Our trek to the top of the mountain had its rewards. It would be my first night to sleep in an Akha village.
As with many hill tribes in Laos, UNICEF had helped these villagers install a water pipe from the nearest small river, which provided my trekking team with what turned out to be a bone-chilling, very public bath about thirty minutes before nightfall. Our seven-hour trek to the mountaintop had been steep, strenuous and sweaty. Climbing mountains at midday in these locales can be hot and exhausting but the nights this time of year resemble those of the North Pole. It’s funny how icy water can be excruciatingly painful and refreshing at the same time.
The Akha are modest. So each member of our party only stripped down to underwear for the goose-bump-inducing, fully exposed frigid shower in the middle of the village that evening. Surely, this was the shortest bath of my life. Shivering in wet underwear under the curious eyes of several Akha women wasn’t pleasant. But our bodies warmed up soon thereafter with ample samples of lao-lao: the home-brewed, highly spirited local alcoholic concoction that flowed freely later that night.
My team consisted of my friend, Kit Johnson, from the UK and our Lao guide for the day plus two porters, who had lugged the camera and lighting backpacks up the mountain. It was Christmas Day in the Western world. But here there were no signs of snow and holiday tinsel or the accompanying Jingle Bell sounds that can sometimes be rather invasive to the ear if one finds himself in a scrooge mood. The merriment of Santa Claus and reindeer that seems to inundate shopping malls of the West during pre-Christmas shopping binges was not to be heard in this Akha village.
Roosters crowed. Pigs grunted. Dogs barked and the night was filled with the occasional whimper of a baby. But babies don’t seem to cry very much here. Maybe it’s because they aren’t spoiled.
The evening sky was crystal clear at the top of that mountain. I lifted my eyes. Galaxies beyond infinity were visible. Every square centimeter of the universe seemed to be inundated with stars.
Early the next morning we broke out the lights and launched straight into our Stroborati endeavors of the day.
Three Speedlites were used for this image of an Akha mother and baby. At camera right, Kit held a radio-triggered Canon 580EXII flash unit shooting through a Westcott 43″ collapsible umbrella. On the left, our guide held a 430EXII rigged with a another 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 baby’s face. On camera was a Ray ring flash powered down three f/stops for fill. Ambient exposure was set at minus two stops. Compare the unlit photo on the right below with the lit version above. Notice the bright background when using normal exposure on her face in the unlit version. With Speedlites the flash can emphasize the subject with more sculptural effects while underexposing the ambient light on the background to get more three-dimensional separation.
Backgrounds are almost equally important as the subject so I had first scouted the best locations in the village, then used the guide as my lighting subject to get the Speedlites tweaked before bringing this Akha lady to the set.
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