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Author: Adam West

Adam is a passionate landscape, nature and travel photographer based in Scotland. All of the images in this blog are the copyright of Adam West. Click on his name to see more of his work and get in touch.

Winter Wonderland: Capturing the Beauty of Winter Close to Home

It is tempting leave cameras in a cupboard during the winter months, but I believe it is one of the best times of year for landscape and nature photography. This article gives you some ideas to encourage you to explore your local area after a snowfall or heavy frost. It’s great for your physical and mental health to get outdoors, so go for a winter walk and you may get an image to cherish.

When it snows

Spectacular landscape photography can be achieved in winter conditions, but it can be difficult to get to those grand vistas up in the hills and mountains without full commitment and forward planning. Local places that are familiar and perhaps ordinary for most of the year can be transformed by snow and ice. Local parklands, waterways or tree-lined roads can be as stunning as any grand vista. A good snowfall will cover up roads, pavements, and grasses, simplifying the landscape and creating new compositions for you to explore.

An effective snow landscape composition will require you to think differently about familiar places. Explore a local woodland or park and you will see that once intimate paths and trails will open up when the ground has an even snow cover. Try and search for long lines of trees that naturally guide the eye into the distance. Best results will be achieved when the snow is still falling or has just finished so that the branches are covered. You will need luck for the weather to fit with your availability, but you can use mobile apps to pick your moment most effectively.

Much like any landscape composition, you do need to identify elements that guide the eye. Sometimes, you can find foreground interest like a small bush, some leaves, a fence or wall for the eye to anchor onto and then direct you to the scene. At other times, there is nothing. You use the dead space of snow-covered ground to force the eye into the distance.

One issue with snow is that an obvious subject might not be easy to identify as everything becomes uniform. This is where a person in the landscape really helps. Experiment with primary colors. Red jackets or umbrellas work well when everything else is black and white. Yellow works well when there is blue ice or water.

adam west - in wonderland

“In Wonderland” Canon 70D, ISO 400, 18mm, f5.6, 1/320

Exposure compensation when it snows

Another technical issue of taking pictures in the snow is that automatic exposure by cameras will lead to underexposed images. A camera aims to have an exposure of 18% gray across the exposure area as an average (mid gray reflects back 18% of the light cast upon it). If the scene is very white, the camera will need to underexpose to reach this value. So you need some form of exposure compensation to achieve a correctly exposed image. Some consumer cameras have a snow mode. Most people will need to manually compensate their exposure. This is straightforward in manual mode, and cameras with Live View show you the exposure level accurately. The following compensations are a good guide

  • Snow and clear sunny skies:           Add 2 to 3 EV
  • Snow with partly cloudy skies:       Add 1 to 2 EV
  • Snow with heavy cloud:                   Add 2/3 to 1 EV

If you are taking images of snowy landscapes with sunny clear skies, you will have an extreme dynamic range challenge. Either the snow will be blown out or the shadows will be black with no detail on a single exposure. Graduated filters will be of little use. I recommend using auto exposure bracketing (AEB), which is available on most cameras. Take 3 or ideally 5 images, each 1EV apart and blend the exposures in post-production. You can use HDR software or Adobe Lightroom’s HDR function. However, I recommend exposure blending in Adobe Photoshop, where you can use plugins to make the process of using Luminosity masks very easy.

When the fog freezes

Freezing fog is probably my favorite condition in which to find unique images. When the fog is thick, the light is very blue and oppressive. The landscape is simplified greatly and you can isolate individual subjects like a beautiful tree or single architectural element away from a messy background. Sometimes you notice things which you pass by each day, like the different shapes of these five trees. Explore your local neighborhood and find something unique.

bleak midwinter

“The Bleak Midwinter” Canon 70D, ISO 400, 14mm, f8, 1/250

If the fog is not so dense, it can still add a lot of atmospheres. Find an open view, like here at this riverbank. Again, try and find additional interest in your composition such as a clear subject to focus on or some foreground interest to lead the eye into the scene. Alternatively, experiment with natural framing by trees, branches and leaves for a more intimate feel.

Adam West - Cold Days, Warm Hearts

“Cold Days – Warm Hearts” Canon 70D, ISO 400, 18mm, f8, 1/15

When the fog finally begins to lift, you can experience some remarkable conditions. The light turns golden yellow when the sun hits the ice crystals as freezing fog lifts and you can capture some stunning moments. Go to a favourite view and wait for the light to reveal itself. Once lifted, freezing fog leaves behind a coating of fine ice crystals on every surface. These are magical conditions where trees turn white, but they do not last long. The crystals fall off with the slightest breeze and melt quickly in the sun.

Adam_West_A Frosty Crossing

“A Frosty Crossing” Canon 70D, ISO 100, 105mm, f8, 6 secs

Small is beautiful

Nature photographers who are skilled at capturing the stunning detail of flowers need not give up photography during winter either. There is an exceptional beauty to be found in the ice crystals that form during a hoar frost. The crystals are larger when there is plenty of water vapor in the air, so have a look near bodies of water or after freezing fog. If mobility is a problem, you may find great subjects in your own garden or local parkland. If you own a good macro lens, you can create simple beautiful images with just single leaves or dead flower heads coated in crystals. You will need to work handheld to get a good composition. Move slowly in a quiet area as you can easily shake the fragile crystals off leaves.

Adam_West_Crystalline

“Crystalline” Canon 70D, ISO 100, 105mm, f8, 1/40

adam west_barbed bronze
“Barbed Bronze” Canon 70D, ISO 800, 105mm, f8, 1/200

Winter tips

Wrap up: It should be obvious but wrap up warm. Wear strong waterproof shoes or boots with sturdy grips. You don’t want to be slipping around while carrying your gear and you certainly don’t want wet feet. Wear gloves and/or keep your hands in pockets as much as you can. Your hands will get cold when handling the camera or tripod.

Batteries: The available charge on batteries is temperature dependent, so be aware that your batteries will not last as long as you are used to. Carry a spare and keep in your inside jacket pocket, photographers vest, or trouser pocket if you can, to keep it warm. Always use battery cover guards to prevent contact with keys and coins.

Condensation: Moisture quickly condenses onto cold surfaces. Keep your gear in a bag for as long as you can so it stays just a little warmer than the outside so your front lens element or filters do not fog up. Have a blower and clean lens cloth in your bag to remove condensation if fogging is unavoidable.

Moisture: Heavy snow is very challenging to work in. Your equipment will get very wet, which also leads to fogging. Pack a small towel to wipe your gear down. The biggest tip is to not use your camera as soon as you get indoors. The moisture in your house will quickly condense onto your cold camera and lenses and moisture may even build up inside if they are not fully weather sealed or you decide to change lenses. Keep them packed until they warm up. If you don’t have a good quality weather resistant camera bag yet, consider buying dry bags from a camping or mountain store. You can use them to keep snow off your camera outside and to be airtight when warming up inside.

Equipment required

Any good quality camera with manual controls

Wide angle, telephoto, and macro lenses all come in useful

A sturdy tripod

Use a circular polarizer when photographing sunny landscapes, but you will not need any filters for most winter scenarios.

A good weatherproof bag. Consider bringing dry bags, a towel, and umbrella to cover your equipment when it is snowing.

I use Adobe software and an excellent Photoshop plugin for exposure blending.

