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    Royal Enfield Bullet-The Indian Cult ?

    Royal Enfield Bullet-The Indian Cult ? Find out !!

    There is no better way to explore the magnificence and beauty of the Himalayas than riding through them on a Royal Enfield. Combining your love for riding with a love for getting excellent photographs is a great way to keep your memories alive, years down the line. Indeed, the Royal Enfield Himalayan Odyssey is an experience of a lifetime.

    I was a part of the Odyssey in 2006, shooting a short documentary for Royal Enfield. It was my first time to Ladakh and many of the experiences were firsts for me. The sights and landscapes were incredibly breathtaking. As we moved above the tree line, the greens changed to shades of browns speckled with flowering, ground-hugging grasses and shrubs, and occasional patches of white snow. The dripping water from melting streams had formed icicles and washed away the roads in some segments. Many of the mountain slopes showed intricate rock formations and remnants of massive glaciers and old rivers. When we camped beside a salt water lake, it reminded me that that the Himalayas, despite being the tallest and most extensive range of mountains in the world, was once a part of a deep, ancient sea bed.

    At night, outside the tent, I saw the Milky Way with my naked eyes, running like a river across the sky. I missed seeing a moonrise over the mountains, but the sunrises and sunsets over the sentinel-like mountains were spectacular. The sight of the distant, meandering rivulets reflecting silver in afternoon light moved me in a strange way. It was like veins of silver lifeblood.

    The scale is vast. For the first time in my life, I fully realized how insignificant we all are in front of the raw power of nature – benevolent enough to let us thunder through and, at the same time, unforgiving to errors in judgment.

    Be it nature, landscapes, colours, fellow bikers and their bikes, or the beautiful, gentle and hardy people of Ladakh, the photographic opportunities are endless. Photography while biking in the mountains needs to be done responsibly and safely.

    1. Safety Is The Only Ironclad Rule

    While you get your shots, remember that you are in an extremely hostile environment. The weather can affect you more adversely than it can affect your photographic gear. You can always replace your gear if it gets damaged. But the loss of health or life is too much of a price to pay for getting a photograph. Especially at night, the temperatures can drop to sub-zero levels. Protect yourself from exposure from the cold and wind while you shoot.

    Though it may not seem like it, photography is rather strenuous. At no point must you run or physically strain yourself when you take pictures. There is a possibility that you may black-out as your body begins to consume energy and oxygen which are not immediately replenished in the cold, rare air of the higher altitudes. Drink plenty of water, and carry a few cereal bars with you for energy.

    You may get so engrossed in capturing a certain kind of shot that you may not look where you are stepping. Be keenly aware of your surroundings and your footing.

    Never endanger another biker because you wish to get a shot. Be clearly out of their path. Likewise, be aware when a fellow photographer is trying to get a shot. Don’t try to give a little extra for the photographer to shoot while you are riding your bike. It could be disastrous.

    Never break any of the rules of riding or break schedules in a bid to get your shots. You are endangering and inconveniencing others.
    Inform your group leaders and fellow riders of your whereabouts if you plan to leave the camp for a shoot during your halts, or at any point of time. Inform them about when you can be expected back. It is also advisable to have a few like-minded bikers along with you, in the event of a mishap.

    You are allowed to shoot anything that is visible from a public space. However, avoid capturing pictures of bridge, government buildings and military installations or camps If you are inside any of these places, seek permission before you shoot. Likewise, you need permission to shoot in heritage monuments that are being repaired or restored. .

    2. Travel Light, Pack Right

    a. Carry just one camera 
    A basic digital compact with a minimum of 6 megapixels and a 3x zoom will do nicely. Don’t forget your battery charger, wrist strap and pouch. This is great for biking because you can carry everything in an inner pocket within your biking jacket, protecting it against the cold and rain.

