Yesterday, I had a special photo-assignment to complete. A photoshoot at our own Maini’s Hill Cottages. This was for some ‘not-too-professional’ modeling shots, later to be shared on social media and for marketing. As always, photography for me is not just being behind the camera and going click click click. Every assignment is a story. A story to be told and remembered. This one was no different.
(This is from a couple of days earlier. I was hoping to see the snow-capped peaks again on this trip)
I started off early in the morning, even before sunrise. There was a nip in the air and yet it was pleasant. The birds were starting to wake up. The first stop was the model’s house. She was also an early bird like me. All packed and ready to go. With all her stuff also loaded in the boot, we hit the road. The others would be joining us at the cottages itself. It was a two-hour drive from her house to the cottages.
By the time we started the ascend, the dawn was already breaking. Soon the sun would rise. We were excited about the photo-opportunities we could get and the puffs of fresh mountain breeze that kept hitting us further boosted our mood. The road was starting to curve. One turn after another. I love driving on the hills. New landscapes after every turn. We were on a tight schedule so even when I wanted to stop and capture some landscapes, the time did not permit. With the exception of a short break to grab a bite for breakfast, we did not stop anywhere. We reached the cottages before the others could reach, with enough spare time to set up the lights and other photography equipment.
However, luck was not with us. The sky was clear with very harsh light. For photography assignments involving portraits, I love diffused light from overcast skies. Fill-in flash would be required for most of the photographs. The first choice to consider was whether to use high-powered electrical strobes or portable speedlights. Though not powerful enough, the speedlights work well for fill-in and that was all that was needed. No need to run the wires for the more powerful strobes.
(Just a snapshot to show how I had set up two umbrellas of different sizes with speedlights. The speedlights were set to be wirelessly triggered by a Nikon SU-800 commander unit. Notice the stark contrast and harsh ambient light. There was another white umbrella which was where I stood for this snap. The smaller umbrella gives a harsher reflection than the larger one. The white umbrella which is not in this picture provided with a very diffused light, when the flash was fired through it.)
My exposure style was simple. No automatic measurements for flash triggering. I am old school and I prefer setting my flashes manually, using the guide number and distance. Calculating the drop in intensity while using bounce and also from the size of an umbrella. The method of calculation is a topic in itself which I will pen down someday. For this assignment, I had set up the flashes to provide me enough fill-light that would make the shadow areas bright but not so much so to make the effect look artificial. I prefer a -2 EV for fill-in flash in comparison to ambient light. (For those of you wondering a 0 EV compensation or no compensation casts a bright light on the subject so as to compete with the natural light and ends up looking ghastly)
The wind was starting to pick up speed. I was hoping that some clouds would appear and make my task easier. The swallows were flying low. In hills, the local folks say that when they fly low, there might be a gale approaching.
After capturing a few trial shots, I went on to capture some pictures for the assignment. The exposures were perfect. I could see a well-centered histogram. Snow-covered peaks in the backdrop were not overblown and the lady in the foreground was not underexposed. The light from the flash was well balanced with the natural light.
(This one was for Instagram. The ubiquitous square format with slightly over the top processing. The slight blur around her hair is due to sampling error while reducing the size and some softening is due to compression. The ground was still wet from dew, but thankfully she did not mind that)
Something unplanned happened. A gust of wind came along and one of the umbrellas toppled over. That was a white translucent umbrella with a flash firing through it. The umbrella got broken. Luckily the flash was saved. With heavy winds, umbrellas can be a problem and many photographers recommend using softboxes instead. I simply sand-bagged my other stands for the time-being. For me, the loss of one umbrella is not such a big problem. For those of you who still favor softboxes, I agree the light loss happens with umbrellas but when used properly, the light loss can be minimized. Umbrellas are not that expensive and the best part, they can be easily transported when folded.
We did some more photographs and then took a short break. Hot coffee works wonders in weather like this. That was what she had. For me, another walk in the garden was a more potent energizer than any coffee. A black-headed jay sat perched on an apple tree, observing the umbrellas and camera accessories. Sometimes simply observing the birds is even more interesting than photographing them (Birding & Bird Photography). The jay was quiet. It was autumn and the apples were no longer there on the trees. Maybe it was not thinking of apples at all and maybe it was a photographer in the past life. While I stood there observing the jay, a flock of finches flew by and settled themselves on another apple tree. Quite loud and yet musical when they started to sing together. It was wonderful.
The short break was over. My model had changed her dress too during the coffee break. The wind had brought some clouds but they were still far off. For the next photos, I was again planning to use the fill-flashes.
(Captured this shot to check the exposure. Thanks to the preview screen and histograms, it is now easy to cross-check the lights in real-time. The final image will obviously undergo a lot of photo-retouching.)
My other friends also reached the site. We sat down for chit-chat and some food. For them also, the journey had been quite interesting with beautiful views all around. After the break, we were back to photography.
This time, the aim was to capture some photographs of a healthy discussion, some yoga and some friendly time being spent in the garden. For the initial few shots, we used some props like Yoga mats, books, and flowers. The scenes were staged. The photographs were turning out nice. Interestingly, as time moved on, the discussions among them became more and more real and less staged.
Conscientious to the job in hand, I wanted to do photography but I had to keep my camera down and join them. The discussions were enlightening and involving. We chatted about spirituality and nature in general. According to one of them, the place had very strong positive vibes and so automatically the discussions turned spiritual. Someone mentioned how we happen to be so materialistic and how we end up running after these material things seeking pleasure while forgetting to be happy. That did ring a bell in my mind. There was a time when I needed the latest gadget, the fastest internet or the newest amplifier for my music system. Now it is different. The things are aids to achieve what I like. From cameras, I am moving towards photography. From being an audiophile, I am changing into a music lover. (Minimalism – A Way of Life!). Instead of seeking pleasures, I try to be happy. Yes, ‘try’ is still the word. A long way to go before I will be able to say that I am happy as easily as Dalai Lama does.
(When the photography stopped and discussions started: religion, spirituality, past-life regressions, magic & miracles, discussions on books like a course in miracles and Bhagwat Gita. This is just a snapshot while we all relaxed. That’s Ayushi, energetic and fitness runs in her blood; Aditi, bubbly and always full of happiness; Sitanshu, with a soul that is progressing to the next level of consciousness)
The flock of finches again flew by and settled on another apple tree just above the lawn where we all were sitting. Somewhere I had read that some of the birds are now the demigods who no longer roam around in human forms. Did these finches come to eavesdrop on our discussions? It didn’t matter. Everyone was welcome to our little garden discussion. A woodpecker also joined in.
The clouds started to gather up and we realized how late it was getting. Some more photography to be done! The clouds were a thin layer and so they were what I was waiting for since morning. A nice diffused light, with no harsh shadows anywhere. Perfect for outdoor portraiture. After some more shots, we packed up for the day.
Another ride back to the plains! Another drive on the serpentine hill roads! When we started off, it was starting to get dark. On the way, after the sun had set, the sky started to do its own modeling show. A splash of color here and a splash of color there. From pastel pink hues to deep red shades, everything was there. The golden hour was indeed golden then. We saw some hills silhouetted against the deeply colored sky. This we had to capture. The last photograph of the day!
(A nice graphical image with the surreal hills in the foreground and the deep orange sky above. This had to be captured. 135mm lens at f/5.6 with -2 EV exposure compensation)
The trip turned out to be a very useful one. From a quick look that I took of the raw files, I have more than a dozen useful images. I’ll be posting some of these photographs on Instagram too, do follow these nametags- ‘hillcottages’ & ‘maini.live’.