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A Constant Changing Shore

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Sunrise at a very low tide at Old Harry Rocks on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, a popular location for photographers looking to capture the effects of erosion on natural landscapes Sunrise at a very low tide at Old Harry Rocks on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, a popular location for photographers looking to capture the effects of erosion on natural landscapes Andy Lyons
20 Mar
This winter has seen frequent storms and flooding hitting many coastal areas of the British Isles. While some will feel these are less than ideal conditions for stepping out with the camera, in fact there are many creative possibilities for photography

March is a month of great expectations, marking the end of winter and the start of spring. With the passing of the spring equinox the daylight hours finally overtake the night and the longer days, new spring growth and birdsong from returning migratory species, lull many into believing the worst of the winter is behind them. But the reality is that March is a fickle month, with as much chance of wintry storms as early spring sunshine.

This changeable weather, with sunlight that is often diffused by clouds and neither too high nor too bright, means photographers can expect many days of exciting weather conditions for photographing the coastal landscape.

The sea fringes are subjected to constant change through the shifting tides, crashing waves, and high winds. Sea cliffs erode and crumble, endless waves wash up flotsam, driftwood, shells and other ocean detritus, and the tidal zone brings daily physical changes to the margins where land and sea meet and merge.



Before setting out on any photographic exploration of the shoreline, it is essential to know the times for high and low tide. Britain has more than 12,000km of coast and some of the greatest tidal ranges on the planet – up to 15m in the case of the Bristol Channel, so the potential to be stranded by an incoming tide is a real risk. By contrast, an ebbing tide can reveal vast areas of shore, sand, shingle and even ruins of past structures such as old sea defences and piers, or the remains of shipwrecks.

In some locations, such as the strait separating the islands of Tresco and Bryher in the Isles of Scilly, low spring tides are known to retreat enough to allow people to walk across the exposed sea floor from one island to the next! Clearly, unlike most inland locations, the coastal landscape has a constantly moving surface, as changeable as the weather itself.

As well as the times of the local tides, another consideration to take into account before capturing any pictures is the local geology. There are a wide variety of rock types that skirt the British coast, from the old rugged, seemingly impervious granites and gneiss of much of Scotland’s west coast, to the famous high chalk escarpments of the Straits of Dover in southeast England. But it is the fossil-rich sedimentary strata of the Jurassic Coast of East Devon and Dorset that is arguably the most popular coastal destination for photographers and geologists.

Along the 154km stretch of this World Heritage Site are some of the most spectacular natural features and landforms to be found anywhere in the British Isles. Arches, rock stacks, coves and pinnacles provide a variety of subject matter for the camera: the natural limestone arch of Durdle Door is one of Britain’s most photographed landmarks, closely followed by Old Harry Rocks, a cluster of sea stacks and pinnacles formed by the erosion of the adjoining chalk cliffs. Other highlights along this coast include Lulworth Cove and Lyme Regis where geologists have identified 71 layers of rock, each one containing fossils of a different species of ammonite.

The different types of rock strata to be seen along the Jurassic Coast, with the variety of colours, shapes and surfaces, provides photographers with plenty of options for closely focused compositions as well as providing foreground detail for wider views of the landscape. The coast of East Devon is characterised by steep cliffs and stacks of red sandstone from the Triassic period, with colourful red quartzite pebbles a feature on the beach at Budleigh Salterton. Cliffs of Jurassic clay and shale are common around Lyme Regis and Charmouth, while the 29km long Chesil Beach is a stunning example of a barrier beach, enclosing an intertidal lagoon rich in biodiversity. The Jurassic Coast is also home to Golden Cap; at 191m it is the highest point on the entire south coast of Britain and provides spectacular views of the sea and the length of the South Coast Path in all directions.



The Jurassic Coast is south facing, which is ideal for receiving low angled light to illuminate the rocks and cliffs in the winter months, but a local map is useful when exploring specific landforms and their access points so you can work out where the sun and shadow will fall on your chosen subject. After all, many prominent formations and landmarks can be reached and viewed from more than one direction.

By referring to a detailed map of the vicinity and using advance knowledge of the direction and times of sunrise and sunset, photographers can be better prepared to set-up their cameras and tripods and respond to the light and weather conditions as they find them.

Of course, coastal climates are incredibly fickle and can be totally different to the weather experienced a few miles inland. Wind is always a factor and even on a day when the sea is like a millpond, a new weather front making landfall from the sea is often preceded by blustery winds and gathering clouds. After all, the British Isles are a group of islands with a maritime climate, which means the weather is largely determined by the clash of high and low pressure systems and warm and cold sea currents moving in from the Atlantic to the west, and to a lesser extent the North Sea to the east. This means the weather is never settled, so long hot, dry spells are rarer on these shores than on large continental land masses like North America or Australia.

