Saturday, 4 January 2014

Horizontal hold

Luckily, my local coastline has missed the worst of what the high tides have thrown at other parts of the country over the last couple of days. Last time the strong winds coincided with high tides they were blowing on shore and the sea wall was overtopped. This time they blew parallel with the shore and flooding was avoided. For a seaside resort noted for it's lack of sea this has still resulted in unusual sights. I stopped off at the sandplant right on high tide and it was impossible to walk round the outside of the bunds. The tops of these sandy mounds make great vantage points for birdwatchers and photographers of all sorts.

When photographing around this coastline with it's open expanses of sand and saltmarsh, the horizon is a constant source of irritation. Apart from the obvious difficulty of keeping the horizon level in the frame when quickly framing shots (something that can often be easily corrected in post if things are not too far out of kilter) I get even more annoyed when objects in the middle distance or foreground 'touch' it.

I was concentrating on avoiding the horizon going through the woman's head that I missed the tops of the three humps kissing the watery horizon. Had I taken another half a step down the banking all would have been well. Not that this is a brilliant picture, but it would have been improved by that simple action.

Taking pictures of people on the shore I do my best to ensure that the horizon falls below their eyes, and preferable below their shoulders. The alternative is to keep their head below the horizon. Only if taking a 'head shot' do I let the horizon cut someone's face, but again only below their eye level.

Today I was trying to capture the spirit of the flooded saltmarsh. I think this is as much an intellectual challenge as a photographic one. If I could fathom out what it is that gives the place it's aura it would be less difficult to find photographs that evoke it. The view below is grazed by cattle during the summer months. Today it looked more like a lake. I liked the way the sky and water merged, tonally, separated by the thin strip of land that is the far side of the estuary. I took care to get a low viewpoint so that the plant tips were well above the horizon! Although it is rather obviously placed on a 'third' there wasn't much choice. Had it been centred it wouldn't have been possible to balance it with the floodbank and wood to the right of the horizon. The picture still doesn't say 'saltmarsh' though.

I think the next picture only fares slightly better. It does, however, illustrate the difference between the grazed portion of marsh to the landward side of the fence and the 'wild'' section towards the sea. The grass hanging from the wire also hints at how hight the tides get. It's starting to tell the story.

The low winter sun, when it broke through, was helping delineate things and when two wildfowlers arrived they helped to add a sense of scale to the landscape. Again the horizon caused it's usual problems. Smack bang in the centre of a picture can work, but not in this case. Cropping after the fact is only a partial cure as it removes most of the water to the left of the frame which is drawing the eye back into the picture.

At least the mound of washed up grass and other debris I was standing on raised my viewpoint and dropped the men's heads below the line of the horizon. It also shows more of the marsh than a lower camera level does. Drop down and the marsh becomes simply the line of grass closest to the camera and any suggestion of it's maze-like structure is lost.

The final frame here is getting close to expressing how I see the marsh. I'm beginning to understand that there must be water, grass (or whatever the vegetation is), a big sky, and something to give a sense of scale. Once more I find that a longer focal length gives the impression of emptiness better than an ultra wide angle does. At least to my eyes. I think the wide view makes details far too small to be easily read, while the distant Blackpool Tower is easily recognised when shot at a longer focal length.

While this works reasonably well there needs to be more to make such a picture really come together. That's where luck comes in. Cloud patterns, light, poses and gesture - not to mention dogs (there is one in the picture above!) - are things a photographer has no control over. All you can do is keep on trying to be there when the planets align... and make sure to pay attention to the horizon when they do!

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