Winter in Ireland is one of my favourite times to take photos. As with all countries in the northern latitudes, the winter sun here is always low in the sky. This has the effect of giving a beautiful golden light, akin to the morning golden hour, except that it lasts till about mid-day. The low sun also gives beautiful long shadows adding character and mystery to even the most mundane of scenes. While the sunlight is a beautiful golden hue, the skies are a rich blue, giving not just a wonderful contrast of light and shade, but also a contrast of colour. You might think that the weather would be a problem, but winters here are generally fairly dry. In fact, our summers are frequently wetter (this year being the exception as we had a great summer).
I was out walking around Dublin city shooting some street shots on Saturday, and it got me thinking about the light. I’m lucky as a photographer in that I’ve spent many years searching for and capturing light. I’ve found that because of this, I pay more attention to the marvellous variations of illumination that our planet has to offer. Travelling around the globe, I’ve discovered that the light is different wherever you go. Even at similar latitudes, different places have different characteristics, and the quality of the light changes throughout the year with the seasons.
When I was in Norway last year, I noticed that the sky was a beautiful rich blue, and the sun light, much like our own was a wonderful but delicate amber gold. In New York City, the light has a warm, almost metallic quality as it bounces and refracts off the many glass towering skyscrapers of the city. The south of France in summer has a wonderful ambient warmth to the light, and winter in Vienna has a cool quality to the light that is an etherial, almost touchable whiteness.
In Dublin, the beautiful Georgian buildings come alive in this winter sunshine. The red bricks glow and the colours contrast with the rich blue sky. The long shadows cast mysterious shapes over the facades and the effect is a wonderfully rich tapestry from which to photograph.
The other effect of the low sunshine is to create pockets of light and shade. Rich, bright areas render the surrounding shade almost black. Some people try to fight against this kind of high contrast, but I like it. I think it adds character to a scene. After all, light and darkness are two sides of the same coin.
For this little meander I had taken my Sony Nex–7 with me as my photographic weapon of choice. While I’ve been giving it’s mirrorless fuji friend all the attention lately, I actually use my little Sony quite a lot. The NEX7 is a remarkable camera. It took me a while to learn to get the most from it, but having used it for the best part of a year now, I’ve pretty much got the hang of it. Some people complain that it has a noisy sensor, but having done lots of comparisons, I find that it actually has less noise than my 5D Mark II. And when the noise is evident, it’s generally a nice luminance grain, rather than the horrible colour splotchiness that creeps into the 5D’s shadows.
The real strength of the Nex–7 is its dynamic range. It’s truly remarkable, and perfect for these high contrast situations. Not only does it maintain shadow and highlight details remarkably well, but it retains colour when you push and pull the exposure. Shadows can get a little noisy when you push them a lot, but it’s no worse than any other camera, and you have the added advantage of the high resolution to compensate.
Lens wise, most of these were shot with the Sigma 30mm. It’s a great little lens, especially considering the price. While it would be nice to have a wider maximum aperture, it’s sharp, and for these kinds of shots, thats what counts. I’ve also taken a few with the 18–55 kit lens. It’s an ok lens, but it’s not great. It certainly doesn’t compare to the Fuji 18–55, but if you know its limitations and use it accordingly you can still get good shots with it. The biggest problem with it is that it’s slow, especially at 55mm. That extra stop can make all the difference.
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