In the incredibly long list of dream assignments from National Geographic Travel, photographing people collecting seashells wasn’t in my top ten. That being said, who turns down National Geographic? Certainly not me.
To make images of shell collecting worthy of the magazine, I had to take a few things into consideration. The pre-shoot planning is important to the success of an image. Issue one: When is low tide? Not being a shell collector myself, I can assume that shell collecting happens when the tides are low—less water, more beach, better shells.
The second issue is the light. Early and late day light is best; with the sun low in the sky, the contrasting light adds a quality to the images that you can’t get during other hours.
Here in Florida, winter weather can be hit or miss. The first day I went to the beach, the tide was out but the skies were overcast. I was able to meet Amanda Mindell and her father, Richard. Both are residents of Jupiter, Florida, and seek out seashells regularly at Coral Cove Park on Jupiter Island. I worked with them for a while, talking about shelling and their greatest finds, shark teeth. We became fast friends.
As I wrapped on day one, Amanda told me that she and her dad would be back tomorrow.
On day two, the weather was sketchy, but that meant dramatic clouds rolling across the sky. When the afternoon sun sets on East Coast beaches it drops behind the dunes and in between buildings, creating a collection of cool light/dark shadow opportunities.
As the sun set, the light got real nice, I had built a relationship with the subjects, and because of that, I was able to document their shell searching as an unobtrusive observer.
From that moment, the image becomes about the composition. When the subject is comfortable and at ease, the light is perfect, and the activity is in full swing, composition takes over.
I knew I wanted a dominant foreground and a contributing background, so I walked with Amanda and Richard and waited and watched. I was hoping for a quiet moment where they would be together, doing what they love, without realizing I was there. As Amanda paused for the water to subside, her father walked through the back of the picture, giving me the composition I was thinking about.
Photo Tip: Images like this happen because of relationships, trust, advance planning, homework, and a commitment to keep making pictures.
I shot this image with a Canon 5D Mark III and a Sigma 24-105 Art lens. I had the focal length of the lens set to 24mm, meaning I was real close. I underexposed the image by half a stop to give me a richer black and not blow out the highlights. I made the image at 1/500th of a second at f/7.1 (Canon does 1/3 stop increments). Blurring the water was not important to me (that’s obtainable with slow shutter speeds) but the subject and background sharpness was. Shooting at a higher shutter speed and higher f-stop means that sharpness is there—focused on my subject.
See more photos by Steven Martine on Instagram at @StevenMartine.