For the past eight years or so we’ve had this fun little event on our local rivers, River Solstice, that celebrates the longest day of the year. We’ve had our share of washouts, but most of the time Mother Nature cooperates. The location and the nature of the event make this a definite challenge to capture photographically. After a nice picnic on the lawn of the Old Manse (where the music performers typically have the sun setting almost directly behind them) a large number of paddlers descend on the Concord River at sunset to begin a flotilla of boats, most with lanterns, up to the Old Calf Pasture where a bonfire and drumming occurs. My goal was to photograph the paddlers making their way up the river.
So let’s be clear about the challenge: 1) subjects are gliding by on the river, 2) I’m in a kayak on the same river, 3) the sun has set and it is rapidly getting quite dark. Perfect! Let’s make some portraits!
The full set of images is available on my community gallery. In there you will see the progression of the evening’s light disappearing and I was left to find whatever candle or other light was nearby. There was a near full moon rising, but it really didn’t have much of an impact when I was shooting.
Here’s the link to the evening’s pictures: [url]http://community.dmg-photography.com/2010-river-solstice[/url]
What follows are a few highlights of the evening plus some technical details for those that are interested. I encourage you to look at the full gallery mostly because it clearly shows that the current generation of DSLR cameras are capable of some pretty amazing photographs in some relatively challenging conditions.
The evening starts with a picnic and music on the lawn of The Old Manse in Concord which overlooks the Old North Bridge. I tried to have some fun with the strong back and rim lighting the setting sun provided.
The kayak and canoe “parking lot” was pretty full…
Some folks were watching the moon rise in style…
The sun has set, the singers are making their way along the river to the Old Calf Pasture for some pagan fun, and the flotilla of boats begins working its way up the Concord River…
My friend Julia Blatt, who heads the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, was paddling with her hubby…
Night quickly overtakes the river… I think a number of people were kind of shocked that I was taking photographs — and probably assumed that everything I was doing would be a blurry mess. (I knew otherwise…)
Here we are at the Old Calf Pasture where a bonfire is ringed with torches. The sound of ceremonial drums pierces the darkness. (And drowns out the sound of mosquitos, which are pummeling everyone — or at least me…) For reasons that I won’t go into here, I don’t hop on land and photograph the fire circle despite it being an obvious target of opportunity for great images…
All photographs were shot with a Canon 7D. Nearly all were taken with the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, although there are a handful (which I hope are obvious) that were taken with the 24-70mm f/2.8L. All shots are handheld, all but the picnic shots are from a kayak. Due to the rapidly changing light I opted for aperture priority exposure. (If you need me to tell you what aperture I was using most of the evening you probably shouldn’t bother reading the rest of this…)
As the sun sets the camera is set to ISO 1250, then 2500. If you aren’t familiar with shooting on a small New England river, you should be aware that it is similar to being in a hole. The shoreline is typically lined with trees and long before the sun sets you are in shadow. A few minutes after it sets, it just gets plain dark – especially if there are no clouds to reflect light straight down. So it was a matter of a minute or two before I cranked the camera to ISO 6400.
Exposures vary from 1/100 (if there’s a bright lantern) to 1/20th of a second. Image stabilization and years of practice shooting from a kayak kept my throw-aways amazingly low. And a quick shout out to the 7D’s autofocus! I used center-point focus because I know that is typically the most sensitive part of the AF array. Half the time I was hunting for a subject in the viewfinder. If the camera found anything at all, it did a great job of holding focus while I did the final composition and shooting. (This is the primary reason why I didn’t bring the 5DMk2 to this project — it’s low-light AF is, um, “sub par”…)
In the case of these photographs however, the camera only did half the work. A significant portion of the image quality comes from Lightroom 3′s new image processing and noise reduction capabilities. As I cranked up the ISO on the camera in the field, I had a commensurate increase in the luminance noise reduction in Lightroom. Quite frankly, tack sharp images were not my goal. Moving subjects in a dimly lit area don’t feel sharp to our eyes, so I didn’t feel any need to try to bring any particular sharpness out — the default sharpening of Lightroom fit the bill most of the time. Most of the night images had the Luminance noise set to 45. A few, including the young lady at the beginning of this article, were bumped to 64. I knew from reports and the beta testing that the noise reduction was going to be impressive, and it served me well for this assignment.
The processing of these images varies significantly depending on the lighting conditions. The look for the photographs taken after the sun set was achieved by adding fill light and then raising the black point to restore some contrast. I really didn’t want to raise the exposure of the whole image as the scene was, in reality, quite dark — but rather mimic what the human eye does by selectively increasing the luminance of the subjects. A bit of vibrance and a dash of clarity round out the Lightroom processing.
There you have it, a new branch of photography: action portraits in the dark.