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St. Louis Arch: Compliments of a Low Ceiling

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Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

I had one simple strategy while I was shooting the light pollution story for National Geographic: I would drive during the day and shoot at night. If I ended up in a city I shot pictures of the urban lighting obliterating the night sky. If I ended up in the dark stretches of the western United States, I shot pictures of the glorious night sky. Either way I had something to shoot every night for the month that I worked on the story.

The Gateway Arch image is a good example. I had intended to drive that day to Chicago, where I hoped to shoot the city from the air. But a quick check of weather en route confirmed that the rain I was driving through blanketed much of the Midwest, Chicago included. So I elected to divert to St. Louis, where I might have a shot at the arch.

The resulting image turned out to be one of my favorites, something I never expected to get. And it’s gotten attention from other quarters, too. National Geographic’s director of photography, David Griffin, wrote about it in his blog, as a stepping-off place to discuss the ramifications of digital for the professional photojournalist.

My first thought that night was to head to the opposite bank of the Mississippi, where I could see the arch and the skyline. The low overcast created a really bright sky, lit by the city lights coming up from below. But I soon saw that the spotlights that illuminate the arch were casting arch-shaped shadows on the low clouds. Sometimes the lighted spots even looked like sinister eyes with dark eyebrows. So it was back to the arch park to see what I could make out of it.

City lighting is often a witch’s brew of light sources, representing the full gamut of colors, often mixed in bizarre ways. Essentially this means there is no “correct” white balance. And because clouds are just water vapor, they have no inherent color. Clouds are always white and get all of their color from the light source that is illuminating them. (There are no red clouds at sunset, just the red light from the setting sun.) So I was amazed to see the salmon color that was coming out of my camera. It was just stunning. That put me into high gear.

I spent the next hour trotting around the park trying many angles, looking for that balance of representation (showing the whole arch and its setting) versus abstraction (isolating just part of it into a pure composition). Too abstract and nobody would know what they were looking at. Too straight and the image would be just another Gateway Arch image. (There are a few of those floating around on Flickr, aren’t there?)

Getting the exposure right on my Nikon D3 was easy enough. Five seconds at f/9 looked very good. I was on a tripod the whole time so I could keep the ISO down to 250, rendering the sky creamy smooth.

Finally a park patrol guard came by, regretfully informing me that he had to clear the park. (He really was nice about it. He gave me a few more minutes while he made the rest of his rounds.) But by then I pretty well knew I had something. Then I went off to spend two more hours shooting good and bad examples of street lighting, making it to bed by 3 a.m. Up at 8, I drove the next day to Detroit, where I shot aerials of the city that night. Then on to Toronto the next day—just another day in the fun-filled life of a photographer.

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