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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Journey through an evening

As I mentioned last week my trip to Japan was pretty much all fun and frivolity. But there was some work going on - well to be exact there was about one night! The second last night of the snow festival - and the first night that hadn't been a total blizzard.

So I thought it might be fun to see what's involved in planning a night of photography in a foreign city trying to capture as much of a festival as possible.

The first shot that I knew I absolutely must have was this one. This is the view looking down Odori Park in Sapporo from the viewing deck of the TV Tower. This is the most photographed view in the whole of Sapporo - and getting an image of it with all the snow sculptures is compulsory. Go home without this one and you get fired straight away!

Now I've been up here many times before and the routine is always the same. Get to the prime position about half an hour before sunset (in this case about half past four in the afternoon), set up your tripod and shoot every few minutes as the light changes.

It takes a bit of gumption to set up a camera on a tripod in the prime viewing space for the whole city but usually when I go there it's not so crowded that I get in the way too much. Not this time! It was packed. I couldn't move for people but they were all so polite that nobody ever got angry with me or told me to shove it.

And for my part I would raise my camera out of the way so people could get past me to take a shot and then put the tripod back down when I wanted to get a shot. It's all about co-operation and most people only want to grab a quick snap with the mobile phone before moving on. Smiling a lot helps too. :)

The funny thing about photographing in Japan is I'm always surrounded by amateurs who have equipment that is so much newer and more expensive than mine that I'm almost ashamed to call myself professional!

In terms of technique there's a couple of things to look out for here. The first thing with night photography is that if your camera's on a tripod you don't need a high ISO. The shutter speed is pretty much irrelevant because the camera is sturdily held in position. So I tend to leave my ISO at 100 and drag the shutter speed - you can see the tell tale signs of the trails of car lights. You need to watch the traffic and open the shutter when you see the cars moving towards and away from you if you want this effect.

So you've got a slow shutter speed and your tripod means that you shouldn't get any blur there but there may be another culprit giving you less than sharp pictures. With SLR cameras there is a mirror inside that lets you see the image through your viewfinder. When you hit the shutter button the mirror slaps up and out of the way so the light can hit the sensor.

That mirror slap can actually cause the camera to vibrate causing picture blur at slower shutter speeds. So to get around that many cameras have a function called Mirror Lock-Up. And it does exactly that. You press the shutter button (or in most cases the cable release) once and the mirror locks up but you still haven't taken the photo - you've just moved the mirror out of the way. The trick is then to wait a couple of seconds (until the vibrating mirror has stopped moving) and then press the shutter button again to take the photo.

By doing this you can eliminate a lot of blurry pictures which are caused by this little devil inside your camera. The only problem with the mirror lock-up function is that it's often buried deep in some Menu Option somewhere only Einstein can find. So if your camera has an option to save certain settings as Custom Settings or Personal Settings or some such name then this is a good place to save that function so you can find it again easily.

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