On any given day you will probably see a line of cars on a cliff-top or headland, the occupants silently surveying the scene in front of them. Some of these people will likely be photographers. The UK has approximately eleven thousand miles (depending on which expert you ask) of mostly accessible coastline and it’s beauty and variety has been a magnet to snappers, probably since the invention of this great medium of ours.
I became interested in landscape photography in 2006 and since then I’ve been hooked, reading everything I could lay my hands on to widen my knowledge and expertise. I soon realised that this was an art form that would enable me to express my feelings about the natural world we live in. I’m drawn to the coast and the ever changing nature of the sea that surrounds it. My images capture moments in time and if my camera has taught me one thing about nature, it’s that it holds so very much more than is first apparent to the naked eye. Landscape photographers should be intensely aware that nature is not inert; it’s a living thing, constantly changing with the light, the time of day and the seasons.
In coastal areas the tides and winds add another set of dynamics. Taking pictures of water is an amazing experience that gives a lot of satisfaction to me and, I hope, to those who view my images. However, water and waves by their very nature can be unpredictable and forever changing. Sometimes the sea is violent, crashing against the rocks and beaches. With good timing this can be captured using a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. At other times the sea is calm and benign and a slow shutter will bring out the delicate movements and shapes revealed by a longer exposure.
There is third way, of course. That is to get into the water, surfer style, and be right in with the action! This is not for the faint-hearted and the usual safety precautions are called for but you can get some interesting and unique pictures. Clearly, anything to do with water, salt, spray and sand will probably mean the instant demise of your beloved camera, so a waterproof housing is essential. These are expensive and dedicated to the job but it is possible to come up with ideas of your own, using plastic bags and elastic bands. I have even used a coating of cling film around the vulnerable parts, leaving the lens exposed. It worked perfectly! These home made efforts probably won’t take a full soaking but are great around the water’s edge to help protect your expensive kit.
My approach to coastal photography is always the same. I like to arrive a couple of hours before I start work to watch my surroundings and plan the all-important composition. This is the way we lead the viewer through the image. Should you separate the main subject or should it be integrated into it’s surroundings? Incorporating all the different elements is a complex task, especially when using a wide angle lens to capture the grandeur of the scene before you. Of course, coastal photography isn’t just about the big view. There are details to be seen. Reflections in pools, shells at the waterline, rock formations and so on are all part of the bigger picture.
Timing is important. The best images are made at the start and end of the day. There’ll be less people about and the sun will be lower in the sky, making for longer shadows and, late in the day, the lovely warm light of evening. Remember, it’s worth checking the weather forecast before you set off! The weather doesn’t have to be good of course. The coast comes alive on stormy days, with rough seas and threatening skies. Don’t be afraid to get wet - on days like this you will get the shots that others miss!
When shooting seascapes it’s very easy to end up with so-so images that contain little in the way of points of interest. Half land, half sea snaps spring to mind. Try to add good focal points by including a feature in the foreground; a rock pool, a groyne, perhaps, something that helps to lead the eye into the scene, adding depth. There may be a distant feature - a lighthouse or headland - that can be placed in your composition in relation to your foreground. Vary the views by shooting from low down or from a higher vantage point (which is why it is necessary to do a recce of the location). You’ll need to consider where to focus. Depth of field that keeps everything sharp front to back requires a small aperture, f16 maybe, or you may choose to open the lens aperture to throw backgrounds into soft focus. I know you’ve heard it before but, especially if you are just starting out, you can’t beat the good old ‘rule of thirds’ for composition set-up. Dividing your image into imaginary thirds, both horizontally and vertically, and placing your focal points there with your skyline high or low on the horizontals is a great starting point for a balanced composition. It doesn’t hurt to focus one third ‘into’ the image as well. Of course, rules such as this are made to be broken. It’s interesting to see what happens!
Be careful, though. What can kill a promising shot stone dead is a sloping horizon. It’s all very well using a tripod but is it level? Some have a spirit level built in; if not you can buy a hot shoe fitting level at modest cost. Sorting it out in Photoshop isn’t the answer!
