Tips for Creating Dramatic Seascape Images

Seascapes has always fascinated me!.I do not have a preferred vision for seascapes; I love both minimalistic and simple versions, as well as those highly dramatic ones full of action and movement. Here, I will share some of my tips on creating the latter.

Safety

Primarily, you have to stay safe around the sea. At many places I photograph, tall and powerful waves come with the package. Before even approaching, you should read the sea first. For dramatic seascapes, you often want to get close to the sea, which puts you in potential danger! Waves comes in waves, which means you often get 5-7 big waves followed by 5-7 small waves. Depending on where you are, the conditions and the patterns might be different. It is important to be able to foresee these patterns, as being close to the sea the waves can push you into razor sharp rocks, drag you out, or push something towards you. Icebergs or huge tree trunks can weigh several tons; you do not want to stand in the way of one of those.

Weather

The weather obviously plays a huge role. I prefer either golden hour light or stormy weather to get the most dramatic conditions. Shooting into the sun or having it to either side of your scene close to the horizon can get the waves and droplets lit up from behind, creating a beautiful and dramatic effect. This effect is strongly enhanced if the background is dark, such as a rock or cliff.

During midday, you can still get some interesting photos, although I usually stay away from that kind of light. If, however, you have a texture-rich, cloud-covered sky, this can add a lot of mood and drama to your photos. It also helps lowering the amount of ambient light and contrast in the scene.

Settings

The shutter speed is the exposure factor that has the largest influence on your photo. I personally prefer the look of short long exposures. I normally photograph with a shutter speed between 1/3 of a second all the way up to 2 seconds. Smoothing out the water too much creates a calm effect, which is something I do not want making dramatic photos. I want the waves to look like water and I want the texture of the breaking waves to support that look. When it comes to the aperture and ISO, I do what I can to get the most optimal settings: as low an ISO as possible and an aperture as close to the sweet spot of the lens as possible, without sacrificing focus, usually between f/8 and f/16. I’ll often have to attach a 6-stop or 3-stop filter to get the desired settings.

Continuous fast shooting is an important setting. It is very hard to time your photo correctly and get the shot of the wave exactly when you want it. I often shoot in the fastest continuous shooting mode my camera provides. I get many photos, but among the many useless photos, chances are I caught the optimal moment.

Depending on the scene, there will be a huge difference in the look when you time your shot. I normally teach people to photograph the waves when they retreat to get those long beautiful streaks you know from the Ice Beach in Iceland.

For the dramatic photos, however, I would suggest playing around with incoming waves. When the waves break or clash towards some rocks, the splashing water often creates some beautiful patterns and streaks.

Composition

The compositional rules for seascapes are the same as with all other kinds of image-making. A strong focal point, leading lines and visual flow, depth, balance, clean edges, etc. are all tools you can use to create a great photo. If you are in doubt about composition, check out this article.

What to Bring?

  • A camera that can tolerate the environment. There is a huge risk of getting saltwater on your camera. As salt and electronics do not go well together, make sure to use a camera advertised as weather-sealed.
  • Bring microfiber cloths and paper napkins to dry off the camera and lens. In my experience, paper napkins suck up more water than microfiber cloths. I use the cloths to remove the small paper particles the napkins leave on your lens. Be careful not to scratch the lens with the napkins. 
  • Bring a bottle of tap water or freshwater to rinse your camera if it gets splashed.
  • You will need a tripod for long exposures.
  • Bring the necessary filters to get the settings you want. A 6-stop or 3-stop filter often works great for me. Also, remember a polarizer to remove glare from wet stones.
  • Some people prefer a shutter-release cable as to minimize the risk of shaking the camera. This is especially handy if your tripod is located on a sandy beach.

In the video above, you can see how I work with seascapes at one of my favorite photography locations in Iceland.

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37 Comments

user-156929's picture

Phenomenal images! I appreciate the brevity and practical simplicity of your tips.

