Unravel a Photograph – And why you want to have a light on your next trip

I have been asked many times how do I take my travel photographs and how much post processing is involved.

To put is simple, all of my photographs undergo some basic sharpness/saturation/contrast corrections, plus more consistent editing depending on the subject or the message I want to emphasize. If you’re shooting raw, as I do, there’s no way around it.

But the real question should be: is there any amount of post-processing that can rescue a badly composed frame, shot in a bad light? It depends. If you are a master of Photoshop there’s a good chance you’ll eventually get a decent pic, but shooting it right from the start will get you faster and more consistent results.

Below is an example of one of my favourite pictures I took in Wainyapu, during my 2014 trip to Sumba. I was staying in the hut of Thomas, the village chief, when his father came to visit the family from nearby. I immediately thought he was a great subject; the hat, the traditional Sumbanese knife and the red-stained teeth called for a fantastic picture.

Man with Parang, Wainyapu

The main problem were:

  • finding a compelling composition that made justice to the character and the location.
  • the lack of light. In the traditional village, huts are very dimly lit and there are no windows; the only available light comes from the porches at the sides and barely breaks the darkness.

So here is how approached the subject.

The first thing was to politely ask the guy if it was OK to take a few pictures. People usually don’t mind and we were guests, so things went really smooth here.

The second thing I did was to unwrap my softbox and connect it to my off-camera flash. The softbox is a not-so-bulky piece of equipment that every travel photographer should have in his bag. Yeah, at the beginning it takes that little extra space in your backpack that you would love to fill with something else, and, honestly, it is intimidating (both for me and the subjects) to unfold it. But I have been carrying it for several years now and I find myself using off-camera lights more and more regularly; the fact that I have a crush for dark, indoor scenes doesn’t help either…

If a total stranger agrees for a photograph, it doesn’t mean he’ll stand for an hour waiting for the perfect shot as a paid model, so things have to unfold relatively quick. Below is a series of compositions I did before getting it right; the whole process, from the test shots to the final one, didn’t take more than 5 minutes.

I started right away with the off-camera flash on, there wasn’t simply enough light to get the details of the elder unless of really pushing the ISO. The idea is to isolate the subject, but retain some details in the background to give a contest. I set the flash in TTL mode -1EV. In (1) the composition is off, eyes are drawn away, so I asked the subject to move right (f2, 1/125, ISO800). In (2) the composition is getting better, but there’s too much light. Also, the the flash is too much perpendicular to the subject and the contrast is a bit dull. Comparison1

I then adjusted aperture and shutter speed and the subject is now well isolated from the background (3), but the light is still dull. It’s an ok shot, but everything is a bit “meh”. I moved the light a bit closer, 45° between camera and subject, and asked the elder to hold his Parang (knife) for a nicer composition that’s now filling the frame (4). For this shot I was at f2, 1/320, ISO800; there’s much more depth and contrast on the subject and the background is nicely blurred.

That’s all for the shot. What about post processing? Below is the before and after.

Before and after

The first thing I realized when I opened the picture on my screen is that the background was still too bright and cluttered. I then selectively brought brightness down, without touching the main subject; some might argue the background is too dark now, but that’s my style and the mood I like in my pictures.

One of the main issues were the hairs of the elder; the light from the flash, which I gelled to match the colour of the bamboo-walls, bounced on his hat and t-shirt giving the hairs and unnatural green cast. I then desaturated the hairs to restore their original colour.

The rest is a simple sharpness, contrast and colour adjustment to add some drama to the shot. The whole post-processing didn’t take me more than 10-15 minutes.

To conclude. Even the shot in (1) would have been a decent one; but with some little extra effort in finding the good composition and the right light I believe I achieved a nicer photograph and saved lots of post-processing time.

Hope this helped and answered some questions!

Seven days to Pasola

Horsemen roam the battlefield, spears are flying and hopefully there will be blood soaking the ground, a necessary toll to guarantee a bountiful harvest: this is Pasola, an astonishing joust that marks the end of a ceremonial ritual taking place after the February and March full moon, when sea worms called Bau Nyale flood the coast of South-West Sumba.

Sumba is a hilly island off the tourists’ radar that lies on the southern end of Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. Due to its geographical isolation, Sumba is one of the poorest and most untouched Indonesian destinations, still too wild and underdeveloped to attract the casual tourist. If you can’t live without electricity, wi-fi or running water, you’d better stop in neighbouring islands; but if you’ll manage to break the shield of diffidence, you’ll discover a world of genuine smiles, postcard-like natural wonders and  witness century old animistic rituals that set Sumbanese apart from the rest of the archipelago.This sounds plain obvious, but spending some time to “get known” in the village will make the whole difference between being asked for money by a greedy villager for taking a shot and getting invited for lunch in his hut.