The human eye sees things differently to the camera, which is limited by it’s ability to deal with the wide range of exposures often encountered on the coast with the light reflecting off the water and sand and then bouncing around inside your lens. In my opinion the need to understand the light, even in this digital age, is paramount. At best, the average camera can handle maybe seven stops of light. I would counter this by taking several readings using my Nikon’s very accurate meter (you could use a separate hand held meter) and calculate an average exposure, setting this manually on the camera. Just leaving it to the matrix metering may work sometimes but it doesn’t help you to control how you want your image to look.
If in doubt, say with a high contrast scene, you might chose to bracket your exposures by a few stops either way, over and under. A good DSLR should have this facility built in so, as every good tutor will tell you, make sure to read the manual! If you scene is static you may even be able to combine exposures in camera or later with imaging software. This is where your trusty tripod will be your friend, holding your camera rock steady (Rock steady! Rocks! Coast! - OK, never mind). With coastal photography my Giottos tripod is my constant companion - it slows my working method down and makes me consider all the variables before releasing the shutter.
And talking of slowing things down, another way to add atmosphere and additional interest to your photographs is by introducing blur to anything moving within your chosen composition by selecting a slow shutter speed and / or your lowest ISO number. With water, especially quiet sea, the movement of the waves will soften and eventually blur into mist. Very atmospheric if done correctly. I don’t need to remind you that your three legged friend is vital here. You can achieve similar effects with the grasses on pristine sand dunes or even with the swirl of a flock of seagulls.
Bright weather means achieving a slow shutter can be difficult which is where filters come into their own. There are many different brands and prices - I use Hi Tech - and you should always buy the best you can afford. For coastal photography graduated, polarising and neutral density filters will serve you best. Avoid the cheesy coloured ones or the dreaded ‘sunset’ filter (find a real sunset instead!) and stick to the ones that can really do a job for you. They come in various strengths with the density of the filters expressed in stops. With graduated filters - they go from coloured through to clear with the most versatile being grey - you can manage the contrast difference between sea and sky for a balanced, detailed exposure. No matter how good a photo is, it won’t work with a blown out sky. Some grads have a straight edge transition called ‘hard step’ which is fine for a clearly defined horizon line, for example, but the more versatile filters have a gently feathered colour to clear transition which is generally more useful. It’s probably best to avoid the screw-in graduated filters as they don’t have the flexibility of movement that a sheet filter in a holder can give. Every good camera bag should have a few of these. Similarly, neutral density filers are all a single colour for contrast control - ideal if you want to achieve slow shutter speeds!
The polariser is another must have. these remove the specular reflections from shiny surfaces and help boost colour, but they need to be used with care. At higher altitudes blue skies can almost turn black! If you own, as most of us do, a modern AF DSLR you will almost certainly need to buy a circular, rather than linear, polariser, otherwise you will probably get inaccurate light meter readings.
Our coast doesn’t just encompass nature’s marvels. It can also be man made. There are weed encrusted piers, ancient jetties pointing out to sea, the ultra modern and the derelict. All there for the taking.
I derive great satisfaction from producing my images. I’ve wasted my time with inferior light, I’ve got wet and cold and muddy and hot - sometimes all on the same day - yet still achieved the results I want.
I’ve seen the tidal transitions caused by the pull of the moon. The long sandy expanses of low tide and the crashing waves with the sea at its height. I try to reveal the changes that nature offers throughout the year. The photographer who watches and waits sees so much more than the casual visitor. I hope you enjoy my photographs as much as I have enjoyed the experience of creating them.
In addition to camera and lenses (with hoods) I recommend the following for your kitbag:
UV filters to protect the lens.
Remote control or cable release. You could also use the self timer.
Spare battery power.
Filters, tripod and spirit level.
A flashgun for fill flash, should you need it.
A powerful torch to illuminate the foreground in low light to aid autofocus. Also helps to stop you stumbling around in the dark!
A small head torch for low light camera controls and finding stuff in your bag.
Cleaning / drying cloths for your gear. A towel for you - yes, in the UK you will need it!
Rain protection for your camera. If all else fails use a shower cap from the bathroom.