An Extensive Guide to Seascape Photography
Seascapes are one of the most challenging types of landscapes that one can capture. Why? Because it’s easy to capture a good seascape, while it’s really, really hard to capture a great seascape.
I think I’m not the only one that when first started doing photography went right down at the sea many times to try some long exposures, capture some golden light and the (in)famous silk water effect. Right? Come on, unless you live quite far from the sea, you must have tried at least a couple of times.
And, unless you’ve been really lucky (or well, a master of photography since the very start), the results were probably.. Okay. Not terrible, not even bad, but they weren’t great either. Let’s just say: not how you were picturing it in your mind. And you know why?
Because you can’t just go by the sea and hope to capture a great seascape (again, unless you’re incredibly lucky): it requires an incredible load of planning, time and attempts to finally get the image you were really craving.
In this article I’ll put all the best advices that I hardly learned with years of on-the-field experience, but most of all, with years of failures!
1. What is Seascape Photography
Before jumping into the action, it’s good to start from the very basics.
In this case, by giving a definition of what is a seascape photograph: as the name suggests, all the photos where the sea is one of the main subjects can be called seascapes.
Pay attention though: a wingull flying over the sea is not a seascape, neither underwater photos are. Seascapes are commonly considered a branch of landscape photography, so in order to be called a seascape, the shot should represent some kind of landscape with the sea in the frame, obviously.
2. What Time is Best for Seascape Photography
Now that you know what a seascape is, let’s talk about the right time to shoot it. In this context, the word “time” can have two different meanings: the time of the day, or the time of the year. Since we’ll talk later about the right time of the day to be on the spot, let’s look what’s the best time of the year to shoot seascape in this chapter.
For many of you, the obvious and much hoped answer would probably be summer, since that’s generally the time of the year when everybody goes to the sea for the holidays and the sunny weather; guess what? That’s actually the worst season to shoot seascapes (I’m sorry!).
Autumn, spring and/or winter will give you a lot more satisfaction in terms of photography.
The reason I’m saying this is simple: summer, unless you find yourself in some particular and remote locations, is mostly made of warm, sunny days, and calm waters, which is the exact opposite of what you should look for. What you want is to find some interesting waves movement with some clouds-colored skies over them.
Let’s set an example: to make the first photo of the article (the one with the big waves and the small village) I had to return there over and over again, till I finally found the conditions I was looking for. Sometimes there were big waves, but no clouds, and the photo looked “empty” on the upper part. Some other times there was a dramatic sky with splendid colors, but the sea was flat as a lake, and the shot was looking nothing special. After too many attempts, I finally made it to get the conditions I wanted. And you know at what time of the year this photo was made? Late November.
This is just one of the hundred examples that I could do when it comes to seascapes, but one thing they all have in common: none of the most beautiful ones has ever been captured in summer.
Now, a small disclaimer: I’m not stating that in summer it’s impossible to capture great seascapes, I’m just saying that chances are way lower than the other seasons. It may be that at your place summer is the time of the year when rough waters at sea and dramatic skies are more common: in that case you should absolutely go in that season!
The tip here is to focus yourself more on the conditions that will give you the chance to capture some great photos, rather than a specific time of the year when those conditions are always present: your next question may be “so, is there a way to study and anticipate these weather/sea conditions?” and the answer is.. Yes! And I’ll talk about that in one of the next chapters, so keep reading!
Ever heard of Cinque Terre?
It goes without saying that Cinque Terre are one of the best places in Italy to shoot seascapes. Check out this 2-nights photo tour where we’ll shoot all the most popular locations!
3. What do I need to Photography Seascapes?
Shooting seascapes can be challenging not just for you, but for your gear too! Saltwater is one of the worst things that can touch your equipment, so you should really be careful when you’re close to the sea and take some “safety measures” in order to protect your photo gear.
3.1 Camera & Lenses
Quite obviously the pieces of your gear that have electronic parts inside them are the most delicate ones, such as the camera and the lenses. There are some ways to avoid saltwater getting inside your precious equipment though:
- Stay at a safe distance from the action. The first and most logical one is.. To stand in a safe place where you are sure waves or sea won’t get you! And this advice is not only for your gear, but for you too! Sometimes it’s possible and there’s no reason not to do it, other times instead in order to make a compelling picture you can’t help but get close to the sea, and that’s where the other options come in.
