Most people travel to the northern Laos hill tribe country via a 15- to 20-hour local bus ride from Luang Prabang, the nearest major town toward the south. A fifteen-dollar bus ticket sure beats going by private chartered car that would set you back about US$230 one-way.
Cramped in a tiny bus seat with camera and lighting backpacks undertow wasn’t so bad after all. I met a British guy, Kit Johnson, heading to the small town of Phongsali where I was going and we spent most of the journey talking about photography so the time went by quickly. Kit is a keen amateur photographer and since we both planned to use Phongsali as our base for outlying Akha hill tribe treks, he readily agreed to join me so he could see my Stroborati pursuits in action. Early the next morning we were off to our first Akha village.
But before we unpacked the camera gear and lights, we were invited to have breakfast with the village leader, which turned out to be a feast of numerous Akha delicacies that spiced up generous helpings of sticky rice. One bowl was filled with a tasty red sauce that would tempt just about anyone’s taste buds. I learned after downing a big helping that it was fresh pig blood curry. The village leader kept graciously filling our cups with lao-lao, a potent home brew made from rice. It’s not often that I get rather tipsy at ten in the morning but at least the inebriation minimized the trauma of having just indulged in such pig blood culinary delight.
The women of the many Akha hill tribe villages use old coins as decorations for their headdresses and jewelry: the wealthier the family, the more elaborate the ornamentation.
Akha women are usually rather shy but after our morning drinking session with the chief, I guess he’d put the word out that we’d be taking a few photos. Three Speedlites were used for this setup. At camera right, Kit held a radio-triggered Canon 580EX II flash unit mounted into a LumiQuest LTp softbox. On the left, our guide held a 430EX II rigged with a similar Pocket Wizard TT5 receiver and a Harbor Digital 1/8-inch grid that narrowed the beam of light to add a punch of exposure to the hanging baskets on the left. On camera was a Ray Ring Flash powered down two f/stops for fill. Ambient exposure was also set down two stops. Compare the unlit photo on the right below with the final tweaked version above.
Perhaps these Akha ladies were chuckling about the crazy photographer who was stumbling around and who had probably indulged in one lao-lao too many.
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