I have been debating for some time restarting a blog. For a long time I had a photo blog that I largely used as a venue to record my random thoughts and provide a gallery for my photography. I stopped for a long time for no real reason other than the lapsing of my previous domain name. Now that I have been working on making photography my primary occupation (at glacial rates it sometimes feels) I thought I should restart the process of writing a blog.
I thought long and hard on what the blog should be about. I think something more specific than just my random thoughts might be more functional for and interesting to others. But I don’t really want to create a platform for tutorials and paid presets or photoshop actions as so many do — these are useful but they’re not really my cup of tea. I enjoy teaching others in person but producing content for internet consumption can feel soul-sucking at times. I thought then about what makes a photo interesting to others, what can make even a mundane photo exciting — story.
I’d like to eventually tell photo essays or stories in this forum, or perhaps do photo studies or biopics of individuals. Something like photo journalism if that’s not too much credit to give myself. But I’ll get started I think by telling the story behind some of my favorite images, just to get the ball rolling.
When I took this photo I was just getting comfortable with my switch to Nikon–I shoot on a D750 now but I spent the first ten years of my serious pursuit of photography on a few different Canons–by exploring the city almost daily. I made it a project to find the best vantage point for a cityscape of Bellingham. I explored Sehome for a few days — no dice, too many trees and no good foreground. I went up Alabama Street and took a shot from the footbridge on the old railroad trail that turned out pretty good but wasn’t quite perfect.
Then I discovered Little Squalicum beach, which is less than a mile walk from my apartment. I explored there a couple times, including at night. I think that scouting is the key to getting a great shot of a location — familiarity is amazing for predicting the right time of day and conditions, as well as refining the various possible angles down to the best. I originally thought I’d do something with the long pier that’s on the right edge of the frame as I enjoy finding powerful elements of perspective.
Before I could find a good angle that had the city in frame, though, a train came through on the tracks that are directly behind me in this shot and I moved away to get a clear view of the train for a long exposure. The train got away but when I turned around I noticed the tide was perfect to isolate the small rocks for an interesting foreground. I could still use the pier for some perspective, too. And instead of the clouds concealing an amazing sunset they were instead enhancing an incredible blue hour. I took a few basic 30″ shots and was really liking what was on the LCD but the water had a little too much texture. I realized I needed something a lot longer to get the calm I was feeling as well as capture the movement of and smooth out the clouds. At this point however I was near about 45-50 minutes after sunset — blue hour was rapidly coming to an end. When you start talking about long exposures in a window like that, 3 or 5 minutes or more, you really only have a couple of chances before the light is gone. Time starts to fly by when you have your eye on specific conditions!
Without some sort of sky illumination I wasn’t going to get a great shot — nothing to evenly light the foreground nor fill in the spaces between the flaring lights. The shot would be all dark spots with flaring city lights — really difficult to expose city lights well at night from a distance. I had been there at night before and while it’s not a bad shot it wasn’t the blue hour cityscape I was trying to get. I framed it as best I could based on the few 30″ shots I’d taken and was just barely able to get the pier on the edge of the frame and the city on the other with the 16mm lens I was using and put the camera to bulb and opened the shutter with my cable release and checked my watch.
I’m bad with the math on longer exposures. Once I go past 30 seconds it starts to become hard to remember how long it is per stop of exposure. I know it’s exponential but I can never remember the numbers. I shot one at 2 minutes that looked pretty okay but the histogram was pretty dark. It was getting pretty close to full night at this point so I figured damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead — I could make something work with the shots I had, worst case scenario, so this time I just aimed for a 5 minute exposure and hoped that was bright enough.
I did what I always do and closed the shutter a little early — I think this photo is about 275 seconds. I always get nervous I’m going to overexpose it, though I pretty much always end up with underexposed RAWs instead of over. I didn’t really have time for another as at this point it was basically dark — even in this shot you can see the city lights are just a touch too bright compared to the rest of the scene, but I still think it’s one of my favorite shots I’ve ever taken and definitely my favorite cityscape of Bellingham.
It’s interesting to think about how things have changed with digital photography. Now we burn through exposures. I bracket 3 frames for most of my landscapes, just because why not; you often don’t know exactly what it looks like until you get on a big monitor and it’s not like I need to worry about film. I’ll often shoot a photo that is pretty close and then take 2 or 3 more with slight changes in settings just because I can. I can fit 1500+ images on my SD card so there’s no worry for space in that regard.
What happens is the limiting factor becomes the scene itself. Time doesn’t stop, light doesn’t stay the same, your subject often will never look the exact same twice. So in the end, despite the fact that you have a thousand chances to capture something you may only still have just the one, not because of your camera but because of the nature of experience.
I think that is part of what makes this image one of my favorites. I just barely got there, skin of my teeth. Granted, I live near here and could go there every day for sunset almost — but I don’t. And even if I did, odds are I’d never be able to reproduce this shot perfectly. And even if I did, the experience would be different. It’d be manufacturing, not art.
Something to think about, I suppose.