All photographs by Dave Yoder
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Graduate student Anna Cohen works on the discovery dig.
All photographs by Dave Yoder

An Unexpected Technique Brings Artifacts to Life

Light painting is a tricky photographic technique. You may have seen images that use light painting to write someone’s name in the dark or illuminate a campsite, but it has many uses and can come in handy in tough situations, such as on an archaeological dig. On a recent assignment to the mysterious City of the Jaguar in Honduras mysterious City of the Jaguar in Honduras, National Geographic photographer Dave Yoder used light painting to photograph precious artifacts from an untouched ruin.

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These ancient Honduran artifacts were photographed using light painting techniques.

I don’t have a lot of experience with light painting, so naturally I wanted to get the what, how, and why of using this technique on assignment, and Yoder generously shared his tips, trials, and tribulations with me.

For this high-profile shoot, for instance, the timing was very sensitive, which gave Yoder little time to invent ways to photograph these remarkable ancient objects.

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Artifacts are transported from the dig to a military helicopter for transportation to the Aguacate airfield.

Because the president of Honduras would be visiting and the artifacts would be signed over to the military, it became apparent to Yoder that he would only have a short window to photograph them. “Due to the backlog in cleaning more than 180 artifacts, I had been putting off photographing them until the end of the project,” Yoder says. “Suddenly, I was left with very little time to do so. After talking with my editors from the jungle on a satellite phone, I caught the first chopper out, a Vietnam-era UH-1. On the way back, the wind ripped the sliding door off the chopper, narrowly missing the tail rotor, which would of course have been disastrous had it impacted. But it fluttered away, harmlessly, down into the jungle, a little like a butterfly.”

But Yoder had little time to reflect on this close call with the helicopter—he had pictures to make.

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A Honduran military helicopter prepares to land while ferrying archaeologists to the Mosquitia jungle site.

“At the lab I had less than a day to photograph as many artifacts as possible,” he says. “This kind of studio photography isn’t one of my strong points. Photographer Robert Clark, who is a master in this kind of work, generously offered his advice before [I] left, but I realized there was no time to reposition lights for every item. Each item demanded unique lighting due to their diverse shapes, intricate carved etchings, and runes that don’t read well using soft light such as from a soft box.”

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Two different photographs of an artifact show the variation that light painting can create.

It seemed like light painting might be his answer. “Due to time constraints and the demands of the items, I didn’t see a choice. It was daunting—this was only the second time I’ve ever light painted, and I’ve never had any instruction on how to do it.”

Yoder ended up working without the help of his assistants, using an LED light that he had brought for video, along with long exposures to meticulously “paint” each object. The technique helped isolate the artifacts and bring their features to light in a clean, polished way. As Yoder proved in that single day, part of being a National Geographic photographer is knowing how to make the most of a tough situation—even if it means learning as you go.