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Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Ice, ice, maybe?

Well, this was going to be interesting. My plan involved bribing a top ice climber to go out on a freezing, dark night to solo some steep ice, half way up a mountain so I could experiment with the concept of "lightpainting" a crag on the half-chance that it might produce an interesting shot.
The idea wasn't new of course and the best example I've seen is Dave Black's fantastic images from Colorado at

Top climber and professional instructor, Paddy Cave was up for the challenge and he had a venue in mind (except that I can't reveal the location for a variety of reasons...) and fortunately it didn't involve a tortuous walk-in.

I haven't tried this before so I really didn't know what was going to happen. First off, let's look at the kit I took:
Camera; Nikon D700, Lens; Nikkor 18-35mm ED AFD, Manfrotto 190 series tripod with a PRO-Ball Head, SB600 speedlight. Plus a big torch - actually a B&Q 5 milllion candle power search-light, but more about that in a minute.

Lightpainting attempt, part 1.
I'll come clean about this, it was a disaster but a productive one. I had never done this before so i didn't know what to expect and in the event I did everything wrong.

On the night, I couldn't quite figure out how I was going to light the climber with a torch and still keep him sharp during a long exposure and then light the ice without affecting the exposure for the climber. I assumed that I would have to pre-flash him with the speedlight - which is why I took it with me. I also assumed that I could achieve this by using a double exposure, something the D700 can do easily, one for the speedlight flash on the climber and one for the lightpainting on the ice.

My idea was to use a moderate ISO (400), at f5.6 @ 1/250th for the first flash exposure, which I hoped would light climber but leave leave the crag black. I used a home-made snoot on the flash to concentrate and limit the spread of the flash beam. For the second exposure I used f22 at 30 seconds to get time to lightpaint with the searchlight without overexpoing it (5,000,000 candle power is a lot of light!).

This didn't work at all. I got bad ghosting and double exposures on the climber so I tried asking him to descend out of frame during the second exposure. Still didn't work because the searchlight was too bright and too broad and just lit up the whole area no matter what I tried, resulting in a ghosted image of the climber as the ice showed through. Hmmm, time for a re-think.
Here's the actual ice fall at twilight soon after we arrived on location...

I since learnt that I needed to modify and control the search light beam and there seems to be a particular sequence of actions that are needed to achieve the result that I had hoped for, so all I can report for now is that I've done my homework and feel more confident about giving this another go soon, after which I will reveal all.

Speedlighting instead
With so much time and effort invested in going out to try this I was determined to come back with some kind of result so turned to my trusty SB600, dialed it into CLS remote mode and clamped it to my axe driven into the ice left of the climber. A snoot was fitted (rolled up cardboard chinese take-away lids with silver foil in the inside, and gaffer taped together! Classy eh?), zoomed to 75mm. The speedlight was triggered using the D700's pop-up in commander mode with the flash function turned off. Camera white balance was set to tungsten to get a blue cast - seemed to suit the ice. The result was what you see above.

It's a voyage of discovery...
I'm looking forward to getting back out and trying this again having learned from experience and researching other photographers notes on lightpainting. The difficulty here is getting the "live" climber to stay perfectly sharp during a 30 second exposure. Even so, it just goes to show that if you make the effort to get out there you always come back with something, whether it's new found knowledge, an unexpected image or just an interesting time out with your pals. If you don't go you get nothing!