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Long exposure ocean photography is the holy grail of all seascapes sub-genre.

This article will take you through 8 tips for better long exposure ocean photography.

You’ll be able to create great long exposures every time you are out shooting the sea.

long exposure photo of a seascape at dusk. Blue seas with a rocky shore, reflecting the purple sky and clouds, the orange sunset on the horizon

How Long Is a Long Exposure

The values could differ for each photographer, and there is no hard line you need to cross to make it count as a long exposure shot.

Some photographers say it’s 1 second and above, but I don’t agree with that. It could be right for a general landscape where 1 second doesn’t make a huge difference but for seascapes, every moment counts.

I typically consider 0.5 of a second and slower a long exposure and let’s agree to using this value within the article.

Everything above 30 seconds is referred to as an ultra-long exposure for the convenience of understanding the basic settings.

1. Why You Should Get a Sturdy Tripod

A tripod is the first thing you need for any sort of long exposure shots and even more so for seascape photography.

People tend to get lightweight tripods for the sake of carrying less during the hike, but it’s a trap. A lightweight tripod isn’t suitable for what we are after, and I recommend you get something solid and sturdy.

Most of the time the coast is windy, which causes camera shake on a flimsy tripod or can even trip it over. Also, if you are shooting on the beach, each wave hitting it could add to the shake.

I always use aluminium tripods over 1 kg of weight. There is no need to go expensive with carbon as they are lighter and sea salt could ruin your expensive tripod very quickly.

I get a new Weifeng tripod every 6-12 months for $50, and they serve me just great.

There is a trick to extend your tripod life – use WD40 on the joints now and then. Don’t overdo the WD40 as you may start to have issues fixing the clamps.

man and woman standing at a rocky cliff, setting up camera and tripod to photograph a seascape

2. How to Use Use Filters

Neutral density filters (ND) are designed for long exposures. Photographers use these filters to cut the amount of light coming in. Some of these filters are so dark you could create long exposures with them during the day.

You can safely skip ND2 and ND4 as their effect is quite weak and you could easily achieve the same thing using aperture and ISO (or by using a polarizer). Instead, get an ND8, ND400 or even ND1000.

The first one is three stops; the second one is 8 2/3 stops, and the last one is ten stops. ND400 and ND1000 are very dark, and you’ll need to pre-focus to use them.

sea green and cloudy skies, a small mountain on the horizon

A really dark filter is a must-have for the ocean photographer. You can also combine filters to achieve a more significant effect.

Therefore, you don’t really need a single ND1000, for instance. Instead, you could get ND8 and ND400 and use them separately or together.

Also, you could combine an ND filter with the polarizer, which should also be present in your bag. The typical polarizer is similar to ND8, i.e. cuts three stops of light and you can use it as a darkening filter too.

3. Shooting at the Top of a Cliff Will Lead to Better Images

As we climb higher, the swell becomes visually smaller and plays a more minor role in the photo. Such a view allows us to smooth out all the waves and to produce a level sea surface with soft colour transitions.

This type of effect works best when we have something massive and rugged such as cliffs and fast-moving clouds. It allows us to remove all of the busy action from the photo.

The other example would be to smooth out water around something protruding from the sea, rock or similar. Also, the cliff edge is the easiest way to produce a diagonal composition – you just need to shift your camera a bit to the side.

clifftop seascape. rocky cliff over looking a blue sea and foamy waves, a cloudy sky and purple pink sunrise on the horizon

These large-scale shots with something rugged only work when the water is level and smooth. Otherwise, the photo becomes overly busy and distracting.

Pro tip: The wind is always stronger on the cliff top, so fix your tripod thoroughly or hide behind something. You could also protect it using a spread raincoat or an umbrella if you have one.

4. How to Create Foggy Water Effect

When we are creating a long exposure shot, the camera averages what it sees over time. And if we are standing at the sea level with unrest water, the camera sees the waves.

Each wave has a different shape and form and moves a bit differently. Therefore, the final image has all these waves photographed together and smoothed by other wave’s movement.

In the end, it creates a foggy effect – the water doesn’t look like water anymore, it looks like fog. To emphasise this effect, we could include some solid objects, like rocks so that “the fog” goes around these objects.

This type of photo only works when there are waves. If the sea is calm with a small swell, a long exposure will turn it into a level surface.

The shutter speed required for this one is quite long – at least 20 seconds. This effect also looks much better on a zoomed in lens.

