The night before my sunrise shoot I arrived at the Point Lonsdale Lighthouse to check out the light. In general I link to see a scene at dawn and dusk. It means I get a chance to cover all bases for light, or simply scope out the location for potential sights to setup a tripod. I'm not a landscape photographer mind you, I'm too lazy and rarely have the time to invest in a single photo that professional landscape guys enjoy. But a little research goes a long way. The late evening horizon was blocked out by clouds, but I arrived early enough to get a few well-lit shots of the lighthouse and surrounding rocks at low-tide. You get better blue skies when there's a bit of punch to the light anyway, so the last light of the day is not always the most ideal for a 'brochure shot'.
I decided the following sunrise would be worth a little effort so planned an early night.
Woke up conscious that I didn't want to sleep through the sunrise. Was too tired to realise what time it was, looked outside to see the moonlit night. Lots of clouds, a few stars. Was thinking it might be a bit hit and miss when the sun comes up. Checked the time, realised what a mug I was and went back to sleep.
My alarm goes off and I'm startled a bit. I haven't had enough sleep. Some people bounce out of bed but in my case it's more of an osmotic transference from the blankets to my clothing. I didn't want to go. I ran through all kinds of justifications about the kind of cloud out there, convincing myself there would be no decent light. Low cloud across the horizon blocks the best light in the mornings. One part of my brain fought back by suggesting that A) I'm being paid to take photos this morning so I have to do my level best to deliver whatever I can, and B) maybe the muted light will be nice to get some slow shutter across the ocean waves.
Arriving at the Point Lonsdale Lighthouse there are a few cars there already. Fishermen are out on the pier where the sun comes up, although they turned out to be the only people I saw for the rest of the morning. From the pier the sun rises behind us and illuminates the lighthouse. This is the most commonly printed shot around the region, appearing on postcards and books.
It's the sky that interests me however. There is no sun yet. I like to start shooting about 30 minutes before sunrise and according to Google the first light would happen around 5:50am. Summer days are long in Melbourne. I take a few slow shutter exposures featuring the pier itself, using lead-lines to disappear into the horizon and filling the background with waves and clouds.
The light is already starting to emerge, so my shutter speeds at the lowest ISO setting are around 5 seconds. Ideally I'd like to shoot some super slow scenes at 30 seconds, at which point the texture of the water is smoothed to velvet. But with a few acceptable shots in the can I start to feel good about having made the effort this morning.
The pier at Point Lonsdale extends west off the beach, so when the morning sun has fully emerged the view of the lighthouse is nicely illuminated. It's too early for that now however. Instead I decide to walk around the other side of the point, where stairs lead down to the ocean beach. From the sand you're looking east to shoot the lighthouse, into the sun. This is often a good move on the coast, as that's where the most detailed colours emerge. Today the clouds on the horizon made the light come and go, and while we didn't get a rich array of pre-dawn colour, we did get warm tones and angles to play with.
At low tide an intricate array of rock pools add interesting elements for compositions. On this morning it was close to high tide and just a few rocks emerged from the waves. So I decided I wanted the waves themselves in my shots. I'm still working my tripod at this stage, and dragging my ND Graduated filter across the bright sky to balance the light. I want to see the detail of the foreground without blowing out the lovely cloud patterns in the sky. I'm using the ND Graduated filter in a very casual way,just waving in front of the lens with one hand while I hit the shutter with the other hand. The most important thing with this 'technique' is to resist the tendency to go hard on the filter. It's an ND8 version, and it can make the sky black at its strongest point.
As I shuffle closer to the waters edge in search of composition I get caught by a larger wave. I always wear short and sandles for just such occasions, even though it's freezing cold this morning and I'm wearing two layers above my shirt to keep warm. Once I get wet I realise I'm free to get a little adventurous and wander further into the surf. It's probably not good for my tripod but there's little to be gained by worrying about a little salt water.
The light is starting to break through low clouds, flooding my shots with light. Now my slow shutters are down to a fraction of a second, making it impossible to get the extent of motion blur from crashing waves. They aren't crashing fast enough. But I can get some effect, so I concentrate on hitting that point at which the waves are sliding past me at maximum speed.
The sun has had a chance to warm up the air a little and the result is increasing cloud cover. Every now and then it breaks through, but even then the light has lost most of its warmth tone due to the overall strength of light. The difference in light quality between 6am and 7am is significant. I get fussy about the light having indulged in a good sunrise. I figure I have the best shots of the lighthouse, and the waves, that I am likely to get. I do a mental tally of the mornings shots and figure I can add some variety by either scouring the beach for close-ups of shells, chasing a few gulls and other seabirds, or wandering around the rugged rocks that protrude around the lighthouse itself.
My tripod is officially retired for the morning.
As I walk towards the rocks the sun burst out again and throws sharp light across the wave gauged sandstone. Having walked up the beach I found my perspective looking directly across the light, which is often the most interesting for colours. The new perspective also revealed new clouds in the sky to work into my compositions. Variety needs the most subtle of changes to present itself.
By the time I shot a handful of rocks along the high-tide line the sun made its exit behind clouds and would not be seen again until late morning. Sunrises are fickle at best, but they're impossible to assess in advance. Even a forecast for storms and rain can be fooled by a narrow band of clear sky far out to see that creates a few minutes of brilliant dawn colour. You have to make the full effort even though you cannot be sure of the returns.
Just a few moments of dazzling light can make the effort worthwhile. On the morning it felt like I had been out shooting for two hours. In reality I was on the location for less than 1 hour. It all happens so fast, so being prepared with a few set ideas for photos is important. If you're a landscape photographer you'll want one particular shot. Travel photographers will want a little variety instead. That can be a challenge when the clock is ticking, but isn't that half the pleasure of travelling with your camera?
7am. Started downloading my photos and washing the sand out of my sandles.