A frequently updated list of all of the equipment, software, and apps I use and recommend can be found on my website at https://www.adamwest.co.uk/p/inmybag

Instagram Tip: Posting multiple images to form a seamless panorama

Instagram has quickly become the most popular way to share images online. The beauty of Instagram is that it is easy, free and in the palm of everyone’s hands via the ubiquitous smartphone. Whether you are interested in just sharing your daily life and holiday snaps or have a photography business that you want to promote, there is a massive worldwide audience out there that can’t be ignored.

However, the great asset of Instagram is also its downfall. It is designed for mobile phones, so as such there is very little screen real estate to work with. Many landscape photographers, for example, have traditionally been put off by Instagram. How can anyone appreciate their beautiful images on such tiny screens? Well, Instagram has been steadily adding lots of functionality to the platform and this trick makes use of the multi-post feature.

So, let’s say you’ve got this great panorama of a cityscape or landscape you have been to and want to share it with your audience. The problem is, Instagram can’t show the whole panorama. It can only manage a 3 x 2 format landscape, which will look pretty small on user’s phones. There are currently three recommended sizes for images when posting on Instagram:

  • Square: 1080px x 1080px recommended (600px x 600px min to 2048px x 2048px max)
  • Landscape: 1080px x 566px recommended (600px x 400px min to 2048px x 1365px max)
  • Portrait: 1080px x 1350px recommended (600px x 750px min to 1638px x 2048px max)

The aim is to use the full vertical height available on a user’s phone and be able to scroll through the whole panorama. We will use Instagram’s Multi-Post facility. The panorama will be sliced up into identically sized pieces and posted in order. Instagram won’t show them as a folder, but as one seamless panoramic image that a user can scroll through at maximum detail. The trick requires a couple of minutes of preparation in Photoshop, but it’s pretty quick and easy to do. The end result makes your feed look slick and professional.

Slicing up your panorama in Adobe Photoshop

My guidance is for Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop CC, but the same can be achieved in any image software. The vertical, or portrait, aspect ratio in Instagram is 4w x 5h. You firstly need to decide how many vertical slices to break your image into and how you will crop your panorama to fit. I start with a panorama that is already processed and ready to share in Lightroom. I am thinking of posting it as three vertical slices, so in the Develop module I select the Crop Overlay tool and set a custom aspect ratio of 12 x 5. I can therefore easily see exactly where to frame my overall panorama and where the slices will appear. Once you have decided on your crop, right-click and select Edit In > Edit in Adobe Photoshop (select the Lightroom adjusted option if asked).

cropping lightroom

Making a custom crop in Lightroom. 3 times 4w x 5h = 12w x 5h

With your panoramic image open in Photoshop, go to View > New Guide Layout. Set 3 columns and make sure that width and gutter have no value. Now you should see guides separating the image into three. Next, we need to slice the image using these guides. On the left-hand tools menu, click and hold the Crop tool and select the Slice tool. On the top bar, click the “Slices From Guides” button. You should now see each slice numbered 1 to 3. Finally, we resize our image before saving the slices. We want each slice to be 1080px wide. So click Image > Image Size and type in 3240 for the pixel width in my case. You need to resize for how many slices of 1080px that you have.

photoshop crop
Quickly slicing a panorama in Photoshop

Now we save the images. Go to File > Export > Save For Web. Make the export a JPEG, quality of 100 and click Save. Before you save, make sure that All Slices is selected. I save to a folder that is mirrored to an online space that you can easily view on your phone.

Making a seamless multi-post on Instagram

In Instagram, select your first photo slice (Instagram shows the slices from left to right) and tap on expand arrows so that the whole slice is shown rather than the default 1×1 crop. This is critical! Otherwise, some or all of your slices will be 1 x 1 crop instead of 4 x 5 crop and they may not line up in the final panorama. Now tap on the multi-post icon (looks like a stack of images) and your image is labeled as 1. Now tap on the second slice (labeled 2). It should be shown in the 4 x 5 format but pinch and zoom out to be sure. Repeat until all your panorama slices are selected and tap Next.

instagram layout

First image in 4 x 5 ratio

Multi-post rest of images

Make sure they line up

Review the panorama to make sure that everything lines up. You will see white vertical lines between each slice at this stage, but they disappear after you post. You can make image adjustments at this stage, but be very careful to make sure the same adjustments are applied to each image slice. Add an interesting comment, tag the location and any people and post. Quickly review your post. You should see that it the image fills the available screen space and scrolls seamlessly across the whole panorama. Your followers will be impressed! If there is a problem with your seamless panorama not lighting up, delete it and repeat the above steps taking care to make sure each slice is loaded into the correct aspect ratio.

That’s it. You’re an Instagram genius! The only extra thing to think about with seamless multi-post panoramas is that Instagram shows only a 1 x 1 crop of your first leftmost image slice on your feed summary. So make sure there is sufficient interest on the left of your panorama to make people want to click on it and enjoy the full image!

Software used
Adobe Lightroom Classic CC and Photoshop CC (monthly subscription)
Instagram (free iOS and Android mobile app)
Details of all of the equipment and software I use and recommend can be found on my website https://www.adamwest.co.uk/p/inmybag

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Capturing Sunrise Landscapes: Post-Production

In part 1

, I took you through the use of mobile apps to scout and plan for a sunrise shoot. Then I took you through my thought process behind taking multiple exposures to achieve the best sunstar, obtain sharp focus across the whole image, and balance out the bright luminosity of the sunlit sky versus the shaded parts of a scene. Here in part 2, I take you through the editing workflow I used for this image. This tutorial is pitched at users who have some familiarity with Photoshop but are still relative beginners wondering what tools to use and where to find them. I avoid using too many keyboard shortcuts, which you can lookup and learn later. I note that there are many ways to process an image. This is just one account that hopefully you can take something from and try with your own images.

I stay with the same scenario, a sunrise at Fortaleza de Santa Catarina, a 17th-century fort overlooking the mouth of the River Arade, near Portimão in Portugal. I shot three sets of bracketed shots for i) the sunstar, ii) foreground focus and iii) background focus. I, therefore, have 15 RAW files to choose from for each composition. We actually only need 4 of these images, which we will blend together. The point of taking all these images was that I only needed to think about composition, focus and aperture in the moment. The sun moves quite quickly and you don’t want to miss your shot getting the right exposure. If there are some clouds, you may only have a few seconds to capture a sunstar where you want it.

Before going into editing, you should have a good idea of your intentions. The story of this image would be about the beautiful sunrise, the geometry of the paving and arches, and the long shadows cast by the columns. I need to make sure this strong geometry is not lost, that the sunstar is clear, but not overpowering, the warmth of the light is recovered from the flat RAW files and that the beautiful courtyard architecture and the well, in particular, does not disappear into the shadows.

