Bali Portrait Photography Workshop with Sebastian Belaustegui

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During my visit to Bali in June I did a private photography workshop with excellent photographer Sebastian Belaustegui (no, I can’t pronounce his sirname either), who specialises in low light portraiture and has work published for major institutions like National Geographic, Time and UNICEF. I met Suki (his nickname) when he was filling in as instructor on an earlier workshop that week. It’s not every day that you run into such a talented and experienced photographer so I asked if I could do a private workshop with him, and luckily for me he agreed. The first day of the workshop he reviewed my portfolio and gave me some enlightening lectures, and on the second he took us into the field for some photography. I should note straight away that although I took these photos, they’re the really the work of Suki, who made the connections, set the scenes, found the light and directed me throughout.

Sebastian Belaustegui, or Suki, to anyone that knows him!

Sebastian Belaustegui, or Suki, to anyone that knows him!

After reviewing my portfolio, Suki rightly identified that my weakest area was portraits, so on day two he took me out to the very traditional settlement of Tenganan which is full of friendly locals who are happy to get their photographs taken. Tenganan is a heritage site and is made up of two small villages. Its one of the only surviving places in Bali which preserves the old architecture and traditions making it a popular cultural tourist attraction. Suki had visited before and had printed off a bunch of photos to give to the people he photographed last time, also giving us an easy way to break the ice and open the door for us to take more photographs.

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When we arrived at the smaller of the villages, which is much less touristy, we walked around the back streets and Suki found the first house he wanted to visit, inhabited by a friendly lady who owns a craft shop and her mother. Many of the mid-generation in Tenganan speak English but the elders don’t, so we had translation help from the daughter and our handy driver. The grandmother was happy for us to take photos of her and Suki showed me how to search for good natural light inside their house – which here generally don’t have glass windows, instead using shuttered openings, allowing the sunlight to stream in and creating a nice ambience in the darker corners.

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Watching Suki work first of all, I watched how he carefully directed grandma’s pose and angle to the light. She’d changed to a more traditional outfit for us. The faces in Tenganan are so expressive and have a lot of character, it’s a joy to photograph these people. Then it was my turn, and I followed Suki’s lead by directing grandma and practicing different angles. I was using fully manual settings, which is something I’m still getting to grips with, and was careful to underexpose in order to create the required moody effect and darken the background to isolate her face. The tricky part is getting focus right on the eye, as you’re using a very low aperture its easy to get the focus slightly off.

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Bidding farewell to the friendly ladies and wandering the village on a scorching day, we visited another house that Suki had been to before. The elders of the family were again happy to help and we went inside their dark kitchen to get some dramatic light. Suki is a master at finding perfect lighting and in a minute can position his models in just the right spot. The friendly grandmother was well humoured as I experimented with different angles and positions and her blue top made for a striking contrast to the dark lighting.

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The youngest generation watched us with interest and I managed to snap this shot in the doorway when they were distracted.

The youngest generation watched us with interest and I managed to snap this shot in the doorway when they were distracted.

One thing I was conscious of is that because I was playing with settings and worrying about getting good shots, I would pay less attention to the composition and small things I could do to improve the shot. Suki is very good at iterating on what he starts off with, making minor changes to the model, whether its clothing, accessories, position, pose and quickly reviewing and changing again until he gets a perfect shot, something I can learn from.

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The grandfather then came in and I had quite a bit of time to pose him as I saw fit – taking inspiration from Suki’s style I tried to get him in darkness with highlights which I think worked well.

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The villagers throughout the day were very patient and great to work with – it was hard to banter with the elders as they don’t speak English but I think through politeness and smiles you can still somewhat cross the communication barrier. Suki is a very friendly and likeable guy with a lot of energy and immediately connects with people. He’s completely unafraid to approach strangers and strike up a rapport and they’re usually happy for him to take photos, especially in such a friendly place as Bali. This is a guy who fearlessly went out in his early twenties alone into the middle of South America to live with tribespeople for months. He’s also respectful and not pushy which I think is an important quality with this type of photography. Placing an emphasis on education and cultural exchange rather than exploitation aligns with my own views. For me, his ease with people is an inspiration, I definitely struggle when approaching and interacting with strangers in this kind of scenario and whilst taking photographs it can be hard to engage with your models when you’re focused on the practicalities. However, I’m getting better and watching someone like Suki at work dealing with these issues with ease was a good experience for me.

