Calm After The Storm

General

Like many others, I watched the weather forecasts closely from early on last week. It looked promising and wild. In fact, as the week developed, unusually, the Met Office didn’t really alter their predictions. Early on Monday morning the UK was about to be hit by ‘St Jude’, a storm the like of which, we hadn’t seen for decades. 

The storm consisted of a deep low pressure system that would bring hurricane force winds of over 80mph in places, particularly exposed areas of the south coast. 

I was unsure whether to make the trip to the south coast, particularly Lyme Regis, for two reasons:

  • 1, it was a two hour drive away and
  • 2, sleeping in the van overnight may not have been the brightest idea I’d ever had!

However, I have been to Lyme Regis many times and the thought of massive waves crashing over The Cobb and onto the Harbour buildings with a rising sun behind excited me and is something I have always wanted to photograph. It is a bit of a clichéd shot but not one I have managed to capture yet. I felt Lyme was a particularly good ‘target’ during this storm as The Cobb stretches out into the sea even at low tide and therefore there was a chance the waves would crash into the wall even with the sea at its lowest ebb. 

St Jude was scheduled to hit land at 1.00am in the deep dark night and photographically speaking it would die out quite quickly with gusts reducing in intensity to a mere 35mph by first light (7.00am). Tide times meant a high tide was also not due until 11.30am. What to do?

Late Sunday afternoon I made a decision. This storm was likely to be the biggest for 20 years, the weather reports and news items were littered with warnings and advice and there seemed to be no indication that the storm wouldn’t be as intense as expected which is often the case with UK weather forecasting. I couldn’t just sit at home and then wish I had made the trip when I saw the aftermath and high seas on the south coast and on the news. To solve my sleeping in the van issue during the high winds, I booked a little Bed & Breakfast room in Lyme and set off on the two hour journey south, packed up with all the camera gear I might need and all the waterproof clothing you could imagine!

It was pouring down with rain by the time I arrived and the lovely lady that greeted me at the B&B gave me a little room in the ‘sheltered’ part of the house. She was particularly worried that I would be taking photo’s at first light as Lyme had lost a photographer from the Cobb just the day before. Apparently he had been swept off by a large wave and drowned. I assured her that I had no intention of being actually ON the Cobb, but photographing it from the shore. 

I was woken up in the night by the start of the storm, the wind and the rain were sounding intense. At 6am my alarm sounded and I quickly prepared making sure I was warm, protected and had all the gear I needed.

I jumped into the van and headed down the road for all of two minutes, parked in the car-park and leapt out to survey the carnage I knew would greet me……

……..only, there wasn’t any. Actually, I didn’t want any carnage, I just wanted big rolling stormy waves and at least some chance of some decent dawn light. Amazingly, there was neither. Now, I have done enough photography to know that light is a matter of luck on these types of occasions but where was the sea? It was a bit choppy for sure, waves were crashing into The Cobb, but rather apologetically and certainly not with any force or excitement. In fact, it was quite a calm scene that greeted me and not what I had expected at all. It was probably a scene locals saw quite regularly in Lyme and absolutely nothing to write home about. I chatted to a couple of other photographers, one who had had exactly the same idea and travelled down from Bristol and another more local. Talking to another local, he was amazed and relieved there was relatively no damage in the area and laughed at TV crews arriving hoping to find ‘death and destruction’ on the shoreline!

My views are that sometimes, as a photographer and as my good friend and I often remark, you have to be “in it to win it”. Had I not made the trip I might have missed an amazing shot and opportunity. As it turned out, I would have missed nothing but all the signals were there and I made the effort. I don’t regret it at all. Its the way things go sometimes. 

Now, I don’t know if anyone has seen the forecast for this weekend yet? It does look promising again down there, gusting 50mph winds with high tides……………

Image

The Cobb and relative calm after the storm at Lyme Regis, Dorset

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Storm Force

Photographs

Three times previously I had headed in vain to a place where I knew there were amazing pics to be had. However, everything had to be right. Firstly, the wind needed to be blowing, and I mean blowing. Storm force gales were the order here.

Secondly, high tide had to be not only in daylight hours but preferably in the afternoon so that the sun was shining onto the waves and harbour wall from the right.

