Thursday, August 31, 2023

The evolution of Ruby Portal

Ruby Portal, Olympic Wilderness, Washington

When I’m working in the field, even when I have a very good idea of how exactly I want my picture to turn out, I may go through a dozen or so takes to ensure the image I captured expresses exactly what I’m after. If I’ve become captivated by something unexpected, I may go through a hundred or more.

The image that I’m calling Ruby Portal, shown above, was the product of the latter approach. I was on the Pacific coast in the Olympic Wilderness of Washington state where wildfire haze was giving the setting sun a striking color. I wasn’t sure how everything would turn out.

For a while, it appeared the sun might quickly sink behind a layer of clouds, so as I took each photo, I thought there was a chance it might be my last of the day. The final image is the product of about an hour of exploration and revision. I thought it might be of interest to share that process with you.

I arrived at the beach with plans of photographing bioluminescence, a phenomenon where tiny saltwater organisms glow at night. Along the northern Pacific coast, bioluminescence is never guaranteed, but after a long stretch of sunny, hot days — a combination that seems to fuel it — the opportunity on this particular day seemed promising, at least until I drove into progressively thicker wildfire haze. Home, however, was four hours away, so I decided to hike to the beach anyway.

The hike was gorgeous. The hazy sunlight filtered through the forest, illuminating parts of some of the trees with a soft golden light. I arrived on the beach a couple of hours before sunset yet the haze was so thick you could almost look directly at the sun.

I had photographed wildfire haze before. Lately in the Pacific Northwest, there are opportunities every August. Earlier this year, I was in western New York when the air was smoky there. It can result in some interesting pictures, so I went to work.

At this point the sun was still relatively high in the sky, but it appeared it was about to dip behind a layer of marine clouds. I quickly made my way to the edge of the beach.

Evening Sun in Hazy Sky, Second Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington

At this stretch of beach, there’s a rugged head that juts out into the ocean. There’s a natural bridge that I wanted to include in the composition. If I zoomed in, the sun felt like it was too high and at an odd angle. But while the arch was interesting, the rest of the head, which was almost in silhouette, became more of a solid brown. I got the idea to try to reflect the sun in some standing water. With it appearing twice in the image, I hoped that the wall of rock would no longer overwhelm it.

To add some other subtle element of interest, I tried to time my exposure for interesting wave action. Look closely and you can see a wave crashing through the arch.

Now that I had one image, I kept working to see if I could do better. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the marine clouds were not as thick as I thought they were. The sun continued to be visible.

Evening Sun in Hazy Sky, Second Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington

I found a cluster of rocks that were surrounded by water left behind by the receding tide. I thought they could also help add some weight to balance out the thicker part of Quateata Head.

To continue to get the sun’s reflection, I had to lower the camera. The camera is about a foot above the beach for this image. I also decided to try to soften the waves. The rough water felt unnecessarily distracting. I used a neutral density filter — it’s like sunglasses for a lens — which blocked some of the light and allowed me to use a much slower shutter speed. The shutter speed was 25 seconds for this image. This long exposure essentially averaged out the ocean water, giving it a tranquil feel that I think helped put the emphasis back on the dramatic sun.

Evening Sun in Hazy Sky, Second Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington

As the tide continued to drop, I had much more beach to work with, which gave me additional vantage points. I was able to walk out far enough to include a fairly dramatic sea stack with the arch. I positioned myself at an angle where the incoming waves pointed — more or less — toward the sun. I continued to use a long exposure so that they formed a softer line.

We’re now about 20 minutes to sunset. I’m honestly surprised the sun is still visible. I thought the clouds were thicker than they appear to be. Clouds or not, the sun is about to disappear. From my vantage point, it’s moving down and to the right. It’s about to vanish behind the bluff.

Evening Sun in Hazy Sky, Second Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington

The color of the glint on the water is what’s catching my attention now. As the tide continues to drop, more rocks are visible. I found a cluster of them that let a fair amount of the glint pass through and ultimately decided to continue including the arch as I thought it helped the overall composition feel more harmonious.

Three minutes later the sun was gone. Or was it?

Since the sun appeared to be moving to the right, I hiked back up the beach thinking there was a slight chance I could see the sun again through the arch. I took a guess at an angle that I thought would work and paced back and forth. Minutes later, the sun reappeared. And it was much redder than I had seen it last.

Hazy Sunset Through Natural Arch, Olympic National Park, Washington

My camera was already set up with a wide-angle lens, so I made an image that reminded me of one of Monet’s moody sunset paintings of the sea arches at √Čtretat. Color is often the primary element in any of my work and I loved the intense, though limited, palette in this image.

I had a second camera in my bag and attached a short telephoto lens on it. While my first camera was on a tripod, continuing to capture the motion of the water, I handheld the second camera, zoomed into the arch, and shot with a fast shutter speed to also try to get some drama in the water. With a tighter composition, the image was mainly made up of rock, making it much darker than the other pictures I had been taking. I wanted a little bit of light on the water to give the image more balance.

When the sun reached about the midpoint of the opening it vanished again — this time behind that layer of clouds I was worried about.

(Prints of Kevin Ebi's images are available through LivingWilderness.com. Learn about new work by joining his mailing list.)

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