Seascape photography is a kind of landscape photography where one of the main subjects is the sea or the ocean.
Apart from the sea, seascape photos depict other coastal features, such as rocks and stones, beaches, sea animals, etc.
Shooting seascape photos is very similar to classic landscape photography. The main difference is the ever-moving water, which influences your picture and your settings.
In this article, we’ll give you 15 seascape photography tips to help you overcome the challenges of this amazing photography niche.
Always Play It Safe with Seascape Photography
Safety should be the number one advice on every photography guide and even more so for seascapes. Photographers just starting out with this genre tend to underestimate what the ocean can do. Or it’s simply lack of knowledge.
You should treat safety very seriously and pay attention to your surroundings at all times. No photo is worth your life.
Key safety tips:
- Always keep an eye on the ocean, do not turn your back on it.
- Don’t forget rogue waves. These are huge waves that can all of a sudden hit the coast. Always have a safe way to retreat.
- Do not go near the edge, where the waves crash. This piece of advice is the most important one. A big wave can easily knock you down and pull you into the sea.
- Some of the algae are incredibly slippery.
- Check swell and tide before shooting seascapes. This way you’ll know if the sea is going to retreat or not. This info can prevent you from being stuck on some rock in the middle of raging waves.
- Spend 5 minutes looking at the ocean before proceeding. You’ll have an idea of where the waves can reach and where it’s safe to stand. Dry rocks typically mean it’s safe.
A good tripod is essential for seascape photography. It must be sturdy enough to hold your camera stable when the waves hit it, for instance.
But I see zero reasons to buy expensive tripods. The seaside environment is very aggressive and tends to break things. It takes time to find a good tripod that won’t fail you, but it’s worth it.
I have used more expensive tripods like Manfrotto, but its lifespan wasn’t any different to the cheaper tripods. These days I use Weifeng tripods with clamps.
They are just as stable and heavy duty as more expensive ones. And because of the price, I can change the tripod without regrets after around half a year.
You can try other manufacturers too, just don’t go with the ultra-thin legs or too many extenders.
Some Tips for Using a Tripod
- If it gets hit by a wave, rinse it with the fresh water.
- While shooting on the beach, dip it into the sand about 10-20 cm. This will increase its shake resistance and stability.
- You still need to hold it while in the middle of the rushing water.
- Use WD-40 to fix stiff joints.
- Personally, I don’t see the point in disassembling a tripod to clean it. Too much hassle. That’s why I prefer cheaper ones to change them later.
- Put your backpack on the hook to make the tripod heavier and more stable.
If you want to create good seascape images, you need to get wet. This means that you need to be close to the action to capture water in all its beauty and power.
On the beach, you have to stand up to knee-deep in the water (don’t go deeper). On the cliffs, you’ll eventually be hit by the waves. That’s normal, that’s the price we have to pay for the photos.
That’s why you need to have a spare set of clothes somewhere in a dry place. Typically, backpacks are good at resisting water so that you can keep your stuff there.
Also, dry clothes are good for wiping water out of your camera.
sually, I use crocs for seascaping; others use flip-flops. I’ve seen people using tall fishing boots or even fishing overalls. It’s up to you and where you are.
If you’re shooting off the Icelandic coast, you might want to skip the flip-flops and go for some boots.
Tide and Swell
The weather forecast is essential for any landscape, but in case of seascapes, you need to add tide and swell into the equation. This information is crucial for planning and actions in-field.
Every location has different land features. This means that some areas will only work in low tide. For instance, the rock platform near the Hornby Lighthouse in New South Whales, Australia, is only accessible during the low tide.
On the contrary, Bombo Quarry works best during the high tide. During the low tide, it has too many rocks and nothing to compensate.
Some spots work equally well during both low and high tide, but provide the best experience only during the large swell (big waves). You need to know the area in advance to make decisions.
You can also ask a local photographer or read a photography guide for that exact location.
The other important factor is to know the tendency. Even if you can stand on the rock the minute you arrive, it doesn’t mean it’ll be safe in 20 minutes as the tide may be rising.
The important thing about the swell is to know that waves become temporarily much bigger during sunrise when the Sun has just appeared.
Maximize Depth of Field
Let’s talk settings. Depth of field is one of the most important technical parameters of the photo. For a landscape and all of its sub-genres, it should cover the whole area of the picture.
Depth of field correlates with the f-number and the focal length. To have a photo in focus everywhere, you need at least f/8. Typically, lenses have the best performance at f/11 – f/13 and some of them at f/16, which is the smallest aperture you can use.
Smaller apertures (bigger f-numbers) will produce blurred images due to the diffraction.
