High Tide at Portland Head Light

High Tide at Dusk
High Tide at Dusk

When I first began traveling to Maine 20 years ago, Portland Head Light was one of those places that was just magical to me. The natural beauty and the aura of the lighthouse perched atop the rocky shore, waves pounding below, make it such a draw for photographers and tourists alike. One of the things I feared when I moved here was that, having this landmark in such close proximity would somehow diminish its meaning to me, and I would begin to take it for granted.

Just over two years after my move, I am happy to report that my fears were unfounded. I still love photographing the lighthouse, and the surrounding landscape, as often as I can. In many ways, having it so close by is too easy, and I must force myself to look elsewhere to capture the Maine landscape, for fear of overdoing it at Portland Head.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at work and noticed the sky was setting up for what could be a really beautiful sunset. Big puffy clouds, breaks in between, bright sun, and best of all, high tide with a full moon surf that meant big breaking waves on the rocks. My beautiful fiancée was kind enough to run my camera bag to me at work and once my shift ended, I raced over to Portland Head Lighthouse to capture the sunset.

I arrived 15 minutes before sunset and quickly made my way to the spot I envisioned for my shot. I knew, if the waves were big, I wanted to get a spot where the crashing on the rocks would be prominent. I also knew this one angle would allow me to face back to the west just a bit, to get the color from the setting sun in the shot. I scrambled over the rocks and made my way out to my perch. By this time, I only had a few minutes of light left, so I quickly started making some images. Since I was short on time and light, I concentrated on my first composition and just timing waves, trying to get the perfect wave on the rocks. After a few minutes I had one that I liked, so I changed lenses, and shifted my composition slightly to get something a little different. Where I was, I didn’t have a lot of room to change my angle, so the changes in composition have more to do with zooming than anything else.

As soon as I got my second shot, the park closing warning began, so I packed up and made my way home.

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Receding Cascade at Portland Head
Receding Cascade at Portland Head
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The Custom House

Early Morning in the Old Port
Early Morning In The Old Port

Before I moved to Maine, one of my favorite places to visit was always the Old Port in Portland. The mix of old architecture, restaurants and boutiques made it a must whenever I traveled to Maine for business or pleasure. The centerpiece of the old port for over 100 years the United States Custom House, straddling the area between Fore Street and Commercial Street, right on the waterfront.

The Custom House was built between 1867 and 1872, designed by Alfred B. Mullet, who was the Supervising Architect of the Treasury from 1865 to 1874. There was a need for a new Custom House after the Great Fire of July 4, 1867.  The fire had destroyed 1800 buildings in the center of Portland, including the Exchange Building, which had housed the customs office, post office, and several other federal offices.

While I had often admired the building from the street, I had never photographed it. I could never find the right angle, or find a time when the street wasn’t filled with cars parked at the curb.  Just by chance, I was in the Old Port one day and happened to park in a parking garage and noticed that I had a clear line to the building with no wires overhead. The next step was picking the right time of day.

United States Custom House
United States Custom House

From the angle I had on the roof of the parking garage, the waters of Portland Harbor and the islands in Casco Bay were plainly visible. I also knew that the sunrise would be visible behind the building on a clear day, and I assumed the streets would be relatively clear early in the morning. I arrived just as the parking garage opened and made my way to the roof and set up. All I had to do was compose, and wait.

I decided a graduated neutral density filter would help balance the exposure between the sunrise in the sky and the darker foreground of the Custom House, so I used a a Benro 4-stop Hard Edge Graduated Neutral Density filter, and placed the transition exactly on the horizon in the background.  This allowed me to open up the shadows on the face of the Custom House and still maintain the orange glow that was present in the sky, that the camera would have lost on its own without some help.

I had planned to also take some images from street level, but by the time I completed my work on the roof of the parking garage, a truck had parked itself in front of the building, making it impossible to get a clean shot, so I called it a successful morning and headed to find some breakfast!

New Year’s Chill

Winter Morning at Portland Head Lighthouse
Winter Morning at Portland Head Lighthouse

One of the things I love about Maine is the climate.  Some may say I’m crazy, but harsh though it may be, Maine winters offer every bit as much beauty as the other three seasons. Yes, it’s a bit more difficult to photograph in the elements, but it’s no less rewarding.

