Night at the Castle: A long-standing quest to capture a tricky shot in Heidelberg, Germany
During their travels, some men seek to climb mountains, traverse deserts or slaughter edible mammals. No matter what they accomplish, there is always that unlived experience that pulls the true adventurer forward. I too had such a goal. Being rather sedentary – the kind of traveler who considers offering from a restaurant that hasn’t yet achieved a Michelin star as a robust challenge – the top of my own to-do list was more modest: I wanted to take a Photo.
That is to say, I wanted a particular image: Heidelberg Castle by night (i.e. Heidelberger Schloss bei Nacht).
I’m German, and Heidelberg is one of the most picturesque and progressive cities we offer in the world – a major tourist destination, the seat of a leading university, and a growing technological hub. It’s not far from my family’s farmland along the Rhine, so maybe it was inevitable that I would join the Heidelberg Club International, which brings together city enthusiasts from all over the world. Several dozen of us were recently reunited with the charming and energetic mayor, Dr Eckart Wurzner, and his team. With her, I had the opportunity to nail this photograph.
Heidelberg Castle is a large ruin that rises above the city like a weathered crown. If you want to imagine what a Renaissance castle might look like after centuries of lightning and warfare, this would be it. At night, under bright spotlights, it casts a golden glow over the city’s old town (Altstadt). Several times in the previous decades, I had come back to Heidelberg and stood at night in a town square, Karlsplatz, to take a picture of the castle crouching imperiously above me – and I blew it to every time.
I have published several hundred color travel photographs; my black and white images have appeared in books and are collected in museums in the United States and Germany. I’m no Ansel Adams, but even still you might think I could handle something as simple as getting a snapshot of a huge subject that isn’t going to move while you set up your tripod or turn them off. lights and go to sleep while you calculate your exposure.
I first tried it right after I graduated in law. Each shot was too dark or too light. And I would come back again and again over the following decades to try and try again. Each time, I missed the mark. My equipment would be wrong, or I would not use it correctly. (Never travel with everything you need but haven’t tested thoroughly.) Filming would be rainy. The exposure might be almost correct, but as the saying goes, “almost” doesn’t count except in horseshoes and hand grenades. As my grandmother would say: “Oy Gewalt! (Think, “Oy vey,” only this time you really mean it.)
So I was here in Heidelberg, I came back to put an end to this castle once and for all. On the day of my big confrontation, my group was heading to the restaurant of another hotel, the Molkenkur, located in the middle of one of the green hills that surround the city. The ground was wet, but the cloud cover was light and sporadic and the leaves were festive in their fall hues. The concierge at my hotel, the five-star Europaischer Hof, confirmed that the restaurant was just under two miles, barely six minutes by cab, but for a New Yorker, as I have long been, a stroll easy. That is, if you happen to be in New York.
I climbed, climbed and climbed, ever higher, along winding roads, through hairpin bends, gnawing steeper footprints along the side of the road. I could hear the creak as the passing cars shifted to lower gears to pull more power for the climb. I took off my Austrian overcoat and continued. I took off my Neapolitan sports jacket and continued. Saw a series of stone steps – a shortcut through the wood. The steps led to a path and the path to a large fallen tree which blocked my path. Ideally, someone had placed a smaller tree trunk perpendicular to the large one to make a ramp. I climbed the ramp, mentally thanking whoever made it – until I smashed through the rotten wood and my right leg landed on the ground, impaled inside.
By the time I got to the restaurant, late, I was sweatier than a marathon runner and my leg was scratched. But I grabbed some cloth and paper towels, walked over to the men’s bathroom, and improvised a solution with hand soap and my T-shirt, which replaced the missing scrub brush. I joined the group, not looking (and feeling) for anything worse for my madness.
However, when I was offered to come for dinner that evening, I gladly accepted an elevator. We were to have a traditional Heidelberg meal at a popular student pub, Zum Roten Ochsen, which has been in the same family for almost 200 of its 300 years of existence.
A fine rain was falling. Before coming this time, I bought (and tested) a light tripod from Adorama. My backpack contained two cameras, lenses, extra batteries, and maps. Karlsplatz stood a few feet away, mocking me, goading me, daring me to come back and try this castle photo one last time.
Fortune favors the brave – or at least the persevering.
I set up the tripod. I confirmed that the ambient light of the square and the street would not be a factor. The clouds graciously cooperated, stopping their drizzle. The falling leaves were not visible to the wind.
Wonk Alert: This part is getting technical.
Gently waving flags wouldn’t be a problem if I stuck to modest exposure times at the lower ISOs of my cameras. First, I mounted a Leica M10 Monochrom which, as the name suggests, has a black and white sensor. To come full circle, I mounted the same Tele-Elmarit 90mm f2.8 lens that I used the first time I attempted the shot. The histogram confirmed a 7 second exposure to f4 (ISO 160, EV-1). The rear window confirms the success. It was finally time to take that color photo. I upgraded to a Leica V-Lux (Typ 114), which has a zoom lens that I set to a moderate wide-angle focal length. For this sensor, the optimal exposure was found to be 2 seconds at f3.2 (ISO 125, EV-2/3). Simple English translation: nailed twice.
I returned to the pub smiling inwardly. In the back room, where our party was taking place, the waiters prepared the first course, the traditional and fragrant beef consomme (kraftige Rinderbruhe) with noodles. I sat next to the Lord Mayor on one of the wooden communal tables with the names of generations of students engraved on it. Under a framed portrait of Otto von Bismarck, a pianist sang “Lili Marleen” and then we all sang “I Lost my Heart in Heidelberg” (“Ich Hab Mein Herz in Heidelberg Verloren”). It’s a shame I don’t drink beer because I certainly deserved one.
I returned to New York in triumph, with my photographic memories. I thought momentarily to frame one of the pictures and hang it in my office. After some thought, I decided that I would feel like showing myself. Instead, I went online and bought a framed portrait of Otto von Bismarck. The “Iron Chancellor” would have understood my uniquely German form of perseverance – but then again, almost any photographer would.