Shooting in the dark

Print edition : March 07, 2014

The pillars in the caves come in the way of the photographer stepping back to get a proper perspective. The only option is to shoot from a closer range, pointing the camera upwards. Photo: D.Krishnan

LED lights at the bottom of the wall throw uneven light, from harsh at the bottom to dark at the top. They had to be switched off or covered. Photo: D.Krishnan

In some of the caves, especially near the windows, only one half of the paintings got lit with daylight (as in this picture). They had to be photographed at different times of the day as the sun changed position. Photo: D.Krishnan

The challenge of photographing the paintings at Ajanta.

I DID a lot of homework, looking up the Net and talking to people who had visited Ajanta caves, for information on lighting, exposure, colour temperature and lenses to be used to photograph the paintings. I also looked for other details like the size of the paintings, the height at which they are painted and the distance between me and the paintings when I entered the caves. Yes, I did get some information, of which the most useful was that it was very dark and it would be very difficult to photograph the paintings!

I secured special permission to use a tripod fitted with rubber shoes, but with a stern warning—“strictly no flash”. Happy with this concession, I packed my regular camera kit, which consists of a D 800 with a 24-120MM F4 lens and a longer zoom along with a Leica compact camera, which had a swivel display screen, or viewfinder, to photograph the paintings on the ceiling.

Sheikh Raees, a knowledgeable Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) attendant working as a casual labourer for the department, was assigned to help me; he helped me not just in carrying my tripod but also in pointing out the important paintings to me.

In the first cave, my attendant pointed to the wall and started to explain the intricacies of the painting, but I could not see anything; it was very dark and it took time for my eyes to get used to the low light.

I took out my camera to take a reading with the ISO set at 800, but even at full open aperture F4 the meter was unable to read. My attendant then opened a window to let light in, but the light came in uneven patches. There were LED lights at the base of the wall but at that time there was no power!

I tried various time exposure shots up to 30 seconds with some success, and I sincerely thanked digital camera technology, which not only enabled me to check the results immediately but also gave me the option of shooting several hundred frames on a small disk.

My respect for those who had earlier shot the paintings on film rose high.

Coming back to my work, I had to rely on one of the oldest photographic techniques, “painting with light”, which again is the very definition of the term photography.

With the shutter speed set at B and the aperture at 8, I asked my attendant to shine his torch all over the painting in a circular motion twice or thrice over. Yes, I got the desired result in terms of exposure and sharpness, but the colour was a little off, which I could correct later.

In the next cave, the power came on, but the LED lights, which were placed at the foot of the wall, produced uneven lighting, from harsh at the bottom to dark at the head of the paintings. I then had to switch off the lights or cover them with whatever material was available.

In some caves, there was even but very low daylight, in which I could shoot using long exposures. In some of the caves, especially near the windows, only one half of the paintings got lit with daylight. I had to get back to these caves when the sun changed position.

On the second day it was drizzling, and I thought the day was ruined. But then the dull, overcast sky had its own advantage. There was no bright sunlight, and therefore no patches. I could shoot some caves with the available low light, with long exposures or using the age-old painting-with-light technique.

Most of the ceiling paintings were in the corridors and were better lit by available light, and with my swivel viewfinder camera I could point the lens at the ceiling and compose comfortably with the viewfinder turned upwards towards me.


Even though the caves were large, giving me enough room to move back to get a proper perspective to photograph the paintings, I had to shoot from a close range as the pillars of the caves blocked my view when I stepped back. Moreover, the non-availability of a step ladder or a high stool meant that I had to shoot pointing my camera upwards.

I had the advantage of working with a 36 megapixel camera, which enabled me to shoot the paintings with room all around. This helped me correct the perspective, by straightening and cropping just the required image area, with enough file size even after cropping. The ISO used was between 400 and 1,600, the aperture between F4 and F8, with the white balance set at auto, and the shutter speed varying between one second and 30 seconds.

I have to acknowledge the cooperation extended to me by visitors. They stood back whenever requested to give me time to finish photographing and never got between my camera and the paintings. And without the help and assistance of the knowledgeable attendant, I could not have obtained the results I did.

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