Why so early? – Photographing the “Blue Hour”

I was asked the other day “why do i go out so early before sunrise” when photographing landscapes. Well, it was a simple question which i though deserved a little blog post to enlighten those not in the know.

ISO100 27mm f/13 90s Exactly 1 hour before sunrise

ISO100 27mm f/13 90s
Exactly 1 hour before sunrise

The blue hour is a term closely linked to the other term “The golden Hour” and together they represent the hour of light before sunrise and the hour of light after sunrise and conversely the hours before and after sunset. The light produced during these periods goes through some dramatic changes from soft blue hues to the warmer tones of orange and reds. The quality and direction of this light can make or break your photographs. The light and the quality of light at this time of day changes very fast so you need to be on location set up and ready in eager anticipation. Obviously it helps to know your location in advance because it will be very dark before you get those first hints of dawn light, there’s no point being witness to the most magical display of light yet not being on location with a shot composed because of poor planning/timing.

Many people never witness this wonderful display that nature puts on for us, especially in the summer months as the sunrise times are so bloomin early. There is something very calming and mesmerising while watching the light change before you, its very easy to become subdued by it and forget why you were there in the first place – to take some photographs of it, lol. Don’t get me wrong though, there have been many a mornings outing where there was nothing but a flat overcast sky after a 3 hour drive at sillyO’clock, the weather forecasts aren’t always accurate, so, you have to work with what you are given – nobody said this game was easy, its all part of the attraction, for me anyway.

I’ll leave you with a series of images that were all taken in the same location, Saltwick Bay near Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast and all within the hour leading up to sunrise. It gives you visual representation of how the light changes so fast – i hope you like them.

Please feel free top leave a comment and share this blog post if you found it interesting/useful. You can keep up to date with more of my image making and photographic exploits on my website or my Facebook page. Many thanks – Rob.

ISO100 24mm f/18 86sec

ISO100 24mm f/18 86sec

ISO100 24mm f/16 15 sec Even with a wider aperture the exposure time on this image has been drastically reduced showing how quick the light is changing.

ISO100 24mm f/16 15 sec
Even with a wider aperture the exposure time on this image has been drastically reduced showing how quick the light is changing.

ISO100 32mm f/16 6 sec

ISO100 32mm f/16 6 sec

ISO100 24mm f/13 3.2sec

ISO100 24mm f/13 3.2sec

ISO100 24mm f/18 5sec

ISO100 24mm f/18 5sec

ISO100 24mm f/13 0.8sec

ISO100 24mm f/13 0.8sec

ISO100 24mm f/13 0.4 sec

ISO100 24mm f/13 0.4 sec

ISO100 24mm f/22 1.3sec

ISO100 24mm f/22 1.3sec

My guide to Saltwick Bay

The three Icons of Saltwick Bay

Saltwick bay is a little gem of a location on the North Yorkshire coast, situated just south of the fishing port of Whitby.  It offers an abundance of photographic opportunities that are all compacted into a relatively small area.

The bay consists of a small sandy beach surrounded by high cliffs and flanked on either side by flat shale shelves. These shelves hold two local icons, ‘Saltwick Nab’ and the probably more well known, ‘Black Nab’.

Black Nab viewed from the beach

The ‘Black Nab’ is situated on the southern shelf.  It has a distinctive shape similar to that of a submarine coning tower and close to the base of this can be found the remains of the ‘Admiral Von Tromp’, a Scarborough based fishing trawler that ran aground in 1976 with the sad loss of two lives.  There is an abundance of rocks in this area that offer interesting abstract compositions and you may also find ammonite fossils which this area is also famous for.

The 'Whale shaped' Saltwick Nab

On the northern shelf you will find ‘Saltwick Nab’, a somewhat ‘breeching whale’ shaped rock prominence again surrounded by a shale shelf offering similar textured rocks, some of which have very bizarre patterns and deep grooves that seem almost unreal.

One of many abstract composition opportunities

The Bay has another trump card up its sleeve though.  The fact that it is North East facing makes it a very unique location because in the height of summer you can capture the sun rising and setting over the sea, quite novel considering you are on the east coast.

So, you could literaly spend all day here from dawn to dusk, tide permitting.  Talking of which the location really need to be photographed with a falling tide, there is little beach available at high tide, and to get close to the ‘Back Nab’ and wreck site you need the tide to be almost at low water.  Do not photograph the shelves or nabs on a rising tide, there is a real danger of being cut off by the tide.  I use the tide tables here http://www.pol.ac.uk/ntslf/tides/?port=0174 but always consult your usual reliable tidal references.

