Skills and Secrets of Shooting Stunning Seascapes

Skills and Secrets of Shooting Stunning Seascapes

Seascape photography is so different from shooting landscapes. Its dynamic nature makes it one of our most exciting and challenging subjects. The distinct difficulties of capturing the ocean require a different set of skills and learning some of the secrets of the sea.

Although I shoot commercially, I get great joy from just heading out with my camera and photographing the world around me. I live on the beautiful Northumberland Coast in the Northeast of England, so I get to witness the fantastic sunrises we get here. That is my favorite time of day for photography. Shooting out to sea with the sunset on my back can be awesome too, but there’s no doubt that the quality of the early morning light is the best for most seascape photography here. However, there are additional advantages of the early hours for seascapes. Firstly, the beach has been wiped clean of distracting footprints by the sea. Also, for me, that solitude is good for my soul.

I’m not always on my own on the beach, but I try to get there before the dog walkers. I once had my camera and tripod bowled over and dumped in the wet sand by an over-enthusiastic black labrador off its leash. Fortunately, my camera is properly weather-sealed, so I was confident that no damage was done, though it did ruin the morning shoot as the lens was covered in sand. It’s frustrating when a dog owner allows their dog to potentially destroy a lot of money’s worth of equipment. Nevertheless, there is always the opportunity to educate. So, the ensuing conversation went something like this:

Dog owner: Oh, I am so sorry about that.
Me: Can I take your name and address.
Dog owner: Why?
Me: Well, the camera cost £2000, and the lens over £1000, and I won’t know if they are permanently damaged until I have taken them home and cleaned the wet sand out of them. I presume you are insured.

His shocked face was a picture, but he now keeps his dog under control when he sees photographers.

This is not advisable for every camera model, but with mine, a quick rinse under the shower cleaned the sand off when I got home. I then gently dried it with a lint-free cloth and left it sitting on some silica gel bags.

When choosing the correct camera for shooting seascapes, one should consider that sand and saltwater are camera killers. Sand is highly abrasive. It’s why I use high-quality UV filters to protect my lenses. Historically, I’ve had sand scratch the front element of a pro lens. An acquaintance of mine dropped his camera and smashed a new, expensive lens on the rocks. He says it would have been saved if he had used a lens hood. My answer to the perennial argument about UV filters versus lens hoods: use both.

Additionally, salt water is five times more corrosive than fresh water. The humidity of the air at the beach is ten times more corrosive than normal humid air, and seawater also contains bacteria that produce excretions that will accelerate corrosion.

Back in 2003, I bought a Nikon Coolpix 5700 bridge camera. In 2005, I took it on a sandy beach on a windy day, and the sand seized the zoom. RIP Coolpix! More recently, I knew someone with a Canon 5D Mark IV that died soon after photographing a stormy sea. The ingress of spray into the camera through the non-sealed lens had corroded the electronics. It is one of the reasons I upgraded my camera to an OM-1, which has the IP53 rated weather sealing. It’s also why I never change a lens on the coast.

The tides roll in and out around twice a day. It takes about six hours from low to high tide; half the entire range is within the middle two hours. Spring tides occur a day or two after the full and new moons. Then, the tide comes in and goes out further during those six hours. Consequently, it flows much faster. Some of the beaches near me are rocky and potentially hazardous. Therefore, I try to time my shoots with an outgoing tide. I always keep an eye on the world around me and not just on the camera otherwise. I don’t want to get cut off by the sea. Moreover, most rocks here are not that photogenic, so I like shooting at high tide.

Similarly, I am aware of the sea state. Big crashing waves are exciting, but there are freak waves. I often stop at a memorial bench that overlooks the sea on my morning cycle ride. It was put there in memory of an experienced angler who lost his life after being swept out to sea by a big wave. Always seek local advice about sea safety. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide. It claims around 236,000 lives every year.

There are risks when shooting photos of the sea.

Waves pose a compositional problem for seascape photographers. Looking out to sea, they run across the frame, thus acting as blockers for the eye traveling into the picture. It’s the very opposite of a lead-in line. One can get around this by looking for the lines of foam that run up the breakers. Otherwise, when the sun is low in the sky, use light shining through the spray to lead the eye.

