Dawn and dusk provide two unique styles of light that not only look amazing, but can also distinguish your photography when shooting popular landmarks. The Portland Head Light, in Cape Elizabeth ME, is the most overshot lighthouse in the United States. While I find Canada’s Swallowtail Lighthouse far more beautiful, the Head Light is a great challenge for a few reasons. First, it’s surrounded by dangerous cliffs and is fenced off, forcing photographers to have to work to get a unique shot. Most people simply take the walkup shot at one of a few good angles along the fence line. There are a few relatively safe places to go off-piste, however, and get a chance to walk down to shore. If you’re brave enough to make this journey, you still have to be careful not to slip on the algae covered rocks and have to constantly watch the tide as it creeps up on you. In the shot above, I had just barely made it down to the beach, and had the great opportunity to include this giant boulder in the foreground of the shot.
One of the great things about shooting at dawn is the beautiful blue cast to your photos. This soft blue light was much darker when I took the shot; the camera exposed up to it. While most photographers start shooting a half hour before sunrise, I took this shot about an hour before, while things were still barely visible to the naked eye. A standard exposure left the shoreline almost as dark as a silhouette, so I bracketed 5 shots and merged them together as an HDR to get the full tonal range you see. It was dark because I also used a 5-stop neutral density filter to further darken the shot. This allowed me to use very wide f-stop values, such as 2.8 or 3.5, giving me a more shallow depth of field. The blurry soft-focus you see is real, it wasn’t done in editing software. The shallow depth of field you can achieve at these f-stops allows for such dreamy pics. The blurred edges of the photo really make it stand out from your typical Head Light shot. The final on this was f/3.5, ISO 100 at 8, 2, 4, 15, and 30 seconds for the five exposures.
Another great time to shoot is dusk, about 30-60 minutes after sunset, when there is still some visible light. Not only is the light great, but if you’re shooting small towns or homes in the shot, is also when the lights come on. I wanted to capture the silky ocean tides beating up against the rocks here, so I used a 10-stop neutral density filter on my Wonderpana, shooting my 14-24mm. The dark vignetting is a result of this filter, and wasn’t done in post processing. I like it. The shutter was slowed down enough that it was able to make those hard splashes of water appear amazingly soft, like someone just dropped a bunch of cream into your coffee mug. I love it. The deep purples and pinks wound up in the exposure, even though they weren’t very visible at the time. The camera is going to adjust to bring the light up to where it can see things you can’t with your eye. This can even be done at ISO 100, by increasing the exposure. In this shot, the light house is an afterthought; it’s really not the subject of my photo although it adds a really nice effect to it.
Compare these to my two best sunrise shots of the Head Light. The sunrise shots are beautiful, but they’re not nearly as gorgeous as my dawn and dusk shots… and they look pretty much like every other photo of the lighthouse out there, perhaps with the exception of the “on the rocks” location I chose. If you’re selling your artwork, people generally will buy the sunrise. People know what they like and they like what they know. As for my personal collection, the dawn and dusk shots are my keepers.