Now, how to get there.  The bay is located from Hawksker Lane which is the road that takes you to Whitby Abbey.  From there turn left up the lane to Whitby Holiday Park and then park in the layby by the park entrance.  To get down to the bay walk along the cliff top towards the holiday park and you will come across the path that leads down to the bay.  This path can be quite muddy and slippery in places especially after wet weather so take care and wear good suitable footware.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tides & Photography

Spurn Point Spurn Point, Yorkshire

Britain’s coastline is steeped in history and natural beauty making it possibly the most photographed coastline in the world.  Castles, Coves and Cliffs all make great photographic subjects that can give instantly pleasing results but if you want to perfect your images you need to plan ahead to get the tides right and for your own safety, so this is my little guide to just that. 

Generally speaking costal images are best made on a falling tide a) it’s generally a safer option and b) you get nice wet rocks & sand etc for added impact and detail in your images.  But certain locations require pinpoint accuracy, some secluded coves, for example, are inaccessible at high water.

Having lived by the coast for a good part of my life, and 15 years of Scuba Diving to my name, I feel quite confident around water but I never get complacent about it.  It’s all too easy to go out on a beach at low tide, be captivated by your photography, then find your exit is now awash with water.  Only on a recent trip to the Northumberland coast I was stood on some boulders while taking a series of images and you could see the tide moving in fairly quick and had I not been aware I would have soon been in water too deep for my welly boots to contend with.  These images were taken just 4 minutes apart and clearly show the rising tide.  The image on the right was taken with a 10 Stop filter to blur what little motion in the water there was.

Northumberland-5429 Northumberland-5432

The tides are governed by the gravitational pull of the sun, the moon and the rotation of the earth.  The Moon, being closer to us, is the more dominant factor.  We have roughly, there are exceptions, two high tides and two low tides in a 24 hour period.  Now, I’ll attempt to explain tides in simple terms for us photographers. 

These gravitational forces cause the water on the surface of the earth to bulge and thus create our high and low tides. When the sun and moon are at 90 deg to each other in relation to the earth these gravitational forces work against each other and this reduces the tidal range (a small bulge) – this is known a Neap Tides.  Whereas when the Sun and Moon are in line with the earth they work together increasing the gravitational forces producing a greater tidal range (a large bulge) – known a Spring tides. 

tidesImage courtesy of “Curious About Astronomy” 

You may be asking what is the relevance of all this, well, during spring tides the tides are higher and lower than those of neap tides and thus produce a larger range of water movement.  So, if you want to photograph those old decaying Groynes on the beach you may want to avoid high water spring tides because they will probably be under water and conversely a low water spring tide will probably leave them high and dry.

Another variable to maybe consider is the movement of the water itself.  Photography has it’s rule of 3rd’s and tidal prediction has it’s rule of 12th’s.  At high or low tide there is very little movement of water, this is known as “Slack Water”, but as the water falls (an ebbing tide) or rises (a flood tide) its rate of change speeds up at roughly the mid-point of the tidal change.  The following table may help explain this;

1st Hour 1/12th of the total tidal movement
2nd Hour 2/12th of the total tidal movement
3rd Hour 3/12th of the total tidal movement
4th Hour 3/12th of the total tidal movement
5th Hour 2/12th of the total tidal movement
6th Hour 1/12th of the total tidal movement

You may again be asking what is the significance of this.  Well, lets say your down on the beach at low water, you’ve been there a couple of hours exposing images, your now at that point of a rising tide where there is the greatest amount of water movement.  In places this movement can be rapid enough to out pace your retreat up the beach or in other places, if you are on a higher sand bank for example, cut you off completely from the shore line. 

So, how do you avoid these mishaps and plan your shoot to have the optimum tide for your location?  You need to consult tide tables.  The are produced by a number of sources. 

Ch2-Fig-7-tide-table Example Tide Chart

The UK hydrographic office produce tidal information that is published on the Admiralty web site, see below.  They are free for a seven day period but you can register and for a small fee and get tide times for any day of the year.  Most harbour offices sell locally produced tables and there is a whole host if sources on the web.  My favourite though is the National Oceanography Centre website which give free 28 day tidal predictions for most UK ports, have a look at their website here. If your photography is away from a listed port then an element of guesswork and calculated judgement is needed.  Using admiralty charts it’s possible to plot the tide for any given point, but, must of us dont have these nautical charts so you need to look at the port tide times either side of your location then you have a range from which to estimate your tide times.

Tidal charts are fairly easy to read and understand.  They give the times of high and low water but most times are in GMT so make sure during British Summer Time (BST) that you add 1 hour to the published times unless already corrected for BST, don’t get caught out by a simple error.  The other figures are the tide heights above chart datum, the lowest depth that the tide should ever reach.

So, there’s my guide to tides which  I hope will take some of the confusion out of tidal prediction and give you a little confidence when using tide tables to enhance your costal photography.  Remember, do you homework and you will have a safe and enjoyable day at the coast.

Here is a few resources that you may find useful;

National Oceanographic Centre Free 28 day tidal predictions
UK Hydrographic office Admiralty 7 day tidal prediction service
WXTide32 Freeware windows based tidal prediction software
BBC Weather Tide Tables 7 Day predictions from the BBC
Maritime & Coastguard Agency A website full of useful information about coast safety and related issues.


