Shooting in the littoral
Outdoor Photography Magazine - Issue 296
Having spent the last decade exploring Cornwall's stunning coastline, Chris Simmons has become a seascape expert with a stunning portfolio to boot. Here he offers a few fresh perspectives to broaden your seascape horizons.
The littoral is the zone of seashore stretching between high and low-water marks. It’s a dramatic and stimulating place to shoot that delivers ever-changing aspects, challenges and rewards. Bursting with action and reflective energy, it offers the Seascape photographer, who has done their planning and preparation, the chance to explore exciting new perspectives on shooting a location.
That’s why, since moving to Cornwall in 2013, I have devoted my career to Seascape Photography. After 30 year’s, the bright lights of London’s advertising industry had faded and the call of wild, wide, new horizons beckoned. So I turned to the single discipline that truly inspires me and gets my adrenaline pumping. For beyond a sterile studio environment or the static outlook of a land-locked landscape, the ocean adds a whole new elemental dimension to capturing images that never fails to thrill.
Therefore, based on the wealth of knowledge I have built-up, and the experience gained in hosting my Cornish Seascape Workshops, I have picked-out some key pointers that I hope will get you thinking about your own coastal approach.
First and foremost comes your safety. It’s always best to be accompanied on coastal shoots but realistically this can’t always happen. So leave details of where you’re heading, your expected return time, and be sure to take your fully-charged phone. Remember that even in its most benign state, the sea and the coastal environment must be respected.
So beyond knowing the tide times and the weather forecast, be aware of any local conditions that could compromise your safety. Always pay attention to RNLI or civic signage and allow yourself plenty of time to scout a location prior to setting-up. Never venture on to wet rocks in big seas or on a rising tide. Always ensure you have a safe retreat and don’t get cut off. Be wary of cliffs when up on top or venturing below. Constantly stay alert in the littoral and don’t turn your back on the waves for you never know when a large ‘rogue’ will run in.
Never turn your back on the sea when in the littoral
- CRANTOCK BAY - Fujifilm GFX100S with 23mm lens, ISO100. 0.4sec at f/20, Lee IRND 2 Stop Filter + 81C + ND.75 Med Grad with Flash
PLAN TO SUCCEED
Beyond simply rocking up at a beach and working with what’s in front of you, if you want to achieve consistently successful shoots, do some planning before leaving out. There are a host of apps aimed at photographers. I use ‘The Photographer’s Ephemeris’ to show the solar positioning, and there are other apps that do the same. But tucked-away in ‘TPE’ is a paid for add-on called ‘Skyfire’ which predicts the vibrancy of the sunrise and sunset. It’s not always spot-on but I find it helpful in pointing me in the right direction.
The main app I use however is ‘Windy’. This started out as an asset for kite-surfers but in recent years it has grown exponentially. Now Windy tells me all I need to know about coastal conditions and helps me pick the ideal location based on the predicted - Cloud Cover, Precipitation, Air-Pressure, Wind Direction, Wind Speed, Wave Direction, Wave Height, Wave Frequency, Sun (and Moon) Rise/Set, and, of course, the Tides. So if I want to shoot a clean wave break, off rocks, at sunrise, with an offshore wind, on a waning tide, under broken cloud, Windy tells me where to go.
‘Skyfire’ predicted this dawn blaze at a location that only comes to life on a high spring tide, so use your apps
- BREAM COVE - Fujifilm GFX 100S with 23mm lens, ISO 320, 1.3 sec atf/18, Lee ND09 Rev Grad + Coral 2 Soft Grad with Flash
Once you have decided on a location, make sure you’re prepared to meet the conditions. And in this I don’t just mean having the right filters and lenses with you. Wearing the correct clothing can completely change your shoot. I have had workshop clients with the latest ‘photographer’s’ jacket (or, I kid you not, a “waterproof” woollen jumper) having to head back to the car because they are freezing cold or wet through.
