Canon 5DMarkII     24-70mm f/2.8L (40mm)    1/4 sec. at f/14     ISO 100     Canon 580EXII 

Welcome to my world of Bad Light Photography. I’m constantly photographing great situations in mid-day contrasty light (bright highlights, dark shadows). I internally tear at my mind pondering,  “What can I do? Think creatively!” I believe in the ancient Chinese proverb: Crisis = Opportunity.

A couple of years ago I was traveling in the lesser-known state of Chattisgarh in India, photographing some of the numerous tribal groups. I stopped at Kangrapada village to make images of the Godaba Tribe’s fast-moving Dhemsa dance. It was a cloudless day at the stark hour of 2pm. They were outside, ready to dance, under big trees. The first thing I always do when I see a situation that I’m interested in photographing is to ask myself, “What is the problem?” Well, this problem was very evident: the light was mottled bright light and deep shadow, beyond the contrast range of my sensor (about half the range of the human eye). They were dancing under the shade of the trees, but it was an inconsistent pattern of light and shade and beyond the dancers was a glaring background. “What can I do? Think creatively!” Eureka, an idea: Pan and Flash!

I set my Canon 5DMark II camera at ISO 100. Then made an exposure for the lowest shutter speed possible of the dancers when they were the shade. That was ¼ sec. at f/14. Perfecto! My starting point for thinking about panning is 1/15 sec., but the slower the shutter speed the more dramatic the background blur. However, the problem with panning people at very slow shutter speeds is that the feet (and the hands) move at a much faster speed than the torso, so they can “ghost out”, disappear completely, and you are left with an image of a footless, handless torso drifting through space.

This is when using direct, bright flash is very helpful (I was using a Canon 580EXII, but a pop-up would work great in this situation). A flash burst is about 1/800th sec., so it will accentuate and freeze that moment within the blur. So it gives an illusion of sharpness with a blur. I always expect mistakes and misses so I “panned and flashed”for dozens of frames. I experimented from 1/15th sec. to ¼ sec. shutter speeds (aperture was not important). I was standing a bit away from the dancers and I needed a bright burst to make an impact, so I probably was on + 1.7 EV with the flash pointed directly at the dancers without a diffuser.

I had a number of interesting images to choose from but this frame I liked the most. The troublesome, splotchy light was smoothed  into lines that mimicked the stripes in the women’s dresses. The multiple feet are not a problem as they enhance the feeling of the dance. If you look carefully you can see how the use of flash sharpened the toes and heels. The background of people, bushes, bicycles blurred into patterns of color.

I actually love it when there are problems because then I’m forced to think of a creative solution. Most of my initial photographic ideas are ones that are familiar to me and come easily. As the brilliant Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his diary:

“Life is pretty simple: you do some stuff.

Most fails. Some works.

You do more of what works.

If it works big, others quickly copy it.

Then you do something else.

The trick is to do something else.”