long exposure

St Margaret's Bay by Ian Clark

Winter sunrise down in the Bay

Winter sunrise down in the Bay

Last weekend I took a trip down to St Margaret’s Bay, just outside Dover. It’s a place that I’ve long had some sort of connection with. Of course it’s nextdoor to the town I grew up in, but I also have happy memories of spending time there in my twenties (ok, more in the way of hazy pub memories than scenics, but still…). It’s a place I keep finding myself going back to, taking in the views and enjoying the sea air.

There’s only a short promenade running along the Bay with either side cut off at high tide (checking tide times is essential if you are planning a visit). But it doesn’t really matter. With views of the White Cliffs either side of the Bay and the vast expanse of the Channel in front of you, the scenary is pretty spectacular. And when the light is right, it really is on another level altogether.

At this time of year, the sunrises are stunning when the clouds allow it (and fortunately, the car park behind the Bay is free in the winter!). The photo at the top of this post was taken just after sunrise on a cold January morning. The conditions were spot on. The tide was coming in, there was interest in the sky, and the light on the cliffs themselves was perfect and ever-changing - from pink to yellow to white.

With the waves crashing down ever nearer, and growing louder with each crash onto the shore, I set up my tripod and went for a long exposure shot with my 10 step ND filter (a Christmas gift). I was pretty pleased with the results. Needless to say, with the busiest shipping lane in the world in the scene, it was difficult to avoid getting blurry shapes on the horizon as the various ferries and cargo ships slid from left to right, or from right to left. But the timing was just right and I managed to get a good clean shot. Even looking at it now, I can feel the cold wind brushing my face and the sound of the waves getting more frantic, more aggressive.

A few more shots later, and I packed my things, munched on a flapjack and made my way back up the narrow, windy road away from the Bay and back into the village, through the streets that I hazily recall stumbling through in my youth, before heading back up the A2 to Canterbury. My trips to St Margaret’s may not be as frequent as I would like, but unlike the hazy memories of my youth, they are certainly memorable.

How I take seascape photos by Ian Clark

Sunny Sands in Folkestone, Kent.

Sunny Sands in Folkestone, Kent.

One of the benefits living in my part of the country (and god knows there are a lot of negatives…) is that I have got easy access to the coast. From my house it’s relatively easy to head to coastland to the north, the east and the south, giving me plenty of options for some seascape photography. Given we are not blessed with many spectacular land features, the coast provides a wealth of options for interesting photography. Given the coastline is ever changing, subject to the flows of nature, it also has the benefit of never being dull. No matter how many times you go to the same location, the seasons and the currents always seem to offer up something new.

Having spent this morning on the east Kent coast (in Folkestone), I thought maybe the first blog as part of my renewed commitment to blogging, should be something on how I do seascape photos. What follows shouldn’t be considered the advice of an expert, just a rundown of the things I do. If you have any tips, please chuck them in the comments at the end! Right, let’s go…

Tide Times - This is crucial. Checking tides is fundamental to your safety and cannot be underestimated. As I can’t swim, this is doubly important for me. I don’t want to find myself stranded due to the tides. When planning a trip to the coast I always ensure I do a quick check on tidetimes.org.uk. It’s a pretty basic website, but at a glance you can see the tides for up to seven days, which is all I need really.

Scouting The Scene - By and large it takes me several trips to get shots I am happy with. On my initial trip I like to get an idea of what the scene would look like at high and low tides. I then plan future trips according to what I think will work. Sometimes a low tide will give me the best composition, sometimes a high tide. Scouting the area is crucial to determining what will work.

Items Of Interest - I always try to look for foreground and background interest in a seascape to try to ensure the image holds the viewer’s gaze. It could be a pier or some distance building for the background, ideally finding some curve in the coastline to lead the eye. For the foreground it could be rocks or sea defences. I think seascapes work well if there are a couple of items of interest in the image leading the eye around the scene.

Sunsets And Sunrises - I use PhotoPills to check sunsets and sunrises and see how they will suit the compositions I’ve identified. In Kent, some locations are great at sunrise (Dover, Folkestone for example) and some are great for both (Herne Bay, Reculver and Whitstable spring to mind). Given the geography of Kent, I’m not sure there is somewhere great for sunsets only in the county and not sunrises, but I may be missing something. Also, I try to match the tides with the sunrise/sunset. For example, sometimes a low-tide at sunrise can help with a composition to the east with an item of interest on the horizon (see the photo of Reculver below for example).

Sunrise in Reculver at low tide. Only at low tide is it possible to get a clear shot of the towers looking east.

Sunrise in Reculver at low tide. Only at low tide is it possible to get a clear shot of the towers looking east.

Going Long But Not Too Long - Long exposures are always an obvious thing to go for when water comes into the composition, but I find it works best not to go too long. The photo at the top of this post, for example, was shot at 0.6 or 1/6. For me this seems to work best in capturing the sea without smoothing it out too much that it loses that sense of motion and interaction between land and sea.

Timing The Shot - I really like to capture the moment when the wave loses momentum and starts to retreat back out to sea. That movement really captures the shape of items on the beach and, for me, makes an image really work (especially with an interesting foreground subject). I tend to fire the shutter at this precise moment and I find the lines of the water as it recedes really helps add interest to the image.

Tripod Maintenance - Ok, not really related to composition etc, but I always make sure I clean my tripod after a trip to the beach. What with the salt water and sand, there’s a lot of damage that can be done. So I always make sure I wash my tripod down afterwards to get rid of any unwanted stuff doing damage to it.

