Seascape photography, capturing the ever-changing beauty in the landscape, is both a joy and a challenge. By including these few simple, but reliable, tools and methods, you can add impact and natural drama to your images captured along the shoreline.
In this article, you’ll learn why research and planning make all the difference, why weather is so important, and how you can use it to your advantage. You’ll see how the correct gear, good timing, well-thought-out composition, and the subject itself all come together for the final photo.
Let’s get started.
7 Tips for Better Seascape Photography
Living in a coastal town in southwest Florida, I am often photographing the seascape and have refined my process to include the following tips.
#1 Research, Planning, and Preparation Make a Difference
Take the time to plan as it will improve your images.
Websites like 500px, Flickr, Google, and Instagram are your friends. You can find countless photos of a particular location. Images will range from mundane and boring to approaching spectacular.
Make note of the vantage point from where the photo was taken, the direction of light, and the approximate time of day. This will help you immensely when you go to photograph.
Get a good photo app to help you plan
There are many great photo apps that can show you the time and location of the sunrise and sunset, time of the golden hour, blue hour, moonrise, moonset, etc. I use Photopills and Photo Ephemeris.
Scout the location in person if possible
If you live close to the desired location but are relatively unfamiliar with it, take the time to scout it out in advance. That way you’ll be prepared when you get there for the shoot.
Another great option is Google Earth where you can virtually fly by and zoom in on almost any location on the planet.
Things you want to look when scouting for include:
- Parking and access after dark (can you get into the area and walk there in the dark if you’re shooting at night?)
- Possible camera angles
- Direction of the sunrise or sunset
- Direction of the Milky Way (use Photopills for this!)
- Condition of the location (is there a lot of trash, is the ground trampled or muddy, etc.)
Consult the tide tables for that area
Ocean tides are important when photographing seascapes.
Consult local tide charts online for the day you will be there. Depending on the location and the shot you’re planning, you may want either high or low tide. Knowing the tide times will help you to arrive at the right time, and to be better prepared.
Planning will save you time in the field and will help you get that amazing shot you’re after.
Recently my wife and I went to Amelia Island, Florida with our daughter’s family to share a weekend getaway.
I looked online for photos to inspire me and found mostly nice images of the quaint downtown and pretty beaches – nothing really special. And I was admonished by the family that I should not spend the whole weekend off by myself photographing when we were there to enjoy time with the kids and grandkids.
You may have faced the same challenge.
We were having lunch in the historic downtown and I noticed some rundown wooden docks and buildings along the river at the edge of town. Dropping the family off at the condo for the grandkids’ naps after lunch, I went back to the riverfront to scout the site and found a good potential shot.
Using the Photopills app I determined the exact point where the sun would set. After an early dinner, I headed back to the spot. Tripod set, and a swarm of blackflies notwithstanding, I made the image above, one of my current favorites.
The image above is from that weekend as well. During a walk on that same beach at sunset when the light was perfect, I captured this special moment of family play. For another example of getting away to get the shot, also check out Moonrise Over Dubrovnik at the end of the article, another favorite image made possible by planning.
Key Takeaway: Planning makes perfect. With a little planning and possibly scouting, even on a tour or family vacation you can find a great location and make an exceptional photograph. Embrace serendipity. When it happens: be ready.
#2 Use weather to Your Advantage
One of the special things about seascapes is the ever-changing weather
There may be clouds today, a clear sky tomorrow, and thunderstorms or rain squalls blowing in the next day. Indeed, the weather is a major variable outside of your control when photographing outdoors.
At the same time, however, weather conditions can give you some of the most amazing photographic opportunities. Clouds, mist, rain, and wind can make for exceptional photos, adding drama and visual interest.
We’re often tempted to stay home if the weather forecast calls for rain. I urge you to push through that because some of my best images have been made when a storm was approaching and the light did magical things. Sometimes it will highlight foreground objects against a dark background or ultra dramatic sky.
The image below is a good example of this phenomenon.