- Use a weather-sealed camera. Let me be very clear: using a weather-sealed camera doesn’t mean using a waterproof camera. It won’t do miracles, in case your camera gets submerged by some big waves. You’ll be much more relaxed though in case a few water drops fall on your camera, since weather-sealed cameras can handle small quantities of water greatly and won’t stop working all of a sudden. It’s always recommended to clean the body when you are back home though, to avoid the oxidation of some external components.
- Use a cover. The last option is to cover your gear (camera + lens) with some kind of waterproof material. You can either choose to go for some of the camera-covers on the market or build it by yourself with some nylon or other waterproof materials. Again, by using a cover you are not automatically allowed to do some snorkeling with it; it will protect the equipment from spray and drops though, which is very useful when doing seascapes!
You know for a fact that most of the times you’ll end up using some sort of filter while you are shooting seascapes: why? Because using filters (specially ND) in this kind of situations is fun: by stretching the exposure time you’ll get different water effects, and you won’t have two identical shots as the waves are never the same.
The real problem is not using filters, is protecting the glass while you are shooting! Always remember to clean up the filter after every shot if you are subject to spray and/or water drops, as you just need a tiny amount of those on the filter to ruin your photo.
You might think that at least we shouldn’t worry much about the tripod, as there are no electronical parts, no glass, it’s just a sturdy piece of aluminium/carbon made of three legs.. Wrong. I mean, not the last part, but the part that we should not worry about it. I personally learned the hard way, since I ruined two tripods due to lack of attention to them when I was shooting at the sea. Problem is always the same: saltwater. There’s nothing wrong in putting your tripod in the water if the composition requires that, but you have to be sure to clean it properly as soon as you get back home. Oxidation will run its course otherwise, and you’ll start having many issues with your trustworthy tripod: loosing legs, hard connection points, and so on.
3.4 Lens Wipes/Cleaning Cloth
While this tool may come in handy in many other cases, here is essential. Actually, it’s so essential that I always recommend to bring at least two or three with you when you go shooting seascapes. Why one is not enough? Simply because after two or three times that you’ll clean your lens/filter, the cloth will be wet too, and will loose its original purpose: to keep your gear dry. That’s why you should bring more than one with you, so that you always have one ready for cleaning the lens.
This recommendation is clearly for you and not for your gear: be sure to use waterproof clothes and possibly rubber boots when you go shoot at the sea. Actually, if both the weather and the sea are warm enough, the best solution is to use a pair of short pants and remove your shoes in case you go in the water, so that you won’t have to dry anything once you are done with your photos.
If conditions aren’t warm enough though, don’t worry: just remember to use light, waterproof pants/shirts so that even if you get soaked, you’ll dry up fast: no wool or other warm materials so!
If you need to go into the water, you can either go with rubber boots (in case conditions are allowing those) or take off your shoes: never use your normal shoes, as they generally take ages to dry up.
Venice and its seascapes.
Venice lies in a lagoon on the Adriatic sea; it is one of the most romantic locations to shoot, a floating city in the sea. Discover our Classic 3-nights Venice Tour!
4. How to Photograph Ocean Waves
Now that we’ve covered the basics and the gear, it’s time to dip a bit more into the real argument of the article: how to properly photograph seascapes. As you probably read from the title I’ll consider ocean waves as the most common situation, but you can apply the tips I’ll give you in this section basically everywhere.
Let’s start from the most mechanical stuff (like focus, settings, depth of field, etc) and end up with the most “expressive” ones (composition, long expo vs freezing the motion, etc), shall we?
- Where to Focus: the general rule here is to always focus one the further thing you can see in the frame. Let’s take the shot below here, made in the Lofoten Islands, for example: to correctly focus, I used the live view mode of my camera and zoomed where the mountain is falling into the sea, almost at the centre of the frame in the background.
Considering the apertures that are working best for landscape photography (f/8-f/16), you are quite sure to have everything in focus.
Of course, if you aim to some particular effect where you specifically want the foreground in focus and the background blurred, go for it; otherwise, stick to the “background focus rule” (I just named that) explained above and you should be fine!
- Settings: since seascapes are nothing but a branch of landscape photography, many “rules” that apply to the whole genre can be applied to seascape photography too.
-- Aperture: as for all the other landscape photos, the general recommendation is to keep closed apertures (from f/8 till f/16 mostly) so that you get a large depth of field and so most of the subjects of your photo sharply in focus.
