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Tips On What To Photograph At The Coast From 2020VISION

Tips On What To Photograph At The Coast From 2020VISION - 2020VISION photographer Niall Benvie talks about the diversity of the UK's coastline and shares tips on how to photograph it.

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Category : Landscape and Travel
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With one of the highest population densities in Europe, it is no surprise that the UK has so little wild land left. But when it comes to the richness and diversity of our coastline, we can hold our heads up high.

Rough sea, Point of Stoer, Assynt, North West Scotland
Rough sea, Point of Stoer, Assynt, North West Scotland © Mark Hamblin/2020VISION.

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The UK’s coastline (including its major islands) measures over 31300km, more than 18500 km of which is in Scotland alone. It is along the coast that the struggle between wild nature and culture has always been most keenly fought, where "progress" and "development" sit most uneasily in the face of elemental forces greater than anything encountered inland. Here is the closest we come in these islands to wilderness, where natural processes take precedence. And wherever our ability to control wild nature is compromised, so it thrives.

Britain brings a lot to the top table of European wildlife spectaculars when we consider our coastal and marine wildlife: the largest colony of northern gannets in the world on St Kilda; the world’s most northerly resident population of bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth; very rare, deep water corals 1000m below the surface, 190km north west of Cape Wrath; a natural World Heritage Site in the shape of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast; almost half the world population of grey seals; internationally important numbers of wintering waterfowl on the Ribble estuary; the densest population of otters in Europe on Shetland; about 95% of Europe’s population of Leach’s petrel, also on St Kilda; not to mention the 19 or more species of whales and dolphins that can be seen regularly in UK waters, exotic species such as sunfish, seahorses and basking sharks and seabird colonies that take your breath away by their extent and clamour.

Grey seal, The Farne Islands
Grey seal, The Farne Islands © Alex Mustard/2020VISION.

This wildlife, these experiences, are big business; an SNH commissioned report estimates that dolphin watching alone brings at least £4 million a year into the economy of the north east of Scotland while the sea eagles on Mull swell the island’s already sizeable income from whale and dolphin watching by a further £2 million. That sort of income contributes to people living in places that might otherwise be considered economically marginal, allowing communities to be viable. For these reasons, if no other, “development” that compromises the wild character of the places people come to visit, and the wildlife that lives there, should always be questioned.

Brent geese flock at sunrise
Brent geese flock at sunrise, Kent © Terry Whittaker/2020VISION.

If you live on a rapidly eroding part of the coast, however, or have land threatened by innundation if sea levels rise by even a few centimetres, you may have a less sanguine view of allowing nature to take its course. Over the centuries, largely areas of productive farmland have been reclaimed from the sea, particularly in East Anglia. Prior to the agricultural improvement that began in the 1500’s Essex had around 35000ha of saltmarsh; today it is closer to 2000ha. So to many, the idea of simply breaching seawalls - as happened at Wallasea in 2006 to let the water back in again - is anathema. Others however - including Government - take the view that rising sea levels are inevitable (and new defences unaffordable) and that managing coastal retreat, rather than letting it happen in a chaotic fashion, is the best way forward. Whatever the impact on people currently using the land, the benefits to wildlife, especially after a number of years, are clear; indeed, avocets visited the newly created Wallasea saltmarsh within hours of the seawall being breached. The challenge is to provide new forms of income to those who lose out as the water rises - and to show people with examples from elsewhere in the UK that wildlife does have a financial value and can provide real jobs. Plans by Natural England to re-introduce sea eagles (which actually prefer to take their food from the sea when stocks have not been fished out) to East Anglia have run into a lot of often ill-informed opposition: critics have to answer the question, though, of which sort of landscape is likely to be a bigger draw for visitors - one with sea eagles or one without - and account to those who will lose out if the birds aren’t brought back.

Northern gannets
Northern gannets, Bass Rock, Scotland © Peter Cairns/2020VISION.

Economic considerations aside, UK coastlines are unparalleled places of fascination. Even by international standards we have an enormously diverse range of coastal landforms to delight the geographer, geologist, naturalist and walker. Some of these, such as the White Cliffs of Dover, The Devil’s Causeway and the Old Man of Hoy have iconic status that has become woven into local and national identities. But, as we have seen, the coast is also a highly dynamic place where cliffs erode, estuary channels shift and storms create and destroy beaches and dune systems. Our challenge is to balance development with natural process, to realise when we are, literally, pushing against the tide and to retain the coast’s capacity to inspire us.

Top tips for shooting at the coast:


  • Salt marshes are amongst the most fascinating area for aerial photography: consider sharing the cost of hiring a light aircraft to let you see the amazing patterns formed by by the drainage channels. These are best photographed toward dawn or dusk when the sun in low.
  • Sometimes the best time to photograph beaches is well after sunset when you think that all the light has gone from the sky. At these times, a digital sensor will render everything with an attractive blue cast - but you’ll need to work at a location with reflective surfaces, such as a wet beach, pebbles or shallow water.
  • Photographing crashing waves is exciting but chose a day when the wind is blowing the spray away from you: salt spray is bad for your camera and lens (and even carbon fibre tripods).
  • If you’re shooting whales and dolphins from a boat, forget about a tripod, switch on image stabilization if your lens has it, and set your ISO higher than you might normally, even if it is sunny: you will, ideally, want to shoot at at least 1/1000 second, ideally 1/2000 if dolphins are leaping.
  • If you are working fairly close to a vehicle, take an old plastic crate to a sandy beach to place your camera bag on: a plastic sheet isn’t so good as the bag is at ground level. Avoid getting sandy into your bag at all costs: it can ruin equipment.

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