Processing overview

I use Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop CC. If you use other software, you should still be able to take something from the workflow below. These Adobe CC programmes recently switched to a subscription-only service. Given that I use both all the time and they are constantly updating the software, I find it to be reasonably priced. You can check out Affinity Photo as a fixed price alternative. Lightroom is user-friendly and a good default place to organise your images, perform the adjustments that affect a whole image and prepare your image for different outputs. Adjustments in Lightroom are virtual and non-destructive, so you can always go back to your original file and start again. You can blend different exposures in Lightroom in a limited whole image HDR way, but Photoshop gives you full control and you will need it for the best quality sunstar projects. I do not use HDR for exposure blending as it tends to create fringes and halos between objects of different luminosities like hillsides or tree branches against the sky. My workflow for this project takes about 30 minutes and involves:

  • Image review and picking in Lightroom
  • Basic image corrections and adjustments in Lightroom
  • Opening images as layers in one Photoshop project
  • Blending of exposures in Photoshop using Luminosity and Gradient Masks
  • Sharpening, colour and contrast adjustments
  • Clone stamping to remove unwanted items in a scene
  • Final adjustments to crop, colour and local brightness in Lightroom

Image review and picking in Lightroom

I start by reviewing my images in Lightroom and decide which are the most successful compositions and sunstars. I then pick which sunstar, foreground and background exposures I will use (press P to flag as a pick). I look for a sharp and not too flared sunstar, which may be an underexposed frame. The foreground image is correctly exposed. The two background images are correctly exposed for the buildings and the sky, the two of which will be blended later. Now is a good time to delete any unwanted exposures that take up disk space.

picking images

Selecting four exposures for blending in post-production

Basic image corrections and adjustments in Lightroom

I undertake very basic image adjustments of the foreground image in the Develop module of Lightroom:

  1. Lens Corrections >Remove Chromatic Aberration and >Enable Profile Corrections. This corrects for any perspective and vignetting issues known for your lens, which should be automatically detected from the image file’s EXIF data.
  2. Camera Calibration. This is important to get your colour balance right. You will have different colour profiles available to you, depending on your camera’s manufacturer. The profiles mimic those developed by each manufacturer for their different sensor technologies. In this case, I chose “Camera Landscape” for Canon as it handled the colour gradient in the sky most accurately. I also sometimes play with the primary saturation. Increasing blue saturation helped this image return to how I remembered it.
  3. I often drop the highlights and increase the shadows, but this image didn’t need it as I had so many exposures to use. I play with the colour temp and tint to make sure the image resembles my recollection of the scene or the mood I am going for. Colour balance is very personal and you should go with your own taste.

Opening images as layers in one Photoshop project

I do not sharpen or perform any finer adjustments at this initial Lightroom stage. I also save cropping and framing until the very end as different future outputs may require different dimensions. Once the foreground exposure is ready, I press Ctrl/Cmd and select the other flagged exposures (Backgrounds and sunstar) then click Sync to copy the adjustments to each exposure. With all the exposures synchronised and selected, right click and select Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop.

Blending of exposures in Photoshop using Luminosity and Gradient Masks

You should now have one project open in Photoshop, with each exposure as a separate layer. It is best to label them as you go along (“foreground”, “background buildings”, “background sky” and “sunstar” in my case). I am to perform three exposure blends here:

  1. Blending the background exposures of the shaded buildings and courtyard with that of the sky using luminosity masks

The exposure for the shaded buildings has a very bright sky. I could darken the sky with an adjustment brush in Lightroom, but it wouldn’t look so tidy as exposure blending and I may lose colour information or smooth gradient quality in the sky. Alternatively, I could use a frame exposed to the sky and lift up the shadows in Lightroom. However, I may get a lot of noise and will lose detail and colour information

Luminosity masks sound complicated and scary, but they are easy, especially if you use a plugin to simplify the process. I place the “background building” exposure as the bottom layer and place the “background sky” exposure on top of it. I then use a Photoshop plugin called RayaPro (details below) to create a luminosity mask which identifies the brightest part of the sky exposure. The information from the correctly exposed sky then appears over the correctly exposed building layer. The end result retains all the information, detail and colour, for each part of the scene with no horrible fringing or halos. In fact, the image now resembles what you see with your eye after your brain has just done the same trick.

raya pro

Using the Raya Pro plugin in Photoshop CC to easily create Luminosity Masks

The beauty of using a plugin like RayaPro is that you can quickly flick between different intensities of luminosity mask to quickly see which best suits your image. Here, I select the darker “background sky” exposure and click “Auto Blend Dark” and click through 1 to 6. I selected option 1. You can click on the mask while holding down the Alt/Option key to view what the mask has selected. The mask is black and white, where increasing white means that area of the layer is selected and black is excluded. You can see that the mask has accurately picked out the brighter sky and reflections off the paving. I thought that the sky was a little too dark in this blend, so I dropped the opacity of the darker sky exposure down to about 55% so the image appeared as I remembered it.

luminosity mask

Visualising a Luminosity Mask

  1. Blending in the sharp focus foreground using a gradient mask

You can ask Photoshop to blend layers for you by selecting them and going to Edit>Auto-Blend Layers and clicking “Stack Images”. Photoshop will search for the best detail in each layer and use that in the merge. This is often referred to as focus stacking. In this case, I knew I just wanted the immediate foreground. So I simply select the foreground layer and add a new layer mask (circle in a rectangle icon, bottom right). I then click on the new layer mask and use the linear gradient tool (set from white to black) and draw upwards from the bottom of the image to the middle while holding the shift key. You end up with a nice gradient where the immediate foreground is selected white and middle ground selection fades into the background. Click back on the layer image and toggle the visibility of the layer by clicking the eye icon. You should see the effect of the foreground sharpness appearing in your scene.

gradient mask

Creating a Gradient Mask

  1. Blending in the sunstar

I decided to image the sunstar and main scene a few moments apart, so now I need to add the sunstar back into the clean scene. Alternatively, you may have included the sunstar in your main exposure and now want to remove glare using an exposure when you used your finger or hand to block out the sun. In either case, select your new layer, “sunstar” in my case, and create a new layer mask for that layer. Then select the layer mask and click Ctrl/Cmd and I to make sure the mask is black (there are lots of Photoshop key command shortcuts you can learn later) and use the brush tool, set to white and about 40% opacity. With the layer mask still selected, I then carefully paint over where the sunstar is and it now begins to appear on my main scene. I toggle between painting with white and black to add or remove elements of the sunstar and flare that I like or dislike. That should be it. In the drop-down menu immediately above the layers, I selected the sunstar layer blend mode to be normal. You should try the other options and see what they do.

Sharpening, colour and contrast adjustments

Now we’re on the home straight and want to present the final image. I start by selecting all my blended layers, right click and select “Group from Layers”. I then create a copy of that group and merge the copied group into a single merged image for the next step. To do that, find the Create a new layer icon in the bottom right (looks like a folded paper). Drag the group and let go over that icon and a new copy will be made (this works for duplicating all layers, groups or multiple selections thereof). Right-click on the new copied group and select “Merge Group”. I rename this new blended image layer “Version 1” and make a copy of it. The reason for making copies as you go along is that Photoshop edits are destructive. Copies allow you go back or try a different edit, or fix an error later on.

Next, I perform sharpening. Sharpening is effective when the output is a digital screen, like on social media sites, but you do need to be careful. Too much is horrible. I have stopped using the sharpening tools in Lightroom and Photoshop and prefer to use a plugin called Detail from Topaz Labs, usually at the “light” defaults. It performs very well without creating noise or artefacts.

