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.

Color of Light

All three of these photos suck but I’m using them not for their content but for other reasons. First, most of the images I make pretty much suck, so these are a good “case in point.” The top one I thought was going to be gangbusters, but the sky just wasn’t working for me. The middle image was about motion but I just didn’t get enough, and the final image was made in an attempt to time someone out on the rock, someone who was using a strobe. I was trying to time it with a long exposure to get their flash going off, which I did in other frames but missed entirely on this one. Oh well, life is evil and we all turn to dust. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s keep moving.

These images are here because of the color of the light.


But before we talk color of light I want you forget a few things.
Your education, your photography studies, your camera, your lens, your laptop, your software, your filter sets, your camera bag, your gadgets and gizmos, your pixel depth, your megapixels, your fluoride elements, your aperture, your shutter speed, your tripod, your camera tape, your hard drive, your calibration device, your thunderbolt plug, your monitor, your iPad, your iPhone, your blog, your Facebook page, your agent, your rep, your website, your career and for sh%$ sake please forget about “being a photographer” and “doing what you are supposed to do.” Okay, I’ll give you a few minutes to prepare.

Ready?


You need to forget all those things because they just don’t matter unless you are in the right light.
Light. Let me say it again, “light.”

People ask me all kinds of strange photography questions, which is one reason why I love having a blog. Photography, at least to me, is a somewhat strange pursuit. You point a light tight box at something in an effort to preserve it or share it or put some HDR thing on it to make it look like something you puked up after eating too much fried food at the fair. We make photography seem complicated but it really isn’t, not at all. We’ve built an industry around it for some reason, and this further increases the complexity, but the actual photography part stays painfully simple. For me it can all be summed up in three things. Light, timing and composition, and those are in a very specific order. LIGHT, timing and composition.

These images were all made in basically the same spot. Yes, I was moving around and they are from different angles and distances but it is the same slab of rock and the same enormous hole. These images were also made, I’m guessing, within roughly the same hour. Yes light changes that fast and so does the COLOR OF THE LIGHT and here lies the point of this post. I get a lot of questions about gear, which in the long run really doesn’t mean much. Gear is romantic. The top forty photography sites, in terms of traffic, are all gear and technology related. A significant portion of the workshops I see being offered today are all gear related. I think the idea of things like light and timing and composition are REALLY getting overlooked these days. But, again, the reality is if you are not using the right light then you really aren’t being the photographer you could be, and it surely doesn’t matter what device you have in your hand. The vast majority of the time, when I’m in the field working, my entire agenda is dictated by the light. Seriously, I can’t stress it any more than that. The light dictates where I go, when I go and how long I’m there. I don’t work in high noon light unless something has gone wrong or I have no choice or unless something truly dramatic is happening and I HAVE to make pictures right then and there. I’ll sit in my car for eight hours in 110 degree heat….waiting for the light to get right. There is no other way. My shooting is like a cage fight, months of training, months of hype and then three rounds of all out effort. Sometimes I get knocked out and other times I do some damage. I’m a 50/50 fighter at best, even with the light working for me.

Near my house in California is a protected waterway that birds really dig. Where there are birds there are birding photographers, and this place is no exception. They have camouflage trucks. They wear camouflage clothes. They all have Canon 600mm lenses….wrapped in camouflage. They have tripods…wrapped in camouflage. And….they all go out to shoot at HIGH NOON. I’ve never understood this. Standing in the blazing sun and cooking down the buffer on their 1DS Mark III’s. Don’t they look at good birding photography? Don’t they know that early morning and early evening give you not only direction of light but also COLOR OF LIGHT? These guys are like quantum physics, yes I know they exist but I have no understanding of them.

These Grand Canyon images illustrate color of light. Going in reverse order, the bottom image was shot first and just LOOK at how blue that light is. The middle image is moments before sunrise and the light is shifting, a middle ground of warm edges, white center light and a soul that is still blue. And the third image, the top one, is shortly after sunrise and yellow/red is now the statement being made. Within minutes in the desert environment the light will be gone, and when I say gone I mean virtually unusable. When I worked in Arizona it was the 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM rule of might as well go take a nap during these hours.

I see a fair number of portfolios and the photographer will begin showing me work made in horrible light. They will begin telling me about the equipment used, their philosophy and their desire to get a show or book. All I see is imagery made by someone with zero understand of light.

So, next time you venture out on a photo expedition take one last look at that clock. Go earlier, go later, look for clouds, look for rain or anything else that will add color or drama to the light. Good luck.

Shaking off the dust….

One of the things I’ve noticed with modern photography is our expectation of being really good really fast. It’s so EASY to make pictures, so if we can make them so effortlessly then why shouldn’t we be able to make great work right away? Outside of the lucky situation, photography typically doesn’t work that way.
I know for me it takes a lot of time, energy, practice and rhythm. Yes, rhythm. When I don’t shoot for a long period of time I actually have to get out in the field and shake the mental and physical dust off BEFORE I’m able to really work at a level that I’m satisfied with.

