Nicaragua Notes: Quality of Light

Remember the day you first picked up a camera? What were you thinking about? I’m guessing the camera. I did. I remember thinking if I could just understand the buttons I would be on my way to becoming a photographer. I remember thinking about my vest. Yes, I had a vest. Didn’t everyone at one point in time? I also remember thinking if I just had the right film, the right strap, the right tape in the right place THEN I would be on my way to being a photographer.

I had no real plan in terms of what I was going to photograph. I remember a landscape shot from the roof of my parent’s house, directly into the setting, South Texas sun. I remember a long exposure night shot from a strange Austin neighborhood with only the moon for illumination. I remember a motor drive sequence of my father who was a competitive shooter at the time. (Pistols not cameras.)
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Typical scene from where the kids were completing their daily assignments. This was a school in El Cua, Nicaragua.

What I don’t remember? I don’t remember ever thinking about any of the things that are truly important when it comes to actually being a photographer. Things like light, timing, composition and perhaps most importantly meaning. Why am I doing this? What am I trying to say? Why should people care?
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Our classroom in the mountains of Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

I, like many, was distracted by all the trivial gadgetry of our photography universe.

Over the years I began to understand the bones of what comprised great photography, and for me it all begins with light. I can’t stress this enough. I’m serious people, don’t make me threaten you. LIGHT is the catalyst for my movement in the field. The SECOND my mind flips to “photographer mode” the first question I ask is “What is the light?” If the light isn’t great, I’m not moving. At least not to actually work. I might scout, interview, wander, sit and watch, speculate, articulate or attempt to be productive in another way, but unless the light is working for me I don’t burn film.

Quality of light is a phrase that gets tossed around these days, like passion and storytelling and all of the other catch phrases of our time, but I actually think “quality of light” is worth repeating to yourself at least twelve times a day. Even when you aren’t shooting you can practice by asking yourself about the conditions you are in and whether they would work if you had to make pictures.
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Managua cemetery, midday, and not a photo I would normally take.

Here is the fun part. Quality of light various tremendously. State to state, country to country, season to season and second by second. Noon in New Mexico isn’t the same as noon in Los Angeles. Your style can take advantage of certain light while ignoring others. Light is a language, a nuanced language of the most intense beauty you can possibly imagine, and when the good light hits it can and will stop you in your tracks. Ever been with another photographer when great light happens? Suddenly everyone is frozen. “Oh God, look at the light,” as people fumble for ANY recording device. Sometimes when the light is good enough it can carry a picture on it’s back. Moments of great light carry with you, the same way your “life” images do.
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Near sunset, shot wide open and into the light to accentuate the flare and beautiful light. (Flemming, that IS a spaceship in the sky. FYI)

Nicaragua and the workshop presented moments of wonderful light. We were stationed in Matagalpa, in a coffee rich mountainous area, and were greeted by a range of weather from intense sun to torrential rain. There were clouds. Often times the sky worked as an enormous, broad source, lightbox style diffusion system. The kids were on assignment, so picking and choosing shooting times wasn’t possible. They shot what they needed to shoot when they needed to shoot it. Thus, they had to learn how to spot the moments happening in the light that worked for them. Imaging putting together a puzzle while someone sat next to you with a timer. That’s what this reportage life is all about.
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Arguably the coolest and funniest translator in the history of the world taking a short, afternoon, backlit break.

All of the images in this post reflect what I consider to be a good quality of light. This is the light I continually hunt for when I’m navigating the world with a camera in hand. Once you set a bar for yourself you get greedy with light. When it’s good nothing else matters. And when the light is bad you have plenty of time to reflect on all the lacking portions of your life. That’s what I do.

39 responses to “Nicaragua Notes: Quality of Light”

  1. David says:

    The photo of the kid in the doorway is one of your best shots I have seen, IMHO. Wonderful, beautiful light…

  2. Very nice spaceship capture!

    I think you said “light” 5 gazillion times in Peru. But it kind of got lost in a cloud of pisco!

