Top 10 Features to Bring Your Seascape Photos to Life

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Seascapes are awesome opportunities for photography. In fact, it will probably be your first impulse upon seeing the ocean to pull out your camera (or wish you had it with you). It takes some skill, however, to turn a beautiful coastal scene into something more than a snapshot. If you are not careful, your coastal photo can be a boring picture of sand and water.

One of the keys to success for coastal photography is finding something interesting along the coastline to put in your picture. It would be great if there was an abandoned boat every 100 meters, but there isn’t. And we don’t all live near Big Sur or the Cliffs of Moher. Therefore, you often have to hunt for features to make your seascapes come alive. When you find such a feature, look at it from different angles, often with your camera to your face (you’ll be surprised at how different things sometimes look through the viewfinder or through the LCD). 

To get you started, here are some suggestions of coastal features to look for:

1. Old piers and docks

Abandoned piers and docks solve a huge problem with most coastal photography in that they add a center of interest to your photos. Many times you have a beautiful background created by the coastal scenery, but nothing else. You want an actual subject for your photo, the pier gives you that.

Top Coastal Formations - Pier

Abandoned piers and docks also provide a great opportunity for you to blur out the water, which creates a strong contrast between the blurred water and the sharp pier. To do this, make sure you have a 10-stop neutral density filter. Using this filter will reduce the amount of light allowed into your camera, and cause the camera to use a much longer shutter speed than it would otherwise. That long shutter speed blurs (or smooths) the water.

2. Lighthouses

A less common feature, but one that you should always look for, is a lighthouse. These add a great subject to an otherwise uninteresting scene.

Obviously, you won’t find lighthouses everywhere, but you’d be surprised how many there are if you look for them. In the U.S., the state of Maine alone has over 60 lighthouses, California has about 30. You can check to see if there is a lighthouse near your destination by using the map created by the Lighthouse Friends.

Seascape features example -  Portland Head Light

Oftentimes access to lighthouses is restricted to certain hours because they are on public property. This can be an issue if you want to shoot before sunrise or after sunset, as most of us do. Be sure to check the access and/or opening times.

3. Sunrise and sunset

Whereas your location may not have something like an abandoned pier or a lighthouse, no matter where you are there will always be a sunrise and sunset. You may not get the most dramatic of sunrises or sunsets on the day you are out shooting, but you will always have one. If you are not doing this already, it is the number one improvement you can make to your photographs, and it costs nothing.

If you don’t ordinarily shoot into the sun, do so on occasion to add drama and interest. You can also use the sun as a center of interest.

Top Coastal Formations - Sunset at Pigeon Point

Be sure to arrive well before sunrise or hang around after sunset. The skies are often more dramatic during these times than during the actual sunrise or sunset itself.

4. Interesting rock formations

Remember that in coastal photography, the top half of your picture is often a given; it will be the water and sky. In those cases, the only variable is the foreground. Therefore, you should spend a lot of time looking down to get the best foreground possible.

When you do that, one thing to look for – which is available no matter your location – is interesting rocks, or rock formations. Spend a lot of time looking for them, and as you do so, look through your camera frequently. The camera sees things differently than you.

Seascape features example -  Green rocks at Acadia

To make the rocks stand out, get let low to the ground and get right behind them. This is sometimes inconvenient or uncomfortable, but it is worth it. Be sure to use a wide angle lens to capture the whole scene.

5. Patterns in the water

Sometimes the water itself is enough to create an interesting photo. For this to be the case, you will need to capture the pattern of the waves or the currents in the water.

top Coastal Formations - Ocean at Night

Use a slow shutter speed to capture the patterns of the waves and currents. At night, your shutter speed might naturally be slow enough to do this because of the low-light environment. During the day, however, you will need a 10-stop neutral density filter to use a slow enough shutter speed.

6. Animals

Seacoasts are home to a vast array of wildlife. In some places, livestock are allowed to roam freely along coastal regions. If nothing else, you can count on birds being present at the coast. Use one of these animals as a center of interest for your photo when you capture the scene.

Seascape example - Valencia Island with Sheep

You will need to use a reasonably fast shutter speed to capture the animal and make it sharp. If you like to shoot from a tripod and use a neutral density filter when capturing coastlines, you will have to change things up. Creating a blur to the water will also blur the animal, which will ruin the shot.

7. Powerful waves

On some days, the waves are enough to create a nice photo. In particular, after a storm or high winds, the waves may come crashing in and give you something interesting to work with.

Top Coastal Formations - Crashing Waves

Use a fast shutter speed (at least 1/250th) to capture the power of the waves. If you use a slower shutter speed it will blur the wave, which will create a sense of movement, but not show the power of the wave. This will probably not be a problem most days, but if you are working in low light you will need to increase your ISO, or open up your aperture a bit to get the shutter speed fast enough.

8. People (for a sense of scale)

You can have the most dramatic scenery in the world in your picture, but if your viewer cannot instantly determine the scale of the scene, it might be lost. Nothing solves this problem more than having a person in your picture. We all know how big people are, and seeing a person in the picture instantly helps put the size and scale of the scenery in perspective.

Seascape features example -  Photographer at Davenport cliffs

Next time, rather than cloning out that person who wandered into your picture, leave them in. Better yet, look for opportunities to include a person in your scene to add a sense of scale.

9. Reflective water

If you are shooting up or down the coastline (i.e. perpendicular to it), land features will sometimes reflect on the water or wet sand. These reflections can make a nice foreground for your picture. Capturing reflections usually requires that:

  1. You are photographing just before sunrise or after sunset
  2. You use a long exposure, which will blur the water and make the reflection show up

Seascape features example -  Reflections at Pfeiffer beach

It need not be a perfect reflection (it rarely will be, since the water is moving so much), but just something that captures the colors and tones in general. You will use these to create a foreground that is more interesting than just a bunch of sand. Slow down your shutter speed and see what develops.

10. Clouds

Another item found along the coast that does not depend on your location or geography is clouds. More often than not, the clouds will give you something to work with. Coastal regions – being a transition between land and sea – often develop the most interesting clouds anywhere, and conditions can change rapidly.

Seascape features example -  Davenport clouds

If you are focusing on the clouds as the subject of your picture, make sure that the top two-thirds (2/3) of your picture (at least) is above the horizon line. Be sure to use your polarizing filter if you are shooting near midday.

Next steps

There is nothing to do now but get out there and photograph the coast. Start with the features in this article, then go find your own. There is no end to the interesting things you can find along the coast. If you have a favorite that I didn’t list, be sure to leave it in 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.

  • Alan Elwell

    How about watercraft?

  • Yes, good call.

  • Marsha

    After reading your list of the 10 features fora seascape shot, I realized that I have been doing just that. It is hard, though, for #8, since I am usually shooting from a distance and often up high, but I will pay more attention to that measurement (get a person in it for perspective). As an amateur, I am pleased that I am doing everything right by taking the ‘right photos’ for seascapes. Thanks for the list.

  • Sure. Yeah, having a person in your shot is definitely hit or miss. Keep in mind there are no right subjects – I’m just trying to give some good ideas here. Glad the list is helpful.

  • Arnold Rubinstein

    How about these rocks?

  • Leslie Hoerwinkle

    Awesome shots, dude.

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