180918 Harbour Traffic - matthew piers robertson • photography writing creative toronto

Thirty minutes, just about.

This photo of the traffic in Toronto's inner harbour is a combination of fifty-eight individual photos, each a half-minute long, layered and merged to show the brightest pixels. Add in a split second or so for the camera to reset and start the next photo and we're at half an hour, starting at about a quarter after nine on a Friday night. 

It's tough to catch the movement of boats and planes in the same image. Exposures that are long enough to show long trails for boats are letting in too little light per moment to show much of a trail from aircraft, if any at all. Shorter exposures for planes leave boats as short bright squiggles and not much more. Stacking shorter exposures works around both problems, and suddenly we're seeing star trails above downtown Toronto.

Six minutes, this time.

This second photo is only a dozen exposures, but now we're on the point of land closest to the Centre Island ferry dock, and tracking the ferry as it sails back to the city. I'm only just within the acceptable bounds for a Toronto skyline photo – by law they must include the CN Tower, and including the stadium next to it is strongly encouraged – but I really wanted to swing the lens around far enough to catch the entire ferry route.

Next time I'll set up on the other side and photograph from Olympic island, so then I should be able to be fully compliant with the Toronto Photography Requirements. But in reality these photos are just taken from where I happened to be when the technique and opportunity combined in my head.


Two things I have never regretted spending the money for are a good pair of boots and a good tripod. They're far more important to my photography than any camera or lens.

The boots, to give credit where it's due, are Salomon Quest 4D GTX light hikers. I'm currently on the "3" generation after spending four years wearing out the previous model. I'm frequently getting caught by waves when setting up shots like this – up to my shins on one particularly stormy occasion, but frequently to my ankles, and I've never had damp feet. And even when the lake is still I'm wading in surprisingly often; photos from the beach just look better when the tripod is a short distance into the water. 

And what a tripod it is. This is my Jobu Algonquin with an Arca-Swiss P0 head, which at this point is worth more than the camera it's supporting. It's taking the sequence for the thirty-minute exposure in this image, and if you look really closely you can see that the cabled shutter release is locked open. The camera is in continuous shooting mode – no intervalometer required.

Because I use the tripod at night I've added a band of reflective tape at each leg lock and on the barrel of the spikes at each foot. Here they're catching the light from one of my Pelican incandescent flashlights that I like for light painting. I've thought about adding some glow-in-the-dark tape as well, just to make it easier for me to avoid bumping the legs, but so far I've resisted. The cable release does have the glow tape on it, which I added after incessantly fumbling around for it during a particularly dark night on the Spit. That's also when I learned to use the red and yellow gear ties to suspend the cable release with a bit of slack and to hold the camera strap in place.

Normally the proper technique is to adjust the tripod by lengthening and shortening the lowest leg section, which is the weakest. With the Algonquin I adjust the middle first, leaving as much of the lower section exposed as possible. Adequate strength is simply never an issue, but the bottom of my tripod is typically damp and sandy, so I leave it out to keep the internals cleaner and drier. And you'll also note that the tripod doesn't have a centre column, which I've never missed.

And it works. During the half-hour that the camera was splayed out at the waterline it was sprayed by waves that wet the tripod almost to the top of the foam grips. With the steel spikes firmly planted against the rocks the camera never budged – I didn't need to use any alignment tricks for layering the images. That's better performance than I get from my light Gitzo tripod with the little X100F on it when it's set up on a sidewalk. 

We're reaching the best time of the year for night photography in Toronto: sunset is coming earlier, giving more (and more convenient) time to work, but it's not yet too cold to spend an entire night outdoors. Good boots and a good tripod make it possible. They're hard to beat.