A proposal at the Bell Tower

Aparna Kulkarni reacts as her fiancee Manish Desai proposes to her at the Bell Tower on the campus of UC Riverside where they met. Canon 5D M2 in available darkness. Canon Speedlight 550EX on a light stand on the right at 1/16th power.

The police cruiser pulled to a stop as I crouched in the shadows.

The lone officer inside asked what I was doing sitting in the shadows.

I told him I was waiting to make pictures of something devious but yes, we had permission from the Chancellor of UC Riverside to be there with the candles.

I was mildly aware that our intended ambush victim and her fiancee was approaching.

Finally, he said he had read the email.

I wonder if the word “surprise” was mentioned in that email.

So he was drove by to check and by doing so made the surprise more challenging.

The once-around his cruiser made at the Belltower also created a wake which effectively extinguished half of the candles.


Where exactly the couple would be standing? How many lights should I put up without ruining the surprise? Which direction will "she" be facing? It was a lot of guessing in setting up. 1 Canon 550EX speedlight on 1/8th power on a light stand on the right. ISO 100 1/4sec @f2.8

When the grumbling and cursing subsided from the nearby bushes, Anuja Kulkarni and about 18 of her friends scrambled to re-light the candles, some improvising with found twigs on the ground.

All this while, someone was on the phone trying to coordinate with Manish Desai, the ring leader —Anuja’s future brother-in-law.

Around 8:40pm, her twin sister Aparna finally showed up with Manish.

Her eyes were covered by her hands, with Manish helping her over to the Bell tower.

By then, “we” had already been there an hour and half.

Little did they know what their friends had battled to spring this surprise.

A lot had taken place in that time.

There was discussion about moving all the candles because of the wind, getting different containers and even the possibility of a change of venue to some place indoors!

Manish proposes to Aparna

Now as Aparna stood with Manish by the candles and I was straining to hear so I could anticipate when to shoot, I realized I didn’t even get to check if the transmitter was set to the right channel.

By then Aparna must have known what was going on, but I did want to capture her expression when Manish popped the question.

In retrospect, I might have added a second flash on the other side or tried to position the light better.

But in all honesty, I was lucky to have had a picture.

It was so dark that the autofocus wasn’t working. Even autofocus mechanisms have a threshold of light that it needs to work, that’s why.

Then of course there was the question of where should I aim the flash.

I only had a general idea of where they were going to be–by the candles.

I had no idea who was going to stand where in relation to my flash unit on a light stand.

Plan B

When I first arrived, I had an idea of what I wanted but I also understood what my subjects wanted.

So, I convinced Anuja to save 10 candles for my idea to photograph our lucky couple a little ways away from the Bell tower.

When the picture was pubished on UCR’s Facebook page, one of the comments was that the picture was “creepy”.


Manish and Aparna posed for this second exposure while I got her twin sister Anuja & 2 other friends to circle them as they held candles. I needed more candles but the majority of them were all spent by the Bell tower. I asked for 10 to be saved especially for this shot.

If I had to do this over, I would bring extra help to hold some lights on my subjects so I can manually focus better.

Congratulations Manish and Aparna.

With wonderful friends  and family like Anuja, you guys are truly blessed.

Here’s wishing you the best of luck and a wonderful life together.
Peter Phun Photography

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8 thoughts on “A proposal at the Bell Tower”

  1. Re: But in all honesty, I was lucky to have had a picture.

    Peter, they were fortunate to have you as their photographer. A professional with a PJ background is going to get the shot. You can bank on it.

    Great job!

  2. Yeah perhaps a flag would have helped the light that fell on the wall.. (See I have been doing my homework 🙂 But all in all yu did a great job! Kudos to you Peter!

  3. Tammy,
    The speedlight was on a light stand in the shadows. I made sure to set it to 105mm so that it wouldn’t spray the light indiscriminately and ruin the ambience of the candles. If I had a better idea of where they would be standing, I might have tried a snoot to further narrow the beam. The way it turned out I didn’t like how the back wall with circles was lit by the flash.

    It was a compromise between not ruining the moment with my flash and yet getting a picture in the dark.

  4. Tammy, here’s a diagram to give you an idea. 1/4 sec @f2.8 ISO 100 to allow the candles to burn in. Speedlight illuminated just them.

  5. ….. Creepy, I think not:) I feel like the photo portrays all of their friends are rejoicing with them in spirit:)
    Another thing I would like to see Peter is pullbacks of your light placement photos 🙂

  6. Peter these are beautiful!~ What a lucky girl to have such a romantic fiancee and a great photographer to capture it all!

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