Seascape Photography is all about the art of capturing the never-ending battle between land and sea.
The fluidity of the sea, the structure of land and how they intertwine with each other.
As seascape photographers our job is to try and capture this all in a single image with hopefully a bit of movement or power thrown in for dramatic effect. In this blog post I describe exactly how you take one of these photographs in a step by step guide.
Please feel free to share this post to maybe help others become better seascape photographers.
As seascape photographers we can use this interaction between these two fantastic elements to our advantage, Primarily through the use of shutter speed, the correct choice of shutter speed can help to highlight their differences, one moving and the other stationary.
Playing with this effect can create a very dramatic image. The principle element we want to capture is energy or movement.
The stark contrast of the solid never moving cliffs or rocks, to the ever swirling, moving and spraying of the wild sea. It's waves constantly wrapping around anything they can while slowly and patiently gnawing away at the coastline.
With the correct techniques the solid foreground can act as an anchor for the photograph as it's both sharp and in focus, the water and clouds movement, in the right conditions, can create this magical type of motion blur via Long Exposure Photography.
Seascape photographers use various shutter speeds of course depending on the mood they want to capture from the high-speed shutter photos, which capturing every single drop of the amazing spray as a wave thunderously crashes against a cliff face, all being frozen in mid-air in mind blowing detail. This helps to capture the pure raw energy and power of the sea
The other extreme is minute-long exposures softening out the water completely and creating a surreal milky foggy effect. The use of a half-second to around 2 second exposures to blur the fast movement of the waves, yet still keeping the the main sea body's detail is also one of many other options.
So which shutter speed is right?
Well there is no simple answer to that, all of them are, its up to you, your vision as a photographer and the conditions to use these different methods to express what the scene says or feels like to you.
Look at the two photos below, both taken to highlight the difference shutter speed actually makes.
Both Images were taken at exactly the same place within moments of each other, through the use of shutter speed we can completely change their feel and mood.
Before I start to explain how to capture these effects I would like to pass on a few photography tips I share on my Workshops with people starting out as seascape photographers.
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So here are my top Seascape photography tips.
The first of my tips is your feet are going to get wet so buy a good pair of wellies. Every seascape photographer needs good wellies so don't skimp on this step as cheap wellies have poor grips, they can be anything from waders to wellingtons or even waterproof boots. Once your dry and safe that is the most important thing.
I have seen first hand and also heard of numerous seascape photographers slipping and falling on rocks due to poor grips. All it takes is one slip and it could be fatal, a nasty accident for you or your equipment. So this is one of my top tips and for good reason it's to keep you safe and warm.
My second tip is NEVER turn your back on the sea. I am going to say that again, please never ever turn your back on the sea, she is a beautiful beast but she can also throw up the odd surprise. Waves can be consistent but rogue waves are very real, they have surprised me numerous times over the years. Different countries have very different coastal conditions and countries like Ireland get some very large rogue waves. So out of all my photography tips please don't ignore this one.
Tip number three is buy some good waterproof clothing as yes, you guessed it, you are going to get wet.
I regularly return home soaked from a shoot at the beach and Nadja always says something along the lines of "oh can't wait to see the photo's".
That may seem like an inside joke but I always find the times I get destroyed are the times I see something and just go for it.
When I put myself where the action is and try to capture an image I can see in my mind's eye. Standing back and watching from dry land can often be an option but you're missing the closeup impact and action then, especially when shooting with an Ultra wide-angle lens.
The final one of my simple tips for this section is to take the photographs in Raw not jpeg and use manual mode or Aperture priority. Using auto mode on your camera is like painting with a broom whereas manual mode is like painting with a delicate paintbrush, giving us photographers greater control over every single part of the image.
When is a good time for Seascape photography?
Light is king as with all other types of photography, the hours around sunset & sunrise are ideal, they are usually referred to as the golden hours.
