How I Got the Shot: Ralph Lee Hopkins on Baja California at Sunrise

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Baja California has some of the most spectacular wild coastlines anywhere, and it's also the best place in the world to see and photograph whales and dolphins. But on this particular morning, it was all about the light.

Editor's Note: This is a guest blog post by Ralph Lee Hopkins

I was teaching a workshop with my good friends and fellow National Geographic photographers Bob Krist and Michael Melford on the National Geographic Seabird. We were also joined by B&H gurus David Brommer and Gabe Biderman, who brought a couple of cases of photo gear for students to borrow. 

Before embarking the ship, we held a pre-voyage workshop at a remote private resort, Rancho de Las Cruces, where the likes of Bing Crosby and Desi Arnez had vacation homes to escape the Hollywood spotlight. At sunrise, the early risers among us would gather along the shoreline in front of the resort to greet the dawn. As luck would have it, the early risers were rewarded, and magic happened.

For everyone who was there, we are still talking about "the sunrise," and we are all hoping for a repeat performance on the 2014 Baja Land & Sea Photo retreat in January, which you can learn more about at this link.

Gear Used

The Vision

What I love about nature photography is that it forces you to be mindful enough to wait for the light. You're fine-tuning the composition as conditions change, ready to anticipate the decisive moment. I tend to avoid cliché images of sunrise and sunset, using instead the warm light early and late in the day to paint an interesting aspect of landscape or seascape. But it doesn't happen in a single frame. You have to work the situation, refine the composition, vary the exposure, and experiment with different shutter speeds. On this morning, as the light at sunrise intensified, my eye was drawn to the reflections on the wet rocks and the motion of the surf. Magic happened when it all came together in the viewfinder.

The Plan

I set up my tripod as close to the rocks as I dared. The sturdy Induro tripod and ball head made it easy to stabilize the camera in a tenuous situation. I'm after foreground that adds a sense of place, depth or drama to the image. Sometimes the motion is too much, the water lost in the cotton-candy look. Other times it's not enough, looking stiff and streaky. To get it just right takes practice and experimentation. Even then, it's in the eye of the beholder.

Technical Details

My 16-35mm lens was set at f/22, with exposures varying between 1 second and 4 seconds. I shot through a sequence of exposures, varying my f/stops from f/2.8 to f/22 to alter the depth-of-field, changing ISO to control shutter speeds between 1/4 and 2 seconds. I used a neutral-density filter to hold back the intense sky. Sometimes we get seduced by the filters, when software might achieve a better result, so always shoot with and without filters so you can make the choice later. The high-ISO capability of the Canon 5D Mark III is superb. I always use the lowest ISO possible for the desired result, but I don't hesitate cranking it up to 1600 ISO, if that is what it takes to get the shot.

Post Production

The RAW image was processed in Lightroom for color temperature, saturation, and vibrancy, which was held back because of the naturally intense colors. And even though I was using a graduated ND in the field, I refined the balance between sky and foreground by adding a graduated filter layer in Lightroom, and lighting the foreground slightly. The selected frame had the best reflections combined with the velvety motion of the water. Noise reduction and sharpening was applied to the final image at export.