There’s something special about being by the water. Perhaps it’s the sound of the powerful waves crashing on the shoreline, or soft waves caressing the sand and rocks. Maybe it’s the way sunlight and moonlight reflects off the surface of the water, creating sparkling scenes that dazzle our eyes. At sunrise and sunset, it could be that Mother Nature’s magical colors help to paint scenes of wonderment. And of course, the sights and sounds of seascapes, accented by the sweet smell of sea air, may awaken a primordial feeling that’s deeply ingrained in all of us.
Exploring the seaside is a magical experience—an experience that, through photographs, you can relive again and again and share with others. And when it comes to photographs, there’s a big difference between a snapshot and a great shot, a photograph that captures the mood and feeling of a scene, which is the most important element in an image.
In this article, I’ll share with you some techniques for coming home from a seaside adventure with images you’ll be proud to display on your walls or share on the internet.
Use Your Camera Like a Spaceship
That’s me following one of my basic photo tips that applies to all photo situations: Use your camera like a spaceship. In other words, the height at which you hold your camera makes a big difference on the impact of an image. Here you see me on my knees getting down low to photograph the sea stars that are hugging the rock in the opening image. Had I been standing straight up, the photograph surely would have looked like a snapshot. Before you take a picture, move your camera up and down, like a spaceship, and choose the height that best tells your story of a scene.
Tip: If you plan to photograph by the sea, definitely wear waterproof boots, especially if you plan to photograph in tide pools at low tide. I was following my own advice in this picture, but was so focused on getting the shot that I wasn’t paying attention to the water level in the tide pool—my socks and feet got soaked! But getting the shot was worth it.
When You Think You’re Close, Get Closer
I used my Canon 15mm fisheye lens to capture all the sea stars on the rock. The image has impact for two main reasons: It has an interesting and colorful subject, and I was photographing about 2′ from the rock. The concept of getting closer doesn’t always work, because “negative space” can be nice, too; but give it a try and see if your image has more impact.
Slow It Down
For seascape photographs with silky-looking water, you need two essential accessories: a neutral density (ND) filter or set of ND filters, and a sturdy tripod. The ND filters reduce the amount of light entering your camera, allowing you to use slow shutter speeds from 1/4 second to several seconds, or even minutes—even on bright days. You need a sturdy tripod to steady your camera during long exposures. I used a shutter speed of 8 seconds to create the glass-like water effect in this photograph (below).
Variable ND filters let you “dial in” the light-reducing effect, usually from 8–10 stops. Fixed ND filters come in different grads: 3, 6, 10, and 20 stops.
I only use fixed ND filters. Wthy? Because when using a wide-angle lens with the ND filter set at 8 stops or more, the sun’s angle can cause a dark band or circle to appear in the image—a dark area that’s virtually impossible to remove, even for a skilled Photoshop expert. Sure, a set of fixed ND filters is more expensive than a variable ND filter, but the quality and results are worth the investment.
For this next image (below) I used a shutter speed of 5 seconds to blur the moving water. So the question is: What’s the best shutter speed to use for a blurred water effect? The answer: It depends on how fast the water is moving; how close you are to the water; and the desired effect. My advice is to photograph the same scene using different shutter speeds, and choose your favorite when you get home.
The next four photographs illustrate the difference between using fast and slow shutter speeds when photographing moving water. The two pictures on the left were taken at 1/125 second, while the pictures on the right were taken at 1/4 second. You may like all four images as I do! So, the moral of the story is: Fast shutter speeds can also create images with impact.
Here’s a tip that applies to all seaside locations: Keep a micro fiber cloth handy to wipe away salt spray from your lens—it can make pictures look soft. Also, keep your camera in a plastic camera cover to protect it from the elements.
One more tip on photographing moving water: Before you press the shutter release, notice the direction in which the water is moving. In this photograph, the water is flowing out toward the sea, caressing the rocks as it moves. I took several photographs of the same scene when the water was flowing in, but the feeling of the photographs was different. So, note the direction of water, and choose which direction you prefer.
You’ll find many sweeping seascape photo opportunities in coastal areas. These extra-wide views are perfect for panoramas. The image at the top of the next page is the result of five pictures stitched together with Lightroom’s Panorama Photo Merge feature, which automatically combines several images into a panorama.
When taking pictures for a panorama, try to follow these recommendations:
- Hold your camera vertically.
- Remove all filters.