-- ISOs: same as the aperture, to capture seascapes you can use the same ISOs you generally use in landscape photography, which means the lowest possible: the most common setting here is ISO100, so that you’ll get barely any noise in the shot and achieve the maximum possible sharpness.
-- Shutter speed: here is where things become a bit trickier. Find the right exposure time when shooting a seascape is one of the thoughest challenges that you’ll encounter: there’s not a general rule, as each scene needs a different shutter speed. We’ll discuss this later in this chapter, for now you should just know that if you want to achieve the famous “silk water” effect, apart from using an ND filter, your exposure should be at least of 10/15 seconds. If you want slight movement in the frame, but with still some details visible, your exposure times shoud be around 1/5sec to 2”, basing on how fast the water is moving. If you want to freeze the motion, you need fast exposure times like 1/100sec or 1/250sec.
- Lighting: you should always remember to consider where the sun will be when you’ll be on the spot. Is the sun setting on the sea? Or is it setting on the opposite side? Will I have side light coming in, or should I prepare myself to shoot a sunstar? Or maybe it’s better to be at that location for the blue hour, when the lights are lighting up? These and many more are the questions that you should always answer before actually getting to the spot, if you want any chances of catching a great light situation!
- Depth of Field: as I wrote earlier in the “Settings” paragraph, always be sure to use an aperture closed enough to have the majority of the frame (or at least the most important subjects) sharp and in focus; that’s the best way to achieve a wide depth of field. Focus stacking in this case is not recommended as the sea textures are ever-changing and you would have a really hard time merging the shots together in post production.
- Foreground: not surprisingly, foreground is really important in seascape photography. Whether you are shooting with a telephoto lens or wide angle, you should always pay attention to what you put in the foreground and question yourself if it’s helpful and functional to what you want to represent with that shot or just disturbing. Is it taking to much importance? Is it leading the eye of the viewer to the background, or is it just an anchor point? Try to ask yourself these questions next time.
- Getting into the Water: I already talked about this all along the article, but it’s time to face the hard truth: sometimes you’ll have to get into the water.
There’s no way to avoid it: sometimes it’s all about settling down with an average shot and keep yourself dry or get soaked with a great composition.
This doesn’t mean that everytime you go to the sea you must get into the water to return back home with a great photo, as sometimes it’s the exact opposite of what I just wrote above here.
Even if I’ll dedicate a separate chapter to safety later, I want to spend a couple of words here too: please, don’t be stupid. Don’t get into the sea if it’s raging or there are big waves going on. Always observe and check the conditions first, then if it’s safe you can get in. Otherwise, always remember that your life is worth way, way more than a couple of photos!
I want to dedicate a paragraph to composition, as it’s one of the most important aspects when doing seascapes (actually, when doing any kind of photography!) which can turn a mediocre shot into a great one. It’s hard to put into words a rule to find a great composition, but one thing you should try to remember: the sea is one of your best friends here, so exploit it as much as you can.
First thing you should do is check if the sea is raging or not, and then study the composition accordingly; if the waves are high, your focus should be on giving the right importance to those waves and include them into that context (like in the shot above), while if the sea is calm you may want to opt for a very long exposure and enhance the difference between a few still subjects and the silk water effect (like in the shot below here). As you can see, the two shots are made at the same place with a very similar composition; conditions were quite different though, and so they are the two final results.
One thing they have in common: a strong leading line that takes the eye to the background. This is one of the best “techniques” you can do to improve your photos, add a leading line in the foreground: whether you use some rocks, water movement, a dead tree trunk, it will help create more depth of field and balancing the shot.
4.2 Golden Hour and Seascapes
Unsurprisingly, like most of the cases when talking about landscape photography, golden hours and seascapes go along very well together. Both at sunrise and sunset you’ll manage to snap some beautiful contrasts as the shadows acquire importance as the sun is lower on the horizon and enhance the lines of your subject better.
But it’s not just a game of lights and shadows: colors become important too during the golden hours, as the natural blue(-ish) tones of the sea will meet the typical warm hues of the sunrise/sunset, creating an interesting contrast in terms of colors too!
A small tip: be sure not to leave right after sunset/arrive right at sunrise, but take time also for the blue hour. The golden hours can be incredibly beautiful, but sometimes the blue hour can create some magical atmospheres too: try to stay out (or arrive) till late (early).
