What Happens at the Beach Stays at the Beach

As many people ask me how I work, I thought I’d write an overview of how I approach the Ft LauderdaleSun project. The drive and philosophy remains focused on the @ftlauderdalesun Twitter account, where I’m committed to sharing the dawn as artfully and accurately as I can. Since April 2011 this has changed in that all images are now left as they are when I leave the shore. As I’m sure you know I work entirely on iPhone4.

The project in many ways has changed very little since the day it began back in July 2009. I arrive at the beach and start my walk at the same spot each day, by the Hugh Taylor Birch State Park on Fort Lauderdale Beach. This is the stretch of beach north of the famous wave wall, and is characterized by a stretch of sand dunes that begins at Bonnet House Beach and continues up to the Pelican Beach Resort.

The reason that I don’t take pictures on the more populated part of the beach (between Las Olas Blvd and Bonnet House) is simple. The wave wall stretch is less natural, and frequently the piles of sunbeds and debris from the night before interfere with the scenes I like to shoot.

Fort Lauderdale Beach is straight and true – no rocky outcrops or a pier to provide a centerpiece – which means the ocean and the sky will dominate all the best pictures. There are surprisingly few palm trees positioned to make a strong focal point, and this is, I guess, why my signature ‘Five Palms’ has come to be a regular subject.

The First Pic

My first picture, half an hour before sunrise, is usually the most technically difficult. This is the part of the morning where the light is beginning to grow, but the iPhone camera isn’t generally very good in the half light. It needs to have a little contrast to bite on and find a good exposure point. I do like to get an early shot out to twitter though, and loyal followers like the very busy @iamlasolas will always pass on the first image I take. Other strong FTs come from influential Florida tourism accounts such as @visitlauderdale (Note – Although the Ft Lauderdale CVB make plenty of use of my images they do not provide financial support. I’m hoping that the CVB will become an advertising supporter of this site eventually. Neither am I affiliated with our biggest newspaper @SunSentinel . I know many people still think that I’m the newspaper as the account has a similar name, but there is no connection at all.)

The first image is taken with my Twitter followers in mind. Strong, loyal and enthusiastic followers on Twitter have helped this project so much. Those early RTs were so encouraging, and helped me improve the quality of the images I took.

That first shot is a follower’s first look at the morning. The next part of my walk has comparatively little to photograph so it stays in the Twitter stream for sometimes 20-30 minutes. It has to be good. And if it’s not good, lets make it useful!  ‘How’s the beach?’; the weather good/bad? , the ocean choppy/calm?,  is it surf or snorkel?

Keeping Fit

One very important aspect of the project is fitness. It’s why I don’t start my walk in the most photogenic part of the beach but 30 minutes away so I get a good brisk walk along the shoreline and therefor a good walking workout. I’m here to keep fit and healthy and a walk along the sand is as good as it gets! I’m sure I’m a more familiar sight to the joggers on the A1A coastal highway which runs right along the beach at this point. I’m one of a surprisingly few people who prefer to walk on the sand rather than run on the sidewalk up beyond the shorewall.

I try to time my walk so that I’m near a few favorite vantage points, but I’m never sure what I’m going to concentrate on until the sun begins to appear. Some days the pre-dawn light is wonderful, and on these days the sky and the morning light takes center stage. Other mornings (The clear ones and the fully clouded ones) give me much less help and I need to work harder to frame the shot.

So what do I use to take those ‘moment of sunrise’ shots? Well almost always the iPhone’s native camera. I know this is basic and sometimes is very slow to operate, but  I can then work a little on the result if it isn’t perfect first time.

If there’s a sea-turtle nest there’s a big difference in light between the sand and the sky so here I will use ProHDR, an app that is very good at pulling up the darker areas and muting the light. It works better with sky than with trees (HDR shots of the palms  tend to have a glow around them – not a great look) and sometimes makes an already spectacular sky look truly stunning.
ProHDR’s manual focus setting is also a great way to shoot close-ups of seashells. Its pull-focus effect – when both focus points are positioned close – is really effective. Here’s a good example:

Filter Apps

I have two filter apps ready to go too. Lomora2 provides a filter set that rewards contrast and has a Lomo quality I really like. I can see a Lomora shot straight away, where there’s strong contrasting colors and shapes. The extra drama that Lomora2 brings is wonderful. I like the R/B film especially on sunny days, but switch to G/M or Y/M when its cloudier.

A second filter app I’ve always loved is Hipstamatic, especially the Ina/JohnS combination for color (though I believe that it’s not been quite as great since the iPhone4 update – blues are not as strong) and Claunch72 for black and white. I took a tip from Robert-Paul Jansen and have a filterstorm crop in place to get rid of the borders. Claunch72 is a black and white filter that when used with Camera+ Clarity can provide really dramatic square black and whites.

Enhancing a shot

Yes there are times when I’ll take a moment, sit on the sand, and work up shots where the trees are too dark, or the color isn’t quite bright enough. I know a lot of people love Filterstorm and IrisPhotosuite but both have limitations and speed issues. I just don’t want to miss a shot because these slow apps are busy processing. Iris is additionally hampered by a fussy and badly designed UI, which is a serious issue the app’s developers have been slow to fix.

