The photography of moving water

My online talk about the photography of moving water went ahead live on 20th March 2024, and below is a recording of that talk. I hope you’ll enjoy watching it. What follows on this page is a blog that summarises much of the talk’s content, showing how to make the most of the photography of moving water.

The principal challenge in the photography of moving water is how to capture and convey the dynamism, energy, power and movement of water in a still image. All too often we take a shot of some thunderous surf or a powerful mountain river only to find the resulting image to be flat and lifeless, totally failing to put over the beauty and majesty of the scene.

How to fix this is the subject of both the above talk and this blog.

There are essentially two methods to the successful photography of moving water:

1) to freeze the movement

2) to blur the movement

So, we have two quite opposite techniques, which can produce very different results, and each one applicable to rather different situations.

I should emphasise at this point that these techniques don’t really apply to still water, such as a placid water. What I’m talking about here is solely about the photography of moving water: shoreline surf, a fast-flowing river, a tumbling waterfall, and so on.

Let’s look at the two techniques in turn and then make a comparison. We’ll start with the technique to freeze moving water.

The photography of moving water. Giant curling wave

This is actually what most people do by default when they take a quick snap of moving water. They simply point the camera at a watery landscape, compose a rather wide, general view, and fire the shutter at whatever speed the camera happens to automatically choose: usually about 1/60 or 1/125 second.

The resulting image is rarely very satisfying, lacking drama, the subject (ie the moving water) usually rather small in the frame and lacking impact. Furthermore, the moving water is rarely quite a sharp as you might think it ought to be. Shutter speeds of 1/60 or 1/125 second are rarely fast enough to truly freeze moving water in mid flow or flight, leaving some annoying blur in the image.

What the freezing technique is really good for is to capture the drama of tumbling water, droplets of spray caught mid-air, a folding wave caught just as it’s about to tumble over. But to achieve good results with this follow these techniques:

  • Come in very close to the centre of the water’s drama, using a good telephoto lens to concentrate on just one wave, one splashing area of a waterfall etc;
  • Don’t attempt to photograph any kind of wide view: this is all about coming in close on a detail;
  • Use a fast shutter speed: the water is always moving much faster than you think it is, and consequently will require a much faster shutter speed than you expect: 1/500 second is rather a minimum: for water cascading down a waterfall think more like 1/2000 second.
  • To achieve such fast shutter speeds you’ll need either a lot of light or a high ISO, the latter to increase the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor: both strong light and high ISO come with some disadvantages, as we’ll see below.

Follow these points and you’ll be a long way towards pulling off the technique to freeze the moving water. Images caught in this way really capture the sense of drama and power in the crashing, tumbling water, whether it be shoreline surf or babbling stream.

The photography of moving water. A woodland stream, water frozen in motion

But watch out for some disadvantages: as mentioned above, to get really fast shutter speeds you need either very bright light or a high ISO. The former usually means bright sunlight, but that invariably causes areas of white water in the scene to burn out, destroying detail in the affected part of the image. And in scenes containing fast moving water, there’s nearly always white foam somewhere.

In duller, flatter light the usual option is to put the ISO up, perhaps to 1000 or 2000. This solves the shutter speed issue, but can introduce graininess into the image. Although modern cameras are much better in this regard than they used to be, it is still an issue.

Finally, one problem associated with any photography using fast shutter speeds is that you inevitably end up with a wide-open lens aperture, which in turn causes a limited depth of field: that is the amount of the image sharply in focus can be quite small. This can be partially overcome by increasing the ISO, as above, but again you may then face the problem of graininess.

As so often is the case in photography, using the freezing motion technique is filled with swings and roundabouts, often necessitating compromises.

The photography of moving water. The seashore at dusk

A very versatile method in the photography of moving water is simply to blur it. Put the camera on a tripod, use a very slow shutter speed (too slow to be able to hand hold the camera), and just let all that movement blur out.

The resulting image shows the flowing water as a silken sheet (if the sea) or a silken ribbon (if a river/stream) that really conveys mood and puts over the sense of movement. The exact effect does depend on just how long the exposure is and how fast the water is moving. With exposures of, say, 20 seconds or more the water will be blurred out into a featureless and rather ethereal blur, often appearing to have a layer of mist hovering above it, the result of waves being almost completely blurred out. This can be particularly effective when photographing the sea at dawn or dusk, the resulting images being hugely moody and stunning pieces of art.

Faster shutter speeds, such as 1/4 or 1/2 second, while greatly blurred, will in general still show the water’s movement, including splashes of spray leaping upwards in a manner that I usually call ‘shards of glass’.

One point to note is that, although I’ve given some shutter speeds above, these should not be taken too literally as much depends on the speed of the water’s movement. The faster the water is moving, the faster the shutter speed can be and still end up with a given type of blur.

The beauty of this technique is that you are not tied to homing in on details: it works with both those details and wider views. Furthermore, because a long exposure/slow shutter speed is being used you’ll inevitably use narrow lens apertures, resulting in a big depth of field: the entire image will be sharply in focus.

The photography of moving water. Dawn over the coast

Inevitably, there is a limit to how slow a shutter speed can be used in any given type of lighting situation. Once you’ve reached the point where the lens is closed all the way down to its narrowest aperture any further slowing of the shutter speed will simply result in over-exposed images.

This problem is rarely encountered when shooting during really low light levels, such as at dawn or dusk, or even during the daytime when the sky is heavily overcast. However, it does become a major problem in the middle of a sunny day. In such conditions your lens aperture will be shut right down long before you get to a shutter speed that is anywhere near slow enough.

The solution? Use a neutral density filter, usually called simply an ND filter. This is a filter that greatly reduces the amount passing through the filter and on to the sensor across the whole of the image view, and – hopefully – without changing the colour balance.

They come as both circular filters that screw onto the front of your lens, and rectangular filters that slide into a filter holder, which in turn is held in place on the front of the lens by a screwed ring. Among the circular filters some can be adjusted for the amount of darkness, which can be quite handy. Rectangular filters come into their own when you want to use them jointly with neutral density graduated filters (ND-grads), which selectively darken just a brighter part of the scene, usually the sky.

Some filters can be really quite dark, and when using these it is often necessary to line up the image composition before then carefully sliding or screwing the filter into place. In such circumstances, the in-camera light meter will still work, though I do find that it will often cause the final image to be under-exposed. It may be necessary to over-expose by up to two stops (2 EV) to get the right exposure.

As a final note here, I should point out that you’d never use these filters for the freeze motion technique. There you’re always trying to get the fastest shutter speed possible, and hence the maximum light possible. Adding an ND filter would only make matters worse!

As you can see, there are two very distinct techniques for capturing the power and flow of water in stills photography, producing very different but nevertheless highly effective results.

Reserve the freeze motion technique for when you want to home in on details in surf or a rushing river/stream, to capture droplets of spray flying through the air, for example. And reserve it most especially for when light levels are good.

The blurred motion technique can be rather more widely used, lending itself to a range of view types, both details and wide scenes, and effective in both low and high lighting levels. With the latter you may well need to use neutral density filters to reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor. As with the freeze motion technique, the blur technique will struggle with bright sunlight, when areas of white water a likely to burn out and lose detail.

In all photo techniques, compromises sometimes need to be made, but armed with these two skills you should now be able to get out there and get to grips with some fantastic photography of moving water.

My next online talk will be on Wednesday 19th June at 8pm BST, and will be entitled ‘Is Summer Photography a Waste of Time?’. Click on the link below for more details and to sign up to receive the link.

An Icelandic waterfall.

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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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