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Pro landscape photographer Tom Mackie goes on location at Happisburgh Lighthouse in Norfolk to show how varying your composition creates better images.

I was recently asked to shoot a pro/apprentice feature for NPhoto, the Nikon user magazine, spending a day with local Norfolk photographer Tom Barrett and showing him how to improve his landscape techniques, including composition.

The brief was to come up with four top shots from the day along with a few secondary images. The deadline was tight, but I managed to get a few days’ extension so we could include the strawberry moon rising over Happisburgh Lighthouse. It was the perfect place to work on a variety of compositions, including placing the lighthouse low on the horizon giving more prevalence to the sky or positioning it high in the frame to make the field more prominent. It really depends on how interesting the sky or foreground is and which you feel is more important.

Three easy steps to improving your composition

Here’s a technique I use all the time in my work in order to maximise a location’s sales potential.

  1. See how many different ones you can create from one position using various orientations such as horizontal, vertical and panorama.
  2. Then place the subject – in this case, the lighthouse – in the various quadrants using the rule of thirds.
  3. Finally, rip up the rulebook by placing your subject slap in the centre of the frame. This helps you to break out of the mould of only thinking about creating just one image and opens the possibilities of a variety of completely different compositions.

The benefit of this three-step approach is that it gets you into the habit of creating lots of different types of images, and that can have benefits you might not even have thought about. For example, an image with a lot of empty space in the sky might look like an odd composition but, believe me, it’s perfect for housing text in an advert or a magazine article.

Nikon D850, 24-70mm f/2.8 lens @ 34mm, 1/2 second @ f/10, ISO 100, Lee 0.9 medium grad filter

Putting it into practice

My Dark Skies app was forecasting clear skies for the moonrise so everything seemed to be going to plan. We turned up for the sunset on one side of the lighthouse and planned to circle round to the other side for the moonrise. There were already a couple of other photographers shooting in the field where we wanted to capture the setting sun behind the lighthouse, but they didn’t stay long as the farmer had just lit a bonfire in the distance which happened to be blowing in their direction, smoking them out. To make matters worse, storm clouds quickly drifted over, followed by a downpour of rain. Things were looking black.

But, while the other guys retreated to their car, we decided to tough it out, covering our cameras with chamois leathers. (I do have a bespoke Gore-Tex cover but the chamois is handy for quickly covering the camera and lens; when you’re ready to get the shot, you just lift the end of the leather and dab the lens to soak up any water droplets, shoot, then drop it back over your kit.) The unexpected weather quickly became a win-win: the storm clouds produced a dramatic sky and the rain put out the bonfire.

I used a Lee 3-stop medium transition graduated filter positioned right down to the horizon to enhance the dark, ominous feel of the sky and balance it with the field in the foreground. Just minutes before the sunset, an orange sky lit up behind the lighthouse creating a beautiful contrasting colour between the orange and blue. After making an exposure, I checked the histogram and saw that the glow was blowing out a bit, so I dialled in -2/3 stop using the exposure compensation dial to bring it back within range. Although we got a bit soaked, our persistence paid off.

How to double-expose for a perfect moon composition

As it didn’t look like my app had been correct about the clear skies, we decided to head home as our hopes of capturing the full moon rising were doubtful. But, as we were driving out of the village, I noticed the moon peeking through the parting clouds. We turned around and headed to the other side of the lighthouse to find the clouds had magically disappeared. I will never doubt you again, Dark Skies!

Strawberry Moon over Happisburgh Lighthouse, Norfolk, England
Strawberry Moon over Happisburgh Lighthouse, Norfolk, England

We used a footpath as a leading line to the centrally positioned lighthouse. The moon was just out of the frame, which didn’t matter as I was going to use the in-camera double exposure feature to place it exactly where I wanted it…

  • Although it is possible very occasionally to capture a full moon rising when the ambient light is equal to the exposure of the moon, chances are that whenever you see photos with a perfectly exposed moon in a blue hour or night-time situation with lots of details showing in the craters, it was either double-exposed in-camera or dropped into place in post-processing using Photoshop.
  • The main exposure for the foreground here was 15 seconds, so if the moon had been in the frame, it would have been blown out and the long exposure would be enough to turn it egg-shaped.
  • Using my Nikon D850’s multiple-exposure feature, I set it to series with 2 exposures as this makes it easier when fine-tuning the exposures. I used the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens for the foreground, then changed to the Nikon 70-200mm f/4 to capture a larger, more dramatic moon shot at 1/50 second.
  • Here’s a little tip to place the moon exactly where you want it in the frame. I place a single focus point as a marker where I want to place the moon, then position the moon on the focus point in the second shot so it’s in the correct place when the two images are merged together in the camera. I also set the overlay mode to average, which helps to blend the two exposures together.

Instead of being moonshine, our day ended on a high as we managed to capture a good variety of dramatic compositions from one location, including a cracking moonscape. You can read about the entire day here.

If you would like to improve your compositions and photograph this stunning lighthouse, join me this September on a 2-day workshop photographing the beautiful Norfolk Broads and coast.



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