Tag Archives: South Carolina

Going Coastal

As a landscape and nature photographer, there are few experiences that compare to walking out on the beach in the dawn’s faint light, examining the sky, the clouds, the mood of the surf, and anticipating what the next hour might bring.

What is it, exactly, that unceasingly beckons the photographer back to the edge of terra firma time after time? Is it some visceral, primal urge to “go back from whence we came,” as John F. Kennedy once speculated about the kinship of human beings and the sea? Or is the seemingly boundless ocean a visual metaphor for the infinite photo possibilities offered the photographer? How about the local seaside tiki bar that serves up a kaleidoscopic array of boat drinks with miniature umbrellas during the idle light of midday?

Whatever the reason or excuse, coastal landscapes are a favorite subject for many nature photographers, including myself. So with spring soon turning to summer and the unofficial start of beach season, here are a few tips for better coastal landscape photography in any season.

Find a Point of Interest

Beaches are often nondescript, featureless expanses of sand and endless water without any apparent focal point. With no obvious visual fixture, the scene might leave a photographer confused and viewer of the image bored. Locating a conspicuous geological feature, rock, tree, tidal creek, piece of driftwood, or serendipitous conch shell in the foreground can provide a visual anchor that makes for a more compelling image.

Small iceberg on teh black sand beach at Jökulsárlón, Iceland

Experiment with Shutter Speeds

The ocean is a dynamic body of water, heaving and churning with the ebb and flow of each and every wave. Photography is an interpretative art form, so the shutter speed you choose will greatly vary both the look and feel of the scene to potential viewers.

For example, a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second or faster can freeze the water’s motion, projecting a feeling of power or urgency. Any shutter speed of one second or slower can tame even the most furious ocean swells and ascribe a certain grace or fragility to the sea. A range of 1/20 to ½ of a second with an advancing or receding wave or foam is a good compromise, giving water the illusion of motion yet retaining important detail as well.

The focal length, physical distance, and water’s velocity will all vary the visual effect of the wave’s movement for each shutter speed, so the examples cited above are merely rough guidelines. I think it’s important to experiment with a variety of speeds before ultimately deciding on what you prefer for each situation.

Sunset at Hunters Beach Cove, Acadia National Park, Maine USA

Look For Reflections

As mentioned earlier, beaches can seem featureless with little “working material” to assist in assembling a composition. Reflections in wet sand and tidal pools, however, can add some interest and depth to an otherwise ordinary scene.

Tidal pools and puddles can reflect the sky or clouds like a mirror if there’s little or no wind and the thin film of water left on the sand by a receding wave produces reflections that are impressionistic and expressive.

Look for Patterns and Textures

Wind and water can conceive captivating dunes, mini dunes, ripples, ridges, and basins in the sand. These features can be used as a component of a larger, expansive scene or they can become the primary subject themselves. Look for conditions created by low-angled, directional lighting where the verge of light and shadow add yet more compositional elements with which to work.

These conditions can be difficult to visualize under flat or direct midday light. But as the angle of the sun becomes more oblique, textures, patterns, and lines will soon reveal themselves. Work quickly, as the light and shadows will be fleeting.

Tree stump reflected in tidal pool at sunrise, Hunting Island, South Carolina

 Arrive Early – Stay Late

This advice should be mandatory for any landscape photographer – coastal or otherwise. But does the world really need yet another photograph of the sun setting or rising over the ocean? My short answer would be, “Sure, why not?”

I prefer to bracket and blend exposures in post-processing for sunrise or sunset scenes that need usable detail in both the sky and foreground, but the level, unobstructed horizons are ideal graduated neutral density filters as well.

But if beauty for beauty’s sake is too banal for your tastes, you still have the twilight wedge, dawn or dusk’s glow, and low-angled, warm sunlight during the golden hours to compliment the landscape. Snobbery is no excuse for sleeping in.

Protect Your Gear

The best advice I can offer with regard to keeping your gear looking and working like new: Take someone else’s camera to the beach.

Seriously, the saltwater, sand, and wind can run roughshod on your camera gear. Even if the camera is not dropped in the drink, saltwater spray and mist from the pounding surf can do damage over time. I always wipe down my camera and lenses with a damp, freshwater towel and let dry.

