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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Autumn photography: capturing the season

What to point your camera at this coming season

My autumn photography talk went ahead on Zoom on 21st September, this season’s subject entitled Autumn Photography: Capturing the Season. Predictably, it was all about the kinds of things you could be photographing during the autumn, many photographers’ favourite photography season.

The full talk can be watched below. Just click on the image to start the video.

Autumn colours, one of the season’s top subjects

When getting stuck into some autumn photography to capture the season, inevitably one of the top choices of subject matter is going to be autumn colours among the trees. In the UK’s natural woodlands that generally means golden colours among beech, birch and larch trees. Oaks, which make up a large proportion of our forests, unfortunately rarely produce good autumn colours. Another tree native to the UK that produces great golden colours is the Field Maple, a tree commonly found in hedgerows.

Unfortunately, the stunning reds we see in maples in the forests of North America and Japan don’t occur in our woodlands. To see and photograph these in the UK, head for almost any public garden or park.

Autumn colours are not always as straightforward to photograph as you might expect, the complexity of trees mingling together in a woodland making it hard to create a strong composition.

I often find myself just concentrating on a part of a tree, and in particular with a composition that has clear space behind it, such as an opening created by a river or stream. This helps to simplify the background, reducing clutter and increasing the possibility of being able to put the background out of focus.

If coming in close to leaves it is best to use only compositions where there is a single layer of leaves. Multiple layers usually result in a bit too much complexity, in which the leaves become confusing and rather start to merge with one another.

Autumn photography: capturing the season

Mist and fog

Autumn is a perfect time for fogs and mists, particularly early on a still clear and damp morning. Ground mist at dawn can be a stunningly beautiful sight across a wet meadow or in a shallow river valley. However, in many parts of the UK you have to be very early as once the sun is up the mist will burn off quickly. Only if temperatures are really quite low will the mist linger very long after the sun has risen.

Hill fog is of course also very common in autumn, and can easily hang around all day long, particularly in windless, rainy conditions. This can be fantastic for moody, ethereal woodland photography.

River or lake fog is also stunningly beautiful, and again can hang around for many hours in the right conditions. However, more often than not, it does last only for a short time during the early morning, so once again you have to be very early.

Mist and fog have the wonderful effect of reducing clutter and detail, restricting subject matter to simple outlines and silhouettes. The results are hugely evocative, generating images that really could not be caught under any other conditions.

Autumn photography: capturing the season

Autumn wildlife photography

Autumn can be a fantastic time for wildlife photography. Firstly, there is the autumn deer rut, most famously among the herds of Red Deer. What’s more, the numbers of wading birds in our marshes and estuaries are greatly swollen by over-wintering birds. This can provide some fantastic photo opportunities with both flocks and individual birds, provided you have a good telephoto reach with your equipment.

One final aspect of autumnal wildlife photography is that this is the time of year when Grey Seals give birth to their oh-so-cute white pups around our coasts. This mostly takes place in inaccessible coves, though there are a few sites where it is possible to obtain reasonable photographable views.

Autumn photography: capturing the season

The human world

Don’t forget the human world during the autumn, whether this be photography of people involved in autumnal activities such as the harvest, or festivals, most often associated with Guy Fawkes’ Night.

There are always plenty of opportunities for seasonal people photography, and it’s really worth trying to grab a few of these. In southwest England these can include such things as the grape harvest at the growing number of vineyards, plus the dramatic spectacles of such events as Bridgwater Carnival (in Somerset) and Ottery Tar Barrels (in Devon), both held in early November.

Autumn photography: capturing the season

Autumn photography: capturing the season

As this brief introduction shows, there is a huge amount to photograph out there during the autumn. I hope you’ll get stuck in and enjoy the season.

You can get plenty more ideas in the above video: there is a lot more material covered there that than I’ve been able to in this article.

Future talks

My next online Zoom talk will be on Wednesday 7th December at 8pm GMT, and will cover coastal photography. If you’d like to attend, just register using the link below, so I know to send you the link. It’s all free!

Autumn photography: capturing a rainbow

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Underwater coral reef life: a relaxing video

A few minutes that will help you to feel better about the world!

No long-winded explanations of photographic technique in this blog, just a relaxing four-minute video of underwater coral reef life.

So just put your feet up, chill out with a glass of something nice and swim along with the turtles and fish.

All footage here was shot by Nigel Hicks, on location in the Maldives and the Philippines.

I hope you’ll enjoy the next few minutes, and that it’ll help you feel so much better about the world!

