Porthcurno Winter Rollers
...the magnificent expanse
Set deep amongst the storm-beaten cliffs at the tip of the Penwith peninsular lies the hidden Cornish gem of Porthcurno. Facing out into the wild Atlantic, it's an impossibly beautiful cove that draws me back time and again. I first discovered it back in 1980 on a surfing holiday. I was immediately struck by the clear, crystalline water, incredible rock formations and coarse golden sand, made from crushed shell, that add engaging colour and textures to an image. Back in 2011, I won the coveted 'Cornish Point Of View' photography award with an image (shown above) taken here. This opened-up my Seascape horizons and set me on the path I am on today.
Therefore I have a deep affinity for Porthcurno. I love shooting here and it regularly features in my Cornish Seascape Workshop itineraries. Because there's nothing better than arriving on the tideline in the inky, pre-dawn darkness and watching a client's expression as the light builds and the magnificent expanse opens up before them.
Weather, Waves & Winds
Besides the outstanding vista, turquoise sea, shining sand and regular big, clean break, the light is dependably good, and very often great! Therefore Porthcurno rarely disappoints. So at the beginning of January this year, once the seemingly endless Christmas break was over and I was back at work with my cameras, a visit was high on my list.
Yet the weather wasn't playing ball. I had been monitoring my apps for days, but apart from strong winds everything was looking dull, wet and dreary. I did spot a brief predicted clearing in the first week of January, and managed a colourful evening shoot over on the cliffs at Penhale. But at this time of year, I really want to shoot wild winter storms and dramatic atmospherics. Therefore when, against all predictions, on the dawn of Thursday 6th January I looked out my bedroom windows to see the eastern horizon ablaze with glorious amber hues, I rued the fact I had missed such an opportunity and decided to ignore the rain-filled forecasts and go for it!
Next day, in the face of an incessant wintry deluge of rain and sleet, I put my long lens set-up - Canon EOS 1DX MKIII & EF 100 - 400mm lens with a 1.4 x Adaptor - into a rain sleeve, then grabbed my chest waders and Dry Robe and headed off to Porthcurno.
I had checked the 'Windy' App and big waves were predicted to reach their zenith (around 16ft) as low tide approached at 14.30. Plus the onshore wind that was hammering straight into the North Coast and flattening the rollers, would be an offshore blast slamming smack into the face of the break over at Porthcurno. This would give a clean break and I envisaged the massive wave crests being torn away in wonderful curling tendrils of spindrift. So all the way down the A30, with the windscreen wipers slapping away the driving rain, I was keeping my fingers crossed.
When I pulled into a Penzance filling station, while the rain was still torrential, I could have sworn the sky was trying to brighten. A short while later, as I navigated the twisting lanes through Buryan, there was a brief cessation and I could see the low cloud was definitely breaking and lifting. Then as the final miles slipped past, so the skies cleared to scudding cloud cover that allowed bright sunshine to cast across the wild, western landscape. It was all looking good!
"Are the waves big?"
After parking up, I got into my waders and dry robe, grabbed my wet bag and tripod and hurried off down the winding track leading to the beach. You can normally hear the thunder of really big waves echoing up the valley long before you catch a glimpse of the sea. Yet as I pressed on, I couldn't make out anything above the the raging wind that was buffeting my back. Perhaps it was blowing the sound away?.. I hoped... I implored!
Then a dog walker coming the other way, saw my camera gear and cheerily announced "It's lovely down there!"...
My hopes surged... "Are the waves big?" I asked.
"HUGE!" he exclaimed.
Oh Happy Days!
...the perfect break
As I crested the brow of the path, the bay opened-up below me. And what a sight it was that greeted me! Under brilliant sunshine a huge Atlantic swell marched to shore in magnificent, towering ranks. The air was ice cold and clear, and laced with the familiar iodine tang of coastal lichen. I descended the rough steps and rushed down to the shoreline.
The wind was, as my apps had foretold, running directly offshore to meet the huge break head on. Yet it was a raging demon. Far stronger than forecasted, it blew constantly with hammering sporadic gusts that threatened to knock me over. So when wind and wave came together, the breaks inflated into huge, billowing rolls of clean barrels leading deep into the heart of the churning maelstrom. Moreover, the sun was back-lighting the break. This made the diaphanous aqua hues glow bright in the wave tips and gloriously rich emerald greens deep down in their bellies. This awe-inspiring vista sent a thrill running through me because it was the perfect break!
...this amazing afternoon
After checking the tidal reach and knowing I was shooting an ebbing tide - important for your safety when venturing beyond the strand line - I moved forward, levelled my tripod and locked the camera into the gimbal head. This set-up lets me sweep the tideline, pan with the action, maintain a level horizon and reduces camera shake - it also provides something sturdy to hold on to when the winds gusts or a big wave flushes the beach.
Apart from the initial photograph, all the images that appear in this article were taken on this one amazing afternoon. The atmospheric conditions constantly changed from sunny, to white-out, to stormy greys. So the lighting, mood and colours transitioned accordingly and my shots changed in texture and tone.
The sea was the hero
As the afternoon drew on, so the tide dropped and the break shifted across the bay, sending monstrous rollers running into Pedn Vounder, the cove that adjoins Porthcurno at low tide. The sea was the hero, and to witness and shoot such a spectacle was a memorable event. It was a time when everything came together perfectly. When all hopes, plans and aspirations were more than matched by nature's incredible light, power and beauty. These were exactly the vitalising, challenging conditions that send my adrenaline coursing and drives my photography ever onwards.
In my images I have tried to capture the wild elemental energy, the raw power and the breathtaking, beautiful majesty I witnessed. I really hope you enjoy them...
... A bit of advice ...
Shooting waves is a photographic discipline and an art in itself. For beyond selecting Burst mode and simply 'point-and-squirting', the skill lies in gauging the changing light, sun position, wave pattern and break, then choosing the right spot to stand, selecting the optimum camera settings and then predicting and conducting the action to frame compositions that capture the emotion and action in a fleeting 'moment'.
Thereafter, to get the very best from a Raw file, Adobe Photoshop is the ultimate Fine Art processing tool to assist in subtly refining and rendering the final image to match the way you saw it in your mind's eye.
Shooting waves is amongst the disciplines my Cornish Seascape Workshops focus on. So if you'd like to learn more about coastal approach, camera settings selection, light influences, shooting angles and image processing techniques, check out my workshops section and get in touch.
Be aware that the coast is a hazardous environment! Tell someone where you are going. Before heading onto a shoreline always check the tidal state, wave conditions and weather forecast. Stay alert, ensure you always have a safe retreat and don't get cut-off. Never venture on to the freshly wetted rocks on a rising tide and remember that a large 'Rogue' wave may run in at any time.