A threatening thunderstorm was forecast and was approaching quickly. As everyone left the beach I saw an opportunity.
The black clouds menaced in the distance, but the pier and gulls dancing on the wind were illuminated, providing a stark contrast to the clouds. The resulting image has natural drama and a strong graphic impact. The image has received awards and honors and has sold a number of times.
Another example of this happened when I was in Iceland recently with photographers Daniel Korzeniewski and George Plucienkowski. We were scouting for the photo tour I am leading there this coming September.
It was raining heavily as we were driving to a well-known site, Kirkjufellsfoss Waterfall and Kirkjufells Mountain. The sky was ominous and winds were gusting up to 80mph. We were headed to the location for a traditional shot of the falls with the mountain in the background (see image above), but I saw another opportunity off to the side, with seagrasses and estuary as foreground.
We pulled over and I captured the image below. The dark storm clouds added depth and drama and the soft diffused light enhanced the colors of the vegetation, wet from the rain squall that just passed.
I prefer this image below, compared to the image of the falls above. What do you think? The image Abandoned House by the Sea (see tip #5) is another good example of weather adding mood and drama.
Key Takeaway: Bad weather makes for good photos, so get out there and make it happen. Lean into it. Look for dark clouds and special lighting conditions. Look for compositions and drama. Magic happens but you have to be there to capture it.
Always exercise caution! Don’t put yourself in danger by shooting in a lightning storm under a metal umbrella. Storm chasing is a science, do NOT attempt it by yourself!
#3 Know Your Gear and How to Use it
Optimal camera settings for seascape and landscape photography
We’re going to get a little technical here, but stay with me, it is important.
Whether you have a simple point-and-shoot camera or a complex DSLR or mirrorless camera, a few simple settings will make all of the difference. In addition to your camera, a sturdy tripod is also very important. A neutral density filter is helpful, but not essential.
One of the decisions you need to make in creating a seascape image is how to treat the water.
If waves are crashing on the shore or rocks and you want to capture the ocean spray and water droplets in midair, you will need to use a really fast shutter speed, and/or possibly even a flash.
On the other hand, though, if you want to make the water look smooth and flowing you will need a really slow shutter speed (long exposure). The water will appear without texture, as a contrast to stationary objects such as a pier or rocks in the foreground.
Most fine art seascape and landscape photographers prefer the latter, a really long exposure that smooths the water, so that’s what we’ll discuss here.
- For optimum quality, set your camera to the lowest ISO available, usually 100.
- Once you’ve determined the composition and have chosen a camera angle, set your camera on the tripod and recompose.
- Set your camera to Manual exposure mode. Choose an appropriate aperture for the depth of field you want. When shooting seascapes I always expose for detail in the highlights.
- Select a long exposure to blur the water, often 3 seconds to 30 seconds depending on time of day and brightness of the scene. If your in-camera meter says there is too much light, try stopping the lens (i.e. closing the aperture) all the way down to f/22, the smallest opening. If it’s still too bright, a neutral density filter will allow you to slow the shutter speed by cutting down the amount of light passing through to the sensor.
- Once you’ve determined the proper shutter speed, recheck your composition and focus carefully. Now you’re ready to shoot. Be sure to bracket one or two stops on each side of the optimal exposure. Try shooting at different shutter speeds and inspect the results in post-processing to see which one produces the result you like best.
If you are not comfortable shooting in manual, you can use these settings.
- You still MUST use a tripod – this is essential for long exposures!
- Set the ISO to 100.
- Set your camera to Shutter Priority mode and dial the shutter speed to 3 seconds (it may look like this: 3″). Your camera will choose the aperture that will deliver the best exposure. You may have to adjust the shutter speed up or down to get a proper exposure.
- As mentioned above, a neutral density filter will help you get a slower shutter speed. The idea is to use long exposure to smooth the water.
Compare the resulting looks of fast and slow shutter speeds by looking at the images above. The long exposures all ranged between 3 and 15 seconds. Notice, as well, how the changing light on the same subject creates entirely different moods?