Then I perform any colour grading or contrast adjustments. This is to personal taste and style and can be quite elaborate. You could make use of 3D LUTs, Lightroom presets or Photoshop actions, such as those offered here at Sleeklens. I have used all of these at some point to help develop my skills and personal style. For this image, I used a plugin called Clarity from Topaz Labs to improve micro contrast and recover some warmth to the scene. The Google Nik Collection, now free, is another option. Again, I work on a copy of the previous layer (the sharpened layer in this case). The beauty of Photoshop is that you can control the opacity of each layer and thus soften any adjustment to keep the image looking natural.

topaz

Using Topaz Clarity for colour and contrast adjustments

Clone stamping to remove unwanted items in a scene

Typically, that would be it for a landscape image. However, this being an urban site, there are a couple of issues, a graffiti tag and two trash bins on one of the columns. You need to decide if you are trying to create a true representation of a place (you don’t remove anything) or a moment to enjoy. I went for the latter. Operating on a new copied layer, I used the clone stamp tool to copy a piece of plain wall over the graffiti. I also copied from neighbouring column to remove the trash bins (why did they install them there?!). This level of editing is not to everyone’s taste, but it goes on all the time when images are published, trust me!

PS Clone Stamp Tool

Removing unwanted items using clone stamping

Final adjustments of crop, colour and local brightness

I tend to save Photoshop blending edits as a PSD file so I can return to them later. Close the file and return to Lightroom. The Photoshop edited image should be in the filmstrip.

Cropping

It is at this final stage I decide on the best crop. A 2×3 crop worked in this instance. I retained most of the scene and just lost some uninteresting wall on the right and a bit of foreground. I kept within the “rule of thirds” composition guide as the top third was mostly sky, the middle mostly architecture and the bottom mostly paving and light rays. This is not a strict rule, but compositions that follow this rule tend to be more balanced and pleasing to the eye. Carefully study the edges and corners of your cropped image to make sure nothing is creeping into the scene or is cut off awkwardly. In this scene, the centres of the light rays and shadows meet with the bottom corners of the image, which is pleasing.

LR Crop

Deciding on a final crop in Lightroom

Colour and local brightness adjustments

Even though I have already adjusted the overall colour using Topaz clarity, I still explore what further adjustments look like. I opted for +6 of magenta tint in Basic for a bit more warmth and +20 of blue saturation in Camera Calibration to give the image a bit more colour punch that works on social media. I’ll probably reduce this when printing.

I tend to add a thin density gradient in Basic to reduce the exposure of the immediate foreground by 1 stop. This gradient helps to “close” the image and draw the eye into the scene. I also added a density gradient on the sky and added a lot of magentas to shift to a more pleasing blue tone. Something like this is image specific, so play around and see what effect the adjustments make, what pleases you, what looks natural, what looks artificial.

Finally, after reviewing the image the next day, I added a radial filter over the well in the courtyard to make it stand out from the buildings a bit more. I added +0.8 exposure and a warm tint to match the sunlight streaming into the courtyard.

Summary

In summary, I have shown you some of the tools I use to plan a sunrise shoot, how you can go about taking multiple exposures and then combining them in post-production to create excellent results. The beauty of using Lightroom and saving the Photoshop file is that you can return later if you change your mind and want a different feel to the image. You have the main structure of the blended image and adjustments are quick and easy to make. Photoshop is extremely empowering. It is worth investing time in learning its capabilities. Make use of good quality plugins and actions to help you along.

Not many photography enthusiasts have a professional’s budget, so I have purposely used an enthusiast level APS-C DSLR camera for this work, the Canon 70D (now the 80D). It is a very practical and capable camera, but it does not have the dynamic range or low light performance of the leading full frame DSLR and mirrorless cameras from Nikon, Sony, Fuji and Canon. Bracketing and exposure blending, therefore, have a big impact on final image quality. I hope you find some of these tips useful and will try them out on your next shoot. Most of all, get out there and enjoy the light in the mornings!

Software

Adobe Lightroom Classic CC and Photoshop CC

Detail and Clarity from Topaz Labs

RayaPro from Jimmy McIntyre

Details of all of these tools and the equipment I use and recommend can be found on my website https://www.adamwest.co.uk/p/inmybag

Capturing Sunrise Landscapes: Use Mobile Apps To Plan Your Shoot

Very few of us are far from a smartphone these days and many of us in the photography community spend a lot of time sharing and browsing images on social platforms as we seek inspiration and interaction. We can also make use of apps to improve our photography experience. The wealth of information at our fingertips can improve our chances of being in the right place at the right time, even if we have no local knowledge of the location we are going to shoot.

There are many stages of landscape photography and planning is one of my favorite ones. This is where you search for inspiration, imagine the kind of shots you could take and what weather conditions would ideally give you the best shot. Here I take you through the information resources I use when planning a sunrise shoot. It is quite a commitment getting out of bed early and going to a location in the dark, so you’d better have a good plan! I have chosen a scenario that involves a location I had not visited before. I indicate which are my own favorite tools at present and I am not sponsored to promote any paid apps or services. I welcome any other suggestions in the comments area at the end of this blog.

Cloud cover forecasting

I was visiting Portimão, Portugal, in winter and wanted to take advantage of the good weather for a sunrise shot. I preferred to find somewhere I could walk to.  I first checked the weather forecasts. There are many apps for this and you will know which are most accurate for your area. I knew from general weather apps that the next day would be a clear full sun day, but I wanted to know specifically whether there would be any high clouds that might light up at sunrise. I use two free resources for the astronomy community for the forecast of cloud levels. One is Skippy Sky (http://www.skippysky.com.au), the other is Clear Outside (https://clearoutside.com), the latter of which offers free Android/iOS apps. I have found the Clear Outside cloud level probabilities to be remarkably accurate when I have used it. Skippy Sky offers a more visual representation that you may be more used to in weather forecasts.

 

skippysky

A typical output from www.skippysky.com.au
©2017 Andrew Cool

A forecast of clear weather with some high cloud and little to none at lower levels are the conditions for the fiery sunrises and sunsets we all love. The forecast in my scenario was for no cloud in a dry high-pressure atmosphere. That meant no fiery skies, so there was little point going for a wide seascape. I, therefore, opted to try and go for a Sunstar shot, where the sun emerges from behind a tall structure or landscape feature. A shot like this requires accurate knowledge of exactly when and where the sun will rise so that you can position yourself with a good time to compose your shot. I considered one of the sea stacks that are prevalent on this coastline or an interesting man-made feature like a church tower in a local village, but I needed to know exactly where and when the sun would rise.

Planning for the sunrise

I use either of two paid apps that accurately plot the angle of the rising and setting sun and moon onto different versions of google maps. These are The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) (http://photoephemeris.com/) and PhotoPills (https://www.photopills.com/). Both offer complex visualization tools such as augmented reality or 3D projections, which may prove useful, especially in complex mountainous terrains and at altitude. Either app deserves a place in any serious photographer’s toolkit.

Photopills

Screenshots (iPad, iOS) from PhotoPills (above) and TPE (bottom) for the same location and day.

TPE

Using these photography planning apps, I quickly ruled out many locations as they didn’t align with the sunrise, but noticed that Fortaleza de Santa Catarina, a 17th-century fort overlooking the mouth of the River Arade, might be a good location as it is raised away from surrounding buildings. The use of online images helps you get a feel for a new location. If a location is close to home or somewhere you frequently visit then you can scout it in person, but this is not always possible when traveling to new places. You can perform a simple Google search if your location has a clear name, like this fort, but sometimes this is not specific enough. Two handy tools are Google maps and Flickr. The odds are that you are not the first person to visit your chosen location and that somebody has snapped it on their phone and posted it online. Most of these images are geotagged and can be easily searched for by location. Using Google Maps on a desktop browser, you can zoom into your location, go into satellite view and click on the double arrows in the bottom right corner. You will see geotagged images that may be of help. When logged in to Flickr on a desktop browser, you can Explore the World Map by zooming in and searching for images tagged in that area. Both can be useful in deciding on whether to visit a location.