Lastly, there had to be some sunlight, again, preferably in between showers which would give a good sky backdrop.

All previous attempts had resulted in the camera not even being taken out of the bag. The  reason being the light was wrong (too dull) or the waves were not being up and spectacular enough.

Well, this last Monday evening I watched the weather forecast with growing excitement. The Met Office was fluctuating between a steady 30 and 40 mph winds with high tide due at 12.33pm on Tuesday. The best thing being that the wall of rain should also be clearing by midday. Well, all this seemed too good to be true so we got up early, packed coats and walking boots together with our flask of hot strong coffee and off we set. The weather going there was absolutely atrocious, which was perfect, if you get the idea! The M4 was extremely wet and winds were high.

As we neared our destination however, the winds seemed to settle to barely a whisper and although the rain had all but passed us overhead, we feared that the stormy seas whipped up by gale force winds might not be as we were picturing.

We arrived as a passing deluge passed us overhead and our first look at the viewpoint we were to be using confirmed we need not have been worried. Waves taller than a house were crashing into each other and over the harbour wall. We could see we had a few minutes of sun before another major shower blew in from the sea. We quickly set up and fired off a few images. The settings were relatively easy to organise. I needed enough depth of field to capture all the frothy action but a high enough shutter speed to freeze the spray in mid air.

I used aperture priority, a very sturdy tripod and a 70-200mm f2.8 lens. The settings were as follows: ISO200, f9, 1/800th second and around 110-140mm focal length. I was not worried about noise on the images as I was going to be converting these to mono anyway and also because the Canon 5D Mark II at ISO200 will have no noise problems at all. I was a little worried about movement as the wind was blowing a gale and keeping the whole set up steady was challenging but at 1/800th (in strong sunlight) things were good. I also set the drive to continuous mode as although the 5D II  doesn’t have a great images per second drive it is more than adequate and I quickly realised the waves looked better sometimes as they grew and sometimes as they were falling away, this meant I captured both.

The approaching shower turned into a massive storm and lasted all of 10 minutes but enough for us to seek shelter in the van! A cup of hot coffee later and we were off again to our place on the harbour wall. There were many other ‘togs around, all expecting to catch the excitement of the scene before us. I trust we managed that too. For the full set of images please click here http://www.ellisimagery.co.uk/section573937.html

We ventured home after treating ourselves to a fish and chip late lunch and over 500 images nabbed for future processing. The processing itself was done in my usual way and that is to carefully select the appropriate images first. Out of 500 there are many that can immediately be binned, in this case, mostly because the waves were not ‘exciting’ enough. Once that has been done and the best selected the full processing begins. One thing I never hear commented upon about processing is the user’s mood/attitude. I personally find that if I am in the wrong frame of mind, I cannot make my good images ‘sing’ from the screen. If that doesn’t happen then I walk away.

When the mood is right, the processing is almost as enjoyable as the shooting itself. Here I played with B&W conversions for hours. Tweaking levels, sharpening certain areas, dodging and burning waves to bring them out in all the explosive glory. There is just never one ‘right’ way to do this and all my images are quite different and processed deliberately that way. My cropping is also very flexible. Again, I simply have no time or patience with anyone that says you must crop perfectly in camera everytime. Why? Capture the beauty of the moment and make sure all your levels and settings are spot on and frame roughly too large for your likely final edit. Sloping horizons are another area I try to get right but am not anal about at this stage. Deal with them on the computer later.  Concentrate on the important aspects first, those you cannot change later. With todays massive sensors, (the Canon 5D Mark II is 21mp!) you can crop to your hearts content still leaving an image large enough to print to a very large scale. Worry about the final crop back in the comfort of your own home. Who on earth ever said a good picture can only be 6″X4″ or 8″X10″ or ratios thereof? Ridiculous. In this day and age, prints can be any size. My theory is, crop whereever is best for that image. The consequence of this is that I have always made a conscious decision to crop where the image is cropped, in post production. You may not agree with my choice but it has been a deliberate act!

All in all, I am pleased with the set, they illustrate the explosiveness and excitement on offer that day. I hope you like them too…

Storms blow in at Porthcawl, South Wales