I am a rapt admirer of all forms and epiphanies of light. I marvel at thin rays of light streaming through a window in a dark room, backlit water and foliage, reflections, and all the created shadows. Light creates shadows, and so it is a harmonious duo. I love foggy, romantic light, the thick, rich light of rainy days and a faint sunset afterglow. For me, light is the ultimate wonder of the world. I am constantly aware that everything—people, buildings, armadillos—is magic performed by light. Every photograph is a creation of light and shadows.
However, despite the inordinate variety of light, I suspect that the majority of pictures are taken in the middle of the day under blue skies and fluffy white clouds. We have been conditioned to think that “Isn’t it a beautiful day!” is the translation of a Kodak moment. I usually find midday, blue-sky weather dull, predictable, and void of subtlety and nuance. The finest compliment I received from a travel-magazine editor was, “You are out photographing at times most photographers have given up or never even started.” To capture an exceptional image sometimes means stepping out from a haven of comfort and stretching your creative muscles.
All photos © Nevada Wier
Tiksey monastery, Ladakh, India
I almost missed this image. I had been waiting on top of a hill in the far northern reaches of India hoping for a good sunset, but it was cloudy, windy, and very cold. The sun slipped behind a cloud and I convinced myself that that light was over and it was time to leave. I was halfway down when the sun appeared from under the cloud, exuding warm, glowing light. I ran back up the hill and was able to make a few hurried frames before it vaporized. I had a tripod with me, but there was no time to set it back up and, honestly, it wasn’t necessary. It was more important to use the time to make it to the best position and frame the image impeccably in the frame (cropping is part of my vocabulary). The image was made with Kodak SW film, so I don’t know my exact settings, but I can guess that they were 1/125 second at f/8 with a Canon 100-400mm IS lens.
It’s decidedly easier to photograph after a leisurely cup of coffee than it is to wake up at four o’clock in the morning to catch the pre-dawn light. The deadly enemy of the creative photographer is laziness—an opiate with which most of us have been cursed. Let’s call it “photographic inertia.” It is any argument or excuse that separates you from going after the photographic subject matter that attracts you. Inertia comes in many guises. It can be excuses of weather, wrong film in the camera, intimidation of the culture, tipping, having to set up a tripod, or any number of things.
South India, Kerala, Narikkode village
Canon 5D Mark II, 24mm f/1.4 lens (24mm), 1/80 sec.@ f/1.4, ISO 1000
I was in South India a couple of years ago and had the unique opportunity to participate in a Fire Dancer Theyyam. This kind of event lasts all night, continuing into the next morning. I do not travel across the world to sleep through something like this and just catch the end because I want to sleep; of course, I’m going to stay up all night! This is the reason I have a fast prime lens. I often photograph in extreme low light, and an f/4.0-5.6 lens cannot handle situations like this. There is also a limit to how far I will crank up the ISO, depending on the camera. A tripod is mostly useless in this kind of situation because I need a shutter speed that will stop the action. So having a "fast" lens is critical. Yes, it is expensive. There are other, cheaper alternatives (I used a 28mm f/1.9 for years) but this is a no-compromise lens for me. The most important thing to remember when photographing in low light is that you must squeeze the shutter so that it focuses accurately. I have learned to watch for the focus-lock alert in the viewfinder.
I’m very intimate with this demon; it hangs about my mind waiting for any chance to appear. It starts stirring especially when there is rain, snow, mud, fog, heat, humidity, dim rooms, or any situation I might consider the least bit uncomfortable—in other words, the times I’m likely to get my favorite photographs.
Chindwin River, Myanmar
Canon 1Ds, 17-35mm f/2.8 lens (24mm), 1/6 sec. @ f/8, ISO 200
I am not a big fan of tripods. I hate to carry them around and sometimes it is too easy to get locked into the perspective that came when I set it up. But when I need a tripod… I need it. I was photographing a beautiful moment in Myanmar—a floating bamboo pagoda that had come down the river to give blessing to the riverside communities, and landed near our camp. At the equatorial realms, after the sun goes down, the light dissipates quickly. I don’t mind hand-holding a camera at slow shutter speeds but I really needed the bamboo raft to be tack sharp. My tripod was a few minutes away on our nearby boat (you can see it in the left-hand side). So far away, it was so very far away. Not. I overcame my personal inertia and ran to get it. I’m so glad I did.
