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 one.
When I first started doing photography, I went right down to the sea many times to try capturing long exposures with capture golden light and the (in)famous silky water effect. I bet you've tried the same too, right? Come on, unless you live quite far from the sea, you must have tried at least a couple of times.
Unless you’ve been really lucky (or a master of photography since the very start), the results were probably.. okay. Not terrible, not even bad but they probably weren’t great either. Let’s just say that they probably didn't turn out how you were picturing in your mind. Do 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). Photographing seascapes requires an incredible load of planning, time and attempts to finally get the image you may be really craving. In this article, I’ll give you all the best advice that I have learned with years of in-field experience, as well as years of failures, so that you can start capturing amazing seascapes!
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 images where the sea is one of the main subjects can be referred to as seascapes.
Seascapes feature the sea with the landscape in the frame. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
Pay attention though: an image of a gull flying over the sea is not a seascape, nor is an underwater photograph. Seascapes are 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.
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 location, let’s look instead at what is the best time of the year to shoot seascapes for now.
For many of you, the obvious and much hoped for answer will probably be the summer, since that’s generally the time of the year when everybody goes to the sea for the holidays and the sunny weather. Well 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 seascape photography.
The reason I’m saying this is simple. During summer, the days are mostly warm, the sun is out and the water is calm. This is the exact opposite of what you need to create dramatic images. What you want is to find some interesting wave movement with clouds that will catch the light during sunrise or sunset.
Let me give you an example. To capture the title image of this article (the one with the big waves and the small village), I had to return there over and over again, until I finally found the conditions I was looking for. Sometimes there were big waves but no clouds, so the photo looked “empty” in the upper part. Other times, there was a dramatic sky with splendid colours but the sea was flat as a lake, so the shot did not look special. After too many attempts, I was finally able to capture the conditions I wanted. Do you know at what time of the year this photo was made? Late November in autumn!
This is just one of the hundreds of examples that I can give you when it comes to seascapes but one thing they all have in common is that none of the most beautiful ones have ever been captured in summer.
Summer is not always the best time for seascape photography. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
Now, a small disclaimer: I’m not stating that in summer it’s impossible to capture great seascapes, I’m just saying that your chances are way lower than during the other seasons. It may be that at your place, summer is the time of the year when rough waters occur at sea and dramatic skies are more common. In this case, you should absolutely go out for seascape photography during the summer 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 on a specific time of the year when those conditions are always present. If you're wondering whether there is a way to predict good conditions for seascape photography, then the answer is yes! I’ll talk about that in one of the next chapters, so keep reading!
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 by taking “safety measures” in order to protect your photo gear.
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.
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 the waves or sea won’t get you! This advice is not only for your gear but for you, too! Sometimes it’s possible to avoid the water, while other times you may need to get close to the sea or even stand in the water in order to make a compelling picture. This is where the other options can come in handy.
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 onto your camera, since weather-sealed cameras can handle small quantities of water well 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 due to contact with salt.
Use a waterproof cover. The last option is to cover your gear (camera and lens) with some kind of waterproof material. You can either choose to go for some of the camera-covers on the market or build one by yourself with some nylon or other waterproof materials. Again, by using a cover you are not automatically allowed to go underwater or do some snorkelling with it. The cover 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 time, you’ll end up using some sort of filter while you are shooting seascapes. Using filters (especially neutral density filters) in this kind of situation is fun. By stretching the exposure time, you’ll get different water effects and you won’t end up with two identical shots as the waves are never the same.
Filters allow you to get more creative with seascapes. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
The only problem with using filters is protecting them while you are shooting! Always remember to clean up the filter after every shot if you are subject to spray or splashes, as even a tiny mark can ruin your photos.
You might think that you won't need to worry too much about your tripod, as there are no electronic parts or glass inside. After all, it’s just a sturdy piece of aluminium or carbon made of three legs... right?
Wrong. I personally learned the hard way, since I have ruined two tripods due to lack of attention to them when I have been shooting at the sea. The problem is always the same: saltwater. There’s nothing wrong with 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, such as loosening of the legs, hard connection points and so on.
While this tool may come in handy in many other cases, here it is essential. Actually, it’s so essential that I always recommend that you bring at least two or three with you when you go shooting seascapes. Why is one not enough? Simply because after two or three wipes, the cloth will be wet too and will lose its original drying power. That’s why you should bring more than one with you, so that you will 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 to 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 wear light, waterproof pants and shirts so that even if you get soaked, you’ll dry up quickly.