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The Techniques of Underwater Photography

Photography of tropical coral reefs in the Maldives and the Philippines

In my summer online photography talk, given live on 22nd June, I showcased the techniques of underwater photography. Though a relatively small part of my photographic work, it is one that I hugely enjoy. So I thought I would introduce some of the work I’ve done photographing the marine wildlife of coral reefs in the Philippines and the Maldives.

A recording of the talk can now be watched any time. Just click on the image below.

The challenges and techniques of underwater photography

The most obvious initial challenge to underwater photography is of course the very fact that it is under water! Inevitably, a first prerequisite is to be able to scuba dive, or at least snorkel, before any photography is possible. Once that is sorted, then you can start to face the challenges of underwater photography, which include:

  • Light levels rapidly fall away as you go deeper, even in the most sunlit conditions;
  • The colour balance of the light rapidly changes, with red light being absorbed in the first few metres, leaving only blue light by the time you reach a depth of about 10 metres;
  • This loss of white light makes it important to use flash lighting to provide white light, and hence to show up the true colours of any subject;
  • No seawater is completely clear: there are always at least some suspended particles able to block and reflect flash lighting back to the camera;
  • It is usually necessary to come as close as possible to the subject, often using a very wide-angle lens, to minimise the camera-to-subject distance and hence the amount of suspended matter between the two;
  • Two flashguns (or strobes as they’re called for underwater photography) are commonly used, each mounted some distance on either side of the camera, increasing the angle of the flash, and helping to reduce the amount of light bounced back to the camera from suspended particles;
  • High pressures encountered while diving mean that all equipment – especially the camera’s housing – must be highly water- and pressure-resistant, making them rather cumbersome and heavy (at least when on land), especially when coupled with two widely-mounted flashguns;
  • Despite measures to reduce problems caused by suspended particles, most underwater images require considerable amounts of post-photography cleaning up in order to remove specks and make the images appear at their best.

These are just the main photography-specific challenges to the techniques of underwater photography, and are quite apart from the general challenges of scuba diving. The latter include limited dive time due to a restricted air supply, safety limits on the maximum depth of any dive, as well as the speed at which one can ascend or descend, and restrictions on the frequency with which you’re allowed to dive.

Techniques of underwater photography

Photography of corals

Corals are among the most beautiful living structures on Earth, consisting of colonies of thousands of coral polyps that together build complex forms. These can vary from huge 2-metre fans (such as in the image above) or rounded boulder-like solid structures, down to tiny tree-like organisms.

Many are the most important building blocks of the coral reef environment, and to me are a joy to photograph. And yet, they are often overlooked by photographers in search of the more high profile charismatic and mobile animals, such as turtles and sharks.

Corals deserve far more photographic attention. Being immobile, they aren’t going to swim away just when you’re trying to line up a shot. But corals can be fragile and require significant care when being photographed: one badly timed kick of a fin can destroy several years of coral growth. So it is critical for a photographer to have close and exact control of their movements when under water, something that is not always easy.

Techniques of underwater photography

Photography of mobile reef animals

The techniques of underwater photography of course encompass both those of immobile corals and of the more mobile animals, such as turtles and fish, to name just the most obvious.

This of course includes the hundreds of commonly seen reef fish, many of which are extremely colourful and beautiful, but also rather small and shy. The latter points can make them rather tricky to photograph as they will almost always swim off and/or hide in a reef crevass the moment you approach. My usual technique is to zoom in a little with a short telephoto lens. Although this then suffers from the problem of increased amounts of suspended particles between me and the subject, it is a worthwhile compromise that helps me get the shot.

Other animals are rather less of a problem, either being much larger than most reef fish, or not at all bothered by the human presence, or both. When I first started diving in the Philippines 20-plus years ago, turtles were very shy and hard to photograph, but today they’re largely at ease with the diver’s presence. This makes it possible to swim alongside them for some distance, shooting more or less at ease, with or without a flashgun.

Sharks too are generally undisturbed by the presence of divers, and can readily be photographed. Obviously, they do have a fearsome reputation, something enhanced by their aggressive appearance, but the great majority of species are quite safe to be around.

Techniques of underwater photography

Scuba diving versus snorkelling

Scuba diving requires some rigorous training and then certification before you can even consider starting underwater photography via this route. So there is some temptation to give it a try while simply snorkelling, since this is unregulated and equipment-free.

While some forms of underwater photography can be done while snorkelling (such as swimming with whale sharks, as in the image above), it is not at all easy, requiring some tricky control of your buoyancy in order to be able to dive, even for a few seconds, below the surface.

Furthermore, many of the most varied, interesting and photogenic forms of coral and fish can’t be found close to the surface, and so can only be photographed while scuba diving.

So, although photography while snorkelling does have its uses, it is rather limited in what can be achieved. Scuba diving, though presenting more of a challenge initially, does offer a much more versatile and effective way of carrying out the techniques of underwater photography.