Serendipity also plays a part in the search for the uncommon photograph. I can plan all I want, but whether I get rainbows or a deluge of rain to shoot ultimately has more to do with chance than skill. The challenge is in recognizing a lucky situation and motivating myself to take advantage of it. How I respond to a photographic opportunity is often as important as the opportunity itself. I’d rather be an active participant when making a photograph than a passive one waiting for the world to create it for me.
Olympus OM-D EM-5, 12-35mm f/2.8 lens (12mm – in 35mm: 24mm), 1/5 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 800
I love working with this small, lightweight Micro Four Thirds camera. It is a powerhouse in a small package. It is perfect for street photography. One of my favorite times to photograph in cities is after the sun goes down. Since I was near the equator in Cuba I knew that the optimal light that balances some ambient light with the emerging artificial street was about 15 minutes after sunset; and it was only going to last for about 15 minutes before the sky went black. I love engaging with people and immediately resonated with this lovely older woman. Two advantages of the Olympus OM-D EM-5 is that the image stabilization is built into the camera and I could use the swivel-out screen to compose while holding the camera right against my stomach for stability. I was working at a very low shutter speed since I did not want to go above ISO 800. I was ecstatic to see how sharp this image was a 1/5 of a second!
Sleuthing out photos in sloppier weather lends the possibility of not just getting a good picture, but, maybe, making a great image. Overcast and rainy days are great for shooting portraits, markets, and subjects with intricate details or saturated colors. There are no harsh shadows; the diffused light evens out abrupt contrasts between sun and shade. Mist and fog can isolate and soften the forms of buildings and intrusive objects, creating a dreamy, romantic scene that might not be interesting in sunlight. In a snowstorm, the fury of the elements can arouse emotion in an image and during a long exposure, blues and purples dominate to create a moody, evocative feeling. In low light you can use a Daylight White Balance and a high ISO (but know the ISO limit of your camera) to accentuate a cozy, romantic impression, or use a tripod to capture the warmth of someone’s face in the firelight.
I hate getting up in the dark, but I love it when I do. An intensely rewarding time to photograph is just before sunrise. Many photographers don’t begin to photograph until the sun perches on the horizon.
There is also magic in the twilight hours; depending on your latitude, the best light happens about half an hour after the sun goes down, so that the sky is cerulean blue in conjunction with different light temperatures of the artificial lights in a cityscape.
Canon 5D Mark II, 24mm f/1.4 lens (24mm), 1/40 sec. @ f/1.4, ISO 1250
I went out the night before this image and handheld my camera in the low light. It was fine, but I realized that the cathedral dominated the scene, begging to be sharp. The next night I went out with my lightweight travel tripod (Gitzo Traveler G1550T Carbon 6X with GH2781TQR Ball Head Quick Release) and set up for this scene. I focused on the church and waited for some action. I had to wait for more than an hour; this was a small town with not a lot of activity at night. Finally I saw a woman crossing the street and then a bicyclist came in from the left, and then a dog! I waited until the only moment for the perfect confluence, and click!
Understanding light and how it translates onto your sensor, along with developing technical prowess, will expand your photographic vision. Overcoming the entropy of laziness will propel you into those places where mud tracks remain and each new turn reveals your own consummate light. A little ingenuity will solve your practical dilemmas. All of this will not only make you a better photographer, but you will have made it beyond the expected into a richer realm of personal and creative satisfaction.
Jamba Desert, Rajasthan, India
Canon 5D Mark II, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens (21mm), 0.3 sec. @ f/3.2
ISO 800 Canon 580 EX II (approximately -1 EV)
"It’s dark; I need my flash." This needs to be eradicated from the minds of photographers. It’s dark, so you need to either increase your ISO, get a tripod, lower your shutter speed, or use a faster lens. I often choose to use my flash, but I still need to take an ambient light reading. It is late evening in Rajasthan and there is a lovely glow of last light. I raise my ISO to 800 and see that my light reading is a pitiful 0.3 second at f/3.2. Now, this is where a flash helps, because it can sharpen an image at the moment of the burst. Notice the dark lines around the man—that isn’t his shadow (not possible) but part of the exposure as he moved during that 0.3 second. The burst of light sharpened him (approximate at 1/800 second). In addition, I put on a warming filter so that the light emitted from my flash would not be a harsh white light, but a warmer glow.
Nevada Wier is an award-winning photographer specializing in the remote corners of the globe and the cultures that inhabit them. Wier's journeys have taken her throughout Southeast Asia, India, China, Nepal, Africa, New Zealand, Central Asia, Mongolia, South America, and other obscure regions of the world. Wier conducts workshops and seminars for National Geographic Traveler. Find out more at her website, www.nevadawier.com.