Sunrise at the Coffee Flats Schoolhouse

In Equipment & Technique, ND Filters by George Wilson

Waking one September morning well before the sun, I headed out to the intersection of Highland and Rocky Ford at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary with a thermos of coffee and a few breakfast bars. This year I was spending only two weeks in this prime South Dakota real estate. All of the roads here are dirt, dotted with cattle guards, potholes, and a few washouts. I would actually drive on pavement for just one hour during my visit here.

Solitude lets me to photograph without disruption. The lack of a cell phone signal at the bottom of Cheyenne Canyon allows me to work on my craft. As wonderful as it sounds, however, working in solitude demands a dedication to what you are doing; it requires focus and persistence. Solitude is not for everyone.

This is a yearly pilgrimage I make to photograph wild horses, guide other photographers into the herds. My time and photography skills are my donation to a worthwhile cause. The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary was founded in 1988 as a non-profit organization. They operate solely on donations and volunteer support on 11,000 acres containing more than 700 wild horses.

This morning I would be shooting the sunrise at a schoolhouse. The school was built around 1891-92 and designed for grades 1 thru 8. Surprisingly, it was in use until the mid-1960’s. The schoolhouse itself overlooks Coffee Flats, a large area previously used to graze cattle herds before they were moved on to markets in Nebraska and Wyoming. Today it is home to burrowing owls, prairie dogs, and Spanish Mustangs.

As I stood back, I knew the sun would rise above the Angostura Mountains. Due to the dark shadows of the prairie grass, the school, and so forth, there would be a large difference in foreground-to-background exposure. Adhering to my traditional methods –forcing me to capture the image in camera and not create it in the computer –the situation dictated a creative approach to making this exposure using filters to balance the bright sunrise with the darker foreground.

So, what did I envision in my image? A series of questions I have developed over many years helps determine what I wish to convey to the viewer. It is a process I have done many times and that I teach to my students in advanced photography classes back in my home state of Florida. For this image, I wanted to capture the sun rising over the mountains with a starburst effect. I would need a properly exposed foreground with light “dancing” over the prairie grasses, as well as a warm glow from the early light. I wanted my viewer to experience the peace and solitude of a prairie sunrise, a connection with a simpler time, and, most importantly, feel the same warm glow of a sunrise I was experiencing that morning. So many features in one frame – but yes, it can be done without HDR, Photoshop, and a lengthy session sitting in front of the computer.

Now came the answers – how do I get the shot? I tell my students to stop, think things through, answer the questions, then build the shot! I would follow the same course.

To get the starburst on the sun meant using a small aperture. Just as holding your thumb on the end of a hose creates a spray of water; sunlight striking the aperture blades of a lens does the same thing with light. I changed the camera to Manual Mode for complete control, metered the school house, and, in order to get a small aperture with a shutter speed of 1/60 or greater (working without a tripod, this is the slowest shutter speed for safe hand holding), metering now told me I needed to be at ISO400. This gave me f10 as an aperture. By not venturing above ISO400, the associated digital noise would be minimized. This exposure combination would give me the starburst I was looking for as the sun broke over the mountains.

Now the school would be exposed properly, but the sun would wipe out the sky in a brilliant flash. I reached into my camera bag and pulled out two Singh Ray Split Neutral Density Filters. A 3-stop hard stop and a 2-stop soft stop were stacked on top of each other. These are unique, hand-made filters. They provide a side that is dark and a side that is light, measured in stops of light. I have 5-stops now in neutral density that could be held over the sky with zero stops over the schoolhouse. In essence, this allowed me to “hold back” the bright light of the sunrise and balance it with the darker foreground. This balanced the shot, giving me proper exposure on both sides. The sloping shape of the Angostura Mountains dictated that I hold the filters at a slight angle in front of the camera. This aligned the transition from dark to light on the filter with the mountain ridgeline. Now all I needed to do was warm up the image – I changed my white balance from automatic to the numeric Kelvin scale of 8000. The computer in the camera thought I was shooting in slightly more blue light than normal and added a bit of red-yellow to the scene to balance the color. This actually warmed up my image.

WhiteBalance is not just about color correction – that is only the practical side. White balance has an artistic side, allowing the photographer to manipulate colors in order to express mood. Adding the warm glow helped create a particular feel to the image on the prairie that morning.

This image is one of many and was created over time – I did not make all of these decisions at once. I built the image and changed settings until I had what I envisioned on my LCD. Once in front of the computer, I did darken the image overall by about 1/2 stop, sharpened it, and cropped it to a 16 x 32 format. The longer format trimmed away some negative space and allowed the image to “flow” a bit better.

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