All this information quickly directed my interest towards an attractive internal courtyard in the fort where one wall is opened with seven arches. The photography apps indicated that if I positioned myself low down in the NW corner of the courtyard, I should be able to catch the sun passing through the arches. That is precisely what happened. The story of this image would be about the geometry of the paving, the arches and the shadows cast by the columns. I tried a few different compositions to balance the position of the well in the courtyard with the arches and the canon beyond, while still achieving a sunstar. I use Live View on my camera’s LCD screen to help me compose the shot.

Taking multiple exposures

There are multiple challenges presented by this scene. Firstly, the sun and sky will be several exposure stops brighter than the shaded courtyard. Most photographers do not have the latest camera with such a massive dynamic range that you can expose for the sky and recover the shadow detail in post-production. Secondly, the direct sunlight will create strong lens flare. This can be attractive but is often very diffuse and dominant when the sun is strong. Thirdly, it is difficult to get the full image in perfect focus (if that is what is intended). Finally, different apertures are required to achieve the best quality Sunstar versus the sharpest focus for the rest of the image. If you want the best results to achieve an image you can be happy with for a long time, it is necessary to take multiple exposures on a tripod in manual mode so that you can combine the best elements of each exposure. The single exposure alternative would be a compromise of shooting at a relatively small aperture for the Sunstar, while still achieving enough focus quality across the scene. The quality of the lens used and dynamic range of the sensor will greatly determine the success of a single exposure.

I always shoot RAW at maximum quality to maintain all the information from the camera’s sensor. I routinely use auto exposure bracketing (AEB) on my camera to take five images of the same scene. If you use the timer function on your camera, all will be taken at once. Each exposure is set to be one full stop apart. The reason for using AEB is that sunrise and sunset is a brief event. The sun is moving and you have no time to worry about exposure. Your concentration in that moment is on composition and focus. AEB ensures that you will have the correct exposure. You can delete unwanted exposures once you have finished post-production. I shoot in Live View with the eyepiece covered as a habit. I use a DSLR, so Live View effectively holds the mirror up during the shooting, removing one component of camera shake. I also use the visual guidelines or the inbuilt spirit level available on many modern cameras to make sure the camera is leveled. For this scenario, I took three series of exposures:

  1. The Sunstar exposures. Use the smallest aperture available, which was f22 when my lens was at 18 mm. The spikes emanating from the sun are sharper and longer at the smallest apertures. The sharpness and length of the spikes will vary with the quality of the lens used. Make sure your lens is thoroughly cleaned before you begin as each spec of dust will create an unattractive flare point. Only use part of the sun to get a cleaner start. Review your images on camera right away to check for quality and exposure. You may need to try two or three times to get it just right.

sunstar exposures

Sunstar exposures. Canon 70D, 18mm, f22, 1/30 to 1/2 sec (left to right)

2. The foreground exposures. I want all of the scene to be in sharp focus. I know from experience that the lens I was using is sharpest at F8. So F8, exposed for the paving and courtyard. Use Live View and manually focus on the immediate foreground.

foreground exposures

Foreground exposures. Canon 70D, 18mm, f8, 1/100 to 1/6 sec (left to right)

3. The background exposures. Here, I focused on the beautiful wrought ironwork on top of the well and exposed for the building at f8.

background exposure

Background exposures. Canon 70D, 18mm, f8, 1/100 to 1/6 sec (left to right)

Note: You may want to remove distracting lens flare from your scene. In my case, I imaged the trailing edge of the sun for my Sunstar. I only needed to wait a few seconds for the sun to rise a little further to take my other images as soon as the sun had transited behind a column. That isn’t always possible and you may want to get foreground features like plants or people backlit by the sun. The answer is to take your foreground image with your finger placed between the sun and lens to block out the glare. Use Live View to get this right. You will use small portions of this image to paint over any flares in main exposure

sunflares block

Blocking out sun flares

You now have plenty of exposures on your card to build a beautiful image from. In part 2, I shall take you through my post-processing workflow. I show you how I select the four exposures to combine into the final image, how I prepare them in Adobe Lightroom, blend exposures in Adobe Photoshop, sharpen, colour grade and touch up to achieve this end result. Taking all these images and then spending 30-60 minutes processing them is a commitment to excellence in your photography. Only some scenes and moments merit the effort, but if you want the best results then proceed to part 2.

finished

The finished version. Sunrise at Fortaleza de Santa Catarina

Hopefully, you have found some of these tips useful for your work. Do post a comment below and let us know if there any other apps or services you have found useful in planning your photography.

Equipment required

Any good quality camera with manual controls

Good quality memory cards with plenty of capacity. If you have not used bracketed exposures before, you will be surprised by how many images you accrue and the disk space they take.

A sturdy tripod

Air Blower. Clean your lens just before you take your shots, especially in dusty/coastal locations

Circular polarising filter (optional). For richer colors, less haze and less glare

Neutral density gradient filters (optional). I tend to combine the use of filters with exposure blending as I do get better results with my system.

A frequently updated list of all of the equipment, software, and apps I use and recommend can be found on my website at https://www.adamwest.co.uk/p/inmybag

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Photographing Puffins and Their Friends: A How-To Guide

Summer is the perfect time to get out to the coast and photograph seabirds as they come back to land to breed on the cliffs, stacks and rocky islands along our shores. You can witness enormous colonies of birds clinging to seemingly impossible places to hatch an egg and rear a chick. The sights, sounds (and smells) are breath-taking. If you are lucky, you may be near a location where you can get close to the birds to witness their mating rituals, their nesting behavior and see the chicks as they quickly fledge. There are many opportunities for great shots.

This article describes the kind of experience you can have in the north of the UK, but there are advice and tips for anyone thinking of going to the coast to observe their own local seabirds. I will describe some of the best locations, what to consider before you make your trip, and offer some practical advice on how to setup your camera for those difficult in-flight shots we crave.

puffin Canon 70D | Sigma 150-500 at 600 mm | f6.3 | ISO 400 | 1/4000 | Atlantic Puffin, Farne Islands, May 2017

The Farne Islands – A Puffin Paradise

Without a doubt, the Atlantic Puffin is one of the most admired creatures in the world. It has an almost comical appearance with its large brightly-coloured bill, red and black eye markings, and bright orange legs. Its round black and white body, short wings and clumsy movement on the ground suggest that it is the clown of seabirds. Far from it. Puffins are highly adapted to the harsh and windy shores of the North Atlantic and are superb underwater swimmers. Puffins have short wings to enable them to “fly” underwater, where they catch small fish known as sand eels on the seabed. This means that puffins have to fly at high speed to stay aloft in the air, and are one of the fastest birds in steady level flight. This makes in-flight shots very challenging, so you need to be smart.

farne glad tidings Canon 70D | Sigma 150-500 at 531 mm | f8 | ISO 400 | 1/3200 | Tour boats prepare to take visitors out to the Farne Islands, May 2017

Puffins nest in soft underground burrows to protect their chicks, known as pufflings. This greatly limits the locations where they can breed and they often have to fly for several miles to catch their prey. There are excellent coastal sites throughout Ireland, the west of the UK, East Scotland and north east England. My favorite, by far, is the Farne Islands, a collection of 15 to 20 (depending on the tide) islands formed of volcanic dolerite lava. There are several well-organised boat tour companies that operate out of the small town of Seahouses. Many of the boat tours will take you around the different islands to see the 6,000 gray seals that make a home here and the birds that nest on the vertical cliffs of the islands. If you are staying locally, try and pick a day that is bright and not too windy. A hazy summer’s day is perfect. Take travel sickness pills if you are susceptible as the tides rushing past the islands throw up quite a swell.

