Backgrounds come first.
When shooting environmental portraits, my first consideration is the background for the subject, who in all probability wasn’t standing in the most photogenic location when first spotted.
Such was the case with this sadhu ascetic who caught my attention at the Jagdish Temple in Udaipur, India, yesterday. The light and shadows were midday harsh and the background really sucked. The holy man didn’t look like he was going anywhere fast but these guys can disappear in a second amidst the hordes of Hindu worshipers who throng to this most sacred of Vishnu temples in Udaipur. So I quick darted down a side alley in search of a better location. Many houses in Udaipur are painted with Rajasthani elephant designs and a short distance up ahead I spotted one on the shady side of the alley. I hastened back to the temple and found my subject still waiting.
In India one of the traditional ways to help the poor, the handicapped or even religious ascetics is for those of more prosperity to make offerings or donations. There are two reasons for this. First, in a country were the social welfare system can’t possibly help such huge numbers in the population who might be in need, offerings are a great way to lend a hand. Secondly, there has always been a tradition dating back thousands of years in the Hindu and Buddhist history of India that making offerings would also help the givers gain merit in their own lives. So, such gifts are beneficial for everyone concerned.
Of course, sadhus know this and tourists love to take their pictures. So just about every time a sadhu spots a Western tourist he volunteers to have his picture taken. Naturally, a bit of “baksheesh,” or tip, is always appreciated. Though this particular sadhu didn’t speak English, it didn’t take much sign language and the flashing of a few rupee notes to convince him to head down the nearest alley with me.
Peace, brother. And peace be to all. Now give me the money.
Rather than shoot this ever so willing sadhu in flat shade, I quickly realized I needed to punch the light to separate him three-dimensionally from the background. My biggest problem at the moment was the ensuing crowd that rapidly assembled around us. Hey, this is India. People get extremely excited when they think a Bollywood crew has just arrived for a filming. Sans lighting crew, I had only two hands: one to hold the camera and the other to grip a remote light off to one side as far as my arm would stretch. Nevertheless, I rigged up two rather portable solutions in an effort to garner whatever magic light I could generate without an assistant.
When the holy man raised his right hand in a gesture of eternal sadhu stance, I knew I had a couple of extra problems to solve on the spot. Note that I hold my camera with my right hand and an off-camera flash in the left. But a light to the left would have cast a shadow across his body from his raised hand. So I had to assume a criss-cross stance by shifting the light to the opposite side of my camera’s point of view. Naturally this limited the height I could reach in placing the remote strobe as far away to the right from camera axis as possible in order to get some semblance of 3-D light.
In the camera’s hot shoe I mounted a Pocket Wizard TT5 radio transmitter into which I inserted the Canon OC-E3 off-camera hot shoe cord. Into its hot shoe I had a 580EX II Speedlite fitted with a LumiQuest Big Bounce modifier attached to the flash with a LumiQuest non-slip strap. Since I wanted almost a full-frame portrait to show all his clothing and a wider angle of view to show the painted elephant behind, I needed a fairly large spread of light from a very near and very small light source. There was no way I could have easily used an umbrella without an assistant or a light stand but the Big Bounce provided a nice spread of soft light with a good falloff ratio from the brightest light concentrated on his face and upper body with less intensity toward the bottom of the frame. This aided in creating a more sculptural effect.
I set the 580 at a 24 degree angle of spread and placed a Sto-Fen diffusing dome over the head before inserting it into the Big Bounce. This would give me a wide-spread of output light.
Mounted underneath the camera I used another TT5 radio slave fitted with a 430EX II inserted into a Ray Ring Flash around the lens. This whole contraption is a bit heavy and you can’t hold it up to your eye single-handedly very long.
For final settings I set ambient exposure down one f/stop and used an A:B ratio on the two Speedlites of 8:1. “A” was the Big Bounce getting the higher intensity in this ratio because it was being used as the key light up above and to the right and “B” was the ring flash circling the lens and thus getting three stops less intensity to provide shadowless fill light under his raised hand and arm. The Canon 24-105mm lens was set to f/16 for greater depth of field to keep the elephant in focus and the ISO was set to 800. Any slight extra noise from such a high setting is no problem to eliminate in the newest versions of Adobe Camera RAW.
After the shoot I offered the sadhu the equivalent of about one US dollar in rupees. This is about the average full day’s earnings of India’s total population when factored across the 1.2 billion or so people who crowd this huge country. When the sadhu grumbled for double that amount, I quickly reminded him he was a religious ascetic who had long ago renounced most earthly possessions in pursuit of enlightenment. Of course, he didn’t understand what I said but he sure got the point. He grabbed the money and off he went looking for another willing contributor.
Click the photos below for info about some of the gear I used for images in this blog post.