Sunrise in the Kootenays
During my recent trip to Nelson, British Columbia, I had the chance to join up with Thierry Noblet of Kootenay Lake Aviation. Thierry is a seasoned pilot (and father of a photographer) so he knew the exact combination of ideal take off time, travel time and where to position the aircraft to get us to the Leaning Towers just in time for an amazing sunrise. The Leaning Towers are a range of mountains in the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy Provincial Park and Protected Area just beyond the eastern edge of Kootenay Lake in southeastern British Columbia.
Location, location, location!
I have to admit that this brief 75 minute flight was an extraordinary experience for me, and resulted in some equally extraordinary images. It felt rather surreal that by 5:45am my “work day” was done and I had the impression that I had just fulfilled my photographic ambitions for the year. Nope, no way to beat that. And I hadn’t even had breakfast yet. For the remainder of that day, I had the surreal impression of “well, that happened!” without any means to follow it up in some way that could even come close to comparing.
As a primarily landscape photographer, I tend to use a tripod, small apertures, slow shutter speeds and low ISO settings to get the best photographic quality images I can achieve. I had never shot images from the open window of a speeding airplane before, and the night before I contemplated the settings I should use. I decided to bring my Nikon D800 with the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 lens for primary photography. I set the camera to Program mode with Auto ISO settings set to a maximum value of ISO 1600 and a minimum shutter speed of 1/250th of a second. I set it to take three bracketed shots, each with a full f stop difference. With Auto ISO, this effectively let me use a nearly constant f stop (for best sharpness) and shutter speed (to avoid motion blur) and varied the ISO to change exposure values. This let me concentrate on composition and not technical issues during the flight. I also brought a D7000 with a Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8 with the same settings. However, Thierry brought us so close to the peaks that I used the 24-70mm the whole time and never needed to switch to the telephoto lens. Quite frankly there were times we were so close to the mountains I felt like I could reach out and touch them. Yes, it was amazing!
Ultimately, the whole experience reminded me of one of the basic truths about nature photography: Location, location, location! You can be a great photographer, have all the latest and greatest gear and be a Lightroom and Photoshop wizard but if you aren’t at the right place at the right time your images just won’t cut it. In this case, Thierry took care of the logistics and my RAW files are just about perfect. Apart from straightening the horizon and a few slight exposure and colour tweaks there isn’t much that I needed to do to these images.
Bottom line: put the effort into getting to your location at the right time. You’ll have less post-processing work to do afterwards.