When people think of landscape photography locations, they often visualise inland scenes of plains, mountains, valleys, and forests. Coastal photography is often overlooked, which is a real shame, since the sea offers a unique and dynamic beauty that’s also very much worth capturing.
Whether in Alaska or the tropics, few landscapes can compete with coasts.
Arriving at a coastline, you quickly discover that on a clear day, cool and warm tones juxtapose naturally, as does the contrast between solid land and the fluid water.
And on days when the weather is less than hospitable, the sea can produce some dramatic and moody scenes that make great photos as well.
But for all their beauty, photographing these landscapes is not as straightforward as it may seem.
Oceans are rough on your gear, composition is challenging and, frankly, certain times of day and lighting situations can turn that near-perfect landscape into a flat and boring place.
In this article I’ll share with you the tips that help me take gorgeous photos of the coasts I love to photograph every year (the waters of the North Pacific, Kachemak Bay, and Cook Inlet near Homer, Alaska—an ideal spot to capture with a camera).
Follow these tips and hopefully you can bring home your own striking seascape photos, no matter which of the world’s coasts you visit.
Cautions for Your Camera
I want to lead these tips off with a word of caution: watch out for your cameras.
Just about everything about beach photography is bad for your camera: water, salt, sand, and spray. Each of these things can seriously mess with your electronics, scratch your lenses, or corrode your camera. Here are a few things to do to protect your gear:
- Avoid salt spray whenever possible. Keep your camera in a pack, or tucked under a rain jacket when not in use. [Editor’s note: We recommend a dedicated waterproof holster like the miggo Agua 45 or Aquapac’s Wet & Dry line of packs for seaside and on-the-water gear protection.]
- Avoid getting sand in your gear like the plague. Sand scratches lenses and wrecks mechanics.
After shooting, always use a clean, lightly damp cloth to wipe down your gear, whether you think it has been sprayed with sea water or not. You may also want to bring an aerosol duster can with you to blow away any sand that may have found its way onto your equipment.
[Note: ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something, we make a little bit of money. Need more info? See how it all works here. — Ed.]
Time of Day
The unquestioned champions of ocean photography are sunrises and sunsets.
There is something about the combination of deep colour, dark and shimmering water, and a winding coast that makes dawn and dusk images of the sea particularly inspiring. You can use an app such as the Sol: Sun Clock app (iOS / Android / Windows Phone) to figure out when exactly the sun will be rising and setting where you are.
On the coast the sea air, the humidity, and the constantly shifting weather is a formula for dramatic morning and evening light. Which time of day you favour will depend on which direction your coast is facing.
To make the most out of these few, colourful moments in the morning or evening, you need to think beyond the sky.
Consider the colours and distant rising or setting sun as a stage for the rest of the image. Your foreground, subject, and action are no less important than they are at any other time.
We are easily distracted by the skies of morning and evening. Don’t be. Approach dawn and dusk with the same eye you would any landscape and compose your shot.
Consider the placement of your horizon, the single point to which you want the viewer to be drawn, the textures of waves, rocks and sand, and the visual weight of the objects in the seascape.
To succeed, spend some time scouting your location beforehand. Find the right setting, whether it’s a rock outcrop, a bluff, a sea cliff, a pier, or simply the clean sand you want to use for your foreground.
You might even want to compose your shot ahead of time so you don’t waste time fumbling while the colours are shifting rapidly in the sky.
The coast at night can be a wonderful place to make images. In the rare parts of the world where light pollution is low, the combination of stars, and water, and shorelines can be spectacular.
Night is also terribly tricky. It requires a large set of photographic skills to be successful.
While entire articles, even books, have been written about night photography, doing these basic things can help you take better nighttime photos at the coast:
- Understand exposure. There is not single setting that will work in every circumstance, so experiment. In general keep your lens wide open, and adjust brightness with ISO and shutter speed. Make sure you’re comfortable with manual exposure, since you camera’s meter will in all likelihood fail in the darkness of night.
- Pay particular attention to composition. It’s hard to compose in the dark. Scouting is important so you don’t end up with a bunch of distracting elements in your final images that you didn’t see in the dark.
