The Hello Bar is a simple web toolbar that engages users and communicates a call to action. How To Photograph Monks at Night In The Dark In Dharamshala, India

Part One: 2 Photographers 3 Monks… When It All Comes Together

Monks fire candle India

I arrived in Dharamshala with the intent that I would go meet that Dalai Lama, ask him for his photograph and that he would say “Yes, yes, come now and let me drop everything to pose for you while you take that magic photo of me!”  Well I was a day late and a dollar short, so to say.  He had just left for Australia and wouldn’t be returning for a month or so.

Lucky for me though, Dharamshala is full of other monks and I had to make a new mission to go about meeting them.  When I came from Delhi to Dharamshala by bus, I met a traveler who was living in New York City but originally from the Eastern Block, Rich Nacin (check out his website here) who also did street photography.  We hit it off well from the start talking about photography and I told him that I hoped to score some private sessions with a group of monks for photographing.  He was instantly down for a job like that and the new plan was set into motion.

How were we going to find these monks, talk them into posing for us for a few hours and it all be cool?  We didn’t know but we made up a blah blah story (partially true for the most part) about how we wanted to photograph monks from here and show the world about their cultural and religion, then we went out and started visiting temples where the monks stayed.  We’d walk into one, ask to speak to a care taker or someone in charge and then pleaded our cases to him for help.  We also decided we would put up some money as a gift to the school if they were willing to participate in our photo project.  So now it was just a numbers game and all we needed to do was put ourselves out there.

School One: 3 Monks on A Blacked Out Night

The first temple we shot at was close to the main road but was 450 steps down to the compound (not easy to say the least).  We found a soft spoken monk who was in charge and he said it was possible if we could come back at 6pm that night, as all the student monks were in prayer or classes at the moment.  We said, “Sure no problem, we’ll be back at 6pm with all our gear!”  After all it was only another 450 steps out and another 450 steps back down and for dessert another 450 steps back out!  We didn’t care just as long as we’d get to shoot photographs.

Rich and I came back and waited, waited and waited what seemed for be forever.  I was worried about losing the light but at this point I didn’t care as I just wanted to take some photos.  Finally the head monk found us and said he had two students who were willing to help us, that we could take photos anywhere we liked and we had all the time in the world.  By now it was already getting almost pitch black but I had already scouted a location on the compound that I thought would work.

I set up the light stand, busted out my flash triggers (put one on my camera and one on Rich’s camera) and tried a few test shots.  Below are the results and they came out exactly as I had envisioned them.

Monks fire candle India

Monks fire candle India

The two monks were young, quiet as usual for a monk but both had genuine smiles and were curious about these two photographers from the US wanting to take pictures of them.  They were great models and knew we were going to get some cool shots just as long as we both could come up with what we wanted.

The first set of photos I had in mind were simple; blacked out foreground with filled in flash.  All these photos were taken on top of a flat concrete roof top after the sun had set.  I used a high shutter speed to get the background pitch black but made sure it didn’t go over 1/250 sec, otherwise my flashes wouldn’t sync fast enough and the photos would be nothing but black.  I used one Canon Speedlight at full power in a 28″ Westcott Softbox.

Probably the hardest part for me was keeping the young monks from laughing so much.  ‘Chuckles’ (picture just above) would always bust up laughing when I was about to take a shot.  He had us all laughing before it was over with and goes to show you the warmness of their religion.  After Rich and I had about 15min of our fill of this style of shots we became a little bored with it.  Only so many ways you can shoot this shot without it being the same thing over and over again.

Monks fire candle India

I tried moving the softbox around more but to be honest I couldn’t get anything to work that I liked.  I finally took a test shot to see if I could raise the ISO level up enough and shoot in the dark.  It almost worked and it gave me a fresh new idea; candles!  I had Rich buy eight candles before we came back.  I didn’t know what for other then I thought they would come in handy.  We lit several candles and displayed them in front of one of the monks and had him sit in front of them.  The natural light from the candles was enough for me to be able to lock focus and still have a fast enough shutter speed to get a clean shot and not a bunch of blur from me shaking the camera.  I can normally shoot well from 1/15 sec  to 1/30 sec.

Monks fire candle IndiaOnce Rich and I knew this would work I started moving the monks around the candles until finally they both were sitting in front of each other with the candles between them.  I snapped a few shots off but something was missing… I couldn’t put my finger on it until I seen the head monk standing beside us watching.  I asked him before if he would like his photo taken but he politely said no.  Now when I asked him I said “I can’t get this photo to work with only two people in it, can you help us and sit right here with the other two?”  Now he was into it after watching us for so long and gladly sat down for some shots.  I had them raise their robes up to protect the candles from blowing out and to add a little more to the shot with the light shinning through the fabric some.  Once set, Rich and I both knew we had our shot and we sat about for the next 20 minutes firing exposure after exposure.

Monks fire candle India

So what is the whole point of this post other then to show off some photos?

  1. Even when things don’t go as planned (and they never will) that you have the vision to adjust and get it back on track.  I didn’t know why I wanted the candles but in the end it saved us and gave us both the shots we were looking for.  When something wasn’t working, we stopped, took assessment and readjusted.  This happened probably 5-8x just that night.  I had a location picked out before but I needed daylight for it to work, when we were ready it was already dark.  So we moved to the rooftop for a second location and it worked out great.  Adapt and keep your goals in mind always!
  2. I liked the shots with the candles 10x more then the ones where I used a fancy flash.  Humm… a $600 set-up or a $1 set-up?  Can you tell a difference much?  It’s not your gear but what you make the most out of it that matters.  I tried to force the shot with the flash at the start but it was a little boring and I wanted something natural.
  3. Monks are cool!  No seriously, monks are really cool and that might have been the best lesson I learned that day!  They were easy to work with, did exactly what I told them in the form of directions and over all some of the best people to ever pose for me.  Not sure if they teach them that or not but it’s worth noting.  If you’re shy, then photographing monks is a great start.  If you’re slow, then photographing monks is a great start… get the point!

Below are most of the good shots from that night.  Click on the link thats says “Show as Slideshow” for best viewing.  Rich made copies later for the two monks and I made another trip down those stairs again to give them the copies.  Always important if you can to give back I think.  Special thanks again to Rich for helping me do this and teaching me a few things along the way!

Part II coming soon!!!

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  • Angela

    Gorgeous photos, this is very interesting!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks and glad you liked the shots.  Part II has some even better shots but will have to get that written up soon for next week.  Stay tuned and thanks for commenting! :)

  • Jasmine Stephenson

    I love looking at your photos… any chance you’re giving classes in Medellin at the end of this year? (hint, hint)

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