India loves their cows. And no, I’m not hinting at using them as background layered with something mildly interesting, like, oh I don’t know, a snake charmer perhaps, to give your photograph that cool Nat Geo Raiders of the Lost Ark kinda vibe. What I mean is, take that as a warning and watch where your foot lands. I just lost it when I stepped on a freshly laid steaming pile of crap on the cobbled streets of Jaisalmer.
India is, what we would call, a target rich environment as there is a high chance of scoring a lot of good ones even if you just blindly click your way through with camera in one hand and an oily paratha in the other.
But why not optimise the experience with a few simple tips culled from my 9-day whirlwind photographic tour of Delhi, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Mumbai? If I had followed them myself, I would’ve probably increased my keeper rate by at least 50%. Out of the 2500 shots that I made, I probably have at least a hundred really good ones.. at least. With these tips, I could have either increased my output or elevated some of those good ones to exhibit worthy images.
So put that oily paratha down, wipe your hands, and start reading.
1. Watch where you’re going
I was in the zone. Perfect light with not much modernity around to ruin what could have been a timeless image. An old lady in traditional garb approaches. Instinct kicks in. I knew where all my dials were set and was thinking in half stop incremental adjustments as the subject got close and the light got darker going in. I shouted, “Bob!”, to let my friend know that an opportunity was about to unfold. And just as I called out to my buddy, I stepped on something really soft. My worst fears realised. Oh shit indeed. At that moment, I forgot what ISO I was in, forgot if I should move the shutter wheel one click up or down, hell, forgot what day it was. Nothing mattered at that exact moment. As the lady passed me by, I did try to squeeze off a shot. But it was overexposed and hardly salvageable. But good enough to illustrate what just transpired. Check out the photo below. That’s my friend trying to get out of my frame. See that pile that just got squished as she walked by? Chuck Taylor was in that house. Good thing it was the Converse II version where the padding is thicker giving the shoe a bit of elevation. Trust me. In a situation like that, every mm counts.
So you can just imagine how a misstep of a few seconds can take away a good chunk of time of shooting enjoyment. And where time is of the essence (especially in a foreign country where you might only pass that way once), it can be very disconcerting. The next hour was spent shooting but also looking for puddles of water where I can slosh in. There’s nothing worse than being yanked out of a photographic reverie. Getting back takes time. And sometimes you don’t get to go back at all.
2. Ditch the sandals and wear shoes
Forget being cool like you’re on some Moroccan holiday. Why? See tip #1. I pay a lot of attention to footwear because there’s nothing like a bad pair to knock the wind off one’s holiday sail. In certain respects, this may be all the tip you’ll ever need!
3. Carry smaller denominations
As in most places, there will be times when you get harassed for tips after taking somebody’s portrait. And it’s also easy enough to think of Rupees as play money and just hand them out willy nilly. Depending on where you are in life, you may want to carry around change smaller than 100 or 500 denominations that they usually exchange with your dollars or peso. A 100 is sure to bring a smile in some kid’s face. But if you want to stretch it a bit, a 50 or 20 will do just fine and can mean staving off hunger for a day even two. A 100 is probably less than a buck a half depending on the going rate. So, yep, their smileage will definitely vary.. way more than yours. We gave this girl a 100 to help us carry stuff that we bought in the markets. The boy on the right noticed that we were struggling a bit trying to make her understand that we would like for her to help us with our stuff in exchange for some Rupees. So he stepped in and translated for us. Before you shout child labor and all that stereotypical thinking, taking advantage of people is not our thing. Don’t worry, that pack she’s carrying was very light. In fact, she could’ve ran away with it. For us, it was an experiment on trust. And also of trying to open minds that, hey, maybe I can make money if I offered a legitimate service instead of just harassing tourists for change.
So, yeah, she did run away with our stuff.
Kidding! Together with her friends, she followed us around with smiles and all. I figured it may also be for her a story to tell to other kids. The butterfly effect. Who knows. Maybe the experience helped in some way. Maybe it didn’t. But at the very least, for that night, in a country where women and kids are lost to an estimated 18,000,000 cases of slavery, trafficking, and other forms of cheap labor, this girl gets to escape that statistic with a few rupees in hand and her innocence intact.
4. The taxi driver as tourist guide
If you want to take snapshots, get a tourist guide. If you want to bring home something other than postcards, go chat up a taxi or tuktuk driver and hire him for a day to take you to places where a tourist guide won’t. It’s best to do arrangements with your hotel concierge to get the haggling out of the way and set concrete expectations of what you want to photograph. A good hotel will give the driver their calling card without you having to think about it. Once that’s out of the way, you can rest easy and start photographing.
For our Delhi segment, we explored the old Delhi market with Sanjay, our Nepalese taxi driver. He’s a chap with a very friendly disposition and probably the only one or two drivers that we engaged that didn’t try to get more out of what was agreed upon. As a caveat though, that statement needs to be put in proper context as it is not something that’s to be dismissed as something negative. I’ll probably write an article about managing or downright dispelling biases that we may unconsciously have unfairly associated with our Indian brothers.
