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10 Coastal Photography Tips for Better Cliffs and Coastlines

Last updated: September 21, 2023 - 9 min read
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If you’re looking to capture the beauty and power of coastal landscapes in your photos, then you need to use the right settings. In this article, we’ll discuss the best coastal photography tips for better cliffs and coastlines. We’ll provide tips on how to use each setting effectively, and we’ll show you some stunning examples of photos that were taken with these settings.

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Coastal Photography: A Point of Interest Will Add Depth to Your Image

This is the leitmotif of all photography. For coastline landscapes, you not only have to choose one, but also make sure it’s not overshadowed by other elements.
This is necessary to avoid of finding yourself with a frame half full of flat sea. Or endless blue sky.

Cliff column jutting out in the blue sea, against a clear softly lit sky
This photo’s point of interest, the arch, balances out the sea and sky.

There is no doubt that the sea itself could be your point of interest. But try to focus on the idea of giving the eye of the observer a path to follow within the photo.
The famous S-curve composition is a good place to start because it works well in almost any situation.

Early Mornings and Late Afternoons Are the Best times for Cliff Photography

The other important point for creating an excellent coastline photograph: light.
Getting to the location you have chosen at the right time could make the difference between a great photo and one where the sun is shining too strongly. Or at least it’ll give you enough time to adapt.
So a possible choice could be early in the morning because the dawn with its soft lights could draw a totally unexpected picture. Another possible choice is the warm and beautiful light of the sunset. Or before and after the sun has dived into the sea.
Even the weather can create play of light on your scene and your composition. With the right clouds you can play with shutter speeds, leaving long crawls in the sky.


Related to finding the right time to photograph the coastline, is finding the right season. During the year the sea changes the landscape, but not only. Potential flora along the coast that you can include in your photography will also change.
Other elements that can highlight your subject are increasing or decreasing tides.
I live in Italy. The daily tides here are either small or smaller. This is consistent throughout the year, so seasons don’t really affect my photography.
But in the north of Europe, for example, it is not strange to find daily tides of 5-10 meters. While photographing along the coast of Scotland or near Etretat in France, the sea took over the beach within a few hours.
Even local storms can be very interesting, and can give your composition and your picture a totally unexpected look.

Look for Reflections

Speaking of seas, one of the elements that can immediately come to mind are the reflections. Reflections can help or ruin your composition. It all depends on the scene you have before and especially on what you want to achieve.
It is necessary that your composition has an element of interest that can be reflected on the water. The water itself must be firm enough to create the reflection.
If you notice that the reflection ruins or complicates your composition, you can solve this by using a polarising filter.

Include the Foreground for Unusual Compositions

The vastness of the sea meeting the sky is a beautiful subject to photograph. But it is also overused and sometimes even boring.
So use the foreground to break up this common composition. A rock or a rock formation, a stone that draws stripes on the sand, or a series of rocks worked by the sea are all examples of foreground. Incorporate these in your composition by positioning your camera very low on the ground.

Low vantage point photo of rocks at the coast at sunrise against a cloudy soft lit sunrise
The lower you get, the bigger the rocks will appear.

It is obvious that by positioning your tripod and camera very low, your foreground will not only receive attention but will probably also change shape and proportion. And it will do so in relation to the other elements of your composition.
You need to be very careful not to find yourself with a photograph completely unbalanced when it comes to the composition.
Additionally, you should also pay attention to the colors. If you photograph at dawn or at dusk, it is very probable that the sky will be colored with very intense and warm colors.
It also depends on the atmospheric conditions and the passage of important cloud formations. Keep in mind that your foreground will usually have less intense and sometimes less interesting colors than the sea or the sky.

Try Photographing From Higher Ground

You can also try going higher than the ground. This depends a lot on the scene and on the possibilities that the landscape offers. It could be an excellent solution if you are in the vicinity of a cliff.
If you can go up a cliff this will give you an image that includes the cliff line stretching out for hundreds of meters or even kilometres.

High point of view photo of a cliff side in the horizon against a blue sea and clear blue sky
Example of high point of view

If you are the lucky owner of a drone here is a great time to make a flight with it (always with an eye to the wind). Then plan your composition and photo from above.
Drone coastline photography has become increasingly popular in recent years, especially on Instagram.

Use Long Exposures for a Silky Water Effect

The long exposure technique is the most important when it comes to coastal photography. With it you can capture the movement of sea water on the coast.
It is also one of the easiest compositions to find, especially because sea water is always on the move. This means that on a windy day with beautiful waves and fast movements, you will still have a nice subject.
But be careful. A big wave can completely drown you, including your equipment. Safety comes first. Trust me, the last thing you want is your photography session to end with a dripping camera. I speak from experience.
With the movement of the water you can play in many different ways. You can have a super long exposure of two minutes or more. Or you can have an exposure of one or two seconds and capture the lines and signs that the backwash leaves on the sand of the beach.

Include a Hint of Human Presence

It depends a lot on the landscape and the look that you want to give to your shot. It might be interesting to add people (or hints that people have been in those places before). Or even human activities.
I prefer to avoid people. I tend to shoot when there is no one on the beaches, either very early in the morning or later in the evenings.

A lone silhouette of a man walking along a beach with big waves behind him.
Sometimes human presence can enhance your photos. Here the human presence is the key

This is because very often a human presence can disturb my composition by making it unpredictable. People also leave their footprints on the sand, and other signs of their presence. This is very often something that causes me to lose appealing compositions or even interest in particular views.
The best way to avoid bumping into other people is to visit your photography location during bad weather or thunderstorms. It makes everything more dramatic, leading to impressive photos. And it tends to keep most people away.
The one element of human presence I do like to add are headlights. These are proof of human activity along the coast and lend themselves very well to being filmed.

Use Multiple Exposures for Sunset Photography

If you find yourself shooting while the light changes very quickly you can consider taking different exposures of the same scene. I’ll typically use multiple exposure during a sunset.
You can take three pictures with a difference of 1 or 2 stops between one shot and the next. Or five shots or seven. This allows you to get almost the entire dynamic range of your scene, in changing light conditions.
Once in front of the computer you can choose the photo with the best exposure. Or you can use two or more shots to combine exposures together and get better definitions of highlights and shadows in your scene.
No, I’m not at all talking about creating an HDR, even though I’ve used that significantly in the past.
What I mean is using modern techniques like Luminosity Masks. With this tool, you can have a shot formed by several different exposures without HDR. It will give your image a completely natural and genuine flavor.

Take Detail Shots for More Interesting Compositions

It is easy to always focus on the big panorama. On the widest view of the scene in front of you. Especially with the increasingly ubiquitous super wide lens.
But all this can also make us lose the taste for the search of a good composition. Everything is inside your frame, so you don’t have to worry anymore.
I disagree. We should find a way to train the eye again to look for details when it comes to all landscape photography, including coastlines and cliffs.

Photo of soft foamy waves on pinkish sand from a crystal blue sea against a pastel sunrise
Details in the sand and in the waves.

Next time you are at the foot of a cliff, try to find the details of the rocks. How the water moves against them, as well as the small stones of the beach. Or look at the particular shape of the coast that you have a few miles in front of you.

Use CDs to Keep Your Tripod Stable

If you are shooting on a beach and near the waves, it is likely that the movement of the water will make the sand soften. As a result it will make the legs of your tripod move and sink.
Try using three old CDs. Place one under each foot of the tripod, they will help keep it stable and not to sink your equipment.

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