- Set your camera to Manual exposure mode, and set the exposure for the brightest part of the scene.
- Take your first picture at the right or left of the scene. Move your camera so that the next image overlaps the previous image by about one-third, and then repeat until your set of images is complete.
- Process your set of images in Lightroom or Photoshop.
- Remember to keep the horizon line level.
Make Cool Close-ups
You’ll find cool close-up opportunities at tide pools along some coastal areas. The key is to check the tides so you’re on location at low tide, when the sea stars and anemones are out of the water. You don’t need a true macro lens for close-ups, unless you want a full-frame shot of a very small subject. This picture, for example, was taken with my Canon 24–105mm IS lens.
Keep in mind that when photographing subjects close up, depth of field is reduced; therefore, use a small aperture, such as f/11 or f/16, if you want to get maximum depth of field. You can reduce reflections on water by using a polarizing filter. Holding a black umbrella over the subject is also a good way to reduce reflections.
A polarizing filter is an essential accessory for seascape photography. It can reduce reflections on water and on ice, make clouds appear whiter against a blue sky, and can actually make a picture look sharper by reducing reflections on atmospheric haze.
Pack a Telephoto Lens
In addition to offering breathtaking scenic seascape opportunities, which you’ll capture with your wide-angle lens, coastal areas offer wonderful wildlife photo opportunities. For close-ups of animals, you’ll need a telephoto lens. This photograph of a mommy seal and pup was taken with my Canon 100–400mm lens, which is my favorite wildlife photography lens. You need a 400mm focal length because, in many cases, you can’t get close to the animals.
Capture Birds in Flight
Birds in flight (BIF) photographs require a bit of skill to be able to track a fast-moving bird, shown here: a seagull in Florida (left), and a bald eagle in Alaska (right). Your chances of tracking are improved when you photograph with both eyes open, which takes practice.
For sharp, handheld shots use image stabilization (or vibration reduction), and use a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 second. Many bird photographers like to use “back-button” focus, which separates focusing from taking a picture. This technique also takes practice. One final bird/wildlife photography tip: If the eye isn’t in focus, you (and I) have missed the shot.
For more tips on bird photography, see my KelbyOne class, Breathtaking Bird Photography.
Expose for the Highlights
In this bald eagle’s white features, you can see the detail, because I set the exposure for the highlights—the brightest part of the scene. To achieve that goal in your photographs, activate your camera’s Highlight Alert/Overexposure Warning, and take a shot. If you get what are called “blinkies,” which indicate overexposed areas of a scene, reduce your exposure a little at a time until those nasty “blinkies” go away.
In situations as in this shot—a bright subject surrounded by darker areas in the scene—it’s especially important to activate your Highlight Alert/Overexposure Warning. That’s because your camera will “think” the scene is darker than it is, and set the exposure for the dark areas, overexposing the main subject.
At seaports, you’ll also meet some wonderful people and interesting characters. Pictures of these people will add a human element to a slide show and online gallery. My number-one tip here is to take what’s called an “environmental portrait,” which is a picture of the person in his or her surrounding environment. That’s opposed to a tight headshot that could have been taken in your backyard. The environment helps to tell the subject’s story.
When photographing people, keep in mind that silence is deadly. Ask questions to keep a conversation going. For example, if you’re photographing a fisherman, ask about his boat, his catch, how long he stays out at sea, what he catches, and so on.
Have No Fear: Lightroom and Photoshop are Here!
The weather on coastal areas can change quickly. It may be foggy, windy, or rainy for a while, and then the sun will come out to brighten your day—and vice versa. In Iceland, for example, there’s an expression: If you think the weather is bad, wait 10 minutes; it will get worse.
If you don’t have time to wait for better weather, enjoy the mood of the scene and still take the shot, even if the picture looks dull and flat. Lackluster pictures can be transformed into beautiful images with the help of Photoshop, Lightroom, and other image-processing programs, as illustrated by these before-and-after pictures. This transformation is the result of applying digital enhancements in Lightroom: Dehaze and boosting the contrast and saturation.
Near the beginning of this article, I showed a photo of my mistake of getting water in my boots, so I thought I’d end with a photo of me making another mistake. While I was photographing on a beach in Sri Lanka, a “sneaker wave” ambushed me and almost knocked my camera, my tripod, and me into the strong surf. The moral of this story: Pay attention while you’re photographing and don’t take chances!