In iPhone terms, we probably logged 15,000 frenetic steps walking down very narrow streets in Old Delhi, steps that we would not have taken had we not engaged Sanjay’s services. By the way, those are 15,000 steps that we took late in the afternoon, steps that took us deep into the Delhi market, steps that even Sanjay were quite wary of as he was tense in the knowledge that he was responsible for guiding two tourists on streets that he himself wasnt familiar with. He would point in a general direction and we’d countermand it with a smile and ask, “Can we go this way instead and take a short cut that way to get back to the original route?” To which he would nervously shake his head in disagreement. We’d downplay his hesitation and say… “Ok, let’s just walk this way for 5 minute and then head back.” To that he’d agree not knowing that 5 would soon turn into 10, crossing points of no return.
Which is what good guides are all about.. a balanced mix of fearing for your safety but also making you happy. With a guide, you can take some chances and let serendipity take over.
Back at the hotel, Sanjay would admit to us that he was actually scared about the whole Delhi market thing because he’s been there only once and not that deep. After thanking him and sending him on his merry way, Bob and I laughed as we saw his taxi disappear into the madness that was the early evening Delhi traffic. We both felt and later would share during dinner that not once did we feel that our safety was being compromised. The people of the old Delhi market was apathetic to our existence as they only focused on pushing that spice cart for a few more meters before calling it a day. In some instances, they would even tap our shoulders to make sure we got out of the way of a guy carrying a sack or the occasional wandering bull.
5. When their guard is down
If the opportunity presents itself, catch people when they’re about to wind down for the day. They’re less mindful as they just want the day to end and go home. Which means they’re also more open to get photographed and won’t put up much of a fuss. It was that time of the day when we decided to pay a visit to the Old Delhi market. People were rushing to finish whatever commitment they had for that day.. that waiting tuktuk waiting for that last sack of nutmeg, that one more item to sell so that he can call it a day and not have to worry about moving it the following morning, or that one last call to a tea grower in Assam for an assured allocation of Kalgar.. for a brief moment, they are in a different place where you do not exist.. where your camera is invisible.
6. Try portraits in black and white
While India can easily be thought of as a place for color photography a la Steve McCurry, a whole new world of luminance and tones can be discovered with a black and white camera such as the Leica M246. For my 9 days there, I shot India with my M246. ONLY with my M246. Did I see color? On occassion when Bob would show me his images in his M240. But for the most part, I did not see the golden walls of Jaisalmer or the red in the Red Fort in Delhi. I saw tones. I saw shadows. Kinda like being blind where other senses get heightened. That’s why it pays to restrict yourself if you want to hone latent senses.
For portraiture, pay particular attention to skin tones and note how the smoothness of their skin emits off a certain glow. I’m not sure how that happens. Is it because of their diet? Is it a function of being a bit oily? Could it come from pomade in some? Could it be sweat? Who knows. All I know is that all these things create a certain tonal concoction that is seen or appreciated best in black and white.. where luminance is allowed to take center stage. Look at how Dharma Ram, a vendor outside the Jain Temple in Jaisalmer, glows in this photograph.
Or how Deepak’s smile, our driver guide in Jaipur, shines with his beloved horse in this image. Their skin tones are really rendered best in black and white.
Or try this tip.. meter off where it’s mostly white like the clothes men wear or the brightest spot in the frame and enjoy seeing how much shadow detail you can effectively pull out of your camera in LightRoom. I do it all the time and never fails to amaze me. Take this random shot for example. It was heavily backlit prompting me to decide to meter off the midtones (the buildings) knowing that the M246 can pull a few rabbits out of its hat even if I sacrifice a bit of shadow for some highlight detail. I could hardly make out this man’s face in the camera’s monitor. But you just know it’s there because the histogram says you didn’t clip the shadows. In LightRoom, I pulled the shadows by a stop to reveal this stoic image. I’m not sure how other cameras handle extreme contrast but the M246 is arguably the only 35mm game in town that can enable one to do shadow pulls in post of this quality.
In this other example, I metered off the gentleman’s bright white shirt to ensure that I have enough detail to play with in post, pushed the exposure by a full stop in LightRoom, then pulled out facial detail with an adjustment brush by an extra stop. All this back and forth can ruin a good file if the quality wasn’t up to par. But then this why I shell out the extra bucks for a Monochrom.
