On 26th February 2019 I had the chance to attend the biggest festival in Sumba island (Indonesia) – the Passola.

Sun rising at Wanukaka beach, when the Ratus arrive to search for the Nyale – Nikon D850, Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 VR, 1/320, f/2.8, ISO 1400

It started before sunrise, when the “Ratus” (holy men, in Marapu religion) gather at Wanukaka beach, along with a considerable crowd. They all come to fetch the Nyale (a worm named Palola viridis – a Polychaeta species whose reproduction involves involves mass spawning on a few specific days, once in a year. The terminal parts of their bodies drop off and float over the surface of the water, releasing sperm and eggs. These are edible and considered a delicacy in some Pacific and Indonesian islands. )

For the Sumbanese, this is not only free food but an oracle – as its colour tells the “Ratus” about the abundance of the crops, for the year to come.

Ratu, searching for the Nyale, at dawn – Nikon D850, Nikon 300 f/2.8 VRII, 1/320, f/2.8, ISO 1100

When the sun rises, two of them enter the ocean in search for the first samples. They then analyse them and bring them to the shore, sharing their conclusions. Then it’s time for the whole population to do their own collection with buckets and nets.

After a few hours, it’s all over and horseman begin to arrive at the beach for the Passola – a staged war between clans on which one tries to make the other one retreat by trowing spears – now, just wooden sticks but not long ago, they had sharp metal points. It was believed that shedding blood during the Passola was honourable and auspicious.

Passola warriors and attendants at Wanukaka beach – Nikon D850, Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VRII @70, 1/1000, f/5.6, ISO 200

What seemed to be an intense and colourful moment, was just the warm-up for the real Passola – starting around 11:00 on a field around 3 km inland. There were a few thousand attendants and over twenty horseman, who kept throwing their spears for over three hours, with a few intervals to solve minor disputes (whose cause I could’t really grasp). Fortunately all ended well and the riot Police didn’t need to intervene (something very common on previous editions).

For covering the event I took Nikon D810 and D850, and a few lenses (Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 VR, Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VRII and Nikon 300 f/2.8 VRII).

Nikon D850 was almost exclusively used due to superior low light ability (and quality, as many important scenes happened at dawn, or shortly after) and much faster and accurate autofocus, for the action scenes.

Nikon 300 was the best lens choice on most circumstances as the nature of the show doesn’t allow getting too near and its focal distance helps isolating the subject on a usually busy and colourful background. Its nearly instantaneous autofocus, combined with Nikon D850 face detection, made possible to have absolutely sharp portraits and expressions on the fast moving horseman.

This warrior was galloping. The image is uncropped, showing the extraordinary abilities of D850 + 300 mm lens – 1/1600, f/2.8, ISO 64

It was my first real shooting session with this lens and despite its weight (nearly 3 kg) I really loved it: It’s well balanced to shoot hand-held (though the focus ring is where one usually holds it with the left hand. Fortunately I didn’t miss focus but i’d welcome a smaller focus ring and some neutral space for holding). Colour rendition is awesome, sharpness is supreme as one could expect from its price tag (nearly 5.500 USD). There is considerable vignetting wide open, which can easy corrected on PP. Often I just left it there, as it highlights the subject. This lens seemed to be made to shoot wide open – the areas near the hyper focal, despite not physically being in focus still appear to be so due to the nature of the bokeh. It’s a difficult to explain phenomenon but, in practice, it seems to show more d.o.f.. On the contrary, stopping down often degrades de bokeh, without much increase on the d.o.f.. Above f/5.6 I believed I noticed diffraction, at 100 % view.

(There is no scientific base for any of these statements – they’re just first impressions.) If I went to shoot it again, I’d often used wider apertures and slower speeds (1/800 seemed to be enough on most cases whereas the 1/1600 and 1/2000 that were chosen, were unnecessary) – another lesson learned.

Were it was not possible to use the 300 mm, or when it got too exhausting (even on a monopod it’s quite physically demanding, after a few hours), I switched back to the 70-200, often set at 200 mm. It was easier do pick the rather unpredictable action and frame with the lighter lens. Focus speed and accuracy didn’t seem to change, though, as they’re both stellar. Colour rendering was also quite similar so it’s hard to tell which lens is used, from just looking at the images (which is awesome as the whole footage looks coherent).