A riverside bench swing under a magnificent sunrise sky
Picture of Stephen Girimont

Stephen Girimont

Owner, The Intimate Landscape, Fine Art Prints

Perfect Timing and a Contemplative Approach

With a high chance of a colorful sunrise in the forecast, I arrived on location with just enough time to work the scene to create my composition before the fireworks started...

I’ve written before about the apps I use on my phone to help gauge the odds of color in an upcoming sunrise or sunset and it just so happened recently that conditions were looking favorable for a colorful sunrise so I began making preparations the night before. In addition to packing the gear I thought I would need, I studied what the Skyfire plugin for The Photographer’s Ephemeris was showing me regarding the most likely areas of the sky where the color would form and had a few compositions in mind for the next morning.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned in my 30+ years of photography experience, it’s to be flexible and be prepared to change plans as conditions warrant. The Skyfire plugin had been predicting the greatest color in the sunrise to the northeast. An approaching weather front was scheduled to come through the area right around sunrise and the app was predicting that the leading edge of the clouds, which would be coming in from the north, would be in such a position that the northeast would be where the color would be best. Well, when I stepped outside my house and got a good look at the sky, I knew right away that prediction was turning out to be wrong. The clouds had advanced a bit more to the south than forecast, so I knew based on where the sun was going to come up along the east-southeast horizon, that the color was going to be east to south. Thinking quickly, I abandoned my planned compositions and headed for an area I’ve photographed before: the bench swings along the Potomac River in a park near my house.

I knew the location would work, but I wasn’t quite sure exactly what composition I was going to come up with. There are three bench swings in this section of the park, but only two of them were lined up close enough to the river with a line-of-sight to where I figured the sky color would be, so I focused on those two swings in the slowly-brightening dawn.

A first attempt to create a compelling composition of the two bench swings.

While I like the balance between the two swings, there are two major challenges to this composition: the first is the heavy vegetation at the right of the image in the background that abruptly cuts off the reflected light in the river and the second is that leaning tree just to the left of the furthest swing. The best view of both swings in a direction where I thought the sky color was going to be greatest put the tree too close to that swing. The combination of the tree and vegetation to the right makes a very imbalanced image.

A second attempt to create a compelling composition of the two swings.

Moving around the scene slightly, I tried to position the tree roughly centered between the two swings, but if I wanted to maximize the area of the sky where I thought the clouds were going to light up, that left too much room to the left of the frame, and there was still that heaviness on the right created by the tree and background vegetation. As you can see in the image, the sun was just starting to throw some color on the underside of the clouds, so I was feeling the pressure to come up with something better fast!

What I decided to do was to come about to the right of the closest swing a bit and focus on just the one swing. By isolating the swing, I was able to eliminate the distraction of the tree and the overall balance issues of the scene.

I hit upon on my final composition just in time for the fireworks to start overhead.

In my previous images of these swings, I composed them from the front, generally facing straight at this particular swing. Had the color been in the sky where it was predicted to be the night before, that composition might have worked here once again. But luck was with me this morning as I rather like this view of the swing. In portraiture, photographing a subject from behind, or nearly behind as in this case, with the subject looking out of the frame into the distance creates a mood of thoughtfulness and contemplation, either of the future or the past. I think that works here as well. The swing, positioned just so, under such a magnificent sky, creates a mood of serene contemplation. Or maybe I’m just projecting what my mood was while making this image onto the final product. What do you think?

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