Chasing the Light: Chapter 3
Aaron Noah M.
Location: Al Lisaili, UAE

A camera is a device that captures light.  Whether you possess the latest digital SLR, a 1966 Leica M3, a rare 18th century camera obscura, or even just a cheap disposable, the idea is still the same: you allow a portion of light to enter a mechanism and then you record an image.  A simple enough concept, but after that it gets tricky.  There is an entire lexicon of technical barriers such as “ISO”, “megapixels”, “f-stop”, “shutter speed”, “RAW format”, “flash-sync”, “meter mode”, “white balance” and “HDR” that can get in the way of you and your picture.  It’s easy to get lost in the finer aspects of photography, but when it comes down to it, it is the basic elements that require the most attention: composition and light.

But I’m still trying to sort that out.  Chasing the Light chronicles a shot-by-shot camera journey of the Gulf region landscape and my modest attempts to capture a hint of its spirit.

I was so enthralled with all of the critter sightings I had last month near Al Lisaili (see Chasing the Light Chapter 1) that I took friends back to same area so that they might catch a glimpse of them as well.  We returned to each location where I had previously spotted animals but all was quiet.  Unlike the Metallica concert a couple of weeks ago, the local wildlife didn’t seem to oblige taking the stage for our visit.  No oryx.  No gazalles.  No birds.  Not a single lizard or even a beetle.  Just sand, a few scraggly bits of vegetation, and a gentle breeze.

Very strange.  After many trips to this area, this was the first time we couldn’t locate at least one critter on the landscape.   I noticed more 4x4s than usual rumbling around the gravel plains and even a couple of vehicles in the dunes, so I’m guessing the animals wanted to stay clear of us noisy humans.   We did our best to avoid the noise as well, so we kept driving until we found a quiet stretch of sand to get out and wander.

No animals about, but the atmosphere was just about perfect otherwise.  The air was clear and fresh, pleasantly cool, and the sun dropping near the horizon was bathing the desert in warm tones.  I put aside the tele photo and stuck with my old faithful kit lens, a Nikkor 18mm-105mm.  Without having to chase down subjects, I could now concentrate on basic composition.  Click.

Me and my shadow

Me and my shadow. F/8 18mm 1/250

This shot was just to give you an idea of my surroundings.  The scene was pleasant, but nothing dramatic enough to warrant wide open shots of large swathes of landscape.  I decided I needed to focus on small sections, trying to find interesting textures or subjects in the dunes.  Sand can be wonderful to photo, depending on other elements around; I prefer to have big rocks and very little vegetation around my sand.  I have found this particular stretch of desert a bit difficult, as it is sprinkled with annoying little distractions, such as chewed up grass stumps and rotting camel dung.

I stumbled on an interesting twig poking out of a dune.  Click.

Stick and sand

F/8 26mm 1/250

I had hunched down low in attempt to get on the twig’s plane of existence, but the background was a disaster.  There were other twiggy distractions back there as well as a glaring telephone pole off in the distance.  The sand ripples were nice, but that was about it.  I had to try again.  Click.

Stick and sand

f/8 26mm 1/250

Better.  The distractions were gone and now the sand ripples were more pronounced, but overall I think the photo still didn’t quite cut it.  The distance and spacing around the twig seems too much, so I feel that the viewer loses intimacy with the subject.  I lost motivation in the twig and found myself an interesting dune instead.  Click.

Sand dune

Ripples in the sand. f/8 26mm 1/250

I love those ripples in the sand.  The angle of the sun’s rays was popping out those wavy lines and providing decent color.  By the light of the noonday sun the texture of at same dune would appear smooth and flat; only when the sun starts to set do these crisp ridges start to materialize.  The composition of the photo leans slightly to the right (especially with that cloud in the upper right that draws your eye away) and there’s a piece of grass interrupting the line flow (center left), but otherwise I still enjoy those sand ripples.  I should have studied the scene and composed another shot that emphasized those lines even more.  Instead I found another chunk of dead vegetation.  Click.

Branches in sand

f/8 32mm 1/250

This could have been a great shot…but unfortunately it wasn’t.  I love those two twisted branches and the shadows that stretch out behind them.  Beyond that, there are too many distractions in this photo.  Aside from the clumps of withered grass in the background, there’s a bit of debris near the subject (some twigs and a rope?).  I think the photo would be great with just those branches in the foreground with their shadows stretching across an unbroken patch of wavy sand.  There is a part of me tempted to go back, clean the scene up, and then wait for the sand ripples to form again, but I don’t  think the wild and domestic grazers would appreciate me covering up what little flora they have available, however shabby it is!

Then I targeted another dune.  Click.

Sand dune

Sand ripples and cloud. f/8 18mm 1/250

It’s portrait instead of landscape oriented, but it’s a similar idea to the other sand shot above.  Ripples, cool.  Colors, cool.  And I tried to keep the cloud above the dune centered in the frame.  This almost works for me, although I sometimes notice the small bit of cloud on the right as a tiny distraction.  I tried cropping it in Photoshop later, but then it seemed to throw off the balance of everything else, so I just left it as it was.  The strongest part of the photo is, once again, the texture of the dune.

Then the sun finally dropped from view and this sandy photo trek was done.  We never did see any animals, but the experience of enjoying another sunset in the desert was well worth the trip.

Desert Sunset

Desert sunset. f/9 75mm 1/320