Photographing The Masai Tribe in Kenya


Masai People Lighting Tutorial Video from PhotoTraining on Vimeo.

Gear Used:

Hi guys, I’m Trevor Sherwin and I wanted to make a video about a series of portraits I made recently on vacation. I want to show you to gear and techniques I used.

mapHere goes, 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 dawn a red cloak signifying the 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 f1.4.

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 F2 and in doing so with the ambient light levels I was going to exceed my camera’s maximum shutter speed of 1/8000th sec. 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 sec. Now I know all out lighting people out there are scratching your heads thinking 1/6400th sec??? You can’t go faster than 1/250th unless you’re using a speedlite with high speed sync. Well I can assure you that for this shot I wasn’t using a speedlite. 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 which punches out light at 300ws.

file_42So I know, now you’re still wondering then how did I get 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 flash such that curtain sync shutter speeds for flash are irrelevant. You’re not limited to 1/250sec anymore! Now this method of flash synchronization comes at a cost as it uses the diminishing output of the flash duration or maybe simply put; the time the flash is”on” even if not a maximum intensity. I want to keep this explanation simple so here goes… When a flash fires, a normal radio trigger anticipates that you want to use the maximum output of the flash or t.1 output. What is left 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, this is where the Photoflex TritonFlash is far better than a speedlite because it is about 4x the output 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 could be an invaluable creative tool.

Let’s talk now about the setup and keep in mind I carried all this in my backpack. There were no Sherpas I contracted for this shoot. We’ll maybe my good friend and travel buddy Emile who was my V.A.L. (Voice Activated Lightstand) The TritonFlash, it’s battery, speeding 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 know someone would be holding the flash. I used a 3′ OctoDome as the light modifier because it fit in nicely in my bag and I also could use the silver and gold inserts to create a “soft gold” colour temperature to provide a 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 one the face.


After all the setup and light tests the challenge was posing and communication 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 more than a little rusty if not non existent. In the end we had a lot of fun shooting these images.

The village is comprised of about 10 huts with different women caring for children in each. Observing some of the women I decided that I needed pictures of all the characters in the village not just warriors. The thing about living a hard life in harsh hot sun is 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 all the images, all that was left to do was process them. As you an see, in the before and after I really wanted that element of drama in the image so I went with one my dark wash treatments using Lightroom. Make sure to watch the video above to see how I did it.

Make Sure to follow me and attend one of my workshops if you are ever in the Toronto area.

Twitter: @caphototraining
Facebook: phototrainingcanada



  1. […] Trevor Sherwin recently traveled to Kenia, and decided to use this opportunity to create some amazing images for his portfolio. Most people who travel to the area tend to focus on the wild-life, but Trevor wanted to focus on something else – people. Trevor wanted to create dramatic portraits of the local tribes in a way that shows both the people and the location. Check out his great video explaining his method of shooting. […]