How I Got the Shot: Peter Cannon on 'Rays through the Mist'

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"Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” George Eastman.

Having been involved in professional photography for over 30 years, I've tested a wide range of equipment and used a variety of camera bodies to achieve the huge library of work that I presently have. I'm happy to share how I got this particular photo, and the story will probably surprise you as much as it did me.

Editor's Note: This is a guest blog post from Peter R. Cannon

For the first few years of my professional career, I was a portrait and wedding photographer, but I soon moved towards one of my true passions: shooting sports and wildlife.

After a 20-year career in sports photography, including working with the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team and America’s Cup yachting team amongst many others, I moved on to independent films for a few years, with a mix of photography and motion picture work, before returning solely to photography a few years ago. My wife and I are also very keen wildlife and landscape photographers.

Lately, I've been working on an assignment as a test run for a push towards National Geographic work, which is one of my personal goals. I've chosen the Australian Raptors/Birds of Prey as my subject matter for this assignment.

Recently, on a winter morning, I set off to find the Wedge-Tailed Eagle, which is the only raptor locally that's proving hard to find. I have a couple of decent shots of them, but I'm looking for a spectacular shot to complete my assignment.

Before that morning, I had swapped my Canon 5D Mark II with a friend who was considering buying a Mark III, and had wanted to get a feel for my camera. She had lent me her Canon 7D, because I was considering buying a more sports-oriented camera. She hadn’t brought her wide angle lens along the day that we made the swap. I didn’t give it a second thought, because I was photographing raptors. As long as I had a telephoto lens, I was set.

We live on the edge of the countryside in Melbourne, Victoria. About fifteen minutes out, on my way towards my destination, at around 8:30 a.m., I saw a large embankment of fog surrounding a local set of small mountains known as the ‘You Yangs’. These are large rocky formations where raptors can sometimes be found. I decided that the chance of a raptor coming through the mist was worth a look. As I neared the mountains and drove into the fog, I saw some very moody shots to be had within the trees in the fog. I stopped the car and started shooting a few scenes into the fog, from the side of the road. It was lovely.

I had just been thinking that it would be great to see the rays of the sun piercing the fog, when some rays actually started coming through. Initially, the rays were sporadic and not very spectacular. Just as I was deciding to move on, a radiant beam of light struck me. It was impressive and got my attention, so I just had to stop again.

I put my 50mm f/1.8 on the 7D, but the focal length was still too long to really capture what I was seeing in all its glory. I took a five-shot panorama with the 50mm on the 7D vertically, but wasn’t getting the height I needed to capture this properly. It’s about now I’m thinking, “Bugger, no wide angle lens.”

I contemplated shooting a double-layered panorama of 2 x 5 shots which I could merge in Photoshop, but decided that might be tricky. My idea was to shoot five shots with the ground in them, as there was beautiful light spilling onto the ground, and then I'd shoot five shots with the bottom edge of the image slightly overlapping the top, which probably would have worked.

I made the decision to grab the iPhone 4S from my pocket and see what I could do with that. I knew it had a 35mm wide angle lens on it, which was wider than anything else that I had on me. I'd been playing with an HDR app called HDR Fusion, which takes two images and merges them, bringing the highlights down and shadowed areas up a touch. I thought was good for a bit of fun.

I set the HDR Fusion App going, and I’m looking at this scene and seeing too much glare. So I moved around until I found this one spot where the main glare was behind a tree. I then closed one eye and honed my position very critically to one precise spot. If I moved a touch to either side, I’d get bad flare and glare. I crouched to a point where my legs were hurting. However, that was the spot, so I braced myself and took a shot.

Well, I was not expecting to see what I did from the iPhone. I thought it might give me something to play with back home, a shot to show my wife. It looked impressive, and really captured close to what I was seeing. I rattled off about 20 shots in slightly different ways. I moved to a couple of different spots and took some of the rays hitting the road beside me. "That was that," I thought at that time, and drove off to find my raptors, which I did. All, but my Wedge-Tailed Eagle, of course—elusive bird, that one.

Post Production

Upon arriving home later that day, I decided, for the first time, to take the photos from the iPhone into Photoshop CS6. I’ve never really taken the iPhone camera and photos that seriously. I'm aware that Steve Jobs had said he wanted to change photography in a big way, and I have a great deal of respect for what he did in his time on this earth. I’ve certainly been an Apple fan forever, and still am. Yet, I haven’t really considered the iPhone an option for much more than some shots for the family album.

My first shock was the size that this image was when it came into Photoshop. Admittedly, it was 72 dpi, but at 114 cm x 85 cm, I suddenly felt quite excited. Seeing that the detail was quite reasonable excited me even more.

To start, I changed the dpi to 300. I then cropped to a width of 45 cm, which gave me a height of 33.73 cm. When I zoomed in on the image, I was astonished at the quality. Of course my 5D Mark II would be a lot better, but this was reasonable—actually better then reasonable. It looked sharp; the detail and contrast were much more impressive then I was expecting!

I did notice a bit of noise in the shadows, so I took the image into Topaz DeNoise, which is an underrated plug-in, in my opinion. I set DeNoise to around 30 points. After this, I'm even more impressed. It’s tidying up well. This image is about contrast, of course, so I raised the contrast levels higher, and added a little bit of color saturation to give a lift to the color of the grass. I also darkened the overall image to bring the highlights down a bit further. I may have done a very small burn on the bright area around the sun, and that’s about it. I have a usable 12 x 18". That’s crazy!

I have a huge exhibition coming up in Melbourne later this year. It's my first big show, entitled “A Stop or Two, Forty Years in the Making”. We made a decision that 12 x 18 was going to be the smallest size for that exhibition, so I’m going to have to include this image. As Chase Jarvis once said, “The best camera is the one you have on you," to which I’d add, “...at the time you see something worthy of a good picture.”

This was a picture worth capturing.