Beach sunsets and dragging the shutter

I have been wanting to shoot some more sunsets on the coast lately. The light we get here is some of the most beautiful that I’ve ever seen. We face east, so we don’t get the Sun dipping over the horizon, however, I feel this is often an advantage. When the Sun drops over the horizon, unless you have some serious ND grads, the Sun is generally way too bright to include in the frame anyway. With an east facing coastline, as the Sun heads west to visit the other side of the world, the last rays light up particles and matter in the atmosphere creating some of the most amazing colours you will ever see. We’ve had some ripping sunset lately, some of which have turned the sky from fire-red to pink and purple and finally, that deep, dark blue before night. It was the fire-red sunset I witnessed a few weeks ago that really motivated me to head out with my camera.

I drove down the coast around 4.30pm one afternoon with my tripod, camera and a few lenses and cards. I knew where I wanted to head and I easily grabbed a carpark right in front of the beach – it was late enough for people to start heading home after the day in the Sun, and some menacing looking clouds on the horizon threatened any late afternoon plans. The beaches here are severely eroded at the moment, so I didn’t have much sand to play on. Nevertheless, I headed down to some rocks I’ve been planning to photograph for a while now and setup my tripod. I played around with a few compositions and focal lengths, but it was my trusty 24-70mm 2.8 Nikkor that was giving me the best results. I shot some brackets and played with my white balance to see what looked the best exposure and colour wise. Some of the bracketed shots I blended in post to get the most out of the sky, but I was amazed at how much detail my D700 retained in the highlights as the Sun set.

I shot at ISO 100 and F22 while the sun was setting to try to slow my shutter speed down. I currently don’t own any neutral density filters, so the shutter/aperture combinations I was able to use was severely restricted. I would have preferred to shoot at F11 to minimise diffraction, but you make do with what you have, right? As the sky darkened, I managed to get some really slow shutters. Some of these shots were as low as 15-20 seconds, though most of them were shot between 1 and 4 seconds. The longer the shutter is open for, the more blur you will have with moving objects such as water/waves. That is why it is essential to make sure the camera isn’t moving while the shutter is open – otherwise everything in the photo will be blurry, and not just the water.

However, it is not just as simple as setting a long shutter and everything looking amazing, if you blur the moving water for too long, you start to flatten everything out and lose some of the detail in the rocks that occasionally are only partially submerged by the water. I found that carefully timing 1 to 2 second shutters with waves that had just partially submerged the rocks and were heading back out to sea gave me the most pleasing water. The fun comes in timing little splashes of water as the waves hit the rocks and seeing how they translate in the image – as you could imagine, every wave brings with it new possibilities and new images. Here are two images shot from the same position and only seconds apart. You can clearly see the difference in the photos when you catch moving water as it runs back to shore versus catching water that had reached the rock and was moving slightly slower. Which one do you prefer?

It didn’t take me long to run into trouble while I was shooting on the beach. A few rogue waves came up the beach as far as I was standing, slightly submerging my tripod and myself. I wasn’t too concerned with getting wet, however, the waves not only created slight movements in the tripod as they hit the sides of the legs, they also wet the sand the tripod was standing on, make it fall ever so slightly and ruining the photo. I had headphones on initially while playing on the beach, however, I decided to take them off so I could better hear the waves coming towards me as I looked further up the beach. Catching a few waves crashing towards me at the last minute forced me to make some mad dashes towards higher ground, though it made me laugh every time. I’m sure the onlookers were having fun waiting for me to be submerged.

Here’s my favourite photo from the session. I had a lot of fun and am looking forward to finding a nice afternoon to shoot through again. Hopefully next time I head out I have a bunch of filters that I can play with to get longer shutter speeds and darker skies. I’ll be sure to post my results.

I shot these photos over a period of roughly 1 hour, my first shot was at 4.53pm and my last at 5.45pm. I watched the sky change colours numerous times. I saw the light bring Surfers Paradise to life in the distance before finally dimming to darkness. I shot some more photos while the sky darkened, and grabbed the photo below before I threw my camera in the car. What a successful, beautiful afternoon.

One Reply to “Beach sunsets and dragging the shutter”

  1. Amanda Attard says: Reply

    Beautiful as always x

Leave a Reply