India, Sept 2007 – Part#1 (Podcast 105)

by | Sep 26, 2007 | Art Talk, Podcast, Travelogue | 0 comments

In September 2007 I was lucky enough to go for a brief business trip to Bangalore, India. I was literally going to be in there for just three full days, and didn’t expect to get much free time, but I was hoping to get some shots while there, so I took with me my Canon EOS 5D, and my 16-35mm F2.8, my new 85mm F1.2 and my trusty 70-200mm F2.8 lenses. Not exactly travelling light by some people’s standards, but for me, this is the bare minimum I can leave the house with if I’m thinking I might have a chance to shoot. Anyway, today and next week we’re going to look at some of the shots from the trip as I explain my thinking behind the shots and how I worked the situation. The sounds we were played in with by the way were recorded with my smart-phone in the every busy streets of Bangalore.

The main reason for my visit was to meet with a new team that I’m setting up in Bangalore with my day-job, and to meet a team in a separate company that we’ve been working with for some time for a lunch. Some of the people that I met have actually spent extensive time with us in Japan, to the point that I’d definitely call them friends, rather than business acquaintances. We’ll take a look at a portrait of him in a moment, but first, let’s look at a photograph of the hand of a friend of mine called Namdev. This is image number 1527. This painting or dying of the hand is called Mehandi, and what we see here is somewhat faded as it’s a few days after it was done. I hear that the hand is died using leaf sap on special occasions, and on this occasion it was to celebrate Namdev’s getting engaged, which I was really pleased to hear. Apparently this is not only decorative, but also because of the disinfecting properties of the leaf sap it is also done to cleanse the hands for the ceremony too.

Mehandi (Hand Painting)

Mehandi (Hand Painting)

I tried a few different shots, and to be honest don’t know if this really works either, but I did find a nice natural colored lace curtain by a window and asked Nam to put his hand up there, and shot it with my 85mm F1.2 lens with the aperture at F2 so that we could see some of the detail of the pattern in the curtain as the light shined through it. I selected an ISO of 200 because it was quite dark in the room, and was in Manual mode, to give me full control over the exposure, because the scene was back lit. Well, actually not just because it was back lit, as I tend to shoot in Manual mode a lot, but I would definitely switch to Manual mode or use exposure compensation in situations like this anyway.

A Happy Man

A Happy Man

I selected a shutter speed of 1/80 of a second, because I was hand holding, and keeping the old rule of using the focal length as the minimum shutter speed for a non-Image Stabilized lens in mind. You know, 85mm lens, 1/80 of a second is just about as slow as you want to go without risking some camera shake. Most of us could go slower, and indeed I do in some of the shots we’re going to take a look at today, but this is a good rule of thumb to keep in mind.

In the next image (left) we can see Namdev all happy and content now that he’s engaged to be married, and that he has a nice manly 300dpi 7 o’clock shadow there. I’m happy with the overall yellow feel to the shot, with his shirt almost matching the lace curtains here, and the nice shallow depth of field from the F2 aperture throwing everything from the back of the subject to the curtains out of focus. I did actually lengthen the shutter speed to 1/50 of a second here, kind of contradicting what I just said about the focal length as the shutter speed rule. I wanted to keep his face relatively well lit as we were further into the room now, so the light from another window was not really falling on his face so much. I just kind of tightened up, and still the shot is very sharp, so I’m happy enough with this.

After meeting with the larger team, I was heading back to our offices, and a few of the elements outside of the car kind of came together a little, so I quickly snapped image number 1530, in which we can see a small figurine of the Hindu God Ganesha.

Dashboard Ganesha

Dashboard Ganesha

Every car that I’ve ridden in, in India to date, has one of these or a variation of it. Very often too the driver will buy a string of flowers like this and hang it from the rear-view mirror and encompass the figurine with it. It seems that these flowers are changed like once a week or so, and are a very nice natural air freshener, giving the car a beautiful fragrance for a while. Here I just opened the aperture right up to F1.2 with an ISO of 100 and shot this for 1000th of a second. I had now changed to Aperture Priority mode actually, in preparation to shoot in various levels of light shortly after this, in the Madibala Market. To set the stage for the next few photos, let’s look at image number 1531, that I really shot more to give you an idea of the scene that we’re about to walk through.

