Faqir Baba and the SMDV SPEEDBOX
In the prior post, I made a big deal about how we used the SMDV Speedbox when photographing sadhus in Varanasi. We had so much interest I wanted to expound on the use of the softbox and talk about one man, the Faqir Baba.
First off for you non-Urdu/Hindi speakers, the word faqir (/fəˈkɪər/) literally means “poor”. It is generally a poor Muslim (sometimes a Hindu) man who wanders and lives off of donations, aka alms. In Kashmir, where I lived for years, you’d run into Suji Faqirs all the time. The term Baba is idiomatic for simply any wise old man. So together, Faqir Baba becomes more of a title, than a name, but that’s how it rolls in India – titles often become names or nicknames. For now, I’ll refer to him as simply Babaji. Ji being an honorific, so “Mr. Wise Old Man”. Ok, enough with the language lesson.
On our second day in Varanasi, aka Banaras, the holiest city in India… for Hindus we met Babaji. Why would there be a Faqir wandering around Banaras? Actually, a little-known fact outside of Varanasi is that this Hindu city is made up of 30% Muslims. So even though the city is known as a Hindu city it has a huge Muslim population. It should be no surprise that we should run into this kind old man, Babaji.
Remember, this was a photo workshop. We had three students that signed on to learn how to take better photos and expected their leaders, Piet Van den Eynde and I, to deliver the knowledge as well as the opportunity. Once we saw this man’s face we knew we had to photograph him. This is where it gets sticky and if you listened to the previous podcast you know our thoughts on paying models. In short, if we take them away from what they are doing – take time away from their “job” then it seems only fair to remunerate their efforts.
We set a price using a local boy from our hotel to help out and off we traveled in search of the perfect location to photograph Babaji.
At this point, I think I need to make it clear, that I have always, ALWAYS considered myself an available light photographer. Piet does as well, in fact, he is always quoting Joe McNally saying, he will photograph with whatever light might be available. Cheeky, but true for him. I think my definition is closer to: an available light photographer is a photographer who is scared to death of flash! If truth be known, that has been me for years or at least until I began running workshops with Piet four years ago.
When we first started these workshops, or Photo Treks as we call them, Piet would bring his Lastolite Trifold umbrella and a Speedlight. As time progressed Piet’s lights got bigger and more powerful: Cactus, Godox and now the huge 600-watt seconds Jinbei. The little umbrella was not sufficient any longer. Once we started using the Jinbei, spillover of the big spread of powerful light was just too much for the little guy. This year, Piet brought with him a couple of the most ingenious softboxes I have every worked with – the SMDV Speedbox. The Speedbox is aptly named as after the initial setup, it takes literally seconds to put up or take down. Check out the video below.
Back to the portrait shoot of Babaji. We had scoped out a location the day before and were excited to have it as a backdrop. But, like so often in India, things changed at the last minute. We arrived with cameras, lightboxes, photographers and, of course, Babaji only to be told in no uncertain terms we had to leave. We explained to them we had permission from the building owners (in fact we did). They didn’t care, they were the residents, they had final say, “move on!” So after that, our little crew of photographers started walking through the alleyways and streets of old Varanasi looking for other interesting backdrops, with Babaji shuffling behind us.
It wasn’t too long until we came around a corner and found a ledge or shelf protruding out from a green wall in desperate need of paint (always a good sign) and a blue door. Perfect! We politely invited Babji to have a seat on the ledge in front of the door. Then we quickly popped open the SMDV Speedbox. Now, it should be stated here the available light in this location wasn’t bad at all. In fact, I was a little skeptical about using extra lighting (see the previous post) I only mention this here because we had two choices of off-camera lighting – the Smaller Cactus flash or the larger Jinbei. We went with the Cactus RF60 because a more powerful Jinbei would have been too much. All we wanted to do was add drama or texture to the image, not drown out all the available light.
Now to how we actually lit Babaji. We used the Cactus RF60 Wireless Flash and the Cactus V6 remote trigger to fire the flash. By the way, these are a great value for what you get. Easy to use as well. I only wish the remote had a smaller footprint. We attached the flash into the SMDV Speedbox Professional 28-inch (70cm) and mounted it all on an extension pole.
Using the Cactus we had to shoot in manual mode. The best way to do this is to set your shutter speed to its sync speed, for the X-Pro2, it was 1/250th, for the X-T1 it is 1/180th. Then you adjust your aperture for the appropriate background exposure. Now add the flash to the equation and adjust the power of the flash from the remote trigger. Pretty simple in theory.
As a rule of thumb, you can lower the shutter speed to increase ambient light. You can also open or close the aperture, but then you should also adjust the shutter speed accordingly in order to keep the same ambient exposure. To adjust the amount of flash exposure you can do one or two things. You can adjust the power of the flash or you can simply move the flash closer or farther away from the subject. The last tactic is tricky as you have to consider something called the inverse square law. Let’s not get into that here. Here is a tip: if you stop down your exposure from the “correct” or “balanced” exposure to a tad underexposed you will add drama to the image when you add the flash. You can clearly see that effect in a few of the images.
Once we got the exposure the way liked, we adjusted the direction of light for the shadows we wanted. Basically, we sculpted the light by moving the softbox around. Piet and I both like photographing our subjects from the “short side” of a flash-lit face. It always seems to give more drama to the look. What I mean when I say the “short side” of the face is, photographing from the shadowed part of the face. That meant putting the SMDV Speedbox off to the right or left of Babaji and having him look just off the light at times. What you get with this type of lighting is a look as if they stepped right off an oil painting from a Renaissance master.
One other important thing that we did is add a grid to the Speedbox. The grid sometimes called “egg crate” directs the light even more than the softbox does. By adding the grid you eliminate light spill around your subject and you contain the light to a very small confined space. This brings you more control of your background. You can add an extra light to the background to give texture to it. We never did this, probably because we were too self-conscious about time with any given subject. None of this happened quickly. These extra steps take time, so all the better if you can set up and take down your softbox quickly.
Honestly, that is about it. The hardest part of this process was taking the time to let everyone in the group shoot. I gotta say, Babaji was very patient and a super compliant model.
So all-in-all winners on this trip were the SMDV Speedbox and Babaji. You can find both the 70cm and the 110cm (we used it with the Jinbei and a Bowens mount) at 1212world.com. Both the 70cm and the 110cm have the ability to use a grid (to be purchased separately). If there is a downside to using the Speedbox it would have to be the price. These are not cheap. But as the age old adage goes, “you get what you pay for”. There really isn’t much out there to compare with the Speedbox. I have used umbrella type softboxes. They are easy to set up, but they are heavy and the flash unit has to be inside the box. That means having to tear apart the box completely each time you put it up or take it down. But even more of an issue with having your flash unit inside the box is if your flash remote is optical you are in trouble. It just won’t work. With the Speedbox, you have speed and accessibility to the flash.
These are amazing softboxes with beautiful results. Don’t take my word for it. The proof is in the pudding or in this case, the photographs.