Canon EOS 5D MKIII, EF 24-105mm F4L IS USM (@40mm)
ISO 100, 1/10 sec. @F22, 0.6 ND grad, HDR image from 3 exposures, 9:45 p.m.

Most photographers dream of traveling to far-flung and exotic places where great images will presumably be served up on a golden platter. I'd argue, however, that many of the iconic landscape images we admire are often made in the photographer’s backyard - places that have become familiar to the photographer through months and years of conscious exploration.

In contrast to a faraway locale where you may only spend a few days in one spot, shooting closer to home affords you the time to learn the landscape's secrets like the best vantage point, season and time of day for shooting. Photography is first and foremost about seeing and interpretation. And with enough careful and consistent attention, you can discover amazing images to be made even in what (for you) may be the most ordinary of places.

My backyard: Loop Head, Ireland

Shortly after moving to Ireland I challenged myself to photograph the same location on a regular basis. This location - the one shown in all of these images - is called Loop Head and is just up the road from where I live. It's a headland in the very west of County Clare and the visual ingredients here are sky, ocean and a cliff face with some rocky islands and a natural rock arch. Over the years I have photographed the scene dozens of times, I think there are even some shots on slide film somewhere on the attic from my very first visit to the place some 20 years ago.

First attempt

This is the first photograph I made shortly after settling in the area. It is a good example of a bad landscape image! I didn’t know the area well enough back then to figure out the best conditions in which to capture the place, nor did I spend enough time to figure out a suitable composition. 

Sigma SD9, Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 (@ 92mm)
ISO 100, 1 sec., F32, 5:39 p.m.

In addition I made the rookie mistake of shooting in high winds with a long lens and a long exposure time. The result? An image that is slightly blurred.

A better attempt

After that disaster I started doing my homework. The cliffs of Loop Head face north which means they are in shadows most of the year. Only around midsummer does the sun set far enough to the northwest to cast some evening light onto these cliffs. To create the scene I had in mind, however, I would also need an interesting sky. Now I had a plan. One I would try to implement many times over the years.

One summer, after waiting for weeks, the sky one evening was everything I'd hoped for. Dramatic clouds unfortunately also have the tendency to block the light so this evening was all about waiting and hoping.

The image you see below was eventually captured minutes before sunset when light broke through a small gap in the clouds. I had planned to take advantage of strong early evening light in order to bring out more detail in the cliff face. As luck would have it though, the late evening light that finally broke through brought along very strong, warm colours which turned out to be what this particular interpretation of the scene is all about.

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II, EF 17-40mm F4L USM (@ 38mm)
ISO 100, 8 sec., F20, 0.3 stop ND grad, 10:20 p.m.

Interestingly, this image was a bit of a compromise from the outset. I wanted to include the cliff face in the scene but I didn’t want to include a row of electricity poles that stand rather inconveniently on the cliff top so the right side of the picture looks a bit cramped while the left shows a lot of empty space. After a while, however, I warmed to this slightly rule defying approach. In fact, I know feel the empty space very much gives a sense of the place.

Variation 1

On another visit to Loop Head I wanted to emphasize the sense of space even more as well as illustrate a more autumnal feel. Although I used a medium focal length for the image below, the dominance of the sky provides the feeling of a wide-open space. The rather cool and subdued colour scheme as well as the slightly misty conditions in the distance help to convey a sense of a cool and damp autumn day.

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, TS-E 45mm F2.8
ISO 100, 10 sec., F22, 0.6 stop ND grad and 0.6 stop ND, 8:51 a.m.

In autumn the sun rises in the southeast and for a short time casts some light on the land and parts of the cliffs. As there are no leading lines in this composition this light is integral to provide some kind of depth to the scene. Even more than in the first image the scene wouldn’t work without an interesting sky.

Finally to smoothen the rough waters of the Atlantic Ocean a bit I increased the f-stop to 22 and used a ND filter to get a longer exposure time. If I would have frozen the swell with a short exposure time the soft autumnal feel of the image would have been lost.

Variation 2

On this occasion I was trying to see what the scene would be like on a summer morning. The vantage point is due east so I knew I would be shooting directly into the sun, which would normally mean a very wide range in contrast between cliffs and sky. But on this morning I was hoping that the fog would make the task manageable. Needless to say I didn’t expect this scene you see below! Loop Head lies slightly elevated to the rest of the peninsula but I didn’t expect this would have such an impact on how the scene would present itself.

Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, EF 70-200mm F2.8L USM (@ 85mm)
ISO 100, 10 sec., F22, 0.9 ND grad and 0.6 stop ND, 6:16 a.m.

At first I tried a similar composition as the previous image. The wide view however wasn't quite right, however. So I changed lenses and zoomed in. This image is about the contrast of the dark cliffs, the white fog flowing into the sea and the warm dawn colours in the sky. This tighter view isolates and focuses on these key elements. Again this composition breaks a major rule: The horizon line cuts the image in half and having 50% of an image consist of featureless sky isn’t exactly what you learn either. Here, however, it works very well.

The only thing left was to figure out the exposure time. After some test exposures, 10 seconds turned out to be perfect to blur the fog and emphasize its flow.

Variation 3

This final image was made recently during a spell of very stormy weather. I should say that standing on a north facing cliff top with gale force north-westerly winds (and gusts of 120km/h and more) is not necessarily a good idea! And using a long lens with a rather long exposure time in these conditions is an even worse idea. Unfortunately, this was the only way to achieve my goal: Focus on the rock arch and slightly blur the waves crashing through it.

Canon EOS 5D MKIII, EF 70-300mm F4-5.6L IS USM (@ 300mm)
ISO 50, 1/5 sec., F18, 5:16 p.m.

The composition here was very straightforward. I zoomed in on the cliff face and the rock arch and left a bit of room in the background to put the location into some context. Now all I needed was for a moment of calm wind and a monster wave crashing through the arch to occur at exactly the same moment.

I shot more than 300 frames in just over an hour and as you can imagine most of the shots were blurred because of the wind rattling at the 300mm lens during the 1/5 second exposure. In the end I was left with two keeper images. An added bonus in the one you see here is the spray coming over the back of the cliff. This is not sea spray from below but small streams running over the edge of the cliff into the sea. Or at least they would have run into the sea were it not for the winds. The fact that the updraft propels these streams straight into the air gives you an idea of the conditions I was shooting in that day.

Staying put

All the images in the article have been made from the same viewpoint, all that changed were lenses, seasons and weather conditions (and the experience of the photographer). Of course, over the years I have photographed the cliffs from other locations as well. I have walked up and down the coastline to find other ways of seeing and interpreting this place, sometimes with success and sometimes with not much to show for it. But I will keep going back. I know there are still some good images out there!

This is the latest article in Carsten's landscape photography series. Previous pieces include The DSLR Field Camera, Evolution of an Image, Landscape Photography Primer, Studio in the Wild and a Gura Gear backpack review.


Carsten Krieger is a professional landscape and wildlife photographer based in the West of Ireland and author of several books on the Irish landscape and nature, including his most recent title, Ireland's Coast. To find out more about his work please visit his website: www.carstenkrieger.com.