4.3 Long Exposure
The sea is the perfect subject when it comes to long exposures: by using a long shutter speed, the effect you can play with are endless. When I’m talking about long shutter speeds, I mean exposures of at least 10/15 seconds, till a few minutes in some cases.
Let’s set an example to make things easier for you: check out the two shots in the gallery here. They are quite similar in terms of composition, and they were made in a 30 minutes time-frame, but as you can see they are very different. And I’m not talking about the colors in the sky.
The big difference here is the shutter speed: in the upper one I used a 30” exposure, while in the one below I used a ⅓ second exposure. I knew that in order to trasmit the power of the sea at that moment to whoever is seeing the photo, I had to freeze it by using a faster shutter speed. The 30” exposure is looking nice too, but it’s not conveying the same emotion of the ⅓ sec exposure.
The whole point here is that there are scenes where long exposures are fitting the image perfectly to give the sense of calmness and peace, while in other cases a faster shutter speed is recommended to capture the power of the sea.
4.4 Freezing the Motion
Apart from the various long exposures, there’s also the case where you don’t want any movement in your photo and just capture the moment. Carpe diem, right? Check out the shot below: in that case I precisely wanted the boat to be as still as possible. In order to achieve that, since it was already the late blue hour, I had to raise a bit the ISOs and remove all the filters from the lens.
So, to give you a brief recap: there are long-long exposures, short-long exposures, and still shots. It might seem confusing, but you’ll see that once you get the hang of shooting seascapes, you’ll already know what will be the exposure times you’re going to use before to even set up the camera!
4.5 Tips for Using a Tripod
I won’t bother to steal your time on this: you need a tripod to shoot seascapes, as 99% of the times in landscape photography, period. Without a tripod, you won’t manage to do any long exposure, any bracketing or HDR, any other technique that you might want to try.
As I explained above, putting your tripod into the saltwater can damage it, but with a good cleaning nothing will happen to your trustworthy piece of carbon/aluminium.
A small tip: be sure to always keep one hand on the tripod at all times. If a bigger waves hits it, your entire gear will fall on the rocks/in the water; it’s a good precaution to always hold onto it.
Learn how to control the white balance of your seascapes.
Check out this useful article about white balance!
5. Important Advices for Shooting Seascapes
First thing first: let’s talk about safety. Capturing big waves crashing along the coast is all good and fun, until you find yourself hit by a bigger wave or being sucked in the open sea by the tide. It may sound dramatic and exaggerated, I know, while you are reading this comfortably from your studio or your bedroom. But trust me, it’s not.
I’ll take Reynisfjara beach in Iceland as an example: if you have read the news about the country in the last few years, you may have encountered that many tourists got seriously injured by some crashing waves on the beach. This can happen to anyone that is not standing at a safe distance from the waves, that beach is just an example, as the sea is unpredictable. The raging sea is one of the most dangerous forces of nature, and you should always remind yourself that while you are shooting it.
5.2 Tide and Swell
Tide and swell should be considered too when thinking about going to shoot some seascapes: why? Firstly because of the safety reason I was writing in the previous chapter: you may remain trapped at a certain location as the tide is changing from low to high. The transition is actually quite fast, so if you see that you are in a possibly dangerous place and there’s a risk to remain stuck, fly away as soon as possible!
Secondly, some places are possible to be shoot just when the tide is low (or high), or may look dull during a phase of the tide while may look awesome during another phase. You can generally check tide and swell times online on your local weather forecast website.
As always in landscape photography, weather has a crucial role in capturing the best possible conditions. Before to even go out, be sure to check at least a couple of different website with reliable forecasts; the conditions you should look for are incoming/outcoming storms during sunrise/sunset, or at least partly cloudy situations. These conditions works great because they’ll give you (well, if everything goes as predicted) some beautiful colors in the sky and on the clouds at sunset.
We talked about weather, tide, swell, settings, how to protect your gear and many other things.. Now take all these notions together, and use them to plan the perfect seascape session. I’ll help you by creating a list down here with all the things you should check before leaving your home:
- Check the weather forecasts
- Check the marine forecasts (tide, waves, swell)
- Scout the location (you can do it online by checking other’s photos, if it’s not at a reasonable distance from your home)
- Be at the spot early and start look for compositions
- Set up and try different shutter speeds to see which one is working better
- Shoot and have fun!
Just one more.
We definitely recommend to read this guide about the best time to visit Cinque Terre.