Behind the Picture: Stranger on the Port Townsend Ferry

Inspired by my colleague Amadou's recent articles on home printing, a few days ago I decided to take a long-overdue look through the pictures stored on my server, with the aim of picking out a few shots that might be worthy of display. Given that my home server holds almost a decades' worth of photographs, that was never going to be a quick or easy task.

As I cursed my younger self for shooting everything - and I mean EVERYTHING - in Raw+JPEG mode (one day Photoshop will finish building the thumbnails... one day...) I steeled myself and decided that I had to start somewhere, and that I may as well start at the beginning of the Alphabet, in the 'A' folder. Alongside an array of sub-folders with such teasingly vague names as 'AA', 'April', and the embarassingly-misnamed 'Art', my eye fell gratefully on one which I knew contained some pictures that were worth working on. 

'America 2008' is home to more than 1000 pictures taken during the course of a 2-week vacation in the US which spanned the last presidential election. I spent one week in New York, and another, coincidentally, in and around Seattle. 

This photograph was taken during the Seattle leg of my trip, shortly after sunset as I rode the ferry from Port Townsend to Coupeville. The sky was that luminous blue which characterises what photographers call the 'magic hour' but which in winter only lasts about 20 minutes or so. This is my favourite time for photography, and as I wondered around the almost-deserted upper deck of the ferry I was struck by the contrast between the warmly lit interior and the cold (both literal and figurative) of the sky.

This photograph was taken looking west, the direction in which the sky was at its brightest, only minutes before the blue faded finally to black. When I saw the single figure sitting in the window, I knew the scene had potential. Racing against nightfall I tried multiple exposures, framing the image vertically and horizontally, and in the process captured several different aspects of the man behind the window. 

The evening I was on the ferry I was shooting with a borrowed Nikon D700 and Sigma 50mm f/1.4 lens. To get a shutter speed high enough to cancel out my shivering in the cold, I shot at ISO 6400, with the lens 'wide open'. 

This is one of my first attempts at capturing the scene, when I thought I could frame it horizontally. The emergency equipment on the left balances the shot, but draws attention away from its subject - the man behind the window.

This version of the shot, taken after the image which I ended up choosing, was taken just after the last of the blue had faded from the sky.

I like the composition, particularly the way that the various lines lead directly to the man, but there's too much empty space here, and after reviewing all of my shots I decided that the blue of the sky in my earlier attempts was crucial.

Post-capture adjustment of the final image (at the top of this page) was limited to noise reduction, minor exposure and white balance adjustments, and a slight boost to the saturation of the blue channel. 

The version of the image that I ended up liking most is framed vertically. In it, the man stares into space, at something or someone that we cannot see. Behind him, the sky is beginning to fade, as a single red light blinks into the darkness on the distant shore. The sun has gone down, but he is looking east. 

One of the magical things about photography, and something which separates it from more traditional artforms is that as a photographer, you don't always have ultimate control over the content of your images. I didn't know the man in this photograph, I didn't know where he was going, or why. I still don't know anything about him beyond the fact that one evening in November 2008 he was travelling alone from Port Townsend to Coupeville. I don't know whether he was happy that evening or sad, and his expression is ambiguous. His presence is purely coincidental, but without him this photograph would have been nothing more than a colour study.

As it is, this image has a lot of significance for me. It reminds me of a brief, historic moment in modern American history, and of a period of significant change in my own life. Some people think it is a study of loneliness, and that's fine, but I've never felt that the man in this image is lonely. He's just on a journey. 

Barnaby Britton is Reviews Editor of You can see a selection of his after-hours work at


Total comments: 87
By rverstee (6 months ago)

Excellent image, it bring the viewer to think about the setting.

By Cal22 (Aug 18, 2012)

Seeing this photograph I had to subscribe for a comment. Yeah, I'm excited! This is one of the best photographs, I have ever seen! You might not regard this passenger on the ferry being lonely. But it's the picture (and the mood)that tells its own story. And this picture is kind of Edward Hopper's paintings. This was my very first thought (and I'm not the only one here thinking of Hopper).
The little light in the background is important: The man is being brought away from it, more and more ...)


