Shot in the Dark

October 14, 2009 

I often write about emotional or ethical difficulties I encounter on the job because those are the problems that most people don’t realize even exist. Sometimes, though, the biggest hurdle on a particular assignment is simply technical.

When capturing light on a sensor, which has a dynamic range far more limited than the human eye and brain, harsh midday lighting and mixed lighting can create problems, but low light is the toughest to deal with.

Obvious, right?

Then why bother writing about it?

I like whining.

Last week, reporter Sara Schilling and I covered a human chain that connected the blue bridge and cable bridge as part of Kennewick School District’s Pink Week to raise money and awareness for breast cancer research and the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation.

We got there plenty early and I filled the photo gallery with a bunch of preparation shots, which were also my C.Y.A. shots since it was going to be dark by the time they linked the human chain. With around 1.5 miles between the bridges, there was definitely no way I was going to be able to get a shot of the whole chain, which was going to form a giant “C” going halfway up both bridges. Even if I had access to a plane or helicopter, I doubt the faint light from the pink glow sticks would have been bright enough to see from that height, especially with all the other bright lights nearby.

For most assignments, I have a general idea of what kind of photo I would like to make. This is obviously not a frame I’m counting on being able to make, but it’s a good starting point. My first idea was to have a shot on the blue bridge of two hands holding in the foreground with pink lights dotting the background. Ideally, the cable bridge also would be lit up and I was hoping to have enough depth of field for it all to make sense — unlikely because of low light.

Since they were planning on maintaining the link for three minutes, I knew I could at least give it a shot and have time to go for my backup shot — a group of people at the crosswalk on Columbia Park Trail at the base of the blue bridge, again, preferably with a lit cable bridge in the distance as a point of reference. This plan had its own problems, though, as it banked on having some stopped cars keep their headlights on to illuminate the people, and that they wouldn’t be so bright as to create exposure problems.

I shot one final C.Y.A. as the last bits of light disappeared:

I picked a good spot to shoot from, with some high school students as my main subjects since this was a student-driven event. I had hoped to find some people wearing pink wristbands, but was OK with conceding that ambition. Of course, people started moving around as it got closer to chain time, and soon everybody on the blue bridge was inexplicably shoulder to shoulder. I found some new subjects and snapped this as they linked:

All in all, a pretty crappy shot that lacked any of the informative elements I’d hoped to incorporate. I jogged down the walkway, not counting on the three minutes actually lasting three minutes and grabbed another potential shot along the way:

This shot was almost a winner for me, and I also knew it would be a repro nightmare.

I hustled the rest of the way down and shot my backup idea, though the slight hill I was on wasn’t quite high enough, so I had to resort to the Hail Mary technique of raising my camera as high as my arms would let me — so called because you aren’t able to see the shot you are framing, but instead rely on knowledge of your camera and lens combination to approximate the final result:

It’s far from tack sharp, but not bad for a prefocused Hail Mary shot at 1/8th sec. at f/2.8, ISO 1600, and it has all the elements I had hoped to get. Now, 1/8th sec. might sound pretty fast, but in photo terms, it’s not. Generally, 1/60th sec. is considered as slow as you should go with a wide-angle lens. That’s around the speed when most point-and-shoot cameras will blink that camera shake warning at you. If you want to read more about this subject, here are a couple articles from Digicam Guide and Digital Photography School.

I’m not going to win any awards for this photo and I’m not expecting any adoration or slack-jawed awe from you, the reader. Photojournalists work in conditions like this or tougher all the time. This job is much more than just pushing a button, and it’s being able to get a decent photo out of a situation like this that really makes me bristle when someone asks, "So do you write stories, or do you just take pictures?"

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