Crashing Waves

2020 09 01 - Coastal Photography

The meeting of land and sea is often tumultuous, full of incredible energy and dynamism where untold tonnes of water crash against the immoveable rocks, or slide over sand beaches.  The ceaseless energy of the sea versus the seemingly solid, permanently still coast line.  Where no two moments seem the same, where conditions can change within moments, even on the calmest of days.  The challenge of coastal photography is in capturing that energy, or sometimes trying to calm it, relaying the scene as a still image whilst conveying the change to the viewer.  

In this blog I will discuss some of my favourite coastal photographs and discuss why I took them and what I was hoping to show you, the viewer.  You will notice that I don't tell you the numbers (shutter speeds etc) as it is largely irrelevant.  No two shots on the coast are the same, water moves at such different speeds.  The shutter speeds were simply right for the moment.  Fast (above 100th of a second) or slow, (around 1/3rd of a second), you will need to dial in the shots and get it exactly right for the conditions.


This is one of my favourite coastal photographs for a number of reasons.  Firstly, the conditions were challenging as there were the bands of clouds that you can see in the photograph which were threatening to crush the sunset.  As this is East coast of England, the sun sets in land, so inevitably falls below the horizon before sunset proper, leaving the land dark and you fighting to find highlights and contrast.  You really are chasing the light in circumstances such as these.  

Adding to the challenge, the tide was coming in quite rapidly, climbing up the rock shoreline meaning that I had to be quite quick on my feet.  The sea itself was reasonably calm without those huge breakers you sometimes see along this coast.

So I was contending with a fairly flat sky and low light and limited contrast, a calm sea and having to retreat. Not exactly the dynamism that I was going on about earlier.  So, what to do?

Firstly it was a case of positioning myself where I could find some interest, something that would generate the dynamic movement that I wanted to show, and somewhere that would generate contrast.  This rocky shelf had the potential to do that.  The water would flow over it, giving the white water, contrasting against the black rocks and dark sea.  Also, it was quite low down.  This was important in order to catch the subtle light in the sky.  The seaweed in the bottom corner was also a bonus as it added to the limited colour range in the shot.

The next thing was to decide on a suitable shutter speed.  This is crucial when photographing water.  I could shoot a fast shutter speed and freeze the water, but that wouldn't have matched the scene I was seeing.  This wasn't about power, it was about movement.  So a slower shutter speed was required to really capture that movement and show the patterns of water flowing around the rocks.

I then needed to decide on whether to use the Formatt-Hitech poloriser or not.  Sometimes when shooting water like this it can lead weird effects where the reflections aren't consistent across the surface.  However, here it was required to increase the reflections in order to catch the sunset light in the water, otherwise the sea would have been black.  Too much contrast.

Finally, wait for the moment, water rushing in, and make the photograph.

Botallack Mine

Made famous by the television series Poldark, the Crowns Engine houses cling to the cliff faces on this world heritage site.  This is one of the most dramatic lengths of coastline in the country, being battered by the Atlantic ocean and strong coastal winds.  With absolutely nothing between here and the United States of America the seas power builds, checked only by tides and changes in the sea floor.  

As I approached the top of the cliffs the sound of the sea was incredible, carrying up to the tops a long time before I could see the waves crashing into the rocks.

Standing on the cliffs was quite overwhelming.   The noise from the sea, strong winds and the incredible scene of the engine houses standing precariously on the cliff faces.  Trying to decide where the shot was and what to frame was quite tricky.  On the spit of land directly below the engine houses the waves were crashing in, but directly under my feet the sea was swirling, churning and flowing over rocks.

So I decided to frame the shot to try and capture all of that movement whilst trying to show the sheer scale of the waves versus the cliffs and the engine houses.  By shooting portrait, wide, and slightly tilted allows for something called the "toy camera effect", the perspective makes buildings looks compressed and small.  I would have liked to tilt even further here but it would have brought in too much foreground, unless I leant over the cliffs themselves and that was a sheer drop to a rather wet end!

I now just needed to pick the correct shutter speed that could catch the crashing waves and freeze them, whilst also showing the churning, and flowing water over the rocks.  This was more difficult than it seems as the to freeze the crashing waves needed a fast shutter, but to capture the churning and curtains of water required a slower speed.  I spent several moments dialling it in, then just had to wait for the moment that had the beautiful side light, crashes, rolling breakers, swirls and curtains.  All those patterns, all that mess.  Exactly what the scene was showing me.

Botallack Mine - Cornwall

Neist Point

Ok, so theres two photos here, but only one is "the favourite".  I have decided to show you both to show what I mean about the coast and the changing conditions.  Almost the same view points, but two very different shots.  

Neist Point is home to a lighthouse on the Isle of Skye, projecting out into the sea as a long finger of land.  There are two main viewpoints here, the one you see from the cliff tops and one from below the light house that I haven't yet had chance to shoot.

Allow me to talk about the first shot, which is not one of my favourites but I think does still have something to offer here.  When shooting at the coast, you should always be aware that the dynamism that I have been droning on about doesn't always come from the sea.  In this shot, with gorgeous side light (which by the way was a nightmare to tone down) you can see two weather fronts combining, with two rain squalls of rain.  I imagine the clear sky as the eye of the storm.  It always slightly baffles me that there could be those two huge rain clouds, yet beautiful sunset light and a calm sea.

The second shot is one of my all time favourite photographs which again required quite a lot of work to make.  The energy here is almost entirely in the sky, that incredibly vibrant post sunset light.  There are beautiful patterns and swirls in the sea and the finger of Neist Point, all pointing to that light, taking you with them.  So much energy but yet so calming.  

I hope that you have enjoyed reading about these photographs.  To view more, please visit my Coastal Photography gallery, and please do leave me a comment below.  I'll leave you with the selection of images that could also have made it into my list of favourite shots.

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