As the sun rises…

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…it lights up the granite cliffs of Acadia National Park. From a rocky perch high above the Atlantic shoreline, I spent a wonderful, crisp morning witnessing the dawn of another day. Before sunrise, there was a subtle, almost blue hue which bathed the landscape, though I had a feeling, if patient, that some nice light would eventually climb above the clouds that were hugging the horizon, and that the scene would come alive.

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Soft pre-dawn light on the Acadia granite shoreline

A quick glance ninety degrees to the left where the sun was rising presented the scene below… captured in HDR mode with my iPhone, you can see how the clouds on the horizon subdued what might otherwise have been a pretty sunrise. I waited for the sun to get high enough in the sky to peer over those clouds, and the result was a familiar glow on the Acadia granite shown in the last photograph in this post. A high tide – or better still – a high tide that coincides with a big storm – would make this scene much more dramatic, but as with most mornings spent watching the sun come up in Acadia, I can’t think of a better place to be.

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Early days and Maine lighthouses…

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The rugged coast of Maine is dotted with many picturesque and photogenic lighthouses. When I first started taking landscape photography seriously maybe 10 years ago, these lighthouses were a popular subject of mine. Now when I dip back into the archives, I can find several examples that I think stand the test of time. Very much a beginner when it came to composition, I can remember being ultra-conscious of trying to arrange the elements within the frame into a cohesive and pleasing composition. Compositional skills can always be improved, and even today, one of the challenges of landscape photography that I perhaps enjoy the most is using the camera viewfinder to create an interesting photograph.

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Back in the good old days I was shooting 35mm Fuji Velvia 50 slide film, and for those of you who can remember Velvia, it was renowned for the deep contrast and saturated colors it rendered. I have to admit, I almost miss waiting several days for slides to be processed and picked up from the lab – the anticipation and excitement of discovering if I had been successful or not only added to the magical moment when I fired up the light table and peered eagerly through the loupe. I said that I “almost” miss those days… but nah, methinks I definitely enjoy the instant gratification (and benefit of immediate feedback) of digital imagery more.

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In order from the top of this post… a foggy sunrise at Marshall Point Lighthouse with a cheap Cokin Filter and a coincidental lobster fisherman. Pemaquid Lighthouse at dawn with typically vibrant Velvia saturation, lying on my belly at the Rockland Breakwater Light on a cold and blustery morning, and then finally, a brave lobsterman is welcomed home on an icy Bass Harbor blue-sky winter day. Maybe I should renew my relationship with some of these picturesque Maine lighthouses… during the winter months they’re relatively accessible without having to trudge any real distance through a foot of snow. Hmmmm… stay tuned.

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A different angle

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In this location, I can usually be found hunkered down somewhere back near where the ocean meets the round rocks, since that spot gives you a view of the Atlantic Ocean and majestic Otter Cliffs. On this occasion however, I’m a little further along the Boulder Beach shoreline, looking back over my shoulder at a different angle. Looking in this direction doesn’t give a striking view of the cliffs, but the round rocks this location is renowned for are still there, and I love those steadfast trees standing guard over the scene.

Distilling the scene

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1-5-14 bass harbor3 BWTake away the color and you’re left with basic elements like lines, shapes, textures and tones. Certain photographs lend themselves well to being converted to black and white and others don’t, and in this case, I kinda liked how this scene looked in monochrome. Distinct and obvious in shape, the jagged granite rocks add drama to an already iconic view, and in each of these compositions, I tried to wed the foreground, mid ground and background together in a cohesive way. Hopefully I succeeded.

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The pick of the litter

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Though proud of the black and white rendition of this scene, I’m going to say that I like the color version slightly better. So, what makes this image the pick of the litter for me? I like the foreground. I like how the rocky shoreline zig-zags as it recedes through the mid ground. I like how the waning twilight-induced longer exposure smoothed out the mighty Atlantic. I like the classic Acadia granite, and I especially like how it looks with a dusting of snow. I like how the local evergreens frame the spectacular and pulsing beacon, and I like how the longer exposure impacted the clouds that were streaking overhead. I like how even the tones are throughout the scene, and I like how, compositionally, all roads lead the eye through the scene and back to the lighthouse. Most of all though, I like how, when I look at this photograph, I can vividly recall the personal and intimate experience of spending time in a favorite place.

Tweaking a composition

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I hope you’re not getting tired of this place? This particular location – at least when perched out on the ice-covered rocks like I was – doesn’t leave a lot of room for maneuvering and making adjustments to a composition. Depending on the tidal conditions, there are only a couple of tight ledges/rocks that can be used to park one’s self and gear. I always enjoy making decisions about which elements to include within the frame and how they should be arranged in relation to each other – in doing so I’m always trying to tell a story, convey what it felt like to be there, display the beauty on show – for me, that’s all part of the fun of landscape photography.

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When confined to this specific location, if interested in including the lighthouse, the rocks, and maybe a breaking wave, then a wide angle lens is a must. Changing focal lengths will give you the ability to make a few compositional adjustments, but this particular scene is definitely one where creative choices are somewhat limited. I’m a sucker for using a wide-angle lens to accentuate the foreground of any scene, and in this particular location, there is no shortage of interesting elements to include. The lines in the rocks can be used to help steer the viewer’s eyes toward the lighthouse, and on this chilly winter day, I wanted to try and include some of the ice-encrusted foreground.

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Once I settle on a broad concept of what I’d like to include, I’ll make some subtle changes within the frame, all the while trying to improve the quality of the composition. Options include raising or lowering the tripod to change the perspective, moving it from side to side, tipping the camera forward or backward, and perhaps making adjustments to the focal length. I typically end up with maybe a half dozen slight variations on a composition, though it’s usually not until I get back home and fire up the computer that I can contrast and compare what I made. This brief visit to Bass Harbor was fairly productive, and it felt good to be breathing in the winter air and making photographs again. I’ll share my favorite image from this trip in the next post.

Behind the scenes…

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Here’s a little peek behind the scenes as it were. When I arrived at Bass Harbor Lighthouse about an hour before sunrise, I quickly realized that the light, though subtle and quite calming, wasn’t going to produce a lot of action in the sky, so I started to look for ways to make the scene before me more interesting. The little white structure perched high above the Atlantic Ocean is obviously the star of the show, and the jagged granite shoreline plays a solid complimentary role, but without a compelling backdrop, it would be hard to make an engaging composition. I needed to get closer to the water.

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The recent sub-zero blast of Arctic air had left the rocks covered in ice, so I had to be somewhat careful as I navigated my surroundings. If you’ve ever visited this spot you’ll likely remember that although some care needs to be taken, it isn’t that difficult to get out onto the edge of the rocks. On this day however, all of those cracks and crevices were filled with either ice or snow, which made traversing the rocky landscape quite precarious. I knew if I could get myself and my camera out onto the rock to the left of the frame, I would be able to include the waves in a composition. In the photograph above, I’ve diagrammed where my camera was set up.

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Two exposures blended: 0.5s for the sky and 3.2s for the foreground

So, despite being a tad unsure of my footing, I used my tripod to provide stability and set out to get that little bit closer to what would hopefully be a dynamic foreground element. I splayed the tripod legs wide so I could get as low to the ground as possible, and when I turned the camera and wide-angle lens to portrait orientation, I was able to include a lot into one frame. I have to admit, laying down on the rocks with my back to the large ocean swells was just a tiny bit unnerving, but I should note, although it looks like I was balanced in a uncertain place, I wasn’t in any jeopardy. I would never put myself in a dangerous position just for a photograph.