Sensitivity to Light


We left the Big Sur campground before dark, deciding against one cold night of tent sleep in favor of two more hours of driving to get to the sofa at Martin’s girlfriend’s place in San Luis. Regardless of where we slept, the next morning we wake before dawn and drive to Death Valley.

In the car ahead of me, he pulled off to the side of the road at a bluff-mounted turnout, implying with a turn signal that I ought to get out with the borrowed camera for the last half of magic hour.

There wasn’t much of a hurry to get anywhere just then, and after a few minutes of chatting as I set up the three-thousand dollar camera on my thirty-dollar tripod, Martin drove on ahead. I was alone. And grateful that he recognized that light, perhaps even more strongly than I would have been willing to insist upon if our positions on the road had been reversed, and my turn signals had been in charge.

First, I adjusted the sensitivity to light all the way down. When you turned the dial below 100 the green back-lit display just said “L”. Until that point in my very short photography career, I’d always been shooting as high as possible, in search of the fastest shutter speeds available to eliminate motion and the vibrations of my hand as I held the camera. This was a capital L Luxury. I closed down the aperture about as far as I could, too, probably to f/22; whatever extreme there I could find that would keep us under the maximum shutter length: thirty seconds.

The ocean was just there, forever in gold, until it was forever in the twilight of blue.

It was an odd thing, to make all of those decisions, lock them in, decide on a framing, and then after depressing the shutter walk away and continue to look at the scene. As if I wasn’t doing anything at all. The camera was doing all of the work, and I was free in those twenty-nine seconds to wait for the scene to emerge in the smaller view screen, taking in all of that light for so long, the two of us.

It was the trip after which I slowly abandoned writing in favor of photography. As if I had to choose.





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