The Story Behind the Image: Dún Briste
In July 2009, I went to Mayo to visit fellow landscape photographer Ron Rosenstock while he was leading a workshop in the area. I spent several enjoyable days in his and his students’ company, and we visited many locations. Some of these I was intimitaly familiar with, others were completely new to me and still others were familiar, but held some surprises.
Dún Briste, Downpatrick Head, Co. Mayo
Canon EOS 5D Mk. II, EF 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 24mm
Two exposures: f/10, 8 seconds @ ISO 100 and f/16, 20 seconds @ ISO 100
One of the latter spots was Downpatrick Head. I’ve visited there at least twice before – once on my own, and once in the company of other photographers, but I’ve never come away with an image that I felt was worth printing. Prior to leaving Ron’s house near Westport, I spotted an image of Dún Briste (the sea stack featured in this photograph) in one of his books. It was made from a viewpoint I’d never seen, and didn’t know existed – a platform at sea level at the base of the cliffs. Ron kindly agreed to show me how to get down there if the tide was right.
We arrived at Downpatrick in the early afternoon. The weather was glorious, and the sea calm. The tide was low, and a quick look at the tide tables confirmed that low tide had occurred about thirty minutes prior, which meant it was in flood – a dangerous time to visit the platform. However, it was a spring tide due to the new moon, and was therefore exceptionally low – perhaps giving us sufficient time to scamper down the cliffs and get back before being cut off.
Camera bags on and tripods in hand, we scrambled down and walked along the cliff base to the spot in question. It’s a truly remarkable experience with the cliffs rising sheer above you and the water lapping up over the lower platforms below. There is no sign of the stack until you round the last corner, and then it is revealed as though a curtain has been drawn.
We quickly set up our tripods and started shooting, with one eye on the sea for rogue waves. I had brought only the infrared camera down with me, thinking it would be the most suitable for the task. I made several images, including a few which I was reasonably happy with and even a couple from within the cave at our backs.
Not wanting to linger, we (somewhat reluctantly) packed up and climbed back out, intending to photograph the rock platforms away from the cliffs. Due to the exceptionally low tide, these weren’t terribly interesting to photograph, however.
After an hour or so, the tide had not advanced much and we had the idea to go back to the spot under the stack to see if conditions had improved for photography. Taking care on the way down, we saw that we did indeed have a window before we’d be in danger of getting cut off, so again we quickly made our way to the platform.
This time, the wave flow patterns over the rock were more interesting. I had brought my normal camera with a ten-stop neutral density filter, which would allow me to make long exposures even in the bright sunlight. I set the camera up with the same composition as I had felt worked best the first time down, and started making images. The success or failure of the composition would be the flow patterns in the water, which are very hard to predict. I could see that the ebbing waves were creating a swirl in the pool at my feet, so concentrated my efforts on those points in the cycle.
I confess I wasn’t paying much attention to the individual shots as I was concentrating on watching the incoming waves for any unusually big ones, tripod in hand and ready to sprint up to the higher ledge if any seemed imminent. However, asides from one or two that broke around my ankles, the platform remained dry.
After making this exposure, I saw the result on the LCD and declared to Ron (who was standing on the higher ledge with his camera trained on me, waiting to get a shot of me running for my life) that this was the one. I made one more image for safety and we packed up and retreated – having to take a higher route out than we had on the way in.
Review and Postprocessing
Back at the house, I reviewed the day’s work, converting the image to black & white and making sure that it was technically correct. To my dismay, I noticed that the foreground rock and shells were not sharp – in my distracted state I had made the image at too wide of an aperture (f/10) and there had not been sufficient depth-of-field to hold sharpness in the very near foreground.
Ron on the edge.
The problem was relatively slight – only visible in a large print, but this was an image that I felt would work best in that format. Luckily, my safety shot had been taken at f/16, and the foreground in that one was sharp. The flow pattern wasn’t nearly as good, but the composition was identical (an advantage of using a sturdy tripod!). It was a simple matter to layer the two images in Photoshop and replace the blurred rock shelf in the good image with the one from the second shot.
The rest of the postprocessing was fairly straightforward – a contrast mask to open up the shadows followed by a strong curve to bring up the contrast. A little dodging and burning to balance the tones better, and the final version was complete.
I’m glad I used the normal camera for this for a couple of reasons – the infrared effect here was very strong on the seaweed and algae on the platform and made it distractingly bright. You can see in the image at left the effect I’m talking about. You can also see that the shadow of the cliff behind me is cutting right through the tidal pool in the foreground – in the later visit, the shadow had moved clear. The infrared camera is also of a lower resolution and so the image wouldn’t print as well in the very large sizes in which it works best.
The making of this image. (Copyright Ron Rosenstock)
All in all, the day was memorable. I got an image I’m very happy with and experienced a perspective on this scene that most don’t see. It should be noted that the conditions that day were perfect for this sort of excursion. The sea was calm and it was an extremely low spring tide. We went down with a healthy dose of caution and respect for the sea. On a different day conditions could be downright dangerous. People have been killed by the incoming tide in the caves in this area, and there’s no substitute for local knowledge and a strong measure of caution when contemplating a visit.
Don’t forget to purchase a print of this image for your wall!
I hope that you have found this tutorial useful. If you’d like to improve your camera or post-processing techniques, I run regular workshops at my studio in West Cork and in Dublin.