As a child growing up on the Cornish Coast I was fortunate to spend many weekends at the local beaches, observing the waves crashing in and then being sucked back into the sea. It is a concept that fascinated me as a youngster and, now in my forties, this same fascination has been rekindled as a landscape photographer.
I bought my first serious digital camera, a Sigma SD9, back in 2004. The innovative Foveon sensor design appealed to me as the sensor is capable of capturing great detail and tonal range, utilising pixels differently to conventional Bayer cameras. I have continued to use Sigma cameras to this day and have found the latest Quattro H to be a superb camera for landscape work, yielding image quality close to medium format.
I’m purely a self-taught landscape photographer that has spent many years trying to perfect my workflow to suit my style. I feel I’m far from the finished article but, over the years, I have learnt from my many mistakes and also to slow down in my approach to taking photographs.
This is probably the single-most important reason why I feel my photography has improved in recent years and one of the key points I try to emphasise to my clients.
I often get asked ‘What is the single most important thing to remember as a landscape photographer?’ My answer would be plain and simple; preparation.
Ahead of getting up extra early in the morning for a summer sunrise, or an evening’s sunset, it is vital that you do your homework on the location in preparation for the shoot.
The obvious details are checking the weather forecast and, vitally, the tide times, so you don’t make a wasted journey and ensure the tide is going to be in a favourable position at either sunrise or sunset. This is when knowing the location well comes into its own and, if you are not too familiar with the location, it is advisable to pay a visit before a shoot.
Enjoying the moment
This is what makes it all worth it for me and the reason why I’m as excited now photographing seascapes as I was when I first started out over thirteen years ago.
Although setting the alarm clock for 3am in the summer months sounds crazy to some, there is nothing better than walking onto the beach before first light, hearing the sound of the waves and knowing that you are probably the first person to set foot on the fresh sand of a new day. The smell of the sea and the sound of the gulls overhead, all add to the experience and my focus.
Maps and Apps
Looking for new locations to photograph, or preparing for a shoot, needs planning in advance, so I always rely on a few useful tools to help me: probably the most famous mobile phone app for landscape photographers is ‘The Photographers Ephemeris’, or ‘TPE’, an extremely useful piece of software to indicate sunrise and sunset positions for any location you select.
At home I often look at Google Earth initially to help me plan locations I want to visit.
For tide times I use the ‘AnyTide’ mobile app for UK, which I have always found extremely useful as it enables you to drop a pin on any location you choose and get the tide times via a chart which is easy to read.
Arriving at a location
I always aim to arrive a good hour in advance of the golden hour to have a look around, carefully observing the best vantage point for setting up. This is a good idea as key parts of an image, such as foreground detail, can easily be missed without sweeping the area in advance of setting your gear up.
The golden hour occurs both shortly after sunrise and before sunset, when the sky can become softer and generally warmer in colour.
I always use this spare time before the golden hour begins to do various checks to my gear, such as checking the camera battery is fully charged and that my memory card is clean, inserted in the camera and ready to use. Other vital checks are to pay attention to your lenses, making sure that the front elements are clean and free of any marks and similarly observe and clean your filters if, like myself, you use them often. This may sound a relatively small detail to worry about, but after learning from my previous mistakes, I know how easy it can be to overlook these steps and end up with lens flare on images.
This is key to any image and a skill that I initially struggled to get to grips with for some time.
Just moving a camera by a very small amount can make a vast difference to an image, either improving or ruining its flow.
The majority of time I adopt the rule of thirds in respect of composition so that my subjects, albeit a focal point of interest within the landscape, fall on an intersecting line. However, this is not always the case and there are times that I personally find that the rule of thirds does not work so well.
For the majority of my work I use two Sigma lenses, which are excellent for landscape work.
The Sigma 20mm f/1.4 Art lens is my ‘go-to’ for many of my images, as I really love the focal length. Being a wide angle prime lens, it allows me to fill the frame, giving me the ability to make compositions that previously I would not have been able to achieve, with virtually no distortion.
My second Sigma lens and my ‘workhorse’, due to its superb sharpness and extreme wide angle use, is the Sigma 12-24mm f/4 Art. I enjoy using wide angle lenses as the wide perspective enables me to create compositions that would have been almost impossible for me previously.
I often shoot low to the ground, especially with wide angle, enabling me to capture a decent amount of foreground, as well as big skies and backgrounds.
Lead in lines
While I set up my gear, I am constantly looking around at details that could help make my image stronger. Lead-in lines can be a great way of drawing the viewer’s eye to the main subject within the image. These can be a number of things, such as rock formations, a river, a harbour wall or driftwood and so on. I have often found pieces of driftwood and branches washed up on beaches and laid them on the sand, to act as a way of leading your eye towards a subject. Just try to make sure that your footprints are not showing up in the composition, as this can be distracting in the final image.
Changing the Aspect Ratio
Similarly to composition, an aspect ratio can either make or break an image. Often I have produced an image in the standard 3:2 format and then, after processing the file, I have found the image has a far stronger composition in a different aspect ratio.
This is a function that many modern digital cameras have built in to them and one of the most useful functions to aid me with composition.
The Sigma Quattro H gives me the ability to select various aspect ratios such as 3:2, 4:3, 7:6, 1:1, 21:9, 16:9. Being able to change the ratio and see the result of doing this before taking the final image is extremely useful.
