Did you know that the word photograph comes from Greek and means “drawing and writing with light”? The word sounds as poetic as the actual taking of photos, but its meaning does not offer much consolation here in the dark winters of the north. For the next few months, the “photo” in photograph – light itself – will be in short supply around here.
Harri Tarvainen is a professional photographer specialising in outdoors and action photography. Accompanied by his Insta-famous, curly-coated retriever Kaffe, he goes on hikes and takes great photos. You can follow Kaffe’s adventures on his Instagram account @kaffegram. You can also check out Kaffe and Harri’s tips for pet photography here: https://www.canon.lt/kaffe/
I’m just happy we have snow. Small as the daily amount of light is, it is reflected from the white ground and trees. Despite this, north of the Arctic Circle, even the brightest moment of the day is very dim in December. But this is not a complaint! This cloudy, dark and cold landscape is in fact the perfect condition to test the features of the new full-frame mirrorless EOS R6 camera.
I’ve taken photos with the EOS R5 camera for a few months now, and have become familiar with the mirrorless technology also by using the EOS RP and M6 Mark II. Even though my muscle memory still guides my fingers to the buttons of the 5D and that camera body does have a special place in my heart, I wouldn’t switch back. The technological advances of the latest models not only make it possible to shoot faster, more accurately or at a higher resolution; they also change the way I shoot.
Preparing to shoot fast-moving subjects – a snow surfer and Kaffe – I increase the sensitivity of the sensor to ISO 4000 and select Servo AF with face detection as the autofocus program. In a snowy landscape, the camera often makes the image too dark, so I'm fooling it by overexposing the image by one stop. I give the starting signal, and Kaffe and the snow surfer start speeding down the slope. I run alongside them as long as I can keep up with the pace. While running, I point the camera towards them and press the shutter button down, hoping for the best. Autofocus searches for faces even at high speeds and focuses most images just right, even when the face is not in the centre of the image area. I would never have done this kind of shooting with my old equipment, where I used to play it safe in a dim light with one centred focus point. Often the best photos are shot in fleeting moments with the subject unaware of being photographed. Thanks to the automatic face detection, I can point the camera at a subject – shoot from the hip, as they say – and still produce images that have the right focus.
Two Siberian jays have also arrived to observe our fun in the snow. Being very curious, they keep flying closer and closer to see us. I crush a few of Kaffe’s treats into crumbs and extend my hand towards one of the birds. A moment later, a Siberian jay sits on my palm, pecking treats. The bird is surprisingly heavy, its small, sharp claws holding my fingers firmly. I lift the camera in front of my face and from the viewfinder I see how autofocus draws a small square around the bird’s eye at lightning speed. When the Siberian jay picks up a treat from my palm and the eye disappears from view, a larger square appears around the subject’s head and follows its movement. When the head rises again, a small square also appears around the animal’s eye. The autofocus of the EOS R6 recognises not only human faces but also animals – and not just cats and dogs. The powerful DIGIC X processor compares the world seen by the camera with millions of “taught” images. The technique is based on deep learning and artificial intelligence, but to me it looks almost like magic. How can the camera know which part of the image I want to be the focal point?
The two-hour bright moment of the day is over, and the landscape begins to dim again. During the blue moment, I shoot by hand just for a while longer. The EOS R6 and multi-purpose RF 24-105mm f/4 lens both feature image stabilisers that communicate with each other. The combination neutralises the movement caused by my breathing and the vibration of my hands. Previously, as a rule of thumb, I thought I should keep the shutter speed 1/25 seconds shorter when shooting by hand to obtain sharp images. Now I’ve shot sharp images without a tripod and with a shutter speed of 1 second or even longer!
Twilight descends and the light from my headlamp begins to stand out from the environment. The weather is cloudy; catching the Northern Lights will probably remain just a dream this time. The atmosphere is still magical though. The lights of the nearby ski resort are reflected from the low-hanging clouds and the darkness surrounding us is purple in colour. As I gaze at the snowy trees, my imagination starts to run wild. Kaffe is wearing a harness and pulls us forward towards the border of Pyhä-Luosto National Park. Truly, Finnish Lapland is picturesque in every weather.
I'm used to the files produced by the enormous 45-megapixel CMOS sensor of the EOS R5. The 20.1-megapixel sensor mentioned in the technical details of the R6 seems rather modest in comparison. However, the physical size of the sensor is the same in both cameras. The pixels in the EOS R6 are larger than the pixels in the R5, so although the total number of pixels is less than half of the R5, the image file sizes on the cameras are actually surprisingly close to each other. The large pixels in the cheaper EOS R6 allow even better performance in low light than Canon’s flagship models. The amount of noise is also small and the image quality at high sensitivities is impressive for the same reason.
We arrive at the spot where we planned to take a break. I find some firewood left by a thoughtful hiker and the pre-cut tinder in a wooden shelter next to the campfire site. Birch bark ignites with a crackle and, after a while, the flames also spread to the bigger logs. Kaffe shuffles closer to the campfire and settles to rest on a blanket near its warmth. Staring into the fire makes the surrounding darkness feel even darker. This is how the contrast of darkness and bright light fools a human eye. However, a camera placed on the roof of the shelter distinguishes lights in the twilight beyond the campfire. The EOS R6’s wide dynamic range allows you to record a bright campfire and dimmer lights in the background with a single exposure. There is something similarly magical about shooting in the dark with long exposure time, like back in the old days when you were in a darkroom excitedly waiting for an image to appear on the paper floating in the developer.
Later in the evening we prepare tinder for the next visitor and then start heading back to our overnight accommodation. I pack the camera carefully in my backpack to prevent the warm and humid indoor air from condensing on the surface of the cold camera. By the morning, the temperature difference will have levelled out to let me safely take out the camera. As I trek back, I watch the headlamp light flickering in the snowy trees and I think about the origin of the word photograph and the idea of “writing with light”. The camera remains in my backpack throughout the rest of the journey. I’m content to capture the last images of the dark forest only in my memories of the night.