Grace Law is a very serious enthusiast photographer based in Hong Kong. Her debut solo photo exhibition “MONOTONE” was held at the Hong Kong International Airport in late 2013, sponsored by Schmidt Marketing (H.K.) Ltd. Twenty monochrome images were selected from her first photo book “MONOTONE” for exhibition. Her timeless images of the Northern Lights won the grand prize in the Leica X Vario category in the Me and My Leica X Competition. Here is her amazing story.
Q: What inspired you to enter the Me and My Leica X competition?
A: It was a coincidence, really. The trip was planned at the last minute and a friend working at Schmidt (for Leica Hong Kong) reminded me of this competition and arranged for me to borrow the X Vario.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: I am a cautious photographer, trained in the days of film. Even in this digital era I try not to take multiple shots in order to save processing time. My work repertoire covers both street photography as well as landscape shots. I love to capture beautiful moments at their most attractive because I want my audience to be moved.
Q: You note that your training in the days of film has made you a “cautious photographer” who is not inclined to take extraneous shots of a subject. Do you think that this discipline is still useful in the digital age, and how do you think it has helped influenced your current approach to photography?
A: I would say this is a personal preference rather than necessarily still being a merit in the digital age. It works well for me since I can think about how best to get each shot precisely right as I press the shutter release. With a demanding day job I cannot afford too much time in post-processing, so this discipline is important for me personally. In short, this approach gives me more time to think about the image construction and hopefully be less disappointed with the result.
Q: You shot this portfolio with the Leica X Vario. What features of the Leica X Vario make it particularly suitable for your work?
A: The X Vario is a compact camera with an unexpectedly high quality lens. I took the winning photos near Tromso, in the Arctic Circle. Despite being fine, the weather was freezing cold. A smaller camera made operations and control much easier — so important when your fingers are almost numb in sub-zero temperatures.
I cannot endorse the quality of the X Vario lens enough, despite all that has been said about it being a slow (moderate aperture) zoom. Its simple external design also helped in terms of handling. Even when I could hardly see the dials and display in the dark, the X Vario was easy to communicate with.
Q: Your winning photo was of the Northern Lights. Where and when was it taken? Can you provide any background information on it?
A: All 10 photographs in ‘The Northern Lights” series were taken in Tromso (Norway) and vicinity, on February 1 and 2, 2014. I had a few days off since it was the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday at home in Hong Kong. Four of the 10 images in the series taken after dark were presented as the winning series for the Leica X Vario competition.
Q: You mentioned that your trip to Tromso, Norway in the Arctic Circle was “planned at the last minute” but you borrowed a Leica X Vario with the intention of entering your images in the Leica X Vario competition. Did you have any underlying theme or concept in mind for these images, such as a running narrative, or were you just seeking to document your experiences on the fly?
A: In this case last minute means perhaps seven to 10 days before departure, to be precise. I started out thinking about doing something on the Northern Lights, but not specifically the aurora. I have always found sunlight in the Scandinavian countries very captivating. The aurora was a bonus, and its appearance made my series more complete.
Q: What made you choose this project to enter in the competition?
A: The moment I saw a few of these images on the monitor, I knew that they should be my entry choice.
Q: Your Northern Lights series was shot after dark, but the 28-70 mm equivalent zoom lens has a moderate f/3.5-6.4 aperture range, implying these images were captured at high ISO settings. Can you tell us how you shot these outstanding images, provide the tech data for them, and give your impression of the X Vario’s performance in low-light situations?
A: Of the ten photos in the series, four were taken after sunset and presented by LFI Gallery as the winning photos. These photos were shot at ISO 800 and ISO 1600 settings, but none at the widest f/3.5 aperture. Most were shot at f/4, and exposure times ranged from 15 to 30 sec. “Dusk” was shot at 1/30 sec at f/4.5.
Of course, the X Vario was not created specifically for low light photography, but its robust build and superb lens quality allow a veteran user to explore and stretch the camera’s capabilities. With the appropriate operational facility, I don’t think low light should be seen as a real limitation.
