Cornwall Today Magazine Article

Article text
- Cornwall Today, September 2014 Issue -


Standing on a deserted Porthcurno Cove at 5.30am in May, as the sea rolled sleepily over the sand and the occasional Gannet wheeled overhead, was to see Cornwall at its most magical: its bare beauty revealed as if for the first time. It may sound fantastical - perhaps the ethereal sensation was heightened by an empty stomach - but it more than made up for a 4.00am start.

I was spending two days with seascape photographer Chris Simmons, whose knowledge of Cornwall's hidden coves and rocky outcrops and deserted dunes must be almost unparalleled. He knows exactly where to capture the setting of the sun, the most spectacular dawn, or a violent storm, taking into account the season, tides and vagaries of Cornish weather. All year round, Chris opens his home to aspiring photographers of all abilities who are keen to learn - or improve - their seascape photography in Cornwall, combining excellent home-cooked food and fine wine with one-to-one photographic tuition and local knowledge.
I had spent the previous evening on Crantock beach, a minute's drive from the lovely house Chris shares with his partner, Sam - a home that perfectly showcases the couple's artistic bent. After enjoying succulent local fillet steak and hand-cut chips with Chris' home-made garlic and coriander mayonnaise, we positioned ourselves on Crantock's expansive sands to capture the setting sun, and waded into the sea tripod in hand, as it began to sink, throwing its amber and orange hues across the water.

I had little knowledge of a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera before my arrival. I had owned a 35mm film SLR years before, playing with shutter speeds and apertures, but had since resigned myself lazily to a digital compact camera. Chris spent some time introducing me to the Canon EOS 5D Mk II I had hired from him for the workshop - a sturdy, expensive piece of kit with a 16-35mm wide angle zoom lens and a selection of filters. He advised me we would be shooting with Manual settings, requiring me, with his help, to do all the thinking and focussing. We would also be shooting using RAW file, which allows greater control over the final image, and is later developed into a TIFF or EPS file for use.

Our first port of call was the magnificent Polly Joke Cove, glowing in the afternoon sunshine. This was Chris's chance to see how I 'handled' the camera and how much, or little, I knew. There was a lot to think about. Beyond composition and focus, I also had to ensure that the exposure was right, taking into account factors like the bright white spume in the sunlight, the changing clouds drifting across the sun and adjusting the ND3 graduated filter to 'hold' the sky's definition. Then it was about releasing the shutter at exactly the right moment - capturing the dynamic beauty of nature in full force while maintaining dry feet.

By the time we ventured to the local beach that evening to shoot the sunset, I was starting to get to grips with the art of seascape photography, with much guidance from Chris. On our return, we went into his studio where Chris downloaded the images to his Mac set-up. I was amazed at some of the pictures that I had managed to capture and was already learning about what makes a good shot - and what makes a great shot.

At 4.00am next day we headed west in Chris's Land Rover Discovery, disappearing into the pitch black, silent morning, winding down country roads through an opaque fog. Little by little, the sky lightened around us, the hedgerows coming slowly to life, littered with cow parsley and wild garlic. We arrived in Porthcurno to a chorus of birdsong and trudged down to the waiting beach. Chris advised me where to position my tripod and, despite too much cloud to see the sun rise, I began to snap as the light changed, the glowing orb of sunlight pushing through thick sea mist as Logan Rock ghosted in and out of visibility in the distance. It was eerie and almost otherworldly - perfect.

It was incredible to watch as the morning came into being, the light slowly changing and the hues in the sea and sand shifting continuously. I was totally absorbed, watching and waiting for the perfect shot - observing the rhythm of the sea as it broke over the rock in the foreground, surging quickly towards me and back again to create a mass of intricate shapes, before ebbing away. I watched and waited, snapping often, grabbing the tripod and retreating at the last second as the water surged around my feet. Just one more shot.

In the car park, Chris took out a camp stove and began frying bacon, cutting fresh bread and making coffee. I hadn't realised quite how cold and hungry I was in my search for perfection - and it was one of the most satisfying breakfasts I have ever eaten. After a stunning, if slightly foggy, drive back along the Atlantic Coast road, we stopped at Gwithian, clambering over wet rocks to get right up close to the action as big waves crashed around us. I tried to remember to press the shutter release and not give in to my instinct to flee for dry ground each time a breaker rushed in.

Back at base, after a much needed siesta, we began the serious business of post-production on a handful of my best images, processing the files using Photoshop CS6. I was on a short two day course but most clients will benefit from a lot more time on the nuances of Photoshop. Chris is a big believer in staying true to the original image, so while I learnt how to tidy-up a shot - removing any imperfections in the sky, for example - only limited enhancement, such as white balance adjustment to emphasise the brilliance of the white water, and sharpening the clarity of the final image, were made in post-production. It is a time consuming but fascinating process that is an art in itself.

When Chris presented me with an A3 print of my favourite image - one of my dawn photographs of Portchurno - I could have cried. Every time I look at it I am transported back to the magical dawn sanctuary of that west Cornwall beach. My sojourn finished with a fittingly delicious home-made lamb curry and several glasses of wine as I bored Chris and Sam with my new-found spirituality and love of post-production. I have discovered a whole new world.