Many internet resources say that you should calculate hyperfocal range and focus there, but in my experience, that’s overkill. Just focus anywhere around 1/3 into the frame, and that’ll do.
Some facts about aperture:
- f/8 is usually enough for a wide-angle lens.
- f/5.6 should be enough when there are no objects in the foreground, and all of them are at infinity, i.e., more than 3 metres away.
- You need a smaller aperture for longer focal length, i.e., when you zoom in, increase your f-number. For instance, f/8 zoomed in on the wave will blur the background.
Reflections provide some of the best photography opportunities. They can save or make a shot.
It is not always obvious where to get reflections for seascape photography, but I can assure you – there are many of them.
Here are some easy to use seascape photography reflective surfaces:
1. Rock pool during low tide. When the waves cannot hit the pool or do so rarely, it has enough time to become still and reflect all of the skies.
2. Puddles on the rocks and rock platforms. Such pools need a lot of time to dry, so go to the rocky area after rain or after a storm. You’ll find plenty of possibilities to capture the reflections.
3. Sand beach. During the low tide, you can go to the beach and capture reflections on the sand. After the wave slowly recedes, it takes more time for the thin layer of water to dissolve. You can use those couple of seconds to build your composition.
4. Wet rocks produce fantastic orange glares during sunrise or sunset. Adjust your camera to find the angle with the best shiny effect.
Sometimes I carry a plastic bag or a plastic bucket to soak the rocks.
Use The Right Shutter Speed
Seascape photography is all about water. In a regular landscape shot, the shutter speed affects mostly the sky. The trees, fields, mountains, etc. generally stay where they are.
It’s all different for seascape photography. The waves move pretty fast, and the water keeps shifting. You need to learn how to photograph water and how shutter speed affects it to master seascape photography.
The first question my students ask is about the right camera settings. While it’s relatively easy to explain the proper aperture, it is not that easy for shutter speed.
That’s because there is virtually no right or wrong settings as long as the photo is not over- or underexposed. The correct settings depend on the actual scene you are trying to capture and the desired effect.
Ultra-long exposures will smooth the water entirely. Use ultra-short exposures to freeze a crashing wave.
A few seconds’ exposure will create foam trails on a receding wave.
Half a second will smooth some of the details but keep all the texture and character of the water.
Predict Waves For Better Composition
You’ve probably heard about leading lines, golden ratio, diagonals and other composition techniques. With seascape photography, we have the advantage of creating compositions out of nowhere.
All you need to do is see what the ocean is doing, learn how the waves are moving and include one of the waves into your shot.
You need to take a position, set up your gear and wait for the perfect leading line to come into your seascape image.
You can include the wave itself as a significant line or the traces it leaves on the sand. Also, the whole area in the photo can serve as a composition element, and that also works for the water.
Sometimes, you will need to burst several shots and then pick the best one. Water is usually too fast and unstable to make just one single successful shot of the ocean.
Bring a Microfiber Cloth
This one is tiny yet essential advice. It is often windy by the sea and when the big waves crash, the wind throws water particles at your lens. Not to mention if the wave hits you.
You need to wipe the water out to continue shooting. In general, you have to keep your lens clean at all times. And you can’t just use your sleeve if your clothes are soaking wet.
Happened to me more than once! You need to keep a bunch of microfiber cloth pieces in the safety of your backpack. Have it easily accessible because time is running fast for seascapes.
Usually, I have a bunch in the bag and one in my pocket for quick use.
Shoot At Sea Level
Shooting at sea level provides numerous opportunities using all sorts of foregrounds and action in the water.
One thing you can do is a long exposure, which smooths the water. The amount of smoothing depends on how long the exposure is.
The typical seascape shot will include some solid foreground, like rocks, some water action in the middle ground and a moody sky. Sometimes photographers use water as both foreground and middle ground.
An ultra-long exposure (30+ seconds) smooths the water entirely and if the sea is restless, turns it foggy. It’s up to you to decide whether you like this or not.
If the water is relatively calm, then it turns into a level shiny surface, which looks pretty good. The additional bonus is the blurred movement of the clouds transforming into some trails.
A 10 seconds long provides some basic textures created by the foam movement and is not as level. It shows impressive patterns, which are different with every photo.
Shorter exposures starting from 2 seconds and all the way to half a second are perfect for seascape photographers.
These shutter speeds create the most dramatic and dynamic effects in the water, while still smoothing it and removing the busy and shattered look.
Anything faster than 1/15 creates a shattered splashy look and you can use it to shoot incoming waves.
However, to completely freeze the wave you’ll need 1/250 or faster.
Shoot At The Cliff-Top
Cliff-top vistas are entirely different. Even the longest exposure won’t turn the water into the fog. And I prefer going up while it’s still too dark.