Weekuri lake, Kodi area, West Sumba

Weekuri lake, Kodi area, West Sumba

Getting to Sumba is now a relatively easy task, but much harder was to time our international flight to witness Pasola and the week-long ceremony preceding the battle. We tentatively arranged our schedule to be on the island during the March full moon, as Bau Nyale are supposed to arrive from the sea 5-7 days later, with Pasola taking place immediately afterwards. Our plan was to assist at the Wanokaka Pasola, which according to the sparse information we were able to gather beforehand, was supposed to happen at the end of March. After the 1h30′ flight from Bali to Tambolaka came the first surprise. Our hosts, Lucas and Siska, regrettably told us that we were about a month late for the Wanokaka Pasola; that was apparently a big mistake by the local priest, but there wasn’t much we could do at that point. Then two things happened. First, Siska told us that three other Pasola were scheduled in South West Sumba; that was disappointing as I had already a well organized photographic plan for the Wanokaka area, but nevertheless I felt amused by the new challenge of exploring a relatively unspoiled area. Second, Siska introduced us to Ansel, an English teacher in the Kodi area that would have been our tireless guide and translator for the coming days.

Enough chat for now, let’s the picture tell the rest of the story.

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Betel nuts and Limestone powder

Before heading to the village, our new friend suggested to stop at some ramshackle market stalls to stock up on betel nuts and cigarettes for our host family and the Ratus. Betel nuts are some sort of mild stimulant customarily offered before any talking is done; chewed together with limestone powder they give saliva a deep red colour that stains most of villagers’ teeth.

After about three hours drive we reached the traditional village of Wainyapu where we where welcomed on a front porch lined with pig jaws by Thomas, the Kepala Kampung. Thomas, his wife and the six kids turned out to be incredibly genuine and hospitable folks and we felt as part of their family for the whole length of our stay.

Traditional house in the village of Wainyapu

Traditional house in the village of Wainyapu

Living in Wainyapu is like stepping back 100 years. There’s no electricity, no running water, cooking is done outside or in a big fire lit in the middle of the “rumah”. The traditional house is a wooden structure built around four pillars that support a high roof covered in Alang grass, while a bamboo floor separate the living part from the underground stable. Houses are often aligned around a yard dotted with tombstones and sacrificial altars where ceremonies are carried out.

Man with Parang, Wainyapu

Man with Parang, Wainyapu

In a house we found this elderly man holding his parang, the traditional Sumbanese knife made by a buffalo horn hilt and encased in a wooden scabbard. As the room was dimly lit, I got some extra light from a softbox holding an off-camera flash, gelled with a pale gold filter, fired through a TTL trigger.

A ritual speech is performed in the Rato's house

A ritual speech is performed in the Rato’s house

At night we heard some voices coming from the house of the Rato, the spiritual leader of the village. Ansel offered to take us there and explained that every night during the week preceding Pasola, the Rato is performing a ritual speech about Nyale and, ultimately, Pasola itself. Not long ago, this Nyale ritual was meant to bring together far away communities and find a partner from a different village; young men and women, dressed to their best, formed separate groups and flirted by the mean of poetic songs and subtle word games. Nowadays, mostly kids sit around the Rato and respond to his speech in a sort of loud choir; nevertheless, the whole ritual is still touching and extremely meaningful to the people in the village, that learn about their ancestors through the memories of the Rato.

Horses at Wainyapu beach

Horses at Wainyapu beach

After photographing in and around the village for a few days, I paid a visit to the beach close by. The news of a foreigner wandering around summoned hordes of kids longing to show their riding skills, so finding a subject for my camera was far from difficult. The horses fighting in Pasola are surprisingly small for European standards, yet well suited for the battle due to their strength and resistance.

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The night before Pasola every person in the village takes part in a ceremonial ritual aimed at maintaining a peaceful relationship with the Marapu, a term that indicates the whole of the ancestral spirits.

War dance during the procession to honor the dead

War dance during the procession to honor the dead

Women bring small offerings to the Marapu in the form of betel leaves, betel nuts and lime, while men perform ritual dances in a crescendo of sounds and participation. The procession rapidly moves to the outskirts of the village and terminates at the megalithic tombstones surrounding the Pasola field.

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People in the village light votive candle on a grave to honour the memory of their ancestors and reconcile with the Marapu

As the sun sets and the moonlight grows stronger, candles are lit on the graves and the whole village turns into a scene that seems to come straight from a tale. As following the procession with a flash and a softbox was extremely inconvenient, I took this shot with the little artificial light coming from the candles: the high ISO capability and extended dynamic range of most recent cameras made possible this kind of shot, which I couldn’t have taken a couple of years ago with my old camera.

By the time the night approached, the village was buzzing with the sound of hundred peoples from the neighbourhood and “our” house was now sheltering 50+ member of the extended family in a joyful atmosphere. If it is unquestionable that celebrations hold a strong symbolic meaning, they are also an occasion for distant member of the family to come together, have some chat over a clove cigarette and ultimately strengthen their bonds.

With the last light from the candles slowly fading away, the women had already gathered around the collective firewood to start the preparations for the coming feast. There wasn’t much sleep that night; I felt excited for the soon to come Pasola and honored I could partake in the celebrations.

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Pigs and dogs are smoked with burning straw in one of the numerous fires lit in the yards of Wainyapu

The day has finally come. With the sun rising above the grass roofs, dozens of fires arise in the yards and the village start bustling in a frisky atmosphere.

