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#170102 Nubble Lighthouse Winter Sunrise


A Photographers Life:

It often looks so easy. People walk in my gallery, and say things like, “these are so beautiful”…..“what a great job you have”…”you got lucky with that timing”… ..“how fortunate you were”.

What the vast majority do not realize, is the average image on my wall takes two years from conception to fruition. Like all photographers, once in a while I do get ‘lucky’, out shooting something I had long planned out, when something unexpected showed up, and I was able to come away with a good image. But those times are very few and far between.

For the most part, it’s about spending many days/months/years scouting, pre-visualization, composition, and effort, to come away with something truly exceptional. The river must be unfrozen… there must be fresh snow…but not blown off the trees…followed immediately by a rare stunning sunrise/sunset…the foliage must be peak…the green vegetation must be fresh with moisture…the tide pool must be full….the path must be navigable…the stream crossable…the placement due East or West…blue skies….with puffy clouds…fog….no wind to blow the flowers/trees….less busy time with no people in image….must be spring…summer…fall…winter…. and and on and on. and the time to chase it.

Typically, I spot a strong composition that I have been searching for first. Almost always, when the light is poor for shooting (you need to see the scene clearly in the light, but then shoot in near dark). Then it’s waiting for the right season or conditions to be present, with the ability of my schedule, often get up at 2 or 3am, to drive to a spot, hike in the dark with a headlamp, and finally set up my tripod with gear and wait for sunrise…and hope I get ‘lucky’ with some stunning colors. And no, I do not then take a 100 pictures to get 1. I do however probably move my camera/tripod more than a dozen times over 20 minutes, eliminating this rock, giving more sky space, including this tree/bush, backing up 10 feet, crouching lower, even lower again, higher, higher, moving to the left, swapping lenses….until finally…I settle on the strongest composition possible, with nothing in the image that detracts from it, and everything that adds to its beauty.

More often than not, the sunrise/sunset is rather average, and I go back down, back to my car, and drive to work to open my gallery, and hope to come back and try again another day/season/year. If I’m fortunate, I might use a rare day off to do this, and not need to go to work immediately, after pulling one of these night/morning expeditions. If I am trying to accomplish an image I have visualized a state away, I must incorporate all this into an overnight, or two, and hope my trip/time is rewarded. I can look around my gallery and point to picture after picture, that took ‘four trips over two years’, ‘six over 5’, 7 years…and on and on.

If all I had to do was photograph, it would indeed be an amazing job. But that part is less than 1% of my time as a photographer. The rest is gallery staffing, framing, matting, editing, deliveries, inventory, accounting, shipping, ordering supplies, promoting, web site work, etc.etc….Not that I’m complaining, because I have been so very fortunate to witness some amazing things, and able to support myself producing art, a rare and difficult feat in todays world. But ‘lucky timing’ is created with multiple efforts, and ‘stunning scenes’ are created with an eye for a strong composition. Yes, mother nature has to do her thing, and she gets full credit:), but it doesn’t just “happen”. This image of Nubble Lighthouse is one of these. It’s taken me three years to finally get the image I had envisioned. This time standing in the dark for an hour, in the cold wind moist ocean air, with a -10 degree windchill.

Let me walk you through the 48 hours it took to get this image…..

I had two images in my mind I wanted to attain, both of which I had made earlier attempts to photograph, a park bench with the Boston skyline, and Nubble in the winter with a wintry icy foreground. I saw what appeared to be a good weather window, and left my gallery late Sunday afternoon, driving to Boston to spend the evening with a friend and watch some football:), knowing I would scout my location the following day and shoot that evenings sunset. The next day, I spent re-scouting my shoot and following the weather, while battling Boston area winter traffic (difficult for this country boy, with little recent practice:), it’s two way streets narrowed to one lane, grumpy drivers, potholes, and some middle fingers thrown my way.

It was very cold, in the teens, windy, but sunny and blue skies, with a forecast of increasing clouds into the night, clearing again by morning. It looked like I would have a decent window to catch a good sunset over Boston, and then leave for the Maine cost, for a morning shoot at Nubble. By early afternoon I was good to go, and needed to kill a couple of hours before setting up to photograph. I was extremely fortunate, stumbling across a wonderful restaurant not far from my car. With owners from Argentina, the Latin cuisine was amazing, with fresh bold flavors, and everything homemade from their sausage, salsa, veggie rice, seasoned steak, to the best warm corn tortillas I have ever had….just give me a plate of those with butter:)! Killing time, I slowly ate my meal and drank my beer, chatting with the bartender, all the time watching the weather on my iPhone, periodically checking the Boston web cams. As I watched my phone, slowly approaching the hour to shoot, the weather was diminishing, but I was still hopeful.

Finally it was time to leave the warm confines of the bar, and get to my location. Instead of stepping out into the bright sunshine I had walked in with, the sky was now overcast. Darn! I drove to my location, still hopeful, but alas when I arrived the entire sky was now completely grey and overcast. There would be no sunset to shoot this day. I quickly checked my iPhone to see about the weather in Portsmouth, as I’ve been wanting to shoot sunset there too. It still looked good, and if I hustled I might make it before the colors start.

I jumped in the car, once again battling crazy city traffic, and eventually made my way back on the interstate. I drove north to Portsmouth, arriving at the village just in time. I quickly scouted the tugboats along the Piscataqua river, settled on a good composition, and sat there as the light and temperatures faded. The low clouds were starting to gain color, and I became hopeful. The temp was dropping fast, down into the single numbers. As I stood and waited in the cold, the sun set further, and just as it looked like the clouds might become more colorful…..the color faded and the light waned. Gone. So much for that shot.