- Use a tripod. No way around this. Get one and use it. Controlled long exposures are near impossible without one.
- Prefocus your camera. Manual focus is key here. In daylight, find the exact place on your lens that provides the best possible sharp focus for distant elements (like a far-away mountaintop), then use a piece of tape to hold the focus ring in place. This will save you innumerable unsharp shots and wasted effort.
[For even more help with night landscape photography in general, make sure to read our article on the topic —Ed.]
The bright, open skies of the coast have a tendency to wash out the landscape, at least on sunny days.
With seascape photography scenes, as is the case with most landscape photography locations, the soft, pleasant light of morning and evening tend to be most productive.
While I still recommend returning to your chosen location later when the light grows sweet, if you do decide to shoot during a bright midday, then embrace the brightness through juxtaposition and contrast.
What do you do on a scalding hot, white-bright day? I head for the shade.
When faced with coastal photography under those situations, that’s often I do. I look for a shady spot where the cool tones can juxtapose with the heat and bright sun.
The weather on the coast will work in your favour. I say that because every type of condition from hurricanes to fog to calm sunny days can yield successful images of the ocean and coast.
Unlike mountains that will be obscured by low clouds or flat light that will mute the dramatic shadows of the desert, just about every weather condition will create something of interest on the coast.
On a bright sunny day, as I mentioned above, you are best off waiting for the light to improve (See Night and Sunrise/Sunset above).
But when the weather turns sour, don’t hesitate to grab your camera. Few things are as spectacular as the ocean during a storm, and even a grey, brooding day can make for surprisingly effective seascape photography.
Don’t be afraid to go out, regardless of weather. Just be sure to mind your safety and protect your gear.
Composition Tips for Seascapes and Coasts
As I see it, there are three primary positions from which to photograph the coast: from above, from the shore, or from offshore.
Each will produce an entirely different perspective of the scene. The trick is to photograph from as many of these as you can. Variety is the best way to tell the story of a place.
Shooting from right on the shore, looking outward from land to sea, is the most ‘traditional’ coastal position, and the simplest perspective to take.
To take photos from above, find an elevated portion of the terrain, like a bluff or coastal mountain and position yourself there. Alternatively, you can get aerial shots from an airplane or drone.
This way you can give a sense of scale and context to your coastal photography. The larger shape of the coast, its texture, and any flora and fauna will be apparent.
You can also get offshore and look in toward land. Here you’re reversing the traditional perspective and creating an entirely different image that puts the coast in the background rather than the foreground.
Creative Seascape Photography Techniques
Occasionally, it’s important to go beyond the typical, perfectly exposed images, and the conditions at the coast lend themselves well to experimentation.
Would that cloudy, brooding day look better underexposed? You can play up a dark and foreboding mood by doing exactly that.
Maybe you should emphasise that already bright day by going high key? High key shots are purposeful over-exposures, pushing bright parts of your image to white, leaving behind only the dark tones.
Like exposure, how long your shutter is open will play an important roles in your final image.
A fast shutter speed will freeze the motion in the waves, the wind-blown sea grass, and every other moving element in your frame. Many times this is what you’ll want.
Sometimes, though, you’ll want to capture an artful blur. When it comes to smoothing moving subjects into a pleasing blur, a long shutter speed is what you need.
For these shots, using your tripod is mandatory. Set a long shutter speed—the longer your shutter is open the better. Half-measures of say 1/15 or even 1/4 second will often cause only a partial blur.
A small blur in the final image looks like indecision or a mistake. Were you going for sharpness and screwed it up, or did you try to create a blur that you didn’t manage?
If you want a blur, then extend your shutter speed for seconds, even several seconds to ensure that the effect is exactly what you want.
As in all photography, the key to successful images of the world’s coastlines is relatively simple: use your understanding of exposure and composition to present the coastal environment in a novel way that is uniquely yours.
In our images, we should strive for perspectives, angles, light, and motion that make the landscape look fresh and new. There is little joy in repetition of images.
Be mindful of your equipment in the world of salt, sand, and water, but otherwise, take the tips and techniques I provided above, and go and make something new. Show me your ocean in a way I have not seen before.