2019 Photographer’s Picks: Stephen Morton


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Stephen Morton details how each image was captured, conditions behind the shoot

For those of you who follow this series, in the past,  the emphasis has been to shoot photos in beautiful light, with perfect weather and white puffy clouds that look like cotton balls. For instance, in 2018, we started shooting photos in the first quarter of the year, opposed to the summer. The light is different in the cool months of late winter and early spring. The air is less humid, which means less haze. Also, the sun sets three hours earlier and that beautiful light we photographers chase lasts a bit longer than the summer months.

In 2019, I was more focused on covering events and documenting each milestone that the Georgia Ports Authority reached as they unfolded throughout the year. Needless to say, it’s been a busy year and commerce doesn’t wait for a photographer’s desire to shoot in beautiful light. We have to make the best of every situation and stay flexible. The team at GPA’s communications office challenge my creativity every year. It is a welcomed challenge, but several times in 2019, I just got lucky with good weather and good light. Here are some the milestones that I shot in 2019.

While the numbers have yet to be finalized, 2019 imports and exports at the Georgia Ports Authority are expected to reach 4.6 million twenty-foot equivalent container units (TEUs) for the first time in a calendar year.

August was the Port of Savannah’s busiest month ever for containerized trade, with 437,750 TEUs. That growth was evident by several huge 1,200-foot vessels calling on Savannah for the first time.

In April, Gov. Brian Kemp announced that Plastic Express, a leader in the plastic resins industry, would expand operations with two new facilities, creating 166 new jobs and investing more than $172 million at the Port Logistics Center in nearby Pooler. In June, the GPA received five new rubber-tired gantry cranes (RTGs) via the vessel Sampogracht and three new Post-Panamax ship-to-shore cranes arrived in December.

In September, the main girders for Savannah’s first rail-mounted gantry crane arrived via a special split chassis truck as a key milestone of the Mason Mega Rail construction project. Also, in September, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that work to deepen Savannah’s shipping channel had shifted to the inner harbor, starting near historic downtown Savannah.

Keeping up with the growth of the port and helping to get the word out on important infrastructure improvements has been paramount this year.

Here are 10 of my favorite photographs from 2019. With each image I will write a short description on how I envisioned these photos, and how they were captured:

Social media posts

One of the most creative ways we published photos in 2019 was via social media on GPA’s Instagram and Facebook pages. Both pages provide a quick way to keep followers up to date with the latest events in the palm of their hands in a timely and creative manner. These three examples of Instagram photos illustrate my point. From left to right, the dredge Charleston works in front of iconic downtown Savannah for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP), the sun peeking from behind a container offloaded from the 1,203-foot vessel Maersk Gustav during her visit to the Port of Savannah in September, and lastly, a view from the Crescent Tugboat Arkansas escorting the 14,000 TEU vessel Cosco Peony as she leaves the Port of Savannah. The containers of the fully-loaded ship are reflected in the windows of the Marriott Hotel on the far east end of River Street.

Record-breaking numbers

This is what we in the photography biz call a scene setter, or overall. This image tells the big picture of the projected volume of containers imported and exported in 2019. The numbers were staggering with more than 4 million TEUs in imports and exports passing through the Port of Savannah’s Garden City Terminal. Once again, this made the Port of Savannah one of the busiest container ports in the country. Nothing tells the story better than a wide-angle photo of the vast container yard shot from the back of a ship-to-shore crane. This image, and the one below, was the only shoot scheduled around the golden hour of sunrise.

Speaking of jobs

A key milestone in 2019 was the boost of nearly 12,000 port-related jobs across the state of Georgia. For the maintenance crew in crane operations, showing up for work is not for the faint- hearted. The cables on the top of a Post-Panamax ship-to-shore cranes are more than 120 feet off the ground, and safety is essential. The GPA provides the latest in safety gear for those who keep the wheels of commerce greased. As I mentioned above, this was one of the only photos scheduled around beautiful light. It gives us a great view of sunrise over the Savannah River, Hutchinson Island and the 31,551 acres that make up the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge.