guillemot Canon 70D | Sigma 150-500 at 150 mm | f6.3 | ISO 400 | 1/2000 | Guillemot and Kittiwakes on the Farne Islands, May 2017

You do need to land on the islands if you want to take some good shots. The islands are owned and managed by the National Trust, and you can land on two of them. Staple Island is open in the morning and has very large colonies of puffin, guillemot, razorbill, kittiwake, shag, and cormorant. You have more space to move around on this island, and you can get very close to all of these species. You will not need a very long telephoto lens to get some beautiful portrait images of the birds on the ground. Note that most trips only give you one hour on Staple Island. If you are serious about your photography and love these seabirds, it will be over so quickly. Consider an all day trip. You can also land on Inner Farne in the afternoon. There are no facilities on Staple Island; there are basic toilets on Inner Farne. You should carry all your own refreshments.

Inner Farne has very good access to puffins, and the pufflings will be wandering about your feet in July, so tread carefully and slowly. You will see cliff nesting guillemots (murres), razorbills and kittiwakes, but there is a much smaller viewing area than at Staple Island. Inner Farne has the arctic tern, however. These remarkable birds live for up to thirty years and migrate between the summers in the Antarctic and the North Atlantic, with a typical convoluted round trip stretching over 50,000 miles. There are around 1,000 Arctic Tern nests, many of which are close to the landing area. Arctic terns are very aggressive once their chicks hatch. Expect to get your head clawed at from mid-June through all of July, so a secure hat or cap is a must!

european shag Canon 70D | Sigma 150-500 at 302 mm | f6.3 | ISO 400 | 1/2000 | European Shag on the Farne Islands, May 2017

Tips for getting the in-flight shots

Clearly, equipment will dictate how good your in-flight shots will turn out, but you don’t need pro equipment to get pro results. Being able to control your shutter speed and having a good telephoto focal length is essential. Typically, you would need to be using a DSLR or equivalent camera body with a lens that is at least 200 mm. The best results will be had at 400-600 mm, where you can fill the frame with a puffin in flight. Note that the crop sensor cameras that many enthusiasts own are ideal as they effectively increase your focal length. However, it’s not the size of your lens that matters; it’s what you do with it!

puffin Canon 70D | Sigma 150-500 at 403 mm | f6.3 | ISO 400 | 1/4000 | Puffin flying past Longstone lighthouse on the Farne Islands, May 2017

Puffins will be flying at 45-55 mph with a very rapid wing beat. You need to be shooting at 1/2000 of a second or faster to freeze the puffin in flight. I always shoot in manual mode, fix my aperture wide open and turn up my ISO to 400 or so. On a bright day with a mid-range Sigma 150-600 mm lens, I can shoot everything at 1/2000 to 1/4000. Autofocus will be your biggest issue. You need to get to know your equipment and practice some simple techniques. Most DSLRs and equivalent bodies now have something called back button focus. This is where you can easily assign the autofocus away from the shutter button to a button on the back of the camera where your thumb rests. You can find plenty of guidance online with many excellent YouTube videos. You will shoot in continuous or burst mode, and you should set your focus to a single central AF point or a central zone of points. If you are new to this, practice at home. It is easy to get used to and the best technique you will ever learn.

puffin Canon 70D | Sigma 150-500 at 267 mm | f5.6 | ISO 400 | 1/4000 | Puffin in flight over the Farne Islands, May 2017

When on the islands, take some time to study the flight paths of the birds you are interested in. Many birds will follow the same tracks. Also, think about the wind and the angle of the sun. You want the sun to be behind you, and ideally, the wind would be behind you too. That way, more birds will face you and will be well lit without big wing shadows. On Staple Island, I recommend standing towards the top of the flight of stairs. On Inner Farne, I recommend walking to the opposite side to where you land. Puffins will repeatedly fly over you, many with a mouthful of sand eels. You don’t want to be too low, but ideally, you will be shooting with the sky as a background. Your autofocus may frequently identify background land as the focus point, resulting in more failures. Set the autofocus switch on your lens to only hunt at longer distances (if available).

Set up your exposure time and check that the speed you have results in a 1 stop overexposure for the sky area you aiming at. This is a good starting point, which you may need to adjust. Use your histogram to routinely look for overexposed highlights. The white feathers easily get blown out in sunlight. To get your shot, you need to identify a puffin coming at you in the distance. You will have approximately 5 seconds before it is over you! You need to get the autofocus to lock onto the bird in this time, and you pan with the bird trying to keep it in the center of the frame. Most of your efforts will be awful. Don’t worry, just keep at it. You do get your eye in after a while and will end up with shots you didn’t think you could achieve. Try and keep your feet fixed to the ground and twisted your body for a smooth pan. If you are using a long and heavy lens, rest the center of the weight on your palm with fingers pointing forwards, which helps with a smoother panning action. Also, consider starting a shot zoomed out a bit to find a bird and slowly zoom in while shooting. It’s good fun and action for you as well as the bird. Clearly, cameras with more AF points, dynamic tracking modes and lenses with faster glass will make life easier and increase your success rate, but they are not essential. A key tip is just to keep taking shots. Don’t hesitate or give up. That one great shot will make up for a few hundred blurry shots that can be easily deleted.

puffins Canon 70D | Sigma 150-500 at 324 mm | f8 | ISO 400 | 1/2500 | Puffin landing on the Farne Islands, May 2017

There are many unique flight shots that can be had. You can capture puffins with a mouthful of sand eels or nesting material, and there are many wing shapes. I recommend spending some time on photographing their landings. If there is a breeze, the puffins will glide in, and their feathers will spread out beautifully. Try and face them head on when they land if you can. If you have quite a still summers day, then the puffins will land quite hard due to their short wings, which is fun to watch. You can assemble a unique action sequence in Photoshop if this appeals to you. The guillemots, razorbills, shags, and cormorants are also very beautiful in flight. You can also capture some of the other birds that frequent the waters, like this image of female Eider duck.

eiders Canon 70D | Sigma 150-500 at 252 mm | f5.8 | ISO 400 | 1/4000 | Female Eider duck over the Farne Islands, May 2017

Photographing seabirds from the clifftops

You don’t need your sea legs to photograph seabirds. There are many coastal locations with high cliffs that offer excellent homes for seabirds, including the puffin. Finding a location with a good vantage point that is safe is more challenging than traveling out to an island. One such location is St Abbs Head in the Scottish Borders. The head was formed from volcanic activity and has resulted in sheer cliffs and large sea stacks that are ideal for guillemots, kittiwakes, and razorbills in particular. Other locations may be home to gannets and large numbers of puffin. St Abbs Head is owned and managed by the National Trust for Scotland and offers excellent views down onto the seabird colonies.

