Zuela's Guest House, Laos

I recently had to make a trip from China into Laos to renew my days in county allowance for my Chinese visa. I have a 10 year visa but I am only allow 60 days in country at a time without leaving, so off to Laos we went. Since I knew it was coming I planned to help a friend of a friend with some photography and business consulting projects while we were in Laos.

My family and I spent a week at Zuela’s Guesthouse in Luang Namtha, Laos, updating their advertising photos. I took new photos of their guest rooms, buildings, restaurant and food. My wife Lorilee also helped them design some hospitality and customer service documents to make the guest experience more enjoyable.

Photo of vegetable curry at Zuela'a Guesthouse in Luang Namtha, Laos

While this may seem outside of the scope of a humanitarian photographer, the reality is that it is hard to draw lines and put projects into boxes. I see my primary goal as a humanitarian photographer as investing in people. To clarify even further, my goal as a humanitarian photographer and filmmaker is to invest in people who are also investing in, and empowering people. I try partner with people, companies and organizations that are trying to make the world a better place and don’t have access or funding to get professional media produced.

Vong and Xia, the owners of Zuela’s Guesthouse and Restaurant definitely fit this profile. They work incredibly hard to help the people in their community have access to opportunities to succeed and thrive.

We had 3 main photography focuses for our time Zuela’s.

  1. Buildings and Guestrooms
  2. Food
  3. Staff portraits
Photo of people on motorcycles waiting to cross a bamboo bridge in Luang Namtha, Laos

Photographing the guest rooms was definitely a challenge. In our travels we have realized that the photos on hotel booking sites rarely, if ever, accurately portray what is in the room and the size of the room. We really tried to make sure we covered the room and the accurately showed the size of the beds in relation to the size of the room. The other challenge was getting an even exposure throughout the rooms. So I shot 5-7 photos at increments of 1 stop and blended them in using the HDR photo merge in Lightroom CC.

Photo of Pad Thai served at Zuela's Guesthouse in Luang Namtha, Laos

Photographing the food was also a challenge. We went through the menu with the owners Vong and Xia to figure out which menu items were most popular and which items they wanted to feature. Once we had our list of dishes to shoot we began to separate them into groups so that we could photograph them at meal times and then eat them so there wasn’t any wasted food.

Our shot list for each food item was as follows:

  1. Top down shot of the food that could be cropped square for booking sites.
  2. Medium close beauty shot of the food.
  3. Tight detail shot of the dish with a macro lens to show texture
 Photo of chicken fried noodles at Zuela's Guesthouse in Luang Namtha, Laos

Zuela’s makes a wide variety of food, everything from steaks and burgers to traditional Lao curries, soups and noodles. Xia is also an accomplished baker, every morning she bakes muffins and breads that go with the meals and are sold to tourists going out on day treks.

The challenge with photographing the food was keeping the look consistent. We were shooting over a period of three days and shooting at 3 different times of day, early morning, noon and late afternoon. Which meant not only was the light different at the various times of day, but it was also affected by the weather conditions as well. Because of this we ended up needing to move where we set up the shot depending on the intensity of the light.

We predominately used natural light for the food photos, for some we used small LED video light panels to add fill light when it was getting darker and the shadows started getting to long and heavy.

Photo of a steak dinner at Zuela's Guesthouse in Luang Namtha, Laos

For staging the food dishes we tried some different options but settled on a the plain wood table as the default and added a place mat occasionally for a different feel.

Because the light was constantly changing and I only had one chance to get it right I shot everything with the Sony A99 tethered to the computer. Which added a small challenge of it’s own because Lightroom does not support tethering to Sony camera’s. So you have to use a work around which involves using Sony’s Remote Camera Control app to import the photos directly from the camera to the hard drive as they are shot. Then using Lightroom’s auto import feature to move the photos to their final destination in lightroom.

For the food photography I used 2 lenses the Sony 50mm 1.4 and the Sigma 105mm 2.8 macro lens. For the guest rooms and building shots I used the Sony 20mm 2.8.

Photo of Chicken Green Curry at Zuela's Guesthouse in Luang Namtha, Laos
Photo of a Bananna muffin and a latte at Zuela's Guesthouse in Luang Namtha, Laos

One of the last photo projects was taking staff portraits for their website. Because of work schedules we ended up taking them at 2 separate times. All the portraits were taken with the Sony A99 and the Sigma 105mm macro. I made the portraits of Vong and Xia, the owners in their restaurant in the evening with a single flash in an umbrella style softbox set off to camera right.

For the portraits of the staff I took them mid morning with the same camera set up and window light to camera left.

Below: Portraits of Xia and one of the hotel staff.