    If you plan to buy a camera for the trip, the smallest and sleekest cameras are not necessarily the best options. When you are wearing gloves, your tactile senses are compromised. A larger camera will afford you a better grip and easier access to dials and buttons.
    b. Carry just one lens 
    If you are really serious about having creative control, plan on using a DSLR. Carry just a single lens with a decent wide-to-tele zoom range. While large aperture lenses with superior low-light shooting capability optics and better optics are preferable, you can get equally good shots with a standard zoom kit lens as well. How you use your equipment makes the difference.

    c. Two invaluable filters
    For those of you using DSLRs, the basic Untraviolet (UV) filter should be a permanent attachment onto your lens. It cuts down UV light and haze, which progressively increases at higher altitudes. While UV light is invisible to your eyes, it is seen by the image sensor. The UV filter is quite inexpensive and it also protects the front lens element against dust and scratches.

    The Circular Polarizing filter (CPL) generally cuts down glare and deepens basic colours. It helps in the flat, bright light of higher altitudes. Remember to remove the UV filter before using the CPL, as two filters one on top of the other can cause vignetting in the corners of your frame.

    d. Extra media or data storage cards 
    Carry at least 4GB of media cards. 8GB is preferable. If you are shooting in RAW, 16GB, or even 32GB, will be useful. These will hold hundreds of images. You may not have the time to review your pictures and delete unwanted ones. You will probably be too busy taking in the sights and experiences of the journey. You can always do this once you get back.

    e. Extra batteries
    Batteries discharge quickly at low temperatures. You really don’t want your camera dying on you just when you are about to get the shot of your life. Extra batteries is essential for travel photographers. If your camera uses a proprietary lithium-ion battery meant just for the specific model of camera you own, buy an extra battery at a specialized photographic shop you know well enough, or at authorized sales center. If your camera uses regular AA type batteries, you should purchase at least two extra sets of high-capacity (2000 mAh or more), rechargeable nickel metal hydride (NiMh) batteries. These batteries take a long time to charge with a regular charger. So don’t forget to pick up a good, compact, high-speed charger as well.

    Ensure that all your batteries are fully charged at your last hotel stay, before you start moving higher up into the Himalayas. You may not get an opportunity to recharge on the go, for a few days after that.
    f. A good camera bag and a few extras 
    Ensure that you fit a good camera strap onto your camera to avoid any mishaps. The whole kit, along with extra, charged batteries, battery charger, filters, a small piece of absorbent cloth, extra media cards and a small but powerful LED torch can be carried in a small, waterproof, shoulder-slung camera bag.

    g. A lightweight tripod
    A compact, but sturdy, lightweight tripod will come very handy for early morning and evening shots. If you come across other bikers who are very interested in photography, the tripod can be shared between three or four photographers.

    3. Equipment Care For Extreme Weather And Long Distances

    a. Keep your camera dry 
    Protect your equipment from dust and water. At times, this may be unavoidable. But at every pit stop, you can ensure that your camera is clean and dry. Water can form small particles of ice when temperatures drop below freezing point at night. This can cause permanent damage to your gear. Carry a small piece of lint-free, absorbent cloth to wipe your camera dry.

    b. A lens cleaning kit
    Purchase a lens cleaning blower brush and tissue from a specialized photographic store. Always use the blower brush to gently dust away any particulate mater that adheres onto your lens surface before wiping with the lens cleaning tissue. While you can share the blower brush with other careful photographers, the lens cleaning tissue cannot be shared. Never touch the bristles of the brush with your fingers, as they may accumulate oils and dirt from your hands and damage the lens. These can be stored safely in a small, dust-free plastic pouch along with your camera kit.

    c. Change lenses carefully
    For SLR users, it is best not to uncouple the lens from the camera if you are using just one lens. If you need to change lenses, do so in a shady, dust-free environment to prevent dust from entering into the camera. If you happen to get dust onto the image sensor, attempting any cleaning by yourself could have disastrous results. Wait till you get back to a city which has an authorized service center for your camera.

    d. Keep your camera and batteries warm
    In extremely cold temperatures, your batteries will run out very quickly. The best option is to carry your camera and batteries inside your jacket where your body heat keeps them warm. This is possible with a compact camera. With an SLR, remove the battery from the camera when you are riding, and keep it along with the spare inside your jacket.

