Technique Explained: Composing images with a difference

Seascape - final shot combining interesting light with reflections in the foreground

Image: My final shot – Interesting light and reflections in the foreground combine to make this the image I will hang on my wall

I love the sea, and with three miles of gently

pristine beach, Saunton Sands in North Devon has to be one of the most
beautiful locations I have come across. It also has the added benefit of
enabling me to combine two of my favourite pastimes – surfing and photography.
Just thinking about the place is enough to make me smile, and driving down the
slope to the beach car park always sets my heart beating faster. So, in
addition to catching some great waves during a long weekend break, my aim was to
capture an image that I can print and hang on the wall in my landlocked home to
remind me of this little piece of heaven.

Having golden sand, a sparkling sea, crystal-clear rock
pools, dunes covered in marram grass and a row of colourful beach-huts makes
Saunton Sands a veritable treasure trove for photographers. Yet some of the
other photographic gems, such as holidaymakers, surfers, kite flyers and
bathers, can make it tricky to capture the soul-restoring vista during the day.
On a bright sunny day it’s better to concentrate on capturing some of the
surfing action and save the picturesque seascapes for later in the evening when
there are fewer people around, the sun is lower in the sky and the shadows are

Day one

I arrived at Saunton at around 5.30 on a Friday afternoon to
be greeted by fairly high winds and brief spells of sunshine. It was a
promising start because as the sun gets lower, it can often make an appearance
in the chink of sky between the cloud and the sea. Predictably, this time it
stayed behind the dull, uninteresting clouds until sinking beneath the horizon.
I didn’t take any shots that evening, but instead walked along the beach to
remind myself of the lie of the land.

Day two

I am not a morning person and have always struggled with
early rises, but for the right shot I am prepared to get up before dawn.
Fortunately for me, on this occasion it wasn’t necessary as the sun rises from
the wrong direction over Saunton Sands, coming up over the land rather than the
sea. Even better, when I did wake up on that second morning there was an almost
cloudless blue sky. 

Unable to resist the temptation, I took a few impatient
shots of the rocks beneath the headland that are exposed at low tide. I decided
to return to this area later in the day, and although the rocks would have
disappeared beneath the higher tide, the light would be better because the sunsets
near the cliff. In the meantime, I occupied myself with surfing and kite flying
while I waited for the better evening light.

Unfortunately, the unexpectedly good weather on the Saturday
meant that the beach remained fairly busy until nightfall.

As a result, I had
to pick my shots carefully and postpone my plans to photograph the headland.

console myself I ventured further down the beach to an area that is usually
only frequented by wind-blown kite-surfers and the more enthusiastic dog
walkers. This is an ideal location for a shot of the sweeping curve of the

Though I have on rare occasions been here alone, my best shots include
one or two people because of the sense of scale they inject into the scene.

Suddenly, rather than an ambiguous strip of sand, the full (almost) three-mile
extent of the beach becomes apparent. The shallow shelf of sand also stays wet
and shining long after the waves have receded, giving images extra sparkle.

this occasion, however, the tide was against me as the sea was approaching its
highest point on the beach and there was little wet sand to work with.
Naturally, I wasn’t about to waste good light and took a few shots of the
incoming sea, shooting from a low angle with a Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 G AF-S ED
at the 24mm point on a Nikon D3x. I chose the D3x because its full-frame sensor
affords the full benefit of wideangle lenses.

With the sun still above the horizon and lots of
light-coloured sand and reflective water around, there was no need to worry
about balancing the exposure of the sky with the land.

Saunton headland rocks - The rocks draw the eye into this scene, but the sun is too high in the sky

However, I kept an eye
on the camera’s histogram to ensure that the bright environment didn’t fool the
camera into underexposing my shots. On the whole, it fared very well, but
occasionally I found I had to dial in as much as 0.7EV to shift the histogram
trace a little to the right. My aim was to retain the highlights (unless the
setting sun was in the shot) without darkening the shadows excessively.

Although I used a tripod for some of my shots, I find it a
bit of a liability when shooting very close to, or in, the sea. The pushing
waves can splash up the legs or erode the sand from under them, increasing the
risk of the camera taking an expensive plunge into the salty water.

Instead, I
prefer to handhold the camera for these shots. I might have to push the
sensitivity up a little as the sun sinks, but at least the camera stays dry -
even when, as on this occasion, I end up with soaked trousers. The faster
shutter speeds that are required to allow handholding of the camera also
guarantee that the waves look like waves and not blurred foam. I’m sure one day
I will return to Saunton Sands looking to achieve this effect, but at the
moment it doesn’t reflect how the place looks to me.

Image: The rocks draw the eye into this scene, but the sun is too high in the sky

Day three

My third and final evening in Saunton brought very different
weather conditions. Although there had been glorious sunshine for most of the
day, the clouds that had been promised for much of the weekend gathered over
the sea a couple of hours before sunset. Only a small stripe of pinky-orange
was visible on the horizon near the dark headland, but the brooding swirl of
cloud above the sea was a fantastic sight. I was also pleased to find that the
more threatening weather and the fact that it was a Sunday evening resulted in
there being far fewer people around and I headed down to my chosen location
looking towards the headland.

As usual, I shot raw and JPEG files simultaneously to give
me flexibility yet maximum control over my images, but I checked that the
camera was set to the daylight white balance mode as this would intensify the
colours – especially the blue of the clouds.

Saunton evening - the light is good but the foreground is too messy

Image: The light is better here, but the foreground is too messy

As I took my first shots of the now silhouetted headland, I
experimented with using different elements for the foreground interest. While
an area of loose scattered stones looked promising, there were too many of them
and they interrupted the attractive sheen on the wet sand. However, a little further
along the beach there was a patch of smoother sand, and the ripples in it, plus
the reflected light from the setting sun, gave me what I was looking for. I
shot from a fairly low angle using the 24-70mm lens at the 24mm point until the
sun disappeared completely and darkness fell.