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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Landscape photography workshop

Been out on a Landscape Photography Workshop with Doug Chinnery this week.  It was a fantastic day with first class tuition.  WWW.dougchinnery.co.uk A day worth every penny.  It clarified many question I had regarding this avenue of photography and will hopefully improve my work.

The day started early on Owler tor followed by an afternoon in Padley gorge and ended with a sunset shoot on Stannage edge.  The day and the weather conditions were fantastic.

Images from the day will soon be added to my gallery when they are processed but for now here is one from Stannage Edge.