I’ve been fortunate enough to live near the coast for a good portion of my life, and my first foray into landscape photography was seascapes. Just writing this, I can hear and feel the crashing waves and smell the salt in the air! And while all types of landscape photography present challenges, seascape photography adds another layer. It’s not everyday your landscape can knock you over and ruin your equipment in a matter of seconds…believe me, I had a run-in with an Icelandic rogue wave which knocked me over and destroyed $5000 worth of gear in one fell swoop! In this post, I’ll offer up some tips I’ve learned over the past decade plus of shooting and teaching seascape photography.
Planning for seascapes is not unlike normal landscapes and includes location searches, weather forecasts, radar and satellite imagery, and webcams. Shooting near the ocean requires even more information, specifically tide and swell height and putting that information to good use. If arriving on an incoming tide, the way you accessed the site may not be accessible once the tide rises, so make certain you an “escape route”. Conversely, arriving at high tide, you may find a great composition only to be left high and dry as water levels recede. That cool rock with flowing waves around it half an hour earlier, is now just a dry rock 20 feet from the action. Cue the violins! A high swell height can easily overcome a low tide’s effect, and a high swell coupled with high tide might result in your location being inaccessible. Swell often has high and low sets. Tip: Observe your location before you venture out. Take a few minutes to get observe what is happening. Use visual clues like where footprints are and are not as well as debris lines (where the highest waves have pushed small items like kelp). These help determine how high up waves have reached. It may be tempting to immediately head down where the action is, but if you do so during a low set, the big set could be incoming and you could be chased off or quickly find yourself underwater.
Use tides and seasons to your advantage, too. Some locations may have rocks only visible at low tide. Others may only have water washing around them at high tide. Winter storms can scour the sand off a beach, revealing rocks that weren’t there in summer. Low tide reveals super saturated sand which stays wet longer which offers the perfect opportunity for reflections. Revisiting locations certainly can pay off with new ideas and images.
Tripods: I prefer a sturdy carbon fiber tripod with twist locks as waves flowing past you can cause unwanted vibrations. Clamp locks tend to get fouled with sand and debris and are difficult to disassemble and clean. Twist locks don’t require tools and can be cleaned in the field if need be. Spiked feet will allow the legs to be more easily pushed into sand increasing stability and reducing the risk of sinking during a long exposure. Tip: Firmly press your tripod into soft sand. As waves pass underneath, gently press your tripod deeper into the wet sand for a more solid foundation. And while it isn’t necessary to get quite as wet as the two gentlemen in the photo above, it can be beneficial to be where the water does flow underneath you from time to time.
Cleaning Supplies: Have your cleaning supplies ready as well. Optical cleaning fluid and microfiber cloths are great for general use, but having dry, disposable wipes like kimwipes prove indispensable. Salt spray and mist abounds at the beach and can ruin a shoot. You may not even realize it at the time, but every crashing wave and the slightest of breeze can cover your filter or lens with a thousands tiny droplets. Be vigilant and clean your optics often. Having fresh water on hand with a microfiber cloth can help if you camera and/or lens gets a salty splash. While a rain fly might seem like a good idea in keeping your gear protected, I find them to be too cumbersome and inhibit the ability to easily access my camera’s controls.
Footwear: I often use neoprene boots like the kind surfers and divers wear. They insulate from cold water, give better than average traction, and dry quickly. They are neoprene and can get stinky, so keeping them clean is the main concern. Alternatives for temperate and colder environments include waist and chest high waders, allowing you to shoot comfortably with minimal chance of flooding. Water sandals with a light polypropylene sock can also work to transition from sand to tougher surfaces like reefs and rocks. Going barefoot is always an option on soft sand when the water is warm…my favorite type of seascape conditions! While rubber gumboots may seem like a good idea, they are clunky, aren’t very nimble on rocky terrain, and flood easily.
Tip: Rogue waves can carry away unattended gear bags. Trust me, I know! My tripod and ballhead were set aside while I was shooting handheld at Cape Disappointment (an appropriate name). Storm waves carried it away, never to be seen again. So, be sure to either wear your camera equipment or have it “high and dry”.