  3. (oh and there’s something about shooting into the light on film which just ‘glows’)

  4. lionelB says:

    This box Brownie. So no confusion about controls. Just one big button. Two peacocks crossing on a wet path. Then the gaping mouth of a Hippopotamus. I was eight years old and transfixed.

    • Smogranch says:

      Lionel,
      Pickup truck on the ranch. Behind the seat is a haliburton case. Well worn. Inside a Pentax K1000 and lenses. I was transfixed as well.

  5. Dan,

    You are bang on, brother! When I was a photojournalist (you know we both have similar backgrounds) that is when one really learns the value of light and how to make the most of it, even when one has so little to work with. Those were the days of 100-1600 iso films WITH push, ( and mostly 400 iso) when Tri-x was the canvas of choice! (heck..it still is for much of my personal work) Getting assigned by the Toronto Star to shoot a seemingly bland event, story or EVP of a business man or famous actor in a hotel room when their handlers give you literally 2-3 minutes to make art! This is when one learns quickly how to, make an image that is interesting in very uninteresting surroundings or situations..AND this is achieved by seeing and understanding light and how to best use it to your advantage. For this reason, today with our computerized Dslr’s and lenses that have no DOF scales anymore, (one reason I keep coming back to Leica) it is easy to get complacent and detached from the simple act of seeing light, then using basic manual controls: aperture. shutter. focus. You are preaching to the converted in this post (for me) Dan. πŸ™‚ thanks!

    • Smogranch says:

      Jeff,
      I think it comes down to making images in the field and making images on the computer. I prefer the field and am happy with “straight” images compared to what I see today, where the light matters less because there is SO MUCH manipulation done to the images, and light is suddenly doing things it simply never does in the real world. I routinely look at prints where light is coming from multiple directions at the same time and the pixel by pixel dodging and burning make every image appear like a painting of impossibility.

  6. Darlene says:

    Hey Dan – don’t know if you remember me or not we met in San Francisco a couple years ago at the Google conference. Funny enough I’m also doing a photo tour to Nicaragua now, did the first one in February and second one coming up on November. I just fell in love with the place and we will likely be staying on a couple of months on this next trip down. Great to see you enjoyed it as well.

  7. Jason Timmis says:

    Ahhh yes, Light. She’s a fickle mistress….especially in Canada Eh?

    I was thinking the exact thoughts in your post this weekend as I ‘worked’ my way around the local farmer’s market. I was around for magic hour in the morning. The scene was great but alas the clouds changed by the minute and the Light wouldn’t quite get to there and stay there. I fired my frames halfheartedly. I came home with some very pleasing compositions….that are all crap as images. The mistress wasn’t pleased that morning. Have to try harder next time!

  8. Mike says:

    Many of my sentences begin or end with “if the light’s right” i.e. I’ll see you on Tuesday, but if the light’s right I’ll be gone: over the hills and far away”.
    Oft repeated conversation in our house:
    “You said that you were going out taking photographs but you’ve sat around all day looking out of the window!”.
    “The light’s not right”.

    Love the spaceship, and the light; with digital you would have clipped highlights all over the place.

    Great photos and post, Daniel.

    Mike.

    • Smogranch says:

      Mike,

      The latitude of film is so wonderful. Eliminates so many things. When I shoot digital I find myself, routinely, having to outthink the camera. I know the light I can shoot in and the light I cannot without extensive post. With film I just look and snap.

  9. Tom says:

    The subject of light quality isn’t discussed enough and I think it’s because we don’t have a proper way to describe it’s qualities or maybe to even know what we are looking at. I have a specific building that I have photographed many different times as a benchmark. It was striking to see the how the light quality changed the perception of the simple form. I’ve also found that certain geographic areas have unique consistent light qualities. I’m not at all sure why that is but it is. Add to this the variable of how different lenses handle light and it makes for quite a challenging task.

    • Smogranch says:

      Tom,
      Those areas with special light, like New Mexico, in some cases have this light due to atmospheric conditions, pollution, lack of pollution, altitude and also dust. Light isn’t as sexy as gear, at least to the masses, so you don’t hear much about it. Light also doesn’t grow a Twitter following, blog following or Klout score, so you will hear far less about it than you should. But just take ONE LOOK at any of the real photographers of the last century and you will know the importance it has.

