Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Lalibela Impressions

Lalibela, in the northern part of Ethiopia, is proving to be a fantastic destination for photographers.
The area is famous for having 11 rock-hewn churches dating back to the 12th century. These churches were essentially the continuation of the Axumite kingdom that, because of persecution or warfare, shifted from northern Ethiopia, several hundred kilometres south to the more remote and far higher location of Lalibela.

Several years ago this area achieved status as World Heritage and because of this, most of the churches which have remained open to the elements over the centuries, are now covered with giant modern steel and concrete roofs. Unfortunately this makes photographing the exterior of all but Biete Giyorgis (Church of St George), a little bit tricky.

These churches are virtually invisible from the hillsides until you virtually stumble upon them - or better still walk down a narrow channel carved into the volcanic rock which eventually leads you into the church courtyard itself.

Most have been carved from the top down. A couple are carved sideways into the rock so the roof as it were is still connected to the mountain above it.  What I found incredible was the network of tunnels and narrow passages that interconnect one church with another.  Hollywood could never recreate this – it’s a fantasy of intertwined passages that look as though they might have been designed by troglodytes. Interestingly although the churches themselves are quite beautifully carves the passages, tunnels and doorways into the courtyards are as rough as guts. There’s not a level pathway anywhere which makes negotiating some passages tricky, especially where there is little or not light. Add to this a scattering of pebbles, the odd boulder, the ever-present dust and you have the makings of an epic day out!

This is a straight shot - to get the exposure correct at the top of the frame you lose most of the detail in the shade

Biete Giyorgis is one of the best examples of rock-hewn churche in Lalibela.
You need to shoot early or late but even then, HDR the exposures to get a good range of tones.
Midday photography produces very ugly results!  This one was shot at about 4pm. 
This HDR treatment reveals the details that might otherwise be hidden in shadow.
Below: This was snapped at 08:30 from the base of the church as the sun peeked over the lip of the opening.
Shot with a RAW file, the church is in total shade making it easier to produce a useful exposure.
A minute later the sun was up and the options for a good result had lessened significantly...

Another mysterious door leading to...?
The texture and patina in the timber and rock face is fantastic...
Church priest proudly displaying his prayer stick and the cross of St George
Inside a rock-hewn church looking out into the brilliant sunshine creates a very hard exposure challenge.
Shoot a range of exposures (exposure bracketing) and then assemble using Photomatix Pro or another HDR-specific application.
This will always provide far superior results to the in-camera HDR seen in most cameras and phones.
Church of St George as the sun rises over the shoulder of the mountain, early morning
This is one of the many entrances to a church.  It looks more like a troglodyte hole than a public access point!
During religious festivals (of which there are many in Lalibela) more than 50,000  crowd the church complexes using these craggy pathways to get into the centre of the action.
Lalibela is a very dusty place - this is early morning dust blown across the ridges in the town
I always shoot ridges whenever I can - this is 30 mins before sunset with the lens carefully shifted to the left to avoid over-exposure and to much refraction through the lens elements.
You can still see some refraction despite the deep lens hood on my 70-200mm EF lens.
When shooting this kind of contre jour image (i.e. directly into the light) it's best to bracket the exposures because the metering is more than likely going to be fooled by the extreme light. 
Also, if the front lens element has dust on it, it'll show up on the resulting image so it pays to keep it clean at all times!
One of my favourites from today. 
Early morning sun casts a perfect cross shadow on the excavated wall of the Biete Giyorgis church compound highlighting a single nun who is preparing food outside the small cave in which she lives.
Another troglodyte door leading to?
Most of the walls lining the church compounds are riddles with holes - some of which have been used as catacombs.  In one of Biete Giyorgis's small excavated recesses lie several mummified bodies. The remains of pilgrims coming to Lalibela to die. It's quite a gruesome sight (and, no, I didn't take a photo!).
Student learning the Holy Book
Three young students who were supposedly studying their texts but in fact were far more interested in the tourists with their cameras.
It made for an interesting shot with my favourite Canon EF 85mm f1.8 lens

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