The dangers of Sea Smoke

The are many dangers in Sea Smoke!

All my photographer friends are going WTF??? I will start by saying, no, sea smoke will not cause cancer! First do you know what sea smoke is? The simplest answer is, fog over open water in winter. When the air temperature gets down around zero Fahrenheit or below and the water temp is above freezing (or about 30-40 degrees warmer, fog forms.

The Dangers

The first thing to figure out is how to get out of bed on a cold wintery morning. That isn’t exactly a danger but it’s the first hurdle. The big danger is the temperature and frostbite. When dealing with real temps that are at zero (F) or below, your skin will freeze (frostbite) in 30 seconds give or take.

Jeff Folger photographing the sunrise over Thacher Island Lighthouses

This is me shot by my friend, Thomas Gaitley who is a fellow New England Photography Guild member. He messaged the Guild members to see if anyone wanted to join him at dawn the next morning. I said sure, and then I started to think of what I had to do to make this happen…

First is the gear, charging every battery I own. because temps this cold will sap the life from your batteries in 30 minutes or less and you have to keep swapping them with others that are 3 – 4 layers under your coat and near your body to keep them warm. I consider my lenses carefully and I don’t bring them all out. I brought two lenses along and only one out on my camera while the other stayed in Tom’s truck.

Second is layers: clothing matters if you want to keep your fingers and exposed areas of skin. You can’t have your skin exposed so I start with a silk weight layer of long underwear. Then I have a fleece shirt and jeans. Then I add a down vest (keeps the core warm) and then I add a wind shield layer. I have a hooded gaiter that is fleece lined and wind proof. I add a windproof jacket and pants. and for gloves I add light weight gloves and over them finger-mittens. (half the top of the mitten flips back to expose the fingers lightly covered in the first layer in light weight gloves. For boots I need better but have L.L.bean boots with socks that start with a cotton layer and then a wool layer. (over boots over this)

To imagine this, think of the little brother in the Christmas story movie who fell over and couldn’t get back up… I haven’t fallen yet and hope I never do, because someone might find me laying there days later… 🙂

I also use ski googles that have foam around the edges and I cinch my fleece hood around my face so only the glasses show.

Is it worth it?

I have done this on a few occasions. Each time I come away with images that few others besides the mildly insane would attempt to capture. First is Thacher Island Lighthouse at dawn.

Sea smoke at Thacher Island Lighthouses <a href="">Click here to see it in my galllery</a>

Sea smoke at Thacher Island Lighthouses

The second time was really later the same morning that we shot Thacher island. We warmed up at the red skiff in Rockport and then went back outside to photograph Straitsmouth Island Lighthouse on the Rockport headlands (after that we went to Annisquam and photographed that lighthouse. (All three seen here)

Fort Pickering Lighthouse, Winter Island, Salem MA

The “real” second time I tried this, the call came in but I decided to stay close to home to get Fort Pickering Lighthouse on Winter island.

Fort Pickering Lighthouse on Winter Island

Fort Pickering Lighthouse on Winter Island Click here to see it in my gallery

Whether it was too windy or not cold enough, the sea smoke wasn’t very impressive but the dawn was. Winter Island is gated so you would have to walk in about 3/4 of a mile. Normally I wouldn’t consider this but I drove out anyway. I found the gate was open! So I drove in and parked at the waters edge. I also got a shot of the sun directly behind the lantern room of the lighthouse (click the link) and this is the shot of the sea smoke from the waters edge.

Derby Wharf Lighthouse, Salem Maritime NHS

The last time I tried this was Valentines Day last year. Temps were forecasted to be critically low and the real temp might break -5(F). This time I wanted to get a shot of Derby Wharf Lighthouse. As a National Park Ranger at Salem Maritime during the summer, I see Derby Wharf Lighthouse in all sorts of weather.

I’ve shot Derby Wharf Lighthouse in summer, in autumn with the fall colors and now in winter with dramatic sea smoke floating above Salem harbor. I choose my location based on a simple fact. Everybody who photographs Derby Wharf Light, stands on Derby Wharf to get it. I went to Shetland park and drove through to the parking lot for the registry of deeds. I used The Photographer’s Ephemeris which tells me where to stand to get the sun or moon rising or setting behind a certain object.

Today the object was Derby Wharf Lighthouse with the sunrise coming up behind the lighthouse and over Marblehead. I didn’t want to stand there too long waiting for the sun to rise so I waited as long as I could and then climbed to the top of the bank.  The sky was still blue, thus why photographers call this the blue hour. But I could see hints of rose developing in the clouds.

The blue hour at Derby Wharf Lighthouse in Salem MA.

The blue hour at Derby Wharf Lighthouse in Salem MA. Click here to see it in my gallery

The sun actually moves quite quickly when it’s crossing a stationary object such as scenic landscapes. So from the time the edge of the sun glinted above the clouds till it was completely above them was just minutes in time. I know from experience I have to work quickly. I picked up the camera and tripod changing the scene by moving my feet. I recompose the image and shoot some more frames and move again.

Note* Once the sun is mostly clear of the clouds, you can’t shoot with it in the frame. The sun will cause the foreground to darken and be useless. So I start looking around for other objects to catch in the morning light. I packed up after subjecting my fingers to -9(F) temps and I think I came close to doing damage to them. They were sensitive for weeks afterward.

The final Danger is getting carried away

Getting carried away with a shot no one had ever gotten of Derby Wharf Lighthouse (at least I’ve never seen it), so I stayed out in the cold longer than I should have.

To answer the question was it worth it?

I didn’t lose my fingers and better still, I entered that image in the National Park Services, Share The Experience, photo contest.

Derby Wharf Lighthouse in Salem Massachusetts at the Salem Maritime National Historic site

Derby Wharf Lighthouse in Salem Massachusetts Click here to see it in my gallery

Out of all the images entered by National Park Rangers in the country, my image of Derby Wharf Lighthouse was one of ten finalists. I’ll find out in May if it gets selected as the Grand Prize winner.

So Yes I would say it was worth it…

Jeff Folger
Vistaphotography Gallery
Jeff-Foliage website/blog



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