How This Award Winning Coastal Photograph Was Taken

By Chris Gin / March 21, 2011

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We asked New Zealand landscape photographer and Flickr superstar, Chris Gin, to tell us how he got this great photograph. Here's what he had to say:
Every now and again I get asked how I get such vibrant colours in my photos. People often assume I have really good Photoshop skills or use HDR software to achieve that look, but if I get good light at the time I take the photo then I don't need to do a lot at the post-processing stage.
Here's a shot I took in 2010 that remains one of my favourite coastal shots to date. I'm also pleased to say it won the Sunset to Sunrise category in the inaugural Outdoor Photographer of the Year competition. Below I'll discuss how I got the shot, from planning to post-processing.

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Normally when I'm on a photo trip I'll scout an area beforehand to try and pre-visualize my shot. However this shot was taken locally and I knew the area fairly well so I didn't do much in the way of scouting. I also find that coastal shots can be hard to plan for due to the constantly-changing tides. I tend to use  interesting rock formations with water flowing over them in my shots and often the tide dictates which ones are suitable to shoot at any given time. I usually just  arrive at the beach about an hour before sunrise/sunset and do some scouting then.
I have a standard kit for the majority of my landscapes which consists of the following:

  • Canon 40D
  • Sigma 10-20 wide angle lens
  • Tripod
  • Hitech GND Filters
  • Remote shutter release
  • Micro-fibre lens cloths (very useful when doing coastal photography as you're often plagued by seaspray).

On Location
When I arrived at the beach I struggled to find a decent composition at first. While there were plenty of rocks around they were all pretty ordinary, and since I already had a large collection of ‘ordinary' images I was after something special.
I walked up and down the beach and kept looking. Eventually I was running out of time – sunrise was only minutes away – but I finally found this large flat rock which was getting covered by the incoming waves.  I set my tripod up and composed the shot as best I could, trying different angles until I found one I liked, then waited for the sun to come up.
At first the sunrise was disappointing, with little cloud in the sky and subdued colours, but within minutes things changed considerably. A large ominous cloud came in from nowhere and sat itself above Rangitoto Island in the background, and the colours intensified as the sun rose.  Things were looking good so it was just a matter of timing my shutter clicking with the incoming waves.
With coastal photography there are various ways you can capture the water. You can go for a fast shutter speed to freeze the water action, a really long exposure to give the water a milky effect, or anything in between. (Some people dislike the milky water effect saying it's overused or just a passing fad, but it's one of the things that attracted me to photography and I can't imagine it ever going away – or at least I hope it doesn't).
I decided on a fairly fast shutter speed to capture the splashing waves while still blurring the water a little. I set my camera to Aperture Priority mode, ISO 100, and f/18 and then just clicked away. I bracketed my exposures (0, -1, +1) not just for the usual reason of capturing the entire dynamic range, but also to give me a variety of shutter speeds to choose from. I find it's always a bit of trial and error when trying to capture waves.  The shot I chose had a shutter speed of 1/3 sec.
Also be prepared to get wet when taking these kinds of shots. At times some big waves would come in up to my thighs while I was taking this shot. Just be sure to hang onto the tripod so it doesn't tip over – cameras and salt water don't mix too well! Also remember to clean your lens/filters in between shots as they are bound to get sea spray or water drops on them.
I used a 4-stop GND filter to control the dynamic range. I started out using a 3-stop one which is my most commonly used for sunrise/sunsets, but as the sun rose the sky became pretty bright and I needed a slightly strong filter.
Post Processing
Once I have my photos on the computer I'll browse through them and decide which one(s) to process first using Lightroom. I tend to make this decision using thumbnails because I find if an image is striking at a small size then it's going to look pretty good at full size. If I'm unsure then I'll choose various candidates and view them at full screen.
In this case there were two images that caught my eye:

I liked the first shot the most but there were a few elements from the second one that I really liked too. Normally I would just choose the better shot but in this case I decided the bit of water cascading off the foreground rock in the second shot was too good to leave out, so I decided I would blend this into the final image.
Once I've selected the best image(s) I'll load the RAW files into Lightroom for initial processing. The very first thing I do is apply the ‘Landscape' camera style to the images. This mimics the in-camera processing that occurs when you shoot JPEG and it's also what you see on the camera's LCD.
At times I find the camera styles don't produce a pleasing image in which case I abandon them and apply vibrance, saturation etc myself, but in this case I was happy with the result. I also made some local exposure adjustments (+0.7) to brighten the rocks near the horizon.

At this stage I will also check the histogram for clipped shadows and blown highlights and if necessary add some Fill Light and/or Recovery. Adjustments to white balance would also be done here but in this case I left it on ‘As Shot'.
After I've finished making changes in Lightroom, I'll export the images as JPEGs using the sRGB color space (I use sRGB because my photos are primarily viewed on the web rather than printed and sRGB is more suitable for this).
The next step is to complete the processing in Photoshop. Here I loaded the main image, pasted the other one on top as a layer, and then blended in the parts I wanted using a simple layer mask:

The main image suffered from a strange spotting effect near the sun due to a combination of a wet GND filter and sun flare, so I had to clone these out. In addition to that I removed some dust spots, straightened the horizon, applied noise reduction to the sky (using Noise Ninja), and sharpened the foreground.  Sometimes I will also adjust curves, add some vibrance/saturation etc but in this case none of that was needed.
Once I've finished processing an image it's just a case of saving JPEGs at various sizes suitable for my website, Flickr etc and I'm done.
Getting a good photo is a mainly a combination of good light, composition, technical knowledge, and a bit of luck. Post-processing is required to fine tune things, but you don't have to be a Photoshop expert in order to enjoy photography.
You can view my other photos on my website (,  Flickr page, or on Facebook.

About the author

    Chris Gin

    Chris Gin is a landscape photographer based in Auckland, New Zealand. You can view more of his photos on Facebook, Flickr, or his website.


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