Sunset on Whidbey Island


Seven Bands. A driftwood tree lies in the sand on Ebey’s Landing Beach, Whidbey Island, Washington.
Nikon Z8 with Nikkor Z 24-120mm f/4 S at 39mm, 1/4 sec, f/5.6, ISO 500.

Last weekend I returned from a five-day photography workshop on Whidbey Island, Washington, which is in Puget Sound a little north of Seattle. The workshop was put on by the Pacific Northwest Art School in the town of Coupeville. For me the big draw was that Charlie Waite was the workshop leader; I had enjoyed him immensely in Andalucía, Spain, and the chance for a repeat where he was the one with the intercontinental flight instead of me was too hard to pass up. Charlie was ably assisted by Keron Psillas, a remarkable photographer herself.

This workshop was in fact just that—a workshop—rather than a photo tour. Each day the eight students would submit six photographs from the day before. When we met mid-morning, we would talk through them and get some feedback. In the afternoon, Charlie or Keron would have a presentation for us on some topic or collection of their work. Most mornings or evenings there were suggestions about where to go to take some pictures and usually a decent number of us would appear. Other times we were more on our own.

The first evening of the workshop we were supposed to meet at the beach at Ebey’s Landing on the west side of the Whidbey Island. Since Susan accompanied me, I had run back to see her at the little house we had rented (more about that in a later post) before heading out to the beach. But it started raining and the gathering was called off, so Susan and I went to dinner. Not everyone got the memo, however, and some photos from the beach appeared at the next day’s review. Everyone who went tried their version of the “big view” up the beach towards a bluff to the northwest, but they all looked pretty similar. When we all went to the beach the next day, it was pretty obvious why those views all looked the same: other than the long beach having a nice curve to it, there just wasn’t much else to work with. Lacking anything of permanent interest (like sea stacks) or transient interest (like interesting clouds) it was pretty clear to me that any similar views up the beach were going to look, well, similar. So I didn’t bother.

Lacking anything striking to build a composition around, I was initially puzzled about how to proceed. This isn’t a strange reaction for me: sometimes it just takes a little time to get into a flow of ideas for working with an unfamiliar place. I have had that happen at obviously awesome places like the almond blossoms in Andalucía. But this was not an obviously awesome place to photograph—it seemed like a fairly ordinary beach. In landscape photography you have to work with what you are given, so since there weren’t any big views that inspired me, I decided to work with what I could find lying on the beach.

I often start with the 24-120mm because it gives me a lot of choices from wide angle to modest telephoto. It also focuses pretty close, so while not a macro lens it will work with many detail shots. The sun was already pretty low and there was some translucent seaweed on the beach that was nicely backlit. I took half a dozen variations, but I liked this one with the white foam of the surf: it contrasts with the dark sand and the bubbles add interest.

Seaweed and Foam. The surging surf just reaches some seaweed on Ebey’s Landing Beach, Whidbey Island, Washington.
Nikon Z8 with Nikkor Z 24-120mm f/4 S at 85mm, 1/45 sec, f/5.6, ISO 64.

If I was more patient I could have worked this approach for a while because there was more than one piece of seaweed on the beach and the surf would continually tumble and twist them into new positions. As it was, I got distracted by this well-lit (if otherwise ordinary) log:

Driftlog in the Sun. A solitary log sits in the surf zone on Ebey’s Landing Beach, Whidbey Island, Washington.
Nikon Z8 with Nikkor Z 24-120mm f/4 S at 120mm, 1/180 sec, f/5.6, ISO 64.

There is nice collection of textures here—sand, surf, rocks, and the log itself—each of which reflects the sunset in a different way. I also like the shape of the surf and the way it wraps around the other elements in the scene, namely the log and the rocks in the upper right. The dynamism of the surf always makes photographing at the beach interesting as compositions come and go in real time, never to be repeated. The following images, which I arranged into a triptych, is a perfect example:

Surf Zone Triptych. The afternoon sun reflects of the beach on Ebey’s Landing Beach, Whidbey Island, Washington.
Nikon Z8 with Nikkor Z 24-120mm f/4 S at 84mm, 1/1000-1/2000 sec, f/5.6, ISO 500.

