Shooting Walterdale with a shaky hand

Anyone who knows anything about anything will tell you that to take photos at night you need a very-sensitive-to-light camera or a sniper-steady hand and a longish exposure. But first prize would be a tripod, low ISO (google it if you don’t know what ISO is) and a long exposure to let in the right amount of light for a super-sharp photo with no graininess.

Late last week, while visiting friends in Edmonton, I went downtown to shoot the new Walterdale Bridge. The new Walterdale (not to be confused with the old Walterdale, which was built in 1913) was completed exactly a year ago. Already, it has been instagrammed to death, and can be found under the hashtag walterdalebridge.

As I mentioned in my blog about northern lights, I somewhat foolishly decided not to bring my tripod on this trip to Canuckistan. With shaky hands and a camera with only slightly above average low-light ability, it was impossible for me to produce the same quality shots as so many Instagrammers out there.

These were a few of them (handheld, at 6400 ISO and more grainy than a drizzly Vancouver dawn). Sorry I was struggling to find an appropriate simile just as much as I struggled taking photos that night.

Some random guy walking, to give perspective.
Probably the best of them all.
One of the first ones I tried to shoot.
A second one from the same angle. I couldn’t decide which was the worse of the two, so I posted both.
The could have been cool with a tripod and long exposure, to draw light from the shadows.

As you would see if you checked out the hashtag on Instagram, these really are just a bad example of the same old angles that have been shot in overabundance. (I mean, really, how many photographic angles can one come up with, short of scaling one of the arches to the top?)

But then I decided to use my strengths – shaky hands… Et voila – my creation of the Walterdale Bridge, which is at least unique, if nothing else. But, honestly, I love it.

16mm focal length, manual focus, ISO 100, 1 second exposure, f/5.6, panning to right after approximately half a second.  

Harvesting, whatever it takes!

Winter came way earlier than normal in Alberta this year. By the time I got north to Fort Vermilion they had had snow for a few days and were wondering how they were going to get all their fields harvested. Apparently one can only harvest mostly-dry crops, although they do have a grain dryer to deal with excess moisture before it goes into the “bins”.

But fortunately the snow only lasted a few days before moving south. The weather never warmed up, but at least it was sunny and dry! On the day I drove to Northwest Territories, I got home to the farm at 9pm. From there the women and I went to get free ice creams at the local ice cream parlour which was closing for the season. It was sub-zero outside, but in my universe it’s never too cold for ice cream! At 10pm we drove out to the field where the boys were harvesting, to give them moral support and so I could try to take a few photos. (I think they were harvesting barley on that particular evening.)

They finally called it a night at around 11.30pm, and we were home by midnight to have supper. This is apparently normal in harvesting season – supper happens whenever everyone gets back from the fields. That time of night is apparently also perfect for watching ludicrous YouTube videos like “Guy on a Buffalo” – when everything is funny, even if it isn’t.

My head hit my pillow at 1.30am. A couple of minutes later I received a message from one of the boys who was driving home: “The northern lights are out. You should go and shoot them!”

But there was no way I was going to struggle with all those layers of clothing for a few common northern lights! And I was way too warm under the covers. I switched my phone to “Do Not Disturb,” turned over and went to sleep.

Here are a few harvesting photos. Just so that you can share in the vibe of it all.

Simply stupendous, northern Alberta

Read part one here if you missed it.

I arrived on the farm just outside Fort Vermilion in northern Alberta late in the afternoon. The last few kilometres was down gravel roads south of town, with a non-functioning GPS, but I found the farm with less trouble than I had anticipated. The large wooden sign, “Simpson Family Farm,” right off the road I found myself on sure helped.

My only expectation of my time with the Simpsons was to go goose hunting. Soon after we arrived, the youngest of the boys and I went to build scarecrows in one of their pea fields and to scout for a hunt the next morning. But more about that in tomorrow’s post.