The image below is an abstract, shot handheld at 1/8th of a second and panning the camera. By using intentional camera movement you can purposely blur the image creatively. You can have lots of fun experimenting with shutter speeds.
Key Takeaways: Know your camera and lenses well. To consistently make exceptional images you must master your equipment. Use a tripod and a long exposure to smooth out the water.
For more information on camera settings, and the exposure triangle, Darlene’s articles, videos, and tutorials here on this site are a treasure trove of practical, actionable information.
Start here: Landscape photography tips
#4 Timing and Finding the Best Light
Light is your image, your image is light – there is nothing else
Remember that line in the movie, the Graduate, “I have just one word for you.… Plastics”? Well, with seascape and landscape photography that one word is LIGHT.
Of course, you already know there are optimum times of day at which to do photography. These are golden hour, blue hour, and sunset through twilight.
I actually scouting for a night shot I want to do, and it was my first time there (image above). At first, the afternoon light looked too harsh, contrasty, and boring. But I set up and did some test shots anyway.
In doing so, I saw how the light was hitting the bridge and made it stand out graphically in stark contrast from the background. Converting it to B&W enhanced the graphic and artsy effect.
I recommend you also consider early morning, from dawn to an hour after sunrise. The clarity and warmth of the morning light may surprise you. It can add dimension to your images. And, if you’re after reflections in still water, really early morning is the best time to avoid any wind.
Plan for the time of day, the direction of light, and how the light will play on the subject
Be patient, in the early morning and evening, light changes by the minute, especially if there are clouds or a storm coming. Everyone loves beautiful sunsets but most people leave after the sun drops below the horizon, before the real show begins.
The image below was taken just before the sun dropped below the horizon. Nature gifted me with the spectacular crimson and magenta sun rays.
Typically about 15 minutes after sunset the sky radiates with the most sublime colors. This is the perfect time to do long exposures to smooth the water and create some stunning masterpieces.
As a photographer, you must always stalk the light, look for something unique and different, and then be ready to capture it. Learn to see light and how it will affect your images.
The colors in Icelandic Farm on the Fjord (belowwere enrichened by the softly diffused cloudy/ bright light and dampness from the rain that just passed through.
The warm sunset colors highlight the silhouetted lifeguard stand and volleyball net (below), with the seagrasses in the foreground.
Key Takeaway: It is all about the light. Stalk the light. Work with the light.
Plan to shoot during the best light of the day. If you have to work mid-day, sometimes B&W can make a plain image special. Often, especially at sunset, the best light is after everyone else packs up and leaves.
Be patient. Wait for it.
#5 Composition and Subject
Next to light, the composition is everything
Let’s say you have researched the location and are there setting up. The light is amazing, just as you planned for and had hoped. The next challenge is arranging your image. What can you do in terms of composition to make it the best image possible?
Work the composition
- Are there any potential leading lines you can work with?
- Do you have clear foreground, middle ground, and background elements?
- Is there a dominant and clear subject?
- Are there interesting reflections? Sometimes reflections can elevate a photo from good to great.
One of the really great things about seascape and landscape photography is that you have plenty of time to compose your shot and work it from a number of angles (i.e. different positions and camera angles).
Think about and work with all of the traditional compositional rules. Does one or a combination of these add depth or drama or just make the image more compelling?
Be sure to experiment with the composition and remember to study your results when reviewing the images in post-processing. See how the different rules of composition affect the final photograph.
In the image below, you will see that the dominant subject is the abandoned house. I used the creek and the path to the house as leading lines coming from the foreground. The dark clouds in the background add drama and keep your eye on the little house.
The use of B&W (the colors were flat, drab, and ugly from the heavy cloud cover above) enhances the somber loneliness of the place.
Take a look at the image below again. Here the richly textured foreground leads your eye to the estuary and to the mountain and the dark clouds in the background add drama. The grass is literally pointing and telling you – HEY LOOK OVER THERE!
