7 Tips to Help Improve Your Seascape Photos by Controlling the Waves

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When photographing outdoors, you generally take the world as you find it, and you have very little control over the elements. You cannot control the weather. The terrain is a given. You certainly cannot control the skies or the clouds.

But when photographing seascapes there is one thing you can control, and that is the waves. At least, you can control the appearance of the waves. This is a fundamental difference between landscapes and seascapes.

Picture1 Pier

In landscapes you have generally static ground and foreground elements, while in seascapes you are dealing with a fluid substance that is in constant motion. If you just treat a seascape as a landscape, you will get an ordinary photo, but with some attention to the waves you can get extraordinary pictures.

You can actually control the appearance of the waves in order to add just the right mood and interesting effects to your photos. It is actually very simple to do; it’s all about controlling your shutter speed. In general, the slower the shutter speed, the more calm and serene the water will appear, while a very fast shutter speed implies power and action.

In this article, I will walk you through some shutter speed ranges that you might try in your own seascape photography next time you are at the coast. So here are some tips to help you take better seascape photos:

#1 Minimal Gear Needed

To photograph moving water successfully at various speeds, you will not need much in the way of extra gear. Other than a camera, a tripod, and perhaps a remote shutter release, the only necessity is a neutral density filter.

It is best to have a few different strengths of neutral density filters. A 10-stop filter is a must, and from there I recommend adding a 3-stop and a 6-stop filter. In a pinch, remember that polarizing filters typically reduce the amount of light reaching the camera by two stops, so you can use a polarizer as well.

Picture2 AcadiaRocks

#2 Controlling Shutter Speed

Coastal pictures are all about controlling the shutter speed, and you will usually find yourself trying to slow down the shutter speed. If you are shooting in one of the automatic modes, this is a good opportunity for you to step up Manual (M) mode. Just set the shutter speed where you want it, then if you can get the proper exposure by changing the aperture settings, great. But if not, use your neutral density filter to cut down on amount of light entering the camera.

This is also a rare instance where you might consider Shutter Priority (Tv or S) mode. Once you set the shutter speed, the camera will set the aperture for you. Of course, you could also use Aperture Priority (Av) mode and set the aperture with an eye toward where the camera is setting the shutter speed.

When you get to the coast, take a few test shots, Keep an eye on the histogram to make sure your exposure settings work for the mood you are trying to create.

Picture3 SchoodicSunset

#3 Creating Flat Seas with Extremely Long Shutter Speeds (at least 10 seconds)

Most of my favorite seascapes were taken at shutter speeds of 10 seconds or more (sometimes a lot more). Under calm conditions this adds a sense of serenity to the seascape. Under other conditions the slow shutter speed can add some drama to the scene.

Picture4 DavenportCliffs

To accomplish this effect, you are probably going to need to use the 10-stop neutral density filter. If you are set up for a proper exposure before you put the filter on the lens, you will need to add 10 full stops of light to get the proper exposure once the lens is on the camera. If your camera is set up to adjust in 1/3-stop increments, that will mean 30 clicks (of your dial) of additional light.

This filter is so powerful that it leads to some challenges. You are going to need to focus and set your exposure before you put the filter on the camera. Once you put the filter on, you will not be able to see anything or focus. A great process for these long exposures is this article: Step-by-step Guide to Long Exposure Photography

In addition, keep in mind that the exposure will be quite long and the camera will need to be very stable. If you are on sand or other unstable surface, be sure to jam the legs deep into the sand to make it as stable as possible. If you are near the water, let a wave or two touch the tripod’s feet before shooting because the first wave will shift the tripod a little bit.

Picture5 PortlandHeadLight

#4 Ocean Trails: Long shutter speeds (2-8 seconds)

Another great way to capture the sea is with a long shutter speed of at least a few seconds, but not so long as to blur everything out. The advantage of the speed is that it gives the viewer an idea of the rhythm, or currents, of the ocean. This range of shutter speed will often show trails in the ocean and give a general sense of the location of the waves.

Picture6 DavenportSurf

To capture this look, the shutter speed will ordinarily be between two seconds and eight seconds. That also means a neutral density filter, but often not the 10-stop filter. If you have a 3-stop or 6-stop density filter, those usually work best in this situation, depending on the amount of light available.

Picture7 WaveApproaches

#5 Motion and Power: Moderate shutter speeds (1/8 – 1/2 second)

Sometimes you want the viewer to see the actual wave. It still helps to have a little motion to the wave though. This will convey both a sense of motion and give a sense of the power.

