Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Creating My Own Wayang

Wayang kulit is the ancient puppet theatre in Bali and Java, where shadows of flat leather cutout figures are made to dance against a white curtain using a blazing fire as backlight. In photography, similar shadow plays can be created and I will share here inside tips on how to take dynamic silhouetted photos. I will limit the discussion to fast speed shots that can be done handheld, as opposed to long exposure silhouette. In homage to wayang, the pictures I am featuring here taken in Bali.

day is done
phototip: Choose and interesting subject. Although this was taken by a point and shoot using digital zoom instead of a real telephoto lens, the drama of surfing is captured.
f/8, 0.01s, 21.3mm
Kuta Beach, Kuta, Bali, Indonesia

As illustrated above, shadow shots need strong backlighting and nothing but the rising or sinking sun provides a cleaner and brighter almost-horizontal natural light. I suggest a location with a reflective body of water, most convenient of which is the sea. Get a map and check out which beach faces the east (sunrise) or the west (sunset). Check out the internet for the sunrise/sunset time as the golden hours for hand-held silhouettes, depending on the conditions, often are the 30 or 40 minute periods after sunrise or before sunset.

Last November 11, I was not really too keen on doing any sunset shots. Work took a frontseat that Sunday but when I became free late in the afternoon, I suggested to my friends that we go to Canggu. Now Canggu is not in your typical Bali tourist map – it is that blank spot between Seminyak/Kuta and Tanah Lot temple – but I have never been there. My Balinese friends, Komang and Ketut, perhaps being just too much familiar with me, no longer raise an eyebrow that I chose a place off the tourist track although lately, the place is being peppered with villa-type cottages.

The beach of Tibubeneng was, as expected, crowded. That Sunday after all was Banyu Pinaruh, the auspicious date to cast away offerings and ritually bathe in the sea. I already had my fill of the spectacle of the celebrations during sunrise at Geger beach in Nusa Dua (but this would be in another coming blog).

Just a few paces from the road, I could not see the people swimming in the water for the sand swell was blocking my view. However, people going into and coming from the beach would be fully silhouetted against the yellow sky as they go up the dune mounds. Getting graceful silhouettes would be another matter. Stalking takes patience and for the shot below, I first chose and then practically chased a family of three with my lens and waited for the right moment to click.

phototip: Be aware of the foreground and background which can add value to your composition
f/5.6, 0.001s, 300mm, ISO 100, +1.0eV
Tibubeneng Beach, Canggu, Bali, Indonesia

As I walked closer to the beach, people would no longer be backlit fully, at least not in my camera. In front of bright light, a camera sees differently from the human eye. While I could see the head, body and feet of the people in front of me, the camera can only distinguish the contrast of the dark forms against the light and as I moved on higher ground, the people’s legs will be set against the sand which cannot reflect any light. From the mound then, the camera can only capture people often from the knee or even from the waist up.

When I saw some lads starting to play volleyball, I knew that I have to retrace my steps back to the road to get a lower perspective. Unfortunately, I could not find a spot low enough to capture the full figures of the players, what with the crowd surrounding the court. I finally settled by a tree stump which rather stank from some refuse. And did I mention too that in these shots, you will always be against the harsh sunlight? Silhouette shots are not for those who don’t want to get dark. Or for those who cannot stand to sweat in the sweltering heat.

bola voli
phototip: Shoot, chimp and shoot. You can improve on your shots by learning from previous photos
f/5.6, 0.0002s, 160mm, ISO 200, +1.0eV
Tibubeneng Beach, Canggu, Bali, Indonesia

Although the jumble of the spectators is not be too distracting, it diminishes the punch of the action. I even have to tilt and crop the shot above. That is when it hit me. I can actually frame some shots from the net up knowing that the players will eventually jump and smash the ball. So I angled the camera slightly and focused on the action above the net. The wait was just short. In less than 2 minutes, there came another kill and as I was ready, I got the frame I wanted. The photo below was not cropped at all.

phototip: In volleyball, as in any team sport, the players’ eyes and actions will be always be oriented towards the ball, the natural dynamic focal point. If possible, always include the object of play in the frame.
f/5.6, 0.0002s, 220mm, ISO 200, +1/3eV
Tibubeneng Beach, Canggu, Bali, Indonesia

After some more shots, I was ready to give up on the game. I joined my friends near the beach and capped the afternoon with some peanuts. It was still some 30 minutes before sunset. There are still some more photos to take.

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Sakanta Running Wolf said...

Love your wayang!!! Thanks for sharing technique!

c.zwerg said...

it's so much fun to read your blog and learn from you - thanks so much for sharing all your techniques and tips!

kat said...

i love the photos w/ the yellowish backgrounds.