What lens to take... To a sunrise shoot

I've had the great fortune to spend some time on the beautiful South Coast of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa in recent years, and sunrise shoots have become a fairly regular feature of our stays here. This is the story of a recent sunrise shoot I attended at Shelly Beach, KZN, and why you might just choose not to go with the obvious lens for your next sunrise shoot...

Sunrise is coming... Shelly Beach, KZN. f/5, ISO 320, 1/1250 sec, 50mm

My go to lens for any landscape or seascape outing tends to be a wide angle - for fairly obvious reasons I guess. The 16-35mm lens gives a wonderful panorama of the scene, enabling me to capture a really broad field of view, play with leading lines and foreground interest and generally make some very pleasing images which do well with customers, club and salon entries. The sunrise shots below were all taken at Shelly Beach in the past couple of weeks.

f/16, ISO 31, 0.6 sec. Nikon D810, 16-35mm f/4 @ 16mm. 0.9 Lee ND Grad, Heliopan 105mm polarizing filter.

But recently, I've begun to try other focal lengths when I head out in the darkness of the morning, searching for images which are not what most people might try or think to take. I know that I can be fairly certain of coming home with a good set of wide angle shots bursting with colour, movement in the water and drama, so the challenge is now to see what else I can see and capture. In today's image saturated market, showing work which is outside the main stream of what everyone else does is a great way to differentiate yourself and get noticed.

Morning fishing. Handheld, f/9, ISO 640, 1/8000 sec, Tamron 150-600mm

Silhouettes are always striking images, and with the early morning light behind a figure like this fisherman, you can make a striking image by carefully picking your vantage point, framing carefully and then waiting for all your elements to come together. I set this shot up knowing that I wanted a gull to feature in shot, and it took about 10 minutes before I managed to get the shot I was after.

Freedom! I was at a sunrise shoot earlier this week with about a dozen other photo club members, and the scene was probably quite familiar to many of you - a row of figures hunched over tripods stretched out along the beach, all capturing basically the same shot dozens of times as the gloom of night lifted to reveal the disk of the sun breaking the horizon and low cloud. Nothing wrong with that - many wonderful shots will have been processed on computers all along this coastline following that morning. And with minor variations in rock formations and shutter speeds, you would probably be hard pressed to say which shot was taken by which photographer.

The sun rises... A long lens perspective. Handheld, f/6.3, ISO 320, 1/1600 sec, Tamron 150-600mm @ 600mm

I had opted for a different approach that day. Eschewing my tripod - I actually lent it to another photographer whose own one was a very cheap and unstable platform - I had mounted my Tamron 150-600 zoom to my D810 body for the morning, no filters, just the luxurious freedom of wandering around the beach shooting handheld. I got some quizzical glances from some of the seascape die-hards I can tell you!

Helios returns! Handheld, f/6.3, ISO 320, 1/3200 sec, Tamron 150-600 @ 600mm

But that 2 hour session, from around 6am with just a faint rosy glow on the eastern horizon, through to after 8am when the sun was well on it's way into the heavens, was one of the most varied and productive shooting sessions I've had in a long, long time. And the collection of shots shown below - all taken in that one session - would not have been possible had I simply done the obvious and gone out with my wide angle lens. Yes, I could have changed lenses, but this is to be avoided on a beach where sand has a way of getting into all the nooks and crannies of your kit, so I would advise to stick with one lens for a session - or take more than one camera body if you do really want variation.

Kingfishers, cormorant, portraits, action and seascapes - I love a long zoom lens!

The local surf rescue team were training in the tidal pool, and their brightly coloured wetsuits and helmets really stood out in the morning light, and I spent a few minutes shooting them splashing in the pool as they trained in overturning a rubber boat then escaping from underneath.

I noticed a small girl sitting on the pool wall watching the action, and she made a lovely subject with a good diffused background, and then her little brother joined her and I managed a few shots of the two of them playing happily together.

Cormorant. f/6.3, ISO 800, 1/2000 sec

The Cormorant was another fortuitous shot - I just caught the initial movement as it launched off the rocks, and tracked it across the beach to its next perch. I liked this shot as it shows the wing feather patterns off well, with good light highlighting the underbelly in flight.

Pied Kingfisher. Handheld from about 20m, f/6.3, ISO 200, 1/2000 sec, D810 with Tamron 150-600 @ 600mm

The Pied Kingfisher was a real treat for me! I'd managed to get a very rushed shot of the Giant Kingfisher when it appeared on the rocks near us - see the previous shots - but in my excitement had forgotten to set my shutter speed correctly, so ended up shooting him at 1/50 sec, which even sitting on the rocks was far too slow for a really sharp shot when zoomed out to 600mm.

But when one of our group called me to turn around and look up, there was this fluttering, hovering bird about 10 meters from me in the air. At first I thought it must be a Sparrowhawk, but then I saw the distinctive long bill and caught the black and white coloration, and realized it must be a Kingfisher. I had not known that they hovered when hunting, so I added to my bird lore as well that day!

This time I took a few seconds to set the camera up properly - the lowest possible setting for my aperture - f/6.3 zoomed out at 600mm, and a shutter speed of 1/2000 sec. I was already in 21 point continuous autofocus mode, so good to go, and I started shooting what became a sequence of about 100 images before the little chap darted off further down the beach. I just love the light shining through his wings and the wonderful shapes his wings make as they curl around in the air.

Hovering Pied Kingfisher. Handheld from about 20m, f/6.3, ISO 200, 1/2000 sec, D810 with Tamron 150-600 @ 600mm
Tern. Handheld from about 40m, f/6.3, ISO 800, 1/8000 sec, D810 with Tamron 150-600 @ 600mm

And my last set were of a tern wheeling above me, just really to get some silhouette images for dropping onto other shots. I tried processing the top shot here to see if there was any detail, but although some features did emerge, they are not really usable when the shadows are brightened at any size other than thumbnails.

So that was my morning on the beach with the long zoom - a mixed and very satisfying bag of shots across a number of different topics. I hope you've enjoyed looking through them as much as I did capturing and then processing them!

Joe is a photography trainer and is also an Adobe Certified Expert in Lightroom. He offers individual, group and corporate photography training as well as photographic services, and is available as a speaker for clubs and societies. He has also judged for photo clubs in Ireland and South Africa, and regularly competes in international salon competitions.

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Joe Houghton
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All photos by Joe Houghton www.houghtonphoto.com Joe@houghtonphoto.com

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