By David247 (Nov 26, 2011)

Wonderful image. Back when I lived in the Puget sound, ferry rides never failed to provide some amazing photographic opportunities. I miss that area.

Rubin Diehl
By Rubin Diehl (Oct 20, 2011)

A fantastic picture, congratulations! It surely IS Hopper-esque, since Hopper did create a true masterpiece once. OTOH, don't we all find scenes like this many, many times over the years? Should we ignore them for being "not original" since Hopper has immortalized his view of such scenes?
Just take a really good picture of a complex staircase, well composed, having the adequate lighting, and voilà - you got an Escher-esque image.
I just love when I'm able to produce an image worthy of being seen as "Hopper-esque" or perhaps "Escher-esque" (as I did, sometimes).
Search your old picture files, you may also find some Dali-esque or Rubens-esque, whatever-esque - LOL - imgs you may have.
Resembling a masterpiece does not mean this pic is less than fantastic.
Thanks for sharing such a wonderful image and the creative process you went through as you produced it.

Irakly Shanidze
By Irakly Shanidze (Oct 19, 2011)

I am not sure about Edward Hopper analogy, as visual aesthetics of this image is 100% photographic, while Hopper's paintings tend to be more of an illustrative poster-like style. On the other hand, Hopper seemed to know a bit more about composition :)

The rhetoric regarding differences between photography and "more traditional art forms" I find somewhat shallow. Are you sure that artists expressing their creative urges in painting always have control over the content of their images?

Art critique statement aside, apparently, square composition didn't cross the Reviews Editor's mind while it should have.

By Pentax_Prime (Oct 18, 2011)

Enjoy your shot here Barney - as others mentioned, very Edward Hopper'ish. Good to see a profile pic as well :-)

By bayoubooger (Oct 14, 2011)

The egos of some on this website and in the respective forums, give me an insight into how small we all are in the cosmos. Most that critique any photo, have none in their galleries? Most that bad mouth the camera in that camera's forum, don't own the camera? Granted I'm not the expert on any of it, but trying to learn and reading all these (supposed) experts ideas can be daunting. Thanks Barney for opening this bucket of worms, keep it up...

Jack Simpson
By Jack Simpson (Oct 14, 2011)

Nice pic ... but I notice that you fail to mention about "cloning out" the fellow in
the background, of the initial vertical shot, which is a no-no in my opinion ... unless you're shooting for Reuters ;)

Barney Britton
By Barney Britton (Oct 14, 2011)

he's not cloned out - he just moved ;)

1 upvote
Jack Simpson
By Jack Simpson (Oct 15, 2011)

Good to hear Mr. Britton .... I didn't wanna have to give Damien bad news :D

Barney Britton
By Barney Britton (Oct 16, 2011)

Oh, he's not above a bit of creative manipulation himself... :)

1 upvote
Jack Simpson
By Jack Simpson (Oct 17, 2011)

:o :o :o .... tell me, it ain't true ... a cruiseship photographer and creative manipulation ;D



By Kromann (Oct 13, 2011)

The picture is ok/good. In my opinion "ok/good" just isn't good enough when it is the topic of an article on The photographer being an editor here or not. One should never write an article about his or her own photos unless someone else has requested it because the photo is coupled inseperately with memory from the scene and that will make it impossible to distinguish between an ok photo and a truly magnificent photo. Find a truly magnificent photo taken by somebody else and ask them to write an article about how they did. I have a deep respect for this site and its editors. Some of the never article are just a bit too "light".

Barney Britton
By Barney Britton (Oct 13, 2011)

We're actively looking into featuring the work of as many 'magnificent' photographers on the site as we can so don't worry - if you think I completely suck, there should be more to look at in the coming weeks and months ;)

By magnumgf (Oct 13, 2011)

Awesome shot with high artistic and technical merit. I would love to see the work of those below who are critical of this and say it is lacking in artistry. They must be magnificent photographers if they can produce work that far exceeds what we see here. Would they kindly provide some links to it?