GPA’s Big Berth/Big Ship program

This is not your typical “container ship sailing upriver” photo. We are always looking for fresh ways to illustrate how the Port of Savannah impacts the local economy. This image makes a statement as the 1,200-foot long vessel Evergreen Triton, packed with hundreds of containers, sails past Savannah City Hall and downtown Savannah to the Port of Savannah. Today’s vessels are as tall as some buildings and carry tons of cargo that affect the daily lives of consumers and businesses.

Five new RTGs

In June, the vessel Sampogracht brought five brand new RTGs to the Port of Savannah as part of important infrastructure improvements. For those who don’t speak the language of port life, RTGs stands for rubber-tired gantry cranes. The port uses RTGs in an intricate network of transporting containers to and from the container stacks onto over-the-road trucks before they leave Garden City Terminal.

This image falls under pure luck lighting conditions. There a many uncontrollable variables while photographing ships. Two of the biggest are weather and timing. Not pushing the shutter timing, but arrival and departure timing. The Sampogracht happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right weather and right sunlight. Like I said, pure luck.

A homecoming of sorts

Like soldiers standing at attention on a parade ground, the garrison of ship-to-shore cranes muster “booms up” at the Port of Savannah as the latest Konecranes arrive onboard the vessel Biglift Baffin. Part of GPA’s Big Berth/Big Ship program, the cranes will allow the Port of Savannah to simultaneously handle six 14,000 TEU vessels by 2024.  These new cranes are a key component to the overall plan.

We shot the last mile of this journey from the Talmadge Memorial Bridge using a 400mm lens to compress the background. (We always use a Georgia Port Police escort while shooting from the bridge for safety) Amazingly, this vessel sailed across the Pacific, through the Panama Canal, across the Gulf of Mexico and up the East Coast to Savannah with these three cranes balanced on its deck.

Containers on the move

Although the numbers have yet to be finalized for 2019, the GPA is on track to exceed 4.6 million TEUs in imports and exports for the first time in a calendar year.  In this image, I used a technique call “panning” as a 45-foot Hapag-Lloyd container was lifted onto a Yang Ming vessel. This gem in a photographer’s toolbox requires some practice. It uses a slow shutter-speed (1/8 of a second) to blur the background and keeping the container sharp is tricky. Everything is moving! It took dozens of frames to get one sharp photo of the container. The moving container looks sharp against a blurred background. This technique makes the container the point of interest in the photo, but also shows the port is a busy place with lots of moving parts.

Savannah Harbor Expansion Project reaches a milestone

As one of the most important and productive civil works projects in the country, the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP) has been a priority since the dredging began in 2015. In late 2019, the project reached a milestone and moved to the inner harbor near Historic River Street and downtown Savannah. I scouted this image for a month — watching where the dredge was working, weather conditions, watching what light worked best and a place to shoot. This image of the Norfolk dredge Charleston was shot from the Westin Hotel on Hutchinson Island in mid-December. Because the dredge moves very slowly, I was able to use a ¼ second exposure at f/8 to create a starburst effect with the lights onboard the dredge and still capture the ambient light from historic River Street after sunset.

In retrospect, having an event-centric calendar to work around, 2019 worked better than expected. But at the end of the day, it’s still all about working with the conditions mother nature throws at you and using the tools my equipment has to offer, such as shutter speed, aperture and lens choice. Throw in a little luck and dodging the occasional thunderstorm, and 2019 turned out to be a pretty good year in photos.

Some of the equipment used in 2019:

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark III Body
  • Canon EOS-1D X Body
  • Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM
  • Canon EF 16–35mm f/2.8L III USM
  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
  • Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM
  • Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X
  • MindShift BackLight® 26L backpack
  • Oben CTM-2600 6-Section Carbon Fiber Monopod
  • Slik Mini Pro Tripod with Ball Head