Rockpools are an often-overlooked subject for the natural history photographer but provide great opportunities both below and above water. Although there are great rockpooling opportunities abroad the focus of this piece will be on the British Isles.
Cornish Clingfish using 60mm Macro
Being a wildlife photographer and filmmaker I’m always keen to find unusual and untold stories another reason why rockpools appealed to me so much. Going to Cornwall to study on the BA Hons Marine & Natural History Photography course based in Falmouth gave me the ideal opportunity to do this.
Three spined sticklebacks in a marine habitat in Shetland the last fish I expected to see!
Hot spots for the UK include the Kentish coastline, Fife, Northumbria but in my experience Cornwall has always yielded some of my best rockpool photography.
Cornwall has over 300 miles of coastline to choose from with exposed shores bearing the brunt of the Atlantic to sheltered shores harbouring all manner of seaweeds and invertebrate life. One location in particular, the Helford River is at low tide a vast expense of exposed and sheltered shoreline with weeds and rocks holding some of the most bio diverse waters in the entire UK. Located in the mouth of the Helford estuary is truly a fantastic place to get photos above and below the water. Species like Cornish clingfish; Montague’s crabs and beadlet anomies are not uncommon. With the gulf stream coming past the Cornish coast it means the temperature is slightly higher so species that might be more at home in a Mediterranean climate can often be found.
Starfish in a northumberland rockpool
In April 2011 I took part in a three-month photographic study on Cornish Rockpools. The majority of my work involves me staying dry and the rockpools provided the chance to get underwater shots while staying high and dry (often not so high). The project had me doing scientific surveys on species numbers along different parts of the tideline as well as taking plenty of images. Having lived in Cornwall for three years I was spoilt for choice on dive locations but it's the rockpools that really interested me. The cost of diving can be very expensive at times and can be very weather dependent another reason why I took to jumping in rockpools, as it only requires some strong boots. Often when storms hit the clarity makes diving pointless with all the back scatter so rockpools can provide a alternative though climbing over rocks in a storm can make for a interesting photo shoot!
The species in rockpools go through a daily struggle with predators, low oxygen and water level changes. I prefer to work with slow moving subjects as it gives me time to compose the shot and experiment with settings and exposure.
Clear water is essential for successful rockpool images so areas near muddy river estuaries are mostly not suitable.
With underwater photography you need to get close to your subject as the water reduces sharpness, contrast and colour so long lens are useless this is why I only use macro and wide angle. Using natural light for the wide angles is often a nice effect and if the light is in the right areas can really make an image work. With macro a strobe (underwater flash) is advised as a lot of the subjects in rockpools really benefit from the flash.
Rockpooling around the Cornish coast
Intense sunlight can be a hindrance as most rockpool creatures shun it but it lights up the entire rockpool opening up an unseen world. With the small crevices a compact can be very handy for use in rockpools otherwise when using a DSLR finding the larger rockpools leads to more success. Donning a wet suit and getting into the larger rockpools means that you can compose the image a lot easier and don't have to lift a heavy housing which can be tiring after a few hours. You only have a few hours depending on what part of the shore line you work on with the very furthest tips only being exposed for a short time its good to have a idea of where and what on the shoreline you would like to capture.
Turnstones one of the many birds you can find on rocky shores
If you don’t have an underwater housing don’t despair there are still a few ways you can get shots. The use of polarising sun glasses greatly increase you chances of spotting anything lurking in the pools and with a polarising filter on your lens has the same effect in removing the glare. There’s also plenty for the macro photography with often ignored species like limpets, barnacles and whelks all over a rocky shore and shouldn’t be to hard to keep up with!
When working with species above the water a little more creativity needs to be involved. The first thing you need to think about is most areas with rockpools have been eroded down by the daily passing of tides meaning they are often low to ground. This means you’re an easy target for any birds to see. Getting low helps but climbing over slippery seaweed is difficult at the best of times! The best thing to do is set up a hide at low tide and let the tide push the birds towards you something most bird photographers would be keen to see happen. Just like on dry land you have winter visitors to rockpools such as purple sandpipers and summer visitors like ruddy turnstones. Peregrines often like to hunt near them for the abundance of small waders hiding in the pools. With the recent increase in little egret rockpools are lifelines for them mostly in the winter when lakes can freeze over.
With out a doubt rockpools come alive in the summer with the warm water waking up all kinds of species making it easier for the nature photographer to spot them.
Some areas can get quite busy in the summer so finding those hidden away area can result in better shots rather then getting lots of people in your shots (of course you may want this in your images).
Salt can be a issue as with any coastal photography so its always a good idea to get a wet cloth and just give the camera a quick wipe down after the shoot to clean any salt, sand or debris on it.
Marbeled Rock Crab
One particular rockpooling session always sticks out in my mind, it was a warm summers day in July and I was helping out on a rockpool survey on the south Cornish coast. I began by gently turning over some stones to see what I could find and after about 20 minutes of doing so I saw something unusual. A black shape crawling of I quickly grabbed it though it nipped me and I realised it was a crab but unlike any I’ve seen before. I placed it with the other surveyors and ran home to get my camera as I naturally forgot it! Came back and got a few images and then put it back where I found it. I sent the image of to the natural history museum where they informed me it was a Marbled rock crab the first ever in Cornwall and only third in the UK and was likely to of come over in the ballast of a ship.
Overall rockpools are a diverse habitat offering a lot to the wildlife photographer both above and below the water wither its looking for species tucked away in crevasses or migratory birds coming to find food and shelter out on the rocks.
My top five rockpool tips are
Wear steady foot gear as the rocks can be incredibly slippery
Take a buddy with you even better the kids! Its great to get the whole family involved
There are hundreds of species living in rockpools so using online ID websites such as www.ispot.com can be helpful for correct identification.
Take a towel or gardening mat as the rocks can damage the camera when resting on the ground and also good for your knees when kneeling on rocks.
Get a tide table as you don’t want to turn up at high tide!