Light in the Landscape

My winter online talk, Light in the Landscape, went out live on Zoom in early December, and you can watch the recording here. Below is also an article that encapsulates the talk’s content. I hope you’ll enjoy both!

During the talk, Nigel broke light in the landscape down into a number of components to help overcome the potentially overwhelming myriad of different components.

Firstly, there’s the angle of the sun relative to the subject and the photographer, something that is relevant at all times. Secondly, there’s the angle of the sun relative to the horizon, something that varies with time of day and year. Finally, there’s flat light, caused either on a cloudy day, or because the sun is below the horizon.

We’ll start with light relative to the subject.

There are essentially three main angles to consider:

  • Frontal lighting
  • Side lighting
  • Back lighting

In frontal lighting, the sun shines directly onto the front of the subject facing the photographer, the lighting coming onto it from roughly behind the photographer. It is the simplest form of lighting to shoot in, almost guaranteeing worthwhile images. However, such images often lack much by way of atmosphere and creativity. The subject will also often look flat and two-dimensional, as the frontal lighting won’t create any shadows that give an indication of three-dimensional shape.

Side-lighting is when the sun shines onto the side of the subject, coming in from the right or left of the photographer. This lighting angle will often pick up highlights and shadows on the subject, giving a strong sense of surface texture and three-dimensional shape. This lighting angle gives a greatly increased possibility for atmospheric images that really highlight the nature of the subject.

Back lighting is where the photographer is shooting directly into the light. It is the hardest lighting angle to manage well, but when done correctly will result in the greatest creativity and the most atmospheric, impactful images. The silhouette is the most well-known product of this photographic technique.

Light in the Landscape
Back lighting is the most creative photographic angle – but also the hardest to manage well.

The angle of the sun relative to the horizon of course varies with the time of day and the time of year, as well as latitude.

Generally speaking, for landscape photography a high sun – in the middle of the, in mid-summer and/or in the tropics – is the worst form of light. Its high angle creates short shadows that don’t pick out 3D shape well, the light is often quite blue, and colours can be rather desaturated.

At the other end of the scale is a low sun at the beginning or end of the day, in winter and/or at a high latitude. Such lighting is often rich in ‘warming’ orange or reddish colours, resulting in very moody images, and when combined with side-lighting is very effective in creating shadows and highlights that emphasise 3D shape and surface texture.

Light in the Landscape
Side lighting when the sun is low.

Of course, there are many occasions when light in the landscape doesn’t have any particular angle. The light is quite flat, resulting in few shadows or highlights. This is what we have on a cloudy day or when the sun is blow the horizon (before sunrise or after sunset).

Many photographers are tempted to put their camera away in these conditions, but flat lighting can be highly useful. It is simply a matter of choosing the appropriate subject matter for the conditions.

The subjects that work well here are those that can’t handle the bright highlights and deep shadows created by bright sunlight. These include woodlands, fast-flowing streams and waterfalls, as well as close-details of landscape elements, such as cliff faces. The white water generated by a fast-flowing stream or a waterfall is notoriously difficult to shoot well in sunlight, the large amount of white water usually burning out and losing all detail. Similarly, woodland scenes shot in sunlight typically break down into a confusing mass of bright highlights and deep shadows. Photograph under a cloudy sky and all becomes clear, with no burned-out highlights or impossibly deep shadows.

The problem is simply contrast range. In sunlight it is huge, and although our eyes can accommodate such a contrast range easily, the digital sensor (and film too) is not so clever. It is able to handle only a much more limited contrast range. Shoot under a cloudy sky, or at dawn or dusk, and you will get that reduced contrast range.

Light in the Landscape
When the light is flat due to cloud cover, woodland is a great place to shoot.

Of course, out in the real world, when we’re busy using light in the landscape to capture our landscape images, we don’t have the various components neatly broken down for us. They all work together in a myriad of ways to create a multitude of different lighting angles and opportunities. So let’s put all the above components together and see what we can create.

Frontal lighting: As I’ve already said, this is the easiest to shoot with but is likely to result in the least atmospheric images. This is certainly true in the middle of the day in summer, when the sun is high and quite rich in blue light. But even this is in itself a kind of mood, telling us about summer, its warmth and its light.

But can frontal lighting be atmospheric in other ways? It certainly can. At sunrise or sunset, for example, when the light is rich in red and orange, your subject can be illuminated in a way that is enormously atmospheric, more than compensating for the lack of three dimensionality resulting from the frontal angle.

