Shooting Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia
Winters in Nova Scotia are colder than a brass toilet seat on the shady side of an iceberg. Sure the Torontonians out there may be crying that the centre of the universe is technically colder. But if you ask me, there’s a reason they call folks out here bluenosers, and that’s because the other parts froze off. Nova Scotia has a bitter combination of wind and wet mixed with it’s cold, and this cocktail keeps a fair weathered feller like me safely indoors. This winter in particular seemed to drag and after Frankie MacDonald warned us about a second massive blizzard, well I’d had enough.
As soon as the first March day above zero came along, I knew it was time. Also after spending all those months cooped up in the house with me, the wife told me it was time.
The Photographer’s Ephemeris
Whenever planning a shoot I like this, I whip out my trusty Photographer’s Ephemeris (I also have no idea what an ephemeris is), and check the map. I always have a location or two that I’m thinking of shooting at, and Mahone Bay was on the list. Through a clever combination of mysticism and freaking magic, the app tells me that Mahone Bay is the place to be on 25 March. I knew this because the sun was going to be in the perfect position. Not directly behind the churches, just a little off to the right.
When I shoot objects in the foreground, generally I try and avoid shooting directly into the sun, my mommy told me it was bad for me. Also you end up fighting a bunch of optical effects (flaring and whatnot) which work for some things, but not for this things. Conversely though, if the sun is setting too far from the churches, well, then you get more of a coloured sky effect, and I want to have something resembling a sunset.
So, it was time for a mini road trip to Mahone Bay with my son, an aspiring shutter monkey. I popped in some Ramones at about 5pm, and hit the road to the Mahones.
My New Camera
Ever the consumerist and gear junkie, I had just bought a new camera. To be honest, I was super excited to it out. My new gorgeous Canon 5DSR was made for this kind of shoot. It’s a landscape special, and it’s ♫ all about the megapixels baby ♫. Weighing in at a beefy 50 MP I figured there was a decent chance that I would not only get a picture of the churches, but maybe even a picture of someone changing in a window across town. I was very excited to give the new Canon a shot.
The trade off of all those juicy pixels is the amount of noise it produces at higher ISOs. But, being an old film shooter, anything over 400 ISO was gravy anyways. I’m used to working in lower ISOs (that should be pronounced ‘izōz’ in your head, it’s more gangster that way), so this isn’t unfamiliar territory for me. Besides, photography is about give and take and detail over ISO is a choice a landscape photographer is generally happy to make. As you pixel-peepers can tell from the closeup of the photo at right, the Canon 5D SR does not disappoint.
As I drive I watch sky, it’s suspenseful, and gets me very excited for the shoot, or very disappointed. Many a time I have rushed out to location only to see the dreary grey of a boring dusk. This time however, by the time we arrived the sky was starting to pop with purple and pink and Mahone Bay was looking it’s finest. After parking the boy and I practically ran the kilometre or two to the shooting location.
Once the boy and I arrived, we took a few test shots, got everything lined up and started shooting. Because the Mahone Bay location was perfect, I wasn’t likely to try varying angles. So the question became instead a decision of what to shoot it at.
Time for the nerdlinger stuff…brace yourself, we’re going in.
I try and shoot at the optimum aperture of my lens. This is the aperture at which a lens renders the absolute highest level of sharpness. Generally speaking this is my starting point when taking pictures. My lens (Canon 24-70mm f2.8 L ii) is a fairly new lens. As a result I a haven’t found any published testing on it’s focus performance, but it’s predecessor had an optimum aperture of somewhere between f8 and f9. So I figured f9 would be a good place to start setting my exposure calculation. So that’s how I start assessing exposure for landscapes. Start at optimum aperture.
Next I try and leave the ISO at it’s native. On this camera that’s 100 ISO, which suits me fine, because smart photographers always bring a tripod. Also seeing as I want to squeeze as much detail as possible out of my new camera for testing, that was going to be my benchmark.
Finally, I set my shutter speed to expose for the sky. I am an advocate of the expose for the highlights, process for the shadows philosophy. Thus adjusting my shutter speed to ensure detail was retained in the sky. This makes it easier to process on the back end.
So that’s my process. Optimum aperture plus native ISO only means I have to worry about the shutter speed. As the night progresses and the conditions change, I only
change the shutter speed. Now all I had to do was sit back and wait for the sky to start it’s magical dance of Golden Hour.
During Golden Hour, a fascinating process occurs. When you start, the subjects on the ground are underexposed and shrouded in darkness. However as the “golden hour” approaches a magical thing happens, and the sky and ground start to come to an equivalent exposure. This is the secret to shooting at dusk. Finding that sweet spot when the sky and ground are exposed somewhat equivalently.
We didn’t have to wait long, the Mahone Bay sky turned purple and orange well before golden hour was scheduled. By 6:30pm, we knew we were in for a real treat. As time went on I watched my exposure and adjusted my shutter speed accordingly, gradually ramping down the speed. We shot for just over an hour so I had roughly 60-70 shots to pick from. When selecting pictures I was looking for shots that were devoid of car light trails ( a road passes in front of the churches) and a fairly even balance between keeping the sky rich with colour and detail in the churches. In the end the shot selected was 1/10th of a second. This had a harmonious balance between the ambient streetlights and the sky intensity.
In the shot at right you can see the image straight out of the camera. As in all my photography I strongly believe that processing will make or break a shot. I hate the idea that you need to “get it right in the camera”. This is stupid, and the great masters spent hours in the studio refining and perfecting their shot. They squeezed every last bit of silver halides out of their film, and as a digital photographer I push those pixies to the breaking point in every shot I take.
That said, I also do not advocate the HDR over-processed crap that you saw out there like 5 years ago. I tell my students that you should never spray your photographic ego all over your picture. You should be behind the scenes, letting the subject or your composition speak for itself. However, that doesn’t mean you sit backstage and have a sandwich. Photography is about work, and the real work starts when you get back to your digital darkroom.
My weapon of choice is Lightroom, and I always convert my raw images to DNGs. DNG is the greatest file format ever invented and Canon, Nikon, and all the others who do not support DNG natively are soulless corporate scum. Yeah, I said it.
Anywhoo…once my DNGs are ready I push and pull my exposure to get the best result I can. Ansel talked about pre-visualizing your final product, but I find that while you often have a rough idea of how it’s going to turn out, until you get behind the keyboard your never really sure. Being able to bring a photo to it’s true potential does require “getting it right in the camera”. Software will only take you so far. A photograph cannot be made good in software if it starts out poorly.
So that’s basically it. This image was about getting out and trying out my new camera, spending some time with my shutter bug son, and capturing the iconic Mahone Bay churches to kick off the next few years I will be spending here in Nova Scotia. I hope this post was informative, and if you have any questions or comments please leave them below.