These PNG Huli Wigmen were performing a ritual war dance in full regalia deep in the far reaches of the Huli Highlands. They’re called “wigmen” because they don hats woven from human hair that straddle their faces, which are painted in brilliant hues of red and yellow pigment. This image was shot several years ago before Stroborati and before I started using more sophisticated off-camera lighting strategies but perhaps it still offers valuable lessons. My fill light was powered down a couple of f/stops but it was a simple bare-flash Speedlite mounted directly on camera and as you can see it’s a bit harsh.
I shot this photo in the late 90s before high-end digital cameras were available. I was shooting Fuji Velvia 50 film, a rather contrasty emulsion especially when used in a midday, clear sky and bright sunlight situation like this. But I always loved the punchy, saturated colors of that film.
Deep shadows under the arms of these tribal warriors meant fill flash was absolutely necessary, otherwise the tonal values in the dark recesses would have registered pure black on the film with no detail whatsoever. Film, unlike digital, has very little latitude, especially emulsions like Fuji Velvia. Though most people shoot digitally these days, fill light is still necessary for images shot with black shadows cast from a midday sun. This image would have been way, way too contrasty without some kind of fill light. Even a small Sto-Fen Omni Bounce dome (which I wasn’t using) over the flash head would have rendered my fill light a tad less harsh. Perhaps the only reason this image is barely acceptable is due to the a wide-angle view and the fact that the subjects are small. I was lying flat on the ground so I tilted the flash head up about 30 degrees to eliminate any burnout on the grass in front of the camera.
Considering my use of a 24mm wide-angle lens, the dramatic low angle and the resulting small subject size, perhaps a fill light directly centered from camera position wasn’t such a bad choice. But today I’d try to soften the light using an attached modifier. If I wanted a quick down-and-dirty solution, I could have used a modifier such as the LumiQuest Big Bounce, Ultrasoft Bounce or Pocket Bouncer for an on-camera fill light source or maybe the Gary Fong Lightsphere dome. (See the product photos below.) Each of these would have broadened the light source and softened the lighting effect but considering my shooting distance from the subjects the strobe output would pretty much have continued functioning as a point source because these modifiers are small relative to the width of the shot. Still, they would have been much better than bare flash.
There was an extra set of shadows under the warrior’s drums caused by my light source raised above camera but the scale of these shadows makes them negligible when viewed from this distance. In a tighter view of only one person, however, those strobe-induced shadows would be more of a problem and a softer fill light would be needed for sure.
Another quick solution would be to use either an Orbis or Ray ring flash as fill from camera but you’d get some burnout on the grass in front of the lens from a low angle like this. Also, ring lights don’t produce a wide circle of light, which presents coverage problems with wide-angle lenses.
Whatever the choice of modifier in a one-light solution mounted on-camera, the big advantage when working without an assistant is that the fill light moves around with you and speeds up your being able to shoot numerous compositions from different locations, especially when you’rein fluid, real-life situations and it would be difficult to get the subjects to repeat or re-create their actions while you try several different takes and might have to keep changing a remote off-camera fill light position. If on-camera fill is powered down two or three stops relative to the main light source, then it doesn’t appear so boring and in risky locales it’s one less remote light in the field that a potential thief could easily snatch when you’re not looking. Often our lighting solutions must reflect the kinds of circumstances we encounter. Unless we’re in a controlled environment with plenty of time on our hands and perhaps an assistant or two, sometimes the simplest, best compromise wins.
>A more sophisticated fill light choice would be to use a couple of shoot-through diffusing panels positioned down low at camera height on each side with one or two strobes firing through each to get a more even wash of shadowless fill light from a much broader source. This would take a bit of time to set up stands and rig up radio slaves, etc., but it would be much better and I’d definitely do it if I had the time and the circumstances permitted. However, I’m never keen about lugging extensive lighting gear through leech-invested jungles to reach remote tribal people. Refer to my first blog post to see the gear I’m carrying at the moment. But more stuff keeps being added all the time. Hey, I like toys.
Let’s, take a step back from all this technical mumbo jumbo and think about the past history of this rather unique animistic culture in Papua New Guinea. Not so long ago they were cannibals. Today, however and thank God, guys like these in this photo are more than happy to don their “war costumes” and pose for tourists for what we might consider to be token remuneration. Note, however, than many model releases stipulate some kind of monetary exchange to make the agreement legally binding in Western courts. These locals, however, don’t give a crap about these seemingly crazy Western mores. They just want the money. Hey, capitalism permeates the far reaches of every jungle these days. The world is small.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t so long ago that these guys used to eat each other.
But not just for everyday fare. They’d mostly only eat those they had killed in battle. There were two reasons for this: First, was because they had won and thus eating the defeated opponent was the greatest insult. Second, was because they were honoring their fallen opponents for their bravery and by eating them they themselves might absorb some of that bravery.
Margaret Meade did many studies in this area long ago. She discovered there was a bit of what we in the Western world would consider to be homosexuality. But to the tribal warriors they felt that ingesting the semen of other brave warriors would make them strong, too.
I can’t keep from wondering, however, if this belief wasn’t concocted by older tribal warriors seeking thrill they could no longer get from their wives so now they were trying to pawn off this concept to virile, eager younger warriors at hand whose motivation was only gaining knowledge from their seniors.
OK, back to Stroborati.
I decided to run this image through my Photoshop 3-D workflow action to see if I could punch the three-dimensional effect just a tweak using a shot from the past that had such a simple lighting solution. Here are the two images for comparison:
Though it’s a bit hard to see the subtle differences with small images like this, if you look closely at the men’s bodies in the photo on the right, you can see they look slightly more three-dimensional than in the original on the left. I could have gone wild with this effect but I didn’t want to punch the image too much with the 3-D adjustment layers because I didn’t want to go overboard. Any amount of 3-D boost that is added always tends to enhance the saturation, as well, so it’s important to go easy when using an original like this one, which was shot on a film like Velvia that already has characteristics of strong contrast and saturation to begin with. Notice in the shot on the right that the men tend to jump out at you just a little bit more. The trick is trying to augment the sculptural effect while going easy with the steps in the action so as to make the enhancement subtle and barely noticeable and so that viewers can’t quite tell what you did.
This isn’t done with mere contrast boost but these 3-D strategies do tend to make the image appear to be more contrasty. The effect, however, is created by gently applying High Pass filtration and blend mode techniques using “Soft Light” or “Hard Light” in various combinations, and in varying strengths, which is isolated only to the highlights and/or shadows separately. The result is that the highlights start to have a more “shiny” look to them, which makes them start to have a more three-dimensional look. You can review my tutorial here if you haven’t read it already.
Click the photos below for info about some of the gear I used for images in this blog post.