To accomplish this, you will typically need to slow the shutter speed down just a little bit. You will find the best shutter speeds for this range are between 1/8th and 1/2 of a second. At these speeds, you can still clearly see the waves, but the slower shutter speed takes the jagged edges off of them.

Picture8 AcadiaWave

While you will still need a tripod at these shutter speeds (they are too slow to hand-hold your camera and get sharp images), you can often get away without using a neutral density filter by stopping down the aperture.

Picture9 DunDochathair

#6 Pure Power: Fast shutter speeds (1/500 and up)

Finally, there are days when the ocean is very active where you will want to stop the motion and really capture the power of the sea. A great way to do that is with a fast shutter speed. Speeds of 1/500 of a second and faster work best.

Picture10 CrashingWave

The good news here is that you will not need to use a neutral density filter. You can also ditch the tripod and just hand-hold your camera. These shots offer maximum flexibility and mobility.

A fun thing to do is try to time the wave at it crashes into a rock or the surf. This means a lot of trial and error, but when you hit one, the results can be spectacular.

#7 Before You Go

Remember that the sea coast is a harsh and unforgiving environment. Salt water and electronics do not mix very well, and just the spray of the ocean can lead to serious camera problems (which, unfortunately, I have experienced firsthand). In addition, the terrain can be slippery and treacherous. If you are not careful, you can also find yourself stranded on some rocks in a rising tide (learned this one the hard way too, I’m afraid).

But if you are careful about what you are doing, there is no better place to be than on the coast at dawn or sunset. So get out there and give it a try, and if you have questions or need additional information just use the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Jim Hamel shows aspiring photographers simple, practical steps for improving their photos. Check out his free photography guides and photography tutorials at Outdoor Photo Academy. The free tips, explanations, and video tutorials he provides are sure to take your photography to the next level. In addition, check out his book Getting Started with Photography.

  • Same location, 2 diffent exposure time:

    Long Exposure with ND8 (3 Stops) filter
    https://flic.kr/p/nnA347

    Very Long Exposure with ND1000 (10 stops) filter
    https://flic.kr/p/nnzRsq

  • Jim Hamel

    Very nice! Exactly. Both are excellent compositions. Totally different moods from the exact same place, don’t you think? And where is that?

  • Thanks a lot Jim.

    Actually I don’t know witch one I prefer.

    It’s on a small island called La Desirade (Guadeloupe Archipelago – French West Indies).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_D%C3%A9sirade

  • chris

    Holy cow, those photos are amazing. So cool.

  • Jim Hamel

    Thanks Chris! I’m glad you like them.

  • Nicely done! I like the long exposure one seems peaceful!

  • Thanks Darlene.

  • Bill

    Jim, great pictures. I am on the water this weekend so I will use many of these tips for myself.

  • Chris

    Great advice. I have always had trouble being satisfied with my water photos and this article helped me realize a few things I had been missing. Thanks for the tips and look forward to more from Jim.

  • Nice job, congrats!

  • Jim Hamel

    Thanks Bill. I hope these help you. Leave any good pictures you get in the comments!

  • Merci Pierre.

  • I love photographing water, waves, beaches, lakes (the list goes on…) and have played around with the 10-stop/long exposure, but am definitely going to have to try the moderate exposure. It is perfect for Lake Michigan in the fall when it starts to get a little turbulent. http://www.jessicaheckingernowakphotography.com

  • Jim Hamel

    Great shots. And excellent examples! I think you may be right about the middle one. I think that is my fav of the 3.

  • squeakyweasel

    Great article and delicious pics Jim! Do you recommend any ND filter makes and are the variable filters any good or to be avoided?

  • Daniel

    I love this kind of potos! 🙂
    ND 10 stops:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/36921275@N08/15328077206/player/

  • Jim Hamel

    Thanks! Appreciate it.

    I have used several different brands and don’t recommend one in particular. Color casts are really the only thing I would say to watch out for. What is funny is that I have had as much of an issue on that with expensive ND filters as I have on cheaper ones. So I wouldn’t start off by spending a ton of money on an ND.

    On variable filters, I love the concept, but I have never used one that worked well. Actually, the few I’ve used were completely unusable. They actually left streaks across the frame no matter how I turned them. Perhaps others have had better luck, but I would avoid them for now and wait to see if they improve.

    Appreciate the questions and hope that helps a little bit.

