When I go out shooting photographs, I try to have a shot in mind that I want to create before I leave the house. It helps give me focus and make the most efficient use of my time. That said, one of the first lessons I learned about photography way back in the 6th grade was to keep your eyes open and "work the scene."
By "working the scene" I mean that when you think you have a shot composed, make sure to take your eye from behind the viewfinder, look around and try to find another angle, one that may provide a more interesting or unusual shot.
On a warm May morning, I trekked over to the Point Judith lighthouse in Narragansett, R.I., to work on getting some images of the Southern Rhode Island icon using a deep depth of field. I intended to work on a technique called focus stacking to achieve tack-sharp detail from inches in front of the camera all the way to the top of the lighthouse a hundred yards away.
As it turned out, my original subject of the lighthouse and the surrounding rocky shore didn't provide as much visual interest as I had hoped. It just wasn't dynamic enough for my mood.
After spending some time working on that shot, I turned around and glanced out at one of my favorite subjects - the ocean. The sun was sparkling off the calm waters as the waves gently lapped the shore.
I fired off a few shots at around 1/4000th of a second, effectively freezing the water and capturing the sun's reflection. But, again, it didn't feel dynamic enough. The waves weren't creating any drama and the clouds were getting blown out (overexposed) by the bright sun.
Then I had an idea - using a long exposure.
Typically, one thinks about using long exposures in low-light situations, leaving the shutter open long enough to capture details that would otherwise be hidden in shadow. In fact, until this day, that was almost exclusively how I used long exposures.
I pulled out my Hoya NDX400 neutral density filter and screwed it on my Tokina 11-16 mm wide angle lens. The 9-stop ND filter, coupled with an aperture set at f/22 allowed me to get a proper exposure at 20 seconds. Stopping all the way down to f/22 also gave me great depth of field.
As the water approached and receded, the sun's rays danced back and forth, creating a dazzling, almost electric reflection on the water. When I checked the LCD, I knew I had the shot I had been looking for.
Thankfully, I had pulled my eye from the viewfinder and worked the scene.