By the Sea
As this year has progressed I started to get the urge to spend more time by the sea with my camera. My happy childhood days were spent almost exclusively on seaside golf courses so maybe that partly explains why I often feel magnetically drawn back to coastal areas, I also find the seaside to be a most interesting environment for photography.
In order to scratch this growing itch I headed for the Northumberland coast in the north-east of England which has beautiful and varied beaches and various other points of interest.
When photographing scenes containing motion I think that the choice of shutter speed is the most important creative decision when it comes to selecting your camera settings for the shot. With a very short exposure you can freeze things in place, with an intermediate exposure you can blur the motion while retaining some detail of the path which things have followed through the frame, while with a very long exposure such as the picture above you can give a very soft and relaxing feeling to the whole image.
The area of Northumberland is full of historical interest, many castles and grand houses decorate the countryside - visual reminders of some very different times. Many of these fortifications are coastal and can be used as background interest in photographs on the nearby beaches.
While impressive structures can be of great interest, there is also a fascinating world in miniature on many of these beaches. Ancient geology, shaped by countless millions of tidal cycles, provides an infinite variety of shapes, textures and colours for the small scenes that play out at your feet..
At the start of the 1940's, as Britain stood alone (western europe being under the under control of the nazis) preparations were made on beaches and landing grounds along the whole of the eastern coast in case it was necessary to repel an invasion. In many places some remnant of these defences can still be seen today.
Compared to some of Northumberland's attractions, even the oldest castle seems like a newfangled creation. A drive to the middle of nowhere followed by a walk through the fields brought me to an ancient stone circle dating from the early bronze age some 4000 years ago.
The monuments we erect have certainly evolved over the last four millenia. Sean Henry's bronze sculture "the couple" at Newbiggin-by-the-sea features a pair of 5 metre tall figures staring somewhat impassively out to sea from their perch on top of a breakwater about 100 metres offshore.
The coast is an ever changing environment, often the day to day differences are imperceptable but as time marches on the cumulative change can be remarkable. In the town of Seaton Sluice there is a small sea stack, about 50m away from the beach, which is called Charlie's Garden. It is so named for the simple reason that it used to be a part of the mainland and at that time the plants on this piece of land were maintained by a chap called Charlie. If Charlie were around today he would find that the logistics of tending his plot had become somewhat more complicated.
The tides on the Northumberland coast are pronounced with a difference of over 4 metres between low tide and high tide. This makes a remarkable difference to many locations, especially where the sea is shallow close to the coast. St. Mary's Island, near to Whitley Bay, demonstrates this phenomenon quite clearly - at low tide you can walk along a narrow road to the island and it's lighthouse while at high tide it is a true island, about 100 metres offshore.
The remains of an old jetty can be seen near to the road which leads to St. Mary's Island, they seemed to make a perfect subject for a very long exposure (6 minutes in this case) image as the sun rose above the horizon, leading to a very minimalist composition. I have started to do an increasing number of very long exposures during this year, they require some small calculations as the camera does not take care of the settings automatically for exposures over 30 seconds, but when you want to get truly smooth seas then 30 seconds often isn't long enough. There is no other way to get this effect in camera, although it can be done absolutely convincingly in the computer by someone who knows what they are doing (and quite horribly by someone who doesn't).
Along the coast, near to Howick, it is possible to find another peice of history. In the 19th century Earl Grey (yes, that Earl Grey), who was the prime minister in the 1830's, built a bathing house on the rocks where he might spend time with his sixteen children. Earl Grey's bathing house still stands to this day and can even be rented as a holiday home.
There are many attractive little towns along this coast, but Alnmouth (at the mouth of the river Aln) was the highlight for me. I watched an unusually nice sunset from a vantage point on the other side of the River Aln, with a number of boats resting on the surface of the estuary waiting for the incoming tide to lift them up once again.
This was my first visit to Northumberland but I hope it will not be my last.
Until next time,
Beyond the 69th parallel
As autumn began I decided to make an arctic road trip, returning to Norway, one of my favourite countries, and heading further north than on any of my previous travels.
I had initially planned this as just a Lofoten trip but I was able to leave a few days earlier in order to spend some time in the Senja area which is just to the south of Tromsø in the far north of Norway. My route took me north through almost the entire length of Finland before crossing to Norway near to Kilpisjärvi and heading to my accomodation at Hamn i Senja. At the northern extremes it is possible to cross directly from Finland to Norway, missing out Sweden entirely. The 1430km journey took about 17 hours of driving time.
The journey was not a difficult one at this time of year (mid-September) with the temperatures above zero and the roads in good condition. The main hazard was provided by the reindeer which became an increasingly common site after crossing the Arctic Circle at around the half way point of the journey. The terrain was made more beautiful by the autumn colours, at the cost of providing better camouflage for any large mammals that might loiter near the margins of the highway. Slowing down, or stopping completely, was required on 6 or 7 occasions to ensure safe passage for car and for animal.
Eventually I arrived at Hamn i Senja sometime after dark.
One major attraction of being so far north in such a sparsely populated area is the greatly enhanced possibilities to see the northern lights, aurora borealis. If you have not spent your time chasing the northern lights before then you might not know that there is an aurora forecast that you can follow, based on geomagnetic activity. This forecast is expressed as a number (between 0 and 9) known as the Kp index. The "normal" level of activity ranges from Kp 1-4 with 5 or higher indicating increasing levels of geomagnetic storm.
The further north you are (south in the case of the southern lights, aurora australis) the more likely you are to be able to see auroras. In order to have a good chance of seeing auroras in France or Germany you would need an exceptional Kp index of 8 or 9, whereas from the north of Scotland or the south of Finland you have possibilities when the Kp index is around 5 (maybe once or twice per month).
