In my last journal entry here, I commented on how that East Coast beaches present a distinct challenge in landscape photography do to the lack of dramatic or dynamic foreground elements. Compared to the rugged coastline of California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, our beaches, though serene and tranquil, lack that same sort of dramatic flair that you find along the Pacific Ocean. Therefore, creating those three dimensional landscapes of the Atlantic coast calls for creativity, experimentation, and improvisation in order to be successful. Really though, that’s nature photography in general. I just think that coastal images here exemplify this fact more so than most situations.
Now, in the previous post I talked about using the swash of the wave to create dramatic foreground elements in your images. Waves are not the only possibilities however. Other objects exist, its just up to you as an artist to find them and learn how to utilize them. On barrier islands old tree stumps can often be found rising up out of the beach as well as centuries old trees washed up after storms. As the nature of barrier islands is to migrate in response to rising sea levels and storms, old forests that once stood along the backside of these islands become buried and entombed in sand as the islands roll over top of them. Hundreds of years later, they become exposed on the beach or otherwise dug up out of the sand offshore by massive swells.
Probably my favorite things to experiment with as a foreground element other than waves however, are shells. But not just any shells. Most shells you find on the beach are broken, small, or otherwise blasé in shape and size. Like the average beachcomber on vacation searching for shells, I want to the big cool showy ones. Here along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, that means whelk shells. Not all beaches though are created equally in terms of finding these shells. Those of us that live here know where to go, and I will say that the absolute best places on the coast require a boat to get to. A solution to this then, is to collect your own and have a bucket or bag to work with when you need them. Some places, like Cape Lookout National Seashore will provide you with more than enough options on the beach to work with right there on the spot. If you plan your trip to the coast a couple days after a nor’easter, than you will increase your chances of finding incredible stuff on the beach my factors of 100. Shipwrecks, artifacts, skulls, shells galore, you name it. A big storm or massive swell will cough up the Ocean’s treasures – it just usually takes a couple days to get onto shore. Outside of hotspots and major storms though, most of the time great shells are few and far between. This again, is why you should just go ahead and hold on to the ones you find.
Photographing shells on the beach brings you into the realm of extreme wide angle lenses. Using these lenses however means a dramatic stretch in perspective. This means that you will find yourself working just inches away from the shells, and right down in the sand and water. You will not stay clean and dry doing this. You should probably have camera insurance as well – just in case. Joseph Rossbach likes to say that if with super wide angle lenses, “when you think you are close enough, get even closer.” Every second the scene changes. Every wave either brings an image or the destruction to your set up of shells. It’s frustrating, but it’s also a lot of fun.
Getting low, getting close, and dragging your shutter allows you to do multiple things. You bring the shells into a prominent position of the foreground. You blur the movement of the water as it washes in or out around your shells and back down the beach. And you create leading lines with those waves to pull the viewer’s eye out towards the sea and then into the sky. When the sun is setting behind you and you are working with the soft pastels of the sky over the ocean, you should consider using a graduated or split neutral density filter. Split NDs work well here as long as you have a solid line for a horizon. If you are photographing into the sunrise, than the tool may want to consider are reverse graduated neutral density filters. These have the majority of their tinting right in the middle of the filter, and then gradually fade away toward the top. When you have an extremely bright horizon such as when photographing into the sun at sunrise or sunset, this will allow you to control the extreme light along the horizon and create stunning images.
I have put three images up here, all of the same basic composition. Subtle variations are there. The primary difference here though is the water. As I mentioned above, each wave brings a different scene, each second changes the mood and feel of your image dramatically. Hopefully this will give you an idea of what I mean by that – which is one of the reasons that this sort of photography is so much fun.
So get yourself some cool shells, sand dollars, sea stars, etc . . . and go experiment!