Story & Photography by Franklin Kearney
“The fog should clear in a few days,” said the lifeguard.
I was expecting him to say “hours.” In New York City, I’m often racing against time to capture a few good fog shots before it dissipates. But, I was in Atlantic City, NJ – right on the edge of the ocean – and this fog was determined to hang around this oceanside gambling mecca for its close-up. I took a gamble of sorts of my own. The weather called for partly cloudy skies during my short visit, and I had hoped the clouds would provide some dramatic sunrises above the Atlantic. However, true to that lifeguard’s word, the fog enveloped the city for three straight days. I needed to come up with a Plan B.
One filter I always keep in my bag is The Big Stopper. Made by Lee Filters http://www.leefilters.com, The Big Stopper is an extreme neutral density filter, blocking ten stops of light. It’s mainly used to shoot long exposures (often extending into minutes) during daylight hours. The surf was a little rough, so I thought I could use it to smooth out the waves into a cloud-like consistency and have it blend almost seamlessly with the fog.
I’ve always had a fascination with photos shot under piers. In the right light, waves crashing through never-ending columns of dark posts can create one heck of a creepy environment. The opening image of this article, which I’ve titled, “Into the Abyss,” is a perfect example. Standing under an abandoned pier, I used the Big Stopper to lengthen the exposure to a full 45 seconds – transforming the crashing waves into a mysterious mist, floating on the surface of the ocean. It also gave the sand a glass-like, reflective quality which produced beautiful shadow details – something I didn’t even notice at the time of the shoot. I positioned myself so that I could shoot directly down the most extended section of the pier while keeping the cross-posts in the frame on the left and the line of short pylons on the far right. The waves were regularly washing over them, and I knew the long exposure would give them an otherworldly appearance. The fog added the final touch to this eerie scene by completely obscuring the horizon.
The next day, I shot the image above under the same pier without the Big Stopper. The fog had lifted a bit, but the waves were just as rough. Although still dark and ominous, the details that were now present in the water robbed the scene of its previous mystique.
When shooting fog on an ocean, it can be a little challenging to illustrate its intensity. Unlike a forest scene, where you can see the trees dissolving in the distance, there’s nothing on an ocean for a comparable frame of reference. Rather than stressing about it, I decided to go in a slightly different direction. The combination of dense fog and the Big Stopper can simplify a scene. The pier in the photo below almost appears as though it’s practically floating in space – conveying a “fine art” type of look.
Images exposed at the extreme ends of the spectrum (super slow or super-fast shutter speeds) are always interesting because we’re unable to see this with our naked eyes. Just as I did with the under-the-pier photos, I shot two comparisons of the images below.
Here, the Big Stopper conveys a rather calm and soothing scene, while the photo shot a 1/350 sec shows just the opposite, as the rough waves crash into the pier.
You need to take certain precautions when shooting near the shore. You NEVER want to leave your gear unattended. More than once, I had to stop photographing and move my bag back several feet from the point where the waves were coming onshore. A better solution would have been to hang it from the tripod hook and avoid placing it on the sand at all. Unfortunately, I didn’t think of that at the time! If you’re using a tripod (which I was), you need to be extra cautious. I don’t mind getting wet in a lake or a pond, but I didn’t want to get hit by the surf. An unexpected, massive wave can easily topple a tripod. Even a small one can destabilize the sand enough to cause it to slightly shift position – something I did not want to have happened just towards the end of a one-minute-long exposure.
While I’m on the subject of tripods, it’s important to remember that no matter what you do, sand will definitely be an issue. Every time I picked it up to move to another location, the rubber tips at the bottom were covered with thick clumps of wet sand. I didn’t want to use my hands to clean it for fear of spreading sand over everything I touched thereafter. I knocked off as much as I could by tapping the legs. When I retracted the legs, I left several inches of the bottom portion extended to avoid contaminating the upper sections with any residual sand still clinging to the feet. I wiped everything down with a damp towel once I got indoors. Even so, there were still traces of sand in the grooves of the legs – forcing me to take the entire thing apart for thorough cleaning when I got back home. It is advisable to carry a special cloth with you to wipe down the tripod after each use in the field. Also, if you intend to bring the fabric in your camera bag, you should quarantine it in a particular container to avoid a widespread outbreak of sand throughout your entire bag.
Another concern is wind and moisture. On windy days, a lens cap should be kept on until you’re ready to shoot. Keep a cloth or towel handy to wipe away water from the lens. However, if you suspect sand has gotten on the glass, use a blower brush first before wiping it to prevent scratching the surface. Moisture can be very deceptive. When you’re near the ocean, it doesn’t have to be raining for you and your equipment to become soaked. After shooting the photo below, I started noticing that I didn’t see things as clearly as before. I took off my glasses and found them covered with a fine mist. I checked my camera and, sure enough, it too was thoroughly coated. Even though it’s weather-proof, I didn’t feel like pushing my luck (considering the length of the exposures I was shooting) and decided to call it a day. A rain cover definitely would have come in handy.
The Big Stopper is a unique filter capable of producing some truly unique images. It does take some getting used to, though. It’s almost jet black, so you have to compose your shot before attaching it to your lens. As far as figuring out the exposure, it comes with a handy exposure guide that tells you how long your exposure should be, based on your shutter speed before attaching the filter. One unfortunate side effect is a fairly heavy, bluish color cast. The cast can be removed in post, or by using a custom white-balance setting at the time of the shoot. I reduced it considerably in Photoshop, but not completely. I slightly preferred the light bluish tint over the near black and white appearance of the faster shutter speed shots.
The next time you’re at the shore (or any place where there’s plenty of movement) try experimenting with it to see how it can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.