The nice soft warm glow of the sun at these times of the day is both spectacular and magical. They can also cause a few problems for us photographers though, with the harsh contrast between direct sunlight and shadowed rocks or cliffs, using raw instead of jpeg is going to really help you here.
This is also where your graduated filters come in, don't worry I will be explaining more about them later on.
Trying to correctly expose for the sun is your main priority if the sun is actually in your photograph, while still keeping your shadows reasonably well exposed. A good tip here is to keep an eye on you camera's histogram as it will always be your best friend when it comes to correctly exposing your photograph, always remember when you're learning its better to verge on underexposing your photograph rather than overexposing it as you could burn out the sky, this simply can't be recovered in editing afterwards.
The easiest time for photographers to practice is just after sunset as the light is a lot easier to balance out then and you can experiment at ease. The next best time is on an overcast day as you have no direct light and your images are a lot easier to expose correctly then.
So what equipment do you need for seascape photography?
- - As Seascapes usually involves being very close to the water, as I said earlier proper wet weather clothing and waders or waterproof boots are your first stop. This honestly is a great investment and my top tip.
2.- A good quality tripod is your second best friend as most of the time it will be at or in the water.
For landscape photography Tripods are normally on dry land and the only vibrations they receive are wind-based, with seascapes you have everything in extremes, while your tripod is in the water you have another variable, the water itself rushing past and around the legs of the tripod. The dragging and pushing and pulling on your tripod while at the water's edge is difficult to control but I have a few very helpful tips further down this post for anyone new to this genre. Remember a tripod is a photographers best friend.
I have a video below on how to use a tripod and why you should be using one...
3.- Your Camera and Lens. Yes, that was to be expected I suppose and not one of those top tips you didn't see coming :-) a good few lens cleaning cloths or wet wipes are also vital, fighting with the mist and spray can be a constant battle. I use a Nikon D850 and a D810 with a variety of lenses depending on the situation, the D850 is a fantastic camera for this line of work, a real monster and weather sealed also.
4.- Filters are without doubt a seascape photographers best friend and absolutely vital for creating the effect you want.
My go-to filters are Formatt Hitech Firecrest filters, I use the 4, 6 & 10 stop Neutral density filters and 3 & 4 stop graduated filters. They are always in my filter bag. I love their 100mm Firecrest Filter holder for several reasons, I have a review of the Firecrest 100mm here if your interested in learning more. I am honoured to be an official ambassador and featured artist and photography educator for their products and can offer a discount or Promo code HAYES10 via their website. Click Here for their latest up to date special offers.
Special offer Formatt Hitech 10% off with discount code...
So how do we choose the effect we want in a photograph?
It's all about stopping and slowing down and letting your mind work out whats going on before you even think about taking a photograph.
Seascape photography is so utterly addictive as you are not just photographing whats there now but what you see in your head and what is about to happen.
So you need to notice patterns and motion and think outside the box to capture the image you want.
So a good tip is to start by looking at the weather and tidal conditions first.
I usually decide on arrival what style of a photograph I want from a shoot as the conditions in Southern Ireland change so quickly it's very hard to predict anything.
This normally throws planning for a specific style of photo shoot out the window. Now that can be a problem but it also helps keep a creative outlook for the shoot until you arrive at your location.
Similar to landscapes the golden hours are our time to shine. So it's early morning or late in the evening to catch those beautiful rays of light, catching that soft glow from the sun as it sinks or emerges from the horizon. Now this also means getting there early and as most new photographers I have met prefer sunsets lets explain a sunset photo shoot.
I would normally arrive at my location at least an hour before sunset. This is vital as it gives you gives you time to observe water movement, cloud cover, tidal surges, and wind. This is when you do most of the work and is my prediction time.
I can't highlight enough how important this step is. You plan the shots in your head, so when the time comes you have it all planned out and it takes the pressure off.
Always remember composition is and always will be key, you can capture the most technically brilliant shot but if the composition is off it will simply never be right.
