Chasing the Light

Late afternoon fun in a Mai Chau rice paddy

It’s been raining and overcast for over a week in Hanoi. In fact it’s down right chilly and I’m under the fleece blanket Somara has brought from Halifax. I’m not telling you this to get sympathy, I’m making the point because I’m frustrated with the light. When it’s not raining or foggy, the sky has been flat and dull and my photography plans have been thrown askew.

Hoi An, after rain, before sunset

Dusk or the light that comes just before dusk, something called magic hour (which are really just minutes), is my favourite time of day, that is when the sun shines through. When it happens something comes over me and I’m able to centre myself, clear my head and sometimes even experience awe. The change in me is palpable.

But magic hour is fleeting and I’m always torn between savouring the moment and running off with my camera. And I’m feeling anxious right now because there’s a spot I’ve been wanting to photograph for awhile that I just can’t seem to get to at the right time of day in the right conditions. It’s even more stressful knowing our days in Hanoi are numbered.

Quality of light, I believe, is different everywhere. That quality is part of what contributes to my connection with a place. It’s hard to separate the light from location and physical surroundings, because ultimately you experience it as one. But atmosphere, physical geography, and physical relationship to the sun must have an impact on light….it just must.

I find the light particularly gorgeous at dusk in our living room and on our porch in Halifax. Most of the time the porch looks tired and frumpy but when the conditions are right, it’s a paradise. One day I might put together photographs of my favourite ‘twilight’ locations and try to illustrate the differences.  But for now I’m in Hanoi, where I’ve seen light that I feel is a new and welcome addition to my repertoire. Sadly I think it’s the pollution and smog that contributes to the beauty.

Hanoiing Traffic

Diverging back to Nova Scotia for a moment, there was a scene in one of my documentaries that I will always remember filming. Outdoors, just before dusk, we were on the shoreline of a rural community, and it was a calm calm evening.  I can recall the orange bronze glow of the descending sun on the subject’s face, and the warmth of the imagery. It was almost over the top, kind of like seeing Northern Lights, too out of the ordinary to believe, and unforgettable.  I was horrified when I saw that the editor had colour corrected the footage to look like it was much earlier in the day…and had completely removed the glow. To this day I regret not having pushed him to return the footage to its genuine state.

View from 7th floor

One of the tiny challenges I’ve had this year being a ‘late afternoon light chaser’ who lives in a high rise, is calculating the time differential of what you see from the 7th floor window as compared to the ground.  In other words, don’t wait to see great light from your window before heading outside on your mission. It’s going to be a lot darker on the ground. The other problem is that it can literally be a chase.  Hanoi is so congested it’s hard to know where the light is going to fall. When I was photographing traffic I was constantly trying to find the openings where the light came through; part work-out, part photo session, wearing my running shoes.

Somara’s Botanical Dance

One of my favourite respites in this crazy city is the Botanical Gardens. In late afternoon it becomes a haven for badminton players, runners, soccer enthusiasts, and parents and kids who just want some space to run around. I’ve taken my camera there on many occasions but have little to show for it. My excuse is that it get darker quicker than most places because of the enormous trees and I think it’s on lower ground. I’m reposting the one image I’ve taken there that I really like.

Late afternoon light in Cambodia

We were in Cambodia in December to see the temples around Siem Riep, including the most well known of them, Angor Wat.   Many tour operators built their agendas around light for two simple reasons, temperature and beauty.  So even though I like to think I’m not a ‘typical’ tourist who goes along with the crowd,  I was, always conscious and planning where we’d be in the late afternoon.  (For the record, sunrise was a no brainer; we were in bed). So even though we went everywhere on our own, no guide or gaggle of tourists in tow, I was chasing the light and the perfect image.  Day 1 just as we were perched at the top of a temple waiting for the sun to descent, Somara leaned across her dad and said ‘I don’t feel well’.  We quickly made the mad dash down to get her back to the tuk tuk to go home.  Good thing too.  On the way I was able to capture the image above (see everyone at the top waiting?) and this one of Somara, whose hair looks much more spectacular than she feels.

In retrospect I’m not sure why we were waiting for the sun to set and looking down.  I’ve always preferred the quality of light cast onto objects at dusk over sunsets in the sky. Don’t get me wrong, I like a gorgeous sunset, (in our house we yell out ‘ Sky Alert’), I’m just not interested in photographing them.

Our second night in Cambodia we went to Angor Wat (with at least 5000 other tourists) and  I was in my glory.  Arriving just after 4:00 pm I knew I had a good hour plus of really good and then great light ahead of me.  Not even 30 minutes in, my camera battery died.  I’m not even going to share what I captured on my cell phone.  But here’s an image from when we just arrived.

Moat around Angor Wat

Perhaps the best part of being here this year, is having the time and opportunity to think about all the things I haven’t made time for in recent years, and to act on them.  I remember an article in an Alberta Travel Magazine about the light during magic hour in Southern Alberta.  It described the lengths director Ang Lee went to in planning and preparing a scenic shot for his film ‘Brokeback Mountain’.  It was a shot that was only available to him for a very short period of time…minutes.  It’s a privilege to be on a similar quest even though the results don’t ultimately matter.  I’m quite happy to just walk around basking in the late afternoon light and savouring the glow. I hope it returns soon.

Monks in Battambang, Cambodia, end of day
Truc Bach Lake, Hanoi
Truc Bach Lake, Hanoi




Danang in August



One thought on “Chasing the Light

  • 2017-01-19 at 11:38 pm

    Gorgeous pictures. Great article, we all dream of capturing the moment when the light and dark are perfect whether in our minds or in pictures. Keep enjoying your time in Hanoi, my mind wonders back to the many beautiful places I saw there with you all. Aunt Naomi

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