At this time of year, the ideal conditions for a coastal landscape are a day when low tide coincides with the warm, low-angled light of dawn or dusk, shining directly onto your chosen subject. Although the days are getting longer, March is still a month favoured by many landscape photographers because the sun is still low enough to give softer, warmer light for most of the day. However, by April conditions are brighter with higher and more direct sunlight.



As well as natural landmarks and formations to photograph, there are the man-made structures to consider as subjects or background compositional elements. Well-known and much photographed examples include Brighton’s famous pleasure pier, the ancient seawall known as The Cobb at Lyme Regis, and the prominent Longships Lighthouse off the coast of Land’s End. The placement and structure of these features convey much about the physical nature of a particular stretch of coast and man’s relationship with it.

When photographing along the coast, it is almost certain that the sea and the horizon will feature within your composition. Because water is highly reflective, filters will be needed to control the light levels of your scene, even if direct sunlight is blocked by cloud cover. Polarisers reduce the glare reflected on a cusp of a wave. But too much polarisation can darken the sky and fill in shadow detail, as well as reduce exposure by two-stops.

A popular technique with many seascape photographers is to render incoming waves as a soft white mist on the shoreline. This requires an exposure time of at least several seconds and in bright conditions may require the use of neutral density (ND) filters to reduce the amount of light reaching the camera sensor without affecting the overall tonal range of the scene.

Even with these filters in use, this technique is best attempted around sunset or sunrise, when light levels are low. A tripod is also needed to compose the scene precisely and to keep the horizon straight and the camera absolutely still and vibration-free during exposure.



Because extreme weather conditions are usually felt more acutely on the coast than inland, it is not wise to venture out during storms, tidal surges and gale-force winds. Yet that doesn’t stop some people, camera in hand, attempting to photograph the spectacle of giant waves crashing over sea walls and other coastal defences.

To do so is a risk to both camera and personal safety. In January this year, coastal villages in Essex were put on alert and homes evacuated in anticipation of rising seas breaching flood defences as a result of a storm coinciding with a tidal surge. Fortunately, no lives were lost, but in 1953 a similar North Sea storm surge overwhelmed the Essex coast and Thames estuary, causing the loss of over 300 lives.

It is far better to wait out such a storm indoors, then return to the shore later to photograph what the sea has left behind. Look for unexpected objects and debris, both natural and man-made, released from the sea’s currents and tides. When beachcombing the shore in the wake of a storm, you can expect to spend as much time photographing close-up details as the wider coastal views.


• Find out the direction of sunrise and sunset in relation to your chosen subject or location and return just before these times to get the warmest light.
• Read the weather forecast and study the local Ordnance Survey map before setting off. Also find out about the marine and shore life and local geology you can expect to encounter.
• Take a polarising filter to reduce the glare of reflections from the sea’s surface. Also pack a neutral density (ND) graduated filter to reduce the exposure range in high contrast conditions.

• Wander too far out at low tide. Tides can turn quickly and wet sand can trap the strongest of walkers.
• Leave your camera and lenses exposed to the salt air or near sand when not in use. Salt is corrosive and grains of windblown sand can scratch lens surfaces and damage the internal workings of camera and lens.
• Immediately take a picture when visiting a coastal landmark for the first time. Instead, take a walk around and study how the light is falling from different viewpoints.

Coast by Joe Cornish, David Noton & Paul Wakefield; National Trust Books; £16.50 (hardback)
Coast: The Walks; BBC Books; £20 (softback)
Geology of the Jurassic Coast by Paul Ensom and Malcolm Turnbull; Coastal Publishing; £9.95 (softback)

Accessory: Tripod
With a wide variety of surfaces, coastlines are uneven as well as unstable, so a lightweight tripod will make your life easier. The MeFoto RoadTrip Air (£140) fits the bill, weighing just over a kilogram, including an Arca-compatible ball head, and measuring only 29cm long when packed. The five-section legs each lock with a single twist and stand 155cm high when fully extended.

Camera: Weather-sealed DSLR
Salt-spray, wind and rain are common along the coast so you need to be confident in the build quality of your camera. The Nikon D500 (£1,700 body only) is a rugged, weather-sealed, crop-sensor DSLR, aimed at the semi-pro market. Features include a 20.9Mp image sensor, 153 AF points, 3.2in tilting touch-screen monitor, ISO 100-51,200 sensitivity and 10fps shutter burst.

Gear: Backpack
The unstable terrain of the coast means your camera kit is best balanced and carried on your back. While many camera backpacks have side openings for accessibility, the new Paxis Mt Pickett 20 (£200) allows the separate bottom section of the pack to swing round on a hinged arm to face you for effortless access. This ‘shuttle pod’ is compactly designed and the entire backpack weighs just 2.5kg.

This was published in the March 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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