The Motion of the Ocean

The morning began at 4:30 am and a quick dash out the door and onto the beach. The original plan was to photograph the Quandrantid meteor shower for which I dragged my infinitely patient wife into the 24 degree frosty darkness of predawn. While she stayed cozy with a blanket and hot coffee, I scrambled to set up my equipment. The meteor shower was to be at its peak in the hours just before dawn, and the majority of the action was to be in the northeast part of the sky. As it turned out, a thin veil of clouds set to the northeast and not only obscured our view in that direction, it also reflected the light pollution of Virginia Beach. Results? I saw about 60 or so meteors, but no images.

So, instead of meteor showers, we stuck it out on the beach to shoot the ocean at sunrise and some shells. . .

All of these images were made with a shutter speed of around 1 to 2 seconds long. When trying to capture the movement of the waves as they rush up the beach, this shutter speed seems to be just about perfect in most situations for dragging out the lines and patterns in the water enough to create the sense of motion and add a touch of dynamism. Shutter speeds longer than this tend to create a glassy sheet with some texture in place of the swash. Shutter speeds up to 30 seconds or longer completely erase all movement of the ocean and it becomes a static reflective subject with some amazing artistic qualities to it. To emphasize the motion though, for me, I prefer to keep it under two seconds long.

Now, one of the issues that you will constantly run into along the east coast of the US is the lack of foreground subject matter. Without a foreground, you are destined to create flat two dimensional images. Not a bad thing if this is your artistic vision, but I would prefer for you to journey through my image. I want to pull your eye into the scene. Utilizing the swash of the waves, and accentuating their movement down the beach allows for me to not only create a foreground element to the composition, but also allows me to create leading lines that help to pull the eye into the image. In this regards then, the slow shutter speed has a twofold advantage.

The shells that you see in these images are channel whelks. Most people call them conchs, but technically conchs are a tropical vegetarian species where as whelks are temperate loving carnivores! The reason that I chose to experiment with these channel whelks as opposed to the other two species in the area – knobbed and lightning whelks – is because of the thinness of their shells. The other whelks are heavy and thick. Channel whelks on the other hand are so light and thin that the sunlight will actually shine right through the shell. I just figured this out actually and therefore this morning was my first attempt at trying to emphasize this unique trait.

The problem with these channel whelks however is that because they are so thin and light, they just get tossed around by the water when it comes in on them. I was only able to get one single image of the shells where I placed them. All others were a mixed bag of the shells tumbling around in the swash. Not to worry though. This is nature photography. Being successful at this is all about experimentation. Like playing the guitar, you experiment and build upon an idea or concept. Lesson learned here. I love the idea of the channel whelks. I just need bigger shells next time!

In the first image, I used the sea foam of an oncoming wave to help accentuate the head of the swash. This helps to give the swash a seemingly solid edge to it even though you can see the bubbles that were on the sand just before the wave rolled in. In the last image, I increased the exposure to create a softer ephemeral like image of the water rushing in around the shells.

This entry was posted in Landscape Photography.