This and That

Random bits of my life

Photography: Never the Same River

Posted by Avital Pinnick on May 25, 2010


Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535–c. 475 BCE) wrote, “You can never step in the same river twice.” I studied the pre-Socratics in an “Intro to Western Philosophy” course as a freshman undergrad. That saying, which Heraclitus applied to change in the universe, caught my imagination. It always makes me think of photography, because I tend to think of light as a river — always flowing and changing.

One morning I was photographing a pomegranate flower while I was waiting for the minibus to work. A coworker said, “Haven’t you photographed everything around here? You have your camera with you every day and you must have photographed every plant and stone in the area by now.” I replied, “Probably, but that’s no reason to stop photographing them. They grow and change. The weather and light are always changing.” So, my friends, that’s why I photograph the plants and rocks and fences hundreds of times (a slight exaggeration, but only slight).

This evening, after work, I went to pick up the mail because my husband is working late, so I walked to the front of the building instead of going up the path to the back. It was around 6:40 p.m., the hour when the desert light turns soft and golden. Because we have so few clouds (I’m so jealous of you people in England and the US with your great sunsets!), the light is consistently beautiful at this time of day in warm weather, unless there’s a dust storm.

I was halfway up the stairs when I glanced at the street-side landscaping by the mailbox, the same palm trees and cycads that have been there for years. The light was at a great angle and I thought, “I have to photograph this now because the sun will not be in the same place tomorrow.” (If you don’t believe me, look at my photos of Amman taken this year and last year. That experience really made me appreciate the importance of the sun’s position on a given day.) Or I might not be in that spot or there might be clouds or a dust storm. So I dropped my backpack and mail on the sidewalk and took the shot of the cycad above and the two shots of the trunk of a palm tree below.

The position of the sun is particularly important for these shots of a tree trunk because you can only change your own position. You can’t uproot the tree and move it to a better spot. The bark is deeply textured but only light at a certain angle is going to show the feathery details of the base of a dried out palm frond or the torn edge where a dead frond has been trimmed.

Palm Trunk

Palm Trunk

Just for comparison’s sake, here’s a photo that I took of the same cycad, five days ago, at midday. It’s pretty and green but the shadows are underneath the leaves (obviously, because the sun is directly overhead), not slanting at an angle from the side. The greens are much brighter and rather pale.

Moral of the story, in case it’s not obvious: If you’re bored with photographing what’s around you, try it in a new light.

Moral 2: If you find good light, go hunt for something to photograph. It’s a lot easier coming up with a subject than with good natural light. Almost anything will look beautiful if the light is beautiful.



4 Responses to “Photography: Never the Same River”

  1. These are some wonderful shots Avital, and what a coincidence you mention the light, as I was just sitting here reading an article on how to read and make the best use of it… And lol about the great sunsets… they don’t happen anywhere near as often as you might imagine… 😉

    • Avital Pinnick said

      You mean you don’t get volcanic eruptions every few weeks? There aren’t English manors with swans and willows every few miles? You don’t have quaint pubs on every corner? (OK, maybe Ladbrokes and the ubiquitous Duke of Wellington/York/Whatever….) In that case, I have a confession to make. I don’t have camels grazing in my front yard. 🙂 Got lots of thistles and dust, though.

  2. pam said

    Oooooooooh! My Achilles heal – side lighting on tree trunks. One of my most favorite subjects! These images are stunning! I am crazy about the rim lighting on the third image. Three dimensional.

    Ambient light is certainly a perfect example to demonstrate the truth of your opening quotation. A person could photograph the same subject every single day and no two photos would be exactly alike.

    You are right – good natural light enhances almost any subject but it almost always sneaks up on us! You are wise to keep your camera close at hand.

  3. […] back to Piazzale Michelangelo on June 11, 2012. Why twice in the same trip? Because the light is never the same twice. If you look at the photos I took on June 5, you’ll see the […]

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