Skills and Secrets of Shooting Stunning Seascapes

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

Although I do commercial photography, I find great joy in going out with my camera and photographing the world around me. I live on the beautiful Northumberland coast in the North East of England so I can witness the fantastic sunrises we get here. This is my favorite time of day for photography. Taking pictures at sea with the sunset on your back can also be great, but there is no doubt that the quality of early morning light is the best for most seascape photography here. However, the early hours have additional benefits for seascapes. First of all, the beach was cleaned of annoying footprints by the sea. Also, for me, this solitude is good for my soul.

I’m not always alone on the beach, but I try to get there before the dog walkers. Once my camera and tripod were knocked over and thrown into the wet sand by an overly enthusiastic black lab off leash. Luckily my camera is properly weather sealed so I was confident no damage had been done, although it did spoil the morning shot as the lens was covered in sand. It’s frustrating when a dog owner allows their dog to potentially destroy a lot of equipment for money. Nevertheless, there is always the possibility of educating. So the conversation that ensued went something like this:

Dog Owner: Oh, I’m so sorry.
Me: Can I take your name and address?
Dog Owner: Why?
Me: Well the camera is £2000 and the lens over £1000 and I won’t know if they’re permanently damaged until I get them home and clean them from the wet sand . I assume you are insured.

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

It’s not advised for all camera models, but with mine, a quick rinse in the shower cleaned up the sand when I got home. I then dried it gently with a lint free cloth and let it sit on silica gel bags.

When choosing the right camera for shooting seascapes, consider that sand and salt water are camera killers. The sand is very abrasive. That’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 her camera and smashed an expensive new lens on the rocks. He says he would have been saved if he had used a sun visor. My answer to the age-old debate about UV filters versus sun shades: use both.

In addition, salt water is five times more corrosive than fresh water. Humid air at the beach is ten times more corrosive than normal moist air, and seawater also contains bacteria that produce excretions that accelerate corrosion.

In 2003, I bought a Nikon Coolpix 5700 bridge camera. In 2005, I took it to a sandy beach on a windy day, and the sand took hold of the zoom. RIP Coolpix! More recently I knew someone with a Canon 5D Mark IV who died shortly after photographing rough seas. Spray entering the camera through the unsealed lens had corroded the electronics. This is one of the reasons why I upgraded my camera to an OM-1, which has IP53 waterproofing. This is also why I never change my objective on the coast.

The tides come in and out about twice a day. It takes about six hours to go from low tide to high tide; half of the entire range is within the middle two hours. Spring tides occur a day or two after the full and new moon. Then the tide rises and falls further during those six hours. Therefore, it flows much faster. Some of the beaches near my house are rocky and potentially dangerous. 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 camera otherwise. I don’t want to be cut off by the sea. Also, most of the rocks here aren’t so photogenic, so I like to shoot at high tide.

Likewise, I am aware of the state of the sea. Big breaking waves are exciting, but there are abnormal waves. I often stop at a memorial bench overlooking the sea on my morning bike ride. It was put there in memory of an experienced fisherman who lost his life after being swept out to sea by a big wave. Always seek local advice on safety at sea. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide. It kills around 236,000 people every year.

Waves pose a compositional problem for seascape photographers. Looking out to sea, they run across the frame, acting as blockers for the eye traveling through the image. This is the complete opposite of an introductory line. This can be worked around by looking for foam lines running up the circuit breakers. Alternatively, when the sun is low in the sky, use the light shining through the spray to direct the eye.

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 building until it is completely broken. The shutter value must be longer than this. In direct sunlight, difficult to obtain because, even at f/8, the starting shutter will be at least 1/1000th. So, with an ND1000 (10-stop) filter, I would only gain one second exposure, and I might need twenty or more. Therefore, I used to stack an extra ND32 or ND64 filter, which wasn’t ideal. Now, however, I can combine the My ND1000 filter with the camera’s built-in Live ND filters, which will give me up to six additional stops (ND64) of light reduction without the extra glass reducing quality of the image.

The sea is generally lighter than medium gray. Also, as I often shoot Contre Jour, it makes the scene even brighter. I have to consider exposure compensation because the camera meter will want to darken the image. Therefore, I usually add one to two exposure stops to counter this. This is especially useful if I want a longer shutter value.

The biggest mistake many photographers make is a wobbly horizon. Even a degree of output will be evident when viewed on a larger screen. Using the in-camera level gauge is a must, but even then some gauges have an undesirable degree of leeway. It is usually necessary to straighten the horizon using the cropping tool in your development or editing software.

Another challenge is deciding on the placement of the camera. Not shooting perpendicular to the horizon can lead to imbalance. If you point the camera to the left along the beach, the right side of the image will be heavier with more sea in the frame than the left, where the horizon and shore converge at a vanishing point .

The height of the camera will also make a difference. A lower camera will shorten the sea. Still, it can allow you to shoot through the tops of the waves. Using a long lens, it can look stunning with low sun behind. Reflections will appear more extensive with a lower camera position, while a higher vantage point will show a lot more sea but less reflection of things sitting on the surface of the water. However, you can get a long streak of sunlight or moonlight over the water from a higher vantage point.

You don’t have to stick to wide-view seascapes. Zooming in on cool features and creating abstract shots can also work well.

Did you find this useful? If you did, please let me know in the comments how you will be photographing the ocean or other large bodies of water next time. Do you have any cautionary tales or disaster stories about beach photography? It will be great to read them.

If you are determined to improve your photography, please read my last article on two major obstacles that photographers face.

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