Taking in the whole scene as you stand on a beach watching the wave’s crash against the shore is a relaxing and revitalising experience. As your eyes drift across the sea and the sand your lungs slowly fill with the clean salty breeze. The soothing sounds of the rhythmic ocean wash away all the worries of mundane day to day life. A setting sun gently warms your skin during the last moments of the day as you welcome the night with a content smile and an energised outlook on life.
How on Earth are you suppose to capture all this in one 2 –dimensional image? Simply lifting the camera to your eye and pressing the shutter just won’t cut it. While you can immerse yourself in the moment and focus on any details you want, your camera is only a tool that does what it’s told. So how do you use your camera to put a content smile on anyone that will look at your photo? Here are 8 tips for photographing awesome seascape images.
1. Get up early
It is so easy to stay in bed when that alarm goes off and the thought of making a trip to a cold and windy beach just doesn’t sound appealing. Try picturing the crowd of people that frequent your favourite beach all standing where you want to be, taking photos with their phones or setting up blankets. This is what it will most likely be like if you wait until sunset. Sunrises by the water are the best way to start any day, whether you’re taking photos or not. It helps if you scout out a position during the day so you don’t waste time fumbling around in the dark while still half asleep. You’ll need a sturdy tripod and ideally a shutter remote. If you don’t have a remote, just set a 2sec timer for each shot. You’ll also be capped at 30sec exposures as holding down the shutter button for minutes at a time isn’t fun. Trust me! You’ll be able to get longer exposures without the use of filters to begin with but as the sun gets above the horizon, solid ND filters will help to achieve a smoky look (15sec or more) or even just some detailed motion in the water (1/4sec – 3sec). Check your shutter speed without filters first, then double it for every exposure stop the filter is graded. For example, a 6-stop ND filter means doubling your shutter speed 6 times! So a shutter speed of 1sec becomes 60sec for the same level of exposure. We’ll go into graduated filters later! Use something like suncalc.org to determine exactly which direction the sun will rise in order to build a composition. Trying to position the sun partially obscured by a rock will give you a nice sunburst at apertures above F11. Keep shooting for as long as you want as you have the whole day ahead of you. Although now that the sun is up and if you’ve already taken all your photos, why not relax and have a nap on the beach?
2. Stay up late
Since you’ve caught up on sleep from the early start in the morning, you’ll be refreshed and awake to stay up well past sunset to shoot the stars. The sea and the stars are great companions; they love to hang out together in photos. Here the balance of composition swings from a detailed and interesting foreground, to an expansive sky filled with stars and the Milky Way. Careful planning beforehand will give you the location of the core of the Milky Way and when it will rise. There are a few apps around to help you with this such as Photo Pills. You’re going to need to let in a huge amount of light in order to capture that beautiful night sky. A tripod and a remote/cable shutter are essential and with a wide angle lens you can get away with a shutter time of up to 30sec without too much movement in the stars. Open your aperture as wide as you can, in most cases F2.8-F4, and set your ISO to 1600-3200. If you are shooting with a longer focal length, and you don’t want any star movement, use a calculation of 500 divided by your focal length to give you your shutter speed. Try experimenting with light painting your foreground. Wave a torch back and forth over the spots you want to illuminate, but careful not to overdo it as it can blow out quickly or take the focus of the image away from the stars. You might be out for quite some time in the dark so make sure to dress warm and that the tide won’t rise and wash you away.
3. Go with the flow
Try and find little channels that water flows through back into the sea after the swell. This can be little reef shelves or around rocks on the beach. Time you shot just right by waiting for the water to start moving back. A shutter speed of a second or two should do the trick but it depends on how fast the water is moving. Little rock shelves can act like stretched out mini waterfalls. Count the seconds between waves and use this as a max shutter speed to retain a good amount of detail. If your shutter speed is too long you’ll start to get that smoky water haze over the flowing water. If it is too short it won’t have a clean silky look to it. If it’s just right you should have detailed water flow and rocks as well as smooth flowing water. The patterns in the water are different every time, so take a few shots and find one with a pattern you like.
