Low Light and Flash in Rajasthan India
There is no doubt about it; India is a photographer’s carnival. The colors are kaleidoscopic; the scenes are cinematic; and the light is luminous. I’ve been traveling to Rajasthan for the past few years to lead the National Geographic Expeditions India Photo Tour—a tour that has focused on light and lighting.
However, even the best light sometimes needs a bit of enhancement or a creative touch. I don’t bring a lot of lighting equipment when I travel because I have to carry everything myself, on my shoulder, for hours. I use a Canon 5D Mark II and usually work with only one flash,580 EX II flash, and an assortment of small, lightweight, but very important flash accessories.
I was in Jaisalmer enjoying the sunset from Bada Bagh Hill with our India Photo group and a number of tourists. After an unimpressive sunset at 6:10 p.m., everyone got up and left—except us. For most people the light is over after sunset, but for me it’s on another journey to spectacular. I explained it was important to wait the 15 minutes through the flat, bland post-sunset light—not always easy after a long day of traveling and photographing. But we waited… and it was worth it. As the artificial lights came on in the city and the fort, the dull sky transformed into a lovely blue with tinges of orange and magenta.
In this photo I asked one of the young local merchants to stand in front of me holding out her wares. I had a wireless Canon Transmitter ST-E2 on my camera. I asked someone to hold the flash, with a LumiQuest FX diffuser and the amber gel that comes with the diffuser, to the left. I reduced the flash to - 2 EV output on ETTL mode and metered off the entire scene in Evaluative metering. Learning how to balance your flash output with the ambient light for the effect you want, using the correct gel on the flash, and positioning the flash are the three most important decisions for creative one-flash photography.
Later in the trip we were photographing on the sand dunes in Jamba. It didn’t take any convincing at this point in the tour to stay into the evening twilight, although the late afternoon light had been stunning. Once again we had to wait (im)patiently through post-sunset light. Then the magic began. Since I was working quickly without an assistant and needed to handhold my camera at a very slow shutter speed, I left the flash on the camera. I put a Gary Fong Lightsphere Cloud C4 on the flash and dropped a strong warming gel—Rosco CTO #3401, from a Rosco Strobist 55-piece Filter Kit — inside the dome. Instead of pointing it directly at my subject, however, I pointed it straight upward so that the warm light would rain onto my subject. I powered the flash to -.7 EV, metered off the sky in Spot metering mode, and took the shot. Within 45 minutes the sunset had dimmed to black, leaving us fried, tired—and exuberant.
During our visit to the fantastic Puskhar Camel Fair we always lingered late into the evening to photograph the magical scenes. But there was also an optional 5:30 a.m. excursion, which had everyone waking before dawn and stirring around the campfires for warmth. For these moments I found that a tripod was helpful because I don’t like to resort always to a high ISO (for traveling I use the compact, lightweight travel tripod Gitzo Traveler G1550T Carbon 6X with a GH2781TQR Ballhead and Remote Switch RS-80N3 cable release). Preparing for a shot of some women by a fire, I placed a Rosco CTO 3408 warming gel inside the Pearstone Dome Bounce Diffuser that is the default diffuser on my flash. I had the wireless transmitter on my camera so I could hold the flash to the right, near the ground, pointing slightly up toward the women. I didn’t need much flash because there was plenty of light from the fire; I only wanted to slightly brighten their faces. To do that, I set the flash at -2.3 EV and spot metered off the light on the women’s faces, then underexposed a half stop.
As dawn began to illuminate the horizon, I went to a different location at the Pushkar fair, metered off the sky, and began photographing a woman by a fire. Then I saw a young girl leave the tent; anticipating an interesting moment and the potential for adding depth to the image, I quickly moved in front of her as she crouched, and smiled. She nodded and proceeded with her morning rituals. My camera was still on a tripod, very low to the ground. On my flash, I had the Gary Fong diffuser with the Lumiquest FX amber gel popped inside (I often mix and match my accessories). I held it slightly to the right and waited for the perfect moment.
This photo was shot moments before sunrise; the sky was like a smooth morning ocean. In order to move more freely and creatively, I put the tripod away (I’ve always believed that the best thing you can do to improve your photography is to move yourself, not zoom in with the lens). The flash on the camera included a LumiQuest Pocket Bounce and its gold-reflector insert to emulate the approaching golden light. I used just a gentle touch of flash set at -3 EV.
Moments later the sun blazed over the hills, we photographed until the golden glow turned to daylight, and headed back to camp for a great breakfast!
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Santa Fe, New Mexico-based photographer Nevada Wier (www.nevadawier.com) teaches digital seminars with National Geographic Traveler magazine and travels the world with National Geographic (www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com).