I've just returned from a trip to the Atacama Desert in Chile. It was some experience, let me tell you.
The landscape lulls you into a false sense of security as a photographer. After many years of learning its quirks, moods and characteristics, you think you've pretty much got it nailed.
Then you visit somewhere like Atacama Desert and everything you thought you knew is wrong. I'm not talking about simple things like the stars are all different and the seasons in reverse for a northerner like me.
No, I'm talking about how nature as a whole mischievously messes with your head. For instance, I like a nice majestic sunrise. We get those in Ireland. Gorgeous things. Ditto our languid sunsets, during which the sun covers the landscape in a veil of golden light, and then gently drags that glowing veil with it as it sinks below the horizon, revealing peaceful colder tones in its wake.
Not in the Atacama. Oh, no. Because of its location, pretty much bang on the Tropic of Capricorn, the sun rises like its been fired from a rocket launcher and drops like a stone. Golden Hour isn't a concept down there. By the time the sun comes out over the mountains, it's so glaringly fierce, it's lost any of its subtlety. So much so, photographing into the sun is out of the question. It's blinding. Consequently, most of my photography was done pointing away from it.
If I did photograph in the direction of the sun, it was during the Blue Hour, before sunrise and after sunset, a time when bands of blue and purple wax and wane over the sky. It's a gorgeous sight.
Sometimes, as the sun dropped behind a mountain, the mountain would cast a shadow up in the sky, creating the reverse effect of a lighthouse. Instead of emitting a beam of light, the mountain seemed to be emitting a cone of darkness.
Like I said, this is a strange place for a landscape photographer. A place of opposites. And we all know how attractive opposites can be... I don't think I'm done with Chile.
When 11 isn't better
This is me at the Salar de Atacama in Chile, dressed in what passes in these parts for local clothing.
The hard hat and high-visibility clothing were a requirement on the part of my corporate host. The goggles and mask were a requirement on the part of the environment.
I'm very fair-skinned. I burn so easily, I'm not really that comfortable walking past a working microwave or oven in the kitchen. Let alone being outside in the blazing sun with no cloud cover in a place where the UV measurement is above 11 on the UV index scale. The scale only goes to 11—and in this case, 11 (or higher) definitely isn't better. It's just highly damaging.