Stranded: a light and lens challenge

How many shots of a stranded boat can you make in 30 minutes?

This was the challenge for me today. I visited Scarborough with no real intention to shoot. I just strolled around trying to finish the roll of Kodak Gold 100 that I loaded in my Nikon FM3A two weeks ago. I also brought my Pentax K5 IIs just in case. It was still too early for a shoot when I arrived but the cloud formations looked like there was a potential for a burst of colours later when the sun sets. And so I went back to the spot where I shot a stranded boat before. That boat’s hull was leaking so there’s no way it’s going anywhere.

I arrived at the spot a bit early. The light was still ugly blue but nevertheless, I fired some test shots using my 10-20 lens. The clouds looked ok so I crouched low and took this frame:

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This is why you never shoot in bad light. It will suck no matter what you do. I was thinking that maybe later I can use the same angle when the sky turns red. I tried landscape orientation to compare:

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The low lying clouds have covered the sun so the light was flat. However, previous experience told me that this could result in sun rays if the clouds would break just a tiny bit. With my ultrawide angle lens, there was no way I’m going to capture both the boat and the sun in such a way that the sun would at least be large enough in the frame to be of significance. So I switched to my trusty, cheap Sigma 17-70mm.

How do you capture a big boat while at the same time make the sun appear larger in the frame? Lens compression. (If you do not understand how lens compression works, please read my article on “Understanding your lens”.) I stepped back about 30 meters away from the boat and zoomed in. By now, the sun was just above the mountains and well below the clouds:

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The shot above was taken at 70mm. At this zoom range, the boat could no longer fit in the frame. How I wish that the boat was turned about 45 degrees and not parallel to the horizon. Not only will the boat fit into the frame but the composition will look a lot better. Anyway, that’s beyond my control so I just shot whatever was available for me at that time. Here I thought that the sun was too bright for this backlit shot. I needed to make it smaller. So I walked towards to boat and shot wide at 17mm:

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So now I’ve got the sun much less intense, I’ve got light falling on the ripples in the sand and I’ve got reflections of the boat as well. But now I was desperate for a different angle. I walked towards the front of the boat for my 45-degree angle and noticed that there were houses and buildings in the background. That will ruin the concept of being stranded so I had to change my angle slightly. I saw the glasshouse mountains very far along the horizon and thought that they can be used as background and so I went for lens compression again but this time making sure that the whole boat fits in the frame. This was what I got after stepping back about 30 meters and zooming in to around 50mm:

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No sun this time but I have mountains for the background. Another advantage of this angle is that I don’t have blown highlights. The light is a bit flat though. Good thing that the clouds added a bit of drama otherwise the shot would have failed miserably. Compare this with the first photo. In the first photo you could barely see the mountains even if you squint. Lens compression does wonders.

Still determined to get the sun in my shot, I tried a weird composition. I positioned the boat to the left of the frame. Still zoomed in from a few meters got me this:

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Now I’ve got the sun plus light reflections on the mud puddle. Not bad, I thought so I tried shooting wider from the same position:

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I have deliberately placed the horizon on the upper thirds to avoid the bright sky that wasn’t covered by the clouds which would otherwise ruin the shot completely. This also allowed me to include more of the ground where rock silhouettes and water reflections add interestingness to the frame. I still find this composition a bit weird because the boat is facing away from the frame.

By now the sun has already dipped below the horizon. I wanted to shoot some more but something different. Who would have thought that mud would look this good?

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With that last shot I decided to call it a day.

A few very important lessons in this experience:

1. Not all landscape shots are wide. Medium telephoto and even telephoto lenses add variety to your shots. You need to understand lens compression to make full use of your (kit) lens.

2. Bad light is bad light.

3. Try backlit shots. They look good.

4. Zoom lenses do not make a lazy photographer. Those who say so are either ignorant or just masochist I-shoot-prime-only-because-they-are-megafast-and-ultra-bokeh pretenders.

There will be a next time…

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