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The Morning after the Night Before

The morning after the night before. Time to reflect on the machinations of the previous evening. In fact, it started way in advance of yesterday, some weeks ago. The location list for the trip to Brittany. The dilapidated fishing huts on the River Rance were there on the list, together with the mussel poles lined soldierly at the mouths of the estuaries. The overhanging medieval houses along the cobbled streets of Dinan took a placement and of course, the subject of these deliberations, a ‘night’ shot of Le Mont Saint Michel.

Earlier in the afternoon Julia and I had walked some of the coast north of St Malo. An exploratory jaunt seeing how the land lay. We found a couple of good locations where the cliffs and sea joined to make interesting compositions for another time. Maps suitably marked showing direction of view, suitable times of day and any other useful notes such as ‘Avoid - grockally’, and onward we ventured along the coast.

By now it was late afternoon. The streams of cars and camper vans were running away from the coast to find their moules frites, verre du vin and hook up for the night. We headed straight to one of the two locations earmarked in advance.


With the state of the tide and increasing cloud cover, I couldn’t get my head around this first intended image working tonight. Plan B and the second location.

This would hopefully work better this evening but there were aspects conspiring against me. 1. The increasing cloud cover as aforementioned. Not that this is necessarily bad for night shots. In fact, sometimes it can work for you. But the clouds were being brought in by an increasing pressure differential. 2. Given those conditions, I had hoped that the haze, which had been with us for a few days would have been blown away - fat chance! Nevertheless I’d persist and see how things develop. That old photographers adage that if you’re not there you’ll never get the shot, juxtaposing with the WOTAM theory. ( Read ‘Abbreviations’ a couple of months ago in Something for the Weekend for clarification if need be.)

It was still only 6 pm, so we sat by the side of the marshes away from the grockalls and ate our quiche with a glass of cidre brut as the washed out sun started to fade away. Me a grown man eating quiche your may say? Well in my terminology, that means ‘man’s quiche’! In other words pork pie if in England or pate de Campagne if in France.

Any way, as we waited, having watched two shepherds drive their flocks of salt marsh sheep into their stone barns for the night, the time was right to get on the plot.

Still an hour plus to go before sundown, but there is nothing worse than a plan being thwarted by aspects beyond your control, so making sure your tripod is erect where you want them are important, especially in a well visited area. You don’t want the group of Japanese tourists getting in the way do you? Back to the plan.

As those who have attended one of my low light workshops will know, night shots are generally not taken at night, but at twilight when the balance is right. When it is, little or no filtration is required as the reducing levels of sky light, balance with the tones of the land, and in my case, the river Guerge as well. I also had to wait for the lights of the Mont to illuminate. Usually for such an iconic landmark, this occurs 25-30 minutes after sundown, but it’s is always worthwhile checking to avoid disappointment. Sometimes, the illumination may only take place during July or August. Sometimes only at weekends. You have been warned. If it is imperative to your image, do the legwork.

The wind was my nemesis here. It was blowing slightly veered from being directly into the lens. I moved my tripod position lower towards the ground to minimise the effects, but it was still going to be an issue.

A friendly German joined me and laughed. He asked why I was wasting my time with such a dull image? The sunlight was washed out and the cloud cover provided only a semblance of directional light onto the island. The historic buildings being masked by the still lingering haze. I tried to explain my mission in my best Germanic phraseology. Luckily he and I were fluent - in English! When I explained that I was going to be waiting for a further hour or more he looked aghast and rode off on his tredder.

I took a couple of practice shots, checking focus and the effects of the wind. This succumbed in me using F8 on the 24-70 F2.8 lens, but, I had to wait for the wind to quell and protect the camera, lens and tripod as much as possible with my body. A tough job given my emaciated frame, but I managed it.

Trying to explain the ‘balance’ of the light can be difficult. I’m not on about white balance here, I shoot in RAW so that’s not an issue anyway. It’s the tonal balance. The thing we use ND grads for usually. To balance the exposure of the sky and land for instance.

For night shots, I wait for the sky to balance itself out with the tones as much as possible. Our brains are comfortable with a slight imbalance, but this in my view needs to be minimised.

The wind was still there and the German was back! Intrigued I guess at this mad Englishman stood in a chill wind looking at a murky piece of rock with a spire on top some kilometre away.

Right on cue, at twenty five past nine, the first glow of the sodium lights emanated onto the buttressed walls. It would happen quickly now. The balance was coming. Those that have been with me at these times are usually shocked, yes I use the term advisedly, but shocked they are, at how quickly things happen. If you are not prepared, you will lose out. Using the remote, I fire with the mirror locked up and my body contorted around the hardware protecting from the wind. Check histogram and as I’m shooting in RAW, I overexpose a couple of stops and fire again. By zooming in I check focus. Live view is useless in this wind for doing that, far too much wind movement.

Protecting the camera at the front and viewing a magnified live view is beyond my bendy capabilities I’m sorry to say. A few duff ones so I keep on shooting. Increasing my ISO to 200, 400 and even 800 to give me options. The resultant reduction in speed needing to be compromised with the reduction in image quality, but I’d decide later.

As ever, the light was changing and it would soon be too dark for the ‘night’ shots. I had the material in the can. The German was taking his shots at ISO 1600 as he didn’t have a tripod. But he was getting some results, on the monitor at least as the ’balance’ came and then went. I thought he had got the message.

I told him that I was done. He asked why I wasn’t going to wait for it to go really dark with a black inky sky? It’s all to do with the balance. He obviously hadn’t got the message.

Keep practicing
I am.