Intro to better lightchasing

Photos/Words by Bennett Barthelemy

Surfers at sunrise, Ventura California.

Every day on the Central Coast, there are amazing opportunities for creating great photos. We are blessed with a lot of sun, surf, wildlife, active sports, and protected areas to enhance these opportunities. Where the ocean meets the shore is a blending of two distinct worlds, aquatic and terrestrial. Lots of action happens in these zones, and it’s a good place to discuss and view images that represent a similar convergence. All images, in fact, allow for this. When we paint our sensors or film with light by snapping the shutter open, this act of framing and capturing a composition places us firmly in that creative zone — yet one that is static and two-dimensional. We have extra work to do, then, to breathe a sense of life and motion into our images.

Fancy, expensive lenses are great – and if you’re shooting a campaign for Mercedes Benz, this matters a lot more. For the vast bulk of us, we merely want good memories and to maximize our result with the tools we have.

Here are few tips to help cut the curve with any camera when it comes to getting better shots. They should provide a few small epiphanies that can add up to higher quality photos.

• The best camera is the one you have with you

Smartphones take epic shots, and knowing the built-in filters can be fun. There have been National Geographic covers and features shot purely with an iPhone. That little beast in your pocket could be your best friend when lightchasing because it is likely the camera you always have at the ready. So no more excuses about needing a better camera!

Surfers on waves, early morning, Ventura California.

• Creating a sense of depth

This is a huge and not often easy task. You know the images that you can literally fall into, that pull you in and move you in a direction? Different things can allow for this. Careful framing and placement of shapes can create a sense of known space with heights of objects; a shallow depth of field to pull your eye to a specific focal point. These are important skills to learn and can be built upon for a lifetime.

• Auto vs Manual

If you can dive into your controls, you can find great rewards. But you can also learn a whole lot just figuring out how your specific camera “sees.” The focal length will affect things for sure. Many smartphones are standard at 38 millimeters, but our eyes see a very rough equivalent to 50 millimeters.

Knowing what you have to work with is ideal. Regular digital cameras have gotten very smart but still struggle in heavy contrast scenes and low light. You’ll want to delve into F-stops, shutter speed and film speed, and get to know your own camera setup; how your camera responds to movement, how it deals with contrast, and how much shutter lag there is — all of these are key to taking good shots.
With a smartphone, it often takes tapping the screen in different spots to change the exposure to light and dark. It’s a simplified version of the full camera manual mode, but still offers greater hope for better shots and lets you see how the camera sees in a 
live view.

Two women running at the beach at sunrise in Ventura California.

• Stabilize

I almost never carry a bulky, heavy tripod anymore. I put my camera or phone down on a rock and brace it against a tree to shoot in lower light or with a larger lens. If I am really worried about vibration blur I can set the self-timer once it is out of my hands and braced. Fancier cameras can handle low light much better, as well as heavy expensive glass lenses with a small F-stop like 1.4. But we all can’t afford those, and there can be a lot more latitude for capturing a good image with a basic photography setup with this simple trick. If you want to get fancy, many cameras now have smartphone apps that allow you to trip the shutter on your camera 
as well.

• Anticipation is a key ingredient

I am a relaxed photographer but often create luck by being ready. My camera is usually on and already set to the right exposure if it isn’t on auto. By being aware of my surroundings and in the moment as much as possible, I can be alert when a pelican’s flight path will take her over a surfer.

A man about to catch a wave as brown pelicans fly overhead in Ventura California.

• Choose your moments

Wake up early! They call it the Golden Hour or the Rembrandt Hour for good reason. The light during sunrise and sunset gives a soft, golden glow, as opposed to the harsh light of mid-afternoon. There is also the blue hour, just before dawn as the sun is on its way but not yet made its appearance. Amazing things happen at these fleeting moments. As a dedicated lightchaser, it is good know the subtle magic that happens with subjects when the light shifts.

• Break the rules

The rule of thirds — most of us have heard about it. But finding your own style counts for a hell of a lot, too. Forget about stealing ideas; find what other people are shooting, and try to shoot it better.

Endangered Western snowy plover, Charadrius alexandrinus, run along Ellwood Beach in Goleta California.

• Subtraction

Good photography is often seen as a lesson in subtraction. It’s probably more important to consciously know what you are not including in an image. Clutter and distractions make you lose your subject and the power of an image, in many cases. To prevent your subject from getting lost in the background, perhaps try isolating them behind sky, sea, or sand. To do this you must often lie down, climb up on something, or change your perspective in another way. This will make it a much more interesting image than always shooting at eye level.

• Keep shooting

Waves crashing on the shore at the beach in Ventura California.

How many times were you so close to having the perfect shot but your subject closed their eyes? If it is worth one shot, it’s worth three.

Also, shoot the vertical and size it up horizontally, as well. And it’s also a quantity game. Take 100 shots and your odds of a good one go way up as opposed to just nailing the perfect moment. With digital, we can keep looking at what we shot, too, and try to improve our exposures and what we keep in and out of the frame.

• Protect it

In a beach environment, sand can destroy everything quickly. Blowing sand especially. Be vigilant when changing lenses, for sure. Use a good smartphone case. Look at your lens and frequently clean it with a special lens cloth. So many shots are compromised by finger oil, sea spray, etc.

• Study a good photographer’s work that you like

What makes it powerful, gives it impact and perspective? Does it tell a story? How can I bring those elements into my images? All great questions to ponder on your journey as an aspiring lightchaser!