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Seascape Photography Workshops

As part of the club auction, Mr Hastie thought it would be a great idea to offer a seascape workshop by me for sale.  This immediately made me extremely nervous, because I'm far from convinced that I am qualified or able to teach anyone anything about photography!  

 

However, the aim was primarily to raise funds for the club, and to my amazement the workshop sold twice over.  My aim therefore was to, at the very least, provide the bidders with a good day out to some beautiful places.

 

However, after completing the two workshops, I have learned a lot myself, and hope that the participants have taken something away from them too.  I thought it might be worthwhile writing this blog to run through some of what we did on the trips, as there is an awful lot to remember, and I really don't think one day out is suitable for 'learning' the techniques involved.  If members are interested in smaller outings like this in  the future, then I'm sure they can be arranged.

Rattray Head Lighthouse

 

It may also be useful too, because the weather on both the trips was utterly dreadful.  The sun shone, the warm breeze blew, and the sea was calm.  Beautiful days to be on the beach in North east Scotland - terrible terrible days to be using a camera on the beach in North East Scotland.

 

I'm glad I chose the location I did, because Rattray beach is absolutely stunning, and the lighthouse offers a focal point for all sorts of photographs.  It is also a real hotspot for wildlife, and all the participants were also excited to see some rarer birds and hundreds of seals on the day out (more on that later).  The plan was originally to visit Collieston Harbour too, and then possibly Crawton at Stonehaven on the way home, but things don't always go to plan!

Workshop 1 - with Gordon, Jock, David and Jim - this was about 8:30am on Rattray Beach, and the sun was already incredibly harsh! 

Workshop 2 - with Karen, Sally, Bita and Heather - not a cloud in the sky!!

 

The photo that sparked the idea - taken between brutal blizzards at 7:30am in December, with numb fingers and a camera caked in snow and sand.

 

So I guess this is the first 'rule' of seascape photography.  Pleasant weather does not often mean good photography conditions, and frankly getting a great image is almost 100% weather dependent, and therefore driven by luck.  The technicalities of arranging a workshop mean forward planning, and that conflicts directly with seizing the right weather conditions.  Tides are also a major consideration, and both workshops coincided with neap tides, which are rarely ideal.  

This image of the Deil's Heid at Seaton was taken on my first visit there.  I had no plans to go there, but after a dull day in winter, the clouds began to break up and offer the chance of some nice light towards sunset, so I grabbed my gear and went for a walk, not expecting much.  By pure chance the nice light coincided with a spring high tide, a really angry swell and easterly wind, and I captured this image.  I've been back half a dozen times and never experienced light of sea conditions remotely close to this again.  Pure luck - and perseverance.

 

However, workshops are perhaps more about learning the techniques than coming home with images to be proud of.  Had I not previously learned the techniques, I wouldn't have been prepared to make the most of the conditions at Rattray or Seaton when the above images were taken.

 

Learning the 'basics' however can be difficult, because there are a number of steps to follow beyond normal photography, and it's very important not to miss parts out. One thing I learned on the workshops too is how different the approach can be with different camera models and brands.

 

Composition

 

The first thing to think about is always composition.  It's an easy trap to fall into to get into the technical stuff before finding a strong composition - but the best advice is to really settle on a composition before getting into the technical stuff - because otherwise it's a big waste of effort!  Rattray Head offers good examples of different types of composition, which is why I chose it to visit.  At high tide, it is a fabulous place to produce minimalist images, especially when the sea is wild.  Using a long exposure to smooth waves and moving clouds out can produce a pallete of subtle colours as a backdrop to the black and white lighthouse.  At low tide the seaweed, rocks and causeway offer foreground interest and leading lines to the lighthouse.

 

It's also important to try to establish what kind of effects you want to create - do you use a long exposure to create a smooth ethereal look, do you want to some movement in the image, or do you want to freeze the action of a breaking wave?

 

Only at this stage should you start to think about the settings and use of filters etc.

