Amritsar, India: Golden Temple Reflections

In Amritsar lies the golden jewel of the Sikh faith: Harmandir Shrine, which rises from the center of a lake at the Golden Temple. Every Sikh strives to make at least one pilgrimage here in their lifetimes for a ritual bath in the lake’s waters and to listen to the sublime shabad kirtan devotional music that is played throughout the day and into the night.

Devotees circumambulate the lake in a clockwise direction. When visiting the Golden Temple there are some Golden Rules: One’s feet must be washed before entering; no shoes can be worn on the white marble walkway and all heads must be covered; photography is permitted but no tripods are allowed.

Inconspicuously I shot a few images of a Sikh guard patrolling the area.

India, Punjab, Amritsar, Golden Temple, Harmandir shrine, Sikkh guardIndia, Punjab, Amritsar, Golden Temple, Harmandir shrine, Sikh guard

I like the silhouette effect but decided to try  a bit of fill flash since the guard was standing in the building’s shadow but I didn’t want the flat light that would emanate from an on-camera flash unit. I also didn’t want the guard to get wise to my efforts so my assistant and I moved to a covered walkway behind several columns where I rigged a Canon 580EX II flash with a Rosco 1/4 CTO warming gel so the strobe light would more closely match the color of the late afternoon sun.

I also attached the flash to a Pocket Wizard TT5 radio receiver and told my assistant to discreetly hold the unit off to one side for more three-dimensional fill light once we went back to the set. On camera I used another TT5 as a transmitter fitted with the AC3 Zone Controller so I could easily dial in the flash intensity. I set the camera’s ambient exposure at minus one-and-a-third stops. I decided not to use a soft light modifier on the flash because I didn’t want to attract undue attention. I instructed my assistant to hold the flash unit close to his body and in a fashion that wouldn’t look so obvious that he was pointing it at the guard.

Compare the fill flash image on the right above with the unlit version on the left. In this example I prefer the unlit version. Only a sliver of the guard’s face is seen but to properly expose the skin tone the yellow turban burns out slightly and the dark navy blue uniform absorbs so much light that it  almost looks black.

A couple of Sikh gentlemen sat on the marble walkway to ponder the golden reflection of the Harmandir. I had chosen late afternoon so the setting sun would brilliantly reflect from the gilded surface of the shrine and I walked back and forth to find the position that offered the most intense reflection. (Angle of incidence equals angle of reflectance.) Again the fill flash was a bare-head 580EXII with attached 1/4 CTO gel from camera right.

India, Punjab, Amritsar, Golden Temple, Harmandir shrine, two Sikh men sittingIndia, Punjab, Amritsar, Golden Temple, Harmandir shrine, Sikh man

The guard soon walked away and when a white-bearded Sikh man strolled by, I asked if he could pose for me. Now I had a bit more time to work with the light but I didn’t want to get run off by the guards so I had to keep things simple and quick. This is a very spiritual place, not a photo studio. Reverence and respect seemed important.

I attached a Harbor Digital 1/8-inch grid to the flash unit for a tighter circle of light and instructed my assistant to aim it toward the man’s face but to hold the unit from his waist so it wouldn’t appear that we were doing a professional lighting setup just in case the guards glanced our way.

In these two images the fill flash works better since the men’s clothing doesn’t have such a wide range of exposure values. The gridded flash adds a more dramatic light falloff  than in the example of the two sitting men where the bare flash was moved further to the right for a more even wash of light.

Later that day at twilight the lights were turned on and I shot this image below when the building exposure matched the waning blue light in the sky. I almost never shoot at night since the deep cobalt blue always looks better than a black sky. A bit of ambient light also keeps the image from getting too contrasty. The window of opportunity to capture the perfect light balance at twilight only lasts a minute or two. Typically I shoot this kind of image with a tripod but no pods were allowed at the Golden Temple.

India, Punjab, Amritsar, Golden Temple, Harmandir shrine, twilight view with lake reflection

On my Canon 5D Mark II I was using a Canon EF 24-135mm f/4 IS L lens with built-in image stabilization, I set the camera at Auto ISO and f/8 using Aperture Priority mode. The camera automatically chose ISO 3200 at 1/15th second exposure time. The lens was set at 50mm. Normally this would mean one should use a shutter speed of no less than 1/50th second to avoid camera shake but the image stabilization feature held the image sharp even at 1/15th second.

Naturally an image exposed using ISO 3200 will result in too much digital noise but taking advantage of the full range of settings with Adobe Camera RAW in Lightroom I was able to dial in settings that resulted in a tack sharp, grainless image. For those who might want to know the nitty gritty details for these settings, here are the values I used for the shadow areas in the image:


Amount = 35
Radius = .7
Detail = 100
Masking = 100

Noise Reduction:

Luminance = 70
Detail = 0
Contrast = 0
Color = 100
Detail = 0

The high luminance setting eliminates the noise in the shadows but at the expense of sharpness. However, the other eight settings enable one to finesse the final result to regain the effect of sharpness.

Actually for even better results I imported three copies of the image from Lightroom into Photoshop as separate layers, each with a different layer mask–one that revealed only highlights with the luminance set at 30 and the sharpness set to 15, one with a layer mask that revealed only the mid-tones with the luminance value set to 50 and the sharpness set to 25, and finally one copy with a layer mask that only revealed the shadows with the luminance set to a higher value of 70 and the sharpness set at 35.

(This automated layer mask process is incorporated into my GASP Photoshop 3-D Workflow Action.)

The idea is that noise is virtually not visible in the highlights so they don’t need much luminance softening. A bit more noise is seen in the mid-tones but the most is visible in the shadows where I’ve applied the highest luminance noise control. Every image will require different amounts of correction so results must be tailored accordingly and viewed at 100% magnification. The key point is to use as little luminance noise control as possible so as not to de-sharpen the image and that’s why I used layer masks to apply a lesser amount of luminance noise control to the highlights and mid-tones than is needed in the shadows.

And this is how I snagged an extremely publishable image handheld at twilight using a sharp f/8 lens setting in a locale where tripods weren’t allowed.

Glen Allison

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