Viewpoints - Axmouth Harbour

There are some harbours on the British coast that have such unbelievable chocolate box prettiness that they have become places of pilgrimage for photographers.  Staithes in Yorkshire and Clovelly in North Devon are just two that spring to mind.  The harbour at Axmouth does not fall into this category.  At first sight it seems quite functional and some might say even ugly in appearance.  But that is what makes this the perfect sort of place to exercise your vision as a photographer, for there is beauty here waiting to reward those who are prepared to look for it.

Axmouth harbour is on the south Devon coast.  Unusually, it is separate from Axmouth village which lies further up the River Axe, about a mile inland.  Having visited Axmouth several times over the last few years, ever since my parents bought a house there, it was only last year that I decided to try and photograph the harbour.  This stretch of coast is part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site and I had previously been too busy exploring some of the better known areas to bother with the quiet little harbour right on my doorstep. 

During one visit, when the weather had been drizzly all day and I was feeling in desperate need of fresh air, I took a stroll down to the harbour with my camera.  In the gathering dusk, I was fascinated to watch the River Axe flowing rapidly out to see in the ebbing tide.  One side of the harbour mouth is a wall of reinforced concrete while the other side is a bank of constantly shifting shingle.  As I stood on this shingle bank, I could see it being eroded and slipping into the river and I was suddenly struck by the juxtaposition of dynamic natural landscape with solid man made permanence on the other side of the harbour.  It was quite dark now so I set up my tripod and took a long exposure shot that rendered the flowing water smooth and due to the low light, had a distinctively blue tone to it.

Although I was fairly happy with my first attempt, I knew I could do better.  On my next visit, I decided to explore the other side of the harbour in search of a picture that emphasised the straight edges of the concrete wall.  After a little experimentation, I found a composition I was happy with.  The strong diagonal line in the foreground was balanced by the softer lines running at right-angles to it, both in the texture of the concrete and the change in direction of the harbour wall in the middle distance.  It was important to include some of the shingle bank to complete the story of juxtaposition that first inspired me here, but also to give some shape to the river and to make sense of the pattern of flow.  I initially intended to crop some of the sky from this composition as it was a little sky-heavy, but when I fitted a polarising filter, I noticed a cloud pattern that mimicked the shape of the river and further softened the hard edges of the concrete foreground. 

Once the camera was in position, I took a few frames at different shutter speeds to test the effect on the flowing water.  I wanted the exposure to be just long enough to capture a sense of movement in the water, but not so long as to result in a smooth, texture-less surface.  It seemed that exposures around half a second produced the desired effect.  All that was left to do now was to keep taking pictures as the sun lowered in the sky. Because the harbour wall faces west over the relatively flat Seaton Bay, it is able to catch the light of the sun until very late in the day, just before it sets.  The warm orange colour of this evening light on the harbour wall was the perfect contrast to the blue colour of the water and sky and it provided the final touch to this picture of balanced opposites.

Axmouth Harbour

Canon 5D, 17-40mm lens at 20mm, ISO 50, 0.6 sec at f/18, polariser, tripod, cable release


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