Supper was on the agenda when we got back to their large, rambling, lived-in home. Harvest is in full swing, which means that the meals are loud, full, family affairs – with all the kids minus one there to help. The food, cobbled together by matriarch Ena, with many ingredients gathered from the family garden, is hearty and copious. Unpasteurised milk flows liberally and the cherry on top was a huge, home-baked pie and farm-fresh cream.

“Have you seen the Northern Lights,” one of them asked at some point during the meal.

“Mmmmmmm, not really,” I replied. “A few years ago I shot some while in Edmonton, but they weren’t particularly bright.”

“Well, hopefully they will come out to play while you are here,” she replied.

I sure hoped so.

After supper the youngest went out to check on the grain dryer.

“Come outside now!” he called excitedly when he returned half an hour later.

And there, stretching from one side of the sky to the other, I was greeted with a green dancing band of aurora borealis.

After freezing on the back porch after exactly 5.3 seconds of watching the lights in my shorts and Birkenstocks, I retreated inside and got dressed in the warmest clothes I could find. From there I traipsed to the fields out back, where I had to prop my camera up on little logs, or against an electricity pole to get it steady enough to shoot. (Stupidly, I hadn’t brought my tripod to Canada on this trip.)

After that, Ena suggested that I drive down to the old ferry landing on the river for more shots. The road was pretty good most of the way, but right at the end I found myself sliding towards the water on the trail of clay. I could see myself stuck there for the night in the sub-zero temperatures, but decided to take photos and figure out my extraction plan afterwards.

Fortunately I have some experience driving on bad roads in Africa, so I eventually managed to slip and slide my way up the hill back home after shooting the dancing lights. Most of the lights I saw were green but you can get many different colours.

The family admitted that they tend to take the aurora for granted, because they see them so often. Apparently I helped them to appreciate the amazing light show they get when harvesting fields, or simply driving home from after work late at night.

The following night there were more northern lights, the following night more, and even more on my final night in the district. I can’t think of another time I was more spoilt by God and his created elements!

A Curious Canucki Mid-Autumn Moon Festival

It just so happened that on the day we visited Barkerville (see yesterday’s post) they were celebrating something called the Chinese Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. My companions assured me they had told me it would be happening, but I knew nothing about it until we walked through Barkerville’s front gates and I saw kids earnestly making lanterns.

Apart from the lantern making, where tourists could create their own, and then parade with them just before the park closed, there were tours of Chinatown, cultural sessions, Chinese games and typical Chinese meals served.

Once it got dark, everyone who had stuck it out were treated to lion and dragon dances, music and dance solos. I’m out of words, so here are the photos.

Swing dancing is alive and well in lower Canuckistan

I have visited and stayed with the same friends whenever I’ve been in the lower mainland of Canuckistan – that is to say, around the Vancouver area. And I have heard said friends gush and go on about the wonderful fun they have swing dancing many Sunday evenings. And so, obviously, as I found myself with them on one of said Sundays, I tagged along to see what all the hype was about.

Two new friends – a dad and daughter – we had only just met the previous Thursday came along too and dived right onto the dance floor. He didn’t really find his feet, but I hear he has been practising while doing the dishes, while taking out the garbage – pretty much with anything animate or inanimate that will allow him to. In fact, we arrived at his place of work a few days later and he immediately grabbed one of the young ladies I was with as she got out of the car, and danced her around the parking lot.

I can’t tell you anything about swing dancing, but I can tell you that it was good, sweaty fun and everyone had an absolute ball – from the youngest at 11 to the spritely octogenarian.

Chasing northern lights in Edmonton

If I had a bucket list, seeing the mystical Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights would probably have been on it. As I’m more of a “fly by the seat of your pants” kind of guy though, I’ve never kept a list of things I’d love to see.

But since I arrived in Edmonton, the Northern Lights have been on the figurative horizon. Then a few days ago my friend Russell told me that there would be a good chance of seeing them this Wednesday (yesterday). His wife Helen confirmed it after checking the Aurora watch website she follows.