For the past week or so, Maine has been under a deep freeze, with temperatures below 20° for the better part of 10 days or so. Lows have been in the negatives during that time. While those conditions are daunting, they create some spectacular visuals. In our case along the coast, one of the most beautiful phenomenon the frigid temperatures bring is known as sea smoke. Sea smoke (also known as frost smoke or steam fog) is formed when very cold air moves over warmer water. It is common in the Arctic, and happens in Maine and New England during a particularly cold spell.

New Years Morning at Portland Head Lighthouse
New Years Morning at Portland Head Lighthouse

On New Year’s Eve, looking at the weather conditions for the next day, I decided I would get up at sunrise to capture the sea smoke as the rising sun filtered through it, creating this warm and spectacular light.  So the night before, I planned my excursion, setting out 2 pairs of pants, 4 shirts, wool socks, boots, heavy jacket, fleece hat and facemask, and gloves. Then I dug out hand warmers (thanks Mom!) and toe warmers (Mom again) to put inside my gloves and boots.

I awoke at 5:30am on New Year’s Day to a temperature of -14°F. While the urge to stay under my warm blankets was strong, I forced myself to get up and head out. My first stop was Portland Head Lighthouse.  I’d always wanted to photograph it in winter, with snow on the rocks, and the warm glow of the morning sun. Upon arriving at the lighthouse, I met a few other photographers of similarly questionable sanity, noting that the temperature was still -14°F.

Ice in Portland Harbor
Ice in Portland Harbor

I made my way out onto the rocks, careful to watch my step as there was snow and ice everywhere. I wanted an angle a bit different from the usual shot most people get from the fence at the top of the bluff. I hopped the fence and tried a few different locations on the rocks, first with my Nikon 24-120mm lens, but I wasn’t really thrilled with the composition I was getting, so I switched to my Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art lens and suddenly the scene came alive for me. I love the look of ultrawide angle lenses, and the Sigma 14mm is superb. Wide angles force me to consider foreground interest in the composition, making for more interesting compositions.

After I felt I’d gotten what I wanted out of Portland Head Light for the day, I decided to head over to Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland. I had seen other photographers’ images from the previous few days, and was incredibly jealous that I couldn’t get out due to my work schedule, so this was my chance to create a few of my own.

Icy Morning at Spring Point Ledge Light
Icy Morning at Spring Point Ledge Light

While I did get one image with the 14mm lens that I liked, here the 24-120mm lens was more appropriate. So I once again switched lenses and went back to work. With the tide coming in at Portland Harbor, the huge chunks of ice began to float out a bit, creating an interesting foreground as the lighthouse emerged from the fog into the bright morning sun. It was a breathtaking sight to behold.

All told I spent about two and a half hours outside in sub-zero temperatures photographing the sea smoke around two lighthouses.  After we got back into the car- I had my girlfriend braving the cold with me- we headed to Becky’s Diner for an amazing New Year’s Day breakfast. And to thaw out a bit.

Winter Morning at Spring Point Ledge Lighthoue
Winter Morning at Spring Point Ledge Lighthoue

My Best of 2017

Winter Morning at Cape Neddick
“Winter Morning at Cape Neddick”
Cape Neddick, ME
January 8, 2017
Dawn On Wells Beach
“Dawn On Wells Beach”
Wells Beach, ME
March 2, 2017
Sunrise At Wolfe's Neck Woods
“Sunrise At Wolfe’s Neck Woods”
Freeport, ME
April 18, 2017
Sunrise at Bald Head Cliff
“Sunrise at Bald Head Cliff”
York, ME
May 8, 2017
Spring Morning In Acadia National Park
“Spring Morning In Acadia National Park”
Bar Harbor, ME
May 19, 2017
Sunset At Marshall Point
“Sunset At Marshall Point”
Port Clyde, ME
June 16, 2017
Bailey Island Coastline
“Bailey Island Coastline”
Harpswell, ME
July 2, 2017
Lower Falls On Kancamagus Highway
“Lower Falls On Kancamagus Highway”
North Conway, NH
July 3, 2017
Sunrise Under The Pier
“Sunrise Under The Pier”
Old Orchard Beach, Maine
August 2, 2017
Dusk On Littlejohn Island
“Dusk On Littlejohn Island”
Yarmouth, ME
August 14, 2017
Tumbledown Pond
“Tumbledown Pond”
Franklin County, ME
September 17, 2017
October Sky At West Quoddy Head Light
“October Sky At West Quoddy Head Light”
Lubec, ME
October 6, 2017
Shining Through At Portland Head Light
“Shining Through At Portland Head Light”
Cape Elizabeth, ME
November 27, 2017
December Sunrise In Ogunquit
“December Sunrise In Ogunquit”
Ogunquit, ME
December 3, 2017

