Saturday, December 22, 2012

Winter Solstice

Short Days, Distant Sunsets

The idea was simple.  I wanted to photograph these tall ships in the warm glow of the setting sun.  But simple does not necessarily mean easy.

These ships are docked at South Street Seaport in Manhattan.  Across the street to the west is typical Manhattan architecture - skyscrapers. 

For most of the year, the sun descends below the skyscrapers by late afternoon.  The ships are engulfed in dark shadows long before the 'golden hour' arrives.

But there is a glimmer of hope in this shadowy situation.

The sun doesn't set in the same location every day.  During the summer months, it sets into the northwestern sky, and in the winter it sets into the southwest.  Every day, the position of the sunset moves a little closer toward one of these extremes.

Could the moving sunset hold the key to nailing the shot that I wanted?

In a word, yes.  There are a few weeks each year when the sun sets far enough to the south to clear the row of imposing skyscrapers that normally overshadow this marina.  Predictably, this window of opportunity occurs for a few days before and after the Winter Solstice, the day when the sun rises and sets at its extreme southern position. 

a large format fine art photograph of tall ships at south street seaport in new york city
The Fleeting Light of Winter

I had to make several trips to the location.  Again, simple isn't always easy.  On some occasions, thick clouds would move in before the best light appeared.  On other days, the sunlight filtered through a thin, milky layer of haze that muted its color.  It's always cold and frequently windy by the East River in December, and a view camera requires a lot of manual adjustments.

African immigrants sold hats and postcards near where I was shooting.  They watched me with puzzled expressions as I set up and focused the view camera.  Afterward, I would chat with them as I attempted to thaw out my frozen fingers.  I dealt with frustrating conditions on several occasions, but eventually I was rewarded with the light that I had planned so long to capture.

Sadly, everything changes.  I went back a year later to attempt another version of the shot.  The wooden masts of one of the ships had been replaced with ugly metal poles.  Years later, the city built a structure that blocks this view entirely. 

If you want to capture what you envision in your mind's eye, you need to work on it as soon as you can.  It will take time.  It might require planning and scouting, trial and error, frustration and frozen fingers.  So get started, because opportunities do not last.

Everything changes.  And simple definitely does not mean easy.


            Ebony SV45TE

            Nikkor-SW 90mm f/4.5

Wishing you great light and meaningful moments!

Copyright 2012 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved


  1. I like all three posts. There seems to be a theme in the words: visit a place repeatedly; and in the pictures: you love the color blue and capture it well.

    1. Thanks very much for your comments! Repeated visits increase the likelihood of capturing something memorable, interesting cloud patterns, an exceptional blend of light, unique moments, etc.

      The color blue is the dominant color in our atmosphere. Its short wavelength is easily scattered by gas molecules and dust particles, and the resulting 'blue sky' colors our world for most of the daylight hours.

      At sunset, sunlight travels a longer distance through the atmosphere. Blue wavelengths are filtered out by excessive scattering, and the longer red and yellow waveforms become more clearly visible.

      Every change in the atmosphere has an impact on light, and these changes in turn influence the look of our photographs.