Beach huts in the winter

A few months ago I wrote about shooting a magazine feature about “walking with speed lights” and promised to say a bit more in time. well, a promise is a promise…

There are days when I just want to go out and take pictures. Most of the time it really doesn’t matter what I’m shooting – as long as I can get my teeth into making the pictures as good as they can be. Winter in the United Kingdom can be pretty un-inspiring and if, like me, you love shooting people outdoors it can be a tough job getting people interested in being out in the cold – especially when there’s a strong chance of getting wet and probably having to be wrapped up in unflattering bad weather gear. A few months ago, in preparing a ‘technique” piece for a photography magazine I decided to go for a walk. The thing that made this an unusual walk is that I took some flash gear with me – nothing too heavy, a couple of Canon Speedlights and a couple of lightweight stands in a simple sling bag – and I decided to shoot anything that I thought would look better with the addition of some off-camera flash.

©Neil Turner, November 2010 – Bournemouth, Dorset.

I tried lots of different pictures but it was this composition that made me happy. One of my favourite spots growing up was a small headland between Bournemouth and Christchurch called Hengistbury Head where there is a nature reserve and a path to some of the coolest beach huts on the planet. On a wet winters day you meet plenty of people walking their dogs and some very hardy bird-watchers.

Great locations are nice but I could have chosen to do this walk almost anywhere in the country and it would have been possible to take interesting pictures. When I’m in London I often walk the canal toe-paths or wander through Epping Forest to see what I can see. Location isn’t as important as the attitude that “something is going to catch my eye”.

The wooden chalets that line the spit are all painted in different colours and no two are alike. What I had wanted to do here was to use flash to make one hut stand out even more from the rest and so I walked along until I saw a very nice one in a muted yellow.

The “normal” exposure here would have been 1/200th of a second at f5.6 on 200 ISO but the skies would have been washed out and I couldn’t achieve my self-set goal. The trick here was getting enough power from two Speedlights to give me a flash exposure of f11 so that I could let the background and sky go two f-stops under exposed.

I found this hut with something right next to it where I could hide a flash. Just along the beach was a freshly painted blue hut that had its own tuft of grass – which was perfect cover for a couple of speedlights. With two flash units simply sitting in plastic bags on the sand and on ¼ power each I played around with composition and with angling the two flashes at different angles before coming up with one of my favourite images of the day. The exposure was 1/200th at f14 on 200 ISO and that allowed me to pick out the single hut better because the flash units were so close to it. The rules of flash fall-off mean that if something is two metres from the light source, and perfectly exposed, anything else that is four metres away will be exactly two f-stops underexposed which plays directly into the hands of anyone being creative with light.

Space makes you think

In general I am a fan of tighter compositions, but there are some subject matters that are just crying out for space. A large area of foreground or background can lend an enormous amount of emphasis to an image. Placing a small subject in a large space helps you to tell a story. If you place a person in one of the bottom corners you might suggest loneliness or vulnerability, whereas placing them at the top may well imply the opposite.

©Neil Turner | Bournemouth | January 2005

This photograph of a child playing on the beach in the winter suggests that he is really enjoying his freedom. The photograph was taken from quite a height (maybe 25 feet) to isolate the sand from the confusing background and the fact that he is nearer the right of the frame suggests that he has a lot more room to head into. The oldest rule about composition – the rule of thirds – is being observed.

If the space around the child in the photograph was full of details then the impact of the composition would be lost. You would inevitably give the image more than one subject and spoil the simplicity which is the real secret of the picture. Of course if the child’s mother was in another area of the otherwise empty frame then that would give another message altogether, the space would still be making you think – but differently.

Cluttered photographs are much harder to pull off, simple images are often more effective and this image proves that simple doesn’t necessarily mean tight.