I find myself on one of the many beaches in Northern Michigan almost every night. I try to capture something completely new each time, even if I have been to that same beach several times before. Light is never the same. This fact alone drives us outdoor photographers to go to our favourite locations over and over again. Waiting for something spectacular to inspire us, to improve on a past composition, isolate a past subject in a new way, or create a new composition out of something we might have once overlooked.
Northern Michigan is truly a place surrounded by beautiful beaches. Christmas Cove, Peterson Park, Van's Beach, South Manitou Island and Cathead Bay to name a few. One of my favorites for sunsets is Christmas Cove, which is just outside Northport, Michigan. It’s a public beach that often has three families or less occupying its shore. This means it is never overcrowded, which is a perk. However, the real reason I come here so often is for several larger rocks just off the coast that vary in size and shape. These rocks provide for very interesting, yet minimalistic, elements to include at any conceivable angle.
The rocks sit just above the waterline, half submerged and half exposed, often wet on top, reflecting glimmering light coming in from the sunset. With light that is new every single evening, the possibility of a new concept and composition is ever changing. I never get tired of it.
Christmas Cove is one of several beaches near to home for me, giving me several options. Peterson Park, which is literally only two miles away from Christmas Cove, has a completely different atmosphere. Instead of sweeping sandy beaches and blowing dune grass, Peterson Park beach is entirely made up of small to medium sized rocks, seriously, just rocks. The rocks here can make for a very different beach scene.
Technique to Photograph the beaches of Northern Michigan
Beach scenes are incredibly beautiful, but often feature too many elements to include. By working with neutral density (ND) filters I am able to take long exposures, or a bracketed series. This makes for a powerful tool worth considering to help simplify the scene. I most often use a three or six stop ND filter, or both in conjunction to produce a desired combination of shutter speed and F-stop. Long exposures are well known for cleaning up a chosen composition by reducing or eliminating the visible movement in the water. Human eyes love movement and look for traces of it, this typically distracts us and takes our eyes out of the photograph. By eliminating the movement in the water I am directing the viewer’s attention to the elements that are most important to the composition.
Another difficult issue often arises during sunrise/sunset exposures. During the moment where the sun is above or close to the horizon, there is a massive amount of dynamic range (difference in light between highlights and shadows) between the foreground (water, rocks, etc...) and the background (sun, clouds, etc...). This problem can be solved in several ways in today's age of technology. I am going to focus on two methods that I use most often. The first being the use of graduated neutral density (GND) filters.
The GND was introduced to help balance the dynamic range of a scene. The standard GND filter comes in either one (.3), two (.6) or three (.9) stops worth of density on the top half of the filter, the bottom half is transparent (four and five stop versions are also available). The filters start with the least amount of density in the middle and graduate to more density towards the top. These filters come in a soft and hard edge type. This describes the way the density starts graduating in the middle of the filter. Soft edge has a soft transition (useful for mountains), hard edge has a defined line where the density starts (useful for flat horizons). Another variation of the one, two or three stops of density is found in the Reverse GND filter. This filter is obviously the reverse of the original. The density is strongest in the middle and becomes less dense towards the top.
The Reverse GND might be my favourite filters for beach sunrise/sunset photography. These filters work well to help solve the problem of high dynamic range, especially when including the sun in a photograph. I most often use a three (.9) stop reverse GND for including the sun. When the sun (brightest area) is close to the horizon, it falls in line with the area of most density to balance the exposure. Be careful of the edge of the filter, it is quite dark in the middle. If the filter is not perfectly lined up with the horizon it is always noticeable and can completely ruin an image.
A great way to 'see' where the density starts is to 'stop' down your lens with your camera’s F-stop preview button (set anywhere from F8-F16). This darkens the viewfinder and makes it easier to see where the density starts on the filter. This can be very difficult when working with Neutral density filters. I often work with ND filters in conjunction with a GND filter for long exposures when working with water. The best way to help see the GND filters central density through the ND filter is to view the scene in “live view”, if you camera offers one. The scene can be viewed much more brightly than looking through the viewfinder.
The second method of controlling a scene with high dynamic range is by utilizing a technique that is named just that, HDR (High Dynamic Range). This process involves taking two or more, usually three, photographs at different exposures. Most often at +2EV, 0EV and -2EV, but I follow the rules of the zone system and bracket my series of exposures depending on the dominant hue of the scene, let's say +1EV, -1EV and -3EV to expose properly for red fall leaves as an example.
If the scene being photographed still doesn't feel 'right' after trying both techniques then try combining the two techniques together. One is able to capture an astounding level of information to work with as long as it is properly done. After a great deal of practice and dedication, you will be able to capture the wonder of any scene. When the immense beauty of the natural world meets with the photographer’s artistic talent, conceptual thought and technical ability, it can result in a truly awe-inspiring work of art.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 9 of Landscape Photography Magazine.