Being a photojournalist has many appealing aspects and some noteworthy negatives. Among the negatives are the seasonal photo assignments. Christmas may be the worst of all for seasonal, highly repetitive photo assignments. The longer I have worked in the community newspaper world the more I have come to dread December.
First of all, I hate shopping so there is that, which means I also hate shopping photos. Secondly, I have come to hold a pretty low opinion of Santa Claus. I know, he is putting me on the naughty list right now. I can’t help it. I used to love the whole Christmas thing, Santa and all; however, after photographing a bevy of jolly old impersonators, I have about had my belly full of Santa, photographically speaking, of course. Thirdly, I have no desire to ever photograph another Christmas light. Fourthly, is that even a word, I have about worn out on manger scenes as well.
Over the years there has been one particularly, nearly demonically, difficult Christmas photo assignment. The annual Parade of Lights on the Tennessee River has been an assignment to run away from for years. I remember trying to make a picture out there using a Nikon D1. Oh My! There may have been a beautifully lit boat somewhere out there but one would have had a devil of a time finding it amid all the digital noise. The D1 didn’t like black too well.
Then there was the D2h and the D2hs. No great shakes there either. Then, I must have gone unconscious for a few years or, more truly, just didn’t work the night shift and have to deal with that assignment. This year; however, I could not dodge it. I approached the job with a measured dread. All the bad memories of horrible photos shot on the black river came flooding back. Then, I suddenly remembered, I have a D4!!!
I think the Hallelujah Chorus began somewhere in my mind. Perhaps it was the angels singing from on high. I could shoot at any ISO I wanted to. I could turn the dark, black river into a medium gray river if the notion struck me! I got a touch of the Christmas spirit. Well, almost. I did remember the dynamic range would be far, far beyond what any digital sensor can handle but I would at least have a picture!
Now all you amateurs, put away your little strobes and don’t even pretend to use one. Have you ever actually shot with a strobe, at night? The night sucks up strobe light, like a sponge. The strobe also blows out your highlights and does nothing for those black shadow areas. So just don’t do it. Find a happy medium between whatever ambient you have and the Christmas lights and hope for the best.
My strategy was two fold. One worked, one worked a little. I went down on the river bank at a place I had never shot from. I was across the river from Decatur so whatever light I had in the background, say street lights, would create light streaks on the river thereby breaking the darkness into slightly smaller slices of darkness. The closer to the water you get, the longer those streaks of light become. My other idea, and the one with the highest chance of success, was to get the boats as they exited the harbor where there was actually a fair amount of light from the other boats still in the harbor. This worked okay, not great, but okay. I think a giant softbox suspended from the Hudson Memorial Bridges would have been ideal but since the ALDOT would have a little problem with that, I just winged it. Besides, a softbox big enough to do the job would have required its own nuclear reactor to power it. Brownsferry was definitely not down with that!
The surprise, and the reason I almost got some Christmas spirit, came as I was leaving. I parked on the elevated section of highway leading up to the bridge. It overlooks the water, but there is a lot of random tree growth that obscures the view. However, as I walked back to my car, I looked over my shoulder and saw the boats strung out in a line right over the roof line of the Hard Dock Cafe. I was freaking out. And actual picture could be made here! I shot a bunch of frames hoping I would have one sharp enough in the foreground and the background to use. Sure enough, I got one. I was very, very happy.
You can see people out on the deck of the restaurant, a canopy of light over them, and the boats out behind them. I had beat the black hole and the Christmas lights demon at the same time. SWEET! I swear, just like the old Grinch standing on Mount Crumpet, I think my heart grew three sizes right then and there. I almost said, “Ho, ho, ho,” as I got into my sled to drive back tot he newspaper. Okay, almost.