Comment edited 40 seconds after posting
1 upvote
By blork (Oct 14, 2011)

I was thinking the same thing. Comments on artistic value from people who seem overly concerned with "noise" and pixel peeping is what makes me go "meh," not photographs that are beautifully composed and evocative, like this one. This isn't an engineering test, it's a photograph of a moment in time and place.

1 upvote
Kerry Munroe
By Kerry Munroe (Oct 12, 2011)

As commented below, looks similar to Edward Hopper's paintings.Singular. Alone or lonely, debatable.

I would try to remove all unnecessary information in the picture. Consider knocking out the reflections of the bulletin board in the glass. Simplify.

Barney Britton
By Barney Britton (Oct 13, 2011)

If I was setting it up, I'd try to keep the scene elements as 'essential' as possible but I'm not comfortable cloning anything more, really. What's in the picture is what was in front of the camera.

1 upvote
By marsbar (Oct 12, 2011)

Hay cool, I've been on that ferry before! Awesome photo, and great story!

Thomas Wieser
By Thomas Wieser (Oct 12, 2011)

Great article, great picture!

Thank you for posting it!

By JustShane (Oct 12, 2011)

I'm having a good chuckle at those who fail to see the merit of this shot.

First and foremost, the colors are what MAKE this work. The rich blue in contrast with the bright red of his jacket and that of the shore light is wonderful and aesthetically pleasing. Converting this into black and white would be nothing short of a disaster.

Also, I feel that the composition is great as-is. Any shift in direction would totally destroy the symmetry that has been preserved so well here. The difference between the final shot and those taken before and after prove this.

Lastly, the noise of this shot does not in any way compromise its integrity. We can all readily see that it is finely grained and evenly saturated. Calling it a distraction is silly and dare I say even a little disingenuous.

Thank you Mr. Britton for posting this.

1 upvote
By gordonpritchard (Oct 12, 2011)

WOW! Beautiful. I love the image and the well-written article. While it does echo "Nighthawks" the 1942 painting by Edward Hopper your photo has it's own melancholic feel. Who cares if it has noise? I've taken late-night ferries, and your photo captures beautifully that fluorescent lit loneliness of the traveller. Thank you so much.

By jsis (Oct 12, 2011)

I'm going to be critical, but this photo, in my opinion is "meh".

Way too many shapes and the colours are not that special either. As someone said, this looked like a snapshot. Too much colour noise, with the hints of green and the subjects in the reflection. The focal point is confusing too, I can't seem to focus and tend to wander my eyes on the shapes around the gradient produced by the blue nighttime sky. There is no consistent mood set throughout the whole photo, other than the man's expression.

Artistic merit involved in this shot is pretty low. Less than ideal execution. It would be better if it was black and white and get rid of the reflections.

1 upvote
By gabeb1946 (Oct 11, 2011)

Wow - just spent the last ten minutes looking at all the back and forth ..... seems to me (and I agree with Barnaby's "community comment") that constructive criticism is the whole point of, criticism. Good, bad or indifferent. A child would say - I don't like that - and not be able to say why. An adult is held to a higher standard. As a photographer I could easily handle critique that may make me feel bad for a moment (because I think I'm perfect:) but improved my future picture taking abilities, or pointed out a new technique. To send a non-comment just because you have a computer is a waste of time and bandwith - BUT - it is your right to do so. To close, I certainly hope no-one is singling any other person out - it may then be preferable to start a system of no names.
P.S. - GREAT SHOT Barney - from a Hopper fan.

1 upvote
By c1asia (Oct 11, 2011)

Perfect Hopper! Almost...

Try another version by superimposing a portion of the other frame -
to use his downward expression along with the reflection of the other man. That captures Hopper as his art was about uncommunicative strangers.

I'd keep the red light in the background as i think it adds context to the image.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
By Isacas (Oct 11, 2011)

I loved both the image and the article....Who cares if it has noise? You have captured a man on a journey, the composition and the colors are beautiful. And your article is sensitive and well written... Thank you for sharing....