A weekend Castles & Coastlines workshop in Northumberland proved to be a tougher photoshoot than I had expected.  You’d think that visiting iconic locations such as Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh Castles the images would be in the bag before setting off.  Well,  I had to think again!  Thankfully I was on one of Doug Chinnery’s workshops again and he was there ready to offer guidance when the going got tough.

The weather proved to be a very mixed bag starting with nice cloud cover and the odd light shower which slowly dissipated into clear blue skies for sunset – not ideal at all.  Anyway, i pressed on regardless but feeling a little deflated by the conditions.  I had to be more creative and make images from what I had, using the Lee filters 10 stop “Big Stopper” filter proved helpful in some situations but even this had its limitations in these condition.

Using the “Big Stopper” while contending with a rising tide can be a hazardous combination too!  I was shooting a series of images of Dunstanburgh Castle while balancing on some large boulders with water already lapping around my feet.  Engrossed in the setup and waiting for the exposures, some over 100 secs, I soon discovered that my route back to dry land was now awash, thank goodness for welly boots!  It certainly shows how easy and quickly you could be caught out by a rising tide so always be aware of your surroundings.  Those rocks were “Slippery When Wet” too – Bon Jovi song in my head now!! 

There was a beautiful sunset looking over the boulders to the West but so little cloud to give the sky some drama.  Never mind there was always tomorrow i thought.   Well, after just 3 hours sleep, tomorrow was here and  so was a sky full of cloud, a thick blanket of the stuff, damn, more difficult conditions.

Down on the beach at Bamburgh Castle it was drizzle, still cloudy and misty.  Sunrise never happened, well, it happened but I never saw it!  This morning marvel was happening somewhere else behind all that cloud.  I managed to get a few images in the diffused lighting but the drizzle was getting heavier and it became a constant battle to keep my lens and filter clean.  I lost the battle!

Beaten by the rain we all headed back to the B&B to dry off and then get a welcome full cooked breakfast.  The B&B, by-the-way, was fantastic, very comfortable, clean and run by a very helpful friendly couple.  Here’s a link, I thoroughly recommend it if you are planning a stay at Seahouses.

On the way home we stopped off at a few locations taking in views at West Burton Falls, where Doug introduced me to shooting panoramas, and other locations in the Yorkshire Dales.  Another stunning area that I must visit again sometime.

Well, that was my third workshop with Doug and it proved to be the hardest.  Blessed with fantastic light and conditions on the other two I suppose I got a little complacent thinking that the images would be in the bag.  Doug passed on many tips and techniques again but my biggest lesson learned was not to rely on the weather.  Knowing how to be creative when the conditions are not at their best certainly takes a lot of practice, so, I’ll be out in all conditions now trying to hone those skills.

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Flickr Explore and two little tips

Well, my Spurn images proved to be very popular on Flickr! Being fairly new to Flickr I often wondered, with the thousands of daily image uploads, how ones own images would fair in the recognition stakes, After all It doesn’t take long for your image to be lost and relegated to the bottom of the cyber pile after all these uploads.

On my return from a photoshoot in Northumberland I had a nice welcome surprise! One of my images had made the front page on Flickr Explore and got to number 44 out of the top 500 selected images uploaded on that day.

I am over the moon at having one of my images recognized and selected but looking at the explore selection at any point in time it shows a very ‘varied’ range in taste and ability, but, at the end of the day, that’s photography, very subjective. To me though, it’s a mile stone in my photographic career to date so I’ll take it as a compliment.

The image in question was, to be honest, a quick grab shot. I was down on the beach taking images of the old groynes and concentrating on the stunning scene before me during a spectacular sunrise when something made me look behind me, I gasped in amazement at what I saw – the dunes were ablaze in a golden glow that just had to be photographed.

I quickly grabbed my gear and shot off up into the dunes before the light changed and scurrying around like an excited child I found a quick composition. I fired off a few exposures and that was it, the light had changed. A little exhausted I headed back down to the beach, elated that I had seen this spectacular scene but somewhat wishing I had spotted it earlier to get a more pleasing composition. So, here comes my first little tip – while working on that stunning scene before you always keep a watchful eye on what’s happening behind, I wonder now how many missed opportunities there have been.

I got many pleasing images from Spurn Point and uploaded them to Flickr and got some equally pleasing responses but they were all surpassed by an image that I hurriedly uploaded before heading to Northumberland, an image that I wasn’t initially pleased with and an image that was a grab shot. So, here it is:

I still feel that my image does not do this scene the justice it deserves and I’m not entirely happy with the composition, but, it was certainly appreciated on Flickr and I am very grateful for all the comments received. So, here comes my second little tip – if a photographic opportunity presents itself – grab it!

Now, I’m off to look at those Northumberland images with a fresh pair of eyes.