So spend the time and watch the clouds, see if they are travelling in a particular direction and ask yourself can you use this? A little trick I use for examining the clouds hidden detail is a pair of sunglasses, with the naked eye we often can't see all the detail due to the brightness of the sky.
Watch the waves are they moving in a particular pattern? How is the tide? Is It coming or going?
Often times you can see beautiful movement in the waves as they whip past rocks or curl up a sandy bank and slip back to sea. Look for these hidden details and as the waves move count in your head how long it takes the water to move through the pattern you want. That is your shutter speed sorted out then.
The tidal conditions can both expose or hide rock formations so keep this in mind while planning your shoot.
The tide can also affect the colour of your sand and how light behaves on rocks etc. Damp sand is darker which normally isn't a problem, wet rocks above the waterline can have shimmering light reflections bouncing off their surface which can also add another dimension or problem to your shot. These reflections are very easy to overexpose, so your position in relation to the reflections is another aspect to keep an eye on.
Lastly but more importantly ask yourself what do you see and what do you really like about the scene before you?
What are its positives?
How can we highlight them?
Can we disguise or hide any of the distractions or negative aspects of the image?
This might seem straight forward and yes it usually is, you would be surprised how many photographers go to the beach and put their camera in one position without really thinking about it and just keep snapping away from there.
Setting up for seascape photography.
Brilliant so we have done the prep work and are ready to capture some stunning images.
So what's out first step?
Well setting up our second best friend the Tripod of course.
This might seem a simple task but think again. if we are at the waters edge with water whipping past our legs we need to bed-in the tripod.
What the hell is "bed-in the Tripod" I hear you ask?
Well it is waiting for a wave to come in and as it retreats back out to sea you then firmly press down on your tripod and it will sink well below the surface of the sand. This has two effects in that it helps to stabilize the tripod with the weight of the sand around the tips of the legs and it also prevents the retreating water from digging under the legs and undermining the stability of your tripod. I only use solid and durable tripods as cheaper versions just don't last and move too much also. As a little bonus tip I will also say that years of experience have thought me to extend the narrower legs on my tripod to lift the joint (twist-lock or clasp) out of the sand and water. This should help prolong the life of your tripod and make it easier to clean later.
Next, place the camera on the tripod and put your bag securely over your shoulder, never leave your bag on the sand near the tide in case of sudden swells. Get your light readings and workout what filters you need depending on the effect you want. I usually meter off the sun as this is the part of the image we need to correctly expose first and then work backwards from there. Now for my favourite part the photography filters...
So which filters do we use and when?
Photography filters are the body and soul of my work and are a seascape photographers best friend, for the last four years I have only used Formatt Hitech Filters. I have been using their filters now for nearly 5 years and honestly can't fault them in any way.
As an ambassador I can offer a 10% discount on all their wonderful products via their website with the Discount code or Promo code HAYES10. I should add that I get a slight commission for any filters purchased with the discount code but you also get 10% off so it's a win-win situation for everyone.
The filters I normally use are a combination of a 3 or 4 stop graduated neutral density (nd) filters and a 10 stop nd filter for exposures between 15 seconds to minute-long exposures depending on the light at the time. This creates a beautiful motion blur in the water and can help to seemingly pull the clouds across the sky if the conditions are right.
I use the Firecrest 3 or 4 stop graduated nd filter and either a 4 stop or a 6 stop nd filter for exposures around half a second long to 2 seconds long. This effect is ideal when you want the wave to just have motion blur while keeping the sea and sky all in focus and sharp. The correct shutter speed varies depending on the waves speed and the incline of the beach.
How and where to Focus.
For me, manual mode and back button focusing are second nature and vital to my work. In my Portraiture and commercial work they are vital tools, for Landscape and Seascape photography I feel as though they should nearly be mandatory for everyone to learn.