So a few short weeks ago I taught a workshop in Victoria BC, hosted by Luz Gallery and all their fine folks. We had a class of ten rabid students all waiting to make a few “documentary portraits.” I arrived in Victoria a day early and the weather was absolutely perfect. Standing in the hotel room, running my hands over my equipment-something we all do admit it-I realized it felt a bit foreign. My gear felt like a family member I’d known my entire life, but someone I hadn’t seen in years.

So I grabbed the Leica and the Fuji GF 670 folding camera and went out to shake off the dust. I left the hotel, walked straight to the harbor and immediately began asking strangers if I could “make their portrait.” All I was doing was trying to get my head back in the game of being a photographer. Like many of you, my head is polluted with far too many things, so many that I can’t possibly concentrate on what I need to unless I quiet all the work, family and business voices floating around in my melon.
So I headed out and just began to shoot anyone, anywhere in any way. The first image was the young girl in the “Canada” shirt, who I intentionally shot in extreme backlit conditions. I wanted to FEEL the light through the viewfinder as it pierced my eye. I wanted to see how my hands fit on the camera, where my “default” finger position was. And, I wanted to talk to people I didn’t know. I wanted to see what I could get away with if you will.

Walking up to strangers, asking them to make a portrait, is something that freaks a lot of people out, but as a photographer you just have to be able to do it, so like finding my rhythm with my gear I’m also looking for a similar connection with the people I’m photographing. I see them approaching and I try and determine what my odds are. Sometimes I go after the most difficult looking person, NOT because I’m looking for a great image, I’m simply forcing myself into the world I need to be in to be able to eventually get the images I want.

Again, when I walked around Victoria I was not looking for great images. I know that might sound odd but I wasn’t. It’s not that I’m ignoring that opportunity, but I’m mostly getting into the right mindset. I’m looking for people, faces, interaction, conversation, light and to get my timing back online. For the first day I normally SEE images instead of MAKE images. And if this doesn’t happen to you, keep it to yourself! I don’t want to know I’m the only person this happens to?

I typically set a goal for myself, say a single roll of 220 Portra, and then I make myself go use it. Anyone who comes near me, “Hey, can I make your portrait?” These images, or portraits, are made in 15-seconds or less. “Thank you,” and I’m gone. I see a patch of good light, I shoot it. Just to remind myself of the primary ingredients. A bird takes flight. I shoot it. Get my timing going. And I’m also waiting for that first, “No thank you,” that comes when you ask and get shot down. For me, it always feels horrible, but I know it’s coming. I need to feel it to feel alive in some strange way. It reminds me this isn’t easy, we only think it is.

The District v2


The White House with it’s fence that LOOKS formidable from close up, but not so bad when you step back. I like this perspective.

So I’m in Washington for a shoot, a good shoot, a rambling, flowing shoot that wanders for several days from the inside of the district to the edges of the Virginia countryside.

I’m staying in a hotel in Georgetown, close enough to the heart and soul, walkable. Just where I want to be.

I love this town.

“You’ve never lived here,” my friends say. True enough. And I always visit when it’s warm, so it’s hard for me to imagine the gripping cold on my thin hands as they try to reload the Leica, or in this case the Blad.

I love this town because it feels like something is going on. Always. I’m an outsider, a complete outsider and because of this I have a special skill. Naivety. Everything is new. Everywhere is new.

Visitors mass in front of The White House. When I first started shooting here I think this street was still open.

Standing on the street corner in the early morning light. A guy next to me in a tan trench coat, dark sunglasses and the butt of a cigar wedged in his teeth. If I’ve ever seen anyone who looks more like a spy I can’t recall. He must be playing a role? Or perhaps he is a spy, just not worried about looking like one?

I always stay longer when I come to this place. If the assignment lasts three days, I’ll stay four or five, just so that I get some time alone.

And when I say alone, sometimes I am alone, walking solitary, but other times I’m surrounded by tourists, by visitors, hundreds if not thousands of them, but I still feel alone because I’m in work mode. I’m walking yes, but I’m LOOKING. And when I look I can simply disappear.

I can stand in front of them and it is as if they can’t see me. With the Blad I’m looking down and holding it low, so I don’t exist in some ways.

There is much going on. There are many unhappy people, some display their wrath with fire and others with quiet.


One of the many protesters near The White House.

I have the Blad and the 80mm, which is what I’ve done 99% of my square work with. Very inexpensive. Very standard. Vanilla. Black and white.

Framing with square is different from any other method. I sometimes have difficulty switching from the square to the rectangle and then back. In some ways, like any other technique outside the standard 35mm rectangle, the square is a gimmick. It really is. It looks different, so there is a tendency to try to get away with things when using it. I’ve done it. I try not to.


A lone, quiet protester who emitted the most peaceful vibe.

The air is thick, hot and very humid. The temperature hovers near 100 degrees. The cameras are hot in my hands and the light has totally gone. Totally. I seek shade and dark places, not because I can’t take the heat but because those are really the only places I can make a picture in this light.