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After some lunch we then went to the main Tenganan village, which is usually very touristy. However we were quite lucky in that it was really quiet that day. This is a beautiful place centred around the main street full of red stone homes in the traditional Balinese style which also double as craft shops. Tenganan is famous for its double-weaving textiles with colourful patterns – but there’s plenty of other craftmanship here such as wood carvings, paintings and stonework. We began by visiting a friendly weaver who speaks good English and showed me how the weaving process works. Double weaving is very time-consuming with some pieces taking months to make, but they are popular among collectors as it’s unique to this place and fetches good prices. Suki picked the kitchen once again for some portraits and the weaver removed his top for us for some dramatic humanity shots.

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By now I was grasping the low light techniques better and it was easier to have a model who could understand my directional pointers, whilst Suki as ever reviewed my shots and made suggestions for improvement.

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As we continued onwards, Suki spotted another woman that he’d met, and she invited us to come to a birthday ceremony up the road. We followed her to a side street with a marquee and many locals dressed traditionally for a boy’s coming of age ceremony. The clothes were colourful and there were plenty of Balinese snacks on offer, including some sticky sugary concoction in a long bamboo wrapper which coiled off in a spiral, an ingenious idea (once the girl helpfully pointed out that I was doing it wrong!). We got chatting to a beautiful girl there, who was the birthday boy’s sister. She spoke good English too and had an amazing outfit so we asked if we could take a few photos. She works in a lab yet lives in this very traditional place, one of the many strange blends of ancient and modern you’ll find in this village. Inside her parent’s shaded compound next door, Suki found some good light and we got some good shots, and then I hunted for some other locations and found a spot where the strong sunlight was diffused a bit and the light was perfect (the last photo in the post). We thanked the girl and the hosts and headed off to our last stop.

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We dropped in on another weaver who Suki knew, a really nice fellow who’s considered one of the best weavers in the village and does pretty well for himself. Like many of the other craft shops, the walls were adorned with colourful material for sale, which made for a nice backdrop. I hunted down some good light and again Suki asked the man to remove his top for a more authentic look than the usual branded t-shirts that most villagers wear. I also took the opportunity to get a few shots of my teacher!

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It had been a long day and we headed back to Ubud to review the photos and Suki picked out the ones you see here today as his favourites. These haven’t been post-processed either which is testament to how good he is at getting the right light. Gentleman that he is, he even invited me to join him and his daughter for dinner out that evening which I happily accepted. It had been a great few days and looking at these photos, I now have a high benchmark to aim for with my portraits. I also learned a lot from seeing how Suki works, both with people and spotting good light – it really raised my awareness on what light creates dramatic portraits and how to use it well. I learned ways to improve my compositions and model posing too, if you look at my other portraits you’ll notice a tendency for front-on photographs of people – since the workshop I’m exploring more interesting angles to work from. Suki is a real inspiration for me with his passion, outlook and talent and it was a pleasure to study with him, maybe one day I will eventually be able to reach his level! I also felt a lot of gratitude to the wonderful people of Tenganan who are some of the most friendly and hospitable folk that you’ll ever meet, very welcoming to strangers and eager to please. Great experience, one I will grow from as a photographer and I won’t forget!

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Suki runs photography workshops in exotic locations over the globe every few months, check out his Facebook page for details.  I can definitely say you will learn a lot both practically and from his great outlook with other cultures (and no, I’m not being paid or anything to plug him, he’s just a top bloke!). Also, be sure to check out the amazing photos on his website, what an inspiring photographer!

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