Pettico Wick photo Canon 70D | 18 mm | f7.1 | ISO 400 | 30 secs | Coastline at St Abbs Head, May 2017

guillemot colony Canon 70D | 600 mm | f6.3 | ISO 800 | 1/500s | Guillemot colony at St Abbs Head, May 2017

You can explore St Abbs Head freely and you will discover a variety of seabird colonies on the cliffs or on stacks immediately offshore. If you do go to this location, I recommend walking north of the lighthouse to a headland where there are remains of a nunnery. There are splendid views down to a colony of tens of thousands of guillemots. There are also nearby cliffs where you can catch a glimpse of razorbills. Wherever you visit, take the time to carefully look for good lines of sight and a safe place to set down to take your images. Always take care of the cliff edge and unexpected wind gusts. I recommend going in the morning when most of the cliff faces are in sunlight.

razorbills Canon 70D | 600 mm | f6.3 | ISO 400 | 1/500s | Razorbills at St Abbs Head, May 2017

Hopefully, this article has inspired you to get to the coast in the fine summer weather to see what is happening in your area. You can images of other seabirds on my website. The best times for seabirds in the UK is May to July. Most chicks will be visible in July then the birds will quickly go out to sea. However, you will have migrant birds in spring and autumn, so get some information from your local site. Always plan your trip. Think about how the weather conditions and tides might affect your day. Also, think about the angle of the sun and the strength and direction of the wind and how it may affect which directions the birds will fly in and whether you can get a nice shot from your vantage point. Hopefully, you will try and take images even if you are a relative beginner. While cameras with fast shutters and long lenses with fast glass are ideal, they are not essential for getting great shots. The most expensive kit primarily makes life easier and increases your success rate. One last tip, leave your tripod in the car – you won’t use it. You probably won’t be changing lenses either, so pack a rucksack with a nice drink, some warm clothes and a good bite to eat!

If you have been lucky enough to photograph puffins and their friends, do leave a comment below recommending where to visit in your area…

Slowing Down Time – The Magic of Long Exposure

We are living in a fast world, working longer hours and under greater pressure to produce than ever before. E-mails, social media follows rent, mortgage payments or school fees. It is no wonder many seek to escape to a slower, more natural life. That connection with the great outdoors. Photography is an excellent way of getting people out, whatever their physical ability, whatever their skills, whatever their equipment.

After a while, however, photography quickly becomes a personal art and form of expression. It is not about capturing an accurate image of a favorite place, but about capturing a feeling, an experience. Modern digital photography allows everyone to embellish their artistic personality. No finer example of this is long exposure photography, where the ordinary can become extraordinary. Long exposures create mood, drama or tell a story of movement and flow that standard exposures fail to deliver. Here, I hope to inspire you to have a go at long exposure photography, whether you’re a beginner or experienced. You will find that it opens up opportunities for novel images wherever you are. I show you some examples of what can be achieved and give you some tips on how to get the best results. Thoughts about equipment can be found at the end of the article.

Dynamic skies over landmark buildings

I personally like to escape city life whenever I can, to experience the splendid landscapes, coasts and nature we have here in Scotland. Long exposures can help solve a situation where you have a strong single subject but no interesting composition. Slowing down the movement of the clouds to create streaks can add drama and mood. The subject could be modern city blocks, monuments or historic buildings. In this example, I use the technique to add even more drama to the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland in England.

Dunstanburgh Castle
Canon 70D | 10 mm | f8 | 2 mins | 15 stop ND | Northeast coast of England at noon, May 2017

Tip: Study cloud movement

The best results are achieved in changeable skies, so patchy cloud on a partly sunny day is perfect. This is an excellent subject for those who can only get out in the middle of the day. The dynamism more than makes up for the light at golden hour. There are a couple of things you need to think about. Look at the direction the clouds are traveling in. Ideally, you want to position yourself so that the clouds are moving directly to or from your subject. Think about exposure time in terms of how long it takes a cloud to pass through the frame. Two or three minutes is a good place to start.

Smooth lakes

When we look at the surface of a lake, we see the bright peaks and dark shadow troughs. A long exposure of several minutes averages these away to create a smooth silky surface. In cloudy or foggy conditions, you can achieve minimalistic results. Only rocks or structures in the foreground stay in focus. This image from Loch Lomond in Scotland is a good invisible horizon result from a very foggy day.

Silence Loch
Canon 70D | 18 mm | f8 | 2 mins | 15 stop ND | Loch Lomond, Scotland, Jan 2017

However, the magic doesn’t end there. Shorter exposures (tens of seconds) in breezy and bright conditions can result in the water having a metallic appearance. My favorite outcomes are the unexpected. Sometimes, an exposure of several minutes can reveal colors on the water’s surface you don’t notice by eye. It’s a great moment when the image appears on the camera screen and you’re surprised by the colors. Try going beyond the time necessary to smooth out ripples and waves and see what happens in different lighting conditions. I use a 15 stop neutral density (ND) filter to achieve 5 or 10-minute exposures in the middle of the day. Use structures in your composition like piers or submerged fences. A lone tree in winter can be outstanding if you can find one. This scene from Loch Lomond in Scotland is a fine example.

tree of life
Canon 70D | 15 mm | f5 | 3.5 mins | 15 stop ND | Loch Lomond, Scotland, afternoon March 2017

Tip: Take multiple exposures

Like all landscape photography, achieving the correct exposure of the sky, water and the landscape components of an image is challenging. While you can use software like Lightroom to darken skies and brighten the landscape, the dynamic range of most camera sensors is simply not large enough to balance an image without losing information. For the subjects I describe here, typically the sky and water require a similar exposure. Parts of the landscape can be too dark, however. Also, you may have a problem with vegetation or boats moving throughout the exposure. The simple answer is to take standard “bracketed” exposures at the same time as your long exposure. Many cameras have an automatic exposure bracketing (AEB) function. For example, with one shutter press, you can take five images (-2, -1, 0, +1 and +2 stops) of the same scene. I do this a standard practice without any decision-making on location. When you get home, you have the option of blending exposures in Photoshop to your taste. Taking multiple exposures of an identical scene gives you the freedom to be creative or fussy later on. There are no rules, so follow your own style.

Seascapes

The sea is constantly changing with the tide and light. Combined with the changing skies, you will never capture the same image twice. Think piers, harbors, breakwaters or stratified geology reaching out into the sea. This subject is ideal for those flat cloudy days when you would normally leave the camera at home. Think 5, 10 minutes or more and see what happens. The ordinary can become extraordinary. A good example is this breakwater at a small fishing harbor in Scotland. The very unusual geometry stands out against the smooth water.

Crooked Fife
Canon 70D | 10 mm | f7.1 | 5 mins | 15 stop ND | East coast of Scotland at dawn, Apr 2017

Tip: Get to know your location

You need to get acquainted with coastal locations. You must pay attention to the tide and how structures and rocks are revealed and covered. Where do waves form? Can you get back safely on a rising tide? Where is the sun rising and setting? It does pay to do some homework before you set out. Always check the tide times when you set out and prepare to get your feet wet. I find The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) app to be a highly useful tool in planning my shoots. The image above benefited from knowing on which morning the sunrise would coincide with high tide and that the angle of the sunlight at that time of year would hit the structure in the way I hoped.

Some locations are so stunning, you will want to return again and again. The Ponta da Piedade, near Lagos in Portugal, is one of those jaw-dropping places. Heavily weathered limestone cliffs have been carved into rock pillars, a series of natural passageways, and secluded grottoes. The sandstone cliffs of gruff angles stand in blunt contrast to the deep turquoises and greens of the calm seas. There are so many angles to shoot from. The changing tides, light, and weather dramatically change the scene. In this example, I wanted the sun to be high enough to light up the color of the sea but still have a low enough angle for nice shadows and a sense of depth. A high tide coincided with late afternoon light to give a very pleasing result. The turbulent waters produce something like the metallic surface I referred to above.

