Reciprocity failure

Leaving home a touch before sunset and only then heading towards Stanley Park was a smart move. Daylight was shifting slowly but steadily into a lower spectrum, yawning lazily while putting its night gown on. Afternoon  heat had given way to a pleasant, perfumed evening gentleness. I found myself going against the human tide washing back to town, and on a Friday night, it was considerable. It was past nine o’clock and people would now be headed for their inebriating stations. Some had already reached them on a beach or a bench, judging by the loudness of their laughter and the complicated trajectory of their return to civilization.

A dozen police officers were strolling down English Bay Beach, chatting, eyes and ears awake but looking friendly and nonthreatening. I never see old cops in Vancouver. I wonder what happens to them past 30. They probably get recycled. In any case, Friday night on the beach sounds like a nice assignment.

The hot-dog man was at his ritual spot, selling long hot snacks dripping with multicolor condiments, their smell floating around and advertising silently for him. Just in front of his caboose, a street performer had taken position on the grass and was throwing his usual jokes at a gathering crowd through a squeaky microphone. Further towards the beach, someone was playing a music box. I paused for a moment, trying hard to put a finger on the familiarity of this scene. Then it all came back to me:

And the piano sounds like a carnival
And the microphone smells like a beer
And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar
And say "Man what are you doin’ here?"

Billy Joel – Piano Man

I pushed on towards Second Beach. The swimming pool had long closed down for the day and its surface reflected the sunset in a perfect mirror. I had intended to maybe go as far as Siwash Rock  but as the glowing star began to dip behind the mountains on the horizon, I decided to settle down for a while and enjoy the show. The world shifted from "before" to "after" as a sailboat rolled softly at anchor, its mast repeatedly sweeping across the sun’s shrinking disk.

People stopped around me, some sat down on benches too and the air grew silent. There isn’t much else to do at sunset than stare and grasp a friendly hand very hard if one is available. Mine wasn’t, not just yet, but I could feel it nonetheless and found great comfort along with fleeting sadness as I reached over the continent and held her tight.

There is a strange, silent rule that seems to command most people to put their camera away once the sun has gone. It’s ironic because Abetoo only fully awakes at that time. Of course, a tripod becomes quintessential and most strollers don’t carry one. I walked a little longer, until I reached a place on the Seawall where I felt every second I wasted was a shot missed. There was  a giant log stranded not far from shore and I elected it as my first willing subject.

Taking long exposures, using a 4x neutral density filter, low ISO and a high aperture number to compensate for the remaining light, I got a lot of time to look around me. People were passing by, curiously looking at my setup and clearly wondering what I was doing still out here while darkness crept in. One usually expects a photographer to peer endlessly through his viewfinder and the image of me nonchalantly standing next to my camera doing absolutely nothing will have made them ponder and maybe laugh.

As I pushed my exposures up to 4 minutes, I found that something was blurring my shots. There was no wind and the tripod could be assumed to be rather steady. It took me a while to realize that every time runners and bikers  zoomed by a few feet away from me, they probably sent enough vibration through the asphalt to slightly shake the camera. I began to time my shots between human interference.

I had forgotten to bring my strong spotlight and with the night having for all practical purposes arrived, focusing on foreground subjects became increasingly tricky. My IS lenses aren’t parfocal and do not have a DOF scale, nor did I have my hyperfocal distance chart (I have since then printed it and will laminate it, scrogneugneu!), so everything became a guessing game. Silhouettes were floating next to me and I could see puzzled looks.

Eventually, when I could no longer focus accurately, I turned around and headed back home. Leaving the evening behind and having received so much from it in terms of beauty and peace, I felt a bit uneasy and worried that I had failed to reciprocate, to contribute.

So I do hope that these pictures – all of them shot in advanced darkness except for the 2 last – will compensate for my selfishness or even better, that they might make you decide to go for a walk around Stanley Park tonight, armed with a tripod, your camera and patience. And let the night do the talking.

Note: I titled this post "Reciprocity Failure" as a wink to the actual term and an intro to my last paragraph, but I should probably point out that it only technically applies to film, not digital photography.

However, I’ve noticed that a similar effect is felt digitally when reaching exposure durations beyond 30 seconds. For instance, if my meter fluctuates in Manual mode around 30 seconds, and a test shot at 30 secs seems only slightly underexposed (my camera’s speed dial goes from 30 secs to bulb), one would think doubling the exposure would be sufficient to achieve a correctly exposed image, hence exposing for 60 seconds. In practice, though, I’ve found that two or three additional f-stops are usually required to get a correct exposure, i.e. at least 120 seconds in this case. That to me sounds a lot like reciprocity failure minus the color shift…