There is a lot of confusion regarding focusing and the difficulties involved. One of my landscape tips that I tell people starting out is to set your aperture to F11 to achieve a good depth of field while maintaining a good level of sharpness. Next, go into Live view and zoom in to 100% on your foreground and adjust the focus manually until it's in focus then go to your background and check your focus there. If you're shooting a very close foreground you may need to change your aperture to F16 to increase your depth of field, just remember this also decreases your sharpness slightly due to diffraction. I normally shoot around F11 for seascapes. These aperture settings are for a Full Frame camera. If you are using a camera with an APS-C sensor then F8 to F11 is ideal.
Composition is your final hurdle.
This is one of the most difficult aspects of any genre of photography as it usually requires a lot of vision or trial and error. Can you teach yourself to learn this skill? Well, the simple answer is yes but it can be a long and tedious process so I have a few little tips and tricks for you.
The rule of thirds is always your friend, it can be used to basically set up your photograph in a standard format (a quick google will teach you all you need to know about it) yes it gets boring after a while but it gives you a solid base to start from. My top tip with the rule of thirds and the most important aspect of it is learning when to break when you need to. So yes I just gave you a two tips and one was breaking the other one :-)
Why I say it's important is because when you feel it's wrong then it most likely is so go give yourself that bit of support and go for it. Smash those rules and back yourself. It may not always workout at first but when it does it could be a winner.
These tips are here to teach you the basic and get you up and running fast, after a while you can make your own tips, just don't forget them.
As with any image that you introduce motion blur into for me, it's important to give the viewer a point to anchor the image on.
A good trick or tip is to compose an image with a solid object directly at the start of the photograph. Your eyes and mind then have a solid grounding point and from there you can be drawn into the image. There are obviously exceptions to the rule but again this is just a good starting point.
The most important aspect to remember is what you like about the scene? What do you see in your mind? After you take the photograph look away from the scene concentrate on something else and then turn around again and only look at the image on your camera. Is that what you wanted? If not then why not?
When we are so caught up trying to compose, capture and expose an image correctly I often see photographers completely forgetting what it was that they wanted to capture in the first place. When they get home and look at the photograph on their screen the "if only moment" happens.
So try to look away from the scene and look at the captured photograph with a fresh pair of eyes again. We often see what we want to see when viewing the captured image and the scene at the same time.
These are all just very basic tips which can lead you to the more advanced aspects of photography like lens compression and the correct use of focal length, being more artistic with depth of field and even blending several images together to create a more balanced exposure.
Always remember photography is an art form and we can use our cameras to compose each image like a painting adding our own personal touch with our camera settings. The ultimate aim for me is to try and capture a photograph correctly, leaving me with as little editing as possible (max 10mins per pic) so I can spend more time taking photographs than sitting at a desktop.
Also don't get into a routine with your photograpyh, sitting on a beach and putting on a ten stop filter and just pointing it at something, anyone can do that in fact I can teach someone that in 5 mins on a workshop.
Go develop your skill and seek out something new.
The ten stop trick is an easy one and great to start with as a beginner to photography but go get some more filters and try to actually capture something that involves timing. After all Photography has always been about timing.
These are just my own personal ideas, tips and suggestions for budding seascape photographers. I am sure I missed a few tips along the way and possibly posted a few some may not agree with but that's the beauty of photography. Remember we always learn something new and we all have our own techniques.
So go explore, go get wet and immerse yourself in that beautiful ocean. Go fill your lungs with fresh air until you can feel the salt crystals forming on your skin because there is nothing more beautiful than standing in nature and trying your best to capture her beauty in a single image. Something I can only personally hope to achieve one day.
See you out there,
Don't forget to Subscribe to my YouTube channel to get my tips and tricks videos, upcoming tech tips and behind the scenes videos.
This blog post was partially written for the blog of Capture Landscapes which is a fantastic website for tips and tricks so go check it out :-)
Landscape Photography Ireland
Seascape photographers and my top 10 seascape photographers tips
Kieran Hayes Photography
5.0 Star rating
22 of May 2020