energy and life, despite the hour (very early or very late, depending on your point of view). Purposeful merchants push carts and carry baskets laden with food; motorbikes and trucks plough through the narrow, muddy channels between makeshift stalls. In the midst of the frenzy, other traders take time out to play cards or nap in hammocks. Above it all, Long Bien bridge, built at the start of the last century and showing its age, but now one of the symbols of the city.

When I arrived, at around five this morning, the only light was from the bare bulbs hanging under coloured awnings or in the open back doors of the vendors’ lorries. By the time I left, this harsh artificial light had been replaced by hazy dawn sunshine.

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West Lake, Hanoi

Winter sun II


In my last post, I wrote about the winter sun in Hanoi. That sun has promptly been replaced with grey sky and drizzle. Hanoi does this to you; just when you’re feeling comfortable and at ease with the place, it does something to remind you who’s boss. Just to prove to myself that it wasn’t all a dream, I’m posting some more pictures taken in the December and January sunshine.

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Winter sun


We love to moan about the weather in Hanoi. The English national obsession with the climate is perfectly at home here in northern Vietnam. Most of all, we love to moan about the Hanoi winter. Grizzled expats spend the summer months regaling newcomers with tales of the horrors that await them: the cold, the drizzle, the damp, the fog, the greyness, the mould. Oh God, the mould. My Vietnamese students, meanwhile, bring out their hats, coats and scarves as soon as the temperature drops below 25. “But this is like summer in England,” I tell them. Amidst all this bellyaching, we tend to forget the dry, bright, crisp winter days of December and (fingers crossed) January.

I like the changing of the seasons. Changes in the weather mark the passage of time, punctuating the year. In 2012, I lived in Ho Chi Minh City, where it’s always hot, and I missed the passing of the seasons. In my memory, that year in the south feels like one long indistinct stretch of time, with little to distinguish one month from another. Here in Hanoi, for a few months of the year, I get to swap my shorts and t-shirts for jeans and jacket, escape from air-conditioning, and feel that time is moving on.

These winter days are perfect for taking street portraits in the weak sunshine or under the high white cloud. These pictures, taken over the last two or three weeks, are my tribute to the Hanoi winter.

(Disclaimer: the author reserves the right to whine and carp, at length, about the weather when the damp and the mould kick in.)

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Chef in the shadows


I’m always on the look-out for people in the shadows of the alleys and doorways of the city. I really like the natural contrast that occurs as the natural light fades away in the background.


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