Baining, East New Britain, 2009
Panasonic DMC-GH1, 25mm f1.4 (50mm equivalent), 1/4 second @ f1.4, ISO 400, hand-held, no filter
While I was in Papua New Guinea on a job for the magazine and PNG Tourism, I was lucky enough to see the Baining fire dancers. ‘Baining’ is the name of the people who do the dancing, up in the hills behind Kokopo, which is near Rabaul in East New Britain. The performance is at night which made shooting it back in 2009 a challenge, unless you used flash.
The problem with flash is that it can kill the ambience. The problem without flash is that your exposures are too slow and the action is blurred. (The cameras back in 2009 had higher ISO settings, but the resulting noise was objectionable in most cases.)
The only light I wanted to use was the firelight and I felt I was getting some interesting shots with some great blur. I was using Panasonic’s Lumix GH1 camera with a 25mm f1.4 lens, with the ISO set at 400 or 800. This gave me a relatively fast shutter speed, around 1/30 second, but not fast enough to completely freeze the dancers as they rushed through the flames.
There were probably 30 tourists surrounding the dancers and some were unfortunately on the other side of the fire in view of my camera. This basically changed the photo from being something rarely observed and wonderful, to yet another tourist shot taken on a group tour.
Obviously I didn’t want this, although I was happy with an unintended intrusion. In one of my shots, someone else’s flash fired at the same time and it partially lit the dancer and froze the action. This, I thought, was quite a good shot on its own, especially when I crop out the tourists on the left. But what I remember about the night wasn’t just the dancer bursting through the flames, but all the other dancers with their wonderful headpieces standing around the fire watching, partially enveloped by the darkness.
Since the photo was at night and all my backgrounds were black, I figured it can’t be too difficult to join a few images together, as can be seen in the final image. I used a little Photoshop to flesh out the edges, alter a few of the repeated dancers and we’re there.
NEW TRADITION: Digital techniques really have allowed us to approach photography in new and innovative ways. If the final image is all that concerns you, it is very liberating.
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