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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Get Into The Wet Zone


Kurt Budliger gives us practical tips for creating dynamic coastal seascapes

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Sunrise light along the rocky coast of Acadia National Park, Maine, photographed with a 3-stop grad ND filter.

Our affinity for and connection to the sea has been deeply rooted in our art and culture for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In the United States alone, there are more than 95,000 miles of coastline, with approximately 39% of the U.S. population living in a coastal county. And, of course, many millions more flock to the shore to recreate and vacation every year. It's no wonder coastal landscapes are some of the most published images in print media and extremely popular in contests and online photo-sharing sites. However, photographing in this dynamic and ever-changing environment can be tricky business. Fortunately, there are several tips and strategies that can get you well on your way to creating the stunning coastal landscapes you've always dreamed of.


This sunset image is a combination of several exposures that were blended for increased dynamic range, Olympic National Park, Washington.
Planning your shoot is of utmost importance, perhaps more so than any other type of landscape since there are myriad variables at play that can make or break your envisioned image, as well as impact your safety when working along the coast. The importance of consulting tide charts for any given location can't be overstated. If you're shooting in the Deep South, the Caribbean or close to the equator, the tide is much less of a variable since the difference between low and high often can be measured in inches and might not have a major impact on your subject or composition. But when you get further toward the poles, the tides can be very dramatic indeed. For example, in the Gulf of Maine around Acadia National Park, the tidal variance is typically 10 to 12 feet; further north and east in the Bay of Fundy, it can be as much as 50 feet. An average high tide in Olympic National Park is typically 7 to 8 feet, and because of the region's topography, you're able to venture very far from shore in search of interesting compositional elements at low tide.

When the tide is low, the intertidal zone will be exposed, which can reveal intriguing tide pools, algae and barnacle-encrusted rocks that make interesting foreground elements for your wide-angle shots or perhaps intimate landscapes in their own right. However, when photographing fishing harbors, low tide can leave boats stranded on the exposed bottom, and if you had planned to shoot intimate reflections, you'll be sadly disappointed. A low tide early in the morning is a godsend for sandy beach shooters since the outgoing tide will have washed away unsightly footprints, leaving the sand in a pristine, untracked state. And shooting breaking waves along the rocky coast of Maine at high tide with a long lens can be tremendous fun. The bottom line is that whatever the tide is doing, the coast will look different and unique, and you just might have to adjust your vision to match the prevailing conditions.


This scene along the coast of Acadia National Park was made with a 2-stop grad ND filter.
When scouting locations, it's a good idea to make note of the tide, especially if it's revealing or hiding something critical, so you can plan to return when it's at a similar level. It's also important to know if the tide is incoming or outgoing. There's nothing more frustrating than finding a great wide-angle composition only to have it flooded five minutes later by an incoming tide when you're finally ready to trip the shutter. From a safety standpoint, it's critical that if you've ventured into an area that's only exposed at low or extreme low tides, you leave yourself enough time to make the return trip before the incoming tide leaves you stranded, or worse.

Obviously, light and weather are extremely important variables in creating mood and atmosphere in our photographs, and they're no less important to the coastal landscape shooter. There's nothing quite like shooting sunrise along the rocky Atlantic coast in Acadia National Park or setting up to capture the last rays of the setting sun along the Pacific. But don't rule out shooting sunrise along the Pacific Coast or sunset in the East just because the sun will be at your back. While shooting in the direction of a rising or setting sun often yields dramatic results, the opposite direction can be just as good. For example, on the West Coast, features like sea stacks and rock outcrops are often portrayed in near silhouette when photographed at sunset. By contrast, early morning can provide an opportunity to photograph these features with sidelight, which highlights more texture and detail on the facades of these great monoliths.


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