    4. Camera Settings For Optimum Results 

    a. Image resolution, compression and quality 
    Preset your camera to the highest available resolution. If you have quality settings, set it to the highest levels of quality or the fine jpeg setting. Image file sizes are larger. DSLR or advanced compact camera users should shoot in RAW. This is a completely lossless file format that allows you to manipulate and convert images later in an RAW editing software. Shooting in RAW mean that you can store a lower number of images on your media card. It is always better to invest in more media cards rather than compromise on the quality of your images, and then later wish you hadn’t.

    b. Certain settings are best set manually 

    ISO: As far as possible, set your camera sensitivity to the lowest ISO possible (usually 100 of 80 ISO). This ensures that your pictures show accurate colours and are noise-free. In case of handheld photography at lower light levels, you can set the sensitivity as high as 400 ISO for compact cameras and 800 ISO for DSLRs. After this point, the image gets too grainy, blurry and inaccurate.

    Contrast, Sharpness and Colour: Set your contrast, sharpness and colour settings to normal or middle levels. You can always tweak these later on in your computer.

    Metering Mode: Since you are most likely to shoot landscapes or people, set your metering mode to matrix or center-weighted evaluative metering. If your camera sports face detection, you can have it turned on too to get the faces exposed well.

    Colour Profile: If you have a colour profile setting on your camera, set it to sRGB. This is the most common profile available and it is commonly used by photo labs. Advanced users can use Adobe RGB. But for most practical purposes, sRGB works best.

    c. Use your camera’s automatic preset scene modes 
    It may sound surprising, but most photographers don’t use their cameras auto presets for shooting, They prefer to shoot on full automatic. Scene presets like portrait, landscape, night, night portrait, macro, etc… tells the camera that you are about to shoot a certain kind of subject. The camera then adjusts settings accordingly to give you the most pleasing results.

    For example, in the landscape mode, the camera automatically locks the lens to infinity. It maximizes the depth-of-field for the greatest sharpness by choosing the lowest ISO, smallest aperture at the slowest shutterspeed required for capturing blur-free, hand-held shots.

    Here are some of the more useful scene modes for your trip…

    i. Backlight - eliminates dark shadows when light is coming from behind a subject, or when the subject is in the shade. The built-in flash automatically fires to “fill in” the shadows.
    ii. Beach/Snow - photograph beach, snow and sunlit water scenes. Exposure and white balance are set to help prevent the scene from becoming washed out looking.
    iii. Landscape - take photos of wide scenes. Camera automatically focuses on a distant object.
    iv. Macro - take close-up shots of small objects, flowers and insects. Lens can be moved closer to the subject than in other modes. Hold the camera steady or use a tripod.
    v. Night Portrait - take photos of a subject against a night scene. The built-in flash and red-eye reduction are enabled; shutter-speeds are low. Use of tripod recommended.
    vi. Night Scene - photograph nightscapes. Preprogrammed to use slow shutter speeds. Great for twilight as well. Use of tripod recommended. 
    vii. Party - take photos in a dim lit room; exposure and shutter speed are automatically adjusted for room brightness. Captures indoor background lighting or candlelight. Great for shots within the tent or during dinner. Hold the camera very steady when using this mode or use a tripod. 
    viii. Portrait - main subject is clearly focused and the background is out of focus (has less depth of field). Best when taking shots outside, during the day. Shoot using a mid to long telephoto lens, stand close to your subject within the recommended camera range. When possible, select an uncomplicated background that is far from the subject. 
    ix. Sports (also called Kids & Pets)- take photos of a fast moving subject; fast shutter speeds “freeze” the action. This is great for biking action shots. Best when taking photos bright light; pre-focusing recommended.
    x. Sunset - take photos of sunsets and sunrises; helps keep the deep hues in the scene.
    xi. Foliage - photographs autumn, garden and similar scenes in vivid colors. Great for scenery with vivid colours.

    d. Exposure compensation
    Almost every camera, including basic compacts, has the exposure compensation function. In the higher altitudes of the Himalayas, the rich, verdant greens give way to patches of white snow and then shades of brown. Coupled with the bright sunlight and brilliant, light blue skies, your camera’s meter is often fooled into underexposing the shot, making everything look drab and dull. Here, exposure compensation comes particularly handy because it gives you some manual control over exposure.

