The tide is a long wave. The vertical movement of water pulled by a constellation of air pressure, wind, topography, the sun and the elliptical orbit of the moon is rarely visible to the naked eye. Instead we see the impact of this irrepressible force on our coastline roughly every six hours, when the tide is high and when it is low.
The British coast has some of the mightiest tides in the world – the Bristol Channel has the second biggest rise and fall after Nova Scotia – and two Guardian photographers, David Levene and Christopher Thomond, spent much of the summer exploring how the tide’s ebb and flow reveals different worlds.
Thomond relied on his naked eye to line up each high- and low-tide image. “I found them quite a struggle – technically it was difficult to line the two pictures up in your head,” he admits. “I’d find a vantage point at low tide and come back eight hours later and the markers I had in my head to line up the image had disappeared.”
Thomond says people probably imagine taking pictures of tides at beautiful coastline spots to be a rather lovely holiday job, but the reality was he had to squeeze in the work between more mundane tasks. The “pure practicalities” – particularly getting two pictures in good light – overtook any pleasure in admiring the liminal world revealed and then covered by the tide, he says. “I didn’t choose a view, set up the tripod, wait for six hours and take another picture. I shot five or six scenes from the same area and tried to get some variety and replicate each one. You could never quite predict how somewhere was going to look at high tide.”
Levene tried to begin with a compelling low-tide picture. The biggest challenge was obtaining the high-tide picture of Lyme Regis on one of the hottest days of the year. He took the low-tide image of fossil hunters from the top of a fragment of eroding cliff that was only accessible at low tide. “I then had to wake at the crack of dawn, come down with a coffee and suncream and walk out at low tide and wait for the high tide, so I was sat out there in the heatwave for about eight hours.”
Levene was often too busy trying different photographic positions or checking tidal apps to experience the meditative beauty of the ebb and flow of the tide. But he was moved by the unexpected drama of the North Sea flooding over great expanse of the Wash at Snettisham.
“The way that the water came in through the mudflats was just amazing,” he says. “It takes forever to come in but for the last 40 minutes the channels suddenly fill up. I was taking pictures all the while.”
Taking the photographs from exactly the same position was sometimes unexpectedly difficult. Levene imagined he might mark the spot for his tripod and return six hours later, but in often busy places or natural beaches it wasn’t possible to leave a durable mark.
Instead he used his eye. “You’ve got to fidget yourself into the right position by looking at the original picture you’ve taken and use reference points from it,” he says. To get a really precise match, Levene also plugged his camera into his computer at his tide-watching spot to overlay the original picture with the new image revealed by the camera.