Working with light & controlling composition
LIGHT IS THE STARTING POINT AND KEY ELEMENT OF THE IMAGE-MAKING PROCESS...
LIGHT IS THE starting point of any photograph. It’s the key element of the image-making process and should always be your first consideration – and the first thing you take note of – whenever you point a camera at your subject. There’s no such thing as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ light, but the quality, direction and type of light will have the single-most powerful impact on the sort of image you produce, so you need to understand it and work with it.
Dawn and dusk
Over the course of the following pages we will take you through all of the elements needed to make a truly impressive coastal landscape shot, and there’s no better place to start than with the light. Coastal scenes can change so dramatically; light photographed under different conditions can make the same vista look unrecognisable from one shot to the next. Soft, flat light, as you may encounter when a sea mist rolls in and the sun’s illumination is diffused, can bring out incredible detail in all of the textures that abound in this unique landscape. A shingle beach will become a riot of pastel colours under soft light, while the sea will merge almost seamlessly with the grey-white sky to produce an ethereal glow that won’t be found anywhere else. And when the sun is revealed in its full glory, the hard-edged shadows it produces can turn a coastal scene into a minimalist’s delight, full of graphic lines and stark delineations between land, sea and sky.
But while there’s no such thing as the ‘correct’ light to photograph under, the magic hours just after dawn and immediately preceding dusk are usually guaranteed to deliver something special.
The cold blue light of dawn paints a scene with pastel hues while dusk offers up those burning sunsets as the world looks like it’s been set alight. Shooting towards the sun in either of these situations is always a winner, but don’t forget to look over your shoulder and see how the burgeoning or dying light is illuminating the landscape.
Do your research
While many great shots are ‘happy accidents’, a little planning goes a long way in coastal photography. One of your first considerations should concern the direction that your chosen scene faces. Eastern coasts will catch the first light of dawn as the sun rises, while those that face towards the west are best for sunsets, when the sun heads towards the horizon.
Weather forecasts should also be something to keep your eye on. There’s no point having a soft, diffused scene in mind if the sun is going to be blazing, and you won’t be shooting any glorious sunsets on a completely cloudy day. Finally, look at any ‘pro’ shots
of those coastal locations you plan to visit and see what sort of lighting conditions have worked best.
If light is largely out of your control, how you compose your coastal image is very much in your hands. A great deal has been written on composition, and the ‘rules’ date back to beyond the Renaissance, as artists strove to lay down guidelines for the perfect way to bring all the elements of a scene together. Suffice to say it makes sense to study the compositional laws, such as the rule-of-thirds and lead-in lines, but sometimes there’s no substitute for gut instinct. The more you shoot, and look at, landscapes the more you will develop an eye for what looks right.
Get down low
Until you’ve shot enough images for composition to become second nature to you, your chances of taking a really good coastal landscape will be greatly improved by sticking to some tried and trusted guidelines.
Coastal vistas tend to be expansive, and this sense of scale can be dramatically increased by shooting from low-down. Get your camera on a tripod, splay the legs out and shoot from just a couple of feet above the ground to really emphasise those big skies and open foregrounds.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer size of a coastal scene, so remember to include some foreground interest to lead your viewers’ eyes into the picture.
Think in thirds
Foreground detail is vital in coastal photography, unless you are intentionally going for a very pared down, minimalist look, but its placement within the scene is where your compositional control becomes key.
Two of the most powerful forms of composition that you should concern yourself with are the rule-of-thirds and central composition.
Central is easy – it’s just a case of putting your point of interest bang in the middle of the frame and it works really well with coastal details like piers and groynes.
We’ve already looked at the rule-of-thirds, which also suits seascape horizons – placing it one-third of the way up from the bottom of your scene works well – and the ‘power point’, where the vertical and horizontal thirds bisect, is also an area to be aware of. Placing a focal object on this point is a particularly effective compositional tool.
Far Left A good weather app – such as Dark Sky – will save you time and help to avoid disappointment as you will know the shooting conditions in advance.
Left The excellent FotoVUE range of books provide inspiring images from all around the British coast. fotovue.com
Above A strong central composition and clear lead-in lines create really powerful visuals in this coastal image.