Connoisseur of Light in Singapore

I am just back from Singapore, having spent three weeks there on my annual visit, teaching and photographing. Every year, I teach a couple sections of my favorite class, Light, Shadow Night and Twilight. And every year, at least half the class starts out complaining about how there is no dramatic light in Singapore. Because Singapore is almost on the equator and has pretty high humidity, there is no question the light certainly is different. This year, I paid a lot of attention to that light and especially to how I dealt with its peculiarities, for another in my blog entry in my Connoisseur of Light series.

Singapore is 1.3 degrees north of the equator and the relative humidity is in the range of seventy to eighty percent! This is quite a change for someone like me, who thrives on light from a sun that is low on the horizon passing through sky that is low in humidity. That perfectly describes the light of my childhood in California and the light in some of my favorite places such as Spain, India, Finland, Italy, Israel and the entire American South West.

Because of the proximity to the equator, the sun in Singapore really does seem to rise and almost go straight up (followed by setting at day’s end and going seemingly straight down.) Contrast this with Finland, for example, where I was last June. The sun there was low on the horizon all day and it was out for 22 of the 24 hours of the day.
So the question is, since the light in Singapore appears to lacking contrast, how do I make images that still have a feeling of dramatic “Light, Shadow Night and Twilight?” This year, I kept track of what was working for me (and why it worked) just for this blog entry. I noted that, although the light is softened and diffused by the omnipresent clouds and humidity in Singapore, there are ways to get more dramatic images. It takes work, but it can be done.

The first method was to shoot from inside or under an awning towards some scene that was outside in much brighter light. That way, I was creating a silhouette of whatever (or whomever) was in the lower light indoors or under the awning. Singapore, because of the regular rains, is over-run with awnings, covered walkways, breezeways and all sorts of overhead structures to keep people out of the rain (and to keep them out of the withering sun.) I was surprised at how often I used those coverings to create dramatic silhouettes, as well as the framing that would drive the viewer’s attention in the image(s.) This proved true even on days when it was rainy and gross outside. As long as my subject was in much less light than the background, I could usually generate the kind of contrast and dramatic light that I wanted.

Singapore has hundreds of bridges, thousands of structures and who knows how many tunnels, large and small. Almost all of those can be used to create the same kind of dramatic lighting I described above. The trick is in how you position yourself. Whenever I entered any structure where it was brighter outside than inside, I now realize that I automatically walked far in, turned around, looking back to see if there were any silhouettes. Even if I was not formally shooting I was always looking to see if I could in fact make the kind of dramatic images I aspire to make. Nine times out of ten I could!

Because Singapore is so urbanized, I was reminded that the framing and silhouettes that I make, as described above, are easily ruined by the urban clutter that dominates the place. I kept coming back to the importance of shooting at the largest aperture possible, having the lens wide-open to reduce the depth of field. Doing that would make an otherwise cluttered background into something soft, out of focus and less distracting. Since I use fixed focus, large aperture lenses, I am especially able to exert this kind of control.

Singapore, especially in the Central Area has the most amazing street lights, shop windows, neon lights etc., which are great for making night and twilight photographs. Singapore is unique in my experience in that unlike any other place I have been, twilight and night is my favorite time to photograph there. Plus, Singapore is an incredibly safe place so photographing at night is not the kind of risky proposition it is in other places.

I started the Connoisseur of Light series of blogs with two goals. One was to get photographers thinking analytically about the most basic element of our shared pursuit, the light itself. Great photographers think of light as a tool just like a camera, lens or tripod. For studio photographers, the art is in controlling that light. Photographers like me have a different challenge, when we are doing what I call “documentary derived work,” meaning we photograph what we find. We have to respond to the light as we find it. In both cases, mastery comes from years of practice AND from looking at the light analytically.

The other goal of the Connoisseur of Light series was to have some fun riffing on the language used when discussing fine wines. I am not sure I could describe the light in Singapore like a fine wine but here goes:

It (the light in Singapore) is not appreciated by every connoisseur (photographer) who encounters it. Learning to appreciate it for what it is, as it is given, makes each encounter with it that much more satisfying. Because it has unique features all its own, the true connoisseur looks past the noise and complaints among those in the know, to find the attributes that can’t be found any where else. It has a softness, with an almost enveloping feeling. When enjoyed at twilight or in the night, it has colors that are beyond the imagination. If these traits are what you are looking for, it is almost unmatched anywhere in the world.

2 responses to “Connoisseur of Light in Singapore”

  1. David, Great analysis of light in Singapore! Very insightfully written, in the true Master Connoisseur that you are!

  2. Thanks for sharing your insight… Partially how you described ‘….looking past the noise and complaints …to find the attributes that can’t be found elsewhere’ 🙂
    (Novice Wantobe Connoisseur )

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