George Wilson: Sunrise at the Coffee Flats Schoolhouse

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Waking one September morning well before the sun, I headed out to the intersection of Highland and Rocky Ford at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary with a thermos of coffee and a few breakfast bars. This year I would spend only two weeks in this prime South Dakota real estate. All of the roads are here are dirt, dotted with cattle guards, potholes, and a few washouts. I would actually drive on pavement for just one hour during my visit.

Solitude lets me to photograph without disruption. The lack of a cell phone signal at the bottom of Cheyenne Canyon allows me to work on my craft. As wonderful as it sounds, however, working in solitude demands a dedication to what you are doing; it requires focus and persistence. Solitude is not for everyone.

This is a yearly pilgrimage I make to photograph wild horses, guide other photographers into the herds, and donate to a worthwhile cause. The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary was founded in 1988 as a non-profit organization. They operate solely on donations and volunteer support on 11,000 acres containing more than 700 wild horses.

This morning I would be shooting the sunrise at a schoolhouse. The school was built in 1891-92 and designed for grades 1 thru 8. Surprisingly, it was in use until the mid-1960's. It overlooks Coffee Flats, a large area previously used to graze cattle herds before they were moved on to markets. Today it is home to burrowing owls, prairie dogs, and Spanish Mustangs.

As I stood back, I knew the sun would rise above the Angostura Mountains. Due to the dark shadows of the prairie grass, the school, and so forth, there would be a large difference in foreground-to-background exposure. Adhering to my traditional methods would dictate a creative approach to making this exposure.

So, what did I envision in my image? A series of questions I have developed over many years helps determine what I wish to convey to the viewer. It is a process I have done many times and that I teach to my students in advanced photography classes back in my home state of Florida. For this image, I wanted to capture the sun rising over the mountains with a starburst effect. I would need a properly exposed foreground with light "dancing" over the prairie grasses, as well as a warm glow from the early light. I wanted my viewer to experience the peace and solitude of a prairie sunrise, a connection with a simpler time, and, most importantly, feel the same warm glow of a sunrise I was experiencing that morning. So many features in one frame – but yes, it can be done without HDR, Photoshop, and a lengthy session sitting in front of the computer.

Now came the answers - how do I get the shot? I tell my students to stop, think things through, answer the questions, and build the shot! I would follow the same course.

To get the starburst on the sun meant using a small aperture. Just as holding your thumb on the end of a hose creates a spray of water; sunlight striking the aperture blades of a lens does the same thing with light. I changed the camera to Manual Mode for complete control, metered the school house, and, in order to get a small aperture with a shutter speed of 1/60 or greater (working without a tripod, this is the slowest shutter speed for safe hand holding), metering now told me I needed to be at ISO400. This gave me f10 as an aperture. By not venturing above ISO400, the associated digital noise would be minimized. This exposure combination would give me the starburst I was looking for as the sun broke over the mountains.

Now the school would be exposed properly, but the sun would wipe out the sky in a brilliant flash. I reached into my camera bag and pulled out two split Neutral Density Filters by Singh Ray. A 3-stop hard stop and a 2-stop smooth stop were stacked on top of each other. These are unique, hand-made filters. They provide a side that is dark and a side that is light, measured in stops of light. I have 5-stops now in neutral density that could be held over the sky with zero stops over the schoolhouse. In essence, this allowed me to “hold back” the bright light of the sunrise and balance it with the darker foreground. This balanced the shot, giving me proper exposure on both sides. The sloping shape of the Angostura Mountains dictated that I hold the filters at a slight angle in front of the camera. This aligned the transition from dark to light on the filter with the mountain ridgeline. Now all I needed to do was warm up the image - I changed my white balance from automatic to the numeric Kelvin scale of 8000. The computer in the camera thought I was shooting in slightly more blue light than normal and added a bit of red-yellow to the scene to balance the color. This actually warmed up my image. White

Balance is not just about color correction – that is only the practical side. White balance has an artistic side, allowing the photographer to manipulate colors in order to express mood. Adding the warm glow helped create a particular feel to the image on the prairie that morning.

This image is one of many and was created over time - I did not make all of these decisions at once. I built the image and changed settings until I had what I envisioned on my LCD. Once in front of the computer, I did darken the image overall by about 1/2 stop, sharpened it, and cropped it to a 16 x 32 format. The longer format trimmed away some negative space and allowed the image to "flow" a bit better.

George Wilson has more than 30 years of experience as a professional photographer, and his work has appeared in many national and international publications. Now focusing on nature and wildlife photography, George exhibits his infrared black and white landscape work and teaches photography at numerous art centers, botanical gardens and at the Walt Disney World Resort in his home state of Florida. A key element to George’s work is his dedication to traditional photography as his post processing is strictly limited to tools aligning with the traditional darkroom. To see more of George's work, visit

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