Max Riche traveled to Kumbh Mela, the largest pilgrimage in the world, to shoot some portraits. Needless to say, he had no problem finding subjects. But there were other challenges.
You might not know what Kumbh Mela is, but a lot of people sure do. And when we say a lot, we do mean a lot. Kumbh Mela is namely the Hindu’s most important pilgrimage, considered to be the largest peaceful gathering in the world. More than 100 million people participate and bathe together in one of the four sacred rivers in India. Last year, the number of participants hit an all-time high, making it the largest gathering in the history of mankind. In other words, a photographer looking for subjects had no trouble finding them.
Enter Max Riche, advertising and editorial photographer based in Paris and Montréal. Max was at Kumbh Mela last year. Now, what was a French advertising and editorial photographer doing shooting portraits in India you might ask?
“On the side of my advertising work, I’ve always kept a body of personal work growing,” he says. “I think it’s important to keep doing work that matters to you from a personal standpoint. This was such a project. “I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to show the subjects in a different way from what has been seen in the news a few times already,” Max continues. “We’ve seen a lot of images on the internet showing people bathing in the Ganges, sages running with their swords and splashing the water, and lot of folklore. I decided to work on the fringe of the action and not in the already many-times documented bathing crowds.”
It goes without saying that shooting amongst 100 million people with little or no access to electricity requires gear you dare to put your trust in. Max’s tools of choice were a Nikon D800 with a 50mm f/1.8G lens and the AcuteB2 flash pack he has been using for years.
“The AcuteB2 is the best flash pack I’ve found to have at the same time the power (600Ws, and this is sometimes needed when shooting against the hot and bright sun in places such as these), the durability (over 300 pops at full power) and the portability with a minimal volume and weight.”
“The pack was carried by my assistant, who was also my translator. He carried the pack over his shoulder while holding the flash head and a softbox on a monopod in his hands. There were so many people at Kumbh Mela that it was just impossible to put anything on the ground. If something would’ve happen to the flash bulb, the trip would’ve been over. So, he had to keep everything in his hands at all times and move around accordingly to my directions to adjust the lighting and its power.”
A lot of documentary photographers use available light only. Why didn’t you just do that?
“I wanted my portraits to have a consistent look, even though some of them would be shot in the morning, some in the afternoon, some on sunny days, and others on cloudy days. The only one way of achieving this is to have the option of balancing the available light with flashes. I think it’s especially important on a trip such as this. I spent a significant amount of time and money to travel to Kumbh Mela. Once there, failing to get the shot was just not an option. Remember, you’re often shooting in horrible light conditions with bright sun, dark shadows, etc. Also, if you don’t use flashes, you cut down dramatically the amount of time you can use the nice available light. Plus, for portraits, having a catch light in the eyes makes your subject’s eyes come alive!
“That being said, I wanted my lighting to be unobtrusive. Don’t get me wrong, light is super important. But as the saying goes in cinema, where we say that a good editing should not be noticed, in photography I believe that a good lighting should not be noticed either. It should disappear to serve the photograph and let it breathe.”
To achieve this effect, Max had to adjust his lighting setup depending on what time of day it was and where the subject was positioned in relation to the sun.
“I would position the subject in such a way that she or he had the sun coming slightly from behind and on the side,” says Max. “If the person was sitting and couldn’t move, I would frame my shot so that I get the interesting parts of background I wanted but still placed the sun as to create a rim light on the subject’s head, side of face and shoulders. Then my assistant would position himself on the other side of the subject with the softbox and depending on the distance to the subject we would make adjustments in the power level to just balance out the sun light and fill in the shadows, without over-doing it.
Below are a few examples of how Max tweaked his simple yet effective one-light setup to get the most out of each shot.
“In this picture, the sun was getting lower on the Ganges and this Sadhu was meditating on the hay. The sun was creating a nice orange glow on the side of his face, so we placed the softbox at camera right and a bit above, in order to lit nicely the other half of his face and body.”
"In situation such as this, when the sun was stronger, you need to have a stronger output too to your flash. But you can see the nice rim light from the sun, a bit warmer than the flash light (hence more orange) on the side of his head. He had very deep eyes, so we played with the angle of the flash to avoid creating too many shadows in his eyes too.”
“Here the sun was getting a bit low again, you can notice the difference of hues in the light, more orangey on the left side of his face, and whiter (from the 50o0K balance flash bulb) on the right. It gives a nice variety of tones to the image, which otherwise would look less interesting. As he was wearing glasses, I had to also pay attention of not catching any reflection of the softbox in those. These are little tricks you get used to when working commercially with flash all the time!”
“For this shot we just reversed the set up we used for this previous shot, as the sun was on camera right when we made his portrait.”
See more of Max’s work at his website.
Click here to learn more about the AcuteB2.