Chase the Light

Posted on June 7, 2007 by psu

Our first full day in Paris was gray, wet, and cold. As a result, I didn’t take a lof of pictures of the city. It’s hard to make nice landscape or cityscape photographs when the sky is white. But, I dutifully carried my camera into the early evening just in case. You never know what might happen.

What we did this evening was walk over to Joel Robuchon’s restaurant to see how long we’d have to wait for a table. This was at 6:30pm. At about 6:45 they told us to come back at 9:30. It turns out that at this time of year in Paris, it is still light out at 9:30, so we spent some time walking the streets. For the most part, the sky remained white and boring:

I forget why, but we went back to the apartment we had rented to drop some stuff off and pick up a warmer jacket. I also dropped off my heavier zoom lens and put the 24mm/2.8 on to the camera. This would limit me to some extent, but it makes the camera a lot smaller. We walked back out into the early evening, and Karen noticed a splotch of blue sky above the buildings to the West. Since we had time, I figured we could walk out to the Seine, where there are great unobstructed views both East and West just in case the sun peaked out and gave us some nice golden light.

When we got out to the river, we walked down the Quai towards the Museé D’Orsay where there is a nice pedestrian bridge. By now the sky had cleared up but there was still no direct sun on anything. This lets you make boring pictures of buildings, but at least there is blue behind them.


I spent ten or fifteen minutes dorking around with the side of the Museé when we got what we wanted. The sun came streaming out from a bank of clouds. Now I had a two more problems though. While the light was that fantastic warm late afternoon light that you want, all I had with me was my semi-wide lens. This means two things

  1. I need something in the foreground.

  1. With the bright sky in the shot, I’d have contrast problems.

It turned out that the bridge we walked to was close to where the river tour boats start out, and all of the dinner cruises were happily motoring down the river. This solved my foreground problem. I shot a picture of a boat coming down river looking into the sun. This picture made it clear that even if I had a nice big boat in the foreground, I’d continue to have contrast problems:


Without some adjustment, I’d have a choice between a blown out sky or a black boat with no detail. Neither of these choices works. In the past, this is where people might use an ND-grad filter to darken the sky, but I’ve never learned how to use those. I do know a bit of Photoshop though, so I had planned for this situation.

The D200 can shoot 5 frames in one second. In addition, you can program it to shoot each frame with a different exposure. So, I lined up one of the river boats with the bank of clouds that was quickly dissipating and shot off 5 frames between -2 stops under to +2 stops over. I figured if the frames were well enough aligned, I could glue them back together in Photoshop to balance the contrast. Luckily, the boats don’t move too fast. With a bit of Photoshop work the next day, I got what I could have gotten if I knew how to use an ND- grad. I’m happy either way:

After shooting some more into the sun, I turned around to catch the light off of the buildings in the area. One reason Paris is such a great place to take pictures is that when the light is good, there is always good light on all the architecture. The Museé was much more interesting now with some good side light:


And the bridge we walked past on the way over looked good too:


At this point, I had shot about 60 or 70 pictures, and it was time to get back to the restaurant to see if the table was free. We ended up waiting another hour before we could sit down, which means I missed out on the sunset. But these are the things you give up to get into Joel Robucon’s place.

Anyway, all was not lost. At night in Paris, you can always count on the shop windows:

Lessons learned:

  1. Eat dinner late if you want the good light.

  1. Be aware that just because the light isn’t there now doesn’t mean that it won’t show up later. Don’t give up, chase the light anyway.

  1. Have a plan to deal with high contrast.

  1. Bears and sunflowers are cool.