Postcard from Maine (9)

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5-14-14Portland Head_61seconds From a particularly productive morning… it had snowed on my way from Bangor to Portland. I had a work-related meeting that day in the city, so figured what the hey… I might as well get an early start and see if I could take advantage of the first light.

Take a walk on the path to the left of the lighthouse and you begin to get a completely different view of the scene, especially at low tide since you can scamper down onto the rocks in search of interesting foreground elements. This can officially be called the “blue-hour” – some time before the sun makes an appearance, yet when there is still enough early morning light to illuminate the landscape. There were some fast-moving clouds overhead, and of course the waves washing on and off shore – throughout that, the striking Portland Head Lighthouse beacon illuminated the morning.

I did what I often like to do… experiment with a variety of lengths of holding the shutter open using the remote release… all in the name of trying to capture something unique and different. This exposure was for 61 seconds, and I like how the movement in the sky and tide were rendered. I also like how the white balance rendered the scene so blue… it represents the chill in the air that I felt, and the early hour at which this photograph was made.

Postcard from Maine (2)

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4-20-14 PHL

Probably the most photographed lighthouse in America, Portland Head Light is a stunner of a location that anyone visiting Maine should experience. It’s not difficult to find, is easy to access from a series of well-maintained trails at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth, and as you can see… perched on some seriously jagged rocks it occupies a fantastic location to make a landscape photograph. All you have to do is get yourself there at the right time and in the right conditions!

With an iconic location like this, the biggest challenge is making a photograph that doesn’t look exactly like all of the other ones you see in the local calendars and postcards – unless of course that’s what you’re going for. Nothing wrong with imitating other photographs – good practice I say – but my guess is that there will come a time when you’ll want to create something more personal, more unique. And so you should.

Get there early. Stay there late – good light favors those who patrol the edges of the day. Watch the tide charts and try to coordinate your visit with a big surf, and of course… treat the weatherman like your friend and pay attention to the conditions. Despite the fact that I wasn’t able to include any dramatic skies on this particular morning, I was able to explore the foreground area a bit and include some interesting elements along with the beautiful sunrise gradient of color… all in the name of trying to capture something that I could call mine.

Hope you like it.

(A couple of exposures were combined here to deal with the extreme range of light found at this time of day).

Back for more…

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Another early run to Portland for a work meeting, and another chance to stop by the most photographed lighthouse in Maine. Just a couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune to spend some time here with local photographer Moe Chen. Moe showed me how to access the rocky shoreline on the opposite side from here, so on this visit I wanted to spend time exploring the more traditional – or at least more photographed – side of the lighthouse.

6:22:16 a.m.

When I left the house at 4:00am, twinkling stars were alternately obscured and revealed by high clouds screaming by overhead, and although I was excited about the possibility of drama that those clouds might bring at sunrise, I wasn’t too thrilled about the effect the wind might have on the temperature. My fear was that the 22 degrees of warmth outside would be further impacted negatively by a biting wind chill… and believe me, it was.

6:35:33 a.m.

I’m going to sprinkle in a few different compositions throughout this post… same scene, but each with a slight variation on the landscape as the morning began. Some people might only include one composition in a blog post… maybe they have the “eye” to visualize the single best composition and create only one photograph… but in a situation like this, I tend to move around, exploring my surroundings looking for a slightly better angle, a more interesting foreground, or a different arrangement in how each of the elements included within the frame interact with each other. Anyhoo… here are a few from what was a cold and blustery morning at Portland Head Light… in the order they were made as the light unfolded, and with actual times attached.

6:37:23 a.m.

By the time I got to Portland there was a soft glow in the sky off to the east. I drove through the darkened downtown streets – probably faster than I should – in a frenzied attempt to get across the bridge to Cape Elizabeth and Fort Williams Park before sunrise. Knowing that the gates to the park might not be open, I was anticipating an additional but fairly brief hike in from the road to the lighthouse which would mean cutting it close for sunrise, but whadyaknow… the gates were open!

6:40:50 a.m.

Stepping out of the warm car and into the darkness told me two things; 1) the crystal clear sky meant that there weren’t going to be any nice clouds to include in compositions; and 2) it was going to be cold… bitterly cold. I usually like to be at a location at least 45 minutes before sunrise to take advantage of the earliest light, but on this morning I had arrived just in time. Since sunrise was now only minutes away, I hopped the fence and quickly scrambled down over the rocks to find a composition I liked. While clouds can certainly add drama to a landscape, I have come to appreciate – and dare I say enjoy – the beautiful pre-dawn gradient of colors in the clear sky seen here.

6:50:19 a.m.