Q: Here are two images that combine landscape and human elements. Both convey a beautifully serene quality, the one with the semi-silhouetted backlit subject illuminated by a car’s headlights is especially compelling. The surreal combination of faint skylight and artificial light remind me of Rene Magritte’s famous painting, “Empire of Light.” Can you tell us something about these images and what you were thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: Thank you for comparing my photos to a masterwork; what a compliment! “Onward,” on the left, is shot from the viewpoint of an observer; the surrounding’s simplicity denotes a single theme that I contemplated as the final image as the woman started to walk up the slope.
“Dusk” came as a moment of inspiration. I was just waiting for someone to pass by to give me directions. On seeing the light, all other thoughts disappeared, I only wanted to take a picture to capture the blue hour at its best. Then a car came along — perfect.
Q: What makes this a powerful image is its timeless sense of space. To me, it conveys the feeling of standing on the earth and gazing into the infinite heavens. The fact that it can achieve this effect without resorting to an ultra-wide-angle perspective is fascinating. Do you agree, and can you tell us why you composed this image in this way and what you think it conveys to the viewer?
A: I couldn’t agree with you more. The vastness of space gave a sense of infinity when shot using the widest-angle setting (28 mm equivalent) of the zoom.
I was a stargazer at university. I can never forget how hopeful those days were. That night, the feelings came back again as there was no end to what I could see. Orion was right in front of me, its diffuse nebula visible to the naked eye. It was my birthday and I have never felt so close to heaven. I wanted to capture this timelessness. Last week, a friend of mine had tears in her eyes when looking at this photo; I think the message came through.
Q: Are you a professional photographer or would you describe yourself as a serious enthusiast?
A: The latter; I’m very serious though. It’s encouraging to think that every full-time photographer started off as an amateur.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography?
A: In high school, as I recall, and I won my first photo award at university. Ever since then the camera has been my constant companion.
Q: What does photography mean to you?
A: Photography is almost what drives me – to excel and to share. I hope that my photos can bring something meaningful to the world. I do have plans, and hope that in time they will materialize.
Q: You say that photography drives you to excel and share, that you want to “bring something meaningful to the world” and you “…have plans, and hope that in time they will materialize.” Can you say something about these plans and how you see your photography evolving over, say, the next few years?
A: My hometown, Hong Kong, is a highly pressurized city to live in; one’s inner self is often forgotten. I hope to invoke the forgotten ability to appreciate and glorify the beauty around us. The further my photos can reach, the more effective the message.
I am still learning as a professional photographer. In the foreseeable future, I would like to build a wider portfolio of thematic photography. It’s always challenging to present images in a series, having done random shots for years.
Q: Do you plan to explore any other genres, such as street photography, photojournalism, fine arts abstractions or portraiture going forward? Also, in view of your “MONOTONE” solo exhibition of 20 monochromatic images at the Hong Kong International Airport, what is it that you find especially compelling and fulfilling about the black-and-white medium?
A: Yes to all – although I consciously try to avoid straying into pure documentary and creative imaging. I still want to perfect the artistry of light captured in its pristine form.
Black-and-white images display light and shape contrasts in a photographer’s chosen way. At its best, monochrome allows the viewers to see their own colors.
Q: Do you plan on collecting your Arctic Circle images into a book and/or exhibiting them in gallery shows, etc?
A: It’s my pleasure to inform you that Schmidt (HK) will be exhibiting my Arctic shots in Leica Stores in Hong Kong, and again at the Hong Kong International Airport. I am indeed considering a book, but more things still need to happen for it to materialize.
Q: As the grand prizewinner of Me and My Leica X, you’ll get to have the full Leica experience during events surrounding the inauguration of the Leitz Park in Wetzlar this month. What are you most looking forward to about this experience?
A: I am thrilled just at the thought of it. As a Leica fan, I couldn’t have asked for a better prize. Of course, I’m looking forward to meeting the Leica management team and a lot of other photographers, but also some Leica staff members and store personnel whom I’ve come to know over the years. Last but not least, I can hardly wait to visit the new factory.
Thank you for your time, Grace!
– Leica Internet Team
Check out more of Grace’s work here.