Towards the light

Lalibela, Ethiopia 2012 | Canon 5D MKIII, 16-35mm f/2.8 @ 25mm, ISO 3200, f/2.8, 1/25s

Background story

Lalibela is a North Ethiopian town with an ancient history. It's one of the biggest pilgrimage sites for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. The allure of the town is in its historic significance, but also in its famous rock-churches. Some of these, amazingly, are carved out of a single rock. 

The rock-church complexes are connected by tunnels which are also carved out of rock. Often there is no artificial light to help one navigate through the tunnels. While this is an inconvenience for getting around the darker parts of the complexes, the lack of artificial lighting can make for a really atmospheric situations and an interesting interplay of natural light with darkness.

As I was walking through one of the tunnels that joined a couple of church complexes, I noticed a particularly interesting situation which was the direct result of the interplay of light and darkness. I knew it was worth sticking around and shooting a few frames. 

Main reasons I think it works

In large part it's about the interplay of light and darkness here. The contrast of light and dark creates visual drama, but there's even more to it. The fact that some parts of the frame are lit and others fade into darkness makes for a surreal scene. Faces and body-parts of the pilgrims just appear out of the nowhere. There's a sense of mystery in not seeing, in not knowing what else is out there. 

@@There’s a sense of mystery in not seeing, in not knowing what else is out there. @@
— mitchellkphotos

The absence of any artificial light evokes a certain kind of timelessness. You feel this even more when you realise that the pilgrims are wearing clothes which are probably no different from their ancestors. In all regards I had the sense that I was witnessing a scene from 100-200 years ago, or even earlier. 

Most important tip

The first important factor in creating a similar image is to recognise the lighting scenario which can produce this kind of situation. One gets better at doing this with experience.

The next factor and the most important tip comes if or when you do recognise that you have the makings of a potentially strong image due to light. It’s vital to make the most of the opportunity. However, light is usually not the only element that makes or breaks similar images.

In this case, the pilgrims were coming and going. There was movement. They were walking into the light and out, into the darkness. To make the most of the opportunity meant - being patient, not moving around too much (once I found a good spot) and to keep shooting as the scene unfolded, waiting to get just the right moment. Thankfully there was a constant flow of people, so, I had a few chances to really nail the image. 

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