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Photography Masterclass

Professional photographer Peter Cairns loves nothing more than feeling the sea spray on his face as he points his lens out into the waves. Here, he shares his secrets for taking the best waterside photos

What is it about water? We all love the sound of it and the sight of it. Those who live on the coast will tell you they even love the smell of it! Perhaps our affiliation with the wet stuff is rooted deep in our biology – subliminally we associate water with our very survival. It is, after all, our lifeblood and in these challenging times we sense this dependence more than ever. Whatever it is that captivates us, water is a constant source of inspiration for photographers and in Britain we’re lucky to have it all around us.

So where to start? The possibilities are endless. Mirror-calm lakes, cascading waterfalls, winding rivers – they all provide huge potential and, as a bonus, are often the best places to walk. But for me, it’s the sea that holds that something extra special. I can never quite put my finger on why, but when I’m not photographing it, I’m dreaming about photographing it – along with a list of other things, of course!

During a recent trip to northern Scotland, I took the five-mile walk out to Sandwood Bay in Sutherland – surely one of the most spectacular coastlines in Britain. Although the weather wasn’t as I’d hoped, the brooding sky and lashing sea somehow complemented the mood of the day. As I trudged back through driving snow, I contemplated a dilemma that I’d faced during the shoot – one that, bizarrely, divides photographers countrywide.

We’ve all marvelled over images of crashing waves with pin-sharp water droplets captured in a nanosecond. And, equally, we’ve been lured by the soft, silky effect of a heaving sea blurred by a long exposure. So, which is best? There is strong opinion on each side but, for me, either can work equally well, and on the day I went for the ‘soft’ option – but not too soft!
Blurring moving water to give it that dreamy look is no black magic, and applying a few simple techniques can render stunning results. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can apply the principle to a moonlit shot of your local canal or a remote tumbling waterfall – anywhere there is moving water.

Step-by-step guide

1 I knew that Sandwood provided the bonus of an isolated sea stack as an appealing backdrop. The forecast promised light cloud and sun, but I was handed a stormy winter’s day. I decided to go for the cold, sombre feel to match the conditions.

2 As I wanted to record some movement in the water, I spent 10 minutes just watching how the sea moved, working out the best viewpoint.

3 With my camera mounted on a sturdy tripod, I made sure that the shutter speed (the time that light passes on to the camera’s sensor) was long enough to partially blur the water. In this case, the speed was 1/8 second. A faster shutter speed would reduce ‘movement’ in the water and a slower speed would make it even more blurred. But be brave – I’ve taken similar shots in near darkness using five-minute exposures!

4 By using the camera’s self-timer (or a cable release), I didn’t need to touch the camera during the exposure, ensuring the image wasn’t affected by camera shake.

5 Compositionally, I placed the horizon on the ‘top third’ of the image. With the sweep of the sea complementing the distant stack, I intended the eye to be drawn from bottom left to top right.

6 By timing the exposure with either a wave breaking or receding, I was able to create a series of different images from the same position. The breaking wave creates movement towards the viewer; the receding wave does the opposite.

7 The conditions gave these images a cold cast, which I enhanced during processing by reducing the colour temperature – it can be done on the camera at the time.

Inspired to improve your waterside photographs? Send us your waterside images and you could win a Nikon D60 camera kit worth £479.99! Click here to enter

  2 Responses to “Photography Masterclass”

      At 9:41 am on March 8th, 2009 Jackie wrote:

    I used to be able to find the photos entered for the competitions on the web, but alas I can’t find, please would you send link.

      At 11:38 am on March 11th, 2009 mbradley wrote:

    the competition entries are now all viewable at

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