Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

The making of: ‘Feathered beach’

Harris, the Outer Hebrides, late November: an obvious recipe for appalling weather; or so I was told, and a view with which I was inclined to agree. Nevertheless, the prospect of ‘moody, threatening’ skies over vast tracts of empty beach was sufficient to encourage me to give it a try. An additional attraction was the late sunrise. I’m neither good at, nor well-practised in, early mornings, and visiting the island only a month before the winter solstice meant a still-painful but manageable dawn would occur a little after 0800. This was to be my first foray into ‘first thing’ photography and I wanted to make it as easy as I could.

I had driven to Harris overnight, arriving at the fascinating metropolis of Uig, in the north west of Skye, at around 0430, just in time for a ferry which left an hour or so after midday. This timing neatly avoided any requirement to get up early by employing the cunning trick of omitting the whole ‘go to sleep in the first place’ tradition. Conveniently, this also meant a traffic-free drive up from the north of England.

I had intended to take a much earlier ferry, and from Ullapool – a town noted, at least by me, for it’s wealth of places to sit, eat, and drink coffee whilst waiting for the ferry – but had diverted to Uig since very high winds had led to the Ullapool/Stornoway ferry being cancelled. Fortunately the captain of the Uig /Tarbert ship wasn’t put off by winds gusting to Force 9 and I completed the final 50 miles of the 500 mile trip a mere eleven hours after arriving in Uig.

Oddly, after a solid few hours dozing in the passenger’s seat of my car on the dock at Uig, I didn’t even consider getting up before dawn the day after my arrival on Harris. As a result, this image – one of my favourites from my time there, as well as the first ‘keeper’ I captured – was made a couple of hours before dusk on my first full day. I believe it is the only photograph I took in the entire week in which the Sun is not either just below or just above the horizon. That said, I did use a ten stop, neutral density filter to compensate for the unreasonable abundance of light. This meant both a five minute exposure and a great deal of shuffling around on the sand, becoming cold – more precisely, colder – whilst the image was being captured.

'Feathered beach'

I was staying in Tarbert (it’s not as if there’s a great deal of choice on Harris), and had employed the simple technique of driving south from there and stopping at the first beach which looked a conveniently intermediate size; not vast, like Seilebost, nor tiny. In particular, it had a rather interesting-looking rock just off-shore which I thought might provide image possibilities.

As is typical on coasts, the tide was not going in the direction I’d hoped. To be honest, I’m not sure that I’d even considered which way it was going, but it was not the direction I would have picked! When I parked at one end of the beach, the rock which features a few metres out to sea in this image was conveniently joined to it. It had water splashing around it in a pleasing manner, suggestive of the potential for moderately long exposures. It had long strands of seaweed attached to its edges and providing excellent foreground interest as they moved with the waves. It even had assorted crustaceans clinging to it just above the waterline, adding texture and colour. It was, in fact, both accessible and excellent. Unfortunately, I’d seen this through binoculars, back up on a high point of the road and prior to leaving the car at the far end of the sands.

An hour later, when I approached the end of the beach I’d been aiming for, I couldn’t reach the rock. I’d spent rather too long taking what were, in retrospect, unexciting photographs of lines in the sand with too much sunlight on them, and patterns of stones which proved to be less interesting than I’d imagined. Almost needless to say, in my fascination with the beach itself, I’d neglected to keep an eye on what the water was doing, and what it had been doing was enveloping large tracts of sand very rapidly, including the shoreward edge of ‘my rock’.

For another few minutes, I photographed various features nearby in a decidedly desultory, even disgruntled, manner before moving on to examining the rock itself, which was now several more metres from the water’s edge. I’d envisioned a detail shot of all the colourful attachments to the main feature, so I tried my longest lens, only to find that all the decoration was now submerged. I abandoned the long lens shot and started capturing the bigger picture, with the hills of North Harris in the background.

These shots were uninspiring too, perhaps since they weren’t what I’d visualised, but probably more due to the sun being still quite high in the sky, making everything rather too heavy on contrast for my liking. After a while, I decided to attempt a long exposure. I say ‘attempt’, since it was very windy indeed. The force 9 which kept the Ullapool ferry firmly tied to its moorings for over two days was coming from the south west, and I was on the west coast. Sand was blowing everywhere and I was close to having difficulty merely standing still.

So, I framed the shot, buried the tripod legs a good 20cm. in the sand, calculated the exposure at 300 seconds (I had no ND filters other than the ten stop at that point and I needed f/11 for the depth of field), and opened the shutter. For the following five minutes I tried to stay warm: the fact of this being rather far north and in late November was making itself felt, albeit with flying sand and a bitter wind, rather than anything liquid falling on me.

The resultant image was most definitely not sharp.

I tried again, this time burying the tripod just a little deeper. Still blurred, but I could see on the camera screen that the very long exposure effect could well prove effective on this scene as the water had silvered nicely and there was much more colour in the sky than was apparent to my limited-to-real-time, naked eye.

Finally, I sat down beneath the tripod, pulled down firmly on the central post, and triggered the shutter again. The next five minutes were emphatically not very comfortable as sand was blowing into my eyes on the wind, adding nicely to the ‘it is very cold here now‘ feature I’d noticed earlier – and now I couldn’t even hop pointlessly from foot to foot in a vain attempt to keep warm. (I should point out here that I had multiple layers of fleece, some down and waterproofs on – it was still far from balmy!)

Despite being five minutes, and despite my holding the tripod throughout, this capture looked sharp on the screen, so I made one more long exposure, to be sure, and then decided to retreat from what was increasingly wild weather. On the way back, just before I reached the car, I took one more shot though. ‘A tad breezy’, the image below, is a much shorter exposure and nicely exhibits the rather wildly moving grass. That grass is tough, it doesn’t move much in a gentle breeze, and I hope shows that this was anything but gentle.

'A tad breezy'

I was unable to process the rock image quite to the extent I wanted at first as I didn’t have Photoshop, but a few weeks later I duly succumbed and acquired a copy – I can only assume that this happens to most people, eventually. The finished image has some burning around the edges to emphasise the rock, and I’ve dodged the rock itself, lightening it to produce a slight glow.

As to the more detailed shot I’d planned; I revisited Horgabost beach – as I later found it to be named – during the week. I never saw the weeds and sea creatures in quite the same way that I’d originally envisaged them, but I did make this shot, ‘Horgabost rock’, with a pleasingly anvil-shaped cloud simulating the shape of the end of the rock.

'Horgabost rock'

I’ve later learned that this is, predictably, a very much photographed rock. I’d be interested in any comments or stories you have on time spent on this beach.

Finally, the learning point I took most strongly from that afternoon’s shooting was to check the tide tables, or at the very least to take notice of which way the tide is moving, and how quickly…

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