I walk for hours.

My pants are wet with sweat, my shoes are squishing around a little bit. I love the heat, but I walk with the cameras under my arm to try and keep them as cool as possible.

The monuments are a big part of the city, and yes, they have been photographed millions of times. But not by me. And even if I had photographed them before, I would still go back to them every time I visit the city. Not just for images, but for the reason they were placed there in the first place.


The Washington Monument with Delta 3200 and luckily a bit of cloud cover.

Languages. Voices from all over the world are around me, here to see the same thing I came to see. This place means a lot to a lot of different people. In some ways I think this city is nearly forgotten by many Americans. My family never went when I was growing up. Politics cover this place in a residue that is hard to penetrate if you are bothered by that kind of thing. I’m not.


Inside The Lincoln.

I shoot a roll of color in 35mm and keep framing and snapping with the Blad. I walk the entire day, shooting about three rolls of 120. I can see the images in my head. They are not particularly great “”moment” images, although a few are, but they are a recording of my time in this place at this exact moment, something the spy could use to retrace my steps.

The light is still bad and it limits me, but this is nearly always the case. I look for the strange places where I can work with the splintered light. And then I wait for the sun to sink, for the light to get direction and then I pounce once again.


A message left by a wishful individual.

As the day comes to a close I angle back toward the hotel and dry clothes. I empty my pockets out on the bed and count my take, something I always find exciting. What did I get? The not knowing is what I love the most. The trip home begins in the morning.

Story Behind the Photos: Kman Does Texas BMX


The infamous Kman, not happy at having to stand still for this picture.

I did what I thought I was supposed to do. Yes, after all these years, I still do this.

My nephew, the infamous Kman, races BMX. In fact, he is a total badass with a room full of trophies to show off his 65-pound prowess.

So I go to visit the family and find out I’ve landed on race night.

I have options.

I think to myself, “This is racing action, I’ve got to get that peak moment, I need a motor drive, long lens, etc,” so I grab the digital body and long lens and toss it in the truck.

And then, more out of reflex than anything else, I toss in the Blad.

The track is easy. A small place, and being Texas people are relaxed.

“Hey, my nephew is racing, can I stand in the middle of the track?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

And with a smoking gun the races begin.

I’m hammering away, motor drive humming, mirror clanging up and down. But I’m distracted. Not by something around me, but by something inside me.

“What am I going to do with these images?”
I begin to ask.

“Do I really want to sit down and edit through all these motor sequences.”

“Ugh.”

“Why am I doing this?”

“Do I really want to archive these, label these, tag these, etc,etc?”

“Ugh.”

Don’t laugh, this is how my troubled mind works.

I began scrolling through the images on the camera, something I HATE doing. I know hate is a strong word, but it fits here. I DETEST looking at images right after. I think it completely KILLS the idea of being a photographer, BUT I CAN’T STOP MYSELF.

I’m like a total crack monkey with the preview window. I can’t stop. If I turn it off, I just turn it right back on. Hopeless.

I suddenly realized, with slight sadness, I had no interest in even looking at the images I was making. The images didnt’ feel like they were mine.

There were a dozen parents in the same area, all with similar gear, banging away. They probably had the exact same stuff, only of their mini-warriors. And I think there was even the dude that shoots every kid and uploads every single image online so that the one parent without their camera can buy a print.

“Well, I know my brother will like these, or my mom,” I said to myself, making excuses for the images, while I took a quick peak at the refreshment stand wondering what delicious treats they had hidden behind the counter.

I packed up the gear and headed for the car.

Right before burning dust in the parking lot I saw the Blad.

I loaded the relic and grabbed my dreaded tripod. Yes, my tripod, and headed out into the world I had just retreated from.

At least 10% of my mind was still thinking of the refreshment stand. I have to be honest.

Suddenly there were whispers around me.

“Honey, look at that guy with the old camera.” “What is he doing?” “Is he allowed in there?”

“Hey, dude, what the f%$# is that thing.” “Holy S%@#, haven’t seen one of those in a while.”

And suddenly I was in my own world. I could see again. I grunted and shuffled around the pit area like a deranged ape.

Things were clear. I dissected with my eyes, and then framed the pieces. A story began to build.

The kids in the pits were like ants invading an empire, merging in lines and shadow, with harsh artificial light painting their movements with razor sharp shadow. The sky was glowing.

Insects pierced the night. Colors were bright. The wind picked up. Darkness and light. Passion.

I don’t remember much of what was around me. I was “involved” let’s say. I was involved in a 6×6 space that started in my medulla oblongata and ended at the tip of an 80mm.

Clunk.

Minutes later.

Clunk.

This was MY work. My mind. My vision. My moment. This was the work I need to be doing ALL THE TIME. All supplied by following the Kman.

I thought about history. I thought about family. I thought about the light. I thought about what these pictures would mean. I thought about who would have them in 100 years. I thought about Kman and what must be going through his mind.

I was away in that place that photographers go when they are working.

And then. Clunk. It was over.