Low Light Photography in Mongolia with Timothy Allen

Sitting portrait of young Kazakh girl wearing traditional winter coat and hat next to a saddle and bridles
We weren’t expecting Shohan’s daughter on this morning, but boy did we enjoy photographing her. She was just a doll.

I love solo travel but that doesn’t always mean that I am necessarily alone. The more interested I become in photography, the more I enjoy taking small photo tours/workshops to explore my wish list destinations.

The Benefits are Threefold

1. I discover a new place.

2. I improve my photographic skills by learning from professionals whose work I admire.

3. I meet people who enjoy photography as much as I.

My recent visit to western Mongolia was with a workshop led by Timothy Allen.

I love Tim’s work, in particular, his environmental portraits and use of single-source light. His images have won many awards and been in countless prestigious publications, and he was named Travel Photographer of the Year in 2013.

Saylau and his wife Sayna in traditional dress.
Saylau and his wife Sayna in traditional dress.

When I learned about his workshops in Mongolia, I immediately wanted to go. His itinerary promised not only photojournalistic opportunities but staged shots he would arrange to teach us how he creates his signature portraits.

Our subjects would be the famed Kazakh golden eagle hunters—men who still practice the centuries-old tradition of using eagles to hunt animals for their pelts and who Tim has befriended over the last ten years.

(There are under 100 legitimate eagle hunters left in Mongolia, and it’s conceivable that in a few generations, the tradition will fade into obscurity as more young people abandon the culture’s nomadic life to live in the cities.)

Sitting portrait of a Kazakh eagle hunter with his golden eagle flapping it's wings and wearing traditional winter fur coat and hat, Altai Mountains, Mongolia
Shohan had a big presence for a relatively short guy (5’7″) so I chose to lay down on my stomach and shoot upwards to convey his larger than life appeal

Since it was July and the middle of the summer and eagle hunters only hunt during the winter when an animal’s fur is at its thickest, our subjects donned their traditional garb out of season at Tim’s request. It was a new experience for me. I’d never photographed a setup shot before, and I was curious to see how it would work.

Our first shoot was with Saylau, an elderly eagle hunter with a stately air, piercing eyes, and an impressive goatee.  His wife Sayna was slight and reserved but very sweet. She sat with him for a while and then left him to sit alone with his striking 3-year-old golden eagle.

A few days later, we photographed Shohan, a handsome, somewhat famous eagle hunter whose family we camped near and hung out with the last four days of our two-week adventure.

Sitting headshot of young Kazakh girl wearing traditional winter coat and hat, Altai Mountains, Mongolia
Shohan’s daughter in a very ethereal light coming from the door of the ger

On Set with Timothy Allen

A ger makes a wonderful photographic studio. A canvas flap over a hole in the roof can be adjusted to let in more or less light. If you cover it all the way, the door becomes the only source of illumination and that’s exactly what we were after.

The inside of a Saylau’s ger was rich with eye candy. Handmade tapestries in red, orange, and yellow draped every inch of the circular one-room home. There were saddles stacked in a corner, animal pelts, wrought iron beds, and a wood-burning stove. A visual slice of life so completely different from our own and a perfect backdrop for our portraits.

Sitting portrait of an old Kazakh man who is an eagle hunter with his golden eagle, Altai Mountains, Mongolia
Saylau and his three-year old golden eagle. Kazakhs don’t name their animals (except their dogs), not even the eagles that are so much a part of their lives.

With Saylau and his wife, I used my wide-angle lens (16-35mm, f2.8), allowing the elements in the room to frame the couple and provide context.  We propped the door of the ger half open, letting the light fall on the duo from the side in a luminous glow. We were lucky, it was a cloudy day and it was relatively soft and diffused. The key was to expose for the highlights, the brightest areas within the frame so that they weren’t blown out, then, if necessary, we could bring the darker shadows up during the editing process.

Tim encouraged us to explore various angles to see how the light fell on their faces as we moved around them, and the difference in look and feel each perspective produced. We shot straight on, from the side and directly opposite the light, catching the two in profile.

Sitting portrait of a Kazakh eagle hunter with his golden eagle wearing traditional winter fur coat and hat, Altai Mountains, Mongolia
Shohan and his brilliant smile!

The most difficult part of the shoot was working in a relatively small space with eight photographers and Tim while navigating around the stove which stood smack dab in the center of the room and was blazing hot. At times I would see something I wanted but before I could snap the shutter another photographer would  snag their attention and the moment was lost. Everyone did their best not to step on each others’ toes but it was frustrating.

Shooting the same subject as a group is never ideal but it was a great opportunity for experimentation and making use of Tim’s guidance and feedback. I reminded myself that if I ended up with a great shot, wonderful. If not, there was still a lot of value in the exercise.

Close up of golden eagle with eagle hunter out of focus behind it wearing traditional winter fur coat and hat, Altai Mountains, Mongolia
Shohan’s serious resting face that gave him a warrior vibe

Next, we photographed Saylau and his eagle. The challenge was capturing both Saylau and his bird looking great at the same time and keeping both in focus. I wanted to shoot with a shallow depth of field (f2.8) so that he stood out against the blur of the background, making focusing even more problematic. I enjoyed the challenge, intermittent frustrations and all.  Plus, the wildlife lover in me got a huge kick out of being so close to a golden eagle.