These may look like a sequence, but the middle image (which is my favorite taken individually) was actually made last. When I was looking at the photos in Lightroom as a group, I noticed that the surf on these was such that they almost looked like they were part of a single photo that was divided into three parts. So, these photos together look both like a sequence in time and a panorama in space. Plus they are nice individually, with warm and cool tones, nice textures, diagonal lines, and reflections. I may have to print these and frame them together somehow.

After a while I decided to try getting up close to things with a wide angle. And I went all-in, breaking out my Laowa 9mm f/5.6 W-Dreamer. This is a crazy lens and happens to be the widest full-frame rectilinear (i.e., non-fisheye) lens ever made. Later I broke out the fisheye, but one advantage that the 9mm has over the fisheye is that I don’t have to be careful with the placement of the horizon: with the fisheye the horizon has to be carefully placed in the center of the frame or it will curve. Since I was forced to work quickly between surges of the surf, careful placement of the horizon was not going to happen. With any wide angle—rectilinear or fisheye—putting the camera up close to something emphasizes (some might say exaggerates) it, like this rock:

Rocks and a Triple Sun Star. The setting sun reflects off of the beach and a rock on Ebey’s Landing Beach, Whidbey Island, Washington.
Nikon Z8 with Laowa 9mm f/5.6 W-Dreamer at 1/90 sec, f/11 (probably), ISO 500.

The vertical string of three sun stars was a bonus: sun stars are something this lens does well. I then moved on to the interesting tree carcass that was in the photo at the top of this post. What made it interesting was the way the roots were shaped like the eye of a needle. I decided to try to get a sun star through there. To do that, I would run in as the surf receded, hold the camera at about waist level, look down at the screen which I had angled up, and fire off images at 10 frames per second as I moved the camera around a little side to side and up to down. Then I would flee up the beach as the surf moved in again. (I did bring my rubber boots all the way to Washington and had them in the car, but didn’t feel like retrieving them. Should have.) It was all a bit brute force, but amongst those several hundred outwardly similar images was this:

Threading the Needle. The setting sun bursts through the roots of an old tree lying on Ebey’s Landing Beach, Whidbey Island, Washington.
Nikon Z8 with Laowa 9mm f/5.6 W-Dreamer at 1/60 sec, f/11 (probably), ISO 500.

The reflection under the base of the log was a huge bonus. Initially I was taking photos from just on the other side of the log to the right in the image above, but then switched to this side to try to get the sun in that eye. Almost every image from this side has that reflection below the log, but they vary in prominence. This version has a nice combination of sun-star-through-the-roots, reflection below, log coming out of the corner of the frame, and line of surf.

Once the sun was below the horizon I broke out the fisheye for a different look:

Fallen Long Ago. An old driftwood tree lies in the surf on Ebey’s Landing Beach, Whidbey Island, Washington.
Nikon Z8 with AF-S Fisheye Nikkor 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED at 15mm, 1/350 sec, f/5.6, ISO 500.

For some reason this is kind of a sad-feeling image. For me, it feels like this tree was the last remnant of a long-ago age. For me, this is a good use of a fisheye’s distortion, but obviously is something to be done in moderation. Notice that the log itself is straight—that is because it goes through the center of the frame. Where you place elements in the frame is a doubly important consideration with a fisheye. I also want to point out that the surf here is important because otherwise the log would blend into the dark sand.

Thank you for reading this week’s post. The next four or so weeks I will spend covering different portions of my trip to Whidbey Island, which proved to have a lot of diversity of subject matter and I am excited to share some of those images with you. If you don’t subscribe, feel free to do so below and each installment will magically appear in your email inbox.

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