Preview: Vivid Sydney Light Festival 2012

Preview: Vivid Sydney Light Festival 2012

Tonight was the preview night for Vivid Sydney, and approximately twenty light installations were open for media coverage and the use of a bemused public. Tonight, as it so happens, the dry spell which has blessed Sydney for the past few weeks also broke, and rain drizzled and trickled down upon us mortals. As part of my work, I went down to provide some coverage.

For reasons that shall later become clear (not later in this post, but later as in at a later date), I may not be able to provide a lot of coverage of the actual opening night tomorrow (though the lights run until midnight so we’ll see, I might be able to squeeze some in).

Vivid Sydney has very quickly become one of my favourite festivals (yes, IMO it beats Sculpture by the Sea) because it’s so transformative of the city. Of course, as a photographer, I geek out about light as well, and during the course of these few weeks, Sydney becomes a sort of wonderland of colours, and it seems so right – if you look at the Sydney skyline during the festival, it’s almost like that is what the city should always have looked, to such a degree that in the days and weeks after the end of Vivid Sydney, it seems strangely dull and dark.

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A lot of people bemoan the rain coming around during the start of Vivid Sydney. It does look as though the rain might continue this weekend (though one never does know with Sydney’s weather). I actually feel the rain is a gift to the determined photographer. It changes the way the lights look, provides extra particles in the air to catch the beams of light, and is a nice contrast to the pure black of the sky.

How to photograph during Vivid Sydney

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Just kidding with that headline, I’m not that sanctimonious. But then again while I was rushing around the various places, I saw a bunch of people with cameras and tripods just standing in a line and a photographer, presumably someone running a photography course, explaining the finer details of ISO usage during Vivid Sydney (true story).

I do have a few insights from past shooting which I tend to consciously take note of when shooting though. Maybe they’ll be useful, or maybe not. Just shoot however you like. Most of these things are just commonsense anyway.

I’ll also note that the pictures interspersed are just there as eye candy. Some of them illustrate the points, but mostly they’re just there randomly. It’s not gonna be one of those posts where my pictures are supposed to illustrate “this is a prime example of how to do the above”.

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Use your lens hood

I like lens flare as much as the next hipster, but when shooting high contrasts of light and dark, lens flare becomes a real issue very quickly. It’s even worse with the rain, with the water drops on the front element of the lens royally screwing with the image. A lens hood will serve its function during such nights to provide a degree of shading from rain, but still keep a close eye on your lens. In my case, I kept cleaning off the water, but due to oil residue, experienced smearing of a number of my images. I’ve left them because they do add a bit to the image, but too much of that stuff becomes unsubtle.

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Watch the white balance

Mostly kidding, and if you are using RAW you don’t have to worry so much about it. But some of the lights are saturating the blue or red channels, and these can be hard to bring back in post-processing if you are shooting lossy JPGs.

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Tripod is not really king

Night time, so go ahead and set that aperture to f/8 and go crazy with the slow shutter speeds – you’ve got a tripod so you don’t have to worry.

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True, the tripod *is* king for many, if not most situations. But with many artworks of Vivid Sydney, especially the building projections and some of the interactive light sculptures (like the Sea Grass piece, for example), your long shutter speed will wipe out the interesting point of the art work.

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Building projections tend to move quite a bit. Use a long shutter speed on them and you get a blurred mess.

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Similarly, some artworks utilise LEDs which can cycle through the whole rainbow. Set your shutter speed too long and they complete the cycle – add all the colours of the rainbow up and you get white light, and none of the nice colours.

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Also, beware of moving surfaces around the harbour. This year, the festival has expanded to include a few new areas. With some of them, there may be the temptation to step out onto a wharf to get a closer shot at it. Just keep in mind the wharf is moving, so if you are using a slow shutter, not even your tripod can help.

Use reflections

If you’re gonna have to deal with the rain, might as well make full use of it. We are talking shiny floors here.

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That about wraps it up. I suppose the key to any kind of shooting is being flexible, and adjusting your techniques to suit the particular artwork you are shooting. Don’t be scared of that high ISO, and be aware that your aperture CAN go below f/8 (in fact, feel free to go crazy with the bokeh while you can). Keep an open mind and look for those extra angles and try to isolate what really catches your eye. And of course, have fun.

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