For me, Seascape Photography is the art of capturing the never ending battle between land and sea. We can use these two fantastic elements to our advantage and through the use of shutter speed we can highlight their differences and play with the effect to create a more dramatic image.

The contrast between the solid never moving cliffs or rocks and the swirling and spraying of the wild sea can result in amazing images. By applying the correct techniques, the solid ground can act as an anchor in the image being both sharp and in focus, while the water and clouds, if the conditions are right, can create a magical motion blur via Long Exposure photography.

Guide to Seascape Photography

Seascapes photography can take various forms from your high-speed shutter shots, capturing every single drop of that amazing spray as a wave crashes against a cliff face and freezing it in midair, or the other extreme of minute-long exposures creating a surreal milky foggy effect in the water. The use of a half second exposure to blur the waves movement and still keeping the detail in the sea body behind the wave is also one of many other options.

So, what shutter speed is the right choice?

Well, all of them are and it’s up to you, your vision and the conditions to use these different methods to express what the scene says or feels like to you.

Some Advice Before Starting

Before we get started on how to capture these effects I want to pass on a few bits of advice I normally share with people starting out in Seascape photography:

  1. Buy good boots with great grips, they can be anything from waders to wellingtons or waterproof boots. Stay dry and safe; that’s the most important thing. I have both seen and heard of numerous photographers slipping and falling on the rocks due to poor grips. One slip and it could be fatal or a nasty accident for you or your equipment.
  2. NEVER turn your back on the sea. Yes, it’s beautiful and can be consistent but rogue waves are very real and have surprised me numerous times over the years. Different countries have very different coastal conditions and countries like Ireland get some very large rogue waves.
  3. Buy some good waterproof clothing as you are going to get wet. After I return home soaked Nadja always remarks “oh can’t wait to see the photo’s”. That may seem like an inside joke but I always find the times I get destroyed are the times I see something and just go for it. When I put myself where the action is and try to capture an image I can see in my mind’s eye. Standing back and watching from dry land can often be an option but you’re missing the close up impact and action then, especially when shooting with a wide angle lens.
  4. Photograph in Raw and use manual mode. Using automatic modes is like painting with a broom, where as Manual Mode is like painting with a delicate paint brush; you have far greater creative control over the outcome.

Guide to Seascape Photography

What Time is Ideal for Seascape Photography?

As with all types of photography, light is king and the golden hours around sunset & sunrise are ideal. The soft warm glow at these times of the day is both spectacular and magical.

However, the golden hours can also cause a few problems for photographers; it can be hard to capture the entire dynamic range due to the harsh contrast between direct sunlight and shadowed rocks or cliffs. This is where your filters come in (more about that later).

Guide to Seascape Photography

Correctly exposing for the sun is your main priority while still keeping your shadows reasonably well exposed. Your camera’s histogram will always be your best friend when it comes to correctly exposing an image and you should always remember it’s better to verge on under exposing your shadow detail than over exposing the highlights as you will burn out the sky, this simply can’t be recovered in editing afterward.

The easiest time to photograph seascapes when you’re a beginner is just after sunset as the light is a lot easier to balance and you can experiment at ease then.

Necessary Equipment for Landscape Photography

As Seascape photography usually involves being very close to the water, proper wet weather clothing and waders or waterproof boots are your first stop.

Next, a good quality tripod is your second best friend as most of the time it will be at or in the water. Normally, tripods are on dry land and the only vibrations they receive are wind-based but while in the water you have another variable; the water itself rushing past and around the legs of the tripod. The dragging and pushing and pulling on your tripod while at the edge of the water are difficult to control but I have a few tips further down this post on how you can tackle this challenge.

Guide to Seascape Photography

Obviously, you’ll also need a camera and lens(es). Yes, that was to be expected I suppose! Lens cleaning clothes or wet wipes are also vital as you’re often fighting with the mist and the spray can be a constant battle.

Filters are a seascape photographers best friend and vital for creating the effect you want. My go to filters are 6 & 10 stop Neutral density filters and 2.5 & 5 stop hard nd grads. They are usually the only filters I use.

Choosing the Right Effect for Your Image

It’s all about weather and conditions for me. Usually, I decide on arrival as the conditions in Southern Ireland change so quickly. This normally throws planning for a specific style of shot out of the window. That can be a problem but it also helps keep a creative outlook for the shoot until you arrive at your location.

Guide to Seascape Photography

Similiar to landscape photography the golden hour is a seascape photographer’s time to shine. That means early morning or late evening is your time to catch those beautiful rays of light and the soft glow of the sun as it sinks or emerges from the horizon. This means getting to the location in good time. Let’s look at what a typical sunset session would look like:

Seascapes at Sunset

Arrive at the location at least an hour before sunset – this gives you enough time to observe water movement, cloud cover, tidal surges, and wind. This is your prediction time and, for me, this is the most important step in capturing an image.

Remember that the composition is a key element to the image. Sure, you can capture the most technically brilliant shot but if the composition is off – it will simply never be right.

Guide to Seascape Photography

So, spend some time to watch the clouds and see if they are traveling in a particular direction and ask yourself if that benefits you. A little trick I use for examing the clouds hidden detail is a pair of sunglasses; with the naked eye, we often can’t see all the detail due to the brightness of the sky.

What about the waves? Are they moving in a particular pattern? How is the tide? Is it coming or going? You can often see beautiful movement in the waves as they whip past rocks or curl up a sandy bank and slip back to sea and the tide can both expose or hide rock formations, so keep this in mind while planning your shoot.

The tide can also affect the color of your sand and how light behaves on rocks etc. Damp sand is darker which normally isn’t a problem but wet rocks above the waterline can have shimmering light reflections bouncing off their surface which can add another dimension or problem to your shot. These reflections are easy to overexpose, so your position in relation to them is another aspect to keep an eye on.

