Seascape photography is a very popular genre of landscape photography. Beautiful seascape images have a lot of mood and emotion. I grew up near the sea, so it is not strange I'm attracted both to the sea and seascape photography.
Not everyone is lucky to live near the sea and lovely beaches. In lack of coastal areas, the alternative is to shoot by a lake instead. You will not get the same huge waves you can experience at the sea, but still many other options.
Seascape photography - what you will learn
- What to photograph by the sea
- Planning for seascape photography
- What equipment to use
- Camera settings
- Which filters to use?
- Composition tips
- Other useful tips
What to photograph by the sea?
I have already mentioned waves. There are so many ways you can shoot the waves. I’ll cover this later in this article. Most often the coastal line is rugged, but it can also have beautiful beaches.
Photographing the waves
Waves splashing against small or big rocks on the beach. Try to use both long and short shutter speeds for different effects
Waves when they roll into the beach
The best effect is with relative long shutter speeds. You can start with shutter speeds in the range of 1/15s - 1/4s.
Waves when leaving the beach
When waves recede from the beach, the speed is slower compared to the situation above. You will need even longer shutter speed, in the range of 1 second or longer. You get the best effect if you photograph the receding waves.
For a long time I made the mistake of pressing the shutter when the wave was on its way onto the beach. That was not the right approach.
No waves move at the same speed, so it takes some trial and error to get it right.
Reflections and textures in the wet sand
You have a lot of possibilities with reflections, like including the sun or the sky/clouds. This a challenging light condition. The camera light meter can be tricked to underexpose the photos similar to when photographing in snow. Use on or two stops positive exposure compensation if needed or shoot in manual mode.
Planning for seascape photography
Finding the best time to shoot is important in seascape photography. Some of the preparations are to check tide forecast. Some locations might be better at high tide than low tide and vice versa.
You can use IOS apps like Photopills to plan when and where the sun is rising or setting. Photopills is my favorite photography app for this purpose.
The weather forecast is also important. I find days with some wind to be the best when photographing seascapes.
What equipment do you need for seascape photography?
For best results you should use a camera you can set to manual focus and exposure modes.
Wide angle lens is an obvious choice. You want to cover a wide area of the beach. Also, the wide angle lens is the best option for composing images with foreground, middle-ground, and background.
A remote shutter release is also nice to have. When you photograph waves crashing into rocks, you need to be able to release the shutter exactly at the right time. It is possible to use the shutter release button as usual, but you risk introducing camera movement. The self-timer is not a good idea for this purpose as you cannot plan when the waves are rolling in.
Neutral Density filters and Gradient Neutral density filter are useful when you photograph seascapes. The light can be very intense with high contrast between light and shadows. If you include the sun in the shot, you’ll need an ND grad filter. For the longest shutter speeds when the light is strong a solid ND filter is a must.
One piece of gear I tend to forget is a cloth to clean the lens. Photographing near the sea and you will be guaranteed to get sea spray on your lens front element. Water drops are difficult to clone away when post-processing. Cleaning salt water with a dry cloth might not work so well. You will end up with a lot of smear. Bring a little bottle with cleaning liquid or simply clean water and use this if the lens gets too messy.
You need a pair of solid rubber boots. Even better is waders.
If you stay till after dark, you need to bring a torch.
- For best control, set your camera to manual exposure and focus mode.
- Most of the time seascape photography are about long exposure, so Shutter priority (S or Tv) is the camera mode to use.
- You don’t have to use very long shutter speeds to blur waves but long enough not to handheld the camera
- The less wind and calm the sea is the longer shutter speed you need.
- Don’t miss shorter shutter speeds as well to freeze the water and waves splashing onto the rocks. Freezing the movement can also create nice effects.
To give you an idea of which shutter speeds you need these are my guidelines:
- If you want to freeze the waves: 1/125s and faster
- To create blurry waves and moving streaks of waves on the beach: 1/15s - 1s
- If you want the silky looking water: 5s and longer
- For longer that 30-second exposure you set the camera in Bulb mode (B) and preferably use a cable or remote shutter release.
ND Grad filter
Getting the exposure correct is the most challenging with seascape photography. Light and reflections can be strong and with high contrast. If you include the sky in the scene and the beach consist of dark rocks, you most likely have to use a Neutral Density Gradient filter.
An alternative is to shoot multiple exposures and blend the images using Photoshop or a dedicated HDR (High Dynamic Range) software. But in situations with moving waves, the ND Grad filter is the best option.
In bright light and the sun in the scene you have to use a Neutral Density (ND) filter in front of the lens. As you need shutter speeds at 1/15s or longer to blur the waves, you need to reduce the amount of light hitting the camera sensor.
ND filters come in a range from 1-stop to 10-stops. One of the challenges in using dark filters in front of the lens is the focusing. When you use the darkest ND filters you have to adjust the focus before you add the filters.
Set the camera to manual focus mode. Compose the scene, focus manually and put on the filter.
- For interesting compositions try to include a foreground, middle ground and background in your photo. Rocks in different sizes are great foreground objects
- Don't forget to keep the horizon leveled.
- Capture the streams of water on the sand. The streams create beautiful leading lines in the composition.
Other tips for seascape photography
The tripod challenge
Setting up the tripod on a beach and in particular sandy beaches is a challenge. As the water flows onto the beach, the tripod legs tend to dig into the sand and become unstable and out of position. Try to find something solid like a big rock or a stone to set up you tripod.
On some tripod brands, it is possible to buy tripod “shoes” intended for use in soft snow and sand.
As I have mentioned the best days for seascape photography is windy days. But the wind can also be a potential problem. You need a sturdy tripod. One way to protect the camera from the wind is to place yourself between the wind and the camera.
Many photographers have a camera strap attached to the camera. A camera strap flapping in the wind can create camera shake and cause unintended blurry photos. You should wrap the strap the best you can around the tripod to minimize the problem.
I have removed the strap from my camera because I mostly shoot from a tripod.
After a shoot on the beach, you will for sure have both salt water and sand on your tripod. It is important to clean away this when you are back home.
Watch your steps
Be careful where you walk. Footsteps might destroy your composition. Footsteps in the sand are not so much of a problem if the waves are flooding the beach. In such a case the footsteps are washed out pretty quick
Look out for litter on the beach so you don’t include unwanted objects in your composition. It is faster to take a few seconds to remove litter rather than spending time cloning this away when you post-process your images.
Keep your gear dry
At sea, there is always sea-spray. Keep the lens cap on between the shots and when you move around.
The sea can be dangerous so take care. If you walk on cliffs, they can be very slippery, and you never know when a big wave hits. I recommend you to go with someone when photographing seascapes on dangerous location.
When you arrive at the place, take a few minutes only watching the waves. Scout the area. Not only will you get an idea of how the waves hit land but you will also find good spots to set up your tripod.
If you photograph when the tide is low you must keep your eyes open. Once I was standing on a solid rock a bit out on the beach, and I forgot to watch the incoming tide. Suddenly I was trapped on the rock. It was only one thing to do - jump into the water and wade back on dry land. This particular situation was not anything dangerous, but I got (very) wet feet's.
To avoid this to happen it is a good idea to photograph by the sea at high tide and work your way out as the tide moves out.