It was nighttime. It was windy. It was cold. And I was perched on a cliffside with my legs wrapped around a tripod, camera and lens mounted on top. That’s the set up.
Like the previous shot in this series, Blue #2 was made while leading my annual Junction Intersession Photography course. I’m fortunate to take students to some of the most beautiful spots of Texas, and although students get to see many of them for the first–and sometimes only–time in their lives, I’m always looking for the new in the well-visited. This just happened to be the case at Independence Creek Preserve, a jewel of The Nature Conservancy. If I count right, I have visited the preserve eight times and spent 21 days on the sprawling Chihuahuan desert plateaus and canyons. Needless to say, having visited so often, I’m always looking for something new to shoot and represent a bit of the place.
This night saw the students and I light painting a gazebo against a sky that just wouldn’t let the stars shine through. Not wanting to completely pack up, the students decided to shoot long exposures of the building with the clouds floating overhead, and who am I to keep them from doing so? After getting them set up, I noticed the moon’s reflections shining brightly on Independence Creek, the creek that provides the bulk of the water to the lower Pecos River. So, I walked down the bluff on which the gazebo sits, along with a couple other students, and set up to shoot.
Did I mention earlier it was nighttime? After dialing in exposure and taking a few test shots, I noticed the color cast on the images was pretty warm. Too warm, in my opinion, for a shot that is supposed to not only convey good content and composition, but also depict the night landscape in a more revealing context. Therefore, I changed my white balance from Daylight to Tungsten. Under color correcting circumstances, I use Tungsten white balance (somewhat sparingly because of its strong effect on color) to mitigate the orange color cast of incandescent bulbs casting ambient light. However, switching to Tungsten white balance isn’t exactly what we would consider “color correction” in landscape photography. It does, though, come in handy when you want to stress nighttime as a time of day.
Unlike the previous post, where the blue-ness was not caused by changing the white balance and explained a certain emotional appeal to the shot, the shot above mechanically establishes time in which the shot was made. A sense of place is almost always tied to a time, be it a certain hour of the day, year, or era. By shooting this and subsequent shots in Tungsten white balance, where the blue color cast overrides the scene, my hope was to convey the time of day. It feels like nighttime because of the blue. There’s no lying here, no thought manipulation. Rather, a truer sense of the context was provided at the same time an aesthetic benefit was added to the image. I often do this with lightning shots as well, where the blue-ness of a bolt seems more electric than an orange-tinged alternative.
Again, this shot was all about context, and a simple, yet fairly drastic, shift in color did it for me. It might not work for cityscapes, but it did here. Some advice, don’t get too locked in with the camera settings and your mind set. Keep in mind that even before we see the image on our computer in a post-processing scenario, we have a great deal of control over its aesthetic. Experiment, shoot in raw, and above all, bring that storytelling perspective along with the technology you have in front of you!
TECHNIQUE BONUS: I mentioned it was windy. Well, it was real windy! On these bluffs, gusts could be 30-50 mph! I was shooting straight into the wind as well. Even though the camera was on a tripod, the wind was still too powerful for long exposures (up to 30 seconds). Tack on a telephoto lens (in this case, a 70-200mm f/2.8 L), which is about as wind resistant as a Peterbilt, and you have some stabilization issues. What to do? Sit on the tripod. Yep, you read correctly. Lower your tripod, wrap your two legs around the tripod’s three, and sit down. I’m not sure I would try this with my carbon fibers, but a great set of Manfrotto aluminum sticks work just fine for the…perching. It’s all about adding weight for stabilization. You can see in the image above that I also took the lens hood off of the lens, reducing even more drag and shake. I’m surprised my hat stayed on!
This is #2 of a small series on some of my favorite shots from my latest book, Color, A Photographer’s Guide to Directing the Eye, Creating Visual Depth, and Conveying Emotion. The book is available from many great folks, including Peachpit, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your local book retailer. Check back for more in the series!