Behind the Image: Capturing A Long Exposure Sunset on Deer Isle

November 15, 2022  |  Deer Isle, Maine

This past weekend, eager to avoid spending the day at home doing nothing, I asked my wife if she'd like to take a drive. I'd been looking at weather reports, tide reports, and sunset positioning for a few different locations I've been wanting to photograph, and everything seemed to line up well for a sunset at Sand Beach on Deer Isle, Maine, near the village of Stonington. My wife agreed she'd like to get out with me, so I packed up my gear and off we went.

The sun sets behind Weir Island in Penobscot Bay, just off Sand Beach in Stonington on Deer Isle, Maine.
I Am A Rock, I Am An Island

The sun sets behind Weir Island near Stonington, Maine on a November evening. The long exposure technique used creates a serene effect on the ocean and adds drama to the sky, where the clouds appear to be in motion, illuminated by the warm hues of red and orange from the setting sun. The foreground is dominated by the imposing rocks on Sand Beach, adding depth and texture to the scene.

Sand Beach is about a 3 hour drive from me, and sunset was almost exactly at 4pm, so we hopped in the car around 11am and took off. We meandered up the coast knowing we had a little extra time. As we approached Camden, my wife suddenly remembered that there was a cute little cupcake shop with amazing cupcakes, so we stopped to grab a snack. The cupcake shop is LAUGH loud SMILE big and it's right on Main St. I had a Boston Cream. Delicious.

After our cupcake stop, we continued on and arrived at Sand Beach just before 3pm. I knew where I wanted to set up so we made our way down the short trail and I began looking at different compositions. I finally found what I wanted by climbing on a rock on the beach and getting a slightly elevated position. I took several normal length exposures as the sun began to descend, but decided I wanted to try and long exposure.

To make a long exposure, I have to reduce the amount of light entering the lens, so I use a dark filter called a neutral density filter to do that. It's like sunglasses for a camera, and they come in varying darknesses. I used one of the darker ones, that absorbs 10 stops of light. Each stop cuts the amount of light the camera receives in half. Now do that 10 times. Think of it like taking a brownie and cutting it in half. Then cut one half in half again. And again, 10 times. That will give you an idea of such light is reduced. Can you tell I like food?

Using this filter, the camera is usually unable to calculate the exposure itself, so I had to figure that out. Without the filter, my exposure was 1/6 of a second at f/11. When I calculated the exposure with the filter, it became 3 minutes and 24 seconds. Leaving the shutter open for that long allows for anything that's moving to blur, especially objects like clouds and water. You can see in the completed image above. I loved the way the clouds, moving from right to left through the scene created the colorful red streak that almost looks painted in. And the water did as it normally does, blurring to a smooth, glassy surface, a stark contrast to the rocks in the water and Weir Island in the middle distance.

Lee100 0.9 Reverse Graduated Neutral Density Filter
Lee Filters' Reverse Graduated Neutral Density Filter

In addition to the 10-stop neutral density filter, I also used a reverse graduated neutral density filter. A graduated neutral density filter is one that is darker on top, and gradually fades to clear glass as it transitions to the bottom. A reverse grad is a little different. The darkest area is in the middle, and gradually fades to clear toward the top, and has a harsher transition to clear on the other end. This filter helped keep the sun from being too bright in the above image, as I placed the darkest part of the filter over the sun and the clear areas of the filter allowed me to capture the detail in the rocks and clouds. It was just enough to balance the highlights and shadows so the camera was able to capture the proper range of contrast for the scene.

The view from Sand Beach on Deer Isle as the sun sets behind Penobscot Bay on an autumn evening in Maine.
Deer Isle Sunset

The view from Sand Beach on Deer Isle as the sun sets behind Penobscot Bay on an autumn evening in Maine.

After the sun went down, clouds continued to move through and I decided to try a slightly different composition. For this one, I decided on a more normal exposure, and I went a little wider, including the rock I was standing on. This coupled with the sandbar that appeared as the tide went out, and the rocks that had been underwater when I arrived, created the look of a hand cradling the island in the middle distance. I thought it was just different enough to include without being redundant with the other image, and I love the sweeping lines the rocks create and lead the viewer's eye to the island in the distance.

It ended up being a fun afternoon, and I always enjoy the times my wife comes with me as I work. Well worth the long drive in the car, both for the company and the photos!