Murlough Beach

County Down

After a week spent battling with the elements on the stormy north coast of County Antrim, I decided to spend the last couple of days of my Northern Ireland trip further south, and so headed to County Down. I had seen photos of Murlough Beach, and so decided to try and capture a sunrise on the beach.

I first arrived at Dundrum early afternoon, and decided to make a quick reconnaissance trip to the beach to familiarise myself with the location in preparation for the next day’s sunrise.

I wandered the paths through the Murlough National Nature Reserve sand dunes that run alongside the shore, and eventually got my first view of the sandy beach in all its splendour. The beach stretches unbroken far along the coast in either direction in a beautiful expanse of golden sand. At the southern end, the majestic Mourne Mountains overlook the beach, offering an iconic landmark to provide a backdrop to any photographs.

The location certainly looked promising; as I wandered back to my campervan, I kept my fingers crossed that there would be enough clouds for a truly magical sunrise. Unfortunately, the next morning the clouds decided not to show. As soon as my alarm buzzed, I quickly dressed and ventured outside the camper van, gazing skywards for clouds, but all I could see in the night sky was a host of twinkling stars, and only a few dispersed clouds gently hugging the mountain tops. This meant my chances of capturing a magical sunrise had all but evaporated, but at least the clear sky would enable me to capture the early morning sunshine.

I made my way through the dune pathways in the darkness, and soon reached the beach. The tide was far out that morning, trebling the size of the beach, which was now deserted and looking mysterious in the moonlight.

I had anticipated shooting sunrise from the water’s edge, but with the lack of clouds I changed my plan and decided to stay up in the dunes to await the low sunlight of dawn. While planning and pre-visualising is a key factor in landscape photography, flexibility also plays a major role, and allows you to maximise any present opportunities.

Trying to stay on, or as close to the path as possible to avoid trampling the sand dunes, I soon found a viewpoint which offered a pleasing composition of dunes, beach and mountains. I set up my camera and waited patiently for the sun to make its first appearance of the day.

An hour later, with several dune images captured I ventured down onto the beach. Luckily I still had the beach completely to myself, and with the tide far out I started searching the flat sandy surface for a suitable foreground. This proved to be the most challenging task of the morning so far. Usually, I have no trouble finding foreground subjects, but on this occasion the beach was so flat and washed clean that I struggled to find anything to provide interest. After several minutes of wandering to and fro, I settled on some sand ripples, which I knew with a wideangle lens would provide a good lead-in towards the mountains in the distance.

Setting up my camera and tripod, I tried to frame a few compositions featuring the sand ripples as foreground subjects. But whatever I tried just didn’t inspire me when looking through the viewfinder; the sandy foreground was too simple and empty when set against the dominant background mountains.

Feeling frustrated, I was about to pack up when an idea suddenly occurred to me; maybe I could introduce some sort of foreground element to provide more interest. This is something I wouldn’t normally contemplate and don’t feel comfortable with, but on this occasion with every other element in my composition feeling right, I thought I should at least give it a try.

Just to the right of me, towards the high water mark there were many scattered stones and shells lying on the beach. Feeling one shell would be too small, I picked up three and walked back to my chosen viewpoint. Stretching low, I reached out over the sand and carefully tossed each shell, one at a time. This action would not only help to avoid my hand/footprints marking the sand, but also the shells random placement would ease my conscience slightly.

Luckily, all three shells landed just far enough away from each other that their long shadows did not cross over. The middle shell caused a slight nick in the clean sand, which I decided would be acceptable to clone out later in Photoshop. Feeling slightly uneasy with my introduced foreground, and yet much more comfortable with the now more balanced composition, I captured two images, both landscape and portrait.

Packing up my gear (and replacing the shells too), I went back to the van.

Placing an object in my composition may have worked on this occasion, but my niggling conscience told me not to make a habit of it!

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