On Wednesday morning at some ungodly hour, when only truckers and madmen should be awake, she received an alert email to say there was an 80% chance of seeing the lights exactly then. As none of us are truckers or madmen, we were safely tucked in our beds, and missed it.

And then came last night. I regularly checked from the balcony door throughout the evening but saw nothing. But Helen was more patient. At around 11pm she casually wandered back to the living room to announce that the Northern Lights were out. In this bright city, with way too many lights to see the Aurora, I shot this handheld:


“Let’s go,” said Russell, excitedly. “Helen, get the child!”

And so we sprung into action. Helen grabbed her baby and his bag of goodies and I grabbed mine – my DSLR, tripod, flashlight and all.

Bundled up against the cold, we drove east looking for a dark spot from which to shoot, all the while checking our “Aurora Watch” apps to confirm the chances of seeing something cool.

“Mine says there’s a 12% chance of seeing it,” said I. “Mine has 40%,” said Helen.

“We’ll believe yours then,” we all agreed. And see them we did, which was incredible, considering all the light pollution! At first they just looked like wispy clouds, but the longer we stood out there, the brighter they got. (I shot long exposures of 20-30 seconds each, at f/4 and ISO 400-800, for you technical types.)

After four spots, the show seemed to be over and so we drove home, stopping at the golden arches for a midnight snack. The baby was put to bed and Helen made us some mochas as we sat down to gush about the incredible spectacle and out midnight excitement!

But the night was not over. Another alert email came in and Helen told me I just had to go out to look for more Aurora. The two of them explained how to get to Rabbit Hill ski area south-west of the city, and off I drove (on my own this time.)

My midnight/morning adventure ended at about 5am when I embraced my pillow and duvet, but not before crossing off “Northern Lights” from my imaginary bucket list.

Driving in to Rabbit Hill ski area.
Driving in to Rabbit Hill ski area.
Down at Rabbit Hill
Down at Rabbit Hill
Looking north at Rabbit Hill
Looking north at Rabbit Hill
On the hill looking north
On the hill looking north
Road sign and Northern Lights
Road sign and Northern Lights
A bit later. The same Road sign
A bit later. The same Road sign
In a field with a flashlight
In a field with a flashlight
A Moravian church on the way home - the Northern Lights show almost at an end.
A Moravian church on the way home – the Northern Lights show almost at an end.

The Weather Network had this to say about seeing the Northern Lights this week: “A speedy stream of solar particles is washing past Earth this week, sparking off amazing displays of the Northern Lights in our night skies … Light pollution will be your bane for spotting the aurora, as urban lights will completely wash out the delicate colours splashed across the horizon. If you want to check out the action, it’s recommended that you get as far away from cities as possible. For most regions of Canada, this will be as easy as just heading north out of your community and keeping the city to your back when you watch.

An unexpected evening photo shoot in Edmonton

“Let’s go out for ice cream … or something,” I suggested to my friends here in Edmonton late one afternoon.

They agreed, and we headed downtown. What started out as a trip for creamy goodness, however, became an impromptu photo shoot at the Muttart Conservatory including cool little shots like these:

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From there we went for supper (still no ice cream) to the Sugarbowl Bar and Café in Garneau. For starters we enjoyed smoked paprika popcorn – sounds bizarre but it was amazing! For mains I chose a salmon salad with a nice little rosé. I wish I still drank beer because their selection of over 100 international beers looked incredible! Even their bathrooms were pretty exotic.

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From there we went for a short walk to find a vantage point from which to shoot the city and high level bridge, but to no avail. That took us back to the car, and an adventure drive – all for my benefit – while the toddler slept. Although I hadn’t brought my tripod, I still managed to shoot the following photos handheld. We never found ice cream, but it was a most enjoyable impromptu evening of photos, good food and first-rate company.