To take good shots you need to be comfortable and confident amongst your surroundings. So beyond a warm parka that shrugs-off salt water, if I could offer one piece of advice that would completely change your Seascape outlook, it would be to invest in a pair of chest waders. For alongside keeping you warm and dry, chest waders open-up the littoral. There’s no more advancing or retreating from tumbling waves. You can stay put and concentrate on the shot. Waders allow you into the reflective zone of pristine, newly-levelled sand and away from the footprints of others. You can kneel down to gain lower perspectives, explore new aspects in rock-pools, and, providing the tide and conditions safely allow, reach places that are unaccessible to others. However, unless it’s on a perfectly calm estuary or mirror-flat bay, I never venture farther than ankle deep into even the slightest of waves.
Chest waders open-up the littoral
- HOLYWELL BAY - Canon EOS 5DS R with EF 16-35mm lens, ISO 100, 0.3sec at f/10, Lee 81B + ND.75 Med Grad with Flash
GO WITH THE FLOW
When you pick a location, don’t get a certain shot fixed in your mind’s eye. Have aspirations by all means, but fixating on a particular capture or execution can throw you off kilter if things change. For as good as they are, weather-forecasting apps can get it wrong and the conditions you are presented with can be way off those you were expecting. In low pressure ‘depression’ atmospherics, things can change in minutes and the sea will be set free in increasing wave height and tidal reach. So even the surf-cam images you checked before setting out could be outdated.
Therefore you need to adopt a flexible approach that sees you accepting and adapting to what you are presented with. If the sky is looking flat and uninviting, ditch the rule book and knock the rule of thirds on the head. Make a statement with the foreground action and mid-ground content, and relegate the sky to a thin ‘topper’. And if the light levels climb too high to effectively hold the sky with filters, don’t pack-up and head home. Get out a long lens and see what the light is doing as it interacts with the waves in close-up. Adapt, improvise and go with the flow!
Go with the flow when conditions change, there will be a shot!
- CRANTOCK BAY - Fujifilm GFX 100S with 23mm lens, ISO 125, 0.5sec at f/16, Lee ND06 Hard Grad + 81B with flash
READ THE SEA
When you arrive at your location, take five minutes to watch the sea. Because hidden amongst the seemingly random wave breaks, will be a constant ‘rhythm’ you can work your shoot around. In a very basic explanation - wind blowing over water creates ripples that will quickly form a regular sequence. In the open ocean this ‘swell pattern’ will emanate and grow as it runs before the wind. When it meets a shallowing shore, the increase of pressure slows the swell’s bases and forces the tops up and forward in a breaking ‘wave set’.
When you see surfers bobbing way out beyond the ‘white stuff’, they are waiting for the larger ‘Significant’ waves that lead each wave set. These three or four significants will press further up the beach, or over the rocks, and will present a series of clean, structured forms to compose around. And down in the littoral you can time their arrival and ‘read’ these waves into your shot as you conduct and compose around the sea’s actions.
Even in the most tempestuous storm the pattern will be there. And the timed arrival will dictate a natural rhythm to your shoot. Depending on the tidal state, you will be retreating, or advancing into your scene. You can now time and predict the next set’s arrival and match it to the sun’s position and the atmospherics as cloud formations range across the sky. As you do so, so dynamic new elemental aspects and perspectives will open up for you.
The arrival of a new Wave Set added the impact action throughout this shot
- EAST PENTIRE HEADLAND - Fujifilm GFX 100S with 20-35mm lens, ISO 500, 1/8sec at f/18, Lee IRND 4 Stop + 81C + ND06 Hard Grad with Flash
THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX
In Seascape photography you have to keep it real! So mastering Manual camera settings is the order of the day. Because the constant flow and flux negates the use of software assists like bracketing and stacking. So if you want to create your own approach, it’s worth experimenting and thinking outside the box. For instance, when faced with the overt blue casts longer exposures gave when shooting in low light, or capturing wave motion, I got to thinking. In my underwater photography, it’s the use of flash that sorts the problem. So I experimented above the surface and couldn’t believe the results. With a considered burst of manual flash, not only were the blues banished, but the colouration I captured throughout the scene was far more natural, especially in low pressure atmospherics.