Seascapes can be created with any shutter speed and they will have a drastically different look and feel based on whether you freeze, blur, or eliminate motion. During the golden hour around sunrise and sunset, light is generally too limited to capture fast action which often requires shutter speeds of 1/500 or more. You can still capture specific moments in time, but they will simply have some level of blur. This is one of my favorite types of seascape looks. With any motion, the faster the movement, the faster the shutter speed you can use and still render blur. If movement is slow, a relatively slower shutter speed may be required to show a similar level of blur. It’s all relative! Over the years, I’ve found that average surf, not calm but not a storm either, often requires 1/2 second to 1/5 second to show motion like the two images above. Experimenting is key and timing will also contribute to the final look and feel. Calm days with gentle waves will require longer shutter speeds to get streaks in the water. I often find 1/2 second up to 2 seconds works well. Surf’s up? Try something faster between 1/5 second and 1/15 second. Timing is essential, too. Tip: Pay attention to how waves flow past your foreground. Set your camera to continuous burst mode and fire a few frames on both the incoming and outgoing waves.
The other style of seascape I enjoy creating involves long exposures with shutter speeds of at least 15 seconds and often a minute or more. As with shorter shutter speeds, experimenting will help determine the look and feel of a scene. Light levels must be quite low to work within this range of shutter speeds, either naturally (before sunrise or after sunset) or with the use of neutral density filters. With filters, I find using a 5-6 stop ND at sunrise or sunset can put me into that sweet spot for longer shutter speeds. During the middle of the day, a 10-15 stop ND works best.
Some advice on composition: visualizing how the ocean will look as it interacts with static subjects is helpful. Long shutter speeds all the camera to “see” the average of all this movement. Watch and observe how waves crash and wash over craggy details. It is these “transition zones” which create a misty mood and produce imagery with a strong contrast between sharp and smooth elements. Contrast between light and dark objects, or tonal contrast, also works well in these scenarios. Tip: crashing waves are preferred to improve tonal contrast; they create more white water. If the ocean is calm, it will have a darker tone due to the lack of white water. While still smooth, the contrast will be lower.
Leading lines draw your viewer’s eye from point A to point B helping to create a visual path through the image. With seascapes, one if often presented with random rocky shores as well as wide open beaches so finding leading lines can be challenging. Thankfully, waves are your best friend! They create white water which flows in fairly predictable places and patterns. On incoming waves, you may be able to capture fanning patterns or streaking lines as water flows over a rocky shelf. And as water flows out to sea, it creates white streaks even on a sandy beach. Use timing and continuous shooting to fire off a few frames as waves approach and a few more as they recede. Tip: Timing of waves is key to increasing your keeper rate. Think of waves crashing on a beach behaving the same way as a ball thrown straight up in the air. At first, they accelerate before slowing down and coming to a brief momentary rest. Then they start to accelerate again in the opposite direction. This incoming and outgoing acceleration is when the best movement happens. In between, when the water is at rest, their is little movement and therefore is not the best time to capture frames.
Dramatic light and cloud filled skies aren’t always on the menu, but thankfully coastal environments offer options to explore other styles of imagery. Interesting rock formations, colorful tide pools, or even shapes in the sand are perfect subjects to zone in on. Slow down and look around for these small scenes to present themselves. If the waves are nice and even, try your hand at some ICM (Intentional Camera Movement). Experiment with different shutter speeds, but you can try choosing one between 1/2 and 1/10 second while using a medium telephoto focal length. Using a tripod can help, but I find more freedom hand holding these types of images. Set your camera to continuous burst mode and keep your elbows tucked in tight while looking through the viewfinder. Smoothly rotate at the waist trying your best to keep the panning motion even, and start the pan before firing your first frame. This helps get the lateral panning movement started smoothly. Don’t be discouraged by the low percentage of keepers with this style of photography. Successful images are rare. Once you get the hang of it, try incorporating birds or other objects besides just waves.