Behind The Shots: Sunrise at Portland Head Lighthouse

Sunrise at Portland Head Lighthouse, Cape Elizabeth, Maine.
Sunrise at Portland Head Lighthouse, Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

The first Monday after I relocated to Maine was Labor Day.  I decided to head out and photograph at a spot I hadn’t photographed in about 6 years. The weather reports promised partly cloudy skies, a light breeze, and higher than normal tides due to a hurricane in the Atlantic. The conditions seemed right for some dramatic images.

On a personal level, the churning tides reflected the emotions I was feeling, as my life was in the midst of undergoing dramatic changes, in a year filled with them. I craved the solitude sunrise usually brings, but on this morning, Labor Day, the park was filled with many photographers and vacationers catching the last sunrise of their summer vacation. As I hopped the fence and scrambled down the rocks to this location, I met another photographer and had a brief conversation, exchanging pleasantries and making sure that the spot I’d chosen wouldn’t interfere with the shot he’d composed and was now waiting for. There always seems to be a bit of camaraderie among us idiots that like to rise before the sun and then get out and capture it.

Using a Nikon D810, I selected the AF Nikkor 16-35mm f/4 lens and set it to 35mm for this composition. I like this lens for several reasons. It’s sharp, relatively compact, and it’s ultra-wide angle allows me to emphasize foregrounds and take in expansive vistas. In addition, its 77mm front diameter means it’s easily filtered, unlike ultra-wide angle lenses with a bulbous front element. Once I settled in to my spot, I knew that as the sun rose, I would need to balance the brighter sky with the darker foreground. For this image, I used a Vü Filters Sion Q soft-edged graduated neutral density filter to keep the sky exposure in balance with the foreground. This enabled me to capture the brilliant orange tones of the rising sun, as well as the subtle texture of the thin layer of clouds overhead.

When photographing a landscape such as this, I am almost always mounted on a tripod. I like to manipulate the appearance of the water in an image by using different shutter speeds. A few earlier exposures using longer shutter speeds produced unsatisfactory results because the long exposure caused the raging waters to appear as fog. I wanted to capture the individual waves, the churning of the water in the cove, the crashing of the waves on the rocks. To do this, I raised my ISO to 400 and set my aperture to f/8, which resulted in a shutter speed of 1/3. I’ve found that shutter speed to be right about perfect for capturing water’s motion without freezing it too much and eliminating the sense of motion. A quick check of my histogram confirmed I was not clipping either in the highlights or shadows, so I moved on to other compositions after this capture.

As I capture all images as RAW files, I needed to process the image in Adobe Camera RAW. I opened the file and immediately use the highlight slider to further bring down my highlight areas and use the Shadows slider to open up shadow detail. The resulting image appears flat and lacks contrast and saturation, which is what I need for the next step. After opening in Photoshop, I use Nik Collection’s Color Efex Pro 4’s Brilliance and Warmth to build color saturation back up, and Pro Contrast to build the contrast up to a more pleasing level. This workflow gives me the freedom I like to target only certain areas of an image if I choose, as well as use adjustment layers and masking if necessary.  This image required nothing more than the Color Efex Pro 4 application.

The final image captured not only a beautiful sunrise and end of summer scene, but also my personal emotions at the time. The churning seas, the lighthouse keeping watch, and the bright colors of sunrise all matched the turmoil I was dealing with, as well as the hope I felt at my new beginning.

A Carnival Cruise Ship passes Portland Head Lighthouse on its way into Portland Harbor.
A Carnival Cruise Ship passes Portland Head Lighthouse on its way into Portland Harbor.

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