Then there is the ever-popular rainbow. A rainbow will only ever become visible to a photographer when it is shining more or less from directly behind them: no side or back lighting here. Use either a wide-angle lens to capture the entire rainbow, or a telephoto to home in on just a part of it and to great magnify its apparent size.

Light in the Landscape
Rainbows are only visible when the light is shining from behind you.

Side lighting: With the ability of side lighting to create shadows and so pick out 3D shapes and surface texture, it can be quite effective even when the sun is quite high in the sky. However, it becomes truly effective when the sun is low, the 3D shadows and surface textures becoming really very strong, resulting in hugely moody images. This is so whether the subject is an entire mountain, or a solitary tree.

Back lighting: This is where the lighting angle becomes absolutely critical in creativity and the generation of stunningly effective images. It does, however, only work well when the sun is at least relatively low in the sky. The style can be split into two: where the sun is not inside the image frame, but is somewhere just above it; and secondly where the sun is actually in the image frame, usually at least partially visible. In both forms one of the biggest challenges is the risk of flares getting into the image as a result of sunlight pouring into the lens. A small amount of flare can enhance the mood of some images. Too much, however, and the image is ruined.

To reduce the risk use either a lens hood or shield the top of the lens with your hand. This can usually be quite effective when the sun is outside the image frame. Of course, this doesn’t usually help greatly when the sun is in the image. In this situation, flare can be reduced by partially reducing the sun’s strength. This can be achieved by arranging the composition so that the sun is partially hidden behind, say, part of a tree or a rock, a technique that can result in the sun being visible as a very beautiful starburst effect. Alternatively, you can wait for a cloud to partially diffuse it, though this of course depends on there being just the right amount of cloud.

Most well known among the back lighting skills is the silhouette. A silhouette is all about the subject’s outline, so it must have an extremely good one – no big solid blocks here, please. It must also be black with no detail visible in it. Otherwise, it just isn’t a silhouette. More often than not the silhouette is created with the sun directly behind the subject, maximising the contrast between the subject and the background sky. It is often very effective to have a small amount of the sun visible around the edge of the silhouette, resulting in a stunning starburst.

Flat lighting: As already mentioned, a cloudy day can be fantastic for photography of woodlands, as well as situations where there is a lot of fast-moving white water. The flat lighting seen at dusk or dawn should not be used for woodland photography as it is rich in blue light, something that will ruin the greens of the vegetation. Such dusk light can, however, be very effective in photography of water, both in terms of waterfalls and coastal scenes.

Light in the landscape
A spectacular silhouette is all about the subject’s outline shape. Especially effective when there is a starburst created by the sun behind the subject.

I’ve already mentioned the problem that the digital sensor sensor has in being unable to handle the huge contrast range that the human eye can manage. In landscape photography this will frequently create problems for the accurate rendition of such high-contrast scenes as a landscape view that contains a bright sky but a dark landscape. This is particularly so on cloudy days when the sensor is quite unable to accurately capture detail in both the landscape and the sky.

This is where the neutral density graduated filter (or ND grad) comes in. A rectangular filter that fits on the front of your lens via a holder, half of the filter is clear while the other half is darkened. Line the filter up so that the darker part of the filter is over the brighter part of the scene and you will greatly reduce the contrast range down to something much closer to what the sensor can handle. In the above landscape example, the result will be a darker sky and a brighter landscape, more closely resembling what the eye is able to see.

Such filters are hugely important in photographically handling the light in the landscape, greatly enhancing any landscape photography. They’re available in a variety of strengths, and also as ‘hard’ or ‘soft’, referring to the sharpness of the dividing line between the dark and clear areas of the filter.

Light in the Landscape
The power of the ND grad filter to create great landscapes on cloudy days.

My regular online photography talks are held every three months and are free to attend. The next talk will be on 20th March 2024, subect still to be confirmed. To find out more and to sign up, click on the links below.

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Less is More: the Art of Minimalism

The art and skill in creating moody images with a strong subject and zero clutter and distractions

My latest talk, Less Is More: the Art of Minimalism, went ahead live online on 20th September 2023, and you can now watch the recording any time on You Tube and right here. Just click on the link below.

Keeping the images clean and super simple

When we talk about Less is More what do we actually mean? Well, in photography at least it means the art of cutting away all the confusing clutter from the image frame. The result is an image with a single strong subject that stands almost alone in the frame, unchallenged by all the usual mess that surrounds us in real life. Having less in the frame – other than the subject of course – gives us a whole lot more image.