Techniques of underwater photography

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Great photography during the winter

An online talk that gives inspirational ideas about what to photograph during the cold and short days of winter

Home » nature photography

In Nigel’s November talk, held live on 17th Nov, he aimed to inspire photographers not to put their cameras away during the winter. There is some great photography during the winter months, those short cold days a time of day-long low sunlight, dramatic storms, and over-wintering wildlife.

A recording of this talk is now on You Tube, and you can watch it here. Just click on the link below.

Looking for subjects during the winter months

There is a temptation for photographers to go into hibernation during the winter, putting the camera safely away until the weather improves in spring. But this would be a major mistake as there is really is the possibility of great photography during the winter months.

With the sun continually low in the sky, it is perfectly possible to do some magnificent, moody landscape photography right throughout the day. Moreover, with dawn/sunrise and sunset/dusk both at very civilised times of day, it becomes much easier to shoot during these prime photogaphy periods.

Admittedly, the sun doesn’t shine a whole lot of the time during winter – hence the temptation to hibernate – but when it does then the light can be magnificent. Moreover, even when it isn’t shining, the frequent storms that sweep in from the Atlantic provide some very wild, dramatic weather for landscape photography, both on the coast and inland. This is particularly so just after the main storm front has passed through, a time when the clouds usually break, providing some great – though rapidly changing – light, along with a succession of rainbows.

Wildlife photography too can still be worked on to great effect during the winter. Although many mammals hibernate, others do not, including foxes and all our deer species. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, mostly wetland waders, though also woodland and garden birds, arrive in the UK from colder climates to over-winter here. Their numbers greatly swell local bird populations, especially in marshes, lakes and along the coast, providing opportunities for some fantastic avian wildlife photography.

Great Photography during the Winter

Fog and frost

Winter is of course the main time for fog and frost, most especially during the early morning, but also often throughout the day and in the evening.

Fog and frost provide some of the most effective and beautiful opportunities for great photography during the winter, the latter adding a stunning sparkle and sheen to any landscape and/or foliage scene. Fog – especially ground fog – really makes for some ethereal and often monochromatic scenes, reducing complex details to simplistic outlines that can have fantastic photographic impact. This is most especially so when some sunlight is still visible through the fog, providing some delicate illumination.

Snow and ice

Not surprisingly, no discussion of great photography during the winter would be complete without snow and ice. The latter can quite transform any normally watery scene, whether it be an entire lake, a puddle or just a dripping gutter. Convert that water to ice, and suddenly we have beautiful crack and freezing patterns, pointed daggers of icicles, often quite blue when seen in low light levels, and rendered even more magical if frost and/or snow are also present.

Snow, of course, completely transforms an entire landscape, creating wholly monochromatic scenes when the sky is cloudy, and truly dynamic high contrast landscapes when under a blue sky. Wide vistas, closer landscape elements, or really close-up details (such as of snow or ice gripping vegetation) all make for stunning subjects in this kind of environment. Shortly before sunset (or shortly after sunrise), snow will usually reflect the sun’s pink glow magnificently, creating some wonderfully delicate colours.

Great photography during the winter

Putting it all together

With so many photographic opportunities available during the winter months, opportunities that don’t exist at any other time of year, there’s really no excuse for not keeping on shooting throughout this season. Pick your subject matter(s) and get cracking!

Just keep an eye on the weather forecast, and prepare to head on out whenever the right weather seems to be heading your way. Just wrap up warm and waterproof and enjoy the outdoors at a time of year when too few people get outside often enough.

A word of caution

Although I’m really enthusiastic to get everyone doing some great photography during the winter months, I do need to sound a few words of caution. Not surprisingly, with storms, rain, frost, ice and snow all prevalent at this time of year, some care and preparation are needed. And not just simply to keep warm and dry.

Plan carefully, drive carefully, and in really bad weather don’t push yourself further than you feel comfortable. Think ahead of all the things that could go wrong and prepare accordingly.

The top of a high cliff is no place to be at the height of an Atlantic storm, for example. You would probably find it hard to do much photography anyway. It’s better to wait until the main storm front has passed, winds have eased slightly and the light has improved. You’ll still get hugely impressive storm photos and with a lot less risk to yourself.

If venturing out in snow and/or ice make sure you’re prepared: take food and drink, extra warm and dry layers, a shovel, sheets of a material that can be pushed under slipping tyres to give them grip, and even a tow rope, just in case.

And of course, as always, make sure someone else knows where you’re going, and also ensure that you have a phone with a fully charged battery.

Once you’re equipped and prepared you’re well protected. Get out there and enjoy the winter photography!

Great photography during the winter

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