Time / Date:
18:30 / April 20, 2012
Camera Body: Nikon D700
Lens: Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR AF-S
Shutter Speed: 1/100
Focal Length: 70mm
Every year, money & time permitting, I spend several months time on a photo-trip somewhere around the world; in 2012 I had opted to go to India since I had a dear friend residing in the ancient city of Benares. Benares, also known as Varanasi, is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism; naturally it therefore attracts many worshipers, tourists as well as the poor. I left for India with a general idea of what I’d be shooting, but I was still open to being spontaneous and creating stories around the images I’d naturally shoot.
Walking through the old, narrow streets, I saw many fascinating faces and people living in make-shift homes made up of trash & thrown-out pieces of cardboard. Many of the begging-poor would situate themselves on the sides of roads as well has high foot-traffic areas in hopes of getting the attention of some passerby.
On one such walks, a particular man caught my eye; it wasn’t the monkey that he had chained near to him, nor was it the smörgåsbord of religious trinkets he was either showing off or selling. Rather, it was that his entire home consisted of a simple pile of blankets. Tourists would pass him endlessly, intrigued and curios about the man and the monkey, inevitably stopping to take photographs, after which the man would calmly, and without a single word, hold out his hand waiting for a deposit of a few cents.
If you’re going to spend the time & money traveling halfway around the world, you want to make sure you have all the proper gear. That being said, I brought along a fully stuffed Think-Tank camera backpack as well as some light-weight lighting gear — Nikon D700 & D70 camera bodies, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 VR, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II & Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lenses, a small Impact umbrella and a Nikon SB-600.
For this particular shot I used the full-frame D700 with the 70-200mm; my umbrella-strobe combo was triggered by the very excellent Phottix Strato wireless flash triggers.
Making the Shot:
I think the hardest part about images like this isn’t the setup or the gear, but it’s the human element: the approach and the connection with your subject. I had walked past this man countless times, never stopping to take his portrait. I opted instead to get a better feel of the land and its people as well as to build some sort of rapport with him, even if it was just walking past him and making eye-contact.
Normally, I would spend my days walking the streets with my backpack full of spare lenses and my D700 strapped to my shoulder. However, on one particular evening, I had decided to spend a few hours meeting people in the streets and doing a simple one-light setup. Therefore, I brought only my camera body and the 70-200mm as well as my strobe setup; this allowed me to forget about my gear and focus on creating portraits.
I knew that I wanted to photograph this particular man, and since I spoke not a single word of Hindi, I knew I couldn’t linger in getting the shot. Before actually approaching him, I fired off a couple test shots so that I could set general exposure and not waste any time (and patience) while shooting my actual subject. I had my friend (whom was holding the strobe) stand in the general position I would use while shooting my subject and shot a few frames of a wall. I distanced myself about the same distance I would need for the actual shot and set my exposure: this brought me to about ISO-400, 1/100s, f4.0.
Approaching him, and as soon as his eyes met mine, I gestured to my camera and smiled at him. He nodded at me so I knew I had his permission to take the image. I initially placed the strobe to camera left but didn’t like that position since I wanted a bit more light on the monkey. Exposure seemed a bit hot on my first takes, so I dropped ISO down to 320 and closed down the aperture to f5.6 as I asked my friend to move to camera right. I took 6 more frames, as I saw my subject’s gaze move away from me and be replaced with one of impatience — that was my cue to stop and give him several coins as I made my way.
Editing & Processing:
The edit was pretty basic, all of it being processed with Adobe Lightroom 4. I set a warm white balance, reduced contrast, pulled whites back and punched shadows up. Of course, the magic juice (clarity) was also applied in a generous dollop. The largest change was a crop to get my light out of the shot; I had it in pretty tight because I wanted a fast recycle time on the strobe so that forced me to be at a low power (about 1/4 if I remember correctly). Finally, I threw on a custom curve as well as some yellow-green split toning on the highlights to give it some more mood. The original shot is found below just for reference.
If I had to do the shot again, I’d move the light at closer to a 45⁰ angle from the subject in order to fill the shadows in on camera-left. I would have also increased power output so that I could get some distance from my subject, create a harsher light, and be able to place my subject within the frame more loosely.
The only thing I’d like to share regarding advice has nothing to do with photography, but rather your health. I spent two months in India, about 3 weeks of which was spent laying on the ground with severe dehydration. The last time I was knocked down, I was drinking about 4L (read 1 gallon) of water daily. So, do your research when it comes to the places you’re going to visit, and give your safety and health the number one priority. Pay for that extra health insurance that ensures you a flight home in case of a big emergency. Get used to the taste of hydrating salts and if you have to, don’t shoot. My mistake was pushing myself too hard during the day when the sun was hottest. I had come all this way, so why wouldn’t I spend every waking moment shooting? Wrong approach. Even if you aren’t shooting, you can be creating relationships with people, scouting, or even editing under the comfort of shade.
I come from an engineering background, so I’ve never studied photography nor any of the photographic greats. So, I can’t put my finger on any photographer that particularly inspires me. Normally, the story that brings me there, which most of the time is a humanitarian one, inspires me and motivates me to try and shoot my best.
About the Photographer
Constantino Schillebeeckx is a photographer, engineer, linguist and world traveler. Coming from a Belgian heritage, Constantino has spent time living in seven countries, and traveled through countless more. After trying his hand in the German automotive industry, he eventually chose to leave engineering behind in order to pursue a life of photography. Currently, he is busy developing a multi-axis motion control system, Motus Motion, for use in motion VFX.
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