Plugged In: Light makes right when shooting ice at night

Photos courtesy of Joe Kashi, from the BP World Ice Art Championships

Photos courtesy of Joe Kashi, from the BP World Ice Art Championships

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

I’ve never successfully photographed ice sculptures despite a few half-hearted tries during the Peninsula Winter Games over the years. This year, I promised myself, would be different. Was it ever.

For years, friends told of the beautiful ice carvings exhibited at the BP World Ice Art Championships held every March in Fairbanks, a time when Alaskans once expected to experience something we still quaintly recall as “winter.”

It was evident, as I drove into Soldotna on Friday, that our new-normal early March had arrived on the Kenai Peninsula. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABoston was again buried in snow, but our willows were budding and wild iris emerging from the thawed ground under our spruce trees. There was little snow to be found on the Kenai Peninsula, let alone melting ice sculptures. So, onward to Fairbanks.

Experienced friends urged us to see and photograph the ice sculptures at night, when the clear ice blocks are lit from behind with powerful colored lights, rather than during the flat, white light of an overcast day. That was excellent advice. Under the low-contrast light of an overcast morning, with a dusting of new OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAsnow thrown in, even award-winning sculptures looked drab. At night, though, the same pieces exploded with a thousand hues of intense color, highlights and shadows that delineated every curve and line.

Lesson learned No. 1: The best ice sculpture viewing and photography occur after dark with direct light from behind and beneath the ice blocks.

Driving the 1,000-mile round trip to and from Fairbanks was hardly feasible over a weekend with heavy snow and winds from the upper Susitna Valley to Fairbanks. The Alaska Railroad’s package trip to Fairbanks to see the ice sculptures, taking the train from Anchorage to Fairbanks, staying at Pike’s Landing, and flying back the next day on Ravn Air, seemed affordable and sensible.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt definitely turned into an adventure. Our Alaska Railroad locomotives seemed “out of training” so early in the season, stopping three times to repair breakdowns or to disconnect and leave behind an engine with a damaged wheel. The scheduled arrival time allowed only an hour to get a cab to the sculpture display area some distance from the train depot before the 10 p.m. closing time. It would have been a rather hurried affair under optimum circumstances.

With several unscheduled repair stops and only one engine to crest the Alaska Range, we didn’t arrive until the 10 p.m. closing time. Roughly 100 people ahead of us vied for the one or two cabs that would periodically appear out of the blowing snow and stop at the train depot.

Despite all that, we had a delightful trip up on the train because of the eight unfazed Rotary friends traveling with us. Two brought a large container of shared food, something very much appreciated when power failures prevented any onboard food service for hours.

Lesson learned No. 2: Travel with fun people who take the bumps in stride, especially friends experienced enough to know about bringing along food.

Even though the admission booth had closed by the time that we arrived, we decided to try visiting the exhibit. By chance we were able to enter, returning the next day to pay the admission and see the ice sculptures under daylight conditions. The difference was literally night and day.

Lesson learned No. 3: You might as well make the effort to get those worthwhile photos. You’ll be no worse off than if you ensured a failed result by not even trying.

Because I had no idea what to expect photographically, I went loaded for bear, taking an Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera body, eight (yes, count ’em, eight) lenses, and a tripod. Even though the Olympus body and those Micro Four-Thirds lenses are individually light and compact, I felt loaded down like a Sherpa climbing Everest. I used virtually none of that gear.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGood photography of illuminated nighttime ice sculptures turned out to be actually rather straightforward with the right gear and technique, but photographing Fairbanks’s nighttime ice sculpture display was like the final exam on low-light photography. The backlit ice produces intensely bright highlights amid dark surrounding areas. That fools a camera’s exposure metering system, at night causing overexposure that destroys highlight details and tones while washing out color. That same overexposure may result in shutter speeds too slow to reliably hand-hold, a double whammy.

My tripod was the first item to be left by the wayside, at least figuratively. With blowing snow, dozens of large, impressive works and only a short time before all lights were turned off for the evening, working quickly was critical. There was no time to set up and use a tripod, so every exposure had to be handheld.

Lesson learned No. 4: Go with the right gear, but light gear.

This was one of those relatively uncommon instances where the right camera gear made a major difference. People using smartphone cameras found that their photographs didn’t turn out, while the RAW file format, large sensor and effective image-stabilization hardware in my Olympus E-M5 worked great. Those photos may be artistically mediocre or derivative travel snapshots, but at least those mediocre images were properly exposed and sharp. Walk around and photograph exhibit pieces from several angles — the improved color may be startling.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUnder nighttime conditions like these, a bright prime lens is usually more effective than a zoom lens. Prime lenses generally have a brighter maximum aperture and are sharper near maximum aperture. I made all of my shots with a Panasonic 20-mm f/1.7 lens, a bright lens, sharp at wide apertures, and with a versatile normal field of view. It’s become my “go-to” lowlight lens. A few steps forward or backward were enough to get even large works properly placed within the frame.

I set the camera to ISO 800. That ISO sensitivity was high enough to minimize camera shake but not so high as to result in an objectionable amount of image noise, degraded sharpness, nor reduced tonal quality and dynamic range. With the lens set to f/2.5 or so, I was able to use shutter speeds in the range of 1/15 second to 1/40 second, short enough to make handheld photographs without camera shake and blur. Depth of field was adequate because I was 10 to 15 feet back, a sufficient distance even at wider, brighter lens apertures.

After reviewing the first few images on the rear LCD screen, I saw that the camera’s metering system was still fooled by the combination of near-black backgrounds and intense backlighting shining through the ice. Most shots were overexposed and washed out, so I made a bracketed series of exposures for every shot, setting the camera to make three exposures differing by .7EV every time the shutter was released.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOverexposure still occurred, so I adjusted the exposure compensation dial to start each series of bracketed exposures at a darker point, further reducing every exposure by another -.7 EV to -1.3 EV. That worked in this situation, in the process teaching me that intense light shining through thick ice is often brighter than we might imagine. I made two bracketed sequences of each image as insurance against camera shake.

Under the dull overcast light the next morning, an opposite problem emerged. Without the colored backlighting, many ice sculptures looked rather boring. There was not enough contrast to see details nor separate the various tones. Underexposure was prevalent, even after increasing exposure compensation.

I’m not sure that many of the daylight photos are worth keeping, even though electrons are “free.”

Lesson learned No. 5: If you see a photo that’s worth taking, take it now. It may not be available in five minutes, let alone the next day.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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