How-To: Shore Shots

A goof-proof guide to capturing six classical coastal scenes.

From the mocking cries of seagulls to the tranquil repetition of waves lapping the land, the coast is beautiful on many levels. But capturing its many facets photographically can be a challenge. After years of photographing on the shore, I've learned a lot of lessons-many the hard way. Here are some of my favorite shots, along with tips to help you in similar situations.

1. Silhouettes at Sunrise
A sunrise shot means being on location half an hour before the big moment. Get your equipment set up while you're still in the dark, because the magic light lasts only a few precious minutes. The same goes for sunset.

To get this shot of an egret in Long Key State Park in the Florida Keys, I scouted the area the day before and found out when and where the sun would be coming up. This is especially important if you want silhouettes with the sun behind your subject.

Use a tripod. Even when shooting into the rising sun, you might need a wide aperture and slow shutter speed.

As for determining exposure, I used the camera's spotmeter on the darker part of the clouds. Evaluative metering would also have worked here, but only because the dark foreground is just a small part of the photo.

I used a Minolta Maxxum 7 and 100-300mm lens with a UV filter. Exposure was 1/500 sec at f/6.7, using Fujichrome Provia 100 slide film.

2. Get the Drift
Coastal photos aren't all sweeping skies and expansive beaches. There are great subjects in everything from seashells to driftwood. For a shot like this, wait until late in the day, so that the warm evening light emphasizes the fiery form of the wood. Set your tripod low, and carefully compose to capture both the tree and beach, while checking the viewfinder for distracting elements. In this case, I noticed a set of dog footprints and quickly covered them with a sprinkling of sand.

To ensure that the driftwood has a light and glowing quality, spotmeter off of the main part, and open up one stop. The highlights will hold their detail, while creating a lighter feel to the picture. For lots of detail and little grain, I stuck with slow slide film, Fujichrome Provia 100.

3. You Must Graduate
For dramatic skies, it's tough to beat the shore. To capture them, nothing beats graduated neutral-density filters.

First, take spotmeter readings off both the sky and the foreground. Here, the sky was three stops brighter than the sand. To avoid blowing out the detail in the sky by exposing for the sand, I used a soft-edge two-stop neutral-density filter (P-size from Cokin).

The filter darkened the sky and lowered the exposure range in the image. A stop or two difference between the foreground and sky is fine.

While there are sophisticated mounting systems for an ND filter, you can simply hold it in front of the lens, or use gaffer's tape to keep it there. Left your filters at home? If you're shooting digital, take several shots, bracketing the exposures, and combine them later with software

4. Timing is everything
Great coastal photos often require the right tide and the right light. This shot of the old net and pilings demanded high tide and, to get the long exposure that would show the soft, moving water, the light that comes right after dusk. Since high tide comes 50 minutes later each day, a local tide table is essential for this kind of shot.

When shooting long exposures, a tripod and proper metering are also essential. In extremely low light, spotmeter off the main subject (the net). Otherwise, you risk losing detail on it to under- or overexposure.

To make the moving water look smooth and glassy, experiment with shutter speeds. I did a series at around two minutes, exposing the Provia 100 at f/16. Since I was shooting film, I intentionally overexposed to counteract any reciprocity failure. (The failure of film to react to long exposures varies by brand and film; specifics are on the film makers' websites).

Regardless of the medium, use mirror lock-up and employ the self-timer or a cable release to trip the shutter. This limits sharpness-robbing vibrations that occur at slow shutter speeds.

5. Wise to Polarize
To get this shot of a tempest-tossed sailboat, I needed a storm (which had recently passed through the Florida Keys) and low tide. Using a tripod helps you carefully frame the elements from the horizon to the foreground. Get down low and use a relatively wide-angle lens (about 24mm or digital equivalent) to emphasize the foreground while including the boat's mast and the churning clouds.

In a situation like this, where the boat's position makes it tough to effectively use a split neutral-density filter, grab a circular polarizer.

This type of filter reduces distracting reflections on wet rocks and emphasizes the clouds. But avoid too much polarization; on a clear day, it can make the sky too dark or abnormally blue. Here, I turned the circular polarizer to retain some of the reflections of the sky in the rocky pools, while darkening the clouds.

6. Compress to Impress
Don't want the same old lighthouse shot? Neither did I when I visited Cape May, NJ. Plus, the postcard-style photo would have included power lines and other distracting elements.

So look for new angles: I shot through a tree, and I walked to some nearby marsh reeds and set the tripod low.

Use a zoom lens at the far end of its range (say, 200- 300mm) at a wide aperture to compress the scene and keep the immediate foreground out of focus. To punch up blue sky, add a polarizing filter.

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