 

Setup

 

If you plan to use a long exposure, then a tripod is essential.  For seascapes, the sturdier the better - as good conditions for photography tend to include at least a stiff breeze.  Even on the workshop days, the wind made it tricky to remove camera shake.  This is especially true when using square filters, as they are terrific at catching the wind and moving the camera a fraction.  The aim is always to ensure the main subject of the image is pin sharp, and this requires the camera not to move at all.  There is a compromise to tripods - the sturdiest tend to be heavy and awkward to carry around.  If it is really windy though, try to keep the tripod as low to the ground as possible, spread the legs of it as far as possible, and if the tripod has a centre column that can be raised, try not to use it unless absolutely necessary - this is always the least stable part of the tripod.

 

Another good tip is to remove your camera strap, or at least secure it to the camera or tripod to stop it flapping around in the wind.  Even this much movement can ruin a good photograph by causing vibration in the camera.

 

Basic camera settings will vary from camera to camera, but here are some general ideas: - 

 

  • For shorter exposures (less than 30 seconds typically) - use Aperture Priority mode;

  • For longer exposures switch to Bulb mode;

  • Turn off image stabilisation on your lens;

  • Use the lowest ISO you can - typically 100;

  • Try to set your aperture to where the lens is at it's sharpest - typically around f9 or f11;

  • connect a shutter release cable, or if you don't have one use a 2 second timer on your shutter;

  • Ideally use live view on your camera, although in very bright conditions this is not always possible.  This is also tricky on Nikon cameras where the screen becomes unusable with filters on.  Canon cameras use exposure simulation on the screen which is incredibly useful!

  • Use auto focus if you wish, but it's often beneficial to use manual focus, and zoom into your subject in live view to ensure it is exactly as you wish;

  • For a long exposure - once you have focused, switch into manual focus mode to ensure the camera doesn't try to refocus once you have put filters on.

Using the above steps will result in a stable setup, and a nice sharp image.  However, your shutter speed will be dictated by the light available.  Using this approach requires the use of filters to control the shutter speed and achieve the image you have in mind.

 

Filters

 

Do we really need filters?  For seascapes with drama, in my opinion the answer is yes.  There are other ways around it - taking multiple photos and combining in post production etc, but nothing beats creating artistic images in the field for me.

 

Rather than me typing for pages, I highly recommend this video by Thomas Heaton, where he explains the use of filters and why he uses them: - 

 

I would agree with everything Thomas says in this video - and for anyone looking to invest in filters, the priority list is exactly as he describes it.

 

1 - Circular Polariser - the effects of this filter CANNOT be replicated in photoshop.  The circular polariser works by filtering out reflected light.  Where harsh light is reflected off glass, water or wet surfaces, these can be very bright in images.  Reflections all around us via atmospheric pollution also flatten our images and wash out colours and contrast. 

 

The use of the quarter-wave plate creates circularly polarised light, which allows your digital camera to still work effectively, whereas using only a linear polariser would cut out the reflected light but render your camera's metering ineffective.  It's all very clever stuff!

 

The examples of the effects of using a circular polariser in Thomas's video above are excellent examples of why you should really have one of these in your camera bag.

 

BUT....

 

Don't forget to rotate your filter to have the desired effect.  The first step in the photography process once setting up your composition is to rotate the polariser to the right position.  If you decide to switch from a landscape to a portrait composition - don't forget to reset your polariser, as it will have moved 90 degrees.

 

2 - Neutral Density Filter - the neutral density filter is much simpler - it reduces the amount of light that enters the camera.  This lets you control your shutter speed without compromising the ideal camera settings explained above.

 

These filters come in a range of strengths, typically 4 stops, 6 stops, 10 stops and 15 stops.  The 10 stop filter is the most common one - often called a 'big stopper'.  As the name suggests, it blocks 10 stops of light from reaching the sensor.

