The tenth annual “LoHi Canaries in a Coal Mine” camera competition will be held this weekend in Canyonlands National Park in Southern Utah. The name is a bit of a misnomer, as the competition will actually be held this year in the old uranium mines that dot the unbelievably scenic and rugged landscape of the desert Southwest. But contestants are not there for the scenery–they are there to compete for the title of “Best Low Light/High ISO Shooter”.
Contestants will gather at the Shafer Trail parking lot before sunrise on Saturday. From there they will convoy down the into the beautiful Canyonlands and then park their jeeps and hike through dark, narrow abandoned uranium mine. At the end of the mine is a pitch black natural cave about the size of a Cracker Barrel, lit only by four scented candles (lavender, pine, honeysuckle, and citrus have been chosen this year) placed in the center.
The competition itself is quite simple–canaries will be released into the mine and competitors will try to take sharp photos of the birds in flight without the assistance of flash or focus assist lights. It is, without a doubt, the most grueling test of man and camera ever imagined, and this year 64 contestants who have made it through local qualifying rounds are vying for the title, the pinnacle of the low light/high ISO sport. For many, it is the culmination of months and months taking photos in the dark. Some take the competition so seriously that they’ve shifted their sleep cycles, waking soon after breathlessly beautiful sunsets, staying up all night photographing sleeping cats, home office bookshelves, and other household objects in near darkness, and then going to bed just before the next life-affirming sunrise.
As the sun rises over the desert, a red and golden sky making way to for crisp cerulean blue, the competition will start and last all day in the cave. LoHi, the governing body, will manage the elimination tournament, and in an adjacent cave have a laptop and Eizo ColorEdge monitors calibrated with a Datacolor Spyder 4 with which to judge the rounds. For each round, photos will be reviewed by LoHi judges for sharpness, acuity, and noise. The brackets are, as expected, packed with Canon 1Ds and Nikon D4s mated with F2.8 zooms, but there are a couple of outliers, including Stanley Decker with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 mated to a 35-100 f/2.0 Zuiko zoom via an adapter. The crowd favorite though is known simply as “Shadow.” A four-time champion, Shadow shoots a Leica M with the esteemed Leica NOCTILUX-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH. How he shoots and wins with a camera not known for low light performance and with manual focus is a mystery; competitors are often overheard whispering something about a deal with the devil.
The Canaries in a Coal Mine competition runs through the weekend, in complete darkness while the visual spectacle of Mother Nature sits outside. There are no prizes, just Internet bragging rights.