Of course, saying this is one thing, achieving it is quite another. More often than not success comes down to choosing the right kind of subject matter in the right kind of environment. The vast majority of subjects we might shoot from day to day will never fit into the minimalism genre, so you just have to be selective.

So what kinds of subjects will lend themselves to minimalist photography? They are spread across most genres of photography, including architecture, landscape, travel, wildlife, still life and fine art, to name just the most obvious.

Less is More

Less is more and some genre examples

Lets have a look at a few areas where minimalist photography might work well.

Not surprisingly, minimalism in architectural photography can be achieved mostly with modern architecture. Their clean, simple and embellishment-free lines lend themselves to this art rather more effectively than is usually possible with historic buildings.

Landscape photography is one of the classic areas where minimalist photography is possible. In general, it can best be achieved in certain environments, such as in a desert, on open moors or when surrounded by water. With the first two, the meer simplicity of the landscape can lend itself to a sense of emptiness. With water – whether a stream, river, lake or sea – a common technique is to use a slow shutter speed (from, say, 1/8 second to 30 or 40 seconds) to completely blur out the movement in the water and so remove any detail. For this to be possible in the middle of the day, it might be necessary to use a neutral density filter over the lens to cut down the amount of light reaching the sensor.

In both wildlife and many forms of close-up photography it is common to focus in on the subject with a telephoto lens and then leave the background to completely blur out, removing all detail from what might otherwise be quite a complex environment. The subject will then completely stand out from the background, being the only element in the image that is in focus.

Particularly in landscape photography, but also in other genres too, the presence of fog can have a hugely beneficial effect, removing much background clutter altogether, and reducing other elements to ghostly and atmospheric detail-free outlines. Never put the camera away just because the fog has descended!

One other noteworthy point is that in many minimalist images things are further simplified by having a very limited colour palette. Bright and contrasting colours rarely lend themselves to the moodiness of a minimalist image, so instead they are typically characterised by consisting simply of different shades of the one colour, such as blue, grey or (especially for sunset/dusk images) pink or mauve. Not surprisingly, then, black and white photography can lend itself well to minimalist photography, though this is not universally so.

Less is More

Keeping to the rules of composition

Finally, a brief word on general rules of compostion as applied to Less is More techniques. Even though an image’s ‘negative space’ – that is, everything that is not the main subject – is almost completely empty in a minimalist photo, with just a single, strong subject dominating the frame, doesn’t mean that you can forget about all the rules of composition.

The subject must still be well-positioned within the frame, obeying such things as the law of unequal thirds, height and size relative to the image frame, and so on.

If any foreground is visible (it can happen, even in minimalist photography) it must be a damned good foreground, supporting the subject and helping to lead the viewer’s eye to it, with no distracting elements.

Diagonal lines, such as those created by converging parallels in the form of roads or rivers cutting into the photographic scene, remain a hugely important element, helping to direct attention towards the subject, give the illusion of three dimensions, and delivering a sense of energy and dynamism.

Less is More

Bringing it all together

Always bear in mind that Less is More should be very much a guiding principle in photography, and when out shooting one should always be on the lookout for opportunities where it will be possible. Although many everyday subjects will never lend themselves to great minimalist photography, a large proportion of the world’s greatest photographs are minimalist in approach. All photographers would do well to use it whenever they can.

Less is More

Future talks

My online photography talks take place every three months, with the next one scheduled for 6th December 2023, entitled Light in the Landscape. As the title implies, it’ll be all about using the light to create great landscape photography.

Click on the links below to sign up for the December talk, and to sign up for our regular newsletter to help you stay informed of future talks and workshops.

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The Power of the Wide-angle Lens

Using wide-angle lenses to convert ordinary scenes into dramatic, high energy images

My summer online photography talk, The Power of the Wide-angle Lens, took place live on 21st June. In this talk I covered the principles of when and why to you should use a wide-angle lens, particularly in the context of aiming to create dramatic, powerful images that have an impact.

A recording of the talk is now on You Tube, and you can watch the recording below. I hope you’ll enjoy it!

So what is a wide-angle lens?

Before we can assess the power of the wide-angle lens, we must first establish what a wide-angle lens is! Put simply, it is any lens with a focal length (as measured on a camera with a full-frame sensor) less than about 50mm. The latter is defined as a ‘standard’ lens, which gives a field of view and perception similar to the the central field of vision of the human eye. It has a horizontal field of view of about 40o.