 

Lee Filters offer a great free smartphone app that helps you calculate your exposure times when using filters.  You will find with practice you can usually gauge this yourself, and trial and error is generally the best way to learn, but this can be very helpful to start with.

 

For example, if you have set up the camera as described above, ISO 100, aperture at f11, on aperture priority mode, your camera may be telling you that the correct exposure requires a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second.  If you add a 10 stop filter, this will change your shutter speed to 30 seconds, by blocking 10 stops of light from entering the camera.  30 seconds will smooth the movement of all water to an artistic blur.

 

However, if you added a 6 stop filter in the same situation, your shutter speed would be 2 seconds.  This would blur the movement of the water, but retain some detail, creating a more dramatic image.

Above is an example of an image of the steps at Montrose Beach taken using a 2 second exposure.

 

The 10 stop filter is something of a 'one trick pony' - it creates ethereal seascapes with milky smooth water, but I have found I use the 6 stop filter far more, as it allows you to create drama.

 

Unfortunately, on both the workshop days, it was so bright and harsh that it rendered the use of s 6 stop filter rather pointless - in very bright conditions a 1/250th of a second would be reduced to 1/4 second using a 6 stop filter - and that sort of shutter speed will generally result in an image with just enough movement in the water to make it look messy.

 

Ultimately though, if you have a 10 stop filter in your kit - I'd recommend to anyone to try a 6 stop filter next, because the creative opportunities it brings are fantastic.

 

3 - Graduated ND Filters - The final, and almost certainly least important filters, are graduated ND filters.  These are dark on one half and transparent on the other side, and can be positioned to reduce the amount of light entering the camera from part of the scene.  With seascapes, almost always the sky is brighter than the foreground, so the use of a graduated ND filter can balance out the image, and ensure that your sky is not too bright, and the foreground not too dark.  These come in different strengths, again measured in stops, and hardness of graduation, from soft to hard - you might find that a 2 stop medium graduated ND filter will do in the majority of situations though.

 

The graduated ND filter is perhaps more of a luxury item, but they can be useful nevertheless, and seascapes are perhaps the most useful scenario for them.

 

Colour Casts and Brand

 

Almost all filters have a colour cast.  Many manufacturers will claim otherwise, but I don't think any really achieve it.  The cost of filters vary dramatically, from a few pounds to many hundreds of pounds for a single filter.  The cheapest ones tend to have stronger colour casts, typically blue, magenta or green.  The popular (and expensive) Lee filters have a blue cast as well.

 

A blue tinted image is, however, easiest to correct in post production.  Usually a simple slide of the temperature slider to the right in your software will correct the image.  Cheaper filters are more likely to have a magenta colour cast, which is unfortunately much more difficult to correct in post production (not impossible, but relatively complicated - and the whole point of using filters in the first place is to reduce the amount of computer work required to create an image).

 

Circular Polariser filters and Neutral Density filters are readily available as screw in round filters to fit a variety of lens sizes.  If you have more than one lens size, buy filters for the largest one and then use adaptor rights to fit them on your other lenses - an adaptor ring cost a couple of quid off ebay or amazon, rather than the cost of a whole new filter!

 

Graduated ND filters are generally rectangular, and you need a filter holder kit to use them.  These kits allow the use of multiple filters together for the desired effect.

 

Those that attended the workshops had a shot of my Lee filters, although there are many other brands out there that do a similar job.  For those wanting to dabble in the process, perhaps look at Cokin filters as a more affordable version - particularly if you are using a cropped sensor camera or a micro four-thirds system.

 

Lee filters are expensive, but alternatives such as Formatt-Hitech, Kase and Nisi are comparably priced - maybe they are all ripping us off though! 

