My one free day in San Diego with a new camera to play with…or rather, a new camera to learn…turned out to be blessed with rain. Still, it was San Diego…I only get there once a year…and I have never yet been disappointed by a visit to Cabrillo National Monument at the tip of Point Loma high above San Diego Harbor and the Pacific. The Monument’s hours are dictated by the fact that you have to drive through part of the naval base and the National Cemetery to reach it, and, with budget cutbacks, the military gates are only open 9-5. I drove the few miles from my hotel to the Monument in the rain, and arrived at the pay station just after it opened. It was drizzling then, and I hoped for dryer weather later in the day, so I took the turn down to the Tide Pools at the foot of the point on the Pacific side, accessible by the road that serves the modern Coast Guard station lighthouse down there, and the water treatment plant for the naval base.
I was dressed for the weather, and had a umbrella with me to shield the camera, so it seemed worth a walk from the parking lot down the short trail to the top of the cliffs overlooking the tide pools themselves. When I got to the cliff top I realized that the Monument must have come into some of the Economic Recovery Funds, since they had clearly been working on expanding the trail system back up and across the soft sandstone conglomerate and compacted soil cliffs and further back along the coast toward San Diego, giving me access to new views. Even in the rain, this proved too tempting to resist, and I spent a couple of happy hours there shooting the rain drenched cliffs from under my umbrella…the surf, the rocks, seaweed, pelicans and the green headlands further north.
Shooting in the rain, or near rain, is a challenge, not only because you need to keep today’s digital cameras dry, but because the lighting is so tricky. The sky can be surprisingly bright, especially when compared to the rain soaked foreground. If you are not careful you end up with the worst of both extremes: muddy, dark, indistinct foregrounds and white skies. Even within the clouds themselves, it does not take much thinning for the contrast range between dark heavy cloud and lighter cloud to exceed the range of most sensors.
Of course, Lighroom has the tools necessary to extend the apparent dynamic range of an image in post processing: Recovery for highlights, Fill Light for foreground and shadows, and Blackpoint adjustment to bring up the intensity of flat images…but there are limits to what can be done in post, even if shooting RAW, and certainly if, like me, you shoot JPEG.
Then too, one of the things I have learned about my new Canon SX20IS is that, in Programmed Auto mode, it favors high shutter speeds and large apertures: more suitable for people (who are often in motion) than for stationary landscapes. The Canon seems to select even wider apertures than my Sony H’s did. This is not necessarily bad, as the lenses on these superzoom digitals are certainly optimized for wide apertures as well…but I am still traditional enough to be nervous shooting landscapes at F2.8.
The SX20 has a Landscape mode, but there is practically no information in the instructions as to what it actually does, beyond the obvious; “for capturing stunning landscapes.” Not helpful for anyone with photographic skills. Still, brief experimentation has taught me that it selects smaller apertures and slower shutter speeds and tends to favor lower ISOs. I am pretty sure…but not certain…that it also defaults to infinity focus when the auto focus fails to find a subject to lock on to, and it might adjust image contrast and saturation slightly too. Worth a try.
I am also gaining confidence in the SX20s iContrast setting, which is supposed to handle high dynamic range shots better than the conventional Program mode. I have experimented with intentionally biasing exposures toward the sky in tricky landscapes with clouds, using the Canon’s Exposure Lock, leaving the foreground darker than I would like it, and then adjusting in Lighroom (as I generally did when using the Sony, even with the Sony’s high dynamic range setting on)…but I am finding that using the iContrast or Landscape Program mode (which seems to have some of the same built in) and letting the Canon do its thing, actually gives me images that are, in fact, easier to adjust in Lightroom, and which require a lot less Fill Light for the foreground. If it is a choice between Recovery for highlights for Fill Light for shadows, I find that Recovery does less damage at the pixel level by introducing a lot less noise. Then too, if you are not careful with Fill Light, you can get halos at high contrast edges. Better, in high dynamic range situations, to work the sky, even using Lighroom’s Graduated Filter Effect at need, than to over-work the foreground.
Shooting in the rain or on a rainy day, it is really all about mood. You want to capture the wet saturation of the colors (using saturation in its photographic sense) without letting them go dark, and you want to catch the drama of the sky. In my opinion, you do not want the resulting images to look like they were taken on a brighter day…you want to preserve the feeling of wet and damp…the cool tones…and the feel of the soft heavy air, even in images with brighter colors.
After exploring the tail up the cliffs and further along the coast I came back to the tide pools and braved the slippery rock to climb down to the rocky shore. The tide was too far in for much tide pooling, and it was too dark anyway, but the wet seaweed on the beach offered some nice close-up and macro opportunities. The colors were richer than they might have been in full sun, and the wet provided interesting highlights.
Before leaving the Tide Pool area for the drive back up to the Visitor Center and original Lighthouse, I spent a few moments trying for Pelicans in flight as they road the inner line of surf down the coast toward me. With the SX20 at full reach (560mm equivalent) and on Sports Program, I got a few interesting shots.
Finally I did make it back to the car and drove up to the top of the Point Loma for the view. As things turned out, I had no more than got out of the car in the Visitor Center parking lot when it began to rain harder…and, though I attempted to wait it out in one of the Whale Watching shelters overlooking the Pacific, I finally had to decide that the rest of the day might be better spent back at the hotel processing my Tide Pool images.
I took this one last shot out over the Pacific just before the rain became too dense for photography.
So out of a rainy day at Cibrillo National Monument, I learned to trust Landscape mode a bit more, even if I don’t know exactly what it is doing, and how to enjoy and capture the mood of a stormy California day. Not bad.