A wide-angle lens will then have a wider field of view, anything up to about 100o, resulting in distortion of the scene, generating for example strong diagonals. They will also have a very big depth of field (ie the amount of the image in focus), often stretching from just in front of the camera all the way to the horizon.

the power of the wide-angle lens

Why use a wide-angle lens?

There is a huge number of often overlapping reasons why you’d use a wide-angle lens. Here are just a few of them:

  • Maximising the image’s depth of field
  • Fitting more in the frame
  • Including a foreground that supports and leads the eye to the main subject
  • Creating a foreground that leads the eye into the image scene
  • Exaggeration of diagonals to increase a sense of energy/movement
  • Exaggerating diagonals to give an illusion of three dimensions
  • Exaggeration of diagonals that lead the eye to the main subject

The list could go on, but this will do as an introduction. More often than not, there will be several reasons to use a wide-angle lens in any situation. You may, for example, want to maximise depth of field, create a foreground, and exaggerate diagonals to create a sense of energy, all in the same image.

The use of a wide-angle lens simply to fit more into the image frame needs to be looked at carefully, as this can be double-edged. A lot of people do this, but without thinking of the consequences. Inevitably, using a wide-angle lens will allow more ‘stuff’ into the frame, which may actually mean more distracting clutter, which will weaken and draw attention away from the main subject. The latter will also become smaller, making it harder for it to dominate the frame, especially against all that additional clutter. In general, in such a situation, the photography must move forward, coming a lot closer to the subject: this will retain the subject’s relative size, reduce the clutter creeping into the frame, and help to exaggerate diagonals.

The one time when using a wide-angle lens simply to get more in is when your subject is really very big – too big to fit into the frame without either backing off a long way (which may not be possible) or using a wide-angle lens. This is the kind of thing you may find when photographing buildings or indeed large mountain scenes.

the power of the wide-angle lens

How wide is wide enough?

Not surprisingly, the less wide your wide-angle lens is (ie the longer its focal length), then the smaller are that lens’s drama-enhancing, depth of field-boosting effects. For many photographers, the widest lens they have is about 28mm (as measured on a camera with a full-frame sensor), but this is not really enough to generate the effects described here. For that you need to go to a 16 or 17mm lens (full frame), or if shooting with a cropped-sensor camera then a lens with a 10 or 12mm focal length. With that, you’re then fully kitted out for some seriously effective wide-angle photography.

The power of the wide-angle lens

In what genres of photography does wide-angle photography work well?

The power of the wide-angle lens can be felt in just about every genre of photography, whether it be landscapes, architecture, people or even nature.

Landscape photography: Wide-angle lenses are perhaps most widely used in landscape photography, where a large depth of field especially is hugely important much of the time. Couple this with the exaggeration of diagonals to put in the sense of dynamism in an otherwise static image, as well as a sense of three-dimensional depth, and you have a powerful tool for fantastic landscape imagery.

Architectural photography: Particularly when shooting large buildings you often need to use a wide-angle lens simply to be able to get the whole structure in the frame. Apart from this, there are two ways to use a wide-angle lens in this form of photography: a) to capture the building ‘correctly’, meaning that the building’s vertical lines are actually vertical and parallel to each other in the image, and b) for creative photography, in which those verticals are no longer parallel but converge sharply towards the highest, or at least most distant, part of the building.

In the ‘correct’ form of photography the building will end up in just the upper half of the image, with a huge amount of foreground in the lower half. So if shooting in this way, you’d better make damn sure that it is photographically a very interesting foreground that supports the building: for example, a calm and highly reflective piece of water, or a nicely patterned piazza.

In the creative version, anything goes – that’s why it’s creative. You embrace those converging parallels, and use them to create some funky angles and artistically distorted buildings. The architect might not be pleased, but everyone else will be!

People photography: I shoot people with a wide-angle lens when I don’t simply want to capture their portrait, but also want to show their environment and what they’re doing, perhaps some kind of work. I necessarily need to come in quite close (to cut out background clutter), so I will almost always need the subject’s cooperation. Of course there is a balance between coming in really close and being unable to fit both face and their environment/work into the frame, and there may also be a depth of field struggle (even with a wide-angle lens) to ensure that both the face and their environment/work are sharply in focus. There is also the risk that coming in close will result in an unflattering portrait: hands that are closer to the lens than the face will appear relatively much larger, and jaw and nose angles will be exaggerated, for example.