    When you encounter this sort of problem, all you need to do is to set the camera’s compensation to +1 over what is automatically metered, to get the perfect shot. The ease of use of this control allows you to creatively experiment with different exposure values as well. For instance, using a compensation of -3 with the sun in your frame will make everything look like night and the sun look almost like the moon in the picture.

    Do not forget to change your compensation settings back to normal or 0 after you take your shot, or your next shot will also be affected. Before you leave for the trip, pick up your camera and familiarize yourself with the exposure compensation function and how to easily access it on the go.

    e. When in doubt, bracket your exposure 
    The term bracketing simply means that you shoot three or more exposures of the same scene at different exposure values (-1, 0, +1) from the automatically metered value, so that you know at least one of them turns out right. All DSLRs have an auto-bracketing option. Learn about it and use it for scenes with difficult lighting conditions. For really critical shots, you should bracket across a 5 stop range (-2, -1, 0, +1, +2). While some compact cameras do not have an automatic bracketing function, you can do this manually by using the exposure compensating function.

    f. When nothing seems to go right, simply shoot on full auto
    When you have an automatic mode, use it! It is better to use the auto modes and make a few mistakes rather than not getting any pictures at all. You can always set the white balance and exposure to automatic. You can then tweak it for better results using the exposure compensation function.

    5. A Few Tips For Capturing Stunning Photographs

    a. Keep it clean 
    When you shoot, take a quick look around your frame for distracting elements before you release the shutter. In most case, distractions can be avoided by changing your viewpoint by simply moving a few paces to the left or right. Alternatively, you can position your subject so that he or she hides the distracting element.

    Foregrounds and backgrounds should be clear of unnecessary clutter. Even a small piece of scrap paper can ruin what would have otherwise made a fabulous shot. Of course, you can always clean it up later in an image editing software, but all this is spending time and effort for something which could have been easily avoided in the first place.

    b. Keep it simple and economise on the colours
    The best pictures are simple pictures. When an image has too much to look at in the frame, the main subject often gets lost. On the rare occasion, complicated pictures can look very good too. But again, do this consciously. Similarly, it is always better to have fewer and more harmonic colours in your frame. In the Himalayas, this is actually quite easy. Too many vivid colours will drown out the natural beauty in a scene.

    c. Subject placement and the horizon line
    Usually, having the horizon or the subject at the dead center of your frame does not make for a great composition. Place the horizon at the one-third position so that you either include more sky or more of the foreground in your picture, for a more dynamic effect. Similarly, it is better to have your subject off-center, both on the vertical or the horizontal axis of your frame.

    In a photographer’s parlance, this is called the rule-of-thirds. If your divide your frame both horizontally and vertically into three equal parts, you get four intersecting, imaginary lines. The point of intersection of these lines are where the main subject is best placed. The horizontal lines are where your horizon lines are best placed.

    d. Sense of scale
    In the Himalayas, you are thrown into insignificance by the sheer size, grandeur, form, patterns and colours of the mountains and skies. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking. To have the viewers of your pictures experience this, you need to give them some reference point for getting a sense of the scale. The best way to do this is to include a person, a biker or a collection of tents or any subject with a commonly known size in the frame, set against the scene. This works especially well when the subject is also positioned at a distance away from you.

    e. The best kind of light
    Any light is good light, as long as you use it to your advantage. For instance, most would consider afternoon light as extremely harsh and unflattering. But it brings out the texture of mountains rather well. Backlight turns everything into a silhouette. But it also brings out the silver of Himalayan rivers and rivulets. Or consider the night skies. As you go higher, you will see an astounding number of stars. In fact, if you have a DSLR, a tripod and a cable release, you can capture star trails along with the mountains in the backdrop. Or the moonlit landscape.