Round two was a couple of days later with Shohan inside another ger which gave us a chance to practice all that we’d learned shooting Saylau.

Shohan the eagle hunter on his horse with his eagle.

The ger we used for Shohan had been set up the day before and was empty, giving us more room to maneuver (no stove!) but also meant we needed to dress the ger so that we would have a proper setting in which to plug-in our eagle hunter. We borrowed tapestries, animal pelts, saddles, whips, and bridals from the family to recreate a small part of the Kazakh gers we’d seen during our travels.  With Tim acting as our creative director, we all pitched in to create the scene.

When we had everything where we wanted, one of Shohan’s daughters appeared wearing a winter fur coat and hat. She had beautiful almond eyes, perfect skin, and cherry red lips. Surprise! We had another subject to dote on and she became our first shot of the day. She was wonderful. For such a young girl ( I believe she was 11) she sat with quiet grace—though she had eight cameras pointing at her—and looked from lens to lens like a pro.

Portrait of an eagle hunter with golden eagle on horseback wearing traditional fox fur coat and hat,Altai Mountains, Mongolia

When Shohan arrived, he wore a magnificent wolf fur coat that had to weigh at least 15 lbs and a mixed fur hat that echoed his daughters’. Though relatively short, I’m guessing 5’7″, Shohan had a powerful aura about him that made him seem taller. His resting face was serious which gave him a warrior vibe, but when he smiled (and he did so a lot) it evaporated, leaving a brilliant smile in its wake that lit up the room. Pulling the look together was his very cheeky golden eagle that kept trying to fly out of the room.

Because Shohan’s feathered friend was so feisty, Tim suggested that we might want to minimize the risk of a bad picture by shooting at f8—meaning our images would have a greater depth of field.  If the eagle moved a few inches in front of or behind Shohan, both of our subjects would still be in focus.

On Location

Our last set up, which was completely different, was on location in a beautiful valley a few miles away from camp with a lovely river snaking through the mountains that rose up on either side. We started on the valley floor photographing Shohan on his horse racing around a herd of grazing cows. Then we climbed 400-500 ft up one of the mountains so that we could place the majesty of the countryside behind in the frame. Shohan looked fabulous (and was incredibly patient) as he posed for over an hour and a half at our behest.

Portrait of Shohan the eagle hunter in Mongolia
Even the toughest eagles hunters get tired after a full morning of modeling

The Takeaway

I’m a voracious learner when it comes to something I’m passionate about, some might say obsessive. Like most people today, I want instant gratification and if not instant, at least as fast as I can get it. I found that I just learn better when I can ask questions in the moment. When someone can see what I’m trying to achieve and help me get there. It’s that simple. And what better way place to do it than in an incredibly exotic foreign country?

It’s been a few weeks since my return from Mongolia and I am pretty happy with the images I took that day. More important, I learned a lot.

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My lesson in making beautiful low-light portraits with renowned photographer Timothy Allen

144 thoughts on “Low Light Photography in Mongolia with Timothy Allen

      • poolejg says:

        Took the train from beijing to ulaanbaatar and then joined an organised trip with a company called dragoman up to lake khuvsgul and back. a fascinating country. would like to go back and take a little more time traveling independently.

  1. ColorMeLocal says:

    I absolutely love the light in those photos! It seems to paint the image and resembles a painting more than a photograph. The Mongolian people are so interesting. I imagine that experience was incredible. Love your blog. ~Anna

    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Hi Anna!

      I agree, the light in the gers was just beautiful. I kept saying to myself that if I ever invested in a studio I wanted it to be a ger. Though I doubt that would be easy in New York City. LOL .. So glad you love the blog. Welcome, and I hope you return. S

  2. 2oceansmeet says:

    Woah!!!!! Your photos are amazing! I am trying to get into travel photography, however, and your photos put mine to shame. Great writing as well. I enjoyed this post. Check out my blog if you’d like, the photos aren’t as good as yours but you might like that.

  3. wilsontechwriting says:

    Fabulous images! What a great experience you have had! I love to travel, but I am not much of a photographer. Your story in word and picture has inspired me to gain as much of the culture as I can when I travel. Thank you for sharing!

  4. kanadiskeutlandet says:

    Hello Susan Portnoy,
    Your pictures are just stunning!
    I really like your portrait of Shohan’s daughter. It made me think of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings. Beautiful.


    • Susan Portnoy says:

      Méganne –
      Thank you very very much for your kind words. I love Shohan’s daughter’s photo too. That look was what I was trying to achieve and part of what Tim was trying to teach us, so thankfully, at least in that moment, I nailed it. LOL

  5. creatingkings says:

    I’ve really enjoyed the photos you’ve taken of Mongolia and the people there. I have it as a life goal to one day visit the far east, first the Taoist and Buddhist temples. However this is certainly on my list. 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing!

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