Behind the Image: Sunrise at Montauk Point

June 7, 2023  |  Montauk Point, New York

Since I began selling my work, "Sunrise at Montauk Point" has become one of my most popular, selling a fair number of prints. It's easy to see why. The iconic Montauk Point Lighthouse stands in the distance atop the bluff, as the sun rises above a bank of clouds while a wave washes over the rocky shoreline west of the lighthouse. It was an image I didn't think would happen.

Sunrise at Montauk Point, NY, as the lighthouse stands on a bluff in the distance.
Sunrise at Montauk Point

Montauk lighthouse stands tall against the backdrop of an early morning sky, filled with the mist of a summer morning. The historic structure stands out against dark clouds, while the sun rises above a cloud bank, illuminating the fog with a soft peach-colored glow. The incoming tide washes over the rocky beach, filling the air with the salty and calming smell of the ocean, as a gentle breeze stirs across the sand. The lighthouse’s guiding beacon shines across the shore, signaling for ships to come home and beckoning travelers to explore the coastline.

Montauk Point Lighthouse was New York State's first lighthouse, commissioned in 1792 by George Washington. At 110 feet tall, the tower provides panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean, Block Island Sound, and Gardiner's Bay. It's the fourth oldest active lighthouse in the United States, with a light that is the equivalent of 290,000 candlepower, visible for 19 nautical miles.

When I lived on Long Island, I lived about an hour and a half west of Montauk Point- if I left in the middle of the night when there was little to no traffic. Trying to get out there in the middle of the day would take at least double that in the summer, as Montauk Highway would be stop-and-go through the Hamptons. Getting there for sunrise was pretty easy as long as I didn't mind the hour and a half drive. On that morning, sunrise was at 5:23am (I Googled it!), which means I woke up around 3am to get there in time for Blue Hour.

As I drove, I noted the clear skies overhead, with a few patchy clouds here and there. I hoped that would hold for sunrise and provide some color. When I arrived sometime around 4:30am, I found that the entire point was socked in by fog. Blue hour was just beginning- that hour of soft blue light before sunrise- and I couldn't even see the water from the beach. And all I could see from the lighthouse was its beacon through the mist. I was annoyed, frustrated, and disappointed.

I remember sitting down on a large boulder on the beach, looking at the fog, trying to decide what to do. At that point, getting back to my bed sounded like a pretty good plan. But finally I decided that I'd gotten up and made the drive out, so I might as well try and make something out of it. I opened my camera bag and started trying to make some images.

Sunrise time came and went, and while the day brightened, and the fog moved a bit offshore, the sun was still packed behind the fog. I had tried doing some micro-landscapes with the rocky shoreline, but with the flat light they just weren't very dynamic. Then I noticed a sailboat sailing east, at the edge of the fog. I quickly grabbed my longer lens and zoomed in to make the composition you see below. It was very minimalist, with the boat silhouetted against the fog, the dark waters of the Atlantic Ocean in the foreground, and a flock of seagulls seemingly hovering around the boat.

A lone sailboat at the edge of the mist off of Montauk Point, NY.
Into The Mist

A lone sailboat at the edge of the mist off of Montauk Point, NY.

I made several exposures of the boat when I looked back toward the lighthouse and noticed that the fog had moved, and I could see sunlight beginning to glow on the edges of the clouds at the horizon. Quickly I switched lenses back to a wide angle lens (Canon EF 17-40mm), to get a wider shot that would include the rocky foreground and waves washing over the rocks. I began timing the waves so I could get the perfect splash in the foreground, and had several good candidates. This one was my favorite, as the sun had just peeked above the clouds and cast a warm glow through the light mist that remained. The time was 5:57am, a full 34 minutes after sunrise, and five minutes after my photo of the sailboat in the mist.

Montauk Point was my favorite spot on Long Island to go photograph a sunrise. It was a bit of a pain to get to, being all the way at the east end of the island, but there were so many photographic opportunities that kept me coming back in the 21 years I spent living on Long Island. In many ways, Montauk Point is where I cut my teeth in landscape photography. And it gave me at least one memorable image.