The Beat Down

I can’t help but feel like most of the time the pursuit of dramatic, “one of kind” landscapes is a perpetual beat down of sorts, both figuratively and literally.  Let’s face it those crazy dramatic shots are crazy and dramatic because something crazy and dramatic is happening in the landscape; big waves crashing a rocky shoreline, storm clouds catching the last (or first) rays of light, icebergs, snowstorms, subzero temperatures, you name it.  In order to get those shots we find ourselves braving some heinous weather.

I visit this spot on Lake Champlain quite often and have made some decent images here in a variety of conditions.  One thing’s for sure it looks different almost every time I visit.  When the temps are moderate and the wind is calm it can be a rather busy place at sunset, and for good reason.  It’s a marvelous place to enjoy a picnic dinner and watch the sun set over the distant Adirondack Mountains to the west.  However, last night with the winds ripping across the lake at a sustained 20 mph with much higher gusts and temps hovering around freezing without the wind chill (ah, April in Vermont), there wasn’t a sole around except for this crazy photographer.

While standing there getting pummeled by wind, crashing waves and with fingers going numb I wondered how crazy I must look to the casual observer.  Thank goodness the casual observer is far saner than I, and as such was likely home enjoying as nice dinner with his family, so I was safe.  I also thought you might like a few tips for getting the job done while the wind and spray have its way with you along the coast.

1) Find a dry spot of out the wind to set up your camera and lens, attach filters, cable release, pre-focus, set aperture, etc. before heading into the wet zone.  I also try to figure out my comp without the camera, so this is where your pre-visualization skills really come into play.

2) Batten down the hatches.  When I shoot along the shore, whether it’s a lakeshore, stream or the ocean I usually wear a pair of waders.  When the waves are crashing, as they were last night I also wear a Gore-Tex jacket and if it’s cold a hat and gloves (neoprene fingerless are great because they provide grip and warmth when wet).  Last night I took a couple of breakers that were easily over my head, full drenchers, and if I hadn’t been sealed up tight I would have gotten really cold and likely had to flee the scene without a shot.  If you see them coming you can shield the camera and lens with your body.

3) Keep a towel handy (inside your jacket) to wipe down the lens and camera body.  If there is a lot of spray, as there was last night, you’ll be wiping down the lens between every shot.  I like to use a cotton hand towel rather than a micro fiber cloth because of its ability to absorb water.  Often the micro fiber cloths just smear the water around and take too long to use.

4) Use a grad (assuming it’s applicable to the dynamic range of the shot).  Believe it or not, I find it’s easier to wipe water/spray from the flat rectangular filter than the bulbous front element of the lens.  It seems like a little thing but every second counts. Once clean and dry, leave the towel in front of the lens until you’re ready for the next shot.

5) Get a clean shot of the sky when it’s at it’s best; you can use that to blend with the best foreground.  Then concentrate on timing the waves and experimenting with shutter speeds to capture the type of motion you’re after (blurred, frozen or something in between).  Shutter speed and timing will have a huge impact on how the waves/rushing water look and as a result a huge impact on the composition.

6) Have fun!  It’s pretty exhilarating standing in the face of the storm trying to capture the peak action.  I often feel like Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now standing on the beach with chaos all around say, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Technical Details:  Canon 5D III, EF 16-35 f2.8L, f16 @ .8 sec, ISO 320, 3 stop reverse grad, hand towel, copious amounts of Gore-Tex.

Author: Kurt Budliger

Kurt has been photographing the natural landscape for 20 years and has been a professional photographer for the past 10. His photographs and articles have appeared in a number of books, calendars and magazines and are routinely used by non-profit conservation organizations working to protect wild lands. His clients include Outdoor Photographer, Popular Photography, National Geographic Adventure, Outside Magazine, Vermont Life Magazine, Eastern Fly Fishing, Patagonia, 1% for the Planet, Trout Unlimited, Trust for Public Land, The Nature Conservancy, and many more. Kurt is the co-founder and lead instructor at Green Mountain Photographic Workshops, a U.S. based photography education organization.

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