I’m no expert but I think it is the dense, salty sea-level air that responds to a powerful, angled, diffused burst in ‘firing-up’ the faster photons of the warmer colour range. There’s also the bonus of the flash picking out definition amongst dark shadows. What’s more, if you select ‘rear shutter or second curtain sync’ - which fires the flash just before the shutter closes - and get your timing spot on, you can ‘freeze’ definition into a breaking crest impact, or ‘pin’ an advancing wave on the sand. I don’t have the space here to fully explain how I use my flash gun, so I will just ask you to keep an open mind and go explore the flash effect for yourself.
A manual 1/2 burst of angled flash captured natural colouration and froze the wave
- WEST PENTIRE HEADLAND - Fujifilm GFX 100S with 23mm lens, ISO 100, 1/4sec at f/18, Lee ND09 Rev Grad + 81C with Flash
I’ve already identified how Seascape photography’s many moving parts make software-driven dodges ineffectual. Therefore any balancing and manipulation has to happen before the light has reached the sensor. So filters have to come into play. And while I recognise there is a considerable investment in both money and time - in learning to use them effectively - employing filters in the littoral opens-up a whole new realm of creativity and quality of capture.
For beyond ‘holding’ the sun and balancing a bright sky with ND grads, filtering can help in capturing natural colouration, reducing reflective glare and extending exposure times. As with using flash, explaining my filtering approach requires more space than I have here. So I would ask you to take a look at the images and the filtering details that accompany this article to see some examples and then give them a go while continually thinking outside the box.
A Lee IRND 2 Stop filter with an ND.75 Med Grad gave this sparkling take on a mid-day seascape
- HELFORD PASSAGE - Fujifilm GFX 100S with 23mm lens, ISO 125, 0.3sec at f/29, Lee IRND 2 Stop + ND.75 Med Grad
SUN, SEA AND CAMERA ANGLES
I make no apologies for my predilection for shooting directional light in my seascapes because it brings the littoral and the sea to life. Yet the converging angles between the sun, wave direction and shooting aspect make a seismic difference in what I capture and the story my image tells.
So on a dusk shoot, when you’re walking the location prior to setting-up, as you read the sea to count the wave set timing, observe how the sun is currently catching the sea’s surface and illuminating the wave break with its direct, reflected and refracted light. From there you can check the sun’s lowering arc and estimate the effect the reducing angles will have on the scene before the sun falls below the horizon and the blue hour beckons. If you are on a dawn shoot, there’s less estimation and more ‘guess-timation’ involved but the more you get out there, the more you learn to predict, conduct and compose around shooting angles.
The angles between the sun, wave and shooting position had a big influence on this translucent capture
- PORTHCURNO - Canon EOS 1DXmkIII with 100-400mm lens, ISO 800, 1/400sec at f/18
Unlike a landscape outlook that changes with daylight, weather and season, a coastal outlook fundamentally changes twice a day, every day of the year. As the tide advances and retreats, so new aspects and angles are opened up. In Cornwall, due to the effect the moon’s gravitational pull has on the open ocean, the tidal reach can often be 6m or more. So in very basic terms, the sea will rise or fall by 1m per hour, and that’s a lot of movement on the gradual incline of a beach. And because the lunar-led tide times are out of sync with sun, new aspects and shooting perspectives are opened up at ever-changing times of the day.
The tide and tidal reaches change around the country, and while they they may not be quite so influential as in Cornwall, when you add the continually evolving sea conditions to the daylight, weather and season, then any coastal location has far more elemental character to draw upon. Hence I never tire of revisiting a location. In fact, it’s true to say that getting acquainted with a location can be a huge factor in achieving constantly successful shoots.
It’s a great feeling when all the planning, preparation and the effort invested in your coastal approach, results in a powerful set of images that really capture the elemental essence of your littoral shoot.
Getting acquainted with a location ensures you are at the right place at the perfect time
- HOLYWELL BAY - Fujifilm GFX 100S with 20-35mm lens, ISOP 100, 0.3sec at f/22, Lee ND09 Rev Grad + Straw 2 Hard Grad