Madibala Market

Madibala Market

What we can see here is a small portion of the Madibala Market, which is pretty much dedicated to fruit and vegetables, but also has a few other stalls intermingled. I’ve passed through this market many times during previous visits but never been able to stop the car and get out. This time, towards the end of a pretty busy day, I was just heading back to my office and stopping here for 20 or 30 minutes would just mean that I had to stay another 20 or 30 minutes to clear up my remaining tasks for the day, so I decided now was the time. I’d actually had this market in mind from the start, and I have to admit, this possibility was even a part of my decision to buy the 85mm F1.2 lens recently. I left the car with just the 85mm fitted to my camera and no other lens.

In addition to this first shot, I shot one other of a young man handling the flowers that we saw around the Ganesha figurine earlier, but then I move to my plan, which is what I wanted to talk about a little here. Most of you that have been listening for a while know that I’m not a big portrait shooter. Part of this is because portraiture has not really interested me much in Japan, though I’ll shoot the odd portrait when possible. The other part, and the main part for me, is that I am uncomfortable with approaching people to ask if I can photograph them. This is a fear that most of us have, or have already overcome. It’s not that I’m shy to the point that I won’t speak to people. I generally tend to smile and interact with people relatively easily, but I guess it’s that ever possible fear of rejection, being told “no”, that I’m anxious about. I also think of other people’s feelings, possible excessively, and I don’t like to patronise people. It’s probably unavoidable to an extent, but I’d hate for the people that we’ll look at in the next few photos to think that I’m a cold person, only wanting to steal their likeness and move on.

During my first few visits to India I shot many images from a moving car, including some of my portrait work, but the more I think about this, the more I hate this way of shooting. It’s cold, and uncaring and to be honest, I’m thinking now that it’s probably just downright rude. The more I come to terms with my own anxiety, about asking, the less I’m prepared to just snap off shots from a distance like a heartless sniper. My plan for this mini-shoot was to get as close to the subjects as time would allow, and my tactic was to add a buffer. After the first two shots, I decided to simply walk through a section of the market, and let the people around see me, with my camera, to get them used to the idea that there was a foreigner photographing in the market. I was with a guy from my team in India called Shashi, and we basically did just that — took a steady walk through the market. I made a point of doing what I’m comfortable with, which is smiling and saying hello, but made a stronger point of not asking to shoot any photos at this stage. As I passed and said hello to a few of the subjects that we’ll see in a few moments I was incredibly excited at the prospect of photographing them, but I kept my camera firmly in front of me, hanging from its strap around my neck, idle, but there for all to see.

Clothes Merchant

Clothes Merchant

We got to the end of the street in a steady ten minutes, and that marked the end of this portion of the market. I’d not shared my strategy with Shashi, as this would have put pressure on me to come up with the goods, and I didn’t want to add any more pressure to my already pretty anxious frame of mind, but the lack of being in on the plan led him to ask if I wanted to cross the street and look at the market on the other side of the road. I said no of course, continuing that I wanted to walk back through the same stretch of market, which is what we did. The first image from that short walk back is probably the best portrait shot that I’ve made to date, and that is image number 1532.

I’d had a brief exchange with a man who told me his name was Ata Ula, and I’d told him my name and asked if I could photograph him. He obliged, but unfortunately it wasn’t sharp. I don’t know if I’d moved or he had, but the focus was off, by enough to render the shot useless. This is a great shame because it looks like a good portrait shot until you look at it closely. I remember feeling that I wanted to shoot a few more images, but I have to admit, the main thing on my mind was photographing the man sitting next to him on their clothes stall, who turned out to be Ata Ula’s father, and that is who we can see in this photograph.

I’d raised the ISO to 400, as most of the subjects were under the cover of their stalls and it was not a bright day. It was pretty overcast in fact, and had been raining on and off. Because of the varying levels of opacity in the plastic covers on the market stalls too, I’d decided to use Aperture Priority for speed as I also didn’t anticipate any troublesome high contrast conditions. I opened the aperture up to F1.6 for a nice shallow depth-of-field, and this gave me a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second, which was just right. I got the focus spot on this time, with this amazing mans eyes perfectly sharp, along with the majority of his face. The tip of his nose and eyebrows start to get a little soft, but that’s fine. It’s the eyes and that wonderfully aged complexion that I wanted to capture, and I did that how I wanted to. No disrespect to this gentlemen’s son, but had I messed this shot up, I would have been incredibly disappointed. It went well though, and I feel very lucky to have had the chance to photograph this incredibly handsome man.

