Many landscape photographers consider filters to be an essential tool. Using the right filters at the right times can make a huge difference for the final picture, especially when photographing seascapes.
Even though I love rough and rugged seascapes, I find filters and seascape photography to be a match made in heaven. When photographing seascapes, you’re working with several factors that involve motion; placing a filter in front of the lens and being creative with the shutter speed can result in breathtaking images.
The filters you’ll be introduced to in this article are my favorite filters for seascape photography and the ones I find to give the most pleasing results for my personal taste. While I do use other filters too (or occasionally none) these are the ones you’re most likely to find me using:
A 3-Stop Neutral Density Filter
For a long time, I was fascinated by ultra-long exposure photography (often using shutter speeds of several minutes) but this has slowly changed and these days I tend to prefer more rugged seascapes which still have a fair amount of details and texture in the water.
To keep this texture in the water I need to use a quicker shutter speed than what one typically does to blur or obscure motion. However, I don’t want to use one which completely freezes the image either. It’s a thin line between a shutter speed which is neither too quick nor too slow but I’ve found that the ideal exposure time is between 0.5 and 2 seconds. Keep in mind that this heavily depends on how quick the waves are (the slower they are, the longer shutter speed you’ll need and vice versa.)
It can be difficult to achieve such a shutter speed if you’re photographing during daytime and not willing to sacrifice any image quality. That’s where the 3-Stop ND Filter comes in handy: it’s just dark enough to lengthen the exposure time enough to use a semi-slow shutter speed.
Recommended Reading: Long Exposure Photography Without Filters
The image above is a typical example of an image where I’ve captured motion in the water while still keeping the textures. The picture was captured just past sunrise and it was quickly getting brighter outside, meaning I had to use an ND Filter in order to achieve the shutter speed I was aiming for.
Using either a 6-Stop or 10-Stop Neutral Density Filter would result in an exposure time of up to a couple of minutes, which was way more than what I aimed for. A shutter speed of several minutes would lead to the water being completely blurred and losing all textures in it (see image below).
On the other hand, the shutter speed would be too quick if I didn’t use a filter; I wouldn’t be able to capture any of the motion.
The solution? A 3-Stop ND Filter. This resulted in a shutter speed of 1.6 seconds which was just enough to capture the waves.
The 10-Stop ND Filter
Despite the fact that I tend to prefer keeping textures in the water when photographing seascapes, it’s hard to avoid mentioning a 10-Stop ND Filter when talking about filters for seascape photography.
It’s no secret that this is a favorite amongst many and the results can be astonishing; it really has the power to transform a decent scene into something much more eye-catching.
I got hooked on the 10-Stop quickly when I first started long exposure photography. It’s a fascinating technique and despite it taking time to master, you’ll be surprised at the impact the slow shutter speed has on your images.
While I tend to use the 3 or 6-stop more lately, the 10-Stop ND Filter still remains one of my all-time most used filters; it’s my go-to filter when the clouds are quick, as I love the effect of the ‘dragged sky’.
Above is a typical example of what you can achieve by using a 10-Stop ND Filter.
I was able to use a shutter speed of 60 seconds, which was more than enough time for the quickly moving clouds to cross the frame creating additional leading lines that benefit the composition.
There’s one thing you need to be aware of when using 10-Stop ND Filters, though: they tend to have very dominant color casts. It depends you’re using but some tend to make your images blue, others yellow and some red.
I’ve tried a bunch of ND Filters (everything from no-name cheap brands to the supposedly best of the best) and there are only a handful of alternatives that give you a neutral result.
While it’s not too time-consuming to correct color casts in post-processing I prefer starting at a more neutral ground when moving into post-processing, as it allows me to better represent the scene as I saw it.
The Medium Graduated ND Filter
My third and final favorite filter for seascape photography is the NiSi Medium Graduated ND Filter. While the previous filters have been brand independent (meaning it won’t make a big difference which brand you choose), this is a more specific filter.
I’ve had the Medium Graduated ND Filter for a while now and it’s quickly become my favorite GND Filter. In fact, it’s the only one I’ve used since receiving it.
Recommended Reading: NiSi Medium Graduated ND Filter Review
I’m sure that you’ve experienced this before: the foreground of your image looks great but the sky is completely white, or the sky looks great but the landscape is completely black. This is a common challenge in landscape photography. Due to the limitations of digital cameras, they’re not able to capture the full dynamic range the way our eyes can.
That’s when a Graduated Filter comes in handy. This filter is only partially darkened, which means you can use it to darken only parts of your image. Typically, it’s used to darken the sky in order to capture a well-balanced image.
For a long time, the most common Graduated ND Filters have been the Soft- and Hard Edge versions. While they both are good tools, they’re fairly limited in their use; a Soft-Edge filter is great for photographing mountains but not ideal for seascapes, while a Hard-Edge is great for flat horizons but not when something projects upward in it. The Medium Grad has been a game-changer for me. It’s an alternative that works equally well in both situations.
This has become my most-used graduated filter not only for seascape photography but for landscape photography in general.
It’s important to remember that there’s rarely one correct filter for seascape photography. Which filter you should use (if any) highly depends on the situation and the image you’ve got in mind.
Some scenes benefit from a 10-Stop ND Filter and an ultra-long exposure time while others are best at only a second or even less. Some scenes benefit from a graduated filter to darken the sky, others don’t.
I always recommend experimenting with different filters when you’re in the field. This will give you a better idea of which filter you prefer in various situations. After all, learning by doing is the best way to learn.
Even after several years of using filters, I still often capture the same scene with different filters; first an image with a 3-Stop, one with a 6-Stop and one with a 10-Stop. While I know more or less what the image will look like in advance, it’s still a great visual practice to see exactly how the different filters will impact the scene.