Red River Slumtown, Hanoi, Vietnam

Red River Slumtown, Hanoi, Vietnam

I haven’t done the best job of updating my site while I’ve been away. Balancing transit, planning, shooting, taking it all in, etc. It's been hard to make the time needed to put together the right treatment for these images. The big pieces are coming together slowly but in the meantime, I’ve managed to do some smaller projects for Instagram. A handful of captioned images that when read in sequence are little “Instastories”. Perhaps they should live here as well.

Mr. Thanh was a bit of a nut but probably the best fixer I’ve had yet. Here he is in his hometown of Hanoi, Vietnam showing the lake Senator John McCain supposedly parachuted into after his plane was shot down in ‘67. I told him I wanted to see how the people of Hanoi live so he took me down to the banks of the Hong (Red) River.

Along the banks of the Red River 160,000 people live in mostly illegal or semi-permanent dwellings or boats but also farm in the area and operate small stores and even factories. It's urban, rural, and industrial all in one place. I've never seen anything quite like it.

Dirt roads, irrigations canals, and farmed plots give the area a weirdly rural atmosphere in the midst of a city of 7+ million.

Polluted irrigation canal.

In the night market serving the Red River slumtown, many people sleep in their shops during the day. It was about 9am when we showed up and Thanh saw some guys he knew drinking and playing cards after working all night.

Nice enough guys but they wouldn’t have thought twice about rolling me had I not been with someone they knew. This is why you work with a qualified guide when shooting in places like this. The difference is between being tolerated and possibly welcomed or getting robbed and having your ass kicked. 

"Who the hell is this and why is he here?”

The local meat market. They have slightly different standards of hygiene in Asia. I wouldn't have thought it but it's turned me into a vegetarian. After getting violently ill twice in China from bad meat and seeing a few things of which I'll save the description for a later date, I've found myself unable to consume anything that screams.

The Vietnamese government is beginning to integrate parts of these slums into the city of Hanoi but it will take a long time to clean up such extreme pollution. If ever.

Hanoi is a hard city. Very poor, crowded, and polluted but the people are some of the nicest and friendliest you’ll ever meet. And this despite a decade of chemical warfare waged against them by the US, the effects of which people who haven’t been born yet will pay the price for. You would think they wouldn’t even issue us a visa but instead they welcome us with great warmth. I found their forgive and forget attitude incredibly humbling. 

Leica: Follow Up

Leica: Followup

Or what you should know before spending thousands of dollars on new Leica photo lenses!

In my previous post I made public my displeasure that the most expensive and high-end of professional photography equipment seems to be so poorly manufactured. So what does one do when a $3500 lens breaks on its own after 72 days of use? My first thought was to take it back to the store. 

Fortunately an official Leica store recently opened in Bangkok and I was headed back in that direction anyway. Worldwide these stores appear the same with the signature red trimmed cabinets and minimal white interior design. This branding makes the customer feel consistency and verisimilitude store to store and that you can buy these very expensive photographic products here with total confidence. 

After the manager and Leica Bangkok had a look at my lens he said, "I'm just a re-seller. I can't help you." 

"But this is a Leica store, just like where I bought this lens. Can't you just give me another one? This lens was purchased 72 days ago so must be under factory warranty."

"Any repair must be done in Singapore."

"So you can't replace my defective lens?"

"It must be sent to Singapore."

If you thought there would be support for your purchase at any one of their stores worldwide, think again. All these stores are just very consistently branded re-sellers. Upon this realization the hope of easily exchanging my defective lens was quickly dashed. Really the staff at the Bangkok location couldn't have been less helpful or ignorant of the product they sell. They suggested Leica Singapore was the only one capable of repairing the lens. I asked if there was another shop in Bangkok that could help me, they insisted Singapore was the only option and that if I took it there myself (yes fly to Singapore with the lens), the repair would be done much faster.

As this seemed like the only option, I called Singapore and explained my situation, requesting a product exchange. The woman I spoke with was nice enough to look into it but upon getting back to me said the lens would still need to be evaluated there and that shipping out of Thailand and back would take 1-3 months. My jaw hit the floor. This obviously wasn't going to work. 

Leica was unable to offer any reasonable solution nor sympathy or even acknowledgment of the problem. A problem that should have been caught by the inspector at the factory before the lens even went in the box. Despite being told there were no alternatives I took matters into my own hands and found AV Camera in Bangkok’s Bangrak district. 