Nature photography: This may come as a bit of a surprise, as of course with nature photography we normally have to shoot with either telephoto or macro lenses, certainly not wide-angle. But even in this field the power of the wide-angle lens can be quite significant, in general in the photography of flowers/plants. Provided you have a wide-angle lens with a reasonably short minimum focussing distance, it can be possible to come in close – most especially to a cluster of flowers – and produce a nice portrait that also captures the background, and hence the plants’ environment. It’s kind of similar to the wide-angle portrait photography described above, only smaller and closer.

The Power of the wide-angle lens

The final word

Hopefully, this brief summary, coupled with the video at the top of this article, will give you everything you need to know to get stuck into some great wide-angle photography. The key, in summary, is to create drama, a single strong subject, not clutter, and some intense diagonals. Get cracking and enjoy!

My next free online photography talk will be on 20th September 2023. Click on the link below to sign up to receive the weblink.

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Seasonal Springtime Photography

What to point your camera at this spring

My first free online talk of 2023 went ahead on 22nd March, entitled Seasonal Springtime Photography. This talk covered the kinds of subject matter you might want to point your camera at during this season of rebirth and new growth.

A recording of the talk is now on You Tube, and you can watch it by clicking on the link below.

Photographing the reawakening of the natural world

Not surprisingly, much of our seasonal springtime photography consists of the natural world, and the processes by which it reawakens at this time of year. This is particularly important for plants, and most especially a succession of wild flowers that burst into colour in our woodlands and grasslands.

Among the earliest are the much-loved snowdrops, followed by the much less well-known but equally beautiful wood anemones, a characteristic flower of our ancient woodlands. Most famous of all the early spring flowers, of course, are the daffodils, ranging from showy garden varieties through to the much rarer and more restrained original wild variety. Flowering from mid-March onwards, garden varieties are of course ubiquitous across UK parks and gardens, and indeed have spread to become wild. The true wild daffodil, can only be found in a few ancient woodland sites, such as on Dartmoor, in Devon.

Most of these wild flowers are of course very small, and so require some patient macro photography techniques, either a dedicated macro lens or an extension tube fitted between lens and camera body. Daffodils are of course the exception, being rather large and hence easily photographed with an ordinary standard or short telephoto lens.

Wood anemones: seasonal springtime photography

Lighting is also hugely important, particularly for white flowers (such as wood anemones), the petals of which frequently burn out and lose detail in bright sunlight. Also an issue for all flowers, particularly small ones, is the comparatively large patches of bright highlight and deep shadow that can be created by bright sunlight, resulting in a contrast range across even just a single flower that is too great for the camera’s sensor to manage.

For these two reasons, it is often better to photograph flowers in softer light, either on a cloudy day, or in the shade, thereby reducing contrast and the risk of bright highlights burning out, or deep shadows becoming too dark. This is often the case even for flowers that look great to the eye in sunlight: the eye can cope much more effectively with a high contrast range than a sensor can manage.

The one time that flower photography can work very well in sunlight is when translucent petals are backlit, resulting in light shining through them, creating quite a magical effect.

Beyond photography of flowers, there is then of course leaves bursting into life to consider, and particularly the stunningly vibrant greens they have in the first few weeks of life. This can be quite magnificent for photography of individual leaves, single trees or entire forests.

Daffodil: seasonal springtime photography

Animals in spring

Many animals also tend to become much more active in spring, associated of course with new breeding activities and the birth of offspring. Birds in particular can look their best at this time of year, especially the males as they put on their best breeding show.

Once offspring start to appear, then there is the annual opportunity for some oh-so-cute photography of youngsters scampering or paddling around close to their parents. Photography of young chicks is perhaps one of the most popular forms of seasonal springtime photography, but always remember that there are laws governing the disturbance of certain species of nesting birds. Always check before getting close to nests.

Then of course there are the migratory species, birds that visit the UK only for a relatively short time to breed during the spring and early summer. These include a number of our marine birds, such as puffins and guillemots, plus also a number of more terrestrial species. Perhaps the most famous of the latter is the cuckoo, arriving in the UK in April or May.

Swan chicks: seasonal springtime photography

Architecture and landscapes in spring

Both architectural and landscape photography can of course be done very successfully at any time of the year, provided the right light is available: they are not photo genres unique to seasonal springtime photography.

