Nick Smith’s column ‘A shot in the dark’ – Outdoor Photography, February 2010 edition

A shot in the dark

When he was asked to report on night kayaking on a phosphorescent lake in November, photojournalist Nick Smith thought that someone was pulling his leg…

One of the great things about being a photojournalist is you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. One minute you’re embroiled in a public spat over the latest Arctic ice-thickness statistics and the next you’re being flown to Ireland to take photographs of people kayaking in pitch darkness.

Let me explain. The phone call went like this. ‘We’re looking for a photographer to cover one of our tourism attractions’, chimed the mellifluous tones of a sophisticated West End PR lady called Kath. It turns our her client, Tourism Ireland, was flying a gang of UK newspaper journos to do some kayaking in Lough Hyne, a marine lagoon west of Cork. Would I like to take the photos?

Well, when anyone asks me if I’d ‘like to take the photos’, I tend to answer in the affirmative without so much as a second thought. But this sounded like it could be a poisoned chalice. I asked Kath to tell me more, and after a long conversation it boiled down to this. She was asking me to take photographs in the middle of November, in the dark, in Ireland where you could wager the shirt on your back that it would be raining. ‘But the good thing’ said Kath, ‘is that the lake is naturally phosphorescent, which should make your photos even more special.’

There’s something magical about arriving at Cork airport in the late afternoon with the autumnal sun setting in the west. The almost horizontal rays skimmed across the idyllic countryside and instinctively I started to write stuff in my notebook along the lines of ‘it’s not called the Emerald Isle for nothing’. But, by the time I’d got off the plane the coppery sun had given way to a ‘soft day’, which roughly translates as a slate grey sky with precipitation in the form of stair rods.

As we drove west to Skibereen – famous for its famine burial pits – I started to realise the magnitude of my task. To add to the rain, it was now very dark, and I was beginning to entertain no hope of getting any photographs at all. Rubbish, I said to myself. As my mentor Martin Hartley tells me – there’s always something a professional photographer can shoot. But what if he’s wrong?

Feeling that I was sliding into the photographic equivalent of the valley of the shadow of death, I decided to cheer myself up by getting my brand spanking Canon 5D II out of the bag. I reasoned these babies can take photos in the dark, and since this is exactly what I was commissioned to do, I’d obviously bought the right tool for the job. Although I’d never ramped it up that far, the 5D II has an ISO upper limit of 6400, which lifted my spirits. I rootled around in my gadget bag for the lens with the widest aperture (Sigma 24mm f1.8) and screwing it onto the body thought life couldn’t be that bad after all. What with a little noise reduction here and a tad of sharpening there, we’d be in business.

Lough Hyne, as I later found out, is one of the most beautiful places on earth. But when I arrived in the bible black darkness and thick drizzle that penetrated every layer of clothing, I was too miserable to care. We strapped on our headlamps, got in our kayaks and paddled out onto a phosphorescent lake that refused to phosphoresce. I took my first look through the viewfinder. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Big fat zero.

This was just before I found that you can’t direct a torch, use an off-camera flash cord and press the shutter at the same time. The idea was that I’d illuminate another kayak, get a fix on the autofocus and get shooting. By now you’ll realise that this was a bad idea for so many reasons but the main one is that if the autofocus can’t see anything it can’t autofocus. In desperation I switched to manual focus, shoved the aperture on F8, set the focal length at infinity, and blindly accepted whatever shutter speed the camera decided to give me while in aperture priority. Please don’t write in and say I’m an idiot. I knew that the moment I got on the plane to Cork.

But then I broke what for me is a cardinal rule. My first commandment is, if you don’t know what you’re doing, stop and think. But I didn’t and I carried on regardless and over the next hour I blasted away and filled an 8GB card. Back in the hotel, after several much needed restorative glasses of Jamesons I reviewed the evening’s carnage. I’m not proud of this at all, but there were enough salvageable shots to put a small set together, and the results have already appeared on several national newspaper websites.

And the moral of the tale? Well I’m not sure, but talking the PR boss of Tourism Ireland on the flight home to London I tried to manage his expectations. ‘You see the thing is’ I explained gently, ‘cameras can’t really take photographs in the dark.’ Of course not, said John. That would be silly.

Visit Tourism Ireland at www.tourismireland.com

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