Several quicker options come to mind. If all a shot needs is a pick-me-up then PerfectlyClear is a first choice. It is CPU heavy and will crash if you work to your space limit. Its not quite the app it was in terms of quality (it now changes the contrast a little too much as a default) but for a shot that just needs a little help it is great.

One wonderful quick app is TiltShiftGen by Takayuki Fukatsu. It is not only a good way to blur out some side detail that would detract from a great capture, but it is a quick and easy way to adjust a black and white and enhance colors. Turn off the blur and it’s a gem. For example:

Photogene is another fast, accurate app that is my go-to app for straightening horizons and cropping a shot.

For shots that need more help PSMobile is wonderful. I find that the Photoshop add-on ReduceNoise filter  is great for getting rid of darkness grain: when combined with the ‘sharpen’ tool a dud shot can suddenly come to life. I reach for Iris and Filterstorm less often as they run slowly for me, and I like to get images out onto Twitter and my here at within seconds if I can. I don’t want to be wasting whole minutes working on an image if it interferes with the next shot.

I’m at last becoming a user of Camera+, which allows quick shooting and fairly swift processing. The Ansel/Clarity combo can give a dramatic black-and-white from a shot that’s over saturated in its original form.


The Golden Moment

I work very fast at times. Taking photos at dawn can sometimes mean that the best light is gone within five or ten minutes of sunrise. It’s sometimes a lot less than that, as once the sun is out it can be very difficult to shoot out into the light and get a great shot. So I sometimes tend to just shoot – especially those times when I go wading out into the ocean waves. Here it’s about riding the waves in terms of perspective. I love shots that are close to the ocean – this is a risky but ultimately rewarding vantage point. Sure I get very wet, but I arrive at the beach in light shorts, a loose T with nothing else but a jewelers loupe (for macro shots), a photojojo zoom lens (for distant shots), my car keys and a dollar for the meter. No shoes.

Keeping Dry

A word about looking after the camera by the shore. I honestly can say I have never dropped my iPhone at the beach. The 3GS I used for 18 months took a splash or two but rainy days are way more damaging to a 3GS. I quickly learned to hold the camera covering the holes where moisture might damage the sensors.

iPhone4 is a huge improvement in this area. I shoot left handed and when I’m close to the ocean surface I shoot upside down with the lens at the low corner. The earphone socket covered by my finger and my thumb is on the shutter. After that its about not being surprised by a wave, and being aware that a backwave off the beach can also bring a rise to the water level. I’ve tried Aquapak, and still use it on the stormy days, but careful holding is everything.


Walking back down the beach is app time, and this is when I’ll do a little Iris/Filterstorm/TiffenPhotoFX work, and maybe take a shot for a spin with PictureShow, Camerabag and (with a good black and white) LoMob.
Camera+ can be – as Oliver Lang observed – the autotune of the iPhoneography world, but it can lift a shot enough to make it Instagramable. IG I find is a good outlet for character shots of people, and for strong re-crops that would otherwise be too low a quality to share in any other way.

Shoot it and Share It.

I get raised eyebrows for uploading directly to Twitpic after a year experimenting with Tumblr and Posterous. Tumblr – a great entry-level blog system and fantastic to update via iPhone –  let me down on more than a few mornings by accepting a series pictures but not publishing until hours later. In one disastrous morning Tumblr posted the same image over 100 times to both Twitter AND Facebook. That took some tidying up and it’s a wonder that I still have any followers after that day!

Bottom line is that even though I’ve opened this WordPress site, where I can caption and upload to directly from the beach, I use Twitpic to deliver to the twitter account first, usually via my Echofon app. I’m all about the mobile experience and I think that twitpic is still the most integrated and reliable of all the various delivery tools. I don’t want mobile users leaving their chosen twitter app to view in a browser window.

I’m never totally sure how good a shot is from the beach anyway, and Twitpic is pretty throwaway. The archive shots end up here at FtLauderdale Sun as a daily archive (uploaded later in the evening). By then I’ve been able to look at what I’ve done on a good screen and see if I’ve missed a good one.

My sleeping giant is Facebook, where my FtLauderdaleSun page has over a thousand fans without me really working to use it effectively. This is an area I need to work on.

Finally, I want to explain my recent decision to backburn my Flickr account. The place just isn’t getting traffic any more and a place to share and network it’s just not cutting it. My stuff isn’t really good enough to stand up to comparisons with the DSLR stuff anyway, so I’m less inclined to upload my best there.


What Happens at the Beach Stays at the Beach

The biggest decision I’ve made lately is a big one. I download all my pics from my Camera Roll to my Powerbook at 8am and that’s that. No apping or post-processing after than point.

This is because I can’t afford to be distracted by my phone professionally, and if I left the images on the phone I’d be tempted to ‘improve’ them. Here I’m holding true to the original ‘shoot-it-and-share-it’ ethos that FtLauderdaleSun grew up on. This is what the sky looks like right now.

That’s it. That’s all of it. The here and now. See you at dawn tomorrow, for the next sunrise!

Andy Royston / Ft LauderdaleSun