Waiting for the Light

June 2, 2009 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | Comment |

Here in Bali I am Mr David. They don’t seem to do last names here. Today, that has somehow evolved into Mr Rabbit. How? I cannot tell, these things happen in Asia. It goes with the territory, along with brushing teeth with bottled water, women carrying huge loads on their heads, rice fields and noodles. The buzz of Asia; I love it.

But I’ve been here 24 hours now and am not yet a Happy Traveller. The interminable flights delivered me here pale and blotchy, puffy faced, with streaming sinuses, incoherent with exhaustion and jet lagged. And the meter is running. I’ve not yet got that crucial first exposure nailed and I’m twitchy, edgy, and impatient to get going. You would think, wouldn’t you, that after 25 years of doing this I’d have learnt to be a bit more laid back about it all? But no. There is always that pressure to hit the ground with my feet running. I could of course just point my camera at a random scene and expose, just to get the first one done, but that’s cheating. No, it’s important to kick off in style. Then I can start to ease into the trip. Last night, wide awake at 2 am, I lay listening to the circling mosquitoes, pondering where to go for the first shoot. I’ve not yet scouted the lie of the land. I need a plan. But already one uncomfortable realisation is starting to dawn on me; Bali is empty. There’s no one here. Is it the global recession, or have I come at the wrong time of year?

It’s the rainy season. I knew that before I came. I’ve been to tropical destinations around the globe in the rainy season, deliberately. An afternoon deluge with dramatic skies and horny light before and after; that’s the usual wet season routine that’s suited me well from Tahiti to Kho Phi Phi. But maybe I’ve become a little casual with my pre-trip research, because that doesn’t seem to be the order of things here. A glimmer of sun in the morning followed by leaden grey skies more reminiscent of Capel Curig than Bali has me pondering my wisdom. It’s a long way to come, but its still early days.

I have found a rooftop with a commanding view over the rice fields around Ubud. On the skyline is the brooding presence of Gunung Agung, I think. Actually that’s me waxing a bit lyrical as it’s an imagined presence so far, I can’t see the volcano at all. It’s lost in the black clouds. But hey, a photographer complaining about the weather is like a fisherman moaning that the sea’s wet; pointless. I’m here, have a location sorted and just need to now get on with the job. I may need to be patient, but as it says on the tin and the cover of my book (http://www.davidnoton.com/wftlbook.htm), waiting for the light is what I do. But I do need to make that first exposure, to draw first blood; I crave it.

David Noton: Waiting for the Light

Rice farmer, nr Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. Canon EOS 1Ds mkIII, 85mm f1.2 L lens, 1/1000 sec @ f1.2, ISO 200

So I’m taking the bull by the horns and am heading out of town into the rice fields on a whim to see what I see.  The contents of my bag have been stripped down into Light mode; a body and 3 lenses are all that weigh me down; no tripod, and the collar’s off my 70-200mm. This sort of approach rarely works for landscapes, they are mostly the product of meticulous location searching, previsualisation, planning and persistence, but for random encounters with earthy farmers it’s sometimes the way to go. Ever tried walking across rice fields top heavy with a Lowepro? Narrow earth banks barely wide enough to balance on divide the terraces, I’m frequently toppling off to sink shin deep into the ooze of the rice fields.  In amongst the terraces are tiny bamboo shacks, and there, as they are every day of their working lives, are the farmers.

An hour in, sweating and covered in rice paddy ooze, I come across my first bemused farmer and the first exposures are made. Blessed relief floods through my body. It won’t be the shot of the trip, in fact it probably won’t make it past the first edit, but at least I’ve pressed the shutter release. As I gamely try to gesticulate my gratitude for this first encounter I picture doing this at home. How many Somerset farmers have been accosted in their fields by wandering foreign photographers marching across their land? No one bats an eyelid here, in Asia I do things I’d never dream of at home.

David Noton: Waiting for the Light

A farmer working in the rice fields nr Tirtagangga, Bali, Indonesia. Canon EOS 1Ds mkIII, 85mm f1.2 L lens, 1/2700 sec @ f2.2, ISO 160

I move on. Around my neck is the 1Ds mkIII fitted with my favourite lens for this sort of agricultural paparazzi work; the 85mm f1.2.  The light is steely grey; flat and diffuse, lousy for landscapes, great for portraits. I meander across the fields, scrambling through ditches and across streams. In a clearing stands a semi-naked farmer, gesticulating and shouting at me. Is he telling me to piss off or come on over? I can’t tell, but ignorance is bliss so I press on. He stands, leaning on his scythe, peering intently at me, slightly hostile, or perhaps just baffled. I point to my camera with a slight quizzical look on my face, the standard international photo request signal. The barest of nods comes back. I raise the camera and compose as I’m activating the auto-focus. I’m shooting wide open at f1.2 for the minimal depth of field feel this lens delivers at maximum aperture. The eyes are sharp, not much else is but that’s the look I love for portraits. This lens cost a fortune, is heavy for its focal length and is difficult to use at this aperture. No matter how sound my technique if I’m working quickly at maximum aperture a fair percentage of exposures will have the focus point not quite in the right place; like on the ear or tip of the nose. I need to be so careful with the focusing but it’s a peach of an optic, stunningly fast and crisp, and for travel portraiture is my lens of choice.

Compose, focus, expose. I sweep my eye from corner to corner of the frame, how can I make this better? The background is a lovely green blur and the shot is a pleasing arrangement of shapes. The best shots are always the simplest. I expose five frames before the moment has passed, but I know before I check the glowing monitor the shot has worked. I trudge back in the fading light, filthy but happy, for now. I’m underway.

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