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A Beginners Guide to Seascape Photography

A somewhat abstract seascape scene, the movement of the water makes the image dramatic

A somewhat abstract seascape scene, the movement of the water makes the image dramatic

Seascapes are often seen as a subset of landscape photography. This is true, but I feel that seascapes have their own specific techniques that need to be thought about when you are shooting a scene. The typical sea scene could be a warm sandy beach, blue sky and some palm trees. That is generally the kind of image I try and avoid. For something more dramatic, you may want to try to shoot at sunset and try and capture something unique, rather than a typical postcard shot. When you get it right, your seascape scene should be breathtaking and exciting to look at. It should show the scene, but not look like the kind of shot that anyone could have shot. That means, you may have to scout for some unique or unusual vantage points along the coast.

Safety first please

Seascape photography can be dangerous. Very often you will be hiking over slippery and sharp rocks, the tide may be rising and the waves might be coming in closer and closer. Always be aware of your surroundings and be careful to observe what is happening around you. On more than one occasion, I have been trapped on a rocky outcrop with nothing but wild sea around me. Getting back onto dry land was a relief and an ordeal on those occasions. I have also been completely soaked by freak waves at times and almost lost my camera into the water more than once. So yes, seascape photography can be a little dangerous, but the results are well worth it. The first rule is always, safety first. If possible, go out with a fellow photographer so that there are two of you to help each other if necessary. So, with that disclaimer out of the way, here are some tips on how to set up to get some great seascape images.

Location considerations:

1. Tide

If you don’t know the tidal movements or the tidal range, it’s a good idea to find out. Most coastal towns will have a tide table or chart available, this is important information to know before you go out on your shoot. You can also simply Google “tide table for (city or town)” and all the tide times and measurements should be there. This is important because you may scout a location at low tide, only to return at high tide and find that the rock you were planning to stand on is now submerged under water. Also, the tide can affect the water movement and wave size. If it is high tide, there may not be as much water movement as you would like. It is also a good idea to chat with local photographers or fishermen to find out how the tide is moving.

The incoming tide trapped me on this rocky outcrop

The incoming tide trapped me on this rocky outcrop

2. Weather

Most coastal areas can be unpredictable from a weather perspective. A storm can roll in pretty quickly over a coastal town. Be sure to check the weather forecast for three or four hours before you plan to shoot, and an hour or two after you plan to end your shoot. Sometimes the weather and particularly the wind, can cause the conditions to become difficult to shoot in. One of my favourite apps on my iPhone is Accuweather. I use it often when I am in a location that I am unfamiliar with. It is very easy to use and has been about 90% accurate whenever I have used it.

3. Location

You need to decide where you want to shoot. Do you want to shoot from the beach, the rocks, or the elevated cliff? This will determine what kind of personal gear you will need to take with you (hiking boots, long pants, etc.) It is also a good idea to pack an extra sweater or rain jacket as it could become wet or cold very quickly. Be sure to look at where the sun will be setting. There is nothing more frustrating than being in the shadow of a headland with 80% of your scene in shade as the sun goes down. Remember to look out for channels where the sea water may run up into. These channels and gullies along a rocky coastline can be very dangerous as the water may recede when the tide is out, but as the tide comes in, they may be impossible to cross. If you cross the gulley in low tide and try to return at high tide, you may be trapped as the water could be too deep to cross over.

Image: Magnificent light and moving water makes for a great image

Magnificent light and moving water makes for a great image

4. Lighting

It is easy to forget your headlamp or flashlight when you are walking along the beach in the warm sunlight. You may be at your location until way after dark and when you decide to return, you will realize that it is pitch dark and the path back has changed because the tide has come in. Don’t forget to carry your headlamp or flashlight with you whenever you do any kind of landscape photography, but especially when you do seascape photography. I have been lost on a rocky coastal outcrop a few times and it is more than a little scary. Fortunately, I always carry my headlamp in my camera bag, no matter what, so that has helped me find my way back to the road or my car.

Photography considerations:

1. Shutter speed

Depending on the seascape scene you are shooting, you will have two choices. You can freeze the movement of the waves or you can blur the movement of the water. If you are shooting a seascape scene that includes rocks in the foreground and the water rolling over the rocks, then you may want to blur the water. This will give the water that soft silky effect and the images will look somewhat surreal. To slow things down even further you could use a neutral density filter to make the exposure time even longer. This will have the effect of really softening the water to the point that it may look misty. Depending on what your vision is for the shot, you need to decide how soft you want the water to be. To freeze the action of the water, you will need to be shooting at 1/1000th or faster. I find that freezing the action of the water is not always as dramatic as softening it. Being able to freeze the action is useful if you are shooting surfing or some other water sport.

2. Aperture

As with landscape photography, you will want to have everything from the foreground to the background in focus. That means you will need to be using an aperture of f/8 or smaller. This will also allow you to slow the shutter speed down, and get some soft water in your scene. Make sure that you focus your camera once you have decided on your scene and composition, then switch your camera to manual focus. That way, when the light begins to fade, your lens won’t be hunting to find a focus point.

Look for reflections in a seascape scene

Look for reflections in a seascape scene

3. Colour or black and white

Seascapes can work very well in black and white. You should shoot your images in colour and convert them afterwards in Photoshop or Lightroom. Both of these image editing suites have great black and white conversion tools and you will be able to make numerous adjustments to your image afterwards. If you shoot in black and white however, you can never get the colour back into the scene. You may try the image in black and white and realize it works better in colour, so be sure to keep shooting in colour.

4. Tripod

You will need a tripod to shoot seascapes effectively. You may be shooting after the sun has set and there is no way you could hold your camera still to get a great shot. Sharpness is key in a good seascape. Portions of your image will be blurred (water) but other parts of the image should be tack sharp (rocks, clouds, etc.) So be sure that everything is very sharp by using a tripod and a cable release if possible. Be aware if you set your tripod up on the sandy shoreline. As the sea comes in, it may cause your tripod to move or sink as the sand may not be firm enough to keep your tripod perfectly still. Always check your image afterwards to be sure that you have the rocks and clouds sharp.

A tripod will be necessary in low light conditions

A tripod is necessary in low light conditions

Subject matter

There are no shortage of scenes to shoot in a seascape scene. Some of the following are ideas to look out for on any beach:

  • Lighthouses – Always fun to shoot and if possible, shoot them in the early evening when the light first comes on.
  • Rocky outcrops – Moving water and rocky beaches make for great seascape images.
  • Reflections – if the tide is moving out on a flat beach, you can capture some amazing reflections of the sky on the shiny beach sand.
  • Colour of light – If you expose properly you can have a warm sky and the blue water in one image. This makes for a beautiful scene.
  • Storms – This is a little more tricky, but sometimes shooting a raging storm over the sea can make a fantastic shot.

If you live near the sea or are planning to visit the seaside, then try your hand at this genre of photography. The results can be very satisfying and you will be astounded how easy it is to produce consistently good results, once you know how. The important thing is to be sure that you are safe and aware of your surroundings at all times. Don’t be afraid to venture out to try this type of photography, it is a lot of fun and it is worth it for sure.

Good foreground interest will anchor the scene

Good foreground interest will anchor the scene

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Barry J Brady
Barry J Brady

is a Fine Art Landscape and commercial photographer based in Vancouver, BC. He is also an addicted traveller and loves travelling to far off places and capturing their essence. Barry is an entertaining and experienced photography teacher and public speaker. He loves nothing more than being behind his camera or showing other photographers how to get the most out of their camera. To see more of his work, visit his site here. You can also join Barry on a photography workshop in Canada. Click here to find out more.

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