  10. Tom says:

    Maybe where the ‘quality of light’ idea gets lost is in all the post processing where the essence of what the camera captured is distorted. The idea of ‘fixing’ the light is fairly common. Adding effects that were never there. I often think that some of the older photographs that we know and love would never have been made or even accepted in the photoshop era.

    • Mike says:

      Tom, Yep, with digital there are so many possibilities and permutations that it is just … confusing. What I also notice are fashions; like tilted horizons and ultra high contrast. It’s just following the herd. Each has to find his or her own voice.

      Mike.

    • Smogranch says:

      Mike,
      People think trends will get them work. And sometimes it does, other people’s work.

    • Smogranch says:

      Tom,
      I think it’s common not to just make the basic exposure in the field and the “make” the lighting in post.

    • Tom says:

      It seems like everything from photographs to food is having the life processed out of it. I think that could also be said about a lot of other technology that we interact with.

    • Smogranch says:

      Tom,
      I’m eating cheese puffs right now.

  11. Tom says:

    Tilted horizons….HDR……added lens flair…..fake film grain…….expired film colour effects…..colour shifts…….etc. etc. have I missed anything? Strangely it’s getting to the point now where an untouched photograph looks surreal.

  12. Mike says:

    The invention of cheese puffs is right up there with the discovery of DNA. Sometimes technology is used to create something worthy.

    Mike.

    • Smogranch says:

      Mike,
      I’m powerless against them. Bought another bag yesterday. However, I’ve lost ten pounds with Lyme, which on a 160 pound frame looks like more than it is. I see the face of my friends who haven’t seen me in a while and some are good with hiding their emotions, others not so much. So, I’m eating as much as possible. A half dozen burgers in the last week. Still weight the same. The cheese puff might be the key.

    • lionelB says:

      Daniel,

      Walnuts, pecans, pistachios. You know it makes sense …

    • Smogranch says:

      Lionel,
      I eat tons of nuts….but NOTHING replaces the cheese puff.

  13. Mike says:

    Daniel, one day cheese puffs may be held in the same high regard as aspirin. it’s good to see that Lyme has not reached your sense of humour. Positive waves coming your way from all the ranch hands.

    Mike.

  14. louis blythe says:

    When I started shooting I was obsessed with the camera. The settings, dials, buttons and knobs did nothing but make me distract me and make me take bad photos.

    After reading the manual a few times through I had enough of an idea to create a half decent exposure.

    That was after 2 camera craft courses and thousands of rubbish photos.

    You could say I was a slow learner but hey you have to start somewhere.

    There I was with a brand new 5dmkii and a 50mm 1.4 and I still couldnt create the images I was seeing in my head.

    So what did I do?

    I set about learning bridge, lightroom and photoshop. Why? Thats were all the information and blog articles I read were pointing at.

    Probably the largest waste of time as a result of photography has been spent watching tutorials on you tube and Lynda and not contemplating photography schenarios in the feild.

    Where are you going with this Louis I hear you ask.

    Well, after some sad nights of reflection I stubble across a book on my mothers bookshelf.

    Simply called Magnum.

    Fliping through and reading the experiances of the photographers the gear was mentioned all but once and even then it was an off hand comment.

    What they did talk about was light and their struggle with it.

    Trying to seek it out.

    Finding it in the strangest of places.

    And trying to capture it when they did.

    That was when it started to make sense for me.

    I always enjoyed the hunt for light and always dispised post production.

    Now days my time is spent shooting sparingly on film and searching for guality light in an attempt to create as Trent Parke would put it a “big image”.

    Great post Dan!

    Thanks for fostering the conversation.

    Louis

    • Smogranch says:

      Louis,
      “The Big Image” is really all that matters. Just know they are rare and like to hide. Don’t worry, keep looking. You may find one or two a year, depending on your life, but that is okay.

  15. Martin Wolf says:

    Really nice post, Dan. Thanks! πŸ™‚

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