Tripods can become corroded and completely inoperable if the legs are submerged in saltwater. Since I cannot resist getting into the water, I carry an old, backup tripod on my coastal excursions and go for it. It’s still a good idea to rinse off the sand and saltwater off the tripod legs when you are finished shooting to extend its life as much as possible.

Dunes with Snow Dusting, Hatteras Island, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina

Get Wet

Despite the previous point of advice, it often helps to get your feet and tripod wet in order get an interesting perspective. Wading into the water and getting a low angle to onrushing waves can provide a unique viewpoint while vicariously injecting the viewer into the scene.

Waves can move the sand and tripod during long exposures, resulting in soft images. For this reason, I push the tripod legs as deep into the sand as possible before an incoming wave arrives. This usually stabilizes the tripod and camera sufficiently.

Research Tide Information

Your favorite coastal photo locale has many different faces and characteristics, which all depend upon the height of the tide. Knowing when high and low tides occur and how they correspond to sunrise and sunset is vital to both your approach and your planning for a future photography trip.

Tidal information can be found online. For the United States, http://www.saltwatertides.com/pickpred.html is a good place to start. A quick Google search for “tidal chart” and your area will produce several results.

An excellent iPhone application is Tide Graph, which gives tidal information for hundreds of coastal locations, which can then be quickly accessed and deciphered.

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Let Go Of The Literal

One of the best pieces of advice I can give a beginning photographer to help he or she create better compositions – an aspect of photography with which they all say they struggle – is to let go of the literal and embrace the abstract. That doesn’t mean you should start making abstract images, although that’s not necessarily a bad idea either, but instead see the scene abstractly.

So instead of seeing mountains, trees, rocks, and a river, for example, you would look for shapes and lines and how they relate to each other and the surrounding image frame.

For the image above, the corresponding abstract diagram could look like the one that follows:

Notice it contains no reeds, reflection of trees, nor lily pads, but only a poorly-drawn half oval shape and some radiating lines. The literal is gone and all that’s left is the abstract. I could ask myself, “Is this an interesting design that holds my attention?” If no, I would move on. If yes, I have something to work with.

When working with students in the field, I might ask them to squint their eyes a little so the the literal is blurred out and all they can faintly see is the skeletal structure of the scene. This is good practice if you’ve never tried it. The literal just fleshes the image out.

When photographing in a beautiful place, it is too easy to be seduced by the scene’s literal beauty and overlook what really makes a strong composition. The way I see it, there is always time to sit back and appreciate the beauty of nature. In fact, I force myself to step away from the camera from time to time to just sit back and soak it all in. That’s important for many different reasons. But when it’s time to get to work, I’m looking much deeper into the scene for the abstract qualities that are going to take it beyond just a pretty picture and into the realm of true artistic interpretation. That means letting go of the literal.

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No Place Like Home

“The Tree God” Canon EOS 5D MarkIII, Canon 24-105 f4 @ 24mm, 1/40 second @ f20, ISO 320

Spending time photographing old haunts after a significant absence is a lot like catching up with an old friend. No introductions, formalities, or small talk are needed. You just pick right up where you last left off.

I’ve been spending some time in the South Carolina Lowcountry getting reacquainted with some old photographic “friends” like this one. It’s so easy to make a connection with the camera and lens, especially when the emotional connection has already been made years ago. The connection doesn’t feel forced or contrived, it just feels right.

I’ve always contended that photographers do better work with subjects and places with which they are intimately familiar. When I travel to a new location, it usually takes me days before I can do anything meaningful with the camera. The introductions and small talk I mentioned earlier are necessary in order to take the relationship to the next level. It usually involves finding your way around, scouting possible compositions, and just getting yourself oriented but it’s still deeper than that. Making an emotional connection to a place takes lots of nurturing and time – and time is often something we don’t have a lot of.

So after traveling the world photographing so many exotic locales over the past few years, I’m back home. The image making is comfortable, effortless, and deeply satisfying. The small talk has been logged years ago and the affair has been rekindled with nothing more than a suggestive glance.