If you need to go into the water, you can either go with rubber boots (in case conditions allow) or take off your shoes. Never use your normal shoes, as they generally take ages to dry and can be ruined by saltwater damage.
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've 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.
Learn everything you need to know to capture the waves of the ocean. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
Let’s start from the most mechanical stuff, like focus, settings, depth of field and so on, working towards the more “expressive” techniques such as composition, long exposure and freezing the motion.
The general rule here is to always focus on the farthest thing you can see in the frame. Let’s take the shot below, which was captured in the Lofoten Islands. To correctly focus, I used the Live View mode of my camera and zoomed into where the mountain falls into the sea, almost at the centre of the frame in the background.
Try to get everything within focus. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
The apertures that work best for landscape photography are between f/8-f/16, which will ensure that you can get everything in your frame in-focus. Of course, if you want the foreground in focus and the background blurred, then go for it by dialling in a wider aperture. Otherwise, stick to the “background focus rule” explained above and you should be fine!
Since seascapes are a branch of landscape photography, many “rules” that apply to the whole genre can be applied to seascape photography too.
Aperture: As for all other landscape photos, the general recommendation is to keep closed apertures (from f/8 till f/16 mostly), so that you can achieve a large depth of field and so most of the subjects in your photo will be sharply in focus.
ISO: 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 ISO 100, 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. Finding the right exposure time when shooting a seascape is one of the toughest challenges that you’ll encounter. There isn't a general rule, as each scene needs a different shutter speed. We’ll discuss this later in this chapter but for now, you should just know that if you want to achieve the famous “silky water” effect, then you'll need to use a neutral density (ND) filter and your exposure time should be at least of 10 to 15 seconds. If you want slight movement in the frame but with some details visible, your exposure times should be around 1/5 sec to 2”, based on how fast the water is moving. If you want to freeze the motion, then you'll need a fast exposure time, such as 1/100 sec or 1/250 sec.
Lighting: You should always consider where the sun will be when you're shooting. Is the sun setting over the sea or is it setting on the opposite side? Will you have side light coming in, or should you prepare yourself to shoot a sunstar? Perhaps it’s better to be at the location for the blue hour, when the surrounding buildings are lighting up? These and many more are the questions that you should always ask yourself 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 will have a really hard time merging the shots together in post production.
Foreground: Not surprisingly, the 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 up too much space? Is it leading the eye of the viewer to the background or is it just an anchor point? Try to ask yourself these questions ahead of time.
Getting into the Water: I already talked about this 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 you may either have to settle with an average shot by keeping yourself dry versus getting completely soaked to capture a great composition. This doesn’t mean that everyt ime you go to the sea, you must get into the water to return back home with a great photo. It just means that you'll need to explore your choices of composition.
Even though I'll be dedicating a separate chapter to safety later, I want to remind you of your safety here too. So please, don’t be stupid. Don’t get into the sea if it’s raging or if 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!
Composition is 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 is that the sea is one of your best friends here, so exploit it as much as you can.
Composition is an important part of seascape photography. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
The first thing you should do is check if the sea is raging or not and then study the opportunities for compositions accordingly. If the waves are high, then your focus should be on giving the right importance to those waves and include them in that context (like in the shot above). On the other hand, if the sea is calm, you may want to opt for a very long exposure to enhance the difference between a few still subjects and the silky water effect (like in the shot below). As you can see, the two shots were made at the same place with a very similar composition; conditions were quite different though, so the results are also very different.
By smoothing out the water, you can change the overall atmosphere of the shot, even with the same composition. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
One thing they have in common is a strong leading line that takes the eye to the background. This is one of the best techniques you can use to improve your photos. By adding a leading line in the foreground, it will help create more depth of field and balance the shot.
Unsurprisingly, as in most cases when talking about landscape photography, golden hours and seascapes go along very well together. You can capture some beautiful contrasts during sunrise and sunset, as the shadows acquire importance when the sun is lower on the horizon, enhancing the lines of your subject better.
But it’s not just a game of lights and shadows: colours become important too during the golden hours, as the natural blue tones of the sea will meet the typical warm hues of the sunrise or sunset. This can create an interesting contrast in terms of colours!
