Seeing & Thinking: Sri Lankan woman with an Asian elephant

Have you ever visualized a scene for a shot when reading about a new destination? Then acted on it? Months ago when I was reading about Sri Lanka and planning my trip there, I kept thinking how awesome it would be to photograph a beautiful woman dressed in a traditional sari with an elephant on a palm studded coast…

So prior to leaving the States, I arranged a photo shoot that involved a beautiful model named Samuddi, rented an elephant (used to being around people), and found a private stretch of beach. It was scheduled for the last full day of my 2 week visit. I scouted out the location the afternoon before, tested all equipment, then went over sketches, light modifiers and general lighting specifics with my friend who agreed to be my assistant for the afternoon.

But sometimes a shoot doesn’t go exactly as planned… especially when working with animals and unpredicatable weather…

High humidity, fogged camera lenses, high winds that made using an umbrella (light modifier) impossible, high tide, high waves, an ansy elephant afraid of the waves, an anxious model afraid of the elephant, limited natural light, and eventually rain…made for a challenging day!! And reduced our shooting time to just an hour and fifteen minutes.

The first challenge of the day was unexpected humidity. My camera lenses were completely fogged. For 20 long minutes! This was terribly frustrating since I had taken the precautionary steps to minimize the a/c in the hotel room, taken my cameras outside an hour prior to the shoot. I really didn’t think it would be an issue, as I hadn’t had one incident of fogged lenses since I landed 2 weeks ago, even when I cranked the a/c up to keep cool. Yet, it happened today!  So what did I do? Nothing. Used the time to let Samuddi and the elephant acquainted on the beach. My initial shots look like it was extremely foggy. Thank God for Photoshop to pull out the contrast!


Lighting was a biggie. The ambient light was very contrasty. The sky was brighter than the elephant by 5-6 stops. And I couldn’t take 2 shots (exposing for different ambient) to combine them later in PS with a moving woman and elephant. So, I exposed for the subject and let the sky go. Or cropped in on her. The beach background was plain and featureless. Disappointing. Couldn’t get to the more scenic spots with scattered palm trees and boulders cauz of the unexpected high tide (they don’t have tide schedules there). So after 20 minutes, when I tired of trying to find a pleasing composition (wow–is it ever hard to communicate to an elephant where you’d like it to go!) I suggested we move over to the shade.

Leaving the beach and removing the sky from the equation was a no-brainer for better lighting. Instantly the darks and lights could be captured within the same frame. But I still used a strobe and modifier to give a little punch and give some direction to the light, feathering it onto Samuddi’s face. But the problem here was the background. Yes, there were trees and shrubs…but rather sparse, allowing the concrete wall with a red pipe to show through. I did my best to crop in, or ask the mahout to move the ele so that maximum greenery surrounded her.

After it rained, which lasted about 25 minutes, we decided to head back out on the beach since the sky was darker. Spot metering on the sand, sky, and elephant, I knew that a decent exposure was possible. But the challenge this time was the elephant. She was becoming mischevious and even naughty! And why? She’d eaten plenty of plants and pineapples (whole!) during our break. But now, back on the beach she was anything but sweet.  Sometimes when Samuddi got close to her, the elephant would slap her on the back–with her wiry tail–with an audible smack. Or lift her foot to push Samuddi away. Twice the elephant did so with such force that Samuddi landed in the sand. (And no, we were nowhere close to the waves…) So we got the point. Even though there was enough daylight, and it felt like we’d only begun, the ele decided for us–our shoot was done.

I’ll admit it was a bit over-ambitious.  But I figured, nothing ventured, nothing gained! I may never get a chance to visit Sri Lanka again.


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