How to Get Incredible Landscape Images on the Coast

Having photographed more sunsets than I can count along the Pacific Coast, I experienced many different conditions and learned a plethora of valuable lessons. These are the most important tips I’ve found throughout this trip that will help you the next time you’re filming along the coast.

In my last article, I explained how entering the water can change your whole experience, determining weather conditions and predicting compositions. This article will continue to talk about compositions, accessories that will make your life easier, and how to get your shutter speed exactly where you want it for those great shots on the move.

Equipment Tips

Hopefully at this point you have something to get into the water with, and I’ll also assume you’re shooting with a tripod, as you should be for most of the types of images you want to capture along the side. If you’re in the water, capturing the waves as they roll under your camera, you’ll want to leave your bag somewhere safe on the shore. I highly recommend putting it even further out than you think because the tides can change quickly, and if you can find a place to leave it elevated, that’s even better.

I photographed this spot four days in a row, and one of those days the tide reached where my bag was in the photo above, so I ended up putting it higher up on the rock behind . The most important thing is to make sure you always have quick access to the bag and line of sight if possible. You’ll have to gauge the crowd around you, but in my case, falling with my bag is much more likely than being robbed by someone watching the sunset. Another good reminder is to make sure you keep your bag closed when you leave it. I made the mistake of leaving it open once in a hurry, and you’ll quickly discover just how much sea mist is in the air when you return to find your once-dry gear is now coated in a delicious savory mix.

Speaking of salty mixes, be prepared to deal with salt everywhere, especially, accumulating on your tripod. If you have multiple tripods, I recommend using an older one that you may not care about as much, simply because salt water will corrode and build up on your tripod very quickly. Whether you use an old one or a new one, you will need to clean your gear and camera after filming along the coast.

Last and perhaps most important is to have a microfiber cloth with you. In fact, you should have several, depending on how humid the conditions are. Some spots, like the snaps throughout this article, weren’t too choppy when it came to splashing or haze. Other places I’ve visited have had me constantly wiping my lens between shots, soaking my cloth in the process. It also doesn’t hurt to have a full towel with you in case you need to wipe yourself down or clean your gear after a big splash.

Slow down your shutter speed

Whether you’ve just dipped your toes in the water for the first time or you’re an avid landscape photographer, slowing your shutter speed is probably something you’re familiar with. I’m not going to dive into making recommendations on which ND system you should get, so if you’re looking for that, I’ve already written all about it. Instead, I want to focus on the basics of getting your shutter speed where it needs to be and the ideal settings you’ll need along the coast.

Below are ideal starting settings for capturing moving water, but please keep in mind that these are not hard and fast requirements. I will try to explain the variability and reasoning behind each parameter.

  1. 14mm to 24mm focal length: Most of the advice and settings here are based on shooting very wide angle compositions.
  2. Aperture set at f/16: This serves to provide the widest focus plane possible, eliminating the need to focus the stack in many cases. You’ll definitely end up adjusting this as the light fades, but it’s a good place to start.
  3. ISO at 100 or the lowest natural for your camera system: Keep your ISO as low as possible, but we’ll probably adjust it when we only have access to one ND filter to compensate for the darkening of the sky.
  4. Shutter speed between 1 and 2 seconds: this is not a strict setting and will depend heavily on the type of waves you are trying to capture. That being said, this setting is our main one, meaning all other settings will revolve around shutter speed, as that will dictate our results. More on that below.
  5. 5 or 6 ND stops: you’ll need at least one ND filter, and if you’re trying to cut costs, it’s better to get more and compensate with ISO or aperture than to have less and not being able to get the shutter speeds you need for your shot.

Your shutter speed is the most important parameter when it comes to shooting successful seascapes. So my 1-2 second guidance is a very vague suggestion. In my experience, this was the ideal place to start. However, the image above was taken at 1/6s and f/11, which is not what I recommended. This is where learning and experience come in. Pay attention to how fast the water is moving, review your footage after a wave has crashed or passed near you, and after a few outings , be absolutely sure to review your images. Take note of which shutter speeds give you the most pleasing results depending on the speed of the water.

As the light changes and you focus on the shutter speed that works best for the water you’re shooting, you’ll likely need to adjust your aperture or ISO sensitivity. The image above was taken at 1/8 sec and an aperture of f/11. I recommend lowering your aperture to f/11 first or even f/8 if the scene you’re shooting doesn’t have nearby objects in the foreground. If the closest thing you capture is moving water, as in the example above, water that isn’t very sharp is manageable because it’s already captured in motion. If you need greater depth of field, increasing your ISO should be first, but not beyond ISO 400-800, depending on your camera system.

The truth is, I can provide endless information for settings in different conditions, but the best way to learn is to go out there and do it. I continually improved while working along the coast knowing roughly what settings would likely work for the results I wanted. Another good tip is to take multiple shutter speeds if you can’t really tell which one gives you the results you’re looking for. It’s always better to come back with options than a bunch of results you’re not happy with.

Infinite compositions

I spent a lot of time talking about compositions in my two seascape videos, so if you want to dive into those, definitely check them out. I can’t cover that much information in text, so I thought I’d provide an image gallery to give some ideas of how conditions can really dictate the results of the compositions you’re trying to capture. I visited this spot four days in a row, trying to capture the specific sea stack with a wave as my guideline. I changed my lineup based on the conditions, which you’ll see in my day-to-day breakdown below.

The first day, there were very good conditions in the sky, but I was still quite new to the field and how to approach it. I started trying to shoot a wide shot with the wave as the lead line to the sea stack, but I just couldn’t get a good break in the wave for that line, so I changed to shoot directly at the sun. The majority of these photos were taken at a shutter speed of 1/3 sec or faster. I’ve included a few imperfect images where the background is definitely out of focus due to camera movement, but it’s important to pay attention to the patterns in the water and how they differ depending on your composition. Note how I tried to balance the composition by using the rocks and the sun in the background while paying attention to how the patterns were created in the water.

The second day and the conditions weren’t as great. The tide was also lower and the swell was shorter. Believe it or not, the shutter speed for most of these images is between 1 and 2 seconds, but there is much less turbulence in the waves, giving us much less enthusiastic results. I tried using a foreground object for better balance and to create ripples in the waves. The most important takeaway from these images is how the movement of the waves can enhance your composition. Which do you like the most?

I didn’t take many pictures this time because I really wasn’t getting what I was there for. That being said, we can use them to indicate whether it is best to take images when the water is approaching you or moving away. The honest truth is: take both! Results vary, and some of my favorite captures are with the water rippling, as you can see in these images.

Last but certainly not least was when I finally got the image I wanted to get among so many others. Not only were the conditions great, but the waves and structure were exactly what I expected. These images all had faster shutter speeds, usually 1/8th or 1/6th of a second. Giving me just enough movement, but balanced with detail. I’ve included moments as the waves progress to show how important it can be to capture as many photos as they slide past you, as it can make or break a composition.

As I said, I could talk endlessly about compositions for marines. The beauty is that no composition will ever be the same, each surf is unique, and you can return to one location your entire life with different results. I would like to know which ones interest you, and maybe I will even do a separate article on the movement of water and the elements of composition along the coast.

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