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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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Twilight at Split Rocks, Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington. The period when the sun is below the horizon, either at the beginning or the end of the day, is sometimes referred to as "blue hour" for reasons that are obvious in this photo.
Sunrise and sunset scenes often present exposure challenges because of the extreme dynamic range inherent during the golden hour. I'm still a huge fan of using graduated neutral-density filters to tame dynamic range in the field and find I most often reach for a 3-stop reverse grad when shooting along the coast. Of course, you can also bracket your exposures and use photo-editing software like Photoshop to combine properly exposed highlights and shadows into an image that more closely resembles what we see in the field. Regardless of which technique you choose, it's important to maintain the relative luminosity values present in the scene to avoid garish and unrealistic results. Often, the most intense color arrives well before the sun rises and after it sets. Shadow areas in these low-light scenes tend to be very dark so don't be afraid to portray them as they look. Black isn't necessarily a bad thing in a photograph.

I would argue that if sunrise and sunset are the only times you photograph along the coast, you're missing out on an awful lot. Although midday light tends to be cool and somewhat harsh, it can be a great time to shoot black-and-white landscapes, which often benefit from higher-contrast light. It's also a great time to photograph backlit waves breaking on shore or offshore, and the extra light will allow for faster shutter speeds at lower ISOs to capture the peak action. I personally love to shoot the coast on foggy days, especially the myriad fishing harbors and villages that dot the Maine coast around Acadia National Park. Fog has a profound effect on the mood of an image and allows for more simplified presentations of subjects that are often plagued by complexity and chaos. And, of course, don't forget about the blue hour (30 minutes before sunrise or after sunset) for otherworldly representations of the coastal landscape, often with very long exposures.

When it's time to shoot, we want to put all the pieces together in a dynamic and engaging composition. One of my goals in any seascape image is to present a scene that puts the viewer "there" and captures the soul and mystery of a place, and one of the best ways to accomplish this is to find and incorporate an interesting and/or dynamic foreground element. In most coastal environs, there's no shortage of interesting rock formations, tide pools, piers, docks, fishing boats, offshore sea stacks and the like to use as foreground elements. One element that many people overlook and can be used very creatively in the foreground is the water itself, more specifically, the shapes and patterns it makes as it moves through a scene. Here's where your choice of shutter speed becomes a much more important variable than simply controlling how much light reaches the sensor. When I'm composing seascapes, I spend a great deal of time working the scene while handholding the camera so that I'm free to experiment with a variety of perspectives while being unencumbered by my tripod. Pay particularly close attention to the way waves and water currents move in, out and around elements in the scene, trying to anticipate how they could be rendered with moderate to slow shutter speeds. Wave foam, which admittedly is pretty un-attractive stuff, can be used very effectively as a leading line or arcing curve extending into the frame when rendered in a soft blur.

Once you've found a good composition, set up your tripod and dialed in your aperture for depth of field, you'll want to think critically about shutter speed and how it affects the overall composition and mood in the image. Really long shutter speeds like 10, 20, 30 seconds or even upward of one minute will render successive waves and moving clouds as ghostly apparitions, which can be used to create otherworldly and ethereal images. In the low light before dawn or the blue hour after sunset, ultralong exposures are often necessary and unavoidable unless you crank up the ISO. But if you're seeking longer shutter speeds at other times of the day, try increasing your aperture (careful of diffraction), dialing down the ISO or perhaps using a neutral-density filter. If, however, retaining texture and structure in the water is critical to your composition, you'll need to adjust aperture, ISO or filter choices to gain faster shutter speeds. By simply removing a polarizer, for example, you can restore between one and two stops of light and increase a shutter speed from 1 to 1⁄4 sec., which may be just enough to hold texture in a powerful wave.

Weather Updates
Regardless of what aesthetic you're trying to achieve, it pays to study the weather and plan your shooting accordingly. There are several go-to sources for up-to-date weather and cloud information that have drastically improved my rate of success over the years. The first is the NOAA website (www.noaa.gov). Beyond getting the basic long-range forecast with details on temperature, wind and precipitation, I use the hourly weather graph, which predicts the percentage of sky that will be obscured by clouds at any given point in the day. If it's predicted to be 40% to 60% at the time of sunrise or sunset, I usually feel pretty optimistic about catching some nice sky color and drama. If, on the other hand, it looks to be 0% at sunset, I might opt to hit happy hour instead and enjoy a relaxing dinner before heading out for the blue hour. The hourly weather graph will also give you a sense for whether conditions are trending in a positive or negative direction when you'll be out in the field. I also like the graphical forecast, which provides a satellite image map overlay of the cloud cover and even includes future-cast modeling. Another fantastic weather forecasting tool with an amazing free app for your smartphone is Intellicast (www.intellicast.com). The app provides real-time satellite imaging overlays of cloud cover and the option to run future models. This real-time data allows for changes in shooting itineraries that can increase your productivity in the field. For example, if there has been a low-pressure system in place for several days and its exit coincides with early morning or late day, you might be in store for a dramatic light show.


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