Thrissur Puram 2012: Photography with nowhere to turn – Part II

This is part two of my coverage of Thrissur Puram 2012. To read part one, click here.

The kodamattam

Post lunch we walked back to the grounds to cover the main event. If I thought the crowds in the morning were crazy, I was totally unprepared for this. It was rock concert that began at 5pm and ended at about 8pm. In between, the light would change from bright and harsh to golden hour and then dark.

To make matters worse, my ‘VIP pass’ gave me an excellent vantage point – for my eyes. But for a photographer – even though one should count oneself lucky to have a close up view of everything up on a podium – it was not very promising. I couldn’t move from where I was. I had two views: left and right, like a CCTV camera. Creativity was forgotten. I resigned myself to taking pictures instead of making them.

I was on matrix metering, and aperture priority was going to be a problem – I was in the shade, near the main temple, but half the action on the left was still in sunlight. I dialed in an exposure compensation – about half a stop to a stop, depending on changing conditions. I was shooting JPEGs, with my white balance on shade (my favorite) and my profile in neutral (favorite again due to natural color tones, and it is also the least ‘baked-in’ profile). Since I knew light was changing constantly, ISO was set to auto. Aperture at f/11 and f/8. The histogram was practically useless (the sky was going to be blown out anyway) but I still chimped occasionally. I was ready as can be.

The kodamattam begins with the first team of 15 elephants (from the first temple) arriving through the main temple and walking down the road to the edge of the ground.

Then the second team arrives with its 15 elephants and takes its place at the temple.

By now a hundred thousand people have gathered around the elephants, as far as the eye can see; on the road, rooftops and windows. There’s no sane way in or out.

Without warning, the first team brings out their beautiful parasols. It’s like this: the team that displays the best designed parasols wins at the end. The puram is not really about competition, but it certainly whips people into a frenzy. Traditional trumpets and drums sound continuously without a break. The second team replies almost instantly. The party has begun!

The lighting was changing as quickly as the parasols. My exposure compensation was mostly okay (a slight underexposure when the light dropped) at about half a stop under. In the big shot above I would have spoiled the details in the parasols if I had exposed for the bodies. I knew I could compensate in DPP, the first processing point of my images. And, if I managed to luck out with an exceptional image, I could always dodge and burn.

The first team (the one near me) seemed to be doing much better. However, the other team also had some cool parasols up its sleeve.

So, what kind of cameras were people using? The greatest number used mobile phone cameras (a hint to camera manufacturers?) and small sensor consumer digital cameras. Most of the Indian amateur and professional crowd were using Canon and Nikon DSLRs. A few foreigners were using mirrorless cameras, like the Olympus Pen series and the Sony NEX series cameras. Here are two guys at the opposite ends of the spectrum:

The LeicaR+Canon+Zacuto guy was most definitely shooting video, but he was on ground level! I can’t imagine what he saw from that viewpoint, but I hope for his sake it was good. The iPad, on the other hand, was a real surprise – street photography gear of the future? I think not.

The pictures at golden hour seem to be the best, with an ethereal quality to them. The best parasols came after sunset though – some of them I find hard-pressed to label ‘parasols’!

I had a major problem with flare when the lights came on – I used my hand to shield the lens, but it didn’t do much good. I dropped my aperture to its lowest setting: f/3.5-5.6, the shutter stayed equal to or above 1/30th at low ISOs, as I was in aperture priority mode with an exposure compensation of -1 (I wanted the lights to look as natural on JPEG). Sometimes the auto ISO pumped the ISO to as high as 3200. The elephants near me were mostly shot as wide as possible, and the elephants at the far end were shot at the opposite end of the zoom range. Both of these extremes were the least sharp, but for web purposes it was okay.

Finally it was the end, and the elephants left in a line. It was a great experience, but it is nothing compared to what came next.

Here’s summing up the night:

Continue on to part three here.