Ghostly house
Edmonton at night, with the new bridge under construction
The high level bridge, past the Kinsmen Club
The High Level Bridge and a ghostly dead tree from the south bank
“Drive-by shooting” on the 105 St. Bridge.
Driving on the High Level Bridge. (I was the passenger.)

Throwback Thursday: Chronicles of an Insomniac Photographer

I know, I know, some of you have told me that “Throwback Thursdays” are boring, but I also know of at least one person who will enjoy this post from 2014, so here I go.

Back then I was really struggling with my health – my breathing in particular. This often kept me awake, my lungs rebelling, leaving me struggling to breathe. For a while I would lie in bed wheezing and coughing, until, in desperation, I would get up, dress warmly, grab my camera gear and head out into the night – into the “clean” air of this mill town of ours.

I shot the following over three nights – all between 10pm and 1am. One thing I discovered shooting at night is that one doesn’t tend to capture as many colours as during the day. But I learnt another important photographic lesson too – the value of a normal little flashlight. So, in these shots where you see graffiti standing out against the orange-browns of the train carriages, that’s because of the flashlight.

What else did I learn? When a cop stops to ask what you are doing, make sure you respond with confidence – as if you are exactly where you are meant to be. But when a train engine comes rumbling down the tracks towards you, confidence is pointless: make yourself scarce … and quickly.

Since I returned to Canuckistan in July this year I have been particularly healthy, and have not ventured out into the night even once. I also haven’t felt led to shoot much train graffiti. How grateful I am that I got all of these shots (and other night-time ones) back then!

(Click on images. Now!)

The early bird catches the shot (how hokey)

I am anything but an early bird – ask anyone who knows me. My best work seems to be done anywhere between 10pm and 2am, and I seldom see the sun rise. But I also have gained a reputation of not sleeping much here in Canada. I don’t know where that comes from, but it did come true one Friday night/Saturday morning a few weeks ago when I went to sleep around midnight and then woke up absolutely and completely at 3.12am.

After downing a cup of coffee I decided to grab my camera gear and go out shooting – which took place from just after 4am until 7.30 (I am guessing). I remember a friend (thanks Mr Langley) telling me once that the best time of day to shoot buildings is just before sunrise, because of the faint glow in the sky. And he was right! The best time to shoot anything is just before and after sunrise, I’d say!

I started at my favourite pulp mill, then drove over to the Fraser River Footbridge, which I shot from the West Side. After sharing the river bank with a few curious deer I then headed into a lifeless downtown, on to the train station, and up towards Dragon Lake, before ending at my most treasured model, the burnt-out church in Red Bluff (which I shot from the trees). The colours absolutely popped, unlike in the full light of the day. You can see for yourself below.

(Click on thumbnails to open the slideshow.)

Time travel at the Cottonwood Community Hall

As far back as anyone can remember, the residents of Cottonwood, a settlement in British Columbia’s Cariboo region, have been gathering at the community hall on a Saturday night. Originally a ranch, this little community grew to cater for miners drawn to the Cariboo Gold Rush in the late 1800s. Once the gold had mostly been depleted and the miners had moved on, Cottonwood kept on a-going.

The community hall started as one small room, but has since had other appendages cobbled onto it – a nave for dancing, a small kitchen, side annex, porch and, most recently, inside bathrooms with flush toilets (filled with a bucket, of course). I was told by one of the Saturday evening stalwarts that they meet come hell, high water or blizzard, and that everyone who comes out to play cards, dance, play music or just visit with each other is like family. And I was treated as such, even with my camera shoved into everyone’s personal space.


This isn’t a place for airs, graces or pretentious silliness: this community hall is the Saturday sanctuary of  real people, being real together. All the musicians clearly love to play and sing with each other; the older folk and children enjoyed dancing no matter what was played (although most of the songs would have to be classified as “country” I suppose.) Herbie, he with the roguish smile hidden in his dusty beard, never strayed from his spot at the card table and those not into dancing or jamming either chatted in the kitchen (sharing whatever food people brought) or outside on the balcony, with mosquitoes as company.