I have grown to love the 1:1 ratio and produce a lot of my work in the square format. This in-camera function has certainly helped me to think more about composition and improved my creativity.
Experiment with Depth of Field
The majority of time I’m looking for my images to have a large depth of field, so usually set the aperture between f/8 and f/16 and, on occasions higher than f/16, but at such small apertures diffraction can start to creep in.
There are times where it pays to be a bit creative and use a shallower depth of field to isolate a subject in a seascape. Lighthouses stand out in an image if the foreground is slightly out of focus, but ensuring the lighthouse is sharp and in focus. This can help draw your eye into the image much in the same way as lead in lines draw your eye to the subject.
Take multiple exposures
Although I use a combination of filters of different strengths, there are times when the light can be quite challenging to work with and the dynamic range can be at a camera’s limits.
These situations can be difficult to overcome at times, so I tend to set the camera to bracketing mode to enable the camera to make either three or five images at different exposures. This allows me to either select the best exposed image when I get home and process the files, or alternatively I can use Photoshop and blend images to balance skies and foreground using layers. Although I prefer not to have to work this way, there are times when extra processing can’t be avoided. The majority of time, however, this is not required as I can do everything in-camera, keeping my processing to a minimum.
I always select RAW shooting in camera while on location. This gives me much more latitude with respect of adjustment to the files when back in the digital darkroom.
Movement and timing
As I mentioned earlier, as a child I loved watching waves come in and then get sucked back into the sea and my fascination with this is still as interesting to me now. I love nothing more than waiting for that split second to press the camera shutter, as a wave finishes its forward motion onto the beach and then starts to recede back into the sea. That key moment in time is critical if you want to achieve a beautiful white ripple movement in the water.
The other element that is required to give you this look is a relatively long exposure, typically 0.3 second or longer.
I use a combination of NiSi filters ranging from neutral density filters, graduated neutral density filters and polarisers to help achieve the exposure time and look that I am after.
My two favourite filters for seascapes are a 0.6 hard neutral density graduated filter and a 1.2 soft neutral density graduated filter. Often I reverse the 1.2 soft neutral density graduated filter and use it for the bottom half of the image. I then use the 0.6 hard neutral density graduated filter for the sky, sliding the filter down the holder to align with the horizon.
If I want to produce an image with a milky looking sea, I use much stronger filters that are either a ND64 (6 stop) or ND1000 (10 stop), both of which are neutral density but not graduated.
I constantly experiment with filters to enhance my images and reduce the amount of editing required when I return home.
Obviously, it is vital that you use a sturdy tripod for any kind of long exposure photography to ensure that the camera stays perfectly still and reduce the risk of camera blur or your images lacking sharpness.
Filters can give skies real impact, bringing out wonderful definition in cloud formations and change a quite ordinary image into a strong image.
Another small but essential tool, that will aid you in timing waves and reduce the chance of camera shake, is a cable release. I use my cable release almost as often as I use filters and find it an invaluable item to carry with me.
Stick around for that special moment
Often, I choose a location and plan when to go by paying attention to the weather, but many times I have been caught out with the weather conditions not being what was forecast.
Cornwall can be especially difficult to predict, being so narrow between the north and south coast, so I always make sure that dry clothing is in the boot of my car, just in case.
It’s always worth sticking around if the weather takes a turn for the worst as, many times, it can be short lived. I have been playing the waiting game in my car with a flask of coffee on numerous occasions when the light has broken through the clouds and given a beautiful display, or a colourful rainbow has developed after a downpour.
These fleeting moments can often be stunning but only last for a short time, so it’s just a case of going for it and making it back down to the beach before that moment is lost. This sticking around also applies after sunset, when a lot of photographers pack their gear away and head off. Some of my best images have been captured in the twilight period.
Things I wouldn’t leave home without
Some of the items that I carry with me for a shoot are items that we all use from time to time, but after many years of disappointing trips due to circumstances that could have been avoided. Here is a small list of items that may come to your aid when you are photographing in the middle of nowhere.
Umbrella: one of the most useful items I carry and many times I have been able to capture images that would have been virtually impossible without it.
Plastic carrier bag: a carrier bag is always in my jacket as a way of keeping my camera dry in the event of a downpour and also for kneeling on to keep me clean.
Lint free cloths: clean cloths are probably the most important item I keep in my bag.
I have captured images that initially looked so impressive when looking on the camera LCD but, shock horror, when I arrive home and look on my large monitor I have water drops in the image, normally from the front of my filters, which I have missed when photographing. I have got into the habit of wiping over the front of my filters or lens if conditions are bad.
Wellington boots: A must-have item if you are walking in sea water. Look for rubber sole boots to aid with grip, as some rocks can be treacherous to stand on, especially if they have green algae on them.
Head torch or torch: normally I photograph until well after the sun has set, or well before the sun has risen. A torch is a vital item that not only lights the way to or from a location, but also helps you locate your kit when setting up.
Spirit level: although many cameras have built in electronic levels, I still prefer using the old-style spirit level that attaches to the camera’s hot shoe. They are cheap to buy and give an instant indication of whether the camera is level.
Swiss army knife: my small multi-function knife has saved me on a few occasions where my quick release plate on my tripod, or one of the legs, has come loose and has needed tightening.
Silica gel bags: after purchasing shoes or boots, I keep the small pouches of Silica gel and insert them in to the dividing compartments in my bag to prevent moisture fogging up my lenses.