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  • Writer's pictureAndy Brown

Battling the Elements

Plus Photoshop Trickery vs True Reflection

Images from my recent Photoshoot to Burnham-on-Sea Low Lighthouse

Lighthouse on desolate beach under a foreboding sky
Burnham-on-Sea Low Lighthouse

What constitutes a fake image? i.e one that depends on processing tricks or manipulation for its impact and therefore does not meet the criteria for being a 'true reflection' of the composition in front of the photographer. Such questions are a hot topic right now with competitions stipulating it in their rules and You-Tubers being forced to explain their techniques to reassure their subscribers. More on that subject later, but for now I should explain why I chose to drive 130 miles to a well-known photographic hotspot in the middle of the tourist season in the middle of the day?

In fact the answer was a simple one. I needed to get out and take a break from the relentless traffic-jams and wall-to-wall Caravans of a Cornish summer season. Make no mistake, we benefit from tourism, but this year owing to the pandemic it has been manic with rammed camp sites, fully booked restaurants and sky-high Air BnB costs. The result has been that the place which once had the lowest infection rates for Covid-19 was now the worst local authority in the country. Burnham would be relatively quiet and was on arrival, this due in part to the very strong wind of at least 30mph blowing off the Bristol Channel. That made things both difficult and exhilarating at the same time. Difficult, because getting sharp images even with the camera perched on a sturdy tripod was tough. Worse, sand was blowing everywhere and soon found its way into my camera bag. Also recording any kind of audio and video for my YouTube channel was almost impossible with the equipment I had. More on that in my forthcoming video which should be out by the time you read this. Exhilarating, because the wind was driving lowering clouds in and the blown sand was forming a misty veil just above the beach. Both of these factors combined to give a sense of drama, which if I could capture its essence would at least help my images to stand out from the usual cliches. Hampering my efforts however in addition to the meteorological conditions were sporadic groups of hardy holiday-makers, dogs and a lone fisherman. I could easily clone out a distant fisherman, but the hundreds of footprints left had criss-crossed the beach with untidy pock-marks and small irregular mounds of sand.

But why the arrival in the middle of the day? My plan had been to coincide with high tide which was scheduled to be 13:21 so I could get that 'Fine Art' minimalist look beloved of Camera Club Judges (not) But I was to be disappointed because the tide line was nowhere near approaching the lighthouse as the hour approached. However, I was there and there were still images to be made. So, I tried to compensate for the wind and maximise the advantage given by the blowing sand by placing my tripod as low as I dared. I attached my Lee Filters holder, circular polariser and a 2-stop soft graduated filter to the front of my 16-55mm lens, this to give some definition in the clouds, enhance contrast and saturate colours. I then added my Lee Big Stopper which gave exposure times ranging from 10-25 seconds depending on aperture. All that was needed now was to find some compositions. My plan briefly was to make both colour and mono photographs in a range of aspect ratios giving potential buyers a wide choice from square to portrait and landscape options. It would also help when sizing images to meet the differing needs of the various social media platforms. That was the plan anyway.

Lighthouse on a bleak windswept beach
Monochrome really accentuates the ominous nature of the scurrying clouds and the bleakness of the scene

My first compositions emphasised the lone nature of the lighthouse in relation to the wide beach and distant horizon beyond. Distractions were few apart from the occasional human ones and could be easily dealt with later in the editing suite without extensive use of the tools available to me. I could therefore maintain both my artistic integrity and remain true to the scene. Despite the low clouds, there were breaks allowing glimpses of the Sun and these brief moments highlighted the angular construction and textures of the mainly wooden Lighthouse. This was something I could also work with later.

Portrait colour image of a Wooden Lighthouse under a stormy sky
Facing the breeze stoically as it has done for nearly 200 years

The image above in many ways is relatively conventional as it is colour and a simple portrait of the wooden Lighthouse. It does allow a closer examination of the various textures present on both the man-made structure and that of the shifting sands so I have done less cloning out of distractions than on other images. That might change as all my images do tend to evolve over time. One thing I have done however for this image is use a colour profile in my camera called Classic Chrome. This reduces the overall palette and favours steely blues with lowered saturation shifting colours towards the cooler end of the spectrum. Also, by getting down low, the perspective has changed and the Lighthouse looks larger, dominating the scene more. Finally, a hint of Sun aids contrast and brings out the textures even more.

I then moved in front of the lighthouse seeking alternative compositions. This presented a different challenge as the backdrop of irregular dunes tended to disrupt the clean lines of the Lighthouse. I did notice however that a long piece of driftwood was lying on the beach and when this was placed to the left of the image it made for a more balanced composition, particularly when cropped to a square format. Here, I have taken the step of removing some metallic equipment from the window at the front of the lighthouse which I felt reduced the overall harmony of the composition. I still feel this does truly reflect the original scene however.

Lighthouse with dark sky and blowing sand
Low Sun, dark clouds and blown sand with the main point of interest placed on a third equal a classic image

Finally, I turned back and headed away from the beach and as I did so I spotted another interesting piece of driftwood which seemed to point back towards the now distant lighthouse. So I stopped got my gear out again and framed up an image. The difficulty here though was that the driftwood was higher than the lighthouse so I could not get low enough to bring them into close proximity in my viewfinder. I did like some aspects of it though as the sand was sculpted into interesting shapes and patterns before it descended down towards the tidal area of the beach. On return to the office and sorting the images out, I felt this image was promising, but the gap between the two principal elements was too great and they looked disconnected. So, I did something that I do not normally do, I started altering the composition in post-processing. First, I simply moved the top half of the image closer to the bottom half using the move tool in Photoshop. This worked very well, but the sky now looked washed out. So I loaded the original image back up and transferred the sky from that back to the new one. Note this is the actual sky, not a third party one. And after some (quite a lot) of further editing it looked good enough to present here.

But, and it's a big but; is it an honest image, or have I gone too far. Also, has the processing altered the appearance such that it has that fake glow typical of over-processed images. What are your views on this sort of thing? I'd appreciate feedback. I'm not likely to repeat the exercise as I am not really a Photoshop person. It has helped my skill level with that program grow, but in general, I like my images to be gently polished rather than dismantled and reassembled in a different order as here. Finally please watch my YouTube Vlog which premieres: September 10th at 19:00 GMT+1



As ever thanks for looking, liking or commenting and even if you don't have an opinion on the images it is nice to know that people are engaged with this Blog. Also, please watch the You Tube video as it explains a lot more and you can laugh at my misfortunes with equipment.


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