Markets of Kolkata Portraits with a 14mm?
The markets of India.
So, as phase one in India comes to a close, I have time to reflect and debrief a little. The one lesson I have learned on my journey as an image maker is to pace myself. It’s hot and very humid here, around 100% humidity and often more than 95 degrees. Hitting it hard for 16 hours a day is simply not possible without burning out. So, you cannot achieve as much as you might think here this time of year. Also, you can waste hours of your day trying to navigate the busy city. As a result, I decided to book a car and driver for my shoot days. This is an extra expense sure, but well worth the investment in the time gained back from having a car available to collect me kerbside at the end of the phone. It buys you back precious hours. As well as making it a little easier to navigate a large new city, it also means you can shelter in the air-con of a car every few hours or so at least. Hydration and bathroom breaks are also something that requires consideration, as the areas I’m going into don’t really cater for this. But it’s no fun carrying the camera gear and lots of water. So why should you bother going through all this hardship you may ask. Well, the rewards are worth it and frankly, the dark, humid and often smelly markets are a wonderful and fascinating place to visit. They are like the beating heart of this old and hectic confusing city. Offering up some of the most incredible light and faces you are likely to ever encounter.
It’s monsoon season here in India. But necessity being the mother of invention and all that means there are still some great places to explore for the adventurous photographer. Namely the covered markets, of which there are many. The rain has driven me indoors into the dark interiors of the city. I’m having to crank the ISO right up, often 4000 or so. This environment is also forcing my hand with the choice of lens, as it’s often extremely cramped too. Working in theses small spaces the 14mm seems to live on the camera as the default lens for exploring the markets of India. It seems this is the place it was designed for.
It’s so busy and cramped in these markets, that you really only get seconds to get the shot, you must be quick on your feet. My approach here is to find the scene, setup a flash on a stand and have the shot ready for me to swoop in and grab a few frames before getting trampled to death by guys carrying huge sacks of vegetables on their heads. Believe me, they are stopping for no-one! When I say you have seconds to get your shot that is possibly wishful thinking, often you have less than a second before having to move out of the way again. The 14mm has not missed a shot often having to focus in total darkness. I’m using the X-Pro2 and I’m sure that is helping. The small size and wide angle and light weight make this Fujinon 14mm f2.8 the ideal choice for me when working in these conditions. Though I am planning to return and would like to try the 16mm if I can get my hands on an example for the trip later this year.
I have come equipped with various flash heads on this trip, but my weapon of choice in the markets is a Godox Ving 850 with a grid/egg crate. Frankly, you don’t need much power, I’m often working at 128th and now have added a gel to reduce a further 2 stops. I have found the small lighting stands available still too heavy and have sourced a carbon fiber monopod with legs made by the Taiwanese company Fielsol and I added a Novoflex ball head, this thing works great. I also need a way of moving around with this flash and stand setup so I’m using a bag made in the USA by Tom Bihn. It’s basically like a quiver you might use for archery for the arrows. The stand with flash attached just drops in and I’m off. (I will write a dedicated blog just on equipment and flash technique used soon, so check back soon).
Often the produce in the markets is lit rather well and sometimes the sellers have taken the time to gel the lamps to make it look even more attractive to the passing shoppers. If you look carefully at the photo of the chili trader below you can see a green gel on his lamp making his chillis look even more green! So, some great light can be found, but I noticed that the vendors would often be in full-shade whilst the vegetables would be spot lit. This would cause a contrast ratio that despite the camera sensor being able to cope with just, I simply couldn’t live with. So some flash is required on practically every shot to lift the faces of the people here. My tactic is to stroll around until I find same great light and then supplement it with my own to lift the dark areas.
I’m also loving the fact that I brought the small Fujifilm Instax mini printer with me on this trip. I am able to create some small prints and then hand them out later. I often create the prints as I’m reviewing images in the evening. This way it motivates me to go back the same place, just when the people are thinking, oh no not this guy again! I can present them with an image. This instantly changes the mood and they are now going to be more than happy to help pose or speak to a colleague and help arrange a shot. So returning to the same place a number of times can be a good tactic. I also feel it is helpful for the photographic community in general, that I didn’t just take their image and run. That now, I’m spending the time to engage with them and get to know them. I’m sure it has helped with getting local rates at the tea shop in the market too. Sure there is a cost to me as I’m handing out lots of these prints, I have given away around 50 already! I just feel It has to be worth it in the long run, karma and all that, eh? I just hope I have brought enough packs of film on this trip!
Part two – Meeting the holy man here
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