  • Derek

    While you don’t mention them here, a variable ND filter can be really handy in changing lighting conditions. Of course, if you’re relying on one and need to max it out, you’ll have to watch for the dreaded “X” pattern since these filters are really just two polarizers working together. My “learned from experience” kit includes a variable ND filter, along with a 3-stop and 6-stop filter. This way, if I have so much light or am using so long an exposure that I max out the VND filter, I can add the others. YMMV.

  • Me too!

    Nice photo. I’m a sucker for a good seascape, so where is that?

  • Daniel

    In the north of spain. There are a lot of beautiful places.You can see the location in the map of flikr.
    Thanks for you response and for your great article!

  • Good point, and I would have mentioned the variable ND if I knew of one that did not result in streaks or, as you say, the dreaded X pattern. Do you have one that does not, or is your “workaround” to just keep it dialed down very low so that it doesn’t show up?

  • Derek

    You got it: I use the additional, traditional ND filter to keep the Variable ND away from max. I’ve never seen one that won’t streak or “X” at some point – can someone please get to work on that? 🙂

  • Nick Pisani

    Excellent, got my “juices” going, to go out and try some things I have not done yet!

  • I’m with you. It would be awesome if these things worked well.
    And another thing – why don’t the camera manufacturers just start allowing us to reduce our ISO by up to another 10 stops? Is that hard for them, I wonder? That way we wouldn’t need these filters at all!

  • Derek

    Interesting idea about further ISO reduction. I’ve read (but not experienced) that cameras like Canon 5dmk3 (which have an ISO50 low), experience a loss in contrast vs. using ISO 100 (which is native). Maybe the issues get exacerbated as you get lower?

  • Awesome. Mission accomplished then. Have fun, and thanks!

  • It must be something like that. My camera is expandable down to ISO 50 but I haven’t tested it to see if it loses contrast versus its lowest native ISO. I may have to do that now.

  • Marc Thibault

    i i have a bridge canon sx-50..can i do this pictures like you…thanks

  • Krish

    Yes, very much you can do it. Just read the manual and go for it.

  • PRAVEEN

    The photo under #2 – Is that only with a ND filter or any PP has been done on it? The sun has not got burnt out at the same time the rocks are exposed to the right level. Great pic!

  • I’m with Krish. I just looked over that camera and there is no reason you cannot do this with that camera.

  • Thanks! Yeah, I went back and looked and there is some HDR going on there to achieve that aspect of the photo. I started with 3 exposures at 3.2 seconds, 10 seconds, and 30 seconds and used HDR Efex Pro to combine them.

  • I have a Promaster variable ND. I find it works ok if I don’t try to completely max it out and more importantly, don’t use it on a wide angle lens. This shot was taken using it on my 100-400.

  • Nice shot!

    Ok, I’m seeing a theme here. Don’t try to max out the variable ND.

  • Don

    Thanks so much for the tips. I have been experimenting with long exposures along the ocean. Here are two from this summer:

    http://don-schwartz.artistwebsites.com/featured/oregon-coast-sunset-don-schwartz.html

    http://don-schwartz.artistwebsites.com/featured/gently-over-the-rocks-don-schwartz.html

  • Mohammed Zoeb

    Can i know what i need to improve in this photo. This was taken at sunset time.

  • Marc Thibault

    thanks

  • Marc Thibault

    ok, thanks krish i will do

  • Kiran Chetri Millet

    Thanks Jim for the tips for seascapes

  • Sure. Glad you liked them.

  • I would try to add some foreground interest. Maybe get right behind some of those rock. It also looks a little grungy for my tastes, so I’d tone down that aspect of the processing. That said, it has some things going for it. It is a really nice sky. It is composed and framed well, I think. I like the sun rays you captured, and I might accentuate them a little more (by shooting with a small aperture at the time of capture, or using selective lightening and darkening after the fact). Hope that helps.

  • Johann (SA)

    Hi Jim

    I only read your article this morning and found it interesting.

    After downloading the image below I realized that it might have benefited from a higher Shutter Speed as I like to go overboard on speed when photographing water.

    Canon 60D
    f/11
    1/400 sec
    ISO 100
    135 mm
    Date: 29th May 2015

    Click on link below for the bigger picture and locality.
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/riemlander/18364920686/

  • Tracy Phelan

    1-2 seconds is my favourite for beach shots like this

  • I do love that speed. In fact, I am doing a coastal trip in a couple of months and was thinking I was going to concentrate on that speed. Nice shot!

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