A Guide to Different Approaches to Photographing Seascapes

A Guide to Different Approaches to Photographing Seascapes

Have you experienced photographing the wonders of the edges of land? Here is a guide to different approaches to seascapes and how to capture them.

Seascapes, the interaction and the overlap of land and sea, is one of the busiest and most dynamic landscape photography scenarios. These locations that deal with almost all foreseeable environmental factors offer not just a diverse set of photographic possibilities but most of the time also guarantee an exhilarating shooting experience. Seascapes are busy because of the rapidly changing environment from the unobstructed coastal winds, the crashing of waves, the rugged edges of the land, and the almost unpredictable weather. Because of that, there are so many ways to envision and photograph seascapes depending on the weather, the tide, the time of day, and your own artistic intent. 

Essential and Convenient Tools for Photographing Seascapes

Like any other form of landscape photography, seascapes can be captured with any camera. However, the availability of more specialized gear with manual controls would of course allow for more creative freedom and flexibility in dealing with the changing environment. For best results, shooting with a high resolution camera with interchangeable lenses is ideal. Realistically, of course, your creativity and ability to adapt to the situation have more significant weight in the outcome. The choice of lenses depends on your intended perspective as well as the desired outcome. 

Shooting coastal scenes often means dealing with a lot of rough texture. This comes from the abundance of rocks, sand, and even the texture of the water even with the smallest of waves. The reason why shooting in slow shutter ( 0.5 to 4 seconds) or long exposure comes in handy in these situations is because being able to let motion take place during the exposure means being able to render softer and smoother textures that will provide better contrast and coherence in the frame. Having a really busy frame with overwhelming textures will most likely make it overwhelming to the viewers which is why being able to achieve balance in texture is beneficial.

To be able to do this with bright daylight, one would need neutral density filters. A 3 or 6 stop ND filter can help you slow down your exposure time to a few seconds to achieve brushed-like textures in the water that can also help give the shot a visual flow. On the other hand, 10, 15, or even 20-stop ND filters can help smoothen the surface to a more refined negative space to complement the rough textures of the foreground. This is of course done with a stable and sturdy tripod and possibly in combination with graduated neutral density filters and/or circular polarizers

Other tools for a convenient shooting experience include a remote shutter release or trigger that will help avoid unwanted camera shake especially when trying to capture specific parts of the motion of the waves. When in extreme locations or shooting very close to the crashing waves, a reliable rain cover gives a crucial layer of protection for your gear. 

Time of Day 

The time of the day during which you choose to shoot greatly affects a lot of the visual factors in your shot. The quality of light will dictate how much detail is seen and how much are buried in shadows. The position of the sun and the condition of the clouds dictate how harsh the light is, how much detail and color there will be in the sky, and how much glare there will be in the water. At the same time, the intensity of the light will also set a limitation to how much you can extend your exposure with ND filters, especially with very turbulent waters. 

Shooting during the golden hour results in vibrant colors that give off a pleasant harmonious mood in the scene. The blue sky provides stunning contrast to the clouds that are hit by the setting or rising sun’s warm light. Shooting during brighter hours of the day would provide relatively harsher light, less vibrant colors, and stronger shadows. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing especially if the goal is to achieve a minimalist treatment of the image. Of course, most coastal scenes are spared from light pollution from the city so shooting at night in clear weather would be a good time to photograph seascapes with the night sky. 

Tidal Conditions

This location would have had more dynamic foreground elements to offer during low tide

The conditions of how high or low the tide greatly affects your location. This is even more significant when shooting sea stacks or aiming to use foreground elements that may be hidden when the tide is high. When aiming to execute dynamic compositions with abundant foreground elements using a wide-angle lens, the tide level makes or breaks the execution.  

Focal Length

Shot at 24mm

Another significant factor in the outcomes of shooting seascapes is your choice of focal length. A wide-angle lens would show a bigger chunk of the location but at the same time emphasize foreground elements when shot from a significantly lower angle. When shot from an angle that is immersed into the scene, using a wide-angle lens can create highly dynamic images where both the solid foreground elements and the motion of the waves interact and overlap to illustrate the rugged environment. 

On the other hand, the use of longer focal lengths allows you to isolate certain segments of the location and emphasize patterns created by juxtaposition and compression of different layers of space. By zooming into more distant parts of the environment whether on the shore, out in the water, or on the other side of a cove, you can find and isolate intimate interactions of the land and the see that would otherwise be too small and distant to be witnessed. With the use of the right exposure techniques, one can be able to illustrate the environment alive and portray the location in different ways.

a half-second exposure capturing crashing waves

A quick exposure can freeze a scene too fast to be experienced, a short but slow exposure can illustrate flow and turbulence of the sea, and an exposure long enough to refine and smoothen even the most troubled waters can be used to illustrate serenity by creating negative space. 

Photographing seascapes can be a great way to master many different approaches applicable in other forms of landscape photography. Each location offers a unique characteristic look that definitely showcases the diversity of nature in different parts of the world. 

Nicco Valenzuela's picture

Nicco Valenzuela is a photographer from Quezon City, Philippines. Nicco shoots skyscrapers and cityscapes professionally as an architectural photographer and Landscape and travel photographs as a hobby.

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1 Comment

vantage point
looking in from the sea (or from something jutting out) - or looking out towards a distant horizon

do you want to convey calm or turmoil