Portrait in a Rajasthan Stepwell: My Steve McCurry Moment

Adventure, Bundi, India, Nomad Within, Peter DeMarco, Stepwell, architecture, asia, man, photography, portrait, travelphotography, turban

I came to Rajasthan to live out my own Steve McCurry fantasy, to travel to the same places and photograph the same faces that called to one of my heroes. So this morning I went to Dhai-Bhai Kund, a 500-year-old step well in Bundi, India. This guy was sitting nearby. I asked him if I could take a photo of him in the well. He happily agreed. It was like a Nat Geo dream. ~

How I Made The Photo

Vision: Before I left for India a friend of mine told me I should visit the stepwells. They are really just wells or ponds that you get to by going down steps. The cool thing about them is that they look like something out of an MC Escher drawing, minimal repetitive patterns of zigzags and lines.

You can find these wells all over Rajasthan, especially in the small town of Bundi where I took this photo. When I got to this well it was practically abandoned with no water at the bottom of it, just some dirt and a little trash.

I really wanted a human element to give it scale. Also, the composition was boring without anyone in it. But even more so, I wanted to get a portrait of one of these local guys with his colorful turban on, just like I saw in Steve McCurry’s photos. This guy was sitting around the corner having the tire on his motorcycle changed.

[Like this? Read: 27 Inspiring Photography Tips From Steve McCurry]

He didn’t speak English, nor did anyone else sitting around him. Somehow, through some bad sign language, I managed to get him to walk with me over to the well and make this portrait. I offered to give him a small amount of cash for his time. He refused. I went and bought him and his friends some drinks instead. It was one of the best experiences I had during my India photo adventure

On a technical note, I shot midday when the sun was high. The soft early morning or late afternoon light is often the best, but if I shot at that time I wouldn’t have gotten the strong shadows deep in the well, as seen in the right side of this frame. I wanted those shadows because that contrast helps to add depth to the image. I also didn’t use a flash. I rarely shoot with one, let alone carry it when I travel. In the future, I might carry a reflector with me to bounce some light on his face if I were to do more of this.

Processing: edited single exposure in Adobe Lightroom, Nik Color Efex, Nik Sharpener.

  • Camera: Sony A7 II
  • Lens: Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS
  • Aperture: ƒ/8
  • Focal length: 29mm
  • ISO: 100
  • Shutter speed: 1/125s
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Author: Pete DeMarco

Pete DeMarco is an award-winning travel photographer. His passion for helping people transform their photography shows through in the expert advice he shares. His work has been featured in National Geographic Traveler, CNN, and as a staff writer for Digital Photography School.

4 thoughts on “Portrait in a Rajasthan Stepwell: My Steve McCurry Moment”

    1. Hey, thanks bud. I changed the template. The last one I had was too bloated and didn’t work that well on mobile. Still need to put a little work into the design on this one.

      1. Yea, always a work in progress. Like that you went f8 with this. People always go for the super bokeh f1.4 portraits, and often don’t realize that the background can be an important part of the story or add interest to the portrait as well

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