Thursday, June 26, 2008

Sea Breeze

HERBERT KAUFMAN: "Dreamers are the architects of greatness, hearing the voice of destiny calling from the unknown they peer beyond the mists of doubt and pierce the walls of unborn time."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: I never expected it. I knew shooting aboard the Wanderbird would be refreshing, even revitalizing, but not that shooting from the boat would be so totally different than shooting on land. At sea, especially, I am a total novice with much to learn.

A few hours out of Belfast, Maine, we found ourselves in a large bay or basin encircled by small islands. Through the mists on the far horizon the sails of a tall ship appeared, and I mounted my long lens to have a better look. It was a schooner, two masts with large orange sails. Just then Captain Rick announced a change in plans; we would drop anchor and spend the night here. Seven windjammers were heading into the bay that would tie up together and also spend the night. We scrambled for good spots to shoot as the show began.

I set up on the aft deck and started framing images. This was the wrong moment for my tripod to malfunction. Every time I got my image framed, my heavy, long lens would dip, and I'd have to reframe the shot. My expensive ball head was never subject to such slippage, and nothing I could do would make it right.

First lesson: The longer the lens, the more useless a tripod is aboard a boat. I tossed the tripod almost overboard and reconsidered camera settings. Shooting hand held, in spite of bright sea and sky, required compromises. The shot above was taken with my short lens zoomed out to 70mm. To hand hold, the rule of thumb would indicate I needed a shutter speed of at least 1/70th of a second, but if I planned any sort of enlargement later I wanted to get as close to 1/250th as possible. I dialed my camera up to ISO 800 (after that graininess gets excessive) and settled on f16 at 1/200th. How nice to discover my hands as a forgiving counterbalance to the roll of the boat!

Lesson two: It's not just the mechanics of shooting that are different; the nature of composition changes as well. On land I can wander where I choose and position myself to catch the best light. I am captain. When I see a shot, I know to look around for supporting characters for my composition, and to shift forward, backward, right, left to get light and relationships right. Aboard a boat my movement is constrained and most of the supporting characters must be found among the rails, ropes, masts and sails of my own vessel. Even after the shot is set up, the tossing of the boat makes every shot an action shot, and I often snapped five or six times in the hope that one exposure would get the margins right and the horizon level.

Lesson three: At sea the horizon dominates, seascapes can be sparse. It's not that on land one is never faced with large areas of empty sky or a deep foreground with little of interest, but at sea as soon as the lens is pointed away from one's own ship such situations are common, and one must contend with long low stretches of shoreline or a limitless horizon. On land I like to fill the frame of my camera, and I avoid cropping later if possible; at sea I often need to see in cinemascope.

Lesson four: Even when cropping to a panorama, sea and sky can become flat, unvaried slabs. On land, unless an event marked the moment, I'd return when the weather offered more to work with. There was no way I would be back aboard the Wanderbird or similar craft any time soon, and so what the weather didn't provide must be invented in Photoshop. While I have no philosophical objection to such manipulations, I like to keep my shots as natural looking as possible.

Lesson five: The jokes they make everywhere about the weather are true in Maine. Inland, I time my shoots to weather events. Along the coast I've learned to stand and wait, and this is even truer at sea. When the boat is moving the weather can be even more fleeting. As ocean weather hits land, clouds form and clouds melt, and one must watch closely to see what they're doing. Later in the week while shooting at Seawall, I waited for a line of wispy cloud to pass only to realize twenty minutes later that the moisture was condensing as it hit cooler shoreline temperatures and new clouds were piling up at the shore line like fresh taffy. Everything was changing, but the view was staying the same. I've learned to watch closely to see what is really happening.

Lesson six: The expressive beauty of the Maine coast viewed from a small boat fits my lens... How could it not? ...and I plan to go back.