Emily Hughes brings us tales of adventure and discovery from the Australian Outback as she and her mother search for unbelievably ancient fossils. Her team digs up the creatures that form the evolutionary boundary between microorganism and animal—the Ediacaran biota.
Any professional photographer can tell you how important light is for their job. The right lighting can illuminate the tentacles on an octopus, show the shadows on mountains, or soften the features of a human being. As the light changes throughout the months, days and hours, the way we perceive the world also changes. But light isn’t important solely for aspiring photographers and photojournalists, it’s important for anyone with a camera, and paleontologists who just want to find fossils.
Mary Droser, a professor of Paleontology at the University of California, Riverside (and also my mom), wakes up each morning and immediately looks out the window at the sky. If the day is sunny, she is extremely happy, and if it is cloudy, she is not. This is because the sky is one of the most important (and variable) aspects of getting our job here done. With good lighting, fossils are illuminated so that each curve and line is prominent in the rock. We can take photos of the fossils, log them, and map the beds when the lighting is nice, and when it is not we have a whole suite of activities reserved for cloudy days.
Here is a photo of a Dickinsonia in bad lighting, in the middle of the afternoon on a cloudy day.
Now, here is another photo of the same Dickinsonia, still in the afternoon but with a clear sky.
And lastly, here’s a photo of the Dickinsonia at dusk, the best time to take photos, along with early morning. Why is this the case? Well, the lines, bumps and curves of a fossil are all but invisible during the afternoon with the sun beating down on them. But in the morning and late afternoon, they are shadowed, so we can see where they are and what they look like. It’s also a good way to take photos that actually depict the whole fossil, and not just a weak outline.
If we search for fossils on a cloudy day in one spot, and then again in the same spot on a sunny day, often we see many more than before. Areas that can look depleted 0f any 560-million-year-old organisms one hour are bursting with fossils the next.
We find ways to have fun on cloudy days, too. Recently, there was a rain storm, and a huge rainbow appeared out of the dreary sky. Everyone screamed, “Rainbow!” and rushed to take photos of it, because rainbows are a bit of a rare occurrence out here.
Even rainbows are an example of the importance of light. If light isn’t important because of its use in photography, paleontology, and just seeing things in different ways, then surely—surely it’s important because of its beauty.