That said, certain things are possible in spring that may not be feasible in the winter months. This revolves around the angle of the sun during the spring. Once past the spring equinox (mid- or late March), a time when the sun rises directly in the east and sets directly in the west, the sun starts to move into the northern sky at the beginning and end of each day. This opens up the possibility for photography of north-facing surfaces, whether they be landscapes or building facades, with sunlight shining on them. For each subject you will need to work out whether early morning or evening light is best, and then photograph accordingly.

North-facing landscape.

The human world

Finally, lets not forget the human world. After months of spending time mostly indoors, now things finally start to venture outside. Firstly there’s general outdoor life, such as sport and picnics. In addition, one of the most important things to consider is the series of springtime festivals that appear. In England’s southwest, for example, spring really gets into gear with two annual festivals in Cornwall, namely Padstow’s Obby Oss Festival at the start of May, followed closely by Helston’s Floral Dance. Both are great opportunities to home in on a bit of human action.

The difficulty with photography of street festivals (as the two above examples are), is that the activities can be against a backdrop of both distracting shop and street signage and very unattractve tarmac. Both can seriously mar otherwise perfectly good shots of the event, so consider zooming in very closely on vignettes of the action in order to minimise or even totally cut out these problems. This of course entails using a telephoto lens, and if the action is moving quickly you’ll need a telephoto with fast shutter speeds and whose focussing is fast and accurate.

Inevitably, photography in a crowded place must be handheld – no one will thank you for setting up a tripod, and anyway it will slow you down. So, especially if you’re using a moderately strong telephoto lens, if light levels fall away you may well need to increase the camera’s ISO (ie sensor sensitivity), and put up with the small loss of image quality that this may entail.

Another factor to consider is crowd control. Festivals where this occurs, whether through crash barriers or the presence of police and/or security guards, can result in your photography being seriously cramped. So concentrate of those festivals where this is not an issue. Even then, crowds of spectactors can still restrict your photography. If this occurs, I can only recommend a pair of sharp, though polite, elbows to ensure that you always reach the front and with a good field of view!

Obby Oss Festival, Padstow.

The next talk

I really hope you’ve enjoyed this talk and blog on Seasonal Springtime Photography.

My next free online talk will be on 21st June 2023, and will be Using a Wide-angle Lens. To join this talk you just need to register so I know to send you the link. You can do so by clicking on the link below and then filling in and submitting the simple form.

You can also find out about my photography workshops by clicking on the workshops link below.

I’ll look forward to seeing you!

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Creativity in Coastal Photography

Landscape photography along our seashores

My fourth and final online talk of 2022 went ahead on 7th December, during which I covered the skills and techniques often used with creativity in coastal photography.

The whole talk can be watched simply by clicking on the You Tube link below. I hope you’ll enjoy it! You can also read on through this blog, which summarises much of what’s in the talk.

Capturing the beauty of the shore

From calm, sheltered estuaries, to wide and sweeping sandy beaches, to wild and rugged cliffs, there is so much subject matter to help us with creativity in coastal photography. Hugely variable, and photographable at any time of the year, the seashore is a wonderfully inspiring place for any landscape photographer to lose themselves in their art.

The aim of this article and its video is to give some pointers and tips towards really honing one’s coastal landscape photography skills.

Not only is the coastal environment enormously varied, but so are the types of photography you can get stuck into. Firstly, there’s the classic kind of photography, the large wide views of a clearly identifiable place, photographed in the middle of the day during calm and sunny summer weather. Such images are evocative of warm summer holidays, and are often the stuff of travel brochures and magazines.

Many photographers will often find themselves taking these kinds of images for a great many reasons, and although they generate good quality, attractive record shots of a place, they rarely satisfy the inner artist searching for creativity, mood and artistic beauty. For that, you need a rather different approach, at the very least shooting at the ends of the day, when the light is low and warmly coloured. Most of this article will concentrate on these more creative techniques.

The simplest form of coastal photography consists of shooting wide views in the middle of the day during calm, sunny summer weather.

Horizon, horizon, horizon

Before I go any further with creativity in coastal photography, I have to say a word about the horizon. It might be an exaggeration to say that coastal photography is all about the horizon, but it is an absolutely critical point.

That line where sea and sky meet way off in the distance is usually quite strongly visible even on a hazy or stormy day. And guess what: it is always, always, always LEVEL! A sloping sea simply can’t exist, otherwise all that water would just slosh off down the slope. So in coastal landscape photography it is imperative to get your horizons level.

