Buenos Aires at Twilight, through a Travel Photographer's Lens
How does a Buenos Aires-based, internationally published travel photographer get the kind of arresting twilit images that make magazine editors swoon? The answer involves patience, precision, and a tripod. Harnessing the potential of that fleeting moment known as "magic hour"—when city light and sunlight work in tandem to produce their inimitable sparkle—calls for art and science in equal measure. We followed Bernardo to some of his favorite evening streetscapes and learned why any given neighborhood holds an infinite number of cover-worthy captures.
The critical thing, when shooting at dusk, is to be ready to go as soon as the sky starts to transform. "Twilight only lasts about ten minutes," says Bernardo, "and with a fuchsia sky, you might be lucky to have five. Sometimes, I'll try to manage two or three locations in a ten-minute span, but in this case, I saw the light fading from peach to pink, purple, and blue, and I knew it was a night to stay put. It's always better to have one really special picture than three or four that are just okay."
Calatrava's Bridge of the Woman is a subject Bernardo returns to time and again without ever getting bored. The iconic structure may stay the same, but the sky behind it is always changing with the weather and the seasons. "Sometimes the most interesting light is during or after a storm," says Bernardo. "The quality of the air is different—cleaner and clearer. It was raining so hard on the night this shot was taken that I almost packed up and went home. Luckily, I decided to wait it out at a bar instead." His persistence was rewarded with a veil of dramatic mauves and violets.
Having worked in Buenos Aires for many years, Bernardo has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the shifting relationships between topography and light. "Part of what makes this image unique is the precise position of the setting sun behind the Obelisk. It happens only a couple of days each year that the sun bisects the monument so perfectly." In this case, the atmosphere was hazy and humid, lending a nostalgic quality to the image's gray tones, reflections, and backlit silhouettes.
"I shot this image from the opposite side of the Obelisk using a long telephoto lens," says Bernardo. "Though the monument looks closer than in the previous one, I was actually standing much further away—five or six blocks (you can count the traffic lights). Because of the long lens, all of that space gets compressed." With cars, buses, and motorcycles whizzing by on perpendicular streets, it took some 30 frames to get one or two clean shots of bustling Corrientes Avenue. "By a stroke of luck, I managed to capture the semáforo when the light was changing, and all three colors were illuminated."
Bernardo often experiments with longer exposures to create a sense of movement and energy in his images. It can be dramatic—or subtle, as in this shot of the yacht club just after sundown. "The water was quiet, but the clouds were moving very quickly through the frame," he says. "I used a 15-second exposure, which is why you get the soft, blurry effect. They look like cotton."
"Here, you can see the impact of an even longer exposure, probably closer to 30 seconds," says Bernardo. "I was looking toward oncoming traffic, hence the fluorescent light streams. The higher band of light corresponds to the roofs of passing buses, the lower one to cars and motorcycles." In this case, the straight lines created by the phantom traffic play against the signature curves of the Abasto Shopping Center's soaring Art Deco facade.
"This shot of the Cabildo was taken on BA's annual 'Noche de los Museos' (Museum Night)," says Bernardo. "It's the one evening of the year that city museums are free to the public, and all of the buildings in the Plaza de Mayo are specially illuminated for the occasion. In this case I actually didn't have a tripod, so I improvised by stabilizing my camera on a bit of police fencing."
"Here we have a totally different perspective on the Cabildo," says Bernardo. "I placed the tripod very low, almost in the grass. The angle creates the impression of a huge field of flowers when in reality, it's about five meters. Flowers are planted in the Plaza de Mayo only several times per year and rarely last longer than a week. In the case of this photo, they had been put down the previous day, so were still looking quite fresh." Like many of Bernardo's images, this one, snapped the day after the flowers were planted and the moment after the buildings were illuminated, speaks to his surgical sense of timing. But serendipity is present in every image, too—here perhaps in the wonderful roiling sky. "I didn't notice it until almost a year after I took the shot, but if you look closely, you can see a face in the clouds. To me, it looks just like Sarmiento."