Pigs are commonly sacrificed on the day of Pasola

Pigs are commonly sacrificed on the day of Pasola

I’m suddenly drawn by the screams of a pig about to meet his end by the hand of the Rato. It’s supposed to be killed by a single, sharp blow through the heart. It misses. Once. Twice. Again. Among shivering screams, the pig is now spilling blood from the lungs. Patches of blood start soaking the soil, mixing up with the red dye from the betel nuts. A few meters away dogs have their head chopped and chicken their throat cut. It’s a crude scene, but today is all about blood. In the ancient Marapu tradition blood is a symbol of life and rebirth and animal sacrifices play a meaningful role in the daily life of Sumbanese people.

Rato reading the omens in the entrails of a chicken

Rato reading the omens in the entrails of a chicken

Before Pasola can begin, each family hands out a chicken to the Rato to read the omens in its entrails. Gods are consulted and, if the signs are right, spears can fly.

Horsemen perform a last ritual before the battle begins.

Horsemen perform a last ritual before the battle begins.

With the crowd now getting louder, horsemen gather in the centre of the village at a yard surrounded by ancient tombstones. Dressed in their best ikat fabric, they perform a last propitiating war dance, collect their spears and head to the battlefield. (Some of the following pictures were taken both in Wainyapu and Ratenggaro, a few days earlier).

Pasola dates back several centuries. Wrapped in legend, its origins are uncertain and talking to people in Kodi, Waigalli and Wainyapu we got slightly different versions that would deserve a whole section by themselves. In an island where tribal skirmishes and headhunting were (and still are..) commonplace, Pasola was probably meant as an all-in-one-day fight, for communities to leave peacefully through the rest of the year.

In the old days, metal tipped spears were thrown at the opponents and fields rapidly turned red by the slaughter. Nowadays, on the order of authorities bamboo spears are blunted at the ends in an attempt to make the quest less dangerous. While this can actually avoid excessive bloodshed, spears still regularly fly among the crowd and, as we were warned twice, a couple of years ago a spectator had his skull passed side to side and died within seconds.

Horseman at Pasola

Horseman at Pasola

We move to a nearby field as riders slowly arrive, their horses also decorated with fanciful garbs in preparation for the battle. They ride bareback and barefoot, moving at a faster pace as the crowd self assemble in a circle surrounding the battleground. Suddenly the Rato responsible for the ritual makes an announcement and the game can start.

Horsemen throwing their spears amid the Pasola ground

Horsemen throwing their spears amid the Pasola ground

The clans from Kodi and Bukomani on one end, Wainyapu and Ratenggaro on the other end, divide on the two side of the field and charge forth in circles hurling their spears at the opponents.

A warrior screaming in joy after hitting his opponent

A warrior screaming in joy after hitting a member of the other clan

As the longest lens in my bag was a 85mm, I had reluctantly to stand my feet at the front line to take some decent shots, getting closer and closer to the flying spears as more people were eagerly pressing and shrinking the circle for a better view. Luckily I was in a good spot to witness this warrior screaming victoriously and shaking his spear up in the air after hitting and throwing down the horse his opponent.

A rider is surrounded by opponents of the other clan in the middle of the battle.

A rider is surrounded by opponents of the other clan in the middle of the battle.

At some point I had to take a break in the shade. Around midday the heat is unbearable, but the warriors seem to take little notice and keep hurling their spears completely fearless. The battle unfolds for several hours. Each clan try a game of baits and faints and sometimes eventually manage to lure an opponent into a vulnerable position.

Pasola often ends in a mayhem between opposing clans

Pasola often ends in a mayhem between opposing clans

We were warned that Pasola often ends in a riot, with people getting crazy and throwing stones at each other. I didn’t give much credit to those words until I realized the surrounding crowd was holding stones in their hands and swords on their belts. There were only minor wounds that day and the people were growing blood thirsty; it didn’t take long before the crowd erupted in an all-out chaos. Not that I felt like joining this mess, but Andreas, a young villager I had met a few days before, eventually recognized and escorted me in the middle of the mayhem, as to make a favour. The shot above is from the first clash between the two clans.

Military fire machine guns to scatter the crowd

Military fire machine guns to scatter the crowd

To stop things from getting worse, police charged into the chaos, firing machine guns in the air and scattering the crowd. I felt it was time to go. It didn’t take long for the Rato to give his final speech and Pasola was over. There were no winners and losers in the end. But blood has been shed and the harvest will be bountiful.

After the game horsemen and clan members return to their villages. Peacefully, as nothing had happened; overall, Pasola has more to do with restoring peace than foster aggression.

Thanksgiving ceremony at the village head house

Thanksgiving ceremony at the village head house

The day ends with a thanksgiving ceremony. We were invited for lunch at the house of the village head. Grateful, we accepted. While being served chopped pork, dog and chicken among the laughter of genuine people, I dwelt upon the day; once overcame the fear of being hit by a flying spear, Pasola is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a memento of an ancient culture that doesn’t want to die to the modern world.