At Backcountry Journeys, we offer many workshops that include coastal and ocean photography, better known to us landscapers as ‘seascapes’.
Two of our most popular workshops are the fast-approaching Olympic National Park, and Coastal Oregon and California’s Redwoods. The two workshops feature some of the best coastlines that you can photograph anywhere. We also recently announced our new Kauai: The Garden Isle workshop, which will complement our longstanding The Big Island of Hawaii workshop. Both of those workshops are filled with seascape photography. We even photograph various beaches and coasts during our Iceland workshops. The point is, we shoot a lot on the coast. Hence, we know how to prepare, we know what gear makes your life easier, and we know what to look for in the field for that ‘killer’ composition.
In my opinion, photographing the ocean is one of the most difficult things to do. There are a lot of elements to monitor – including crashing waves that might sweep away your camera gear. There are many things that can screw up your shot – hint, salt. Beaches and coastline are constantly changing due to the tides so that composition you liked yesterday is probably gone today. There is a lot going on, a lot that a first-time shooter or inexperienced seascape photographer might overlook.
My goal with this article is to share some of the things that I’ve learned over the years while shooting the ocean.
The first consideration of any ocean, sea, or large lake photography venture is that there is a high potential you could get wet. And not just you, but your gear too. It’s important that we keep both of those things dry.
There are also some key pieces of camera gear that are very helpful too. I use accessories for shooting the coast that I don’t use for any other type of landscape photography.
I have written it in other articles too, but waders are the best photo-related accessory that I have purchased. Seascapes, streams, waterfalls…any water scene, you name it, I use my waders. Waders allow you to get wet, and get deep in the water if you need to (up to your waist). Having that ability can open new compositions and angles. Often, those compositions are more powerful too since you are able to get right into the action. I use a lightweight pair from Cabela’s that work great.
Neoprene socks are my waders alternative. I use them just as much as my waders and they function great for lighter duty water scenes, like creeks and smaller waterfalls. Neoprene maintains its insulating properties when wet so they can be excellent for situations where you might have to get in water that’s glacially fed or in the alpine (freezing water). I use them a lot for shooting when weight is a consideration, and I even use them for river crossings when backpacking. Considering you can get a pair of neoprene socks for about $20, it’s a no-brainer to me. I’ve used waders and neoprene socks more than any photo accessory available.
When shooting seascapes, you should anticipate your camera gear potentially getting wet. I have soaked my camera to get the shot, it’s just the risk I take with my gear and I have found Nikon’s weather sealing to be excellent. Nonetheless, the main concern is keeping your lens clean of water spots, which can ruin your frame. I usually use lens clothes to clean my lenses, but I bring a few washcloths for seascape photography. I like to capture wave action, and my gear usually gets hit with spray from the waves. I have found that washcloth handles large amounts of water on your front element much better than lightweight lens clothes.
Fresh water is one of those things first-time shooters overlook. Salt is bad for almost everything involving your camera. When saltwater gets on your lens, it not only causes droplets to show up in your frame, but it can smudge and leave artifacts that destroy your image. The effect of salt is amplified by about a million when shooting into the sun too. When I was starting out, I can’t tell you how many times I’d shoot seascapes only to look at my images in Lightroom. I’d bring up the shadows and see so much smudging and blurring going on. The images were not salvageable.
So, before shooting, I dip a washcloth in fresh water and keep one dry. When I get hit with spray, I wash with the fresh water cloth first then transition to the dry cloth. Remember when I said seascapes are hard? That is because of little things like this. Obviously, if you aren’t getting wet or really getting into a scene, you don’t have to worry about your camera and lens getting wet, but my style of shooting revolves a lot around capturing action.
Neutral Density Filter
Neutral Density or ND filters are essential for long exposures while shooting seascapes (particularly in the USA where a lot of our dramatic coastlines are in the west, which means we shoot into the sun a lot).
An ND filter is equivalent to putting on sunglasses. It darkens the scene for your camera, forcing you to utilize some setting to normalize the exposure. In our case of seascape photography, it allows us to achieve slower shutter speeds that would not be possible otherwise.
ND filters come in different ‘stops’. A higher stop filter just means it blocks more light. I use a 6-stop ND filter, but a 4-stop or 5-stop work great too. Generally, ND filters can be stacked too, allowing for ultra-long exposures. I recommend Breakthrough Filters. They make the best, I think, and good glass makes a huge difference when it comes to image quality.