4. Change your perspective
Piers and jetties are perfect for diminishing perspective. They draw the eye directly into the photo and add depth and dimension. The classic shot is to align your camera in the exact centre of the jetty. The higher the camera is the thinner the jetty will appear and open up the surroundings more. If the structure is old and the wood is heavily textured, try getting closer to widen the leading lines and show off the detail in the wood. This is where a graduated neutral density filter comes in handy. Graduated filters are only half dark with a bit of feathering in-between to get a balanced exposure in one shot. Pier shots with perfectly flat horizons are the best opportunity to use hard grad ND filters. In most cases a 2 or 3 stop hard grad ND will bring the skies exposure in balance with what is below the horizon. If you have objects in your image that go above your horizon line, such as any structures attached to the pier, then a soft grad will avoid a distinct hard grad filter line through your shot. Combine this with a 10 stop solid ND filter to blur away any people that are walking around, flatten any water movement, and streak out the clouds for that super smooth long exposure look.
5. Get Low
The detail you are easily able to appreciate at the beach can be distant and lost when you stick to eye level. Before you extend your tripod fully or lift the camera to your eye. Get low to the ground and look for interesting angles or details that will give your foreground some interest. Rocks, shells, sand and little channels of water can all help draw the eye into the image or anchor the viewer’s attention. With the foreground being a lot closer to the camera, you may need to shift your focus closer too. Using the live-view on the back of the camera and digitally zooming to check focus across the image will ensure what is meant to be sharp, is sharp. If your camera has a depth of field preview button, then you can step down to your shooting aperture to further make sure your shot is in-focus. Being able to see exactly what your sensor will see with your chosen aperture means you can get the exact depth of field you’re after. No more guess work with hyper focal distances! Remove any filters when using the depth of field preview button as the image will darken due to the smaller aperture.
6. Get High
Beaches and coastline can have very distinct macro features. Some are even easily recognisable just by their shape. A sweeping arc of sandy beach is best seen from a higher vantage point. Climbing a sand dune or surrounding hills or mountains can give you a better look of the scene as a whole. A panoramic vista gives the viewer an overall appreciation of the location. Don’t immediately go for a panorama photo though. Trying to fit everything in to a single shot can lose a central interest point in the image. Start with what is important and then expand the view if the composition works. If you do go for a panorama, remember that stitched images should all have the same settings, including white balance. Shooting in RAW means you can change the white balance in post, but I recommend setting it to sunny or cloudy to avoid more work later. Set your camera to full manual mode then find the correct exposure for the brightest part of the scene. Start from left as this is how your images will be ordered on the computer. The more overlap you have between shots the easier it will be for your program to stitch them. Focal lengths such as 70-300mm can also come in handy here to pick out details or even abstract shapes and lines.
7. Get Wet
Don’t be afraid to get a little wet. Standing back too far from the water line can also detach the viewer from the scene. Having the water flow right up to and even past the bottom of the image adds leading lines and movement to your shot. Some interesting rock shapes may require you to walk through shallow water to have access to them. It can be tempting to just talk off your shoes for this, but a sure footing will potentially save not only you from injury but also your expensive camera gear. Rock boots or reef shoes are a good investment to give you the stability you need and more confidence to explore. Salt water can rust metal on your tripod and ruin some camera components. Rinse off your tripod in fresh water and wipe down your camera with a clean damp cloth after shooting.
8. Stay Dry
Exploring the coast is a great way to get beautiful landscape photos. But no photo is worth the risk to your life. Always keep an eye on the waves as things can change in an instant. If the rocks you are walking on are already wet, there is a good chance that water will wash over them again soon. Spending a few minutes watching the surf crash over rocks and working out the safest route is easy and worth your time. Even with careful planning, rouge waves hitting just the right spot can send a lot of water your way. I have had a few close calls after getting drenched by waves that came out of nowhere. If you want to know what it is like, stand on a chair with your camera and have five people with a large bucket of salt water each throw them at you at the same time. If you are still standing on the chair and your camera still works then you’re as lucky as I was. Check tide times to avoid being stuck in dangerous positions and making risky decisions to get back. Never turn your back on the ocean and respect the water.
This article was originally written for our good friends over at Australian Photography Magazine and was published in the March 2017 edition.