Photography Location Tips - North Berwick Old Pier
There are certain places that photographers are naturally drawn too. Places that offer spectacular scenery or good lighting and in the case of the Old Pier in my home town of North Berwick all of this plus a little bit of drama and spectacle. Twice a day this little concrete jetty succumbs to the tide disappearing below its surface and leaving only a small staircase, a galvanised steel handrail and yellow beacon as evidence of its existence. I’ve lived in North Berwick for nine years and have visited and photographed this location on innumerable occasions. I’ve tried to capture it from almost every angle, at every time of day and in every conceivable conditions from winter rain and snow to scorching hot summer stillness and in that time I've learned that good images, despite the uniqueness of the location aren't guaranteed. I'm not alone in coming to this conclusion either it would seem, over the years I’ve heard quite a few stories from other photographers bemoaning a long drive here only to find that something wasn't quite right. So from someone who’s learned the hard way here are a few tips you can use to hopefully get the best out of this location.
Tip one - Check the tide.
This is by far the most important element to getting a great image here. The tide and more specifically its level in relation to the surface of the pier are more important than any other element affecting the image. If the tide isn't in and covering the surface of the pier then almost all of the drama is missing form the scene and you have to work much harder to pull off a great shot. Grab yourself a copy of the local tide times or use an app and check the tide is going to be on its way in when you arrive. This will give you plenty of time to set up. The tide begins to cover the surface of the pier around one hour before high tide and falls below the surface approximately one hour after high tide. Spring and neap tides along with storm surges will have an impact on these times and will effect the volume of coverage but for the most part the best shots are to be had within the 2-3 hour window around high tide. At peak high tide the water should be high enough to hit the stairs at the back of the pier and this is the classic shot most photographers aim for.
Tip two - Choppy, rough or stormy seas are best.
If the sea is a little choppy all the better. I’ve always found a good bit of movement in the water has given the best results especially if the waves make their way up the first few stairs. 1-2 second exposures are good for smoothing out the water without fully killing off the movement and drama however, longer exposures work very well here too. If it's a full blown storm then things get even more dramatic. In the image below taken when Scotland was in the grip of the 'Beast From the East' the sea was incredibly violent with enormous waves pounding the pier relentlessly for days. Taken on the second day of the storm it was the last photo of the pier I shot that day. The wave that followed this one was so large it made its way up the entire staircase to where I was standing. As it was an hour before high tide I considered my location unsafe and made my way off the harbour. This is the most brutal conditions I've seen here and while we may not get to see the likes of this again for a while if you get the chance to visit the pier when there is a storm blowing I highly recommend it, just remember to stay safe!
Tip three - Sunrise Vs sunset:
At sunrise the light will be to the right (East) of you if you are looking out at the pier. It’s exact position determined by the time of year. Sunrise images will have the blues of the Earth’s shadow and soft pinks of the Belt of Venus low and in the background over the Fife coast creating beautiful tones and a counterpoint to the harshness of the concrete. At sunset, again the time of year defining its exact location, the sun will be to the left (West) of you. This has always been my favourite time to shoot here. You get the golden glow of the sun on the water and the dark contrast created by the Fife Coast in the background adds further drama to the scene. The concrete of the pier appears cold, dirty and harsh at sunrise but sunset softens it and helps to blend it into the sea. There is still plenty of drama but the warmer sunset tones are more complimentary to the scene as a whole.
Tip four - Plan ahead:
It’s surprisingly rare for peak sunrise/sunset and high tide to occur simultaneously. Checking tide times against sunrise/sunset times and the weather is definitely advisable. It’s easy to get shots here as the location is so unique but it’s difficult to get great shots because of the variables. I’ve seen many months go by without favourable conditions so it’s worth planning your visit ahead of time.
Tip five - Seasons and the position of the sun:
As you can see in the image below, winter sunrises and sunsets occur over land. This means that most of the best light will be happening out of frame to the sides of the pier rather than directly in line with it. This can be compensated for with the right cloud cover. If you have high and mid level clouds these may catch some of the sunlight creating more interest to the shot. Checking cloud cover before hand is a good idea especially if you are planning your visit in the winter months.
As you can see in the image below, sunrise in summer happens to the right (East) of the pier over the headland. I've shot very few summer sunrise shots at this location. Any time I've tried I've found the shots too stark with very high contrast. If you are shooting black and white then this extra contrast may be of benefit to you.
Late spring, summer and early autumn sunrises are where it's at. As you can see in the image below, all of the best light from the start of golden hour to the end of the blue hour all happen directly in front of the pier.
Tip six - Composition
Almost every shot I’ve ever seen taken of the pier is from the same two locations. The first is looking directly down the stairs with the pier centre frame and the second being slightly off to the left or right of the stairs with the walkway coming in from the side of the frame. It's easy to see why these two compositions are chosen so often. They are the most obvious shots and appear the most natural to the eye. Any lens 50mm and under will work for these compositions. The wider you go the more you push the Fife coast away but this can add great scale to the scene and help to isolate the pier. Anything above 50mm and you are going to be framing individual areas rather than the pier as a whole. Good shots can be made from more intimate framing too so it’s always worth experimenting. There are however other places around the harbour area to get decent shots from. In the image above I moved down the path a little from the staircase. There were two good reasons for this. The first was the three other photographers who were already occupying the staircase leading down to the pier, testament to how popular this location is. The second reason was the naturally undulating and golden lit rocks in the foreground created a beautiful juxtaposition to the straight lines and edges of the man-made concrete pier occupying the mid frame. One of my most popular shots of the pier is my image Aquamarine shown below. Taken a little further back from the location of the shot above on a cold, overcast and rainy April afternoon it's longer exposure smoothing out all of the movement in the water and sky and capturing the glorious pale green blue hues the sea around here takes on on overcast days. It’s definitely worth having a walk round and experimenting with different lenses, angles and compositions.
Tip seven: Weather
As long as the tide is in I haven't found weather to be any kind of a hindrance to getting a decent image here. Cloudless blue skies lend themselves to high contrast black & white images as do misty days. Fast moving clouds add great drama, large clouds add scale and so on. Grey overcast days create beautiful aqua hues like in the image above and really make the yellow beacon pop. So far I haven't found any weather conditions that have had a detrimental effect.
One last tip and one that is very important. If you are going to walk out onto the pier itself to try for an image, please take the time to have a look round and make sure there are no other photographers around. A few times I've had images ruined by other photographers walking out onto the pier in the middle of my shot. People do walk out there, it's a working pier and they have every right to use it as much as you do but if you fancy getting a shot from there please be polite and just take the time to check who is around. Don't be that person!
Hopefully you have found some useful info in here to help you go and get some decent images of this super cool location. If you do make your way here there is a good chance you might bump into me, come over and say hi if you do!
Likes and shares are always appreciated and if you have any questions or comments please feel free to pop them in the comments below and I will do my best to answer back asap.