My driver and I shuffled across the dark, potted, dusty roadway toward the stairs to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, a Buddhist temple in Northern Thailand. The road, lined by shadowed pillars on one side, sloped down a hill and around a corner where it disappeared into the darkness of the jungle. Lazy feral dogs lounged in the middle of and along the road, seemingly indifferent to the occaissonal passing motorcycle or auto. There were no street lights. There were only a few lights on the stairs and sidewalk giving the place the ambience of an old Alfred Hitchcock movie.
After making our way up the stairs and purchasing tickets, we boarded a clanky old elevator set in a diagonal tube that would transport us to the temple on the hilltop above. The elevator was a rather macabre contraption as it had windows on all four sides which allowed us to look up and down the entire length of the elevator shaft as rusty cables ran through squeaky pulleys. I tried not to contemplate what would happen if the whole thing failed. After realizing the elevator had made it, the two of us stepped off and I resumed breathing normally. We climbed a short flight of stairs and came out on the lower level of the temple courtyard. Although the street below had been like stepping back in time, seeing the golden temple rising out of the middle of the courtyard was like stepping back even further in time – hidden, but never lost medieval Asia. Everywhere I looked was something unique set against either a black sky or shimmering gold covered architecture. I wandered the perimeter and let compositions form and ideas flow.
Then I saw the elephant.
Dark in both color and natural shadows, yet contrasted with amazing highlights, I knew this was where I was going to start.
There were a number of these types of statues throughout the temple and I went into this sort of noir portraiture mind set. I decided to go after some long exposures with a Lensbaby Edge 80 optic on a Composer Pro lens.
I knew I would resort to blending for contrast so I opened my aperture up to f/2.8 and used my camera’s light meter to shoot at either spot on exposure or 1/3 stop under.
I wanted neither blown out highlights or shadows to be too dark.
I also went after crisp resolution focusing on the exact spot of the subject I wanted to present to the rest of the world.
The Lensbaby deliverd awesome results.
Typical shutter speeds were 4 to 10 seconds since there was little or no direct light on the subjects. I set the ISO to 100.
For shots involving more expansive details of the temple the obvious lens choice was the Canon 16-35mm, f/2.8, LII – That lens has always been worth every penny I ever spent on it and it really produced what I was after. I ran the ISO up to 800 to get faster shutter speeds because I knew blown highlights were a risk. My aperture was at f/5.6 and typical shutter speeds were 1/10th to 1/20th of a second.
Again- I didn’t want to lose information in the shadows and I didn’t want blown highlights as it was the only way to capture the fine details of the amazing intricate artwork I was experiencing.
I also realized again that I would likely resort to blending exposures to preserve what I actually saw in both lit and shadowed areas.
But the magical atmosphere created by monks chanting, the occasional solitary temple bell, the surreal contrast of all that golden architecture set against a pitch black night, the quiet contemplative few visitors… I don’t know… for all that you have to go and see for yourself. Me with my camera can only create images to inspire.
And the statues of the animals, the Buddhas, the monks… the amount of detail and artistic workmanship was stunning.
All of it makes me wonder- were they really statues, or were they really beings seemingly frozen in timelessness as we moved among them so fast they only seemed like statues? I wonder how Buddha would answer that.