Connoisseur of Light in Kathmandu

I am winding up nine interesting days in Nepal, primarily in the Kathmandu valley, where I have had the pleasure of watching the light as it changes throughout each day. As I have blogged before, I like to think of myself as something of a connoisseur of light. Like a wine connoisseur, I am going to try to review the light that I encountered in Kathmandu. As much as I might like to steal some lines from the classic reviews of wines, I will avoid phrases like “fresh yet dense, exhibiting notes of, with a finish of, showing hints of” and “with lingering notes.”

Since photography is “writing with light,” I like to think of myself as something of a connoisseur of light drawing on the definition of the word “connoisseur” as in “a person who is especially competent to pass critical judgments in an art” or “one who understands the details, technique, or principles of an art and is competent to act as a critical judge.”

Keep in mind that my experience of the light in the Kathmandu valley is only what I saw in early December. But I am guessing that the geography there would have the same affect on the way the light plays out during most of the year.

First, this area is a valley surrounded by some of the highest mountains in the world. That means that while the sun rises (and sets) like it does anywhere else in the world, the beams of the sun do not actually hit the valley floor till almost an hour after official sunrise in the morning and those same beams of sun leave the valley floor almost an hour before the official sunset in the afternoon.

What that means to a photographer is that (at least in the floor of the valley) there is no golden hour at the start or end of the day. Yes, it still happens on the mountain tops (where I am sure it is great) but I did not see it here in the valley floor. Because the sky is clear and blue this time of year, the late afternoon sun is quite beautiful (as is the morning light) but the fact that the late afternoon light ends almost an hour before the actual sunset takes some getting used to.

The flip side of this unique geography is that the extra daylight (that time without direct sun) in the morning and the evening is very good for certain kinds of photography (where softer light is preferred) such as portraits. I made many portraits of various Nepalis, who have interesting faces. It is also very good for street photography where the photographer wants his or her subject matter in relatively even light to concentrate the viewer’s attention on the content of the photograph more than on the formal qualities of the image. The one down side of this time of day is that the light is very blue since the light that is hitting the valley floor is technically being reflected off the deep blue sky.

The air in the Kathmandu valley is pretty polluted, which might make for great “red” sunrises and sunsets, but since you can’t see them from the valley floor, it doesn’t much matter. What does matter is that the same pollution is pretty hard on the throat, eyes and nose of any visitor. It also degrades the health of the people living there permanently.

Most of Nepal has severe power shortages, meaning that different parts of the valley have no electricity for a fixed number hours every day. A published schedule tells residents when they will be plummeted into darkness for three or four hours each day (usually once in the morning and once in the afternoon/ evening.) As a result, people plan their days around the power schedule. The Darbur Square (the plaza opposite the old royal palace) in Patan, near where we stayed, was ominously dark and empty the first night we went there. Subsequent nights the once dark square was brightly lighted and filled with many small groups of friends and young couples “hanging out.” It was a great venue for night photography.

The back streets of the Patan neighborhood were equally interesting venues for some great night photography on those nights when the area had electric power (and when the populace were out and about taking advantage of that light.) I did some equally interesting night photography during the nights without power, making very long exposures of scenes largely lighted by the headlights of the cars and motorcycles that were passing through, but there were few if any people in those situations.

This was my first “review of the light” in a given place. I plan to do more as I continue my travels. If readers have places they want “reviewed” and are willing to send me there to perform such reviews, please let me know. :):)

Seriously, I will be working on developing a language for these reviews, much like that used to review wine, cars, cigars, etc. I am not sure if I want to follow the phrasing of the car reviewers who say things like “confidently walks that tightrope, equal amounts of style and function, draws inspiration from, brakes confidently” and “graceful curves.” The language used by cigar reviewers isn’t such a good model either, featuring phrases like “well-rolled, softer near the foot, the usual notes, a long finish with a feeling of satisfaction, a petit torpedo, toothy wrapper, a spice bomb, two flavors were alternating” and “just enough spice to keep it entertaining.”

Like in so many things in life (and photography,) I will just have to figure it out myself and do something new. That sounds like fun to me.

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