Lights! Camera! More Lights! Seriously! Please?

This is one of my all time favorite stories, because it shows that no matter how much you prepare, there are just some things that you can’t anticipate, and you have to be able to improvise to get the job done.

A couple of years ago I signed up to participate in a photography workshop in Provence, in the south of France. While I was really excited to photograph the lavender and quaint villages the area is famous for, I knew I had to spend a few days in Paris shooting on my own before joining the group. So I did what I always do before heading out to unfamiliar territory – I looked at stacks of photography books and websites about Paris to try to get the general lay of the land and develop some initial plans for shoots. Of course I would expand on these plans once onsite, but I like to have a starting point to get me going.

One image that stood out to me was a nighttime view of La Conciergerie, the former royal palace and prison on the edge of the Seine River. This beautiful photograph covered two pages in a coffee table book of Paris scenes, and I knew I had to improve on it. Using Google Maps, I figured out where I needed to be to get the best shot and made note of it.

La Conciergerie, Paris, FranceMy first evening in Paris, I headed to the spot and set up my tripod. The best nighttime scenes are often not taken at night, but at dusk. In city scenes, the artificial lights are lighting the foreground subject for you, and the deep blue sky adds an element of interest that a completely black sky cannot equal. So I got in position and framed my shot, took a couple of test images, and waited. And waited. And waited some more. In late June in the Northern Hemisphere, it takes the sun a long time to go down, and it was certainly taking its time this evening!

Finally at 10 PM, it was dark enough for the palace exterior lights to come on, so they did. Some of them – but not all of them. The half of the building closest to me was lighted, but the entire back half was dark. I was puzzled, but I thought if I waited a minute, the rest would come on. They didn’t. So this is the point where a photographer starts to panic. I’ve come all this way with this shot in mind and I’m not going to be able to get what I’m looking for because somebody’s trying to cut back on the light bill. Are you kidding me? This is the City of Light for crying out loud! Where’s the light?

La Conciergerie, Paris, France

La Conciergerie, the former royal palace and prison in Paris, with the back half unlit. Notice the blur of a tour boat sliding under the bridge.

Well, about this time I noticed some blindingly bright lights on the river as one of the tourist boats floated by. My first thought was that this was some mighty obnoxious light pollution, but as I watched the boat travel downstream, I noticed something amazing. The lights on the boat were so powerful that as they passed the unlighted rear portion of the building, they lit it just as brightly as the land-based lights in the front. As a bonus, the bridge in front of me, Pont au Change, completely blocked the boat from my camera’s view, preventing the starboard lights from shining in my lens and washing out the image. Seriously, how lucky can you get?

Since these obnoxious but very useful tour boats come fairly frequently, I knew what I had to do. I made the assumption that all of the boats would be travelling at roughly the same speed, and when the next boat came by, I noted the time it took to travel from the beginning of the unlit area of the building to the end of it. That happened to be thirty seconds. So I calculated an exposure that would work with a thirty second shutter speed and waited for the next boat. When that boat started lighting the dark part of the building, I started the exposure and let the boat light-paint the rest of the building for me. It worked perfectly, I think!

After this, the sky was getting a bit too dark, so I only got one exposure that I was happy with, but I was fine with that. I had what I wanted in spite of the challenges. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect I was wearing a pretty silly grin all the way back to my room!

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2 Responses to “Lights! Camera! More Lights! Seriously! Please?”

  1. Matt Brandon says:

    Great story of ingenuity. I love it!


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