Lastly, ask yourself what do you see and what do you really like about the scene in front of you? What are its positives? How can you highlight them and how can you disguise or hide any of the distractions or negative aspects in the image? This might seem straight forward and it usually is but you would be surprised how many photographers go to the beach and put their camera in one position without really thinking about it and just keep snapping away from there.

Setting up

When you’ve found your spot and the conditions are starting to become favorable, the first step is to setup your tripod. Years of experience have thought me to extend the narrower legs on your tripod to lift the joint (twist lock or clasp) out of the sand and water. This should help prolong the life of your tripod and make it easier to clean later. If you’re setting up on sand, then press the legs firmly into the sand, this will help prevent vibrations and stop the legs being dragged by the backwash of the wave.

If you’re at the edge of the water, wait for a wave to come in and as it retreats back out to sea press firmly down on your tripod and it will sink well below the surface of the sand. This has two effects in that it helps to stabilize the tripod with the weight of the sand around the legs and it also prevents the retreating water from digging under the legs and undermining your tripods stability.

Guide to Seascape Photography

Next, place the camera on the tripod and put your bag securely over your shoulder; never leave your bag on the sand near the tide incase of sudden swells. Get your light readings and workout what filters you need depending on the effect you want. I usually meter off the sun as this is the part of the image we need to correctly expose first and then work backward from there.

What Filters Should You Use and When?

Normally, I use a combination of a 2.5 or 5 stop hard graduated neutral density (GND) filter and a 10-stop Neutral Density (ND) filter to enable exposures between 15 seconds and several minutes, depending on the light at the time. This creates a beautiful motion blur in the water and can help to seemingly pull the clouds across the sky if the conditions are right.

I use the 2.5 or 5 stop Graduated ND filter and a 6-stop ND filter for exposures around half a second long. This effect is ideal when you want the wave to just have a slight motion blur while keeping the sea and sky all in focus and sharp. The correct shutter speed varies depending on the waves speed and the incline of the beach.

How and where to Focus

For me, manual mode and back button focusing are second nature and vital to my work. In portraiture and commercial work, they are vital tools and for Landscape and Seascape photography I feel as though they should nearly be mandatory for everyone to learn.

Guide to Seascape Photography

There is a lot of confusion regarding focusing and the difficulties involved. A little cheat I tell people starting out is to set your aperture to f/11 to achieve a good depth of field while maintaining sharpness. Next, go into Live View and zoom in 100% on your foreground and adjust your focus manually until it’s in focus then go to your background and check your focus there. If you’re shooting a very close foreground, you may need to change your aperture to f/16 to increase your depth of field – just remember this also decreases your sharpness slightly due to diffraction. I normally shoot between f/9 to f/11 for seascapes.

Composition is your final hurdle

This is one of the most difficult aspects of any genre of photography as it usually requires a lot of vision or trial and error. Is it something you can teach yourself? The simple answer is yes but it can be a long and tedious process, so I have a few little pointers for you:

  1. The Rule of Thirds is always your friend, it can be used to basically setup your photograph in a standard format – yes it gets boring after a while but it gives you a solid base to start from.
  2. It’s important to give the viewer a point to anchor the image on in any image you introduce motion blur to. I usually compose an image with a solid object directly at the start of the photograph; your eyes and mind then have a solid grounding point and from there you can be drawn into the image. There are obviously exceptions to the rule but again this is just a good starting point.
  3. The most important aspect to remember is what you like about the scene. What do you see in your mind? After you take the photograph look a way from the scene and concentrate on something else before turning around again to look at the image only. Is that what you wanted? If not, then why?

When we are so caught up trying to compose, capture and expose an image correctly, I often see photographers completely forgetting what it was that they wanted to capture in the first place. When they get home and look at the photograph on their screen the “if I had only moment” happens.

Guide to Seascape Photography

So, try to look away from the scene and look at the captured photograph with a fresh pair of eyes again. We often see what we want to see when viewing the captured image and the scene at the same time.

Final Words

These are all just very basic steps which can lead you to more advanced aspects of photography like lens compression and the correct use of focal length, being more artistic with Depth of Field and blending several images together to create a more balanced exposure.

Always remember that photography is an art form and we can use our cameras to compose each image like a painting by adding our own personal touch with the camera settings. The ultimate aim for me is to try and capture a photograph correctly, leaving me with as little editing as possible (max 15mins per pic) so I can spend more time taking photographs than sitting at a desktop.

Guide to Seascape Photography

These are just my own personal ideas and suggestions for people interested in seascape photography. I am sure I’ve posted a few points some may not agree with but that’s the beauty of photography. Remember that we always learn something new and we all have our own techniques.

So, go explore, go get wet and immerse yourself in that beautiful ocean. Go fill your lungs with fresh air until you can feel the salt crystals forming on your skin because there is nothing more beautiful than standing in nature and trying your best to capture her beauty in a single image. Something I can only personally hope to achieve one day.

Kieran Hayes
Kieran Hayes a photographer from West Cork, Ireland. A passionate seascape photographer whose heart belongs in the Atlantic Ocean. Lucky enough to have lived all his life on the Wild Atlantic Way in Southern Ireland and worked mainly around counties Cork and Kerry. Kieran prefers to see himself as a hobbyist rather than a professional photographer as photography is more pleasure than work for him. Kieran works as a fashion photographer for numerous designers, labels and outlets as well as other commercial work including jewellery and product photography. With more personal work like portraiture and newborn photography where meeting customers on a daily basis and having a bit of fun while capturing precious moments is a pure thrill for him. Lucky enough to have have the sea on his doorstep he regularly does photoshoots at the coast and enjoys holding seascape photography workshops along the Irish Coastline.