One of the wonders of digital of course is being able to check what you’ve shot immediately, but this also allows us to show the subject immediately too, which is what I did at this point. As I showed the men their photographs they smiled and did one of those Indian head-shakes that is a cross between nodding and shaking one’s head. It took some getting used to, but this is done as a sign of agreement and appreciation, and this made me profoundly happy. I’d not only been able to make a few incredible photographs, I’d made a connection, and made someone else happy too. I shook the hands of both men, and thanked them for allowing me to photograph them, and moved on.

Anyway, it seemed like my strategy was working! I had smiled and said hello to these two gentlemen on my way past the first time, and it was actually the son that started talking to me on our way back. I’m sure this is because they felt able to do so having seen me pass shortly before. After all, if they were open to just talking straight away, they’d have called out to me on my first pass, right?

A few paces further along and I was called out to again, by a group of people at a fish stall that I’d also seen on the first run. In fact, these people, I think all members of the same family, had tried to sell me some fish on our way out. I had smiled and politely refused. This time, they’d realized that I was not interested in buying fish, and they’d probably seen me photographing the gentlemen that we just looked at, so they just went straight to the “hey photograph us with our fish” mode. Of course, being asked to photograph them was something I had not expected but was more than happy to go along with. The first image of this family that I want to share is number 1534. Here we see the young man with a large fish, with the Dad to the right of the photo with another large fish, showing me the cross section of the fish, probably appealing to me how fresh the fish is. Now he has a nice photo expression, but we can see that the young man is kind of protesting about being pulled around by the man behind him, probably big brother. The neat thing about this photograph in my mind though is expression on the guys face as he makes a kind of cut-throat gesture. With the line of their sight we have a connection with me, the photographer, but they also opened up and had a bit of a mess around with each other as well, making for a nice interactive exchange.

Fishmonger Family - Cut Throat

Fishmonger Family – Cut Throat

As there were a few people in the shot, I had deepened the depth-of-field slightly by changing the aperture to F2.8. I was further away from the subjects this time, so I didn’t really need to go any smaller than this. The shutter speed at this aperture with ISO 400 was 1/200 of a second. In the next shot, number 1535, made a few moments later with exactly the same settings was also nice and interactive as the guy in the back placed his hand over the Dad’s head, making fun of him this time. The young man’s face was now in a serious, kind of tough-guy face, probably what he wanted to do from the start, and the Dad’s expression was totally unchanged. We also now have another older gentlemen coming into the frame in the far right, which adds another element of interest.

Fishmonger Family - Having Fun

Fishmonger Family – Having Fun

Another Tough Guy!

Another Tough Guy!

At this point, another brother, came close enough to join in the fun, and I shot image number 1536. With a nice sort of half-smile, this young guy is a great looking subject too, and you can tell by his pose and his closes and chains etc. that he’s kind of playing the tough guy too, with the youngest brother. This shot in my mind has a nice gritty yet pure feel to it, but I kind of regret chopping of the hands in this and another shot of the younger brother that we’ll look at next week. I’m not too worried about this, but having framed it this wide I probably should at least tried going the whole way out and include the hands. Still, I’m happy enough with the shot. For this by the way I opened the aperture up a little again to F1.8, which gave me a shutter speed of 1/500 of a second, still at ISO 400.

So at this point, I’m going to cut this episode off, as I have too many shots left to talk about for one episode, and we’ll pick up the story again next week.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this first part of a two part series. I learned a lot from my experiment and gained so much from a human interaction perspective. It didn’t all go my way, but that is fine, and the last thing I want to do is upset someone. I’ll go into more details about that though, in next week’s episode.

Remember that the Documentary/Photojournalism Assignment is still on, with just a few more days left to get your entries in. You’ll be able to upload your entries until the end of this coming Sunday which is September the 30th and at that point I’ll lock the gallery to uploads and start the voting for a further two weeks. So far there aren’t so many entries uploaded, but I’m hoping this is because everyone else, like me, is holding off uploading their images because they’re undecided in which one to upload, or maybe hoping to shoot something better before the deadline. I also think that this assignment has been much more difficult to shoot for, so I kind of expected a drop in participation. It would be great to be surprised here though, so please do get your entries in if you are sitting on the fence on something.

And that’s about it for today. The music we were played in and out with a track called Creation by a band called Shams. And with that, all that remains to be said is thanks for listening, and you have a great week, whatever you’re doing — Bye-bye.

Show Notes

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