    The best time to take good pictures starts at dawn till about 10:30am, while you are on the move. Early evening, from about 3:00pm to dusk also provides excellent light. At these times, the light is beautifully warm and oblique. Catching the first rays or the last rays of the sun on mountain peaks is extremely exciting.
    Oblique light or sidelighting, which is often very dramatic, brings out textures and form, and is fantastic for landscapes and people alike. By shifting your vantage point, you can make the sidelighting into frontal lighting, with the sun behind you throwing its light directly onto the subject. This is usually most flattering for people shots and is less tricky as the subject and the background both are evenly lit.

    f. In daylight, don’t underestimate the use of your flash
    If you are shooting portraits of people at noon, use your flash in the manual mode to fill-in the harsh shadows that form under the eyes, nose and chin for a more flattering portrait. Similarly, in the evenings or at twilight, you can fire your flash along with a long exposure to light up your subjects and expose for the ambient light as well. The night portrait mode of your camera does just this, but blurs the background out of focus.

    g. Avoid This!
    Here are few common mistakes made by photographers which you should consciously look out for and avoid

    i. Tilted horizons (turn on the compositional LCD grid, if you have the option)
    ii. Complicated, out-of-context backgrounds or foregrounds
    iii. Distracting elements like a branch, or scraps of paper, or an unwanted person staring into the camera at the corner of your frame
    iv. Chopped off hands, feet, fingers, etc… at the edge of the frame
    v. A twig that seems to grow out of the ear, a lamp post growing out of the head, an elbow or knee that looks amputated because of the angle, etc…

    h. Try This! 
    Apart from the regular shots, here are a few extra techniques for you to try…

    i. Go low… go high. Place the camera on the road and shoot as the bikes pass by. Try different vantage points for dramatic images. Get some casual candids. Get them to pose. There are no iron clad rules in photography, so go ahead and break a few of them. Overexpose or underexpose for effect. Experiment. Be different if you want your images to be different.
    ii. Try vertical shots as much as you shoot horizontal images. Vertical photographs can look quite stunning too.

    iii. Try Panning shots. You need a relatively slow shutterspeed of about 1/20sec. As the bikers pass by, pan your camera in the same motion of the bikes and release the shutter while doing so. The background blurs into streaks and the bikers remain relatively sharp.
    iv. Try High Dynamic Range (HDR) shots. Mount your camera onto a tripod. Get exactly the same frame at five different exposures values at -2, -1, 0, +1 and +2, so that all the details in the shadows and highlights are captured. Do this by changing your shutterspeed and not your aperture. If you don’t have a cable release, you can release the shutter through the self-timer. Later, use an image editing software to merge all the images together to give you a single composite with amazing details. This is great for landscape shots in tricky lighting.
    v. Try panoramas. Shoot a series of adjacent images of a scene with your camera mounted on a tripod. Ensure that your focus and exposure remains the same through the series. Also ensure that you have at least 20 percent of overlap on either side of your frame. These individual images can be easily stitched together using a computer to give you a panoramic shot.

    6. A Few Ideas For Photographic Essays and Documentaries 
    i. 50 Helmets, Jacket Insignias, Motorcycle Diaries
    ii. Signposts, markers, warnings and graffitti (your journey will throw up many of these)
    iii. Friends at Dinner (insubstantial as this may sound, Odyssey members do a lot of bonding over dinner in large tents at high altitudes)
    iv. Landscapes, Mountains and Nightscapes
    v. Natural Patterns
    vi. On the Road to Nowhere
    vii. The Way of the Lama
    viii. Local Faces, Biker Profiles
    ix. The Portfolio of a Bullet
    x. Culture Colours
    xi. Architecture in Ladakh
    xii. Leh Markets

    Happy Shooting!

    K Madhavan Pillai is the Editor of Better Photography magazine, South Asia’s finest journal on the art, science and techniques of photography.

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