Andrew Sanderson explains how he took his unusually composed image of a busy beach in Cromer, Norfolk

Photo Insight with Andrew Sanderson

A renowned photographer, tutor, author and Ilford Master
Printer, Andrew Sanderson offers practical tips on working
with film and traditional darkroom techniques

This image was taken back in 1999, when I was on holiday with my family in Cromer, Norfolk. I’ve said before that I find it impossible to leave the house without a camera, and on this occasion I had a 35mm Pentax LX with an Ohnar 300mm f/5.6 mirror lens. I thought it would be interesting to focus on the people and let the foreground drop out of focus. In the foreground there were lots of large flinty pebbles that were a little bigger than tennis balls. When you use a mirror lens you only have the one aperture, and areas that are out of focus tend to go a sort of doughnut shape. That can give your image a very interesting look.

You can see that the shape of the beach is nowhere near level. I was sitting in an area that was part sand and part rocks, where you get a kind of lip as the sea washes things up to a certain level and then retreats. Looking across the ridge, you get bits that slope down. Having that in the foreground is both confusing and visually appealing.

As I looked through the viewfinder I panned my camera around the area and began to notice there were some interesting focal effects going on with people at varying distances from the lens. Some were pin sharp while others were almost abstract. It created this little scene of ghosts who seem almost featureless. It’s an image that is very much about graphic shapes rather than a series of portraits. They’re silhouettes and consequently shapes that add to the overall composition.

With that idea in mind, the positioning of the figures is very important. I’ve mentioned before about how many of my images are concerned with capturing the decisive moment. Here we can clearly see that moment with the person on the right running into the frame. I saw this all coming together and fired off the shutter.

There’s a real balance to the shot when you look at the image and that’s because of the people. If you look at the second child on the left-hand side (the boy with his arms out), the movement of that child carries your eye over to the left and then your eye is led up towards the first figure in the sea. Beyond that you move across the other figures, which then brings you to the man running and consequently back to the children. That gives the image a compositional loop that’s very difficult to break away from.

On another level, this is an image that communicates an idea about tonality. You have levels of greyscale starting with the dark rocks at the bottom, moving up to the midtones of the sand and then finally hitting the highlights of the sea. It’s an idea that I only hit upon recently. I think a lot of photographers experience those kinds of little moments: it’s only in retrospect that some of the details reveal themselves.

With regard to the exposure, I never rely on a camera’s automatic functions. In fact, I never meter through a camera at all. I have enough experience to know exactly how I need to expose a scene. Usually, I’ll meter for the shadows and take it up a couple of stops, but for this scene the lowlights weren’t important. In this case, I was much more interested in the light in the distance so I wanted to make sure I got that. Here I was using Ilford HP5 ISO 400, which I rated at ISO 200. That would have given me a setting of around 1/500sec, which is about right for handholding a 300mm lens at f/5.6.

The printing stage wasn’t quite as important for me in this image. If you look closely at the sand in the middle, there’s a hotspot there. What this means is that it’s lighter in that central part of the image. That’s actually a product of the lens and not anything to do with my printing. Where my printing did directly affect the outcome was at the bottom corners, which I burned in to avoid any distracting areas that would break the composition.

One of the things I learned from this image is how important it is to be open to experimentation. You have to leave your mind open to the possibilities of chance because that’s when these sorts of shots are likely to happen. If you’re predictable in the way you work then you’re only going to get predictable results. I also firmly believe that whenever I’m experimenting with a lens or camera, I’m never doing it just to get a few test snapshots. I always go into a situation with the belief that something good could potentially come out of it. If you’re going to press the shutter, you may as well get something worthwhile out of it.

To see more of Andrew’s images, visit Andrew regularly conducts one-to-one workshops, where attendees can learn a variety of advanced printing techniques. See his website for details.

Andrew Sanderson was talking to Oliver Atwell