Behind the Camera: ‘On the Rocks’ – Porth Dafarch, Anglesey

Last night I had an inkling that we might be treated to a nice sunset (my Grandfather was quite a ‘Weather Whisperer” and I’m lucky to have been blessed with a small fraction of the talent he had), so Kat and I packed our gear into the car and headed off to a local beach that I thought might offer a good vantage point.

When I arrived at Porth Dafarch beach, which is on the western coast of Holyhead, Anglesey, the sun still had a ways to go before kissing the horizon which gave me time to set up my camera and get the filters I needed out of the bag. While I usually carry everything I need with me in my backpack – a LowePro Flipside 400 – when I’m going down onto a beach where I suspect I’m going to end up standing in water (which seems to invariably happen), I’d rather leave the bulk of my stuff where it won’t get wet!

As I walked down to the shoreline I couldn’t help but notice that I could see patches of sky and clouds reflected in the water on the surface of the sand. Great, I thought, that’s something that I’ll definitely want to try to catch in in my images. Also, despite the sky being bright, and the air warm from being kissed all day by the sun, the waves were pounding the cliffs and sending water far up the shore. I wanted to capture a sense of this drama too, but wanted it to look smooth and soft as opposed to aggressive and harsh, and the best way of doing that with water is to slow down the shutter speed to draw out the image by a few seconds.

The best way to do this was to use a Formatt-Hitech 6-stop Pro IRND filter. I could then juggle the aperture and ISO to get the exposure right. Also, the filter would help protect my lens from the salt spray being driven off the sea and into both my face and the camera’s lens.

I’d just needed to remember to give the filter a wipe every so often with a microfiber cloth, or everything would take on a soft focus look.

With the sun slowly dipping below the horizon I watched as the clouds started to liven up, transformed from lifeless grey blobs into vivid patches of reds and pinks. We were getting close to show time, and when the curtain went up, I knew that I’d have about 20 minutes to make the most of it. A rogue wave had already engulfed my shoes (why, oh why do I not have wellingtons in the car?) so with that over I could concentrate of taking the shots. I’m not a big fan of water sloshing inside my shoes, but as Mother Nature cranked up the vibrance slider on the sky, the goosebumps popping upon my arms made me forget all about the water in my shoes.

And anyway, I’d have plenty of time to relish that feeling on the drive back home.

I remember reading somewhere that the trick to transforming a photograph into art is to step away from reality as much as possible (I think I picked that up from the black and white fine art photographer Joel Tjintjelaar), whether that be though vivid colors, the lack of color (black and white), or playing with time. Here I wanted to be Doctor Who and play with time, slow it down, tame it, but the irony was that I had to be fast because time was ticking away!

Playing with time isn’t tricky, it just means that you have to experiment with settings and take a lot of photos until you have what you want. Your eye – or mind’s eye – might give you some ideas as to what starter settings to use, but from there on it’s trial and error. For example, here I was dealing with waves, and if the shutter speed was too fast then the action is frozen suddenly and looks too angular and jagged, but if the shutter speed was too slow then all the detail would be blurred. It depends a lot on the water in front of you. Sometimes a shutter speed of a quarter of a second gives the desired result, other times that needs dragging out to 20 seconds or even beyond.

For the above image I had the aperture set to F9.0 to give the image some softness, and the ISO at 200, which, with the 6-stop filter gave me a 3.2 second exposure that was long enough to catch the water rushing over the rocks in the middle-distance, giving it the look and feel of cotton-candy.

Another factor to consider is where the water is. Waves come and go, and while Sir Isaac Newton is in the driving seat (or his laws of motion are), the water can seem unpredictable. Sometimes it is way over there in the distance, and next it’s raced past you, your tripod, and your feet are soaked. What this means is taking a whole bunch of images, with the water in different positions. Forget reviewing them until you get home (other than reviewing your test shots for sharpness and to see if you have the correct exposure – the stuff you can’t fix in Photoshop!).

But as quickly as the light comes, it goes again, as Mother Nature takes the vibrance slider in the other direction. I could stick around for the blue hour, but in the cove where I was standing I couldn’t see a composition that would work, so I squelched back up the beach. I was happy because I was certain I had some good stuff waiting for me on my memory card.

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