Usually, I set my camera on self-timer mode for 2 seconds. That easily replaces the need for a remote and eliminates all motion from pressing the shutter button when your camera is mounted on a tripod.
Seascapes are a bit different though. The tide comes in and out, and moments last for a split second. You can’t wait for the 2-second self-timer to take a shot, you need to be able to shoot instantaneously, but also do all you can to reduce camera vibration. A remote comes to the rescue. I recommend a wireless remote if possible but wired work fine. I use a wired Nikon remote.
Camera Cover/Garbage Bag
I don’t use a camera cover, but they can protect your camera from wave splashes and moisture. I don’t use one because I find them really annoying to use, but that’s an OK tradeoff for protecting your gear. A black trash bag works just fine too. Use rubber bands to secure them. I insure all my gear through my Homeowner’s policy, which results in my free spirit when it comes to gear use…I am still careful though.
Long Exposures to Create Compositions
The flow of water is such a powerful compositional element. If you get the right angle, water can lead the eye exactly where you want it. Long exposures help capture the movement of water and can create strong leading lines. Think about it, the tide comes in and the tide goes out. Target exposures around 1-2 seconds and you can freeze the motion of the water coming in and out. Work with your scene even further to line up those lines with an interesting focal point. We’ll be focusing on sea stacks for our coastal Pacific Northwest trips.
When I want to create lines from the tide, I often target 1 second for my shutter speed. Also, if you use ND filters, you can achieve very long exposures, like 10 seconds or more. The result is very ‘wispy’ water, which lacks any texture whatsoever. It can be a cool effect to try out in the field, but I don’t do it much.
Capturing Wave Action
When I’m not focusing on the tide rolling in and out, I’m almost always focused on crashing waves. Capturing waves can add drama to your seascape images. Waves portray feeling to the viewer and let the viewer experience the scene as you did. My go-to shutter speed for waves is 1/5 of a second. I find that shutter speed blurs the water, but maintains just enough texture in the water. If I want to freeze water droplets in a big wave, I will shoot anywhere faster than 1/100 of a second.
Don’t Forget the Telephoto
The wide-angle is the primary lens for most seascapes, but don’t be afraid to use your telephoto. Waves are so interesting and can create great abstracts at long focal lengths (100-600mm). Backlit waves catching sunlight during golden hour can be fantastic subjects. Although the wide-angle is king, create some variation in your seascape photography by trying out your telephoto.
Blend Exposures if You Must
Sometimes it is hard to catch the perfect wave splash in one exposure. This isn’t a tip for purists out there, but I oftentimes blend multiples shots from the same spot that capture the varying waves. Just remember, if you’re going to blend, keep your camera in the same spot and on a tripod, it’ll make your life much easier when blending in Photoshop.
Exposure blending can help fight the sun too. A lot of the great coastline in the US is on the west coast and sunset offers the challenge of shooting into the sun. You might have to deal with lots of dynamic range or even sun flare. Multiple exposures can help deal with those issues. Try taking multiple shots where you put your finger over the sun and then move it. The shot with your finger in it will remove flare, and the shot without your finger will obviously reveal the sun. A quick, and easy way to remove flare.
Check a Tide Chart
Tides control so much of what we do on the coast, and more specifically, the areas we can access. Low tide might reveal tide pools, allow closer access to sea stacks, and make caves accessible. At the same time, high tides might align better for wave action or fill in low spots with water to simplify a scene. The ideal tide varies per situation and goal. Hence, familiarizing yourself with how tides work and checking tides before you shoot or when you’re planning a shoot is a great idea.
For instance, I know an ideal tide is around -0.2 ft for a specific beach along the Olympic Peninsula. At that tide, amazing rock structures are revealed, but the tide is still high enough to splash some water over them occasionally to make things interesting.
I use NOAA for tide predictions and charts.
Get Wet for the Shot
Lastly, don’t be afraid to get your feet wet. My best shots often come from getting right into the water. I noted it in the article earlier but getting wet opens so many more compositions. The compositions are often better too because you’re truly enthralled in the scene. You might get a little wet and get hit by a splash here and there, but your images will portray the type of drama that creates exceptionally powerful images.
Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special. Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image. Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world. As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals. You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com