Algarve, Portugal
Canon 70D | 11 mm | f13 | 34 secs | 10 stop ND | Lagos, Portugal, Dec 2016

Beaches and waves

Beaches are many people’s favorite places, even if they are not sun worshipers. The opportunities for photographers are limitless. Some the best images capture the motion of the sea and record the dynamics of waves as they flow around pebbles or rocks. The best results are achieved when there is a bit of surf. The bright white foam will leave wonderful trails as a wave retreats. You could capture a full wave in its retreat or focus on a few pebbles or a nice rock. Spend some time studying your subject first. See what the water does.

Think about your timing. It does depend on how fast the water is moving. I suggest starting with 0.8 sec and see if your subject needs more or less time to create nice lines that illustrate the flow of the water. Ideally, work in a falling tide. You will avoid getting hit by a big wave. Experienced coastal photographers are prepared to get very wet and never walk away from their tripod. Unexpected large waves do happen and can soak you and knock your camera over. Always be alert, be ready to lift your tripod and start again.

Algarve, Portugal
Canon 70D | 18 mm | f7.1 |0.8 sec | Portimao, Portugal, Dec 2016.

Tip: Securing your tripod in sand

You will be using a tripod for best results, but they do sink into wet sand very easily. You can ram the tripod hard into the sand, but you may lose a rubber foot (I have!) and you are forcing sand into the fittings. The simple answer is to use something to spread the weight of the feet in the sand. Collect up some nice big shells and put them under your tripod feet and push down gently. If you do get sand and salt water into your tripod, shower it down when you get home and dry out before folding it up.

The magic of twilight

Most photographers know that the golden hour around sunrise and sunset offers the most wonderful light. However, don’t restrict yourself to the yellow and orange light. If you are lucky enough to be in a coastal location with a large ocean and no clouds over the horizon, you can capture intense violets long before sunrise or after sunset that our eyes struggle to see. These violets are reflected off the stratosphere over the horizon and can be dazzling. Sometimes the sea is brighter mauve than the sky, which can trick your mind. Set your white balance to fluorescent light at the location and see what happens. The conditions are nearly dark, so you will need a torch and be very familiar with your location to be safe. The results can be jaw-dropping without any manipulation. This winter scene from near Portimao in the Algarve, Portugal is a fine example.

Portimao twilight
Canon 70D | 16 mm | f29 | 3.5 mins | 10 stop ND | Portimao, Portugal, Dec 2016

Waterfalls

This is a very popular long exposure subject and most photographers will have nearby waterfalls to practice their technique and achieve a beautiful image. The main attention should be on your composition. Frame up so you can see the water cascade across your image. I often prefer the small complex falls over the mammoth falls that get all the attention. Shoot on a cloudy day if there are trees over the waterfall so you can achieve a more balanced and moody exposure. Then you have a choice. Some prefer a middle length exposure of around 0.8 secs to illustrate the flow without creating milky water. I personally prefer the dreamy effects of 1 or 2-minute exposures. The timing will depend on the size of the falls and the volume of the water. This is probably the easiest long exposure subject to get a pleasing result from.

Glen Sannox
Canon 70D | 10 mm | f8 | 1.3 sec | Isle of Arran, Scotland, Oct 2016

Tip: Cover the eyepiece

A key aspect of long exposure photography, especially the very long exposures with ND filters is the avoidance of light leak. If you own a DSLR, where light from the lens is sent to the viewfinder eyepiece via a prism, light can also take the reverse path. This is particularly a problem if the sun is behind you and shining onto the eyepiece. A portion of that light can make it all the way to the sensor. It’s a small amount, but enough to create glare and streaks on your beautiful image. There are two solutions. First, always shoot in Live View if you have it. It helps with your composition and focusing but also locks the reflex mirror up. Many DSLRs also have a mirror lockup mode. When the mirror is up most of the light from the eyepiece cannot make its way towards the sensor. However, this is not perfect when in bright sunny conditions. So the second easy tip is to cover the eyepiece during the exposure. Most cameras come with a cover attached to the manufacturer’s strap, but you can use anything. Some use a piece of foil or their hand. I just place my cap on the camera. Simple!

Equipment you will need and that you would like…

The camera:

Long exposure photography can be performed on mobile phones and compact cameras as well as higher end mirrorless and DSLRs. Photography should be about ideas and technique, not the latest equipment, so don’t be afraid to try. The key thing is being able to shoot in manual mode. Normally, you will want to reduce your ISO setting (the sensitivity of the sensor) to its lowest value, typically 50 or 100. You then vary the aperture and neutral density filters (optional) to lengthen an exposure to achieve your desired exposure time. Long exposures with higher ISO settings can result in accumulated digital noise with all but the higher end sensors.

Desirables: A camera with a “bulb mode” to allow exposures over 30 seconds is required for the longer exposures referred to in this article. A camera with live view is a big asset and will make life easier. You can ensure that your focus is pin sharp and can often get an exposure preview to help you estimate the best settings.

A sturdy tripod: Invest in quality. The value tripods you see online are great at first, but the components do come apart quite quickly with use. They struggle with sand and dirt and the heads are often not stable enough. You don’t have to go for a massive carbon fiber pro tripod, although they make life easier. I frequently use a travel tripod (Manfrotto Befree) as it is light, very compact and does a fine job in most circumstances. Choose something you are prepared to carry around. I also prefer levers over screws for the legs as they are less vulnerable to sand and dirt.

A remote shutter release: The super cheap digital ones you see online are perfect. Pros buy two in case one ends up the sea (mine did!). Those with wifi on their cameras can also use an app on their phone as a remote release. I have used this when I want to be in the shot as it can work over 50-100 meters quite easily.

Circular polarizing filters: These are probably the only filter that is essential for landscape photography as they achieve something that software could never emulate. They act to block out light waves reaching the camera from specific angles. By rotating the filter, you can reduce haze and reflections. You will get more intense sky colors, better cloud contrast and deep colors on water surfaces.

Neutral density filters: You don’t need them, but you will really want them if this is your kind of photography. You can take multiple short exposures and average them in Photoshop (Smart objects>Stack mode>Mean), but you will struggle to create multi-minute exposures this way. Neutral density filters are darkened glass that passes through a defined percentage of light. There are different densities for different applications. Typically, you would want to carry a 6 stop (aka ND64) and a 10 stop (aka ND1000, Big Stopper) or 15 stop (aka ND1500, Super Stopper) ND filter. Use the former for a golden hour and the latter for the middle of the day. You can download exposure guide charts online or use apps provided by manufacturers to figure out where to start, but you get a feel for this very quickly.

ND filters that do not create a color cast are not cheap. The cheaper ones online are not completely neutral and can add a red or brown cast to your images. If you are serious about your photography and are steadily building up your kit, you will need to come to a decision as to whether to stay with screw-in filters or to invest in a filter system that can clip onto all of your lenses. Screw-in ND filters are good from the perspective that there is zero risk of light leaking in between the ND filter and the lens, but you will require one for all your different lens sizes. If you do invest in a filter system, I do recommend a leading brand like Lee or Nisi. The mounts are very well made and the ND filters have tight fitting gaskets that prevent light leak. You often can use other brand filters in a system. For example, I use the excellent Haida ND filters in combination with my Lee system and their filters.