Being just after 5:00, with rush hour traffic in full swing, and my body chilled, I decided to settle into the nearest bar for dinner and wait it out, before traveling to York next to spend the night. The scallops and seafood chowder were spot on, warming and delicious. I accompanied them with a pint of Guinness stout:). The exceptionally cute bartender was talkative and attentive, as she inquired about my photography, and told of her recent move from Louisiana. I followed up my meal with a hot cup of joe, and soon was back at my car and on the road to York.

I had made a reservation at a new Wyndham Microtel in downtown York, which exceeded all expectations. Everything was brand new, the most comfortable beds, soft room lighting, a quiet heater, complimentary evening cookies with cider or hot chocolate, an excellent continental breakfast also included, and at least a dozen pay movie channels for free……all for $64/room, tax included! I felt may never leave:)!……at least until 5am shows up, and my alarm clock goes off.

I awoke to 4 degrees with a 25 mph wind (-10 wind chill), which will always feel just a bit colder when you are huddled on rocks exposed to the moist ocean air. I grabbed my already packed camera-backpack, carbon fiber tripod, my Microspikes, and donned my full winter gear, completely covered in Gortex, goose down, and my Koflach mountaineering boots. After downing a hot cup of coffee, I threw my gear in the car and headed to Nubble.

With little to no traffic (I know, shocking at 5:30am, in the middle of winter;), I was soon stepping out into the frigid ocean air to see how bad it was…..yep, just as I thought…pretty darn cold. I put my headlamp on, slipped on my gloves, and walked to the edge of the rocks, looking to see if I should wear my spikes or not. The conditions were ripe with uncertainty. There was ice (and some snow) everywhere, but also tons of bare rock, so I decided to opt out of the Microspikes, giving me less chance of turning an ankle, but more chance of a full slip.

I gently crawled down the rocky embankment, stepping in loose rock holes filled with snow, and was soon navigating the iciest sections to get to my vantage point. It was still dark, but I could see the sky beginning to lighten. I found a rather small patch of bare rock to set up, as long as I paid attention to not step back or to the side, onto the ice (of course, I did it more than once). I put my pack on the ground, and pulled out my camera, already fitted with my selected lens, remote timer, and the settings I would likely be using. I had wisely set up in the warmth of my room the night before:)

The air was super cold, and I pulled my hood up over my wool cap, partially blocking my face from the wind. My fingers were already freezing, using my liner-covered fingers to adjust the tripod legs and to mount my camera. Then adjusting my camera settings, focal length, and focus, requires completely bare hands to operate. They quickly turned numb, and I shoved them back in my pockets to try to warm them. I could only expose them for a short time, before I needed to put my hands back in my pockets, each time warming up less than the last.

I did my usual thing, moving the tripod forward, back, to the side, lower, higher, including this ice, avoiding that rock, eventually settling on what would be my final composition. The sky was starting to gain some minimal color, but nothing dramatic, and I stood there frozen as the ice, waiting, hoping. It gained a bit, so I started taking a picture or two, trying to time the waves crashing over the rocks to give them a misty look, using a lengthy shutter exposure. My hands were now constantly painfully numb, no matter how many times I shoved them back in my pockets, and would not get better again until I reached the warmth and safety of my car.

Just as I thought we might be nearing the end of the best color, mother nature threw one last blast of orange-red at the clouds, and the color also spread over the water, in contrast to the cold blue shadows and ice of the foreground. I immediately knew I had something worthwhile, as I bracketed some pictures and altered my shutter speeds to get some play in the ocean water. Satisfied with the results, and with the color now slipping away, I packed my gear back up, and pivoted back up over the rocky embankment. I threw the gear in my car, turned the heater on blast, and spent the longest time stuffing my numb fingers into the vents, trying to regain some feeling. They stung and ached as they returned to temperature, while I dove back to the hotel.

Upon arriving back, breakfast was just being laid out. I piled my plate high with waffles, hard boiled eggs, fresh fruit, toast with peanut butter, and a giant coffee, as I headed back to my room. I first checked the images in the viewfinder to make sure I had succeeded. But I was quickly devastated when I saw the results up close in good lighting. Every Single Picture was soft and out of focus. I scrambled unsuccessfully through picture after picture, hoping for just one that was good, now realizing the entire trip was a waste, and must be done again.

Depressed with the news, I put the camera back in the pack, and slumped into the bed, sipping my coffee and trying to figure out what I had done wrong. It’s tough in the dark, and even though I was critical with my focus (auto focus does not work in the dark, btw), it’s easy to bump the focus ring when shooting. Bummed out, and still attempting to get the cold out of my body, I cranked the heat up, tore off my winter clothes, threw on some warm fleece, and slunk into the bed piled high with soft pillows. I basked in the warm room, sipping my hot coffee, and stuffing my face, and decided to distract myself with watching a movie. I sat there trying to watch the movie, but overthinking the mornings shoot the whole time…..when suddenly I had an epiphany!…..

…..I couldn’t have been that far off on every single image, to not notice while shooting!….I raced across the room, and frantically tore the camera out of my pack. I quickly turned it on, and removed the clear back cover plate that covers the viewing screen…..and sure enough…the warmth of the room against the still frozen screen had condensed forming a very slight layer of fog on the clear plate, giving the appearance of being out of focus! All my pictures indeed were razor sharp! Jubilation and joy ensued, as I danced around the room:)!

So there you go, an ‘easy job’, being ’fortunate’ and ’lucky’, coming away with a beautiful image;). Heck, it only took three years, and my fingers survived, even though they were still sore arriving at home at the end of the day.