Using the Super Stopper in Sidmouth

Free At Last

In my last couple of blog posts I may have mentioned that I'm finding it difficult to adjust to the short winter days.  Opportunities to get out with the camera seem to be few and far between.  Last weekend was different though.  I didn't have too much on and the weather was looking favourable for some landscape photography. 

Sidmouth Inspiration

My first challenge was to find a suitable location that I could shoot.  In reality it didn't take too long.  My decision to shoot the coast at Sidmouth in South Devon was driven by two things.  Firstly I was inspired to shoot there.  I've spoken about the importance of inspiration before on my blog before and how useful it can be. 

My inspiration to shoot Sidmouth came from two photographers, atmoorehead and Neil Burnell..  Both of them had been shooting the curling stone groyne at the east end of the beach.  I liked the images they had created so I wanted to go there and put my own spin on the location.

Super Stopper Time

The 2nd reason for choosing Sidmouth was that it was a coastal location that would be ideal for testing out my recently purchased Lee Filters Super Stopper.  I'm a big fan of Lee Filters and use the Little Stopper and Big Stoppers in a lot of my images.  When the Super Stopper was first announced I have to admit that I didn't really see the point but after seeing some of the images produced by Mark Bauer with the Super Stopper I pulled the trigger and picked one up. 

My original plan was to shoot some midday long exposures during a recent Lake District trip but given the challenging weather it wasn't really the best time to try out this 15 stop monster.  However, as I was planning my trip to Sidmouth it soon became apparent that this could be the perfect time to give the Super Stopper a go.  I would be arriving around 2.30pm when there is still plenty of light, the tide would be coming in, and the light from the west would be illuminating the groyne.  My only slight concern was the lack of cloud in the sky.  It was apparently going to be very clear but I could live without the perfect conditions!

Setting Up For a Very Long Exposure

When I arrived at my location in Sidmouth things were looking favourable.  The sun, which was already relatively low in the sky, was illuminating the inward curve of the groyne rather nicely and the tide, which was due be high at 16:08, was already a good way up the beach.  I was glad I had got there early as the area was busy with people and where I was going to shoot from was a bit of a one tripod only location.

Base image with no filters.  (Image unprocessed).

Base image with no filters.  (Image unprocessed).

So with my tripod out I got to work on my composition.  I had originally thought I would go for a vertical composition but it soon became apparent to me that a horizontal composition would work best as it provided more room for the groyne to curl out into the sea and into some empty space.  With my composition locked in I took my base image.  My base image is the image I take with no filters so I can easily check it for sharpness and exposure.  Being a coastal location I reached for my Lee Filters Polariser as this would not only take off some reflections from the surface of the sea but it also removed all the reflections from the groyne where the water had been splashing.

The addition of the polariser reduces the reflections on the groyne and brings out a little more detail in the sky.  (Image unprocessed).

The addition of the polariser reduces the reflections on the groyne and brings out a little more detail in the sky.  (Image unprocessed).

However, the addition of the polariser always lengthens the exposure by a few stops so I had lengthen my shutter speed from around 1/80 sec (at f//11) to 1/25.  Though I was happy with the effect the polariser was giving I was already concerned about how long the exposure was going to be when I added the Super Stopper.  Using the Lee Filters app on my phone I worked out that a 1/25 second base exposure with a Super Stopper would require a 21 minute exposure.  For my first use of the filter I felt this might be too long, but a Big Stopper would only give me 40 second exposure (which was not long enough for the image I wanted)

I had two options.  I could either open up the aperture or increase my ISO.  While opening up the aperture would have decreased my exposure time, I would have lost the depth of field I was looking for so I increased my ISO to 400.  This effectively gave me a Super Stopper exposure time of around 8 mins.   Much more manageable.

The Results

With everything set I got to taking some really long exposures.  I modified my composition a couple of times which meant going through the whole setup process again but using the Super Stopper was never going to be a fast process.  I also had to gradually increase my exposure length as the amount of light decreased.  However there is a certain sense of excitement with really long exposures.  I was investing 8 to 10 minutes for each exposure and the sense of not knowing exactly how the image would look was exciting.

Final image (processed in Lightroom).  Nikon D750, Nikkor 16-35mm f/4 at 26mm. 641 seconds at f/11, ISO 400.

A Small Critique

I'm very happy with the end result and it's the image I had envisioned when I started planning this shoot.  However, it's not perfect.  Though I was shooting at a time very close to high tide, it wasn't quite high enough.  I would have liked there to have been no beach visible in the lower right side of the image.  There was a high tide of 4.06m so on my next visit I will try and plan it for when it's a little higher.

However, tide height aside, all the other elements came together nicely.  The time of day and time of year were perfect to allow the golden light of the sun to reflect of the west side of the groyne.  It's very rare that everything is perfect so for a Sunday afternoon shoot I'm still very happy.

Why Not Just Use a Big Stopper?

You might be asking yourself why I didn't just wait for sunset and then use a Big Stopper.  Why purposely shoot earlier so you can use a Super Stopper?  Well, it all had to do with the light.  As the sun set the quality of the light reflecting off the groyne was nowhere near as nice as it was 45 minutes before.  In order to realise my vision of a long exposure I need to have that 15 stop ND filter.  So yes, while it was a specific set of conditions that required the use of the Super Stopper,  it would have been an image that would have either not been possible to get or would have been more difficult.  The Super Stopper is probably never going to be a filter that I use a lot, but now that I have it and have seen how I can put it to use, I'm glad I have it.

So are you a fan of long exposures?  Do you own the Super Stopper?  Are your creative ideas driven by the location you are visiting or by a vision of the image you want to create?  Let me know in the comments below.