By patcam7122 (Oct 11, 2011)

sorry but I personally don't see any merit in this photo. It is boring, snapshot-like and I wouldn't have it on my hard drive never mind publish it on the Internet for all to see. I was under the impression the D700 did well at high ISO but viewing your photo at the largest size available reveals an enormous amount of noise. Are you sure you used noise reduction on this photo? To those who like this photo, more power to you; we're all entitled to our opinions, no matter how wrong they might be :)

Barney Britton
By Barney Britton (Oct 11, 2011)

Re: noise, you're viewing a compressed, downsized JPEG, the original is cleaner, but also very large (hence why I posted a reduced size version).

By putomax (Oct 11, 2011)

In my (polluted by beliefs, opinions, thought and experience) not humble view:
too noisy
too cold (would like a warmer inside and lesser-"mood"-sky :p )
too high (eye level)
like the guy-mirror taking us, actually, out of the picture
like how the colors give hands (though, again I'd prefer them warmer)

not a shopping list
not saying I'd have done it better
not knowing mr edward hopper

cheers & thank U

1 upvote
Desert Cruiser
By Desert Cruiser (Oct 11, 2011)

Barnaby: I think everyone, maybe you, has missed another aspect to your nice photo. The reflection in the second image, that you cropped, of the man leaning against the wall, only seen in the reflection! Might be more noticeable in a larger version. Nice touch, but I think most missed it. To me this image, once you see the reflection, gives it a somber look, not so much a lonely look. These people (2) are day dreaming, or in a trance, maybe reading as someone suggested. At least the man sitting. Liked the cropped version, nice explanation. Did you see the other man?


Jeff Greenberg
By Jeff Greenberg (Oct 11, 2011)

"Post-capture adjustment of the final image (at the top of this page) was limited to noise reduction, minor exposure and white balance adjustments, and a slight boost to the saturation of the blue channel."

No specifics on each workflow step with before-after illustrations? Why?

By DFPanno (Oct 11, 2011)

Like it; very "Nighthawkish".

By bodziu (Oct 11, 2011)

Damn good article, thank you!
Inspirational as well as your photographs are... can only hope that you'll keep the momentum and publish some more;-) I am sure dp readers would appreciate it.

1 upvote
By HSway (Oct 11, 2011)

It’s brilliant. They are different, that’s clear enough. It’s the first - sky version - that holds the content. From its perspective the vertical is incomplete, losing the connection that makes the sky shot the moment most of us are receptive to. It’s further broken by the presence of other man in the reflection. More like a good “street shot” but very different to the first one.
I don’t mind saturation boost in this case (sky) something I normally don’t prefer, it’s a good move for this. There is a hint of tension coming from tighter framing at the bottom. It works for the image again actually but I would still add one or two mm.
Nice and clean vision captured

1st part

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
By HSway (Oct 11, 2011)

2nd part

& this is well said:
"One of the magical things about photography, and something which separates it from more traditional artforms is that as a photographer, you don't always have ultimate control over the content of your images. I didn't know the man in this photograph, I didn't know where he was going, or why. I still don't know anything about him beyond the fact that one evening in November 2008 he was travelling alone from Port Townsend to Coupeville. I don't know whether he was happy that evening or sad, and his expression is ambiguous. His presence is purely coincidental, but without him this photograph would have been nothing more than a colour study."

Thanks for interesting reflection,


Kabe Luna
By Kabe Luna (Oct 11, 2011)

Nice image, which seems an obvious homage to this Edward Hopper painting:

Samuel Dilworth
By Samuel Dilworth (Oct 11, 2011)

This is an excellent photograph and one that was well worth salvaging from your hard drive. For anyone who's ever boarded a winter ferry, it evokes memories of cold glass, cold metal, thick white paint roughly applied, and that rare pleasure of having time to think.

It's sentimental too, but I don't care. It's an everyday moment elevated to a small epiphany by a thinking photographer, and it's graphically pleasing too.

For a final presentation I might rotate it marginally clockwise — whatever an overlaid grid might say — and tone down the saturation ever so slightly (but since the JPEG isn't tagged with an ICC profile, we might be looking at different things).

Anything else in America 2008?