Golden hour is a great time to capture seascapes. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
Be sure not to leave right after sunset or to arrive right at sunrise. Instead, take the time to capture a seascape during the blue hour. The golden hours can be incredibly beautiful but sometimes, the blue hour can create some magical atmospheres too, so try to stay out late or arrive early if possible.
The sea is the perfect subject when it comes to long exposure photography. By using a long shutter speed, the effects you can play with are endless. When I talk about long shutter speeds, I mean exposures of at least 10 to 15 seconds, up to a few minutes in some cases.
Long exposure is a great technique to try at the sea. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
Here's an example to make things a bit clearer. Check out the shot above and then the one below. They are quite similar in terms of composition. Both were made within a 30 minute time-frame but as you can see, they are very different (and I’m not talking about the colours in the sky).
The big difference here is the shutter speed. In the upper image, I used a 30” exposure while in the one below, I used a ⅓ second exposure. I knew that in order to convey the power of the sea at that moment to my audience, I had to freeze it by using a faster shutter speed. The 30” exposure looks nice but it does not convey the same emotion as the ⅓ sec exposure.
You can create all sorts of interesting effects with longer shutter speed times. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
The whole point here is that there are scenes where long exposures fit the image perfectly to give a sense of calmness and peace while in other cases, a faster shutter speed is recommended to capture the power of the sea.
There may be times when you won't want any movement in your photo. Instead, you may just like to capture the moment and freeze it in time. Carpe diem, right?
Check out the shot below. In this case, I wanted the boat to be as still as possible. As it was already the late blue hour, I had to raise the ISO and remove all the filters from the lens in order to achieve stillness of motion.
Freezing the motion is achieved with a faster shutter speed. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
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 the approximate exposure times that you’re going to use will be before you even set up your camera!
You will need a tripod to shoot seascapes. Without a tripod, you won’t be able to do any long exposures, bracketing, HDR or 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 or aluminium.
Be sure to always keep one hand on the tripod at all times while you're shooting. If a bigger waves hits it, your entire set-up may fall on the rocks or in the water, so it's a good precaution to always hold onto it.
In this last chapter we’ll talk about some really important tips and advices to use when going out to shoot seascapes.
Always keep safety first and foremost in your mind when photographing seascapes. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
First thing first, let’s talk about safety. Capturing big waves crashing along the coast is all good and fun, until you find yourself being hit by a bigger wave or being sucked into the open sea by the tide.It may sound dramatic and exaggerated 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 seen that some tourists have been seriously injured by crashing waves at the Reynisfjara black sand beach. This can happen to anyone who is not standing at a safe distance from the waves.
The sea is unpredictable. The raging sea is one of the most dangerous forces of nature and you should always keep this in mind while you are shooting it.
Tide and swell should be considered too when thinking about going to shoot seascapes. If you're not prepared, then you may remain trapped at a certain location as the tide changes from low to high. The transition can actually be quite fast, so if you see that you are in a possibly dangerous place and there’s a risk of getting stuck, then you should get away as soon as possible!
In some places, it may be possible to shoot only when the tide is low. In other places, it may look dull at low tide and amazing at high tide. You can generally check tide and swell times online on your local weather forecast website.
With seascape photography, the weather plays a crucial role in being able to capture the best possible conditions. Before you even go out, be sure to check at least a couple of different websites with reliable forecasts. The conditions you should look for are incoming or outgoing storms during sunrise and sunset, or at least partly cloudy situations. These conditions work well for seascapes because they’ll give you some beautiful colours in the sky and the clouds.
We've 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 people's photos, if it’s not at a reasonable distance from your home)
Be at the spot early and start looking for compositions
Set up and try different shutter speeds to see which one works best
Shoot and have fun!
Capturing the sea is not as difficult as it seems. Photo by: 'Leonardo Papèra'.
The beauty of the sea has barely any equals. Being able to capture its majesty and power is an honour for all of us. The artistic possibilities that it opens up are endless, since you can always find a new way to frame the sea. I seriously hope that this article has helped you in some way to improve your photographic skills when it comes to photographing seascapes. The bottom line is to have fun and be safe!
Where is your favourite place to photograph the sea? Do you prefer to create long exposures or to freeze the motion of the waves? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!