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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.