Monday, February 11, 2013

Blyth a blowin'

I booked a photography course sometime ago in my optimism that I was working and could afford such treats. I love trying to improve my photography techniques and the coast is wonderful up here in Northumberland so what could be better: A crisp clear February day on the beach with my Canon and a tutor who comes with a bag of filter accessories and long exposure expertise! I have always wanted to capture a milky sea against St Mary's Lighthouse!

I didn't know then the situation I would be in now. Unemployed and a bit a sea. Emotionally adrift and mentally exhausted.

As the day approached I got more and more anxious about it. The weather has been bitter and just miserable. The forecast was for more snow and freezing winds. I tweeted my fears and wondered whether the course would go ahead in a blizzard. 

Then I started thinking of excuses not to go: I'll cry if someone is nice to me. My camera battery isn't holding its charge. My head isn't holding information. Can I drive that far and maintain my concentration? The children need to do their homework. What if it snows... will I be sleeping in the car? And who am I kidding, I am hopeless at taking pictures. 

Anyhow the day came there was no snow in Hexham. A tweet came in that the extreme weather would hold off until 3pm on the coast. So I made my way downstairs, made a flask up, buttered some cheese scones and packed the car up with spare clothes, camera gear and a sleeping bag. Surely the weather would be OK.

Oh my god. I had never experienced anything as cold as that North East Wind and a wild sea. 

There were four of us booked on a course. A young chappie from toon and a lovely couple who had driven all the way up from Reading the night before who had not anticipated just how far away Northumberland was. They were from South Africa too... I think they found it all a bit bleak!

After a bit of a prep talk from Jason, our tutor, about filters and f-stops and what bit of kit we all had we headed to some groynes that would provide the anchor for our milky seas!

I quickly found the spot I wanted to shoot from... but had to step back quickly as the spray and tide were heading inwards!

This was my basic composition... but without slowing the speed down too much. Conditions at this point were probably the best in the day (10.30am) although it was bitterly cold.

Had to step back quickly as the tide was rushing in, but beginning to experiment with slowing the shutter speed down (0.8sec) having a ND0.6stop filter. (ISO100). I can assure you the sea was not flat!

The wind and spray was beginning to get out of hand, and my hands were beginning to have that out of body experience where actually you'd rather not have hands because they hurt so much.

Decreasing the speed a little more. Its clear to see that the wind was beginning to hamper the clarity over a long exposure (now 3.2 sec exposure compensation+1). The white patches on the wooden posts show what level the sea was crashing through at.

That image became this converting to BW and adding a post production polarizing filter. I am happy with the composition but cursing the wind and my flimsy tripod.

I wanted to time the exposure right to get the waves retreating to catch the reflection in the wet sand of the groynes. Cross that I  cropped the full reflection of the post. I can only blame it on haste caused by the extreme cold!

Battling the wind.

We moved down the beach a bit and Jason started  getting his Canon MkII ready for us to try with the 10stop filter. Unfortunately he dropped the filter in the water so drying time was needed. The wind however was increasing and we, I think were all suffering from exposure on the beach.   
We beat a hasty retreat to the beach hut and fish and chips to warm us up. Using the 10stop would have to wait until after the the sleet storm had passed.

After a feeble attempt at eating a massive box of fish'n'chips (enough for 3), we headed back into the wind to use Jason's Canon MkII with the 10stop filter. I haded straight for the jetty but wanted to bring more to the concrete that jutted into the sea.

I grabbed a few large pebbles from the beach and placed them in the middle of the jetty. I like the way it is possible to change the landscape with just a tweek of creativity. 

And that is the shot I wanted to learn to take. 150sec ND10stop. The sea is lying to our eyes as it was wild, but I love this milky smooth effect!

The final shot of the day. I wanted a do another shot of the jetty but with a visual full stop at the end of it. I tried in vain to heave some old lobster pots out of the sand, the weren't budging. So I though a deckchair would add a point of interest and a contrasting delicacy to the quite strong lines of the concrete jetty and the horizon. I suggested it but thought it impossible in the wind.... unless it was anchored with a person. Unsurprisingly no-one was prepared to sit in a deckchair at the end of the jetty with the waves now crashing over it. If I wanted this image, I was going to have to get very wet. Just trying to erect the deckchair in the wind was a challenge but I got there eventually and sat slightly anxiously as the waves washed around my feet. Jason the tutor set up the camera and started the exposure.It was a very long 90 secs, with the waves actually breeching my knees. I tried so hard to keep still but the shock of the cold north sea going through my clothes and down my shoes made me flinch. I wondered whether the exposure finished, but Jason signalled that there was still 30 seconds to go!

So there you are. Poots loves to be by the seaside, even in wind chill factor baltic. 

We all returned to the beach hut to defrost again and look at using lightroom for adjusting out images (much easier than photoshop!) Everyone had created an image that they were really happy with and certainly would be proud to print and frame.

Jason Friend is running more tutorials, I'd like to do some more, but will have to see what happens work wise. He has a lovely manner in the way he guides us and we all learnt so much not just about long exposures, but about our cameras too.

Gathering up my stuff and wet shoes I left in a much more positive frame of mind than I had started my day. But crikey I don't think I have ever been as cold.

When I look at Jason's picture above it make me smile about just how amazingly metaphorical it represents my life at the moment. Everything is crashing around me, wild and uncontrollable. But no-one but me can see it or feel it. All I want is some calm, and I'll stick my neck out for it. I will probably get criticised, or hospitalised, or classed a manic or something. 

The Art of Zen - I seek a balance, calmness in calamity. I can't control the sea, but I must get control of my mind.

(Long exposure workshops can be booked with


  1. Living near the north east coast I testify to the freezing wind that rips right through you. Have been seal spotting many times at St Mary's Island and been amazed how cold you get when being stationary.
    Fantastic photos, glad all your fingers are still attached.

  2. I've heard about Jason through Stewart Smith, another photographer (@stewyphoto on Twitter). This sounds like a fabulous course and your pictures are marvellous. Glad I stumbled on your blog. Sorry if this comment appears elsewhere as well, I tried to comment yesterday but thought it had failed.