David Ward explains how he took this perplexing image of light raking through the ceiling of an abandoned house in Kolmanskop, Namibia

Photo Insight with David Ward

David Ward is one of the UK’s finest landscape photographers. With more than 20 years’ experience in large-format photography, he has photographed extensively throughout the UK and in countries such as Canada, Iceland, Norway and France. He has also led workshops for Light & Land. David has written two books on his photographic philosophy called Landscape Within and Landscape Beyond. Each month, he will discuss the story behind one of his fantastic landscape photographs

I took this image in a former diamond mining area called Kolmanskop in the Namib Desert, not far from the port town of Lüderitz in southern Namibia. Diamond mining was discontinued here in the mid-1950s, and it is now a popular tourist destination. I was leading a tour with a group of photographers. The area is open to the public in the morning, but we had special permission to be there in the afternoon so it was a privilege to have the place to ourselves. As the main road is about a kilometre away we weren’t completely in the middle of nowhere, although we saw only one vehicle every 15 minutes or so.

It is a very surreal place. Standing in a house that is gradually filling up with sand isn’t something you do very often! I had seen images of the inside of this house before and was fascinated by the stripe effect caused by the light. The upper storey of the building is mostly missing. There is a lath-and-plaster ceiling, but without any plaster, so when the light shines through the lath structure at a particular time of day it causes this zebra-stripe effect. As the light hits the dunes, the stripes ripple and curve.

This was the second time I’d visited this location during the trip. On the first occasion I went inside the building in the morning, which was the wrong time of day as there weren’t any stripes. I realised then that I needed to go back in the afternoon, but this took a little working out. In the southern hemisphere, the sun moves across the sky in the opposite direction to what we’re used to in the northern hemisphere. In the UK, the sun rises in the east and moves through the southern portion of the sky round to the west. But in Namibia, it starts off in the east and travels through the north of the sky and then round to the west. As someone from the northern hemisphere who is used to the light moving in a certain way, it was disconcerting trying to work out where the sun would be at what time of the day.

On my return visit I waited about half an hour for the light to be in the right place. I wanted the stripes to extend from the corners of the frame, which is quite a ‘photographic’ approach. By this I mean that a painter probably wouldn’t paint something as graphic as this because it might look a little contrived. For a photographer, though, to make the frame work in this way with the subject is a sign that you’ve thought about your framing. Accuracy of framing is really important because it shows that you’ve thought about how you want to depict a scene. Sometimes I like to work the corners of the frame, although at other times this feels contrived. It felt right for this image, though, because the whole scene is quite geometric, with the diagonal lines of the light and shadows, the rectangular shapes of the doors and the rippling light across the dunes.

As soon as I walked into the room I knew what I wanted to do with the image. I like how the door frames seem to sit inside one another and the Magritte-like effect this creates. You look through one door frame to the next and the next – it appears to be never-ending. It’s quite deceptive and a little like an optical illusion, which is possibly what attracted me to it. I was standing just inside the door of the building with my Linhof 5×4 camera mounted on a tripod.

I had to work out if I could capture everything I wanted with the lens I had, which was a 90mm optic that is roughly equivalent to 28mm on a full-frame DSLR. Then it was a case of making sure the perspective was ‘normal’ – in other words, minimising convergence or divergence of lines in the image. I made sure the camera was upright and used the levels on the camera to make everything square. On a Linhof 5×4 camera there are four spirit levels, so it was a case of making sure these were level.

Technically, it was challenging to achieve a good exposure because there was a large dynamic range between the lightest and darkest areas. I was shooting with Fujichrome Velvia film and the dynamic range was right on the edge of what Velvia can render. A lower-contrast film such as Fujichrome Provia may have been more suitable, but I didn’t have any with me. It was crucial that I did not blow the highlights. The exposure for the brightest part of the scene – through the doorway – was around 11⁄2 stops above my base exposure. It’s really bright, but there is still detail there. This meant the shadow area was quite dark, but you can also make out detail. When the image was scanned, I could bring out the detail in both the light and dark areas using Curves.

This photograph is entirely ‘made’ by the light. The graphic nature of the image is due to the way the lit areas and shadows relate to each other. Without the light shining into the building as it is here, the scene would be very flat and not make an especially interesting image. It’s important to match the light to the subject. If the light isn’t right, I won’t bother taking a shot – I’ll find something else that is more appropriate to the light I’ve got. With any image, you have to think about whether the light reveals or obscures the scene. Strong directional light isn’t always revealing, as it can also add complexity and make the image harder to understand. Light has to be used purposefully and meaningfully. It is a case of not being fixated on making a picture for the picture’s sake. The light needs to be sympathetic to the subject or add emotion. It’s about returning to places, if you can, in order to be there when the light is right.

To see more of David’s images or to book a place on one of his workshops, visit www.into-the-light.com

David Ward was talking to Gemma Padley