Photographing at the Pont du Gard

As Sharon has pointed out in her blog post – I didn’t mention where we were driving in France – well one of the places was indeed the Pont du Gard – a UNESCO World Heritage site comprising a rather impressive Roman aquaduct crossing the River Gardon. Why did the water cross the River? Because the Romans wanted to use it at Nimes to drive some large industrial flour mills and of course to supply water to the Roman town.

Pont du Gard

Pont du Gard

Drawing it – as Sharon has noted – presents quite the challenge. So, once she found her her location I scrambled around looking for some photographic opportunities. Photography is not a passive occupation and it often involves a lot of walking, sometimes climbing and in this case very close to wading…

At this point I have a confession to make – I did attempt to take a number of photos last time we were here – but made a classic and dreadful mistake which has made me very careful for the future – namely, I took some photos in the shadows first and set the camera on ISO 1600. I then came out into the sun completely forgetting I had changed the sensitivity and blazed away at the Pont du Gard itself. It was a dazzlingly bright day – I couldn’t see the settings in the screen, no matter how much I shaded it – the result? about 30 completely blown out images. I vowed then that if we returned I would be more careful… Fast forward to today…

As a subject it is actually quite difficult to photograph such an immense structure. If you use a standard lens you can get the whole thing in, but only by walking way off into the distance, and then the aqueduct is just a thin line near the horizon. So the first thing is to take along a wide angle lens. I used a 10-24mm Tamron lens and it is great for getting large things in without having to go too far away. These lenses do give quite a bit of distortion, so the perspective can look a little strange. The key thing is how you frame up the subject.

In this case I was looking to get the whole thing in with a sense of it heading off into the distance, while retaining a sense of its height (50m) and length (490m). I took a few shots to try to get a nice angle and to get the sense of scale.

Pont du Gard

Pont du Gard

Next I thought about framing and went in closer on one of the arches as I saw in the distance a beautiful medieval town on the next hill down the valley. I got down near the waters edge for this and lined up a tower-like structure. I pushed the aperture to about f/11 to get both the bridge and the distant town in focus, framed by the arch.

Pont du Gard

Pont du Gard

Finally I decided to try for a nice reflection shot – getting the aqueduct reflected in the river below. I must have walked about 200m on each side of the aqueduct to find a spot where most of the aqueduct was reflected in the water. On one side some rocks near the surface meant the water was too choppy, so I tried the other side and seriously considered wading in and setting up the tripod in the shallow part of the river. But then I spotted a rocky outcrop in about the right place so only one leg of the tripod went into the water. That’s the beauty of carbon fibre tripods – they don’t rust! Mine is a Chinese Beike – which is actually a great tripod – especially when mated to a good quality head, like the manfrotto.

There were still some wind ripples to deal with. There is one easy way to do this kind of shot is to use a neutral density filter to cut down the light, then use a longer exposure. You wind up with glassy smooth water as the image is an average of all the ripples and it adds up to a smooth surface. You will need an exposure of about 3 seconds. At that point I realised I had left my filter back at the apartment in Arles, so I did the next best thing. I lowered the ISO to around 100, squeezed down the aperture to f/32 and that gave me an exposure of about 1/3 of a second. Not great, but it is better than nothing if you’re trying to lengthen the exposure – it works great for fountains too!

Pont du Gard

Pont du Gard

So all up I was quite happy with the shoot and deepened my appreciation for how the Romans built such a structure without mortar or cement – just well fitted stone up stone that has stood the test of time – including major floods in the 1600s and in 2003. The aqueduct has been painted by Turner and may other artists over the years – and sketched by Sharon.

There is a delightful legend about its construction. Once upon a time the townsfolk decided to build a bridge over the Gardon. But each time a master mason tried to build one, a flood came and washed the bridge away. In despair he said It’s time to sell my soul to the devil to get this built. The devil appeared and and said he would build the bridge for him, and the river will never destroy it. The price? not much, just the first person to cross the bridge. The mason agreed and the devil built it in one night. The mason went home and told his wife. His wife had an idea… The following morning the devil lay in wait. Earlier, a dog had caught a live hare and they had kept it. The devil smiled when he saw the mason approach carrying a bag. As he was about to step on the bridge he threw the bag with the hare in front of him and the hare raced across the bridge into the hands of the devil who was enraged by being tricked into taking an animal soul and turned the hare into stone where he can be seen to this day on the side of the bridge. And thus it is said that women have cheated the devil 🙂

There is a great visitor’s centre and museum, including a coffee shop and bistro and of course souvenirs. It is well worth a visit.