Hamn i Senja, at a latitude of nearly 69.5 degrees, is in the zone where a Kp index of 1 or 2 already brings aurora opportunities, hugely increasing your chances to see those magical lights.
Although I was a bit tired from my drive, I never like to pass up an aurora opportunity, so out I went, happy to find that the auroras were already dancing across the sky.
Aurora photography is something of a challenge, and it pays to have done it a few times before. It is such a stunning sight when you first see bright and well defined auroras in the sky, the associated excitement and feeling of wonder easily leads to pointing your camera at the auroras without any regard for how you compose the frame overall - leading to ratehr poor pictures which just happen to have some green lights in them. It pays off to think of auroras as an enhancement for a composition which would work without them.
Usually I like to scout for a few possible aurora enhanced composiitons during the day to be prepared for whatever happens in the evening, but on this occasion I had just arrived so I had no idea where would be best. I decided to just see what I could do with the immediate area of my hotel rather than searching randomly in the dark for new places.
Eventually I tore myself away from the show and got some much needed sleep. At this time of year the shooting schedule is quite demanding as ideally you need to be in position for sunrise (before 0600), sunset (around 2000) and auroras (2200-0300) which rather cuts into the times when sensible people like to sleep.
After a few hours of rest it was back to business for the sunrise and I headed for the the rocks near to the Tungeneset picnic area from where there is a good angle to photograph the peaks of Oksehornan ("the Devil's Teeth"). I found a rock pool which provided good reflections.
My exercise for the day came from a climb up Segla mountain, a sail shaped peak with a sheer 600m drop on one side. Here my research had failed me slightly, I had seen many great pictures from Segla but had not realised that in order to get the best view of Segla you should climb the neighbouring peak of Hesten... by the time I was on top of the wrong mountain I did not have time or energy to climb the right one.
It was a very beautiful day and it was great to be able to admire the views to various directions... without ever getting remotely close to the edge of the cliff.
The trail up to Segla was quite steep but not particularly difficult, although it was easy to see that it could be a bit more dangerous in slippery conditions. Even though it was the wrong mountain when it comes to getting the more famous view it is a popular and attractive hike and I recommend it to anyone who happens to be passing through Arctic Norway.
After safely descending and remembering to eat (sometimes difficult to remember when I am on a trip, far too easy to remember at all other times) I headed back towards Hamn i Senja, checking out some possible evening aurora compositions and other points of interest on the way.
As I waited for the evening I was keeping half an eye on both the weather forecast and the aurora forecast, both of which can be easily followed on any smartphone. I use an app called My Aurora Forecast to check the Kp index and AccuWeather to guess whether the skies will be clear enough, there are dozens of other apps which probably do just as good a job. It is important to follow both forecasts because even with the strongest auroras you are not going to see much when the sky is completely overcast.
On this occasion the aurora forecast looked good but the weather forecast was indicating only a small window of clear skies. I set out to try and be in position if an opportunity came my way. I usually look for reflection opportunities when considering possible aurora locations, and I still feel that to be a good route to strong aurora photographs, but on this occasion I took a different approach and headed for the nearby Senjatrollet amusement park... an attraction based on trolls, as we all know trolls are terrifying man-eating monsters that come out at night.
I managed to survive my encounter with the trolls and drove along a mountain road to the beach at Ersfjord where I had seen some tidal pools earlier in the day that might be used for aurora reflections, but by this time the auroras were fading away and the clouds were gathering, there were no further opportunities on this occasion.
The following day it was time to leave Senja behind and head south to Lofoten, a distance of a bit over 200km as the crow flies but over 500km by road (those pesky mountains and fjords!).
The weather was highly variable during this part of the journey, ranging from beautiful blue sky to fully miserable overcast and rainy conditions. As usual there were many temptations to stop, one of which came at this waterfall framed by autumn colours which I was able to spot from the road and then navigate towards on foot through a wood.
There is a certain electricity pylon, near to a certain bridge, some kilometres before reaching the town of Svolvaer, where I have seen a white-tailed eagle perching almost every time I have driven past. On this occasion there was a change in that situation, but to a positive direction, there were two white-tailed eagles sitting there!
In a now familiar routine I parked in a lay-by and tried to find a good position to photograph these magnificent birds without unduly disturbing them, all the while looking out for the moment when one or both decided to fly off to other parts of their territory. They were both sitting rather close together and when one upped and left the other had to take evasive action to avoid getting a wing in the face.
It seems like this "flapping in the personal space of another avian" would be a breach of etiquette in polite eagle society but the other eagle did not seem unduly concerned as it smoothly handled the situation.
With that eagle excitement behind me I continued into Lofoten, that magical chain of islands which is becoming quite familiar to me these days, this being the 4th trip there in less than 20 months. I would stay the first night in Leknes before continuing to my usual accomodation in Reine. I chose Leknes as an intermediate base as it is the closest town to the spectacular beaches at Haukland and Uttakleiv and would make it easier for me to be at one of those for the trio of active times (sunrise, sunset, auroras). After checking in to my accomodation I headed for Uttakleiv.
The sunset on this evening was quite an attractive one, cycling through a wide selection from the colour palette as the day came to an end.
Each time I have visited this dramatic beach I have found some better ideas for how to photograph it, but it is still a bit of a difficult location.
The auroras were still visible on this evening but they were not that strong and not in the right place in the sky for my chosen spots, I did a bit of searching for alternatives without any huge success.
After a good night's sleep, skipping the sunrise based on the (weather) forecast and resting up ready for the rest of my trip, I was ready to leave Leknes and continue towards Reine. I shall leave the rest of this trip until my next post, but before I sign off here is one final picture from a small lake near to Leknes.
Until next time!
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