The adventure continued last night with Sean Daly along for the ride. The area around Norwalk, Connecticut has several lighthouses and I’d already shot a couple of them, but our mission was to get to two—Peck Ledge which is just outside the harbor, and Stamford Harbor light about six miles to the south and west of Peck. While yesterday was cloudy most of the day, the weather forecast was for clearing skies by sunset.
We drove to Norwalk and arrived in mid-afternoon, a time normally far too early to launch for a nighttime shoot, but one of the factors most don’t consider is tide. At the city boat ramp one must plan their trip around the tides because within two hours of low you can’t get your boat in or out of the water. Yesterday the tide was high at around 2 and low was at 8:15 so we had to get there in the afternoon to be able to launch. Plus it meant we could arrive early and not have to deal with the dreaded route 95 corridor rush-hour traffic. We launched at around 4 and prepped the boat before having a nice pre-shoot meal at Donovan’s in an area known as SONO, or South Norwalk.
The sun had come out while we were making the drive giving us great optimism. While at dinner, clouds had returned to the area with just a small clearing visible on the western horizon. We plodded forward thinking positively that the skies would be clear two hours later while shooting. We pulled away from the dock just after sunset and headed to Peck Ledge. Boating into unknown waters can be nerve-wracking but we knew we had plenty of time before it became dark enough to shoot so we took our time traveling the two miles from the dock to the lighthouse.
Once at Peck we first employed the electronic depth gauge of the whaler to locate the shallow water around the lighthouse. Having studied the navigational chart for Norwalk, I knew there was shallow water near the south side of the lighthouse. We had onboard the special 20-foot tripod that has been used on about a dozen other lighthouse shoots and the plan was to capture Peck from about fifty feet away. We located a spot that seemed perfect with about 10 feet of water beneath us. Using two anchors, one at the bow and the other at the stern, we secured the boat. The winds were a bit stronger than were predicted and the seas were about two feet, not great but workable. We anchored the bow into the wind and waves coming out of the northeast.
The next step was to feel the bottom. I know that sounds crazy, but I carry onboard a sounding made of a lead weight tied to a white string. On that string are markings every foot and as the weight is dropped overboard we count off each mark to more accurately gauge the depth. Once the weight hits the bottom I can almost immediately tell through vibrations coming up the string what the bottom conditions are like. A soft thud likely means it is sandy, and hard “clink” likely means it’s rocky. The tripod works much better in soft sand or muddy seafloors, it doesn’t like rocks very much. On first feel at Peck the bottom felt sandy as the weight landed in soft sand, however as we further tested a few feet away I could feel a whole lot of clinking happening. Unknown to us is how variable the bottom might be—is it small rocks or large boulders? The only way to truly tell is to build the tripod and drop it over the side.
While incessantly bobbing in the seas we prepped the tripod, a 20-minute process that is quite physical. Within each 10-foot leg made of aluminum 3/8” pipe is another aluminum pipe of ½”. Each inner leg is marked off every foot and since we were in 10 feet of water we set the legs for 14 feet. Holding each leg together is a stainless steel set screw and every time it is ratcheted down the inner and relatively soft-metal pipe is scored holding the leg in place. While the tripod is lying on the whaler each leg is loosened and extended to the desired length, then tightened down for stability. Then a set of spreaders is attached 3/4s of the way up the outer legs to keep the legs from collapsing inward once the tripod is deployed.
