Rocks at Caister

My image of sun rise over the sea and rocks at Caister beach is not the photograph I’d set out to make. A couple of people have asked about how I made it. So I though I’d write about, frankly, all the things that went wrong making this photograph.

I made this photograph for the week 31 challenge at 52Frames, which that week was water. The plan was to make a long exposure image of the crisscross sea defenses at Caister beach. I thought it could be good to get some pre-dawn / blue hour colours.

I'd planned ot photograph these features

I used PhotoPills to carefully plan where I needed to be to get the sun rising in just the right place, I checked the tide tables and set off at 4:30am.

However, despite my careful planning, I’d failed to realise that the tide needs to be out for the sea defenses I’d intended to photograph to be visible. I was met with a flat, featureless, sea. It was a lovely sun rise, and I had the beach to myself, so I resigned my self to taking a dawn walk and watching the sun rise.

But just as the sun was coming up, I spotted a collection of rocks about a mile up the coast. It occurred that they might make a good subject. As the light was changing rapidly I didn’t have much time, so I hoofed it over the soft sand as quickly as I could.

I set up my tripod as I was catching my breath, and fired off a couple of quick tests shots to get a sense of my composition. Unfortunately the soft wet sand meant my tripod kept sinking, as I was planning a long exposure this was no good. So, despite wanting to stay dry and having no change of boots, I waded in so I could steady my tripod on the rocks.

Sometimes you have to suffer for your art Sometimes you have to suffer for your art

The plan was to use my Lee Seven5 Big Stopper, which is a 10 stop neutral density filter, to smooth the water. The was some spray kicking up from the rocks, giving me the chance to make a kind of misty image.

My camera (Olympus OM-D EM-1) has a great feature called ‘live time’. This is a bulb mode, but that shows you the image building up on the screen, and crucially the histogram. This means I could open the shutter and watch until the histogram showed good movement away from the far left. This gave me a first exposure of 140 seconds at f/5.0.

I got the desired effect with the sea, but the sky was completely blown out, so I added a 0.9ND grad to bring the sky down.

I was very aware of the light changing rapidly and having to work fast. This is not easy when every exposure is 140 seconds. My camera takes a second noise reduction ‘dark’ frame of the same length - making each exposure almost 5 minutes. So I reckoned I had one more go before I lost the nice light altogether. I felt rocks lacked detail, so for my final exposure I added a circular polarizer to my filter stack to cut through the water and bring detail up a bit.

The final image was getting close, but the rocks at the back were still under exposed. So I removed my filter stack and made another much shorter exposure exposing specifically for the rocks at the back so I could merge later in Photoshop.

Final two exposures These final two exposures were combined in post

Back home I bought the two images into Lightroom, and edited them as layers in Photoshop. In Photoshop I auto aligned the two layers, then applied a fully black layer mask to the second, short exposure image. I used a soft brush with high opacity to gently ‘paint’ back in the layer mask to bring back the detail on the rear rocks. Once done I saved and returned to Lightroom.

After that it was mostly just a matter of straightening the image (in my rush I did a bad job of getting a straight horizon), adjusting white ballance and dropping exposure across the bottom third of the image to remove attention away from the horrible big lump of rock in the foreground.

I made a print on Hahnemüehle Glossy FineArt Perl paper. Soft proofing showed I needed to brighten the image by around 15% before making my print. I printed A3 with large ish borders and made a 500x400 ice white mount which I think works well with these colours.

As I was leaving and before I slogged back to the car, through the sand and with wet boots, I actually made a second image. I think is OK, but not as strong. I feel the rock on the right lends too much ‘visual bulk’ to that side of the image.

A second composition