Peter Hayward
By Peter Hayward (Oct 11, 2011)

Aaah ... an excellent read. Thanks.
For me and at first, I did not know what to think of the shot. However it has grown on me. One of those shots that could hang quite well and for some time.

Comment edited 5 minutes after posting
By tinternaut (Oct 11, 2011)

This is a great image (taken with perhaps the best camera for that kind of lighting). The lone stranger is a subject I often explore in my photography but I rarely end up with a keeper.....

By jskrill (Oct 11, 2011)

A nice Edward Hopper.

By Rmano (Oct 11, 2011)

He is reading, and in the chosen shot he is looking at nothing thinking about what he's just read.

Nice photo, nice article teaching how to look for a good shot.


By Marriott (Oct 11, 2011)

Very nicely done. The contrast of cold and warmth, a solitary stranger in contemplation, the lovely light, all make this a compelling shot. As a native of that town, I've ridden that ferry so many times I've forgotten. I can hear the low rumbling of the engines, the blast of the breeze you must have felt, and the moment of realization that this was the shot to make. Thanks for posting this thoughtful explication of a scene and a memory which resonates with me.

Riga, Latvia

By jinnet (Oct 11, 2011)

Seem a bit lonely, maybe he is not alone.


By blork (Oct 11, 2011)

Wow, this is really excellent. As others have pointed out, it invokes Hopper, but it stands on its own as a great composition. Really nice and really evocative. (I found my way here because I have some friends moving to Port Townsend soon so I keep an eye out for references.)

One tiny annoyance is the red light in the background, onshore (mid-frame, left). Because this is digital it shows up as a splotch, which I find distracting. Since it doesn't add anything and is a three second fix with the spot healer, my inclination would be to remove it -- as it doesn't affect the fundamental "truth" of the image. (I'm not asking you to do that, I'm just saying I would.) Otherwise, thanks for showing us an excellent and memorable photograph.

By ericlkl (Oct 11, 2011)

Thank you Barnaby, for a very insightful article - it is much more interesting than many other articles I have read on this website.

I never heard of Edward Hopper before, so I am judging the photo on its own merits. It is an interesting scene that conveys mixed feelings: warmth, cold, tranquility, loneliness ...

But what I really like is the way the article is written, the thought process behind the final picture, and the "outtakes".

By Fletch50mm (Oct 11, 2011)

I love Sigma's fast 50, it's so sharp even at f/1.4.

I've being really enjoying the recent articles and (most) of the debate/comments.

Drareg Ajerap
By Drareg Ajerap (Oct 11, 2011)

"One of the magical things about photography, and something which separates it from more traditional artforms is that as a photographer, you don't always have ultimate control over the content of your images."

So true. Photographers should be humble. We are not masters of canvasses. We are disciples of light. We capture, celebrate and share what's given to us by the moment.

1 upvote
Ron Scubadiver
By Ron Scubadiver (Oct 10, 2011)

I was there in Port Townsend in August. What a neat little town.

By dylanbarnhart (Oct 10, 2011)

I especially enjoy articles like this. It's about just one photo - the thought, the making, the background. Thoughts like these come to my mind and I can totally relate. Thanks for sharing.

By keithinmelbourne (Oct 10, 2011)

Beautiful shot, Barney. I love the way you have evoked the feeling of solitariness. The light of the room, surrounded by the growing, all-encompassing darkness of night also conveys, in me, a feeling of existential menace, which could lead to many internal dialogues! Images like this one can be regarded as art, because they can provoke responses in audiences that go well beyond the simple act of viewing a pretty picture. I would also say that any image that achieves this status is not bound by conventional rules of composition, IQ and colour. Such images exist above that plane.

By BabylonPhotos (Oct 10, 2011)

The image is attractive but a "deja vu" feeling dominates over the picture - Edward Hopper.
Oh, I see that I'm not the only one to point it out.

Comment edited 3 minutes after posting
By xtoph (Oct 10, 2011)

Well seen and executed shot. Nice mix of street-documentary style and classic composition.

I could quibble that anything shot at f/1.4 and iso6400 is way, way past the magic hour, even the latitudinally-enhanced magic 2&1/2 hour-hour we enjoy up here in seattle. But you've pulled a little after-hours magic out of the hat regardless.