What about you? Do you take seascapes? What are your top tips? I’d love to hear them in the comments!

Reflecting on 2017 by Ian Clark

As we come to the end of 2017, I thought now would be a good time to reflect on my photography and how it’s developed (hah!) over the course of the year. I feel that this year I have really pushed on and I felt it would be worth my while just contemplating what I feel I have achieved and what I feel I still need to focus on.

I guess one of the key developments for me this year has been the move away from Auto and towards full manual. For a long time I have relied on the auto function, and relied on my composition to deliver good photos. I guess therein has been the problem, good composition in auto mode has delivered good photos, but not very good (or dare I say, “great”) photos.

Taking a free online course (via Shaw Academy) at the start of the year made a big difference. I got to start thinking about apertures and shutter speeds and how playing around with these can help with the composition of the photos. Since doing the course I’ve felt more confident in using my camera and particularly experimenting with new techniques.

Some of the things that I’ve been trying out over the course of the year since completing the course:

  • Polarising filters: Using a polarising filter to deepen the colours in the sky and to diminish reflections in windows and in water.
  • Long exposures: Using a tripod to take some long exposure photos at night.
  • Sunrise and sunsets: Playing around with the white balance settings to enhance sunset/sunrise shots.
  • Neutral density filters: Learning how to use ND filters to take photos a step further, slowing down the shutter speeds, particularly during the day. First using a 6 stop filter to familiarise myself with how to use them, before going for a 10 stop to really slow down the shot.
  • Intentional Camera Movement: Either handheld or using the tripod to create more abstract, artistic images. I’ve particularly used trees as the subject matter in this area because they produce interesting shapes and patterns when you move the camera during the exposure. However, have also experiments with this technique on simpler scenes, for example seascapes.
  • Photo trips: I’ve tried to get into the habit of going out on my own with my camera so that I can focus on the scenery and the techniques I want to use without distraction. As a result, (and given I have a family to think about!) I’ve done a fair few early morning trips where I’ve got out of bed at 5:30am just so I can take some photos. I never thought I’d be doing that!
  • Taking it slow: I’ve tried to use each trip out to focus on particular elements of my photography. Rather than trying to do everything on each trip, I focus on a particular thing I want to improve and concentrate on that. I feel this has really helped my development enormously.

As well as developing my skills I’ve also had some quite positive results from sharing my photos online.

  • Photos selected on Instagram: I’ve now had two photos selected by the Kent Instagram account as their “photo of the day”. One of these photos went into the final six to be judged for that month’s entry in an upcoming Kent Instagram calendar. It didn’t win, but I was very pleased it made it that far.
  • Journal cover: I’ve had a request for one of my photos to be used on the cover of a journal. It’s not exactly one of my best images, being one of a poster outside the V&A, but nonetheless I was pleased to receive the request.
  • Website: I received a request from one major tourist attraction in Kent to use one of my photos on their website. It’s now going to be used in an article they are putting together for local tourism.
  • UN Women UKSome photos I took of the London Eye were used by the UK’s arm of UN Women to promote their #drawaline campaign against violence towards women. The photos were used on their Instagram, Twitter and Facebook Pages. I was particularly pleased to have my images associated with such an important campaign.

In terms of taking my photography forwards there are a few things I’d like to work on over the coming year:

  • Post-processing: At present I use VSCO a lot for photo editing. The drawback with that? It’s designed for editing photos to be shared on social media. As a result, there’s a fair amount of file compression. The images look great on social media (and as my desktop background), but I couldn’t have them printed in any large format. I have Photoshop Elements 11, but it’s a little outdated now and doesn’t offer the kind of things I would like to be doing. Consequently, when I am in a position to do so, I intend to upgrade my post-processing options and try to improve this side of my photography.
  • Hosting: Obviously at present I post a selection of my photos right here on WordPress (hi!), but I keep mulling over switching over to a hosted platform to share my images. WordPress dot com is great for getting started with a quick and easy website, but if I want something more flexible then I’ll need to look at paid options. I’m not quite sure yet what direction I will go in, but it’s definitely something I need to consider in 2018.
  • Establishing a “style”: I’m conscious of the fact I’m very much at a stage where I don’t have a style. I’ve focused very much over the course of this year on learning the ropes and getting a handle on all the things I outlined above. I think I take good pictures, but I also think I take pictures that any other good photographer would take. I’m not much of an artist, and generally I envy those with an artistic eye, but I think considering my approach and reflect on going beyond simply taking good pictures that are well composed might help me go to another level.

I feel like I have come a long way over the course of this year, but I still have much more to learn and to improve on. More than anything else though, the one thing that I’ve really noticed is in terms of my well being.

People I know have pointed out to me that since I started focusing (lol) on my photography I’ve seemed much calmer and happier. I certainly have felt more balanced than I had done before. I still care passionately about all the things I have always cared about, and I’m still prepared to stand up for those beliefs, but I feel like I have something else that can act as an outlet. For many years it was football that kept me on an even keel. As my commitments at home have grown, the time I have to go and play football every week has diminished. Although in terms of time photography make take up more time, I can pick and choose my times. And, on occasion, these are times when I can go out for a walk, alone, and have some time to myself. This has made such a difference, and I feel so much better for it. It’s easy to forget about your own well being when events around you take over your life, but sometimes you just need to step back and reflect on the damage being done to yourself, and to others. I certainly feel it has helped me to do so.

Let’s see where 2018 takes us…

Best wishes for the festive season, catch you in the new year.