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by Andy McInroy
Photographs Of The Month - March 2009

The Bendoo Plug, Ballintoy
IR410, The Bendoo Plug, Ballintoy, County Antrim

Go With The Flow

The flows of the ocean are one of my favourite photographic subjects. In this article I’ll explain why I find them so appealing. I’ll also describe the techniques that you can use to create these sorts of images.

We often think of the camera as a device for “capturing a moment” or “taking a snapshot”. However, the camera is capable of much more than this. It can not only record a scene, but it can also record the things which move within it over time. I like to think of the camera as a time machine. We can use a longer exposure to look back on the history of a scene, often with greater accuracy than our own eyes and minds can perceive in real-time. The time component of photography shares similarities with cinematography, the key difference being that the number of movie frames in a long exposure photograph is infinite and those infinity of frames lie on top of each other. A stacking of time and space you could say.

The flows of the ocean are an ideal subject for your “time machine”. Unlike the flow of a river waterfall, the swells of the ocean are unpredictable and constantly changing. The choice of camera technique can have a huge effect on how the flows are recorded. Thus, the potential for artistic control is limitless. Ocean swells can provide structure, depth, drama and atmosphere in a photograph. Now, if I’ve inspired you so far with my thoughts on the ocean's space-time continuum, I’ll start to describe how best to photograph it in practice.

Safety First
Before beginning to photograph the ocean, I find that it is worth taking a moment to just sit for 20 minutes and observe the flows from a safe distance. To me, this perhaps the most enjoyable part of the process and could almost be described as a form of meditation. It will also give you some time to observe the extent of the larger rouge swells which might be hazardous to both you and your camera. Always treat the sea with respect and never turn your back on it, particularly when there is a risk of being swept off rocks into deep water.

Stability
To explore this subject fully, a tripod becomes an essential bit of kit. The defining element of this sort of photography is the length of the exposure and this is controlled through your choice of shutter speed. It is vitally important that the camera is kept stable during the length of the exposure, otherwise the whole scene will suffer from camera shake. You must also think about how to release your shutter. To release it without touching the camera you should use a cabled or wireless remote release control. This will also allow you to accurately release the shutter in time with the sea flows.

IR411, Turquoise Swells, Whitepark Bay, County Antrim
IR411, Turquoise Swells, Whitepark Bay, County Antrim

Shutter speed and Exposure
The next consideration is the shutter speed (or more accurately, the duration of your exposure). This will often depend on the speed of the flows, how close you are to them and also the effect you are trying to achieve. Too short an exposure and you are back into “freezing the moment” territory. Too long an exposure and your flows will disappear into the mists of time. Shutter speeds ranging between a tenth of a second up to four seconds can often work well. One second exposures are often the area I like to be working in. It might be worthwhile working with your camera in shutter priority or manual mode to take full control over the shutter. Bear in mind that your resulting aperture may also be an important consideration for depth of field.

Filtration
Sometimes it’s not quite as simple as just choosing a shutter speed. You might be limited in what shutter speeds you can use due to the fact that you are shooting in bright light and are already working at the smallest aperture and lowest ISO setting for your camera. If you want to work with longer exposures then you need a way to limit the amount of light entering the camera. The only way to do this is to place a neutral density filter over the lens. I would recommend a three stop neutral density filter as another essential bit of kit for sea flow photography. This will increase your working exposure from say 1/8th of a second to a full second. This will allow you to record sea flows in the middle of overcast days, although if you wish to record flows on the brightest summers day then you might need to be think about purchasing a six stop neutral density filter which can extend your exposure from say 1/60th up to 1 second.

Capture
So, after arranging ourselves in a safe position, setting up the camera on the tripod, selecting the required shutter speed and arranging the necessary filtration we are now ready to take our photograph. Much of the learning in sea flow photography is in experimentation. Over time I have learned that the inflows tend to be turbulent and poorly defined. In contrast, the outflows are usually structured and coherent. This is not a hard and fast rule, but I usually start my exposures just after the outflow has begun, often ending my exposure just as a new wave may be starting to break on the inflow. This is where the selection of a shutter speed is critical. Too long an exposure and the inflows and outflows will merge and the sea will become soft and incoherent. Too short an exposure and the outflow may not be complimented by the next incoming wave. The beauty of the outflow is in its laminar, flowing nature which often acts as a strong leading line to provide depth and structure to the photograph. Both of the photographs shown on this page show strong laminar outflows which direct the viewer into the scene. In the second image shown, two converging flows are complemented by a textured central section of pebbles to lead the viewer out to the incoming wave and sea beyond.

I hope I have given you some ideas on how to approach sea flow photography. There is no right and wrong way to approach this subject and personal experimentation with shutter speed, perspective and timing are the key. Resist the temptation to blur the flows entirely and you will be rewarded by the true drama and power of the ocean.

So that's your homework for this month. Get to it and let me know how you get on.
info@skyandstone.com

Technical Details (IR410 1st photograph)
Date/Time: 12.00pm, 17th February, 2009
Aperture: F19
Exposure time: 1 second
Focal Length: 14mm
Lens: Pentax 14mm DA
Camera: Pentax K10D
Support: Tripod and cable release
Filtration:
2 stop neutral density graduated filter
3 stop neutral density filter

Technical Details (IR411 2nd photograph)
Date/Time: 4.11pm, 17th February, 2009
Aperture: F16
Exposure time: 1 second
Focal Length: 14mm
Lens: Pentax 14mm DA
Camera: Pentax K10D
Support: Tripod and cable release
Filtration:
2 stop neutral density graduated filter
3 stop neutral density filter

Text and photos © Andy McInroy