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Coastlines, the beach, the ocean – they all present travellers and photographers with a huge array of stunning possibilities. But as beautiful as the ocean can be, it can also be quite difficult to capture it properly. Here are a few tips that will get you started with seascape photography:

1. Find an Interesting Foreground

First and foremost, the ocean is one thing: very flat. Apart from maybe some cool cloud formations if you’re lucky, the horizon doesn’t offer much of interest. To give a beach and ocean scene more depth, include an interesting foreground. But don’t just plop a random rock in your image. Instead, just like I mentioned in my article about the rules of composition, find patterns, leading lines and lead the viewer through your image.

Rocks and boulders work really well for that purpose, as do piers, jetties, cliffs and washed up tree trucks. Don’t be afraid to get your feet wet, some of the best compositions can be found in the water. In the end, there really is no limit to the things you can do with your imagination and what nature puts in front of you.

5 Things to Keep in Mind When Photographing the Ocean: In the case of the coastal town Sur in Oman, I tried using some shell covered rocks and pools to create interest in the foreground.

In the case of the coastal town Sur in Oman, I tried using some shell covered rocks and pools to create interest in the foreground.

Of course, having a point of interest very close to the camera adds the difficulty of trying to get everything in focus. Use focus stacking or a higher f-stop to have a tack sharp image from foreground to background. I wouldn’t shoot anything lower than f/9 and if it is still too light out, I often go up to f/16 to slow down my shutter speed even more and create the smooth, misty look.

2. Use Wide Angle Lenses

You can do some cool stuff with zoom lenses, but when I shoot the ocean, 99% of the time I grab one my wide angle lenses. Wide angles work especially well when capturing the ocean in combination with one of the aforementioned foreground objects. They exaggerate angles and really let you show the grandeur of the coast.

3. Consider the Time of Day

I’ve written a whole article on how important time of day is in photography and I really urge you to check it out. In short, you want to be photographing landscapes, that includes the ocean, during the golden and blue hours around sunrise and sunset. The absence of harsh light and shadows, the beautiful mood, the vibrant colours and the possibility of longer shutter speeds – even without filters – make it the best time for photography. Also, during the day beaches are often crowded, but in the evening, early in the morning or during stormy weather, they are beautifully deserted.

Light is one thing, but also be aware of the tides and the season. Coastlines can change dramatically throughout the day (and year!) and if you have the chance, make sure to scout your location out properly and find out about low and high tide before heading out to shoot.

5 Things to Keep in Mind When Shooting the Ocean:  A rock jetty in Key West, Florida. As the tide rose, it got more and more submerged in the water and a shutter speed of 10 seconds really let me get a nice movement in the clouds and turn the water to mist.

A rock jetty in Key West, Florida. As the tide rose, it got more and more submerged in the water and a shutter speed of 10 seconds really let me get a nice movement in the clouds and turn the water to mist.

5 Things to Keep in Mind When Shooting the Ocean:  A rock jetty in Key West, Florida. As the tide rose, it got more and more submerged in the water and a shutter speed of 10 seconds really let me get a nice movement in the clouds and turn the water to mist.

Horizontal shots are nice, but don’t forget to get some tall ones as well!

4. Bring Your Filters and a Tripod

My go-to filters for seascape photography are ND Filters and Graduated ND Filters. I suggest you head over to my article about filters to find out what each of them does in depth and what filters would be best suited for your needs.

I use the Graduated ND Filter for bringing detail and colour back into an overblown sky and I consider it a staple piece of equipment when shooting around sunset and sunrise. To achieve longer exposure times (even ultra long exposures during the day), use a regular ND filter. My favourite is a simple 3-stop filter, but they go as high as 10-stops and let you create incredible movement in the clouds and turn the crashing waves to mythical mist.

Since you will be working with long shutter speeds, a stable tripod is a must. Make sure to really jam the tripod into the sand and put the camera strap around your neck. After all, you don’t want the inevitable waves to take your camera out.

5 Things to Keep in Mind When Photographing the Ocean: Here I shot the pier in Pismo Beach, California. I was standing in knee-high water and tried to create some interesting shapes with the small waves in the foreground. The pier itself is a great leading line.

Here I shot the pier in Pismo Beach, California. I was standing in knee-high water and tried to create some interesting shapes with the small waves in the foreground. The pier itself is a great leading line.

5. Think About Movement

Do you prefer realistic photos or do you want to create dreamy images that seem to be out of this world?

To freeze waves in mid-roll, a shutter speed of at least 1/50 seconds or higher should do the trick. If you plan to photograph in low light in the golden and blue hours, you’ll have to crank the ISO quite a bit to still freeze the action. This in turn will introduce a lot of noise into your image, so keep that in mind when shooting. As always, take some test shots and adjust from there.

If you’re like me and prefer some lots of motion blur in the clouds and in the water, your goal is to slow down the shutter speed until you get the desired effect. Keep your ISO at 100, set a higher f-stop to keep everything in focus and slow down the action a bit more (depending on how bright out it still is, anything between f/9 and f/16 will work well) and then get to experimenting with the shutter speed. You’ll start getting a decent blurred effect around 1 second, but you can also take it to the extreme, put a strong 10-stop filter on and try several minutes.

And a few parting words: keep your bag zipped up at all times to avoid sand from lodging itself into every nook and cranny of your equipment, bring lens wipes to clean the salty spray of the water off when needed and most importantly, have fun!

About The Author

Tiffany is a Swiss travel writer, digital nomad, and photographer, who, after a fateful journey through Africa, has decided to get her passport renewed, sell all her junk, and live out of a suitcase in various corners of the world, as well as share the experiences with other travel enthusiasts. This blog is intended to inspire you to pack your bags, leave everything behind for a while, and make you go discover the world. Check her out on .

8 Responses

  1. Jessica Peterson

    I’ve enjoyed all of your photography posts. I am a travel photographer too. Still trying to perfect the long exposure to get silky water. Heading to Iceland this month and bookmarking your tips on photographing waterfalls.

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    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Oh my god, you will LOVE Iceland. It’s the perfect place for photographing waterfalls as they are absolutely everywhere. Make sure to stop for ones you see along the road and not just the big famous ones, as the smaller ones are usually completely deserted and not any less stunning. Bring some ND Filters and a tripod and you’re good to go with those long exposures 🙂

      Reply
  2. Chris

    Hey, Tiffany. Love the advice here. I honestly wasn’t sure whether you could place a tripod in the water… I’ll have to give it a go (wish I wasn’t like 9 hours from the nearest coast). Love the focus-stacking suggestion, too; definitely preferable to narrower apertures and softening the image because of diffraction.

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      You have to be careful that you choose a spot where the waves aren’t too strong. At Pismo Beach for example the water moved really slowly and I was able to get a few seconds of exposure without the tripod moving. And really, bury that thing in the sand, it helps 🙂

      Reply

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