 

Filters Setup

 

Having set up the composition and camera earlier on - lets say ISO100, f11, focused on the main subject (a rock in this case), securely attached to a tripod - it's worth watching the movement of the waves for a bit to establish what is likely to happen when you are taking the picture.  In this instance, the waves were washing around this angular rock, but occasionally a larger wave would crash right over it.  I figured that an exposure of somewhere between 30 seconds and one minute would turn these waves to a smokey looking swirl around the rock, and create a dramatic image.  It was at sunrise, so light levels were quite low, so I was able to achieve a 44 second exposure by using a 6 stop filter.  I set the polariser to ensure the sunlight reflected from the rock would be cut out, and I used a 3 stop hard edge Graduated ND filter to reduce the exposure of the sky - which was much brighter than the rock.  I have placed the horizon 2/3rds of the way up the image - it is normally advisable to avoid having the horizon in the very centre of the image, as this often seems to create a less pleasing image (but no rule of composition is definitive!)

 

I then took several images, varying the exposure time until I was happy with it.  It's good to take a few images, as the waves are random, and two identical exposures can result in very different images.

Even a seemingly simple rock on the shoreline can result in an interesting image by using these techniques.  I chose to desaturate this image to give it a gloomy feel, but that is purely down to taste.  Judges generally hate this I have found - but I don't generally care what judges think!

 

A note here - this was a 44 second exposure using a 6 stop filter, as it was a low light situation anyway.  Had I only had a 10 stop filter, I would have had to employ an 11 minute exposure to get the same outcome, and the effect on the water would have been lost completely to a flat surface.  Exposing an image for 11 minutes would also cause the sensor to heat up significantly and create digital noise and probably burnt out pixels.  Again I would urge anyone with a 10 stop filter to try a 6 stop one as well - it's my favourite filter in the bag for being creative with!

 

The Workshop days

 

As mentioned above, the weather on the workshops was not conducive to quality seascape photography.  Sunrise, sunset, stormy weather and even pouring rain can produce dramatic images, but bright sunshine tends to be a failure.  

 

However, I hope the participants took something from the days, and I hope this blog post will prove to be a valuable place to look for a reminder about the techniques described.  

 

On the first trip, we popped into Collieston Harbour, another great location, but the light was so harsh it was nigh on impossible to get a good image.  With the weather even brighter on the second trip, we avoided Collieston altogether.

 

However, when out and about, if the light isn't suitable for one kind of photography, it pays to be flexible, and on both trips we elected to go to the Ythan Estuary to see the seals instead.  I think both groups enjoyed this - it's always a wonderful experience to see thousands of eider ducks, seals and terns at such close range.

A seal giving us a cheeky wave across the estuary.

 

Rattray Head itself is also a marvellous place to see wildlife.  One of the first places for migrant birds to make landfall, the beach, dunes, farmland and nearby Loch of Strathbeg offer some of the best opportunities to see rare birds in Scotland.  I hope all the workshop participants weren't too annoyed with my constant excitement at passing birds.  

 

The second workshop was particularly good in this respect, with dozens of swallows swooping over the beach throughout.  There are few better markers for the arrival of spring!

 

Additional Idea - Focus Stacking

 

One step further with seascape photography is focus stacking.  Composition at the seaside very often involves finding a foreground interest that is close to you, to lead into a focal point much further away in the image.  Sometimes it is impossible to get both in focus in one image, so you can employ focus stacking - taking two or more images focused in different places, and then combining them later in photoshop.

This image for example is made from three images - focused immediately in the foreground, around a third of the way into the image, and then on the figures in the background.  Blending these together in photoshop allows the whole image to be in sharp focus.

 

We covered this briefly at a club night, and there are a number of tutorials on youtube that explain the process, but if you find you are in a situation where you cannot achieve focus from the front to the back of the image - try taking more than one photo, focused in different places, and combining them later.

 

Finally

 

I'd like to thank the eight participants on the trips - both days were great fun, and it's great to get to know some of the club members a little bit better.  I know a lot more about John Deere tractors and Dutch cheese than I did before!!  I really hope everyone enjoyed the days out, and overall it helped to raise £155 for the club, so on many counts it was a worthwhile experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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