 

Sunrise at Portland Head Lighthouse

Shining Through At Portland Head Light
Shining Through At Portland Head Light

Last week, I had planned to go out and photograph at sunrise. Originally, I had planned to photograph at Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland. When I arrived, I noticed the sky was setting up to be one of “those” sunrises, where the clouds filled the sky just enough that they would pick up some color and add interest. I then also realized that if I wanted to make the most of it, Spring Point Ledge was the wrong place to be. It faced the wrong direction to really see all the color and get the sun in the shot. I quickly made the decision to head to Portland Head Lighthouse instead.

Dawn on Casco Bay
“Dawn on Casco Bay” Before the sun came up, the sky was more gray than anything, with just a hint of color on the horizon.

I’m not unique in the fact that Portland Head Lighthouse is one of my favorite places to photograph in Maine. But I’ve found that it’s like every other oft-photographed icon: no matter how many photos there are of it, every individual can put their own stamp on it and make a photo they can call their own. On this day, I got to Portland Head just in time to find a spot and get set up before the show began.  And I noticed there wasn’t another photographer in sight.

Autumn Sunrise In Cape Elizabeth
“Autumn Sunrise In Cape Elizabeth” As the sun came up, the sky suddenly exploded in color.

After a few false starts, I found a spot I was happy with and started making images. At first, a huge dark cloud had moved in and I wondered if the sunrise would be a bust. But as the sun continued to rise, the clouds continued to move and soon they began to turn a bright pink and then finally, the sky exploded into oranges and red, contrasted with purple in the darker clouds.  It was one of the most amazing sunrises I’ve seen.

As the waters of Casco Bay pounded the rocks just below me, I continued making exposures as the light continued to change.  I was splashed by the occasional wave and watched the sun break the horizon, the clouds changing colors. The whole show lasted maybe five minutes.

After the sun came up, I moved over to the other side of the lighthouse and used the soft morning light a little more. I finished up and headed out to find breakfast.

November Morning At Portland Head Lighthouse
November Morning At Portland Head Lighthouse

Sunrise

Sunrise at Wolfe's Neck Woods
The sun breaks through the trees on Googins Island in Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park in Freeport, Maine.

I like photographing any time there is good light, be it midday, afternoon, evening, or morning. My favorite time of all though, is sunrise. There is soemthing magical about sunrise- that change from dark, to light that happens. But more than that, there is a peace and calm in the air that isn’t there later in the day.  The air hasn’t been disturbed by people going about their business. There aren’t many cars on the road, there aren’t many people walking around.

Sunrise Over Wells Beach
Sunrise Over Wells Beach

When I get to a location for a sunrise shoot, there’s always a bit of trepidation on my part. The calm and quiet is almost unsettling.  You hear the birds beginning to stir, maybe some of the nocturnal creatures in the underbrush. You step a little more carefully.

Dawn at Marshall Point
Dawn at Marshall Point

When I get to my shooting spot, often times it’s a place I’ve been to during the day, so I have some idea of what it will look like as the light comes up. But it’s always different in the dark; more mysterious somehow. As the light slowly comes up, everything changes. The glow on the horizon becomes more intense, the sky is revealed, and the trees and rocks begin to take on more detail and definition.

My favorite part of shooting at sunrise is the solitude. There’s so much overload these days- cell phones, computers, people at work, people we meet during the day.  It’s nice to get that hour or two to myself, to enjoy the birdsong, the sunrise, that start of the day. It’s a reset, in a way. And it gives me something to talk about to those people who may not have been able to tear themselves away from their blankets at such an early hour!

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

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.