My photos of Tuly, the Bengali girl with green eyes, have been popular with people all over the world. She has appeared in photography magazines such as Digital Camera World, Photo Review Australia, and is on display and for purchase in book and postcard form at the Travel Photographer of the Year exhibition and shop in Kent, London. I thought I’d share the story behind meeting her and taking her portrait.
I only wanted a quiet moment to sit down and rest after a day of exploring and meeting people in a small rural town in Bangladesh. I had been answering the same questions all day: what is my home country, am I travelling as one, and what is my opinion of Bangladesh. I sat down on a grassy hill which overlooked a group of small houses, where the neighbours were outdoors talking and playing games together. It might have only been about 30 seconds until I started to attract a crowd – but this was really no surprise.
I was travelling around Bangladesh for four weeks in December to January 2012. I was travelling as one, but one is never alone in Bangladesh. It’s the people that make this country a great place to visit – I found them to be the most hospitable, curious, outgoing, and open-hearted people I’ve yet to meet.
So when I realised that I was going to be the new centre of attention I got up and started to interact, and joined in a ball game that was going on. People were unafraid to use their broken English and ask me lots of questions. The sun had set and the light was getting low, so I knew that photos would be out of the question. But I saw a girl in the group who really caught my eye – she was wearing a bright green t-shirt with a large red circle on it (the Bangladeshi flag), and she had strong green eyes that matched her shirt. I knew she’d make a great subject for a portrait photo, and I had always wanted to capture a close up portrait of a person with striking green eyes. I introduced myself to her and complimented her on her beautiful eyes. I asked her if I could come back the next day in the afternoon to take her photo. She agreed.
I came back the following afternoon and her older sister Duly, who spoke some English, could act as a translator. I was invited into their house to meet the family, and was brought tea as well as a present in the form of a notepad. Tuly took me on a tour to see her bedroom, which was well decorated and filled with artworks that she had created – she had told me she wanted to be an artist.
When we went to take some photos, I decided to take them on the front steps of their house. I noticed that while it was fairly dark under the awning, the cloudy sky was providing a nice even, natural light through the gap in the roof which would result in a concentrated, directional light source. The even light from the sky worked well with the subject who was in a reasonably dark space and the natural light formed smooth shadows on her face. The background was therefore rendered to be dark and non-distracting, which is important in a close up portrait if you want the attention focused on the subject’s face. I knew that having Tuly sitting down and leaning on her knee would create a more relaxed and natural posture rather than a rigid standing pose. I also wanted to try some shots with a headscarf, as framing the face with material or an object can help bring focus to a person’s eyes. I asked if she had a green scarf or veil in the house, but she did not, so instead someone brought out a red scarf which had green patterns etched onto it. We then did some photos with her face wrapped in this scarf. I haven’t seen Tuly again since that day, but I have been in some contact over email with her sister whenever she has gotten a chance to go to an internet cafe.
Here is one of the original photos compared with the final edited version.
The first thing I notice with the original photo is that it’s a bit dull, and there is room to boost the brightness in the photo. In Photoshop I do that by creating an adjustment layer and going to levels, and sliding the far right white triangle on the graph to the left to bring more whiteness into the photo. As soon as the bridge of her nose becomes over-exposed I stop. I repeat this process again by making another adjustment layer on top of the previous one and make the photo brighter, but by using a layer mask I can have more control and paint in the brightness effect – so I’m choosing which parts of her skin become brighter by painting the effect in with a brush. I make sure the layer mask is filled in with black (control + I will invert the mask from white to black) and by using a white paint brush I reveal that layer again but just in the parts that I want to brighten. I also keep changing the opacity of the brush to control the strength and how much brightness is being added.
The next thing I notice is a blue tinge to the photo which I often see in portraits from my Nikon D700 taken under cloudy sky lighting. I want whites to be white and not have a blue cast, and that’s easy to desaturate out. I make an adjustment layer and choose saturation and choose the Blues and Cyans and pull the saturation sliders right down to something like -70. However this removes blue from every part of the photo, and I don’t want to change the shades of green in the scarf and her eyes, so again using the layer mask I’ll make sure those parts of the photo aren’t effected, by leaving the mask white and choosing a black paint brush and painting on the eyes and scarf (so the blues are not desaturated from these parts of the photo).
As well as making the highlights on her skin a bit brighter, I also make the shadows on her face a bit darker. I have boosted the brightness in her eyes, but did not change the colour of the irises. I’ve brought out the colours in her scarf to make them a bit stronger and richer, and I have cropped in slightly for a tighter composition using the crop tool set to 4 inches by 6 inches to keep the normal photograph dimension ratio. I also like to sharpen the fine lines on the face such as eyelashes, irises and the lips. I usually use a high pass filter on a new flattened layer, set the blending mode to overlay, and paint in over the parts of the photo I want to be sharper. I always make use of layers and layer masks in Photoshop so I can ‘paint in’ the effects and choose exactly which parts of the photo gets treated, no matter what the treatment (lighting, colours, sharpness etc). A lot of subtle changes lead to an overall look that fits my aesthetic vision which is to have natural looking photos that are sharp and perfectly lit, and also have a colour scheme with complementary colours working together throughout the photo.
When Photo Review Australia magazine approached me and asked if they could do a feature on my travel photography, they said they wanted to use one of my Bangladeshi girl portraits on the cover. As a result, Tuly has appeared in shops across Australia, and I would hope that she would be excited to learn that our little interaction in her village has led to people admiring her beauty and elegance throughout Australia, and the world. I took a trip to my local newsagent to take a photo of her picture on display (above), and bought an extra copy of the magazine to take with me when I return to Bangladesh and retrace my steps to find Tuly again, and give her the copies of her photos and prints in publication.