Make sure the tide is ebbing and more spring than neap. No that’s not code, it’s a genuine instruction for anyone hoping to photograph St Cuthbert’s cave at Hollywell Bay on the north Cornwall coast. Basically check the tide time to ensure the water level is dropping and the tidal range is large enough so you won’t be cut off.
Why, you may wonder would anyone bother having to work out tide times and heights just to photograph a dark damp hole in the cliff face? Well, if you are asking that you’ve never been to St Cuthbert’s Cave because it’s one of the few accessible sea caves with a luxuriant visual feast. Over thousands of years mineral rich water has laid down a veneer so intricate it’s like a spelunking crown jewel. It’s a cave discovered, if folklore be believed, by St Cuthbert, although a quick internet search reveals there are a few St Cuthbert’s caves so he was either a prolific cave dweller, or it’s a myth, a bit like St George, a Greek soldier who is supposed to have slayed a dragon.
The cave though is a rare and beautiful example of an interface between a natural spring and the erosive power of the north Atlantic. It’s also tricky to photograph. For a start, the scene is not big, plus the light balance between the edge of the cave and the back is way more than any camera’s dynamic range can combat. So with this cave I chose to paint with light, flash light to be exact.
Painting with light is much easier to do than it first appears. All you need is a camera, tripod and a flashgun. Set up the camera and get your focus point and as low a shutter speed as possible. Easy in the low cave light. I managed a five second exposure, in the most lit area with the rest dark or black, but that’s OK because I was going to paint the light back in. To give some time between tripping the shutter and the exposure being made I set self timer. This gave the camera time to settle thus eliminating motion blur and gave me time to get into position.
Next, I set the flashgun to half power so it recycled quicker. Holding the flashgun and firing it manually using the test button, I made a test exposure to see if it was enough. The closer parts of the scene were correctly exposed, but the further parts were still under. That though told me what to do. A real exposure was started and as the shutter tripped, I manually fired the flashgun around the scene and fired it twice into the deeper recesses of the cave. That’s the beauty of light painting with a flashgun, you can increase the exposure the more times you fire. It does take trial and error and I ended up taking quite a few images before swapping composition to ensure I got the exposure as balanced as I could.
Holywell, a bay near Newquay, Cornwall, has cliffs dotted with several impressive caverns carved out by to tempestuous nature of the north Atlantic. Sea caves are tricky to balance the exposure, so as well as light painting, you can use post processing to build the right exposure.
This also gives you the chance to add a model for interest in the shot, even if you are shooting on your own. In this instance, I set the composition and worked out the exposure outside the cave. I then worked out the exposure for the darkest part of the cave and set three addition exposures between them, which made five shots. I used a remote release and self timer to give me time and a steady image and took another series, but on the exposure right for the cave opening, I rushed in and modelled.
For post processing on the move I use Affinity Photo, but the process is similar in Lightroom, Camera RAW, Photoshop etc. I tweaked each image a little to get the perfect balance of exposure and minimal noise. I then ask the software to stack the images which balances the exposure. The results straight out of the gate is pretty good, but some parts might take a bit of work.
So that’s two ways to create great sea cave images. It’s not the easiest photographic genre to get right, but it’s an enjoyable thing to practice. Just remember though tide ebbing and springish is the code to follow, always.
Gavin Parsons studied photography at Huntingdonshire college one of the most eminent stepping-stones into commercial photography in the 1990s. His career skewed into journalism when he accepted the role of technical writer on Practical Photography magazine and then slid into the water and he became one of the UK’s top underwater photographers and was the editor of Sport Diver magazine.
Gavin is an award winning wildlife photographer, accomplished environmental portrait photographer and now a Youtuber with a growing channel dedicated to all things photographic.