My wooly hat and glove/mitten combo would come in handy, as a northeast wind ripped in over the water and absolutely chilled me to the bone. Strong wind gusts meant that I had to steady the tripod during what were often long-ish exposures, but more importantly, the wind chill and cold air were literally making my fingers ache… not a good feeling. Despite trying to find sheltered spots within the rocks where I could gain some respite from the icy wind, my senses (and my fingers) quickly succumbed to the conditions, and after spending maybe 30-40 minutes total here, I retreated back to the welcoming warmth of the car.

Two for the price of one…

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* My last post from what was a glorious morning spent photographing this lighthouse.

Portland Head Light is a magnificent sight, especially when waves are crashing all around it or when the clouds from a clearing storm are rushing by. There’s a reason why we see it included in so many lighthouse calendars and on so many picture postcards… it is very striking indeed. However, anyone who visits here probably can’t help but notice the “other” lighthouse off in the distance. Though it seems like a tiny speck in comparison, the 77 ft tall Ram Island Ledge Light is quite impressive in its own right. Built from granite that was quarried locally from the island of Vinalhaven, it was first lit in 1905, and it was then converted to solar power in 2001. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is accessible only by boat, and since I don’t have a lens long enough to truly reach out to it, I am always intrigued by its existence.

A double edged sword…

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Using a wide angle lens can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand you can create some unique perspectives by placing important compositional elements prominently in the foreground of the frame. On the other hand though, depending on how much you tilt the lens, your photographs can also be susceptible to distortion, especially near the corners. You can see how the lighthouse above appears to be leaning quite distinctly, though that might also be because I was a considerable distance below it and actually quite low to the ground. In order to fit everything into the frame as I intended, I had to accept that there might be some wide-angle distortion – in this case though, I don’t really mind it.

When I made this photograph, a large cloud bank from a clearing storm had parked itself just off shore casting soft, filtered light over much of the scene. I was perched rather precariously on the rock you can see in the foreground, with the legs of my tripod splayed as wide as I could get them while still maintaining a solid base. I had a blast waiting for wave after wave to break and wash on shore and all around me, and I made several exposures in an attempt to get a composition that I liked. If there was one thing I learned from this particular morning though…  it was that I need to invest in a pair of big rubber boots!

Despite the effect of the wide-angle lens, you might still just be able to pick out another lighthouse in the distance… the somewhat isolated but striking Ram Island Ledge Light which stands sentinel in Casco Bay… more to come about that lighthouse later.

Portland Head Light in BW

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This was from a mid-winter visit to the Portland Head Light, and after some thinking, I decided that this photograph might make a good candidate for conversion to black and white. Although created in mid-morning light, a clearing storm offshore made for some interesting clouds, and when combined with the rugged foreground detail, I figured this was worth a shot.

While I am a sucker for the impact of early morning light and the colors it sometimes brings, removing color from a scene can help focus on shapes and distinctive elements, simplifying and removing distractions. The creative possibilities and challenges when working with the contrast and tones in a black and white photograph are intriguing to me, and this is a world that I am eager to explore more of.

The devil is in the detail

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I don’t actually print that many of my photographs, so it never really bothered me that my trusty Canon 20D of the past 5 years or so had a 1.6x crop-sensor and was capable of capturing only 8 megapixels.

On the odd occasion I did decide to print something, I could easily squeeze out a decent traditional sized print, and I have even printed a couple of 20×30 sized images that look quite good… at least I thought so… until now. My Canon 5D Mark II has a 21 MP sensor capable of more advanced processing, and while the number of megapixels might not directly improve my chances of making a good photograph, along with the full frame capabilities, the detail it can capture is quite remarkable.

Images made with this new camera make for some pretty big file sizes – each processed tiff is a whopping 60MB – and the detail within each frame is exceptional. The picture above is a 100% zoomed-in crop from the image below (see the red box)… it is from the RAW unsharpened file, and as you can see, even without any post-processing, the detail in the lighthouse wall is quite impressive.

Good and bad though… everything becomes amplified. If I set up on a steady tripod and nail the focus… if I use mirror lock up and a remote release… an image captured can look incredibly sharp. On the other hand though, with the full frame sensor it doesn’t take much for an image to start looking ever so slightly soft or blurry when issues of steadiness aren’t addressed properly.

When using the 5DMKII I have had to revert to using my older, heavier tripod legs to ensure a greater degree of stability. The smaller, lighter tripod purchased over the summer for portability doesn’t seem to be able to provide a steady enough platform for the new camera, especially in windy conditions or when I make the decision to leave the shutter open for a longer period – I may have to invest in a more solid ball-head too. Depending on the aperture selected, my favorite 17-40mm lens appears to have some issues with “softness” in the corners when shooting wide at 17mm. For someone who has recently become quite enamored by the look of 17mm on a full frame sensor, this isn’t good news.

Having said all that… I am absolutely loving the quality of image produced by this camera. I have ordered a large metallic print (24×36) of a recent photograph to see how well the detail on screen transfers to the printing process – fingers crossed that it looks just as impressive!