I’ll reserve exploring black and white photography with possibly another M246 article as it can get very long. But for now, think luminance, think tones and ditch color accordingly when the opportunity presents itself. And lastly, a lot of the menfolk tend to wear white so be sure to meter off it to ensure you don’t blow it out. It’s not that the shirts are an important detail to preserve but that it tends to distract from a portrait if you blow out a huge patch of white. In places like India, your portraits would look like the heads were floating on white if you’re not careful about your exposur
7. Blow out the background
Minimize clutter. This is a tip I got from a good friend. If he told me ahead of time, I would’ve easily upped my keeper rate by probably half. Background clutter is unavoidable in places like India. And if you’re shooting in black and white, it becomes a real headache.. moreso if the aperture that you committed to using is a slow one at f5.6.. on a 21mm.. think looking for that tiger on Rosseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm.. rendered in black and white. Crazy. So this is a good strategy to employ if you want your subject to stand out and you don’t have a fast lens to blur your background. Don’t worry about blowing background highlights to almost paper white. It’s going to be inconsequential if the subject is compelling enough, subjects like Tejurom, our camel cart driver in Jaisalmer, for example. In this case, I used the horizon as a background and metered on the midtones which automatically blew out most of the sky.
In a photograph taken in Jaipur of this fruit seller, I blew out the background to give more emphasis on the leading lines created by the buildings to the left and right with his head just above the horizon to make him at least noticeable. While I was aware of this technique as a tactic, I should have been a bit more mindful and used it as a strategy altogether. It would have easily resulted in having a mini series of images with a similar aesthetic in other places.
8. One lens, one camera
And… one aperture.. too many things happening.. best to acclimatize with a specific focal length and leverage it to the hilt. Shot mostly at f5.6. All I had to worry about was rifling through the ISO .. which wouldve been a piece of cake if there was an ISO wheel on the top plate a la Leica M10. This has been a repeating mantra of mine in my lectures but, boy, it plays out very well under these circumstances. There is nothing like panic at the thought of losing opportunities with every second of light moving this way and that, disappearing and reappearing, casting its rays on so many new things to get this tip ingrained in ones head.
In a market setting like the old Delhi market, you will appreciate this tip very much. Once you get into the groove with a particular setting, it would then be easy enough to photograph in Khaori Baoli and watch out for things like this..
Which then naturally brings me to the next tip..
Experiment with blur. You’ll never know what you’re going to get. Turn light on its head when it’s not giving you any. Go 1/15 and see the world light up with beautiful unpredictable motion. Just let go, follow the action with your wrist and enjoy the coming and the going. Shooting while heading down a flight of stairs? No problem. Train your lens to where the movement is, press the shutter, enjoy the lag, and see what happens..
Note the glow of light that a 1/15 can bring alongside its wonderful blur. In confusion can come unexpected clarity. To which then leads us to the next one..
10. DO NOT DELETE images in camera
“I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed”
This is one of those quotes that has bugged me for a long time. On the surface, it can be dismissed as outright literal. Personally, there’s a hidden layer to it that hints at something a bit more. A subtle admission that while you may know what you took when you pressed the shutter, that you really don’t know what you got. It is only recently that I have learned to appreciate this quote and I think that this trip helped explain its deeper meaning to me.. whether good ole Gary intended it or not.
At some level, what it means is give all those images time to stew as you would a differing opinion. Give those overly underexposed ones a chance to see the light of day. Or those overlyexposed ones a chance to squint. Because the real beauty of photography is that you’ll never know what you’re really going to get once it’s on LightRoom or for those who go the extra mile, once it’s on print. To assume that you know what you have and pass judgement via the delete button is probably one of the most tragic things that you can do. And we’re not talking about erasing images. We’re talking about erasing possibilities at being unexpectedly awed. Every image you delete, you potentially chip away at your own sense of wonder. And when that goes away, you might as well put that camera down, find a nice warm corner, and, well, die.
This image wasn’t even in my radar when I was going through my day’s catch. It was so dark I almost thought I forgot to take the lens cap off. I didn’t even know what it was as it only had that faint light on top of the sack. Loading it in LightRoom I saw a face once I gave the exposure slider a go. It just had enough backlit glow for a defined profile. A few more archaelogical dabs of the adjustment brush and I began to “unearth” some markings on the sack. If I had deleted it, I would not have known what I’d have lost. And that would have been a tragedy in itself.
Just because I said 10 doesn’t mean that I can’t delight you with just one more 🙂
If possible, before or after taking a shot, linger for just a bit and be generous with your time. Find out why things are so and ask about the circumstances behind your curiosity, of why you took their photograph. The brief connection made transcends the image that was taken.
For a few minutes, both parties walk away with a little something new. For the subject, perhaps a new way of seeing oneself, that a person may actually think that he or she was somebody worth talking to and taking a photograph of; where in that picture, she saw a glint in her eye that she never knew existed or worse, she thought she had lost a long time ago. For most, an elusive smile immortalised signifying hope that once in awhile, they can also be happy.
For the photographer, it can be more wonderfully complicated. If-they-can hack-it-why-can’t-you easily comes to mind. Or the all too corny and familiar take away that is “feeling-blessed” as the low hanging emotional fruit.
Personally, every portrait I took was a very thin layer of stereotypical skin peeled off years of ignorance, and, yes, arrogance.
Every time, I walked away.. I walked away knowing that I knew nothing.
Thank you for reading. Pay it forward and share away.