Two Days in Dubai
I just got back from a very enjoyable couple of days in Dubai where the annual Gulf Photo Plus photography festival was in full swing. I met up with some friends there including David Nightingale and Bobbi Lane (a.k.a. “The Mistress of Light”), who were both instructing at G.P.P., and also Dubai-based commercial photographers and good friends Catalin Marin and Issa Alkindy. I also had the pleasure of getting to know Si Longworth, a British Army photographer based in Aldershot in the U.K. – a great guy whom I hope to meet again before too long.
Day 1 involved the obligatory visit to the Vista Bar (now known as the Story Bar), which was preceded by a an early evening drive into the desert with Issa, Catalin and Si. Issa once again kept us safe with his exemplary 4×4 dune-driving skills – he’s an Omani, so I guess driving in the dunes is in the blood.
While we were driving, I spotted this lone tree, and asked Issa to stop the car to photograph it:
There were several trees like this growing in splendid isolation in the dunes, but this one just spoke to me: I think it was the combination of the tree juxtaposed against the sweep of this particular dune which led my eye to the tree and then further up and left to the dune in the distance. Or maybe it’s just because it was the first one I saw. ‘Simplify the frame, and remove everything which is not part of the visual story’ is a good maxim for the photographer – fortunately, scenes don’t get much less cluttered than this. It was just a question of finding the right framing and focal length to make the composition work the way I wanted to. Initially, I preferred the monochrome version of the image as it was the lines in the frame which spoke to me rather than the colours…
…but I have come to prefer the colour version as I feel that the lush green of the tree strengthens the conceptual contrast of the unexpected burst of life against the barren aridity of the surrounding landscape.
The local guys told me that despite appearances the water table is not far below the surface in this part of the desert, which is presumably why trees like this can grow and flourish in the apparently inhospitable terrain.
My plan for Day 2 was to meet up with new buddy Si Longworth for a dawn shoot of the skyline of Dubai. However, the fog descended on Dubai overnight which quashed any hope of the skyline shoot – it would have been a white-out. The fall-back plan – which involved working with the weather rather than against it – was to get to the top of a tall building in Dubai courtesy of Catalin and shoot some dramatic images of buildings rising up through the fog. Unfortunately Catalin already had a commercial shoot scheduled which meant that he had insufficient time to meet me that morning. With both plans now dead in the water and having already reluctantly hauled myself out of my warm and comfortable hotel bed at 04:30 for the aborted dawn shoot, I tried to get back to sleep, and failed. I grabbed my camera bag, left the hotel and aimlessly wandered the streets of early morning Dubai watching the fog slowly lift and hoping for some kind of photographic serendipity to salvage something from my only day in the city with a camera.
I found myself in the Business Bay area walking along the side of an apparently visually uninspiring road I didn’t know when an image began to take shape in my mind based on the scene in front of me. It took me a while to find the right framing, and involved cropping the image to a square format to translate what I could see through the viewfinder to what I could see in my mind’s eye, but I eventually found the framing which had tugged at my subconscious and caused me to slow to a halt and break out the camera. I tried a few test shots before pulling out the tripod as I decided that some motion blur in the passing traffic might add some energy to the scene, and that necessitated a shutter speed which was too slow to comfortably hand-hold – this was shot at 1/10 of a second and a focal length of 22mm. I then realised that what I really needed was a yellow vehicle to pass by to echo the colour of the yellow lines on the left side of the image. So I staked out this spot for around twenty minutes waiting for a yellow vehicle to come by. A couple of times I saw a yellow vehicle approaching, but by the time it actually reached me, my view of it was partially blocked by other traffic. Eventually I got lucky: an unobstructed view of an approaching yellow van, and this image was the result:
I continued to work the scene and swapped lenses, replacing the 17-35mm zoom I was using for a 50mm prime lens in order to alter the perspective compression and give more visual weight to both the buildings in the background and the gantry visible in the centre of the frame. I walked closer to the gantry and made the following shot.
While I also like this second shot, I definitely prefer the first image: there is more dynamism in the first picture owing to the powerful diagonal lines created by the wide-angle lens; I love the tall building right of centre which I sacrificed in the second shot by walking closer to the gantry; and the bluer sky contrasts nicely with its colour opposite in the form of the yellows of the van and the lines on the road.
By around eight o’clock I was feeling tired; the sun was up; the temperature was rising, I was beginning to think about breakfast, and my photo backpack and tripod were feeling heavier and heavier. I had wandered some way from my hotel, so rode the Metro back, making the following two final frames along the way.
I used to dislike Dubai for its ostentatiousness and obsession with wealth, but I have come to love it – it’s a seductive mistress, like no other place on Earth. I appreciate its energy and architecture and feeling of excitement, and it always inspires me to make photographs.
Thanks Dubai – I’ll be back!