Mr. Prapassarangkul is my hero in Thailand. He fixed my lens in less than a week for 60 USD. He told me Leica lenses have gotten much more mechanically complicated the past few years and require more maintenance than older generations. Apparently the problem I had with my 35mm Summicron is not that uncommon but I’ve got it back and it's working perfect so couldn't be happier. I can’t recommend AV Camera in Bangkok enough as everyone I dealt with there was a pleasure.

Given my recent experiences, one might think I’ve become vehemently anti-Leica. Not the case at all but any user or potential user should exercise an abundance of caution as the old adage, "they don't make them like they used to," couldn't be more true in this case. Inspect new lenses very carefully and if anything seems loose or just doesn't feel right, exchange it immediately. 

I’ve been in Asia for about 15 weeks and this is the stills package I arrived with:

Sony A7R
Sony NEX-7
Voigtlander Color-Skopar 21mm f/4
Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f/1.4
Leica Summicron 50mm f/2
Voigtlander Nokton 75mm f/1.8
Leica Summarit 90mm f/2.5

Piece by piece, this is what I’m now carrying:

Sony A7R
Sony A7S
Leica Super Elmar 21mm f/3.4
Leica Summicron 35mm f/2
Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/2.8
Leica Summicron 50mm f/2
Leica Summarit 90mm f/2.5

Basically I realized that it’s unlikely I’ll return to many of these amazing places so the opportunity to get unique images is now. The Voigtlander lenses I’ve been shooting with for the past few years are soft, distorted, lacking in resolution, and have all kinds of chroma shift and aberration. They’re excellent for learning manual focus shooting on but upon close scrutiny, they just don’t yield high quality images. As I’ve immersed myself in photography it's become important that I get the absolute best images I possibly can so for this I must have Leica. I ended up spending a good chunk of my travel fund purchasing new gear in order to capture the quality and beauty I seek but it's proven to be worth it though. I only wish I’d have come to this conclusion sooner as I really didn’t have the right tools at some of the most interesting places I’ve been. C’est la vie ;)

My final conclusion -

Leica makes amazing pictures but they seem to be having some manufacturing problems these days and support on the whole is inadequate. Handle your new lenses with extreme care and know that if you do have a problem, you’re better off seeking a solution on your own. At least in Asia. 

Wishing a very happy holiday season to any and all reading this. I can’t believe it’s almost that time of year again! It’s just not the same here in Bangkok.

New Leica photo lenses are garbage.

New Leica photo lenses are garbage

Don't waste your time or money buying new Leica photo lenses. Buy them used or refurbished as a lens that was working great in the 70's, 80's, or 90's will still be working great today. I'm depressed about this because I'm in the middle of a 6 month long photo project and have zero interest in shooting with any lenses other than Leica. For me they've always been magical; the absolute gold standard of photographic quality. Unfortunately something has changed at Leica as quality control seems to be non-existent in new product. Leica has become a luxury brand that you see sold in high end shopping malls next to Hermes and Prada stores. After all, it's just rich guys who buy them to wear as ornaments around their neck right? Who cares if they break in a few months. If you can afford one, you can easily afford another! 

In August 2014 I bought a new Summicron 50mm M mount lens for 2100 USD from B&H in New York City. Upon taking it out of the box, the aperture ring felt a little loose. I shot with it for awhile and as I adjusted the aperture, the ring definitely felt like it was getting looser and looser. There shouldn't be any play in a lens when anything is adjusted and if there is then there's a mechanical problem. And in a brand new Leica lens. Shameful. Thankfully B&H has the best return policy in the business and they exchanged it without asking a single question. I've now been shooting with the exchanged lens for almost 6 months and it seems to be fine. For now.

I loved the images I was getting with my Summicron 50mm so much that in September I purchased a new Summicron 35mm M mount lens for the equivalent of 3495 USD from the Leica store in Shanghai, China and have been shooting with it non-stop. A few days ago the lens felt a little different though I couldn't figure out exactly why. Today as I focused, I realized I couldn't get a sharp set to infinity and upon closer inspection, I've found that it's coming loose from the mount. I've been extremely careful with this lens and nothing has happened that would cause this. I have some video of the problem on my Instagram @bennettcain .

Two brand new lenses in a row and purchased in two different countries. Seriously, what are the odds? If anyone from Leica happens to read this, I can't begin to express my disappointment. I've been a photographer for most of my life and was never able to afford Leica until a few years ago. It was my dream to someday have them to be able to capture the world around me in that special Leica way. Now that I'm shooting with them, I'm loving my images but I don't feel confident going out with them. The optics are sublime but the housing is now very fragile and poorly made. Why?