In this rushed, dog-eat-dog, individualistic society we live in, this was a breath of fresh air, which I inhaled deeply. Lynn and friends were kind enough to do one of my requests, grandchildren sang with grandparents, couples played alongside each other, guitars duelling, while Glenis’s gravely, soulful singing evoked visions of Cottonwood gatherings stretching back a hundred years.

(I decided to post process all my images for this blogpost as if they dated back to the years of antique cameras, dark rooms and a world lived in black and white. Please click on the thumbnails to see bigger versions.)



Playing with fairground movement on a Saturday night

A few days ago I featured the photography of a teenager with whom I spent some time shooting the Billy Barker Days Carnival one Saturday evening recently. I showed her a few tricks in terms of what aperture to use, how to use the shutter priority mode to create movement in her photos, and photo framing.

I, on the other hand, had a tripod and so spent most of my time doing long exposures to create really cool effects – interesting images of common fairground attractions. Also, with all those lights around, I had to play with bokeh a bit too!

bo·keh: /bōˈkā/

the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photographic image, especially as rendered by a particular lens.

You saw her amazing photos already. Here are mine.

Playing hide and seek with the blood moon

Last night, in the early hours of the morning, the so-called “blood moon” was seen over North America. Before going to bed I decided that I would get up at 2am so that I could go out to capture it on camera.

Amazingly, I did get up, dressed warmly and bought myself a Timmy’s coffee before driving out to the Dragon Lake boat launch. It had been cloudy for days, but the forecast promised mostly-clear skies. They did not materialise. Every so often the moon would dart out into a break in the clouds, but it was so hazy that I found it absolutely impossible to get anything vaguely resembling a sharp shot. This was one game of hide and seek that the moon won hands down.

Eventually, at 3.45am I drove home and collapsed into bed.

I have previously taken photos of a blood moon in South Africa (from our back yard) and I did at least shoot these blurry photos of the area while waiting, so all was not lost.

141008 600_9132 141008 600_9133Assuming that the moon would still be pretty full, I decided to go and park out on a country road this evening. There was no blood involved and pictures of the moon are dime-a-dozen, but I took a few photos anyway. Why go through a day without trying to capture at least a bit of the beauty around one. Also, only half way through the shoot did I actually find my tripod, so a few of the pics are a bit camera-shaky.

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Chronicles of an insomniac photographer in Canuckistan

I know, I know, you are probably as tired of hearing about my not sleeping as I am of actually not sleeping. “Why aren’t you sleeping?” many have asked me. And my answer is, “I don’t know.”

Well, I do to a point. Every now and then my lungs rebel and I struggle to breathe and so I lie in bed wheezing and coughing. Or, as has been my won’t more recently, I get up, dress warmly, grab my camera gear and head out into the night; into the “clean” air of this mill town of ours.

I shot the following over three nights – all between 10pm and 1am. One thing I have discovered shooting at night is that one doesn’t tend to capture as many colours as during the day. But I have learnt another important photographic lesson too – the value of a normal little flashlight. So, in these shots where you see graffiti standing out against the orange-browns of the train carriages, that’s because of the flashlight.

What else have I learnt? When a cop stops to ask what you are doing, make sure you respond with confidence – as if you are exactly where you are meant to be. But when a train engine comes rumbling down the tracks towards you, confidence is pointless: make yourself scarce … and quickly.

(Click on images. Now!)

Witching-hour perambulations: Street lights

Tonight I decided to stop on Highway 97, where it crosses the Quesnel River, to take a few shots. At one point a cop pulled over to see what I was doing. Fortunately I was apparently completely within the law, and he left after offering some sage advice: “Don’t get too close to the road when you see cars coming.”

Here are three shots from my little nighttime perambulation.

Like something from sci-fi.
Like something from sci-fi.
Bridge across the Quesnel.
Bridge across the Quesnel.
One dead street light.
One dead street light.