The image below uses the palm fronds as a strong foreground element and frames the rest of the image. The analogous colors complement each other for a harmonious palette as well.
Key Takeaway: Composition is all-important. Learn some of the traditional rules and have them at your disposal.
You will find that different compositional rules work best in different situations. Sometimes a combination of the rules is the magic formula, such as when leading lines draw your eye to the main subject which is placed in the image according to the rule of thirds.
Many cameras have a rule of thirds grid overlay setting in the viewfinder or viewing screen. That is helpful in composing your image and keeping the horizon level.
NOTE: Mirrorless cameras can provide this overlay when taking your photo. If you use a DSLR you can check it on the playback screen.
#6 Shoot RAW File Format
RAW files have exponentially more information in terms of detail, color, and latitude.
Not to get technical here because this is about capturing the image not post-processing, but this simple fact needs to be said. Shooting in RAW format will provide you with much more control in post-processing including recovering blown-out highlights and fixing contrast issues.
Read this: Why shoot in RAW format…
Not interested or not ready to work with raw, don’t worry. All of the information presented here applies equally to JPEG capture, and your images will still be amazing.
#7 What if I’m in a Group or on a Photo Tour?
But what if you’re on a group tour or busy family vacation and can’t plan when you can be at a location or even find time to get away to do a shot?
As a leader of not just photo tours, but also cultural discovery adventures, I am in this position often. Do not despair, many opportunities will present themselves.
Usually, on tours or even when traveling with family, there will be more travel photography and street shooting opportunities than seascape and landscape. Embrace those to the fullest. But also be aware that after the kids go to bed, during free time on a group tour, or in the early morning or evening, there are many other possibilities to pursue.
When I went on a large group tour to Turkey, I was out shooting before everyone else was even up and at breakfast. I often skipped breakfast and took some power bars with me so I could get the good light. It was THAT tour that inspired me to create and lead my own photography tours!Darlene
Here’s where your research will pay off.
For example, in Dubrovnik at the end of a privately chartered cruise of the Dalmatian Islands, we celebrated the trip with a farewell dinner. Photopills told me the moon was full and rising early, during blue hour, so I set the dinner time fashionably late.
Having noticed earlier a good outcropping overlooking a small harbor and the medieval ramparts and fortified city wall, I captured the image below and still got to dinner in plenty of time.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way! Just make it happen!
A Word of Caution Regarding Air Conditioning and Humidity
Lens fogging caused by condensation is a common problem that happens in warm, humid climates when coming from a cold air-conditioned environment.
Just as moisture condenses on the outside of a cold drink glass or can, the same can happen with your camera lens.
Depending on the temperature differential and outside humidity, it can take up to 20 minutes for the condensation to clear and could easily prevent you from getting the shot.
If you are in a hotel room, try to keep your camera bag closed when you’re indoors. Or put your bag out on the balcony so it can acclimatize for a few minutes before you head out. Some photographers even put their cameras and lenses in sealed bags to minimize this effect. I find putting silica gels packs in my bag helps too. Read this for more tips.Darlene
Certainly, seascape photography is an enjoyable experience.
Indeed, it is hard to think of a better location to exercise your photographic creativity. Applying some of the suggestions discussed here will help you create stunning images with natural drama that transcend the ordinary and garner accolades from your friends and followers.
I wish you happy shooting and much success.
Iceland Photography Tour 2022
(this section is hidden until the next tour dates announced)
If you enjoyed Steve’s images in this article and you want to go to Iceland to photograph with him – he has a few spots left on his tour this fall.
- When: August 30th – September 9th, 2022
- Who: Small group, only 6-10 participants
- Why: Photograph the landscape and all the Iceland has to offer with a qualified photography tour leader to help you
- How: Just CLICK HERE to get more details.
You can also get $100 off the price of the tour, just use this coupon code: DARLENE
Note: I fully endorse this tour and any produced and run by my friend and colleague Daniel and his partners. Who knows, I may even turn up on one of his trips one day myself!Darlene