Behind the image: waiting for the right moment

Sometimes you have an idea for an image in your head. But when your subject matter is the landscape, nature doesn’t always cooperate.

One of my favourite places in the world is the Plage de Tronoan, a 25km+ beach in the Finistère department of Brittany. We’ve visited a couple of times before and last year I shot this image:

One of the reasons I love this beach so much is that it provides subjects for many of my projects. It is, for example, still littered with large pieces of the Nazis’ Atlantic Wall defences, around which I’m basing much of my Dust & Shadow project. What you see above is a kind of concrete foxhole known as a ‘Tobruk’ by the allied forces (because they first came across them in the North African desert) and a Ringstände by the Germans. When used as part of the Atlantic Wall, they were often topped with turrets from obsolete French or German tanks.

I’m fascinated by these relics because, as they decay and are abused (often with graffiti), they take on the appearance of obscure monuments from a lost age.

In the picture above you see the tide rushing in across the very shallow beach, adding an extra ethereal quality. (You can read more about it here.)

In November, we returned to the Plage de Tronoan and I was determined to create more images using slow shutter speeds. I even had a new, beefier tripod just for this purpose.

At first, though, things didn’t quite work out as I’d expected. Even at the slowest ISO rating and with the lens well stopped-down (typically f/16 or f/22) the exposures were slow enough only to blur the water a little.

I had some neutral-density (ND) filters with me. These are filters designed purely to cut down the amount of light entering the lens and I’ve mostly used them before for shooting video at a fixed shutter speed of 1/50th and quite wide apertures (usually around f/4) to give that ‘filmic’ look. But even the ND filters weren’t helping: on one occasion I couldn’t use them because there was too much rain and sea spray to mount the filters; and at another time the filters simply weren’t dark enough to produce the effect I wanted.

However, while it’s often the case that the image you’re searching for is elusive, you can end up with something unexpected and different but just as good.

One afternoon we visited the beach to find a sandstorm in progress. It didn’t present much of a danger because it was confined to a height of about 15-20cm above the ground. Nonetheless, it was blowing hard.

Even with fast shutter speeds, the effect of the blowing sand was a little unearthly. The image above was shot around 4pm at 1/400th on the Sony RX10 III. I needed that faster speed because I was using a telephoto setting on the zoom (around 170mm equivalent) with the camera handheld but propped on top of the tripod-mounted Nikon. The image below was shot on that Nikon a little later, with the lens set to f/22 and exposure times of around 1/8th of a second.

I love the slight weirdness of these images. But they were still not what I was after. The solution was to wait for the sun to go down a little more.

A few days later we were back at the same spot, just a fraction later in the day. I’d checked the tide tables online and knew the tide would be coming in. The sun had just dipped below the horizon. With the tripod’s legs jammed hard into the sand and the lens stopped down to f/22 I finally got the exposures I wanted. The following image was shot with a 6 sec exposure time.

That’s the image I had in my head when we travelled to Brittany. And it’s why I went home happy.




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