St Catherine’s Breakwater in Jersey photographically intrigues and perplexes me. It’s a Victorian jetty about a mile long, has a lovely curving lead-in line, lots of foreground interest with the granite sets and changes in textures, interesting lampposts (as in not the boring grey metal ones you so often see) and it sits on the part of Jersey closest to the rising sun. So why do we not see thousands of artistic images of this fantastic man-made structure? Go on, type “St Catherine’s Jersey” into Google and click the “Images” tab to see what I mean.
I’ve had an image in mind for some time now. Each time we visit my wife’s family in Jersey, I take my camera and hope to sneak over to St Catherine’s for a sunrise and move this image to my memory card instead of my imagination, something I’d not yet managed over the preceding decade.
On this particular holiday, we had been blessed with still weather and lovely blue skies. It was April, so temperatures weren’t great, but we made it onto the beach a few times and had a great time. But still weather and lovely blue skies are the bane of most landscape photographers; yes, we’re a fussy bunch and never 100% happy. I guess we’re a bit like fishermen and the sunrise we see driving home with no camera to hand is like the carp that was so big it snapped the line and got away so nobody else saw.
With all this photographic blandness I was running out of time. We were due to fly out on the Sunday, and it was now Thursday night and I’d only captured family and friends so far (which is no bad thing of course!). Thankfully, Friday morning’s forecast hinted at light cloud and a breeze around sunrise – good enough for me!
Filters cleaned, batteries charged, bag packed, time for bed and a very early alarm call. Even though I was keen to go for it, 4:15am came around very quickly (yes, I know that sounds daft) and I dragged myself out of bed. Ten minutes later I was in the car and taking the coast road from Grouville through Gorey and past Archirondel to St Catherine’s.
As I neared my destination, and the distant sky started to brighten, I was very pleased to see some clouds overhead. There weren’t many, and they weren’t my favourite cirrus formations that can light up so spectacularly with the rising sun but hey, they were clouds!
Pulling into the car park, my heart sank. Everything was looking promising – except for the gusting wind! As you can imagine, a huge jetty poking out into the sea tends to be on an exposed corner – and it was very exposed on this particular morning, with boat’s lanyards whipping and the car rocking wildly in the wind.
On the plus side, this was moving the clouds across the skies and creating some movement in the surface of the sea; two necessary items for my intended image. On the downside, how do you keep a camera still in high wind during the relatively long exposure I was going to need to employ…?
If I’d had my sturdy Manfrotto tripod with me, I’d have been a bit happier, but airline baggage limitations don’t always allow Manny to travel, so I had my travel tripod with me. This is about 12″ tall and you can bend the legs around fence posts etc to get a decent viewpoint, and I’ve used it to great effect before. I tried the tripod wrapped around the railings, but with the filters attached, my camera was vibrating wildly in the wind. Time to find some shelter!
A couple of metres away from where I was standing was a 2m tall chunk of Jersey granite. From the shape and position, I presume it’s a memorial of some kind, but I wasn’t planning on using valuable time to check for plaques, all I saw was a very solid windbreak. But this left me with a very short tripod, and my intended image needed to be taken from chest height… Time to improvise!!
Looking around, I spotted the bins outside the nearby ice cream kiosk. Normally, in the UK, such bins would be overflowing with rubbish and firmly chained down. Thankfully, Jersey folk are more trusting and far cleaner, so I now had a very clean (and portable) base to use – and they’d never know, it was still 3 hours to opening time and I’d be done and dusted within the hour.
So I now had a chest-high camera position, sheltered from (most of) the wind, so I could thankfully turn my attention to composition, light, filtration and capturing an image. Having arranged my lead-in lines, disappearing point, lampposts and foreground into a pleasing composition, I tripped the shutter. I liked the captured image, but it wasn’t what I was looking for: too short an exposure, and there was hardly any movement in clouds or water. The 0.9 Neutral Density Graduated filter attached to the front of my lens was balancing the exposure nicely, and the Circular Polariser was controlling reflections and cloud detail quite nicely, but my preferred aperture of f/11 needed changing to stretch time.
Having dropped two stops to f/22, I had taken the exposure out to 30 seconds and tried again. Despite my best efforts to find shelter, the wind was still blurring my exposure, so I turned my back to the wind, took a firm hold on the base of the tripod/top of the bin, and tripped the shutter again. I had my image! And not only had the drop to f/22 lengthened my exposure to add movement, it had also given me the starburst effect on the lamppost. A nice touch!
While I’m very happy with this image, I still can’t help but wonder what I would have captured with a 0.9 Neutral Density filter attached, which would have pushed my exposure out to 4 minutes, but there’s no way I could have kept things perfectly still for that length of time in those conditions! Oh dear, we’ll just have to go back to Jersey and try again…