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Thank you very much, Sam! :)

YL Photographie's picture

Always nice video and picture Mads

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Thanks a million I'm happy you like my work :)

Marco De Maio's picture

Seascape = Love ;P

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Yes very much! I love that movement the waves can create :)

Marco De Maio's picture

It is incredible how a very normal place can become extraordinary using a simple piece of ND glass ;)

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Hehe, yes very much, I'll release a video in the future showing that :)

Jon G's picture

Great practical advice on shooting seascapes, and another fantastic Iceland video from Mads. I would add 2 tips of my own:

1) Make sure you open your tripod from the lowest (thinnest and least stable) section first when working in or close to seawater. This will help keep the leg locking mechanisms out of the saltwater and sand. If you do get saltwater and/or sand in the mechanisms of your tripod, be sure to thoroughly rinse the tripod off as quickly as possible with fresh water, and perhaps even in the shower. If you leave salt to encrust into the tiny crevices of your tripod, you'll likely never get it out, and it will jam and shorten the lifespan of your tripod as it corrodes the joints away. Finally, learn how to fully disassemble your tripod to clean and grease it should you get it really fouled in sand and salt, and expect to spend a couple of hours cleaning all the individual parts.

2) If you don't want to use paper towels to dry stuff off as Mads suggested (they can leave behind fine fibers and even scratch glass), and you want something more absorbent than a microfiber cloth, you can try Kimtech Science Wipes which are pretty absorbent and not abrasive (thanks to Nick Page for the tip!).

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Those are two very good tips Jon! :)

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Great tips and approach! :)

Michael Breitung's picture

I use the same technique, sometimes I sink the tripod 15 - 20cm in the sand ;-) You always have to be carefull to be able to retrieve it if a larger wave arrives then

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

I've left my camera and tripod so many times in the water... always a bit nervous doing that :P

Ah Mads, you continue to inspire.
I love your youtube channel. If you ever need a calm, educated mentor I would definitely check it out.
Thanks!

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Thank you very much, Scott! And you're welcome ;)

Michael Breitung's picture

I said it already when I saw Nigels video of the place, but it's really great to see that there are actually other places to shoot in the area. Nowadays one could think Iceland consists of only four or five locations and nothing in between ;-) At least when you look at 99% of the photos. This location is awesome and you captured it at its best!

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Thanks a lot, Michael! Yeah, that's very true and it feels the same for the Faroes... I don't think it's that hard to go "beyond" the known locations, but I completely understand the fascinating people have with them the first time they arrive in Iceland :)

Arun Hegden's picture

Good article. Thank you for the share. :)

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

You're most welcome, Arun! I'm happy you liked it :)

Mikkel Beiter's picture

Interesting article Mads! Thanks for the tips, I do enjoy seascapes myself! That drama you can catch is fantastic!

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

You're welcome, Mikkel! We gotta go shoot some more!

Mikkel Beiter's picture

We have to! We are obligated to do so! We have to represent our country out in the big world.. Or something :D

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Ha! Let the vikings loose! 💪😁

Aritz Atela's picture

Wise words together with inspirational shots as usual Mads. Great work my friend ;)

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Thank you, Aritz! As always much appreciated! :)

Hans Gunnar Aslaksen's picture

You really gave us the key essentials about capturing stunning seascapes :) Great article. Your images makes me want to go out and shoot!!

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

I'm so happy to hear that, Hans! Your seascapes are incredible!

Kai Hornung's picture

Great subject, Mads! And very good tips for everybody starting out with seascapes. In addition I would say it is simply great fun to shoot waves because you never exactly know what or when you are going to get the water motion or size of the wave you envision in your shot. Having this unpredictability in a shoot is something I really like and makes the end result all the more appreciable.

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Thank you, Kai! Yes I completely agree with you :)

Ciaran McGrenera's picture

Calm, constructive, and organised thoughts Mads. As always there’s a great nugget or two if information in there! Thanks.

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