A long exposure ocean photography shot of rocks showing up through a foggy sea, a cloudy sky overhead

5. How to Create Water Trails

Another type of beach photography is to create white water trails on the sand. First, you need to shoot receding water, not an incoming wave. Second, the water moves at a different speed every time, so there’s no hard and set shutter speed for this type of shots.

A good exposure time to start experimenting at is 1/2 sec. Sometimes it could go up to 2 seconds for some super slow flow and wouldn’t go faster than 1/4, which is already a rare case.

There is one important thing to mention here.

sunset seascape. water trails on the shore, rocks showing up in the foamy waves, golden sunset on the horizon

To create this type of shots, you need to be standing in the water. So, get your shorts and flip-flops (or the waders) out and go in.

Don’t go too deep as it could be dangerous. Rogue waves could knock you down. Knee deep is already too much.

Dip your tripod into the sand about ~10 centimetres for better stability but don’t let go of it. It won’t stand up on its own.

Then wait for the wave and shoot when it recedes.

6. How to Use an Ultra Long Exposure

Ultra long exposures are anything longer than 30 seconds. It could be 60, 120 or whatever. Such shutter speed is used to smooth out the water completely getting rid of all textures and leaving the colours intact.

Also, such exposure smoothes out the clouds as well, which creates a somewhat surreal effect. I recommend including something solid as a visual anchor – a cliff, a rock, a lighthouse, anything standing tall against the flow of time.

You need to shoot either well before sunrise (after sunset) or use some dark ND filters as I have mentioned in this article.

Another way for doing this type of shot is a fake long exposure, which I mention later.

rocky sea shore, outcropping into foamy foggy sea, cloudy blue and pink sky during sunrise

7. How to Shoot Abstract Long Exposure Ocean Photography

Abstract ocean photography is becoming more and more popular. Many galleries showcase such pictures. But if you examine these works, most of them look more like snapshots.

Let’s avoid this trap and think about creating something meaningful.

The general idea is to have an average length exposure time combined with some zoom. Pick a day with ordinary sized waves, focus on them.

We need to capture the movement in such a way to blur the waves while not making it a total mess. We’ll be focusing on the various shapes and colours.

Look for the movement, for the lines and for the colours. Try to avoid anything solid like the coast.

abstract seascape taken using long exposure ocean photography, blue green sea, foamy waves

It’s up to you whether or not to include the sky. Also, you may need to experiment with the shutter speed. It depends on the focal range and water speed and movement direction, etc.

So this is purely a trial and error experiment. Start with 1/2 second as a rule and adjust as necessary.

8. How to Fake Long Exposures in Post-Processing

Sometimes we just can’t do a proper long exposure. Too much light, no or inappropriate filter, a desire to create something even longer, etc. What to do?

There is a way to simulate a long exposure while editing. You need to have your camera on a stable tripod and set it to either interval shooting or shoot manually many photos one after another.

Try to minimise the gap between the pictures. We are not shooting a time-lapse in this instance.

black and white long exposure photo of a seaside lit by lamps at night

So, here is how to do it:

  1. Make as many photos as you wish to combine later;
  2. Edit them in the same manner as a batch;
  3. Upload all photos as layers in Photoshop;
  4. Select all photos, go to the Layer –> Smart Objects –> Convert to Smart Object;
  5. Now the actual magic. Layer –> Smart Objects –> Stack Mode –> Mean.

Now you’ve got a good looking long exposure, and no one can tell you merged it in Photoshop.

The added benefit is that you can create a time-lapse if you have created enough shots for it. Or vice versa, you can create a bunch of long exposure from a time-lapse series.

Conclusion

Long exposure photography is a great tool that lifts our art to the next level. But I also have to warn you – there is a whole world of different shutter speeds producing various effects in the final photo.

Do not run mad after just this one long exposure ocean photography technique. You must have it in the list of your methods and know how and when to use it properly without limiting your creative juices.

Next time you’re out there shooting, try a long exposure along with more traditional ocean photography.

Interested in more great ocean tips? Why not check out our underwater photography guide or our tips for photographing cliffs and coastlines!

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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Anton Gorlin

Anton Gorlin, originally from Ukraine, now lives and works in Sydney, Australia. He picked up photography purely by accident - during a business trip to Australia. Anton provides online editing master-classes and lessons and also photography workshops. Also, he works part-time as a freelance real estate photographer since 2011. Please check his photography blog full of useful info at https://antongorlin.com. Also, you may follow him on Instagram.

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