The horizontal lines of waves can act as blockers, in which case using other means of Visual Weight may be needed.

You can use an ND filter and blur the waves. To get a completely smooth sea, you need to count the time it takes for a wave to start to form until it’s completely broken. The shutter value needs to be longer than that. In bright sunlight that is hard to achieve as, even at f/8, the starting shutter will be at least 1/1000th. So, with an ND1000 (10-stop) filter, I would only gain a one-second exposure, and I may need twenty or more. Consequently, I used to stack an additional ND32 or ND64 filter, which wasn’t ideal. Now, however, I can combine My ND1000 filter with the camera’s inbuilt Live ND filters, which will give me up to an additional six stops (ND64) of light reduction without the extra glass reducing image quality.

Combining an Urth ND1000 filter with the OM-1's Live ND feature.

The sea is usually brighter than mid-grey. Plus, as I often shoot Contre Jour, that makes the scene even brighter. I need to consider exposure compensation as the camera’s meter will want to darken the image. Consequently, I usually add one to two exposure stops to counter that. This is particularly helpful if I want a longer shutter value.

The horizontal lines of waves can act as blockers, in which case using other means of Visual Weight may be needed.

The biggest mistake many photographers make is a wonky horizon. Even one-degree out will be obvious when viewed on a bigger screen. Using the built-in level gauge within the camera is a must, but even then, some gauges have a couple of degrees of unwanted leeway. Straightening the horizon using the crop tool in your development or editing software is usually needed.

A level horizon is essential.

Another challenge is deciding upon the camera placement. Not Shooting perpendicular to the horizon can result in imbalance. If you point the camera to the left along the beach, the righthand side of the picture will be heavier with more sea in the frame than the left, where the horizon and the shore converge to a vanishing point.

The height of the camera will make a difference too. A lower camera will foreshorten the sea. Nevertheless, it may allow you to shoot through the wave tops. Using a long lens, that can look stunning with a low sun behind. Reflections will appear more extended with a low-positioned camera, whereas a higher vantage point will show lots more sea but less reflection of things sitting on the water’s surface. However, you can get a long trail of sunlight or moonlight on the water from a higher vantage point.

A higher vantage point shows more sea, but reduces reflections at water-level. With the sun or, in this case, the moon a bit higher in the sky, you can get an attractive, long path of light.

You don't have to stick with wide-viewed seascapes. Zooming in on interesting features, and creating abstract shots can work well too.

You don't necessarily have to shoot traditional seascapes

Did you find that helpful? If you did, please let me know in the comments about how you will photograph the ocean or other big bodies of water next time. Have you any cautionary tales or disaster stories about photographing on the beach? It will be great to read them.

If you are determined to improve your photography, please read my last article about two major hurdles photographers face.

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4 Comments
Ruud van der Nat's picture

Enjoyed it, very recognisable, I live on the coast too.
I’ve had my share of salt water showers and sandblasting during a storm. It’s the only time when I do use a protective filter to complete the weather sealing on my L lenses. During my ten years of shooting seascapes I never had one of my cameras fail me, (Canon EOS 60D, 5D, 6D and R) but I always clean them immediately after I get home.
For me nothing beats living on the coast

Ivor Rackham's picture

Hi Ruud, Yes, extra care needs to be taken with cameras that are not weather sealed. Neither the 5D nor the 60D had it, as I remember. I love living on the coast too. In my youth it was a 20-mile cycle ride for me, now it is a 2-minute walk.

Drazen Cavar's picture

Interesting, with lot of real-life practice presented. I'm curious when fashion of smoothed sea will fade away, spend lot of time by the sea and it's almost never smooth.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Hello Drazen, where I live it can be puddle calm. When I've visited the Baltic coast, it has been too.

For me, the beauty of using long exposures to smoothen the sea is that it simplifies the image, taking away the distraction of the water's texture and allowing me to emphasize other features such as islands. But it's just another creative tool and nobody is insisting that anyone must use it, or like it.

The great thing about photography is that we can see the world in a way that the human eyes can't, whether it's macro, telephoto, super-fast or slow shutter, blurred background, or super-wide angle.

Thanks for the comment.