The ocean is a wonderful place. If you’re like most humans, you are attracted to the crashing waves, the wet sand and the calling birds. People find peace at the ocean, so it naturally follows that people also like to take photos of those crashing waves, wet sand and calling birds. And you can get some particularly marvelous photos by the sea—but there’s definitely an art to doing it well. Keep reading to find out how.
Ocean Swirl by Flickr user Justin in SD
Safety (for you and your camera)
Here’s the thing about the ocean. The beach and the sea are full of hazards, and I don’t just mean the kind that can hurt you. Those furious waves can kick sea spray up into the air, and that sea spray can get inside your camera and cause damage. And if you’re not careful, a particularly large wave could catch you off guard and end up soaking both you and your equipment.
But perhaps more than that, it’s the sand. Sand is extremely incompatible with your camera. If you get sand inside your camera or lens, that could be the death of your equipment. So if you are going to shoot seascapes you must first keep in mind just how easy it is to damage your camera when you’re in a coastal environment. Never change lenses when you’re on the beach, and never put your camera down even for a second. If you get sand in there, it’s all over.
And, of course, there are hazards for you too. Seaside rocks are slippery and sharp, and the rising tide may make places that were once accessible traps for you and your equipment. Make sure you stay alert and that you tread carefully. And wear sunscreen (but beware, because while sunscreen does a great job protecting you, it too can be hazardous for your equipment).
Before you go
If you’re going to be photographing seascapes, it probably follows that you don’t really want to include a lot of people in your photos. This gets harder and harder to do as of the world’s population gets bigger and bigger. Because human beings are naturally drawn to the ocean, you’re probably not going to find many completely secluded beaches. Even those that don’t attract a lot of people are still going to have a few people on them, so it’s generally going to be a good idea to visit during the off-season. Also look for smaller beaches, and beaches that don’t really have a reputation amongst tourists. You can ask the locals for ideas, but I always suggest searching Flickr. If you can find photos of secluded beaches in the area you plan to travel to, the chances are you’ll be able to visit those places and get some equally good photos, as long as they are open to the public.
Make sure you think in advance about the kinds of photos that you want to capture—a rocky beach is a very different place from a sandy beach, and the view from the top of a cliff is a lot different than the one you’ll get with your toes in the sand. Look for settings that will give you the most opportunities to capture the types of shots you’ve envisioned.
Also remember that you need to know the times for high tide and low tide. This information is easily accessible online, or even at the local visitor’s center. This is important for safety reasons (so you don’t get caught out in a place that will be flooded when the waves come in), but it’s also important because there are certain parts of the landscape that are not going to be visible at high tide, so you need to get a pretty good idea about what’s going to be on that beach when you arrive. It’s also important to note that at high tide the waves tend to be a lot less furious that they are at other times of the day, so if you want to capture some action in the waves high tide is probably not the best time to visit.
Weather and time of day
I’ve already talked a little bit about the benefits of visiting the beach during the off-season—fewer people means that you’ll get better images, at least from the perspective of someone who’s interested in creating the illusion of an unspoiled landscape. But don’t forget that the off-season can also be a perilous time—an unexpected storm can ruin not only your plans but also your equipment, so pay very close attention to the weather forecast and make sure to plan your visits accordingly. Don’t forget that the wind makes a huge difference in your ability to take pictures at the beach. A very windy day is going to be blowing a lot of sand around, and that’s bad for your eyes, your skin, and your camera. On the other hand, you don’t want to be visiting on blue days either—nothing is more boring than a bright blue sky, so you do want some clouds and some texture in the sky to add interest to your seascape photographs. Your goal should be to find a happy medium between dangerously stormy weather and a beautifully photogenic weather.
Stormy beach by Flickr user pattoise
Like all landscapes, the sea tends to photograph best during the golden hour. Not just because you’re going to be able to capture a beautiful sunset over the water, but also because the light is just better during that time of day. Make sure that you know what time the sun will rise and set, and take that into consideration when you visit. Also remember that if the beach is underneath a cliff, you may have problems with shadows at certain times of the day. These are all things that you need to think about before you decide on a location. And if you do plan to hike out to a secluded place for a sunset photo, don’t forget that the light can fade very quickly and you’re going to need a flashlight to find your way back. Trails down to beaches tend to be very narrow, not to mention occasionally rocky and hazardous, and if you get caught out without a flashlight you could find yourself in a potentially dangerous situation.
Equipment and settings
Seascape photography is really just a subset of landscape photography, which means many of the same rules still apply. For the most part, you are going to want to capture your seascapes with small apertures. A small aperture will give you the best possible clarity between foreground and background. Remember also to put something in the foreground to help give the image a sense of depth and dimension. Try placing boulders or other large objects close to the camera, and if there are any boats on the horizon you can also place those in the background to help your viewer understand how vast that scene actually was.
The waves are pretty spectacular in person, but even spectacular waves can look dull in a photo if you shoot them from straight on. You can help contribute to that three dimensional feeling by shooting the surf from an angle instead—stand next to it and shoot down the beach, rather than out into the ocean. This will give your viewer’s eye a diagonal line to follow into the scene, which will in turn give the image a greater sense of depth.
Bohol Beach Club by Flickr user Lost In The RP
Because you’re photographing water, you can make creative choices with your shutter speed that will result in a vastly different looking images. Water is a moving subject, so if you photograph it with a fast shutter speed you can freeze it in time. But if you photograph it with a slow shutter speed you can turn it into a sort of surreal looking, otherworldly mist. The key to being able to do this is to shoot water when the light is low, or to invest in a set of neutral density filters, which will allow you to use slow shutter speeds even during the day.
Start by shooting at a fraction of a second, such as at 1/15 or 1/8, then look at your results and see what you think. If the water isn’t quite as misty as you’d envisioned, try using a slower shutter speed—you may need to select the smallest possible aperture available to let in less light, and remember that your ISO will have to be low, too. Once your shutter speed can be measured in minutes, you’re going to have an image that looks really weird—the ocean itself will cease to look like an ocean and will instead look like an alien landscape full of a strange mist.
Misty water looks really cool, but it could be that you’d rather capture the ferocity of the waves instead of a strange, surreal landscape. If that’s what you’re going for, you want to select a very fast shutter speed instead. A fast shutter speed can make ocean waves look furious, especially if you are able to freeze the individual water droplets as they shoot way up into the air. Start with the shutter speed of about 1/1000 and then check your results on your LCD. If you’re still getting some blur in the water, choose a faster shutter speed.
For those fast action shots, you won’t need to have a tripod—but for many other seascape photos it’s usually a good idea to have one on hand. Any time you’re shooting at a very small aperture there is the chance that your shutter speed is going to slow to the point where you can’t successfully hand hold your camera. And because the beach can be a little breezy, make sure that your tripod is a good, steady one—you don’t want it blowing over when the wind rises. That soft sand might cushion your camera’s fall, but it’s also going to get inside those nooks and crannies and possibly destroy your equipment. If you’re not sure how well your tripod will preform under those conditions, check to see if it came equipped with a hook suspended between the three legs. You can add stability to your tripod by hanging something heavy from the hook, such as your camera bag.
Remember that caution should be first in your mind whenever you’re in hazardous places like the beach. But if you take reasonable precautions there really is no reason why you won’t be able to capture stunning seascape photos that look just as good on paper as they did in person.