At this point we now have a 14-foot tripod with legs spread apart sitting on the deck of the boat. It is large and bulky and weighs about 80 pounds. We carefully slid the bottom legs off the side of the whaler and into the water, the next few moments critical to our success or failure. Here at Peck, we immediately knew we were in for a longer night that usual. Two weeks ago we went through the same process at Stepping Stones near the Throngs Neck Bridge in New York, but there the charts indicated the bottom was “rky” or rocky. Much to our surprise, the bottom was flat and sandy and the tripod stuck the landing on the first try. Here at Peck, it danced around in the water and seemed to bounce off the bottom. It kept falling over as we tried to find the right spot for the three legs. Time and again the placement failed and the rig kept toppling over. Each resettlement meant lifting the 80 pounds of metal, twisting it slightly, then putting it down again hoping it had found a good spot. Each time the placement was slightly different and sometimes it made an angry and loud “clink”, and sometimes it sounded as if it landed in sand. Sometimes a placement would result in the tripod top sitting three or four feet out of the water, more often it ended up being underwater. In this half-hour process, we never moved the boat and remained anchored to our original 10 foot spot, but now the tide had changed and was incoming so our location was starting to get deeper.
We decided to try another location after failing to locate a usable spot and we then moved the whaler about 20 feet along the anchor lines. This first meant pulling the tripod back on the boat and while I pulled in the bow anchor line, Sean released more of the stern line. We then tried the process all over again. After the tenth attempt, the tripod seemed sturdy. We pushed and pulled at it and it didn’t seem to give way. Acting quickly, we finally rigged the three-legged beast for shooting. When I had it built, Rob Winter of Coastal Iron Works in Wickford had welded a bracket to the top where a 6-foot bar can be placed. This allows the tripod to be dropped a couple of feet from the boat but the camera can be placed at one end of the bar effectively bringing the stable camera platform into the bobbing boat.
We quickly built the bar system as I placed a small camera-tripod head on the bar with a 3/8 screw. I also quickly put the camera together as we’d been spending so much time securing the tripod we hadn’t even thought about the camera. At this point the water had dramatically risen and the three feet of clearance we had planned for an hour earlier when first launching the tripod was now down to about 18 inches. We were also bobbing in two-foot seas so the boat was beginning to knock into the bar making photography impossible. But it was at this point only occasionally knocking the bar so there was room for hope.
I placed the $6000 camera on the bar but had no stable platform to look through the viewfinder to set the technical aspects of the camera. I was, however, able to view the settings and decided to let experience take over. I eyeballed the camera, guessed the proper camera setting, and focused only by feeling the focus ring of the lens. Snap. Snap. Two test shots while bobbing on the open waters of Long Island Sound. The sky conditions weren’t ideal as clouds were still lingering over the area, and the first two shots were overexposed but they were steady and usable. But now the water had risen to the point that the boat was hitting the tripod bar every twenty- seconds and had to adjust the camera for faster shutter speeds. I typically do 20 or 25-second exposures but the conditions warranted a much faster one and I then manually adjusted to 13-seconds. Snap. Snap. Review. Bingo! Got two good images! One more horizontal image and we’d accomplished the goal, but then in the middle of the shot the boat hit the tripod. Try another. Another hit of the tripod. OK, forget that but we can’t leave until we get a vertical shot as well. I quickly loosened the tripod head and turned the camera for the other orientation. Snap. Snap. Snap, oops the tripod bar hit the boat. Try another. Review. Let’s go home!
We then had to deconstruct the rig after first securing the camera in the whaler. We took a quick look around and it looked like a bomb had gone off. There was gear strewn everywhere as the frenetic actions of the last hour had taken its toll. It had also physically spent both Sean and I after bobbing and struggling with the tripod but finally getting the shot. We decided to quit while we ahead and canceled our plans to motor in the dark the six miles to Stamford. It was now an hour beyond our schedule for Peck and we still had to pull in the anchors and secure the inflatable to the bow before motoring back to the dock. Then we’d have to wait for the tide to come in enough to haul the boat. As the tide rose and we hauled the boat out of the water we looked up and saw a sky full of stars. While it might have been nice to get them above the lighthouse, the conditions we faced at the site warranted getting whatever we could for the safety of all. Then it was a two-hour ride home and it was a good one after a tough but successful night. And most everyone thinks taking pictures of lighthouses is easy.
October 4, 2016 8:58pm 59° 10-15mph wind, 2 foot seas
Nikon D4, 14mm lens ISO 800 f2.8 13secs