Those 30+ seconds smooth and blur water surface and make it level. Combined with the sharp leading lines provided by cliff edges, it creates a surreal look and feel. Such photos have a taste of Eternity in them.
When the light is brighter, I prefer to go down to sea level. All the water patterns from cliff height make the photo too busy – because you want to focus on something else, like the sky color or some reflections.
It is a different story when you have massive crashing waves right beneath your position. Also, during the day higher position provides much better colours and the patterns are no longer distracting.
In these cases, it’s safe to photograph from the cliffs. In fact, daytime ocean colour is one of the best photographic opportunities you can get.
At a higher elevation, the water surface isn’t as reflective, hence better colours.
Shoot The Waves
Another great opportunity is to shoot the waves as the main subject. You need some sort of longer lens to zoom in.
There are two ways to photograph the waves: standing on the beach or swimming next to them. The latter requires some specialized equipment, which is not cheap. Also, it requires a certain level of fitness.
The former one is easier; you just need a telephoto lens. To freeze the wave, use a shutter speed of 1/250 or faster. This value may be different depending on the angle the wave is going at.
You can’t go wrong with 1/800 – 1/1000 for any angle.
There is a more sophisticated technique, where you make a longer exposure, like 1/10 of a second. In this case, the wave looks like an explosion, or a burst. And it also adds drama and menace to the photo.
Please note, the depth of field decreases with zoom so that f/8 will blur the background too. In case you want everything in focus, go f/16. Or go f/5.6 to blur the background even more.
Select Interesting Foreground
Seascape photography is very diverse when it comes to the foreground selection. Similar to the regular landscape, you can pick the rocks, the plants, the cliffs, puddles, or any solid objects.
But in addition to that, you can also try the action in the water. Depending on the environment, it is possible to create multiple appealing subjects.
Shutter speed manipulations can create:
1. Streaks of flowing water. Use 1/4 – 5 seconds for the receding wave. With a strong current, the shot can work out with the shorter shutter speed of 1/4 – 1/2 sec. If the flow is huge and powerful, 2-5 seconds will also work, but I prefer shorter exposures because they keep more of the texture. Typically, I wouldn’t go above 2 seconds.
2. Little waterfalls. When the wave is rolling over some rock, it creates multiple beautiful waterfalls. The best shutter speed is 1 second and higher.
3. Sand reflections. You need a flat and level sandy beach for this one. If the water recedes slowly, it leaves some fantastic reflections behind. This effect works well for the sunrise or sunset.
4. Restless sea. The sea boils and topples near the rocks and rock platforms, crashing against them and rolling back. These areas provide an amazing opportunity to show the character and power of the sea. Use shorter exposures here, 1/8 – 1/2 at max.
5. The waves. I have already mentioned these, but again – they make up a significant part of seascape photography. Use 1/10 – 1/3 to fix the waves without freezing them. They’ll keep the shape without a busy look. The waves look best with backlighting when the Sun shines through them (even when it’s higher in the sky and not in the frame).
6. Colours. The colour of the water depends on depth and can show some spectacular effects. It works well for the foreground too.
The standard approach is to shoot around sunrise and sunset. This is, of course, correct. With some exceptions.
The sea gets the best colour when the Sun is high in the sky. This fact is especially true when you shoot from some height, like the cliff or a helicopter.
You could get some deep blue or blazing cyan depending on the seabed and water depth.
Another option to shoot during the day is to photograph the beach. Harsh, strong filling light removes all ugly shadows from the beach making it even in colour and lighting. This type of photos is characteristic of paradise beaches, so don’t disregard it.
The only time that we haven’t discussed is at night. Obviously, you can still use it for seascapes in combination with astrophotography. The smooth water surface together with the stars creates some of the most surreal pictures.
Use All Range Of Lenses
Again, the classic approach is to mount the widest lens and rush ahead happily snapping pictures. In my experience, this can limit your creativity and photography opportunities.
Of course, the wide-angle lens is still the main one, but other lenses can be useful too. Wide lenses exaggerate the foreground and make all distant objects much smaller than they appear to the naked eye.
A longer lens, however, squeezes the perspective and avoids excessive attention to the foreground. You can compose a tighter shot or photograph jumping dolphins or distant sun rays or just make a wave your main subject.
Seascape photography is both easier and harder than regular landscape photography.
It’s easier because you have so many additional things to photograph.
And it’s harder because it’s never constant. It’s ever-changing, elusive, poetic and dangerous at the same time.
No wonder so many people fall in love with the sea. Armed with these seascape photography tips, we suggest you grab your camera and tripod and give it a try. But don’t forget about safety!
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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