Time for tea

 course part

Full of character and charm, Sri Lanka s tea pluckers are irresistible to David Noton, who employs carefully thought-through techniques to capture them in all their colourful glory

 Photographs of foreign people are not intrinsically I interesting.’I quote from Nick Smithhighly amusing and entertaining piece, Deadly Sins’, in the May issue of Outdoor Photography (Inside track, OP152). He had me chuckling; I thought Icornered the market for tongue-in-cheek sweeping statements and generalisations from the world of photography. I agreed with most of his assertions, from the pitfalls of using gimmicky lenses to B&W rescues, but I had to take issue with his indictment of shooting images of random foreigners; after all, Imade a career of it.

Sri Lanka is a tropical jewel in the Indian Ocean. It just has so much to offer; itIndia without the hassle, the Maldives with mountains, Thailand without the rampant over-development. From the holy peak of Sri Pada to the tea-covered hills of the central highlands and the palm-fringed southern coast, it is a beguiling and stunningly beautiful country. Throw in wildlife reserves and a cuisine to die for and itnot surprising that, now the country is at peace, itbeing tipped as the next hot Asian tourist destination. Ibeen here for over a week now and the trip is going well; Iexperienced epic vistas with misty mountains, lush green hills, and bustling markets. But, before I leave the central highlands, one key objective remains: to photograph the tea pluckers.

The road to Nuwara Eliya, like most in the hill country, is long and winding. Actually, itnot that long, it just feels that way. Weaveraging about 20km per hour, but, thankfully, wein no rush. Behind the wheel is Ranawaka, the only driver in Sri Lanka who actually allows for other road users and hazards.

I swear he just slowed down for that dog in the road. The lunatic local bus drivers would see such caution as an insult; overtaking on blind bends with a precipitous drop on one side and a mother clutching an infant on the other is all part of their job description. Another bus is piloted by a kamikaze who sees it as his badge of honour to never, ever lift off the throttle. He hurtles towards us on the wrong side of the road as my phone chirps. Itmy Sri Lankan pal, Sashi; strings are being pulled and arrangements being made prior to my arrival. The pluckers are being mobilised; Inot used to such support, I could get used to this.

As we climb towards the cool and damp town of Nuwara Eliya I think about the imminent shoot. For this trip, I have a new lens; a fast Canon 35mm f/1.4 L prime that is a joy to use, particularly for shooting people in their environments. For some time Ifavoured my 85mm f/1.2 L for travel portraiture, but there is a time and a place for going wider to place the subject in their surroundings, particularly when the backdrop is as lush and enticing as a tea plantation. The actual setting of the shoot has yet to be determined, but all my best images are the product of a specific idea, so I need to be clear in my mind what I want to capture and how Igoing to achieve it. This should be a great opportunity, but there will be pressure; a lot of people are putting themselves out for me. The light may be wrong, and time will be limited, but I need to deliver. So be it, thatwhat being a professional is all about.

Batteries are charged, cards formatted, filters cleaned. Ienvisaging a mix of set piece and impromptu shots, but I think Ibe handholding, so the quick release plates have been removed from my 1Ds Mklll and 5D Mkll bodies and the 70-200mm telephoto to facilitate easy handling. These kinds of jobs are all about dealing with people; as any accomplished wedding photographer knows, gently cajoling subjects into situations that will produce the desired photographic opportunities, while mentally tackling the technical considerations of lighting, exposure, focus and composition, is no mean feat.

It demands a set of skills so different from my landscape work, but that is, of course, part of the appeal.

A few hours later, Isavouring a beer as the images are being backed up to my laptop. Mentally replaying the shoot, I am trying to analyse what worked and what didn. I had a frantic hour or so with the most charming ladies I could have wished for as subjects. Resplendent in their vibrant sarees against a velvety tea-green backdrop in the late afternoon light, the colours just leapt out of my viewfinder. Like all the people Ishot so far in Sri Lanka, they were welcoming, accommodating, obliging, and relentlessly cheerful. If only it were always so. They were undoubtedly the stars of the show, but the big question is: how did I perform? I had a shaky start, but soon settled into the groove and knuckled down to making pictures mostly with the 35mm lens wide open at f/1.4. The whole shoot was an object lesson in interacting with my pluckers; reinforcing Robert Capaassertion; your pictures arengood enough, younot close enough’. To fill the frame with a tea plucker at that focal length, I had to be up close and personal, waist-deep in tea, focusing on the eyes. The background blur was crucial; it had to suggest the setting without being distracting. I used single shot autofocus mode to lock on the nearest eye of my chosen lady, then, keeping the shutter half depressed, I recomposed and exposed. A technique that works best for me in these situations is to keep the AF locked and gently rock backwards and forwards on my feet to fine tune focus; itmuch quicker and more dependable then refocusing and composing all the time. As for selecting AF points, forget it. Who has the time when the light is good and the tea pluckers are beaming into the lens? At the maximum aperture of f/1.4 focusing was absolutely critical; there is no depth of field, but that is of course all part of the look. The moderately wideangle of view required a 0.6 ND grad filter to hold back the sky, and that in turn meant I always had to be mindful of my compositions to ensure the grad effect didnincur on the heads of my pluckers. There was so much to think about.

While I always hope to return from a trip like this one with a hard core of strong landscapes, I also aim to intersperse the selection with portraits, details and reportage to produce a picture essay set of images. The set is collectively stronger than the individual pictures, but I do think images such as these tea pluckers can stand on their own as symbols of a whole country, much more than a landscape can.

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