Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Sunrise over Bass Harbor, 2008

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: I didn't think this dewy morning would be photogenic. A sky unaccommodating, too hazy for photos and sun in the wrong place! I'd started photographing from across the harbor hoping the sun, still low, would add definition and color to the docks where I now stand, but all lay mute in a soupy, gray glare. I crossed to the Bernard side of the harbor expecting less. The best thing going was the surface of the water but the colors were bland. For lack of a better subject I shot at cloud forms mirrored in the harbor waters until the sun poked through. Blinding sun reflected in the windows of fishing boats - like a snagged line, a catch to the eye, that wouldn't let go.

Shooting the sun is much harder than shooting fog. Light like this is too much for the human eye. How do we shoot what's too bright to see? Turner knew the secret in Mortlake Terrace (1) (2), where the parapet wall disappears in the sun's bright glare. In fact, when it came to light, he always knew the secrets.

The photographer must violate the first commandment of photography, "Thou shalt not overexpose," but Turner gives us permission to overexpose. In a photo like this if I don't overexpose at all the shadow areas will be all murk. In fact, it is both over and under exposed. But how much of each is right? Where does one set the balance? Every case is different, and it's best to check results and bracket. One can also reduce the dynamic range with graduated ND filters, but if I'd done that I'd have missed the shot.

In the case of this image I thought the forms were too diffuse to unify into a composition and that the shadowed areas were bound to be too murky. As a result, I shot without full conviction and did not bracket. My interest was much more in composition which changed quickly as the sun rose and its reflection on the water moved past stationary objects. Well, almost stationary objects, the boats shifted ever so slightly around their moorings. It was an experiment.

I had shot this spot on the dock before, and I knew how to use the traps and decking. I positioned my tripod and left the ball head loose so I could recompose as sun, clouds, water, and boats all shifted within the stationary frame of traps and dock. From this position I would be able to catch the sun's arch as its reflection caught on various surfaces, grew and shrank in the harbor, while the frame anchored whatever was painted there. I could shoot both horizontals and verticals this way; the frame was adaptable.

At the time I remember thinking this shot was one too many, that if the shot worked at all, it would be in the previous exposure where the sun snagged on the windshield. I shot a few more anyway and in the next the sun is back on the water. Then all of a sudden the clouds were gone, the sun was up and the opportunity vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared. Much later I chose this one where the side of the boat and the water explode with light. There would have been no time for bracketing, no time for readjusting graduated ND filters.

So how did I adjust the exposure? AT ISO 400, f14, 1/320th sec, I was also hunting for gulls. Well, one can always get lucky, but I believed I'd confined the overexposed areas to the hard core of brightness. A couple of test shots showed I was able to increase exposure a fair ways before the edges of the core began to bleed outward. My real worry was the underexposed area around the traps. I backed off from the bleeding core and entrusted the rest to Photoshop.

The photo is toned a good deal darker in the midrange than the scene appeared when I took it. This serves to give substance to sky and water and brings out the colors. I pushed the high end a little higher; it's the turner effect. Some will object, but it is the scene as I knew it might be.

My short lens is zoomed to 31mm.