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Meditation

The story behind the image

Canon 5D, 85mm f1.8 lens. 1/250 at f5.6

Canon 5D, 300mm, 1/250 @ f5.6, ISO 1250

I shot this picture a couple of years ago whilst on a 4 week trip through the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.  Bhutan can be a complicated country in which to travel since, as a visitor you are required to take a guided tour as your means of travel through the kingdom.  Of course, nothing is ever set in stone and it wasn’t too long after meeting my guide and driver that we agreed to modify our pre-planned  itinerary and tread a rather less travelled path through this fantastic country by visiting Bhutanese people in their own homes.

This image was one of the first photos I took in Bhutan, and still one of my favourites.  On my first day in Thimpu, Bhutan’s sleepy capital city, I asked my guide to take me to visit his relatives and on the way we passed an old friend of the family slowly trudging his way up a road quietly chanting and spinning his prayer wheel.  That day it was Neowney, a week long religious duty of mantra chanting and fasting that most of Thimpu’s elderly citizens were taking part in at the time.  The family friend agreed for us to come with him and we followed him up to Changangkha Lhakhang temple.

As a first introduction to Bhutan, I think you would struggle to find a more atmospherically charged scene than a room full of meditating people lit only by two small doorways at the front left and right sides of the room.  Needless to say, this image was one of an abundance of photographic gifts being offered at that time.  Every face in the room told a different story, but it was this lady, quietly sitting at the front in deep meditation who stole the show for me.  Later on in the day, outside the temple we showed her the image on my laptop.  In that beautiful way that only wise old Buddhists know how, she smiled and carried on about her duties at the temple, unimpressed.

Taking a photograph like this is not hard at all.  The only prerequisites are a darkish background and a suitable light source emanating from only one direction, in this case an open door.  One thing you must be sure of is to remember to meter for just the highlights that you can see.  This will involve shooting with your camera set to manual and adjusting your exposure accordingly, something I would advise you to get into the habit of doing at all times if you are serious about your photography.  By exposing for just the highlights on the woman’s face, the rest of the dimly lit background disappears into complete darkness.

Another frame from the same scene.  The lady is now bottom left, looking away from camera

Another frame from the same scene. The lady is now bottom left, looking away from camera

As you can see from this second frame.  There was no shortage of images in the room on that day.  For me though, the tight framing of the lady gives the first image a greater sense of the intimacy of a quiet moment such as meditation.

7 Responses to “Meditation”

  1. jessima says:

    in the bhuddist tradition it is said , the more the distractions overcome, the deeper the meditation. the sound of the camera might have just been a gift…

  2. Timothy says:

    In this particular instance the lady did not know that I was photographing her. Using a long lens gave me just enough distance not to disturb the situation along with the fact that I was crouched down in a doorway, just out of view of most of the people in the room. It is true that I normally seek agreement or some kind of acknowledgment from the people I photograph prior to shooting because I feel too uncomfortable inside myself if I can sense that people are not happy with my presence.

    Of course, every situation is unique and sometimes it is necessary to shoot first and ask later when you are documenting an event, but on the whole I would say that I do choose to photograph people and things with which I have empathy so that a degree of trust exists between myself and the other. This is very important to me because amongst other things, I wholehearted believe that trust is the key to capturing intimacy in your images. Generally, if I feel that someone does not trust me then I will not take their photo because that sentiment is not something I am usually trying to portray in my images. In reality this means that it is most often necessary to take the time to connect with people in some way before ever thinking about bringing out any cameras.

    Coincidentally, for the last few weeks I have been compiling a post devoted solely to the subject of photographing people in which I touch upon this issue quite a few times. It is taking a lot longer than I thought to finish but I will post it as soon as I can. Stay tuned.

  3. Elcorin says:

    Hi, Not sure that this is true:), but thanks for the post.
    Thank you

  4. gavingough says:

    Vaclav, I’m not here to speak for Timothy but in my experience, photographers rarely get images like this without first having some kind if interaction with their subject.

    I wasn’t there and may be wrong but I’m pretty confident that the lady being photographed had already given her agreement for Timothy to photograph her.

    Photographers who shoot this kind of image tend not to get such intimate portraits without exhibiting respect for the people they are photographing. Timothy can tell us more accurately of course but I’d be pretty confident that a photographer who consistently produces such engaging images would not be able to do so without a great deal of empathy for their subject and their surroundings.

    That’s not to say everyone works like this. I know, sadly, that not everyone who picks up a camera always exhibits such restraint but those who do are invariably the ones able to produce the best photographs.

  5. Quash says:

    Great post. Thank you. Loved the balance between describing the culture, the people,your experience, and then describing how you lit and took the shot with your tips,and then including the camera model, lens and settings. Nicely done and very helpful. Thanks!

  6. Vaclav Stepan says:

    The picture is nice. But – what does justify the use of a noisy camera to disturb somebody in meditation? Just asking…

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