The Value of a Photograph

We’ve all seen posts, or articles, out there in cyberspace, debating the value of a photograph as it pertains to art. Some say that it’s only a piece of paper, canvas, etc, how much could it possibly be worth. The purpose of this post is, not to debate whether a photograph is art, but to illustrate what is involved in the making of a photograph. 

This particular image was intended to put together two astronomical events - the Geminids meteor shower, and the passing of Comet 46P/Wirtanen. I was hoping to get a few (if I was lucky) Geminid meteors and have Comet 46P/Wirtanen in the same frame.  There are a couple of different ways to do this. One is to get your foreground, with the backdrop of the night sky, and line up all these elements to in such a way as increase your chances of getting some Geminid meteors, and the comet in one frame with one exposure. Pulling this off requires careful planning, the right weather conditions, considerable technical skills, gear suitable for the task, and a lot of luck. The second way is using multiple frames to capture the different elements and creating a composite image from the all the images taken. The second way , I feel, is more like digital art than a photograph but that’s a whole other debate for another time.

The planning starts months, or at least weeks, in advance. You need to track the events that are occuring in the night sky, plan a location that suits all the necessary parts of the photograph you’re hoping to get, select a suitable time/date to capture the event(s), and free up your time to capture the event(s). To do this I subscribe to a number of services/apps and utilize specialized astronomy software to determine the location in the sky that the event will occur and tie that in with some interesting foreground subject. In this case the peak time for the Geminids Meteor shower would be on the morning of December 14th at around 2 am. At that time Comet 46P/Wirtanen would be in the Southwest sky in the area of Taurus and Orion. I would need an area with a dark sky in order to pick up the faint comet. Using my software I determined that the moon would be around one quarter and would be out of the sky by 2 am so that was in my favour. Next I needed a location that I could pull all these elements together. I knew of a location in Kananaskis that would be suitable in all aspects and assembled a plan. 

The next element that I needed to fall into place was the weather. Initially the long term forecast looked good with clear skies forecast. The short term forecast didn’t work out so well unfortunately. The night of December 13th was overcast with a wind warning in place for the Kananaskis region so plan A was out. The area around Cochrane was reasonably clear though still quite windy so I assembled plan B. I would head out to the Ghost area where there were dark skies, I could get some nice foreground if the mountains were visible. My idea was to have the peaks around Devil’s Head as foreground and I knew of a good viewpoint that would get me above the trees to get a clear view of the skies and mountains. Hopefully the winds would not be too extreme! I loaded up and headed out at 12:30 am hoping for the best.

An hour later I arrived at the Waiparous viewpoint where I had planned to shoot from. I setup my camera and tripod on the edge of an escarpment overlooking the valley. In the dark you can’t really see your foreground well enough to setup the composition, but the camera can using high ISO settings and long exposure, so that takes a few minutes of trial and error to get dialed in. I got the composition I had been planning except the mountains were completely shrouded in cloud and the high winds were creating too much camera shake and blurring the long exposures. I tried holding the camera in place and shielding it from the wind using my body but to no avail. With the winds picking up even more as time went by I now formulated plan C. I moved my camera up into the parking area and setup the camera and tripod on the lee side of my truck and setup a the shot. I would have to abandon any foreground as trees were moving far to much in the wind and would be blurred by the movement. I was going to be left with a sky only shot. On the bright side though I had seen many meteors streaming through the sky. I took several shots, with the camera pointed straight up at the sky, till I got the composition down so that I would catch a Geminid meteor (if I was lucky) and the comet in a single image.

Now it was down to timing, and luck, to catch a meteor. The rate of meteors coming in seemed to be slowing now and I would need some luck to have the shutter open at the moment a meteor streaked by. I saw several more meteors but I didn’t catch anything for a number of exposures (15 seconds @ f2.8 ISO 10000). I was using a high ISO setting to keep the exposure time to a minimum as the camera was still moving on occasion in the wind. I took several more exposures finally catching a meteor and securing the only good image of the evening. The meteors were sparse at this point and the winds were, unbelievably, still picking up. The wind was rocking my truck in the parking lot now. I thought I’d best head for home before getting stuck out for the night behind a downed tree. I later learned that wind gusts were in hitting 130kph in the Ghost region!

To summarize putting together this single image took approximately $7,000 in gear, $350 in software, 30 years of experience with the surrounding area to plan the shot and adapt to conditions, the technical skills to pull off a night shot in adverse conditions, $40 in gas to get there and back, and about 7 hours of my time to plan, photograph, and process the images. This doesn’t include any value for the heart and soul of the artist. So next time you hear someone say: ”It’s only a photograph how much could it possibly be worth” please correct them :-)