It is perhaps acceptable in forms of photography where the landscape element is secondary, such as in an image of some action sport that dominates the frame, to have a background horizon sloping. But in landscape photography, particularly of the coast, in which the horizon is usually very visible, it must be level. I’ve seen so many otherwise perfectly acceptable coastal photography images ruined by a sloping horizon.

Creativity in coastal photography
In coastal landscape photography the horizon absolutely must be level.

Some essential creative techniques

Once you’ve sorted out the horizon, one of the first steps towards creativity in your coastal photography is the time of day you shoot. Photography during the middle of the day in summer is all very well – it certainly produces images that capture the idea of summer holidays – but such images usually lack atmosphere and artistry.

Photography during what is known as the golden hour, that is the first and last hours of the day, as well as during dawn and sunrise, and sunset and dusk. For roughly the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset the light will have a warm, golden or reddish hue, creating a wonderful richness in the landscape’s colours. What’s more the low sun angle will create strong shadows, greatly increasing the apparent three dimensionality of a scene, helping foreground elements to really stand out from their background.

Furthermore, shortly before sunrise or after sunset there can be wonderful colours in the sky, and while your landscape itself will be rather flatly lit (since the sun will be below the horizon) this is more than made up for by the colours in the sky. Of course, those colourful skies don’t always happen and they can be a little tricky to predict accurately. A lot of luck can be involved here.

What is much more predictable is that about an hour before sunrise and an hour after sunset everything will be quite blue, what is sometimes known as the ‘blue hour’. This is the final stage of lighting in the landscape before it finally becomes totally dark.

When photographing seascapes, it is astonishing how often I see photographers pack up and leave a scene the moment the sun has dipped below the horizon. Don’t do that! The sunset is only the start of the evening show: you have to wait to see what the sky will do over the next hour, until you’re well into the blue hour.

Creativity in coastal photography
For creative landscape photography shoot during the ‘golden hour’ when the sun is low in the sky.

Exposing sky, sea and land

One of the big technical challenges of coastal landscape photography is getting an exposure that is right for every element in the scene: sea, land and sky.

To be honest, the sea and land usually need a fairly similar exposure, so there’s not too much of a problem there. However, the problem comes with the sky. Even on a cloudy day, the sky is usually a lot brighter than either the sea or the land, something that the eye often doesn’t notice.

The human eye is incredibly adept at handly the large contrast range between sea and sky, and is able to see detail in both quite easily. Unfortunately, a camera’s digital sensor is nowhere near as sensitive as the human eye, leaving the contrast range between sea and sky far to great for it to cope.

The result? Usually you end up with images in which the sea and land are correctly exposed but the sky is hopelessly burned out, all those lovely cloud patterns lost due to significant over-exposure. It is particularly bad when shooting into the light, especially when the sun is low.

The solution is to use neutral density graduated filters (usually shortened to just ND grads). These are rectangular filters in which one half is darkened and the other half is left clear. They fit easily on the front of your lens with the help of a screw ring that has the same thread size as your lens, and a filter holder that slides over the ring.

All you need to do is put the darkened part of the filter over the brighter part of the image (usually the sky), and then line up the filter’s dark/clear transition line with the horizon. Immediately, you’ve reduced the contrast range to something that the sensor can handle, darkening the sky and brightening the sea/land. The result is an image that looks much closer to what you see with your eye than the ‘unfiltered’ image is able to manage.

As you can see in the image below, there are – generally speaking – two types of ND grad, hard and soft, the former having a sharp transition between dark and clear, the latter having a more gradual one. The hard filter is of more use in coastal photography, though it’s also more difficult to use well. Beginners to ND grads may find the soft filter easier to use initially.

A basic ND grad filter kit, consisting of two filters (hard and soft ND grads), a holder and adaptor ring.

Although the ND grads’ main use is to correct for a failing in the digital sensor’s performance, creating images that more closely resemble the real world, they can also be used to great effect to enhance and exaggerate mood and cloud patterns.

In this use, it is common to deliberately over-darken the skies, enhancing the clouds’ visibility and often exaggerating the ‘angriness’ or storminess of a scene. The result is an image with lots of brooding mood, and often a very dynamic sense of energy.

Creativity in coastal photography
ND grads can often be used to enhance mood, exaggerating the storminess of the clouds in a landscape.

