That Luang Festival. Vientiane, Laos 2002

Canon EOS 1V     17-35mm f/2.8L (Actual focal length Unknown)    Camera Setting: Unknown     Media: Kodak Ektachrome SW    ISO 100 pushed to 200     Canon 550EX Flash

Although this image was made in the long ago days of film, it highlights a number of technical considerations that are still relevant and important. First off, I would like to give a Shout Out to those of us who learned how to make exact exposures on celluloid! I was consistently in a state of Exposure Angst while photographing in difficult light. If the exposure wasn’t within 2/3 stop, the image was too light or too dark. So, my images had to be double-perfect coming out of the camera: the composition and content had to be impeccable (you couldn’t crop slide film unless you brought out the scissors or gaffers tape) and the exposure had to be spot-on with the intended saturation.

And, guess what? It is still critical to make the correct exposure in low-light situations. Although noise reduction is getting better and better in new cameras, if your image is underexposed and taken at a high ISO, you are going to have problems when you begin brightening it in your editing program. Noise is inherent in all shadows, especially if you are using a lower-end camera with a small sensor, and is more pronounced at high ISOs and long exposures. As you move those brightening sliders you will begin to see discolored pixels that makes your image look grainy and odd. Film has plump pleasing grain; digital has square slovenly pixels that are best hidden in the shadows.

And, another Shout Out to Spot Metering! Although most of the time I use Evaluative Metering (Matrix, Segmented, etc. to non Canon users), high-contrast situations beg for the more precise Spot Metering. I have always used the in-camera meters; I find them very accurate. There is no reason to carry more gear than necessary.

So circling back to the above image: I was in Vientiane, Laos photographing the magnificent That Luang Festival. Many of the festival events take place during the day but my favorite time to photograph was in the late evening when people circumambulated the lit That Luang Stupa holding candles. Since I was using Kodak Ektachrome SW transparency film ISO 100, pushed to 200, there was not enough light to stop the action without panning or using a flash. I decided on the later since I wanted the beautiful That Luang Stupa sharp in the background. I put my camera on a tripod in the vertical position, set my meter to Spot Metering (2% coverage on the Canon 1V) and aimed the focusing/meter point at the stupa. I don’t know what exposure I used but I am guessing that it was about one second, maybe longer. Although people were carrying candles there wasn’t much ambient light in the foreground, plus the That Luang was so bright that the rest of the frame was bound to go dark (slide film only has a latitude of approximately 4-5 stops exposure range).

I can’t remember if I put the Canon flash directly on the hot shoe or was holding it with a TTL wire; either way would be a very similar result since I would not have held it too far out. I powered down the intensity of the flash output probably to – 2 EV. Finally I added a Lumiquest FX diffuser with an amber gel.

I took a couple of frames and (vision of light bulb going on) I realized that my flash was set to Front Curtain Sync (1st Curtain Sync), which meant that the flash was going off at the beginning of the exposure. At a fast shutter speed that doesn’t matter but at the slow 1 – 2 second exposure it meant that the flash (about 1/800th sec) would illuminate the people but then the shutter will remain open for the rest of the exposure. The stupa would have the correct exposure but, the bright candle flames would show up as a trail of light in front of the people. That would look strange; the candlelight needed to trail behind. So I set the flash to Rear Curtain sync (2nd Curtain Sync) to correct this problem. Of course that created, yet another, problem. I had judge when to click the shutter when a person would be in the right position in the frame when the flash went off. That wasn’t so easy. I would see a likely looking person; click the shutter to begin the exposure;  then, they would stop to talk to someone and no one was in front of the camera when the flash went off. Or, they would slow down or speed up, or someone would pass them at exactly the wrong moment, or… so many possibilities for a bad image! Since it wasn’t possible to review the images in a film camera (ah bless the digital LCD screen), I had absolutely no idea if I was getting a useable image. So I just kept at it. I learned early on, in difficult situations, click deliberately and copiously! It is still true

When I got home to my light table I reviewed the images and most ended up immediately in the trash. (I just loved tossing slides away, so cathartic!). Finally I found this image of a young child looking up at the camera at eye-level. I was thrilled. Notice the candle flames neatly trailing behind. And, it was a perfect exposure as well as a compelling frame.

“Everything has to matter in an image.” I always say.