1 upvote
Robert Hoy
By Robert Hoy (Oct 10, 2011)

This is an image I can easily see in an art exhibit. Those that don't "get" this image and what possibilities it lends to the viewer are just into snapping frames and don't have a clue on the artistic side beyond pretty flowers. :)

Well done Barnaby.

1 upvote
By increments (Oct 10, 2011)

Of course no opinion that contradicts yours could possibly be valid!

I can perfectly see what people like about this but it doesn't do it for me as there's too many elements fighting each other.

I'm not going to tell you that you're wrong because you like it, but you shouldn't assume your opinion is somehow more valid than others.

It's all a matter of taste, that's why it's 'art' rather than science. (Art in inverted commas as the article doesn't make any claim to this being art. Not intended to be a slur against the quality.)

1 upvote
By ByrneDM (Oct 11, 2011)

'get' this image. What does that mean? Your condescending sympathy towards viewers not as lucky as you in that they don't 'get' wherever they are supposed to 'get' from this is galling.

1 upvote
Tom Caldwell
By Tom Caldwell (Oct 10, 2011)

So much space to sit in and crowded up into the corner seat ...

1 upvote
By MichaelSpotts (Oct 10, 2011)

Excellent image and interesting read. I empathize with your overwhelming archive of unedited work. Thanks for posting.

1 upvote
By WalterPaisley (Oct 10, 2011)

There's nothing wrong with being "influenced", subconsciously or consciously, by the styles of well-known artists, whether it's Hopper or Ruth Orkin or Ansel Adams or Robert Frank. After all, haven't they taught us to see as photographers? I'd wager the majority of images posted on web sites like this one carry similar "homages". In the world of digital photography, few of us are true originals. :-)

By michaelrz (Oct 11, 2011)

I wholeheartedly agree.

The point is that we all are influenced. There is no "total originality". No one begins from scratch. So the big question is not whether we're influenced, but by whom? Is it the great artists: painters, photographers, filmmakers? Or is it just the endless flood of digital images our eyes encounter every day?

This image is so beautiful and its "Hopperesque" quality makes it even richer and more interesting to my eyes and heart. Thanks a lot for sharing it!

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
By Dennis (Oct 10, 2011)

Hmmm ... I guess people get a little jaded ! I really like this shot. The lighter toned leading lines coming in from either lower corner to the subject who stands out by being in a bright background and for the lone spec of red color ... the stare, the quiet, peaceful "journey" (I interpret it as an overdue ride home at the end of a long day) ... the beautiful blues. I have no issue with the composition at all. Shift the subject left and you lose too much blue sea and try to make something more dynamic than necessary. Plus your aspect ration gets messed up unless you crop down and then you lose the rails going to the upper corner. It's just a very nice picture. I'd be proud of if I'd shot it.

1 upvote
By CoolHandLu (Oct 10, 2011)

It's funny, when I first saw the tittle of this article and barely glanced at the photo, I just assumed it was a Hopper-esque tribute shot, set up to emulate Hopper's famous diner painting. Once I read the actual article I see now that is not the case . . . but still, it doesn't suprise me that people are reminded of that painting upon viewing your photo.
Wonderful description of how you came upon this shot and the thought process that went into making it. I like the shot alot - there's an almost melancholy feeling it evokes for me.

By jezsik (Oct 10, 2011)

What I like about this image is the contrast between the warm and cold. I appreciate that it might not appeal to everyone, and while I am unlikely to have take a shot such as this, the image certain appeals to me. I am very pleased that you had enough images to show us your thought processing when considering the overall image. I wish I had that luxury. I'm curious to know what treatment you gave it in post process.

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
Barney Britton
By Barney Britton (Oct 10, 2011)

Thanks jezsik - post-processing was limited to the basics - exposure, noise-reduction and white-balance/saturation. I shot the image in daylight WB (I tend to do this - I find it useful to see the 'real' colours of the scene before adjusting them) and increased the saturation of the blue slightly in post. I also cropped very slightly, to exclude an unwanted scene element on the left.

Total comments: 87