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Water and Motion

Curiously, one of the most often-asked questions I receive (aside from inquiries on which camera I use, which is just plain ridiculous) is how I make the moving water in my images smooth, silky, foggy, like cotton candy, etc. It’s curious to me because of how easy it is to do. A camera, lens, tripod, polarizing filter, and some overcast light are all that’s needed to achieve a long shutter speed in order gain this effect.

I call this the illusion of motion since a still photo cannot literally illustrate movement but a long shutter speed can still express it effectively.

But merely saying you need a long shutter speed is not enough information for a beginning photographer. For example, how long is long enough?

Roaring Fork, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee. 1-second exposure @ f16

For most stream and waterfall images, I usually aim for a shutter speed in the range of 0.5 to 2.0 seconds. The example above has an exposure time of 1 second, which seems just about right for this image. I prefer the illusion of motion in my water images most of the time but I still want to retain texture and detail in the water. Under most circumstances, exposure times over 2.0 seconds renders the water as an unattractive, featureless white smear.

Yet this is not always the case. There are other factors that must be considered before deciding on a desired shutter speed.

1)   The volume of water. As a general rule, the greater the water flow, the faster the shutter speed. A heavy waterfall with a great volume of water will lose more texture and detail with a longer shutter speed than a similar waterfall with less water.

2)   The focal length of the lens. If you think about it, the water (or any moving object for that matter) must travel a much greater distance to span the image frame with a wide-angle lens than a telephoto.

3)   The subject’s distance. Again, the same principle in #2 also applies here. The farther away the stream or waterfall, the longer the water must travel to span the image frame than a closer subject.

4)   Personal taste.

Schoodic Point, Acadia National Park, Maine. 1/8 second @ f11

Schoodic Point, Acadia National Park, Maine. 1/8 second @ f11

Of the four factors listed above, personal taste – or scene interpretation – is probably most important. For example, a relatively slow shutter speed can express grace or fragility. A faster one can project raw power or even violence. In the example above, the relatively fast shutter speed of 1/8 second expresses the explosiveness of the wave as it crashes on the rocks. Had I chosen any slower shutter speed and the detail in the exploding wave would have been lost.

Hunting Island, South Carolina. 30-second exposure @ f18

In the example above, I preferred no detail in the water.  I wanted this image to reflect pure simplicity and any waves on the ocean’s surface would only be unwanted, unnecessary distractions. A 30-second exposure smoothed out the water, giving me the simple, elegant image I was hoping for.

To achieve shutter speeds of many seconds, you will need a low ISO and/or small aperture and/or low ambient light and/or filtration. As to the latter, I use neutral density filters for long exposures when the ambient light is too bright. Neutral density filters are made of darkened glass which absorbs light without imparting any color cast to the image.

For beginners, a 3-stop ND Filter is a good start. A 10-stop ND Filter will allow for much longer exposures even in bright sunlight, but it’s difficult to focus and compose the scene in the viewfinder since the filter is nearly opaque.

A third alternative is the Singh Ray Vari ND, which allows you to change the strength of the filter to fit each lighting situation.

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Visual Economy

Visual economy, or minimalism, is becoming ever more popular today in art and design. Counterposed to the cluttered, busy, and frazzled realities of modern life, many weary souls are seeking refuge in simplicity wherever it can be found. From art and fashion to the relief of our computers and automobiles, clean and simple design is winning the day and the marketplace is keeping score.

The most effective design is often the result of the least design. A Zen master might surely offer a nod to that sentiment. Or he wouldn’t –  just to have it acheive even greater effect. This is the apparent paradox that most photographers, artists, and designers come to understand in due time. More is usually less just as less is quite often more. True clarity of the subject’s character is only revealed after all non-essential elements and details, which don’t contribute to the essence of the overall composition, are eliminated.

Existential

This beach scene was created with the concept of visual economy in mind. Not only did I erect my tripod where any extraneous clutter is excluded from the image frame, but I also deliberately opted for a long shutter speed to negate any distracting waves or details in the water. Waiting for a large wave to wet the foreground sand also allowed for a symmetrical reflection.

This image is featured in my latest eBook, South Carolina Wonder and Light which can be purchased for download in my Earth and Light eStore.

Technical details:

Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina
Canon EOS 5D Mk2, Canon 24-105L @ 105mm, 30 seconds at f18, ISO 100. 6-stop Neutral ND filter.

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