To blur or not to blur moving water

The sea is, of course, a very dynamic environment, the water constantly on the move, full of energy, driven by invisible forces. Unfortunately, when you take a still image of that environment there is a danger that all the movement is lost, resulting in a very static image, one that completely misses the sea’s all-important dynamic mood.

One of the most popular ways to overcome this is to use a slow shutter speed. This will blur the moving waves, something that immediately puts the sense of energy and movement back into your still image. However, just how much blur you put in will have a big impact on the mood of your image. A shutter speed of say somewhere between one-tenth of a second and one second will result in an image containing a very agitated and dynamic sea, in which waves and spray are still clearly visible, though their movement is blurred.

On the other hand an exposure time of over about four seconds will result in the sea completely blurring out into a smooth sheet, often with what appears to be a veil of mist above the water, resulting in a very soothing, ethereal and artistic scene, something that may run quite contrary to the actual mood of the real scene.

Needless to say, these shutter speeds are just guess-timates, as just exactly how much blur you get depends very much on how fast your waves are moving and how big they are. This is part of the joy of this kind of photography: you don’t really know what you’re going to get, and so you often just have to keep on shooting, allowing different waves to create different patterns in your images.

This kind of photography is quite straightforward – provided you put the camera on a tripod – when light levels are low, such as at the start or end of the day, or in cloudy weather. However, when shooting in the middle of the day, and particularly in sunny weather, you’ll need to use a neutral density filter – one that cuts down the light right across the lens – to reduce the available light sufficiently to make a slow shutter speed possible.

That said, there are times when using a fast shutter speed to freeze the movement of the sea is appropriate. This is particularly so when the waves are quite large, or when you want to home in close on a wave to show every droplet of spray flying through the air.

Creativity in coastal photography
Blurring the movement of the sea can be very effective at putting energy into an image.

Photography of stormy conditions

It is tempting to want to go to photograph the stormiest of stormy conditions, to capture the drama of nature in the raw. However, unless you are shooting something that is genuinely newsworthy, I would generally caution against it for the following reasons:

  • The light is nearly always terrible;
  • Salt spray and rain will very quickly cover your lens and filters making it very difficult to shoot. Salt spray in particular can be very hard to clean off;
  • The wind is usually so strong that you’ll struggle to hold the camera still enough. And a tripod will get blown over in seconds, even a sturdy one;
  • It is just plain dangerous, particularly along the most exposed coasts, such as – in the UK – Cornwall and west Scotland.

For these reasons, it is far better to wait for the main storm front to pass before venturing out. At this time, the cloud cover will usually break, allowing for some sunlight, including rainbows and dramatic shafts of sunlight. Furthermore, the wind strength will be a little lower, but the waves will still be big and angry. Coupled with the improved light this can result in some very dramatic scenes.

Spray and rain will be less of an issue, and you’ll be able to use the camera safely – hand-held or on a tripod – and all without the risk of being blown off the cliff (really, it has nearly happened to me).

What’s more, with the use of such techniques as a moderate blurring of the waves, coupled with some dramatic low light (including shafts of sunlight breaking through clouds), it is possible to produce images that, though shot in moderate conditions, actually look as though the weather was quite stormy.

Creativity in coastal photography
Dramatic shafts of sunlight breaking through heavy cloud can enhance the apparent storminess of a scene.

A word on safety

This article would not be complete without a word on safety. The sea is a wonderful environment to photograph, but it can be dangerous, especially for the unwary. To minimise risk follow these guidelines:

  • Always know the tide times for the area you’re shooting in, and plan around them;
  • Be aware of risks of being cut off by a rising tide, and avoid them;
  • If shooting on a surf-bound shore close to the water’s edge, keep a sharp lookout for regular wave surges that can drive up towards you without warning;
  • Always take a fully charged phone with you, but don’t rely completely on it – many stretches of our coast have no phone signal, so also make sure you tell someone at home where you’re going;
  • Avoid photography at the height of a storm, particularly on an exposed clifftop.

So now you’ve got all that lot sorted out, get out shooting our coast and really enjoy it!

Future talks

My free online talks take place every three months, so the next one will be in March 2023. I’ve yet to decide on a title, but that will be forthcoming shortly. If you’d like to attend the live talk, all you need to do is to register so I know to send you the link.

To stay up to date with plans and events, click on the link below to join our mailing list. To register for future talks you will be able to do so shortly once the next one has been confirmed.

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