Trevor Sherwin: Photographing The Masai Tribe in Kenya

Recently, Pro Showcase photographer Trevor Sherwin produced a video about a series of portraits he made while on vacation in Kenya. In it, Trevor reveals the gear and techniques he used to create these images, including how he was able to sync his TritonFlash strobe (technique will work with any strobe) at 1/6400th of a second!


I found myself in Kenya just outside Masai Mara National Park, and as a portrait photographer, I am drawn much more to people than animals. So it was only natural that I find a tribal village to make some portraits. This was a very quick guerrilla shoot, as we only had about 45 minutes for the whole thing. My basis for photographing the Masai people is that they are a disappearing culture like so many tribes worldwide. The Masai are a semi-nomadic cattle-herding people that are known for their fierce warriors. As boys become men, they complete a right of passage that allows them to don a red cloak signifying their warrior status.

Before this adventure, I had hopes of capturing a Masai warrior, but I wanted to light the portrait outdoors in a more dramatic way. I’d seen images just using the ambient light and I found them a little too predictable. What I wanted to do was to use the sunlight to backlight the subject while using the strobe to provide the main light source. I also knew that I wanted the background underexposed by at least two stops to add to the drama. Lastly, I wanted to shoot the image such that I had a shallow depth of field with my favourite travel lens, a 35mm f/1.4.

Knowing all this, I had some technical challenges I needed to overcome to create the image. Firstly was my aperture selection. I wanted to shoot at f/2 and to do so with the ambient light levels, I would exceed my camera’s maximum shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second. My solution was to use an ND8 neutral density filter that would knock off 3 stops of light. That effectively took my shutter speed down to 1/6400th of a second. Now I know all you lighting people out there are scratching your heads thinking, “1/6400th of a second??? You can’t go faster than 1/250th unless you’re using a speedlight with high speed sync!” Well, I can assure you that for this shot, I wasn’t using a speedlight. I prefer to use a light with not only more power and that is incredibly portable, but also has the ability to properly use light shaping tools. I’m of course talking about a Photoflex TritonFlash, which is a battery-operated strobe that punches out light at 300 Ws.

I know, you’re still wondering how I got a studio strobe to sync at that speed. The answer is my last piece of gear - a fantastic little trigger system made by Phottix called the Odin. This little trigger has the ability to sync your camera and your strobe such that curtain sync shutter speeds for strobe are irrelevant. With this unit, you’re not limited to 1/250th of a second anymore! Now this method of flash synchronization comes at a cost, as it uses the diminishing output of the flash duration. I’ll try to keep this explanation simple. When a flash fires, a standard radio trigger anticipates that you want to use the maximum output of the flash, or t.1 output. What continues after the t.1 output is a decaying amount of light - less intense, but still something that can be recorded by the camera at a fast shutter speed if the trigger timing is right. The Odin does that timing perfectly.

Combined with the Odin, the Photoflex TritonFlash is far better than a speedlite because it transmits 4 times the amount of light. So even the tail end of the t.1 of this flash is far more powerful. If you are a wedding or location photographer, this becomes an invaluably creative tool.

Here’s what my setup was, and keep in mind that I carried all of this in my backpack. There were no Sherpas I contracted for this shoot. (Aside from my good friend and travel buddy, Emile, who was my VAL [Voice Activated Lightstand].) The TritonFlash, its battery, Connector and OctoDome easily fits in my backpack. The swivel detaches for travel and I decided to leave it at home to save weight since I knew someone would be holding the flash. I used a 3′ OctoDome as the light modifier because it fit nicely in my bag and I also could use the silver and gold inserts to create a “soft gold” colour temperature to provide warmth on the subject. This would be important later with post processing. As you can see, the light was placed just above the subject’s eyes and angled down, providing a pleasing light on the face.

After completing the setup and light tests, my main challenge was with posing and communicating without a common language. I’m used to giving direction, but hand signs only go so far. Our driver had gone to make a call and my Swahili is all but non-existent. But in the end, we had a lot of fun shooting these images.

The village is comprised of about ten huts with different women caring for children in each. After observing some of the women, I decided that I needed pictures of all the characters in the village, not just the warriors. The thing about living a hard life in harsh, hot sun is that it really weathers the face. Not only that, the body modifications the Masai people do make for very interesting character shots, so I had to take them.

Once we had shot all the images, all that was left to do was to process them. As you can see in the before and after images in the video, I really wanted that element of drama, so I went with one my dark wash treatments in Lightroom. Make sure to watch the video above to see how I did it.

Gear Used

  • Photoflex TritonFlash
  • Photoflex 3′ OctoDome
  • Phottix Odin radio Trigger
  • Nikon D800 with a 35mm f/1.4 lens
  • ND8 3 Stop Neutral Density Filter

To see more of Trevor’s work, visit his Pro Showcase page.

Twitter: @caphototraining
Facebook: phototrainingcanada

On February 8th, 2014, Trevor will be leading a Power of Light workshop in Toronto at the LuxSpace Studio. Stay tuned for more information!

 Follow Photoflex on Pinterest


Leave a Comment

Activate Popup

Let's Keep in Touch

Be the first to know about new lighting lessons, contests, events and promotions by signing up for the Photoflex monthly newsletter and updates from PromarkBRANDS.