It’s been a rough month for my body. First there was a back injury, followed by a bout of bronchitis and most recently a knee ligament strain. Fortunately the former two have largely resolved and the latter is on the improve. Enough for me to venture to a coastal location that I consider Australia’s premier destination for seascape photography, Cape Woolamai. Despite my highest regard for this location, it’s been 5 years since my first and only visit to Phillip Island. Early in my career in landscape photography, I made defining images at several obscure coastal locations. One of these was “Gothic Pinnacles”, a successful image for me, scoring runner’s up in the landscape section of ANZANG and appearing in this year’s Wilderness Society calendar. At the time I shot it, I was aware of only one other photographer who had made a decent photograph of the Pinnacles, Richard Van Hoesel. Five years later, virtually every Australian seascape photographer serious about his craft has made the pilgrimage to this small but magnificent rocky beach. I’ve always felt that within the one photo, I had said everything I wanted to express about this mysterious and majestic place. When I achieve this goal, I tend not to repeat myself at the same locations. It’s the same reason why many years passed after shooting “Moody Moeraki” before I returned to the Moeraki Boulders, and that was because it was on my workshop itinerary. And it’s also the reason why I have not photographed the sea stars at Punakaiki again.
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However over the past 6 months I have started to dream about this location again but with a different vision : a night seascape illuminated by moonlight.
My ailments held up well on the steep descent and ascent to access the Pinnacles, massive shards of pink granite several storeys high jutting out into the ocean. Standing on the perfectly smooth boulders of the beach, surrounded by towering cliffs and the roar of a massive surf rolling in, I took a moment to take in the sheer awesomeness of this place. I could feel spray spattering on my face far away from the waterline and knew that my lens and filters would be doing battle with the sea all day. Two or three photographers were already set up at the periphery of the beach, presumable to avoid the spray, or perhaps they just had more common sense than me. I watched the sea for a while, trying to figure out where I would eventually be able to shoot from safely. It was comforting to know that the tide would be on the way out.
It was clear that sunset was going to be workable rather than brilliant. I was going to have to take matters into my own hands, get into the thick of things and make the most of some foreground wave action. I wedged my camera backpack some metres behind me in my ‘safety zone’ and worked out an exit strategy should things get too hairy. Before long, I’d been hit square in the chest by waves and knocked over several times. Fortunately, I managed to put my body between my gear and the worst of the seawater as well as hold up the tripod and camera out of harm’s way. At one point, my backpack was seen floating in a pool of water and had to be repositioned. The session turned out to be one of the most trying in my career, constantly running back and forth, taking shots then scrambling away to higher ground. Most of the time things were okay; it was just a matter of holding one’s nerves as a torrent of water rushed towards you but which usually petered out or caught me around the thighs. The chest high waves needed to be avoided unless you fancy a swim.
So what was the point of all this long preamble? It gives context to the EXIF data I’m sharing with you. As a beginner, I used to scour my favourite landscape images by other photographers for such data, hoping that somewhere the secret to mastering the techniques lay hidden in such information. Nowadays, I believe that unless you’re standing next to me while shooting the same scene, it’s irrelevant and almost useless. There are an infinite number of variables at play every time I make a shot, and any of these will impact the exposure settings I choose.
Canon 5DMkIII, 16-35mm 2.8L, ISO 400, f4, 0.5s
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Doesn’t look like a typical landscape exposure does it? Since I was after a dynamic capture of the furious water action, I needed a short enough shutter speed to retain some definition in the water. Anything longer than 1 second on the day was resulting in an amorphous soupy concoction. Ideally I needed as quick a shutter speed as I could manage in the rapidly darkening conditions. Half a second retained the textures in the water but I would have preferred something like 0.3s for even better definition. However I was already under-exposing the majority of the scene to retain highlights in that small break in the sky. Knowing that I was going to have to pull out shadow information in post-processing, I was not keen on upping the ISO past 400. I was also pushing the depth of field to get everything in focus from foreground to background so didn’t want to open up the aperture beyond f4. As an aside any long exposures were out of the question due to the amount of spray that would accumulate on the lens and the inconvenience of having to re-setup every few minutes to avoid the larger waves.
Something Awesome Always Happens on my Birthday
I was asked this year whether I wanted some sort of ‘do’ for my birthday. As usual, I said no since I don’t like to be the centre of attention. Besides, I always end up having a great time regardless. At least since 2005. That year, I had the most perfect day in San Gimignano, a wonderful lunch with a to-die-for view of the Tuscan landscape. Dinner, with wild boar and black truffles was even more spectacular. The year after, I was in Taormina Sicily. You get the picture; I happen to be at some great locations each birthday. The last few years these have been coupled with some awesome conditions for photography. “Symphony of a Thousand” which won last year’s Digital Camera landscape photograph of the year is just one example. With the fairly low key sunset at Cape Woolamai, I thought perhaps my good run had come to an end.
And then just as the stars were coming out, the sky exploded. I’m pretty well attuned to subtle colours in the night sky which the camera captures in their full glory. But when I saw the first frame deep into twilight with the sky on fire, I could scarcely believe it. As the cloud cover was rapidly increasing, I grabbed the narrow window of opportunity to record the stars in a warmly coloured night sky. It was a pretty good birthday present.
Canon 5DMkIII, 16-35mm 2.8L, ISO 1600, f2.8, 36s
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