Porthcurno Winter Break
...the magnificent expanse
Set deep amongst the storm-beaten cliffs at the tip of the Penwith peninsular lies the multi-faceted Cornish gem of Porthcurno. Facing directly out into the wild Atlantic, it's an impossibly beautiful cove that draws me back time and again. Back in 2011, I won the coveted 'Cornish Point Of View' photography award with the image shown above that was taken here. This opened up my Seascape horizons and set me on the path I walk today.
As such I have a deep affinity with Porthcurno. I love shooting here and it regularly features in my workshop itineraries. Because there's nothing better than arriving on the tideline in the inky pre-dawn darkness and watching a client's wide-eyed expression as the light builds and the magnificent expanse opens up before them.
Weather, Waves & Winds
Beside the outstanding vista, turquoise sea, shining sand and regular big, clean break, the light is dependably good, and very often great! Therefore, rainy or foggy days aside, Porthcurno rarely disappoints. So once the Christmas break was over, and I was back at work with my cameras, it was high on my location list.
Yet the weather pixies weren't playing ball! I had been monitoring the '3W's' - Weather, Waves and Wind - for days, but everything was dull, flat and still. When I did spot a brief predicted clearing in the first week of January, I managed a colourful evening shoot over on the cliffs at Penhale. But at this, my favourite time of year, I really want to shoot winter storms and dramatic atmospherics. Therefore when, against all predictions, the dawn of Thursday 6th January saw the eastern horizon set ablaze with glorious amber hues, I decided to ignore the rain-filled forecasts and go for it!
Next day, in the face of pouring rain and slashing sleet storms, 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, grabbed my chest waders and Dry Robe and headed off.
I had checked the 'Windy' App and big waves were predicted to reach their zenith (around 16ft) as low tide approached. Plus the wind that was hammering straight into the North Coast - and therefore flattening the rollers here - would hopefully remain constant and be slamming smack into the face of the break. This would give a clean break and see the crests of the waves being torn away in 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 and hoping the 'Knockers' (Cornish Pixies) would be on my side.
When I pulled in to a Penzance filling station, while rain was still chucking down, I could have sworn the sky was trying to brighten. A short while later, as I navigated the narrow, twisting lanes past Buryan, there was a brief cessation in the rain and the low cloud was definitely breaking. And as the last few miles slipped past, so the skies cleared to 3/10 cover, allowing bright, wintry sunshine to cast across the wild, western landscape of Penhale. It was all looking good!
"Are the waves big?"
After parking up, I jumped into my waders, threw on my dry robe, grabbed my wet bag and tripod and headed off down the winding track leading to the beach. You can normally hear the deep thunder of big waves echoing up the valley long before you catch a glimpse of the sea. Yet as I hurried along, I couldn't make out anything. Perhaps the wind 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 heart leapt... "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 hammering wind was chilled but heady with the familiar iodine tang of salt and coastal lichen. At sea level the air was laden with flying spume as the crashing waves threw themselves headlong onto rock and sand. The wind was, as my apps forecast, running directly offshore to meet the huge break head on but it was a demon. Far stronger than forecasted, when wind and wave came together, so the break was inflated in billowing rolls that created crisp, clean barrels that led they eye deep into the heart of the wave's churning maelstrom. Moreover, the sun was back-lighting the break, making the wave’s diaphanous aqua hues glow bright at the tips and gloriously rich deep down in their bellies.
This awe-inspiring vista sent a thrill running through me and I quickly descended the rough steps and rushed down to the shoreline. After checking the tidal reach and knowing I was shooting an ebbing tide - vital for safety when venturing beyond the strand line - I moved forward, levelled my tripod and slipped 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 a wave flushes the beach.
The images that appear in this article are taken on this 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 magical afternoon drew on, so the tide dropped and the break shifted across the bay, sending monstrous rollers running into Pedn Vounder. The sea was the hero, and to witness and shoot such a spectacle was a blessing and a privilege. It was a time when everything came together perfectly. When all hopes, plans and aspirations were more than matched by nature's incredible power and beauty. This was the kind of vitalising, challenging photography that sends my adrenaline coursing and drives my photography ever onwards.
In my images I tried to capture the wild elemental energy, the dynamic power and the breathtaking majesty I witnessed. Every time I look at one I am transported back to the 'moment'. With my ever-self critical eye, I will question if I have done the image true justice, and often return to the master file to refine my processing. So don't be surprised if they are updated in the coming days and weeks. But for now, I hope you enjoy these images of a truly memorable experience...
... A bit of advice ...
Photographing waves is a discipline and an art in itself. Beyond selecting Burst mode and simply 'point-and-squirting', the skill in achieving constant, considered success lies in gauging the changing light and selecting camera settings that capture the emotion and action. As is reading the break pattern and knowing when and where to aim your lens to predict and compose around the action. Because a key point to remember in capturing a 'moment' in a wave is… if you saw it, you missed it!
Everything about a breaking wave happens so tantalisingly slowly, yet the action is all over so quickly. One moment it’s a lurking swell, the next it’s a churning rush. Wave photography is all about understanding and predicting what's going to happen in between and firing off at the precise 'moment' when everything comes together in the viewfinder. So it's easy to get confused and frustrated, especially if you're just starting out in shooting on the coast. So keep calm and just watch what is happening.
After years of shooting the sea, I have honed a pretty keen eye for interpreting the action, reading the break, panning with a wave and capturing my moments. There’s real pleasure in taking a shot that captures dynamic, composed order amongst such chaos. So here's a few bits of advice you might want to consider...
When you arrive on location, before you pick up your camera, just stand back and watch the break for ten minutes. A pattern in the wave action will become apparent. Every three to six minutes a new Wave Set will run in. Leading with 'Significant' (larger) waves that usually arrive in three or four distinct ranks, they will sweep the beach. These provide clean, distinct, linear action to compose around and big impacts to freeze. Then come a couple of ‘Mavericks’ that may run at different angles, or perhaps stack together, and can provide some quirky 'rooster tails' or bursts. Be careful with the mavericks if you are on rocks, as they are often the ones that can take you by surprise and give you a dousing. Then will follow a period of messier, smaller ‘Average’ waves. The tideline will quieten and surface foam may disperse before the next set runs in and it all starts over. This is a generalised description and it won't happen with clockwork precision, but a pattern will be there. Recognising and reading it means you can plan and be ready for where and what you will be shooting.
Now pick up your camera and focus in on the area you want to concentrate on and ignore all else that's going on around (except for keeping a constant eye on the sea, and watching the clouds for lighting changes).
The final two bits of advice I will offer is - don't get over-excited and check what you just shot in the rear screen, keep shooting the breaking set. Because lots more beautiful things can happen. So wait till the Significant and Mavericks have passed before reviewing images. Secondly, don't fall into the trap of thinking an unusually long period of flatness means it's all over. For such quiet lulls usually herald a big set's arrival. Remember, 'the quiet comes before the storm'!
As I say, shooting waves is an art in itself and is something my Cornish Seascape Workshops can focus upon. So if you'd like to learn more about coastal approach, settings selection, light influences, shooting angles and advanced image processing techniques, check out my workshops section and get in touch.
In closing let me stress that the coast is a dangerous environment. Check the tides and weather forecast. Always stay alert. Ensure you have a safe retreat and don't get cut-off. Never venture on to wet rocks on a rising tide. Be aware that 'Rogue' waves that can run in at any time! Recognise your physical limits. Use a camera sleeve in stormy conditions. Clean your gear thoroughly after every shoot.