Portofino, Italy, Sunrise PanoramaOften times, the joy of photography isn’t merely in seeing the finished product and wallowing in the praise of its viewers, it’s about the experience of actually taking it. This image from Portofino was exactly that, an amazing experience that I won’t soon forget.

Posh as they come, Portofino has been the destination of choice French playboys and the British elite looking to bask in the sun of the Ligurian coast. Beyond its array of luxury shops and overpriced eateries, Portofino is easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to. Despite its popularity with the European jet setters, it’s not nearly as popular with photographers as other towns in Liguria, such as those of Cinque Terre. Thanks to this I new that I could get a photo that is a bit less familiar to the viewing public and still capture the essence of what makes Cinque Terre so special.

Having scoped out vantage points a few days prior to taking the photo I settled on a lookout point near the church of San Giorgio which gave a relatively unobscured and high vantage point. While the better situated Castello Brown would have been the ideal spot thanks to its higher vantage point, it wasn’t open during sunrise or sunset hours, thus eliminating it as an option.

Getting There

Since staying in Portofino is both neither cost effective nor convenient for visiting nearby towns, I ended up staying in the town of Santa Margherita Ligure  which was a few miles away. Having determined my location the next challenge was finding a way to get to this spot at 5:00am to have ample time to set up and catch the early morning light. Getting there during the day was relatively simple as ample boat and bus service exists, but sadly the sunset light wasn’t terribly picturesque given the easternly position of the town. After deciding against a 60EUR cab right, I found a bicycle sharing service in Santa Margherita for a pittance at only 12Eur for two days. At 4:30am I set off on my not so sporty bicycle and spent the next half hour cycling, excited by the anticipation of a nice sunrise. Without a person in sight, I peddled along the coastal road to Portofino built by the Romans hundreds of years ago and watched the blue hour hues begin to glow in the sky. After stopping for a few shots I finally arrived at my destination, invigorated by the fresh Mediterranean air, ready to shoot.

The Shooting Techniques

After setting up, I quickly realized that a single image wouldn’t convey the real magic of this place. The positioning of the sun was way off to the East side of the town and neither the town or the area of sunrise proved interesting enough on its own. I therefore decided to go with a panorama and ended up shooting four horizontal images. Each slice consisted of a long exposure image using a 10 stop ND filter to smooth the water and three bracketed frames without the ND filter for extra dynamic range and to freeze moving objects. Once I made my way to the area of the rising sun, I closed down my aperture to f/22 to capture a starburst. In total I ended up using a total of thirteen frames to create the final image.

The Post Processing

First off, please note that the links in this section will take you to tutorial videos I’ve made on the corresponding topics. Post work was largely spent manually stitching together the frames to get to the final panorama you see here. For each frame, I first blended in the -1ev and +1ev with the long exposure using luminance masks and also using painted masks to fix any motion blur in the boats (this is a nightmare to do by the way). Once I finished each slice, I exported out the flattened layer to my master image where I built up the stitching. After blending in the four slices and taking care of any distortion issues, I then blended in the starburst capture of the sun and began my usual workflow. I first ran it through a quick pass of Nik Color Efex using the Pro Contrast filter to boost contrast, then adjusted the colours to emphasize the facades of the houses and tones of the sky and sun and finally proceeded to dodge and burn the various areas (particularly in the trees) to achieve a nice sense of depth. With that out of the way, I finished the image off with a variety of frequency separation based sharpening methods and did some final contrast and exposure adjustments with levels.


Nikon D800, Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 with B+W ND110, Benro Carbon Travel Angel Tripod, Nikon MC-36 trigger release.
Long exposure: ISO100, 70sec, f/11, 24mm
Base exposure: ISO100, 1/20th, f/11, 24mm

Although I may not have gotten the cloudy sky that I hoped for that day, the wash of golden light running across the frame turned out to be a blessing and really helped to embody the spirit of this incredible location. While some people may see it as a nightmare to pedal several miles on a heavy bicycle with 20lb of gear on their back at 4:30am, for me it was one of the most enjoyable photographic excursions that I’ve had and a memory that will continue to resurface every time I look at this shot. I guess it’s time to get it printed and hang in on the wall.