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Kimmeridge Sunset


When Ian asked me if I would be prepared to do a guest feature for his Viewpoint page, about a photograph I had taken – the planning, the taking, processing etc., I was flattered, and straight away said of course I would. My mind immediately went to one of my images - my most successful image – Kimmeridge Sunset. However, after a little thought I wondered just how much planning, forethought, etc., I had really put into this picture and how much was pure luck! And what about the things I knew were wrong with it – how would I explain that! Perhaps I had been a little hasty.

The photograph was taken at Kimmeridge Bay, on the Dorset Coast, during one of Ian’s workshops. Unlike any of the other workshops I have been on with Ian, it was his Advanced Workshop – 15th October 2011. Ian, four students, and a 1960s film Hassleblad, coffee and flapjacks. I grew up with fully manual cameras, but could never afford anything like the beautifully crafted Hassleblad. I was looking forward to this. We each took a turn with the Hassleblad which Ian used to good effect for tuition, with about three quarters of an hour each of intense one-on-one training.

We are all so used to the highly automated cameras of today that we forget the struggle that we went through to get the picture in the days of film. Using the fully manual Hassleblad was a shock to the system, and was an excellent learning tool. We had to work from first principles and think carefully every step of the way.

After about 40 minutes of setup the photo was taken. When Ian sent me the resulting image some weeks later - one of the highlights was just a little blown out! The Hassleblad needs a histogram on the back!

Anyway, I digress - I'm supposed to be talking about the sunset, not a “rocks on beach” still life.

I had actually done some preparation for this workshop - a bit over the top - as is my wont. I even had A4 prints with me of the reciprocity failure tables for the film I knew we were using in the Hassleblad. But the really useful information I had with me were the sheets showing graphs of the tides and maps of the bay with sun/moon rise/set angles and times! I was a bit embarrassed actually and tried to keep them low key. But, I did know exactly when/where things were going to happen - and yes, I did remember to pack my compass. If you are interested you can see the information HERE on FLICKR.

As the afternoon drew on, Ian asked the four of us to spend some time thinking about where to set up in preparation for sunset. After some time making our decision about where to pitch our tripods, we discussed the pros and cons as a group, and with Ian. We then went off to our various chosen positions. If I remember correctly, three of us were fairly close to each other and one chap was a hundred metres along the beach.

This is a general view of where we were positioned…

The sun was dropping and the tide was coming in. The tripods were up, the remote shutter releases tested, graduated filter holders attached, camera set up checked - ISO, exposure, aperture priority, mirror lock up, compensation etc… It was a nice evening - had the makings of a good sunset.

There was a bit of jockeying for position. Let's get the composition as good as possible - check the edges, where is the eye going? is it balanced? and a hundred other things - just like Ian had drummed into us with the Hassleblad. I don't know about you, but when I'm "doing" photography I get a bit immersed. This evening I was definitely "in the zone" - it had already been an intense day and I was enjoying myself!

We waited, and watched. Make sure our focus point is right. Take some test photos - check the focus. Adjust. Try the graduated filter, do we need it? Check the histogram, add a little exposure compensation - expose to the right but not too far.... don't want anything blown out.

Now things were changing, the clouds were rearranging themselves, changing colour... the tide was coming in - damn - where have those rocks gone? - my composition is not what it was... rearrange. Now the doubts creep in - should I be further to the left? further forward? - no! stick with it – if I try it to the left someone will pinch my spot! The colours are looking really good.

Take a couple of shots for real, check focus – yes, they look like they might be OK - but who can really tell on the back of the camera? The histogram looks OK... the colours are wonderful now - excellent - the sun is really putting beautiful yellow/oranges into the clouds - everything is happening quickly. Suddenly things are changing magnificently. The clouds have opened and are allowing the blue skies to reflect off of the dead still sea - wonderful!

By this time, Ian was beside himself, pacing up and down muttering - "Fifteen years I have been coming to Kimmeridge, and I've never seen anything like this" - and with no camera equipment as he was tutoring!

The resulting photograph looks calm, quiet and serene. But the taking of the picture was frenetic – so much to think about, so little time. I took many pictures that evening. Not spraying, but each one with as much thought as possible. After all, I was on an advanced workshop. However I have only printed one or two images, taken at the peak moments, when the tide, sun, clouds and reflection were at their best. It doesn't all come together like that often.

The last exposure of the evening was six minutes long. I learned one more lesson that evening as we stumbled off the beach in the pitch dark. I had remembered to bring a torch but the battery ran out. There is always a spare in the bag - but where? Not easy to find in the dark!

I imported the images into Lightroom as soon as I got home and did a quick check. It wasn't until the following day that I spent some time processing. I have a tendency to over process - I know it, and the damn tools encourage it and make it all too easy. And some sunsets just look unreal - even in real life. Whether I have over processed it or not - it's how I remember it.

I now have a master tiff file that I use to print this image. I have only vague ideas of what processing steps I went through. I know that when I shot the photo I was already thinking of a square format – so that was my first edit after choosing the best images to work with. I shoot in RAW and would have done the standard things… a little clarity and vibrance – no saturation – not with a sunset like this! Take the highlight down – bring back the clouds around the sun – put a little detail into the shadows in the foreground. Add the tiniest of vignette using Lightroom’s adjustment brush.

When I took the images, I did over/under expose some shots, keeping in mind that I might have some blown out highlights in the sun bathed clouds and little detail in some of the dark foreground rocks. However, HDR did not work well because of the movement of the clouds and the water between shots. Using the remove ghost facility in Photoshop left ugly artefacts. One day I will go right back to the RAW files and start from scratch, especially as they are improving the processing algorithms all the time.

I did some test prints and settled on Hannemeule Baryta 250 paper. I cut my own mounts and make my own frames, so a white mount and 600x600 frame using flat black 40mm square moulding was duly made.

The picture was first exhibited at Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in the LightCatchers exhibition December 2011. Within 15 minutes of opening the picture had sold! That was a good exhibition!

The camera used was a Canon 5D Mk II and the lens was a Canon EF24-105 f4L. Exposure details are .3sec, f/18, -1EV, ISO 50, focal length 24mm.

Would I have done anything differently today? Very much so….

• The ISO of 50 is an error. It wasn't until about six months later that I found out that the dynamic range of the 5DII is worse at ISO 50 than at ISO 100. I really must read that manual.
• f/18 – is way too high. I’m sure that today I could have managed to get everything in focus at a much lower aperture, with closer attention to focus point. f/8 or even lower perhaps - much closer to the sweet spot of the lens.

Oh, just one other thing, taking the photograph - I got wet feet!

Thank you Ian for a brilliant workshop, and the sunset, and the flapjack.

If anyone is interested there are more images from the day on my Flickr site in the Kimmeridge collection.

Roy Brophy
...on Flickr