Blog #3 – Top 10 Tips for taking great Seascape Images

1. Research both the location you want to photograph and the type of image you wish to capture

If there is a site you are particularly interested in shooting, experience has taught me that if you are able to ‘do a recce’ ahead of your shoot and get to know your location well in terms of where to most spots are most photogenic, or the best times of day to give your good light with some shadow, etc., this will make life much easier for you in the long run. Ordnance Survey maps and their pocket sized guides for the SWCP in Cornwall are excellent and more importantly, high reliable sources of information to have with you when you are out and about. The SWCP association website is another great source of information with a route planning feature and downloadable PDFs of your chosen route. Also, using apps like Pintrest or a general web search of the location and some keywords such as ‘long exposure’ can not only focus your mind on what sort of composition you want but also the aesthetic look, and further – by association, the technical settings and equipment you need to be able to get that look.

2. Plan, plan, plan & plan again….

If there was once piece of advice I could give to aspiring photographer about giving yourself the best odds of acquiring the image you want, it would to be plan your shoot with precision of a military operation. As the saying goes, ‘eliminate the variable and then you can do the equation.’ This relevance of this to shooting by the sea is planning to in advance to take control of the dynamic variables you encounter with shooting coastal seascapes. These are as follows – in order of importance to your shoot; a) sun position – you won’t be getting any images worth showcasing if you end up trying to capture a nice daytime scene whilst shooting in to direct sunlight. Therefore use smart phone apps like the Photographers Ephemeris or Sun Calc to allow you to see positions of the sun (including sunrise & sunset) throughout the day at any given time on any given day)

It is also important that you understand the position of the sun at the intended time of shooting, relative to your focal point, or what the scene will be composed of, as planned & executed correctly, the scene will be evenly illuminated by the sun. This has implications for both creating an aesthetically pleasing image and during post-production; an image filled with either a large chunk of shadows or highlights will look odd and be difficult to correct afterwards

b) Tide – use paper or online tide timetables to ascertain on what days your ideal tide will be (high/ low/ mid?, springs or neaps?). As a general rule the vast majority of coastal seascape location are most photogenic at high tide, so its importance to factor this in too.

c) Time of day – are you shooting for a sunrise, sunset, middle of the day, or just before sunset to get capture the coastline covered in the warmth of ‘golden light’ ? Decide what time of day you want to shoot, and factor this in accordingly with your desired look.

d) Wind Speed & Direction – Although not something that landscape photographer have to deal, depending on their strength this variable can eliminate or ruin the possibility of getting a good image, so it’s important to plan ahead well and know the conditions on the day in advance. For example, a gentle offshore coastal breeze of 5-15 mph combined with a shutter speed of around 5 to 10 seconds, will create a smooth sea surface with highly photogenic ‘swirling lines’ along the water surface; these lines are the result of the wind blowing along the water surface – but you won’t necessarily be able to capture the same effect with an onshore wind. Furthermore, it is highly likely that if the wind speed exceeds 35 mph in either direction you won’t be able to keep the camera steady through the length of the exposure (even if shooting less than 1 second) which will result in an image that is slightly blurry and not in focus.

For researching meteorological variables, I highly recommend the Met Offices’ Online 7 day forecast for its features and high accuracy/ reliability.

As with the above in #1, experience has taught me that even withstanding the fact you might have planned your shoot in the manner of a special ops mission, and gone over everything the night before with a fine toothcomb, mother nature can still throw you a ‘curve ball’ on the day

3. Always let someone know where you are going, and stay safe –

It may sound crass and a little unnecessary to mention this, but believe me, I have heard & read a few high profile of accounts over the years of people either be swept in to the sea, falling off cliffs or going missing. Although these kind of serious incidents are the exception and rare, the advice I would give is – if you are shooting on beaches, never under-estimate the speed of an incoming tide and get cut off (especially on spring tides) or the power of the sea. If you are shooting from cliff tops – know your limits – don’t stray so close the edge that you could lose your footing or slip, all because you want ‘that image’ – your life is more important..

4. On Location? First things first…..set up the camera on the tripod

Once you are out on location, use your camera hand-held and looking through the viewfinder, try to work out what kind of height you are going to need the tripod at and then extend the legs to set it up accordingly – if you have a spirit level built in to the tripod or camera, use it and let it help you to set the camera up so it is correctly levelled with the horizon or your focal point.

5. Compose your image using the viewfinder

Taking in to account the notes I have previously provided on composition in the blog entitle ‘composition’ HERE, begin to compose your image using either the viewfinder (easier on a bright day) or live-view if the light is a soft enough to clearly see the screen.

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6. Set Camera to Aperture Priority mode & dial in the desired aperture for the scene

As above and previously discussed in the Tutorial on Aperture, this setting defines your depth of field and how much of the scene is fully in focus and sharp. The aperture you choose will depend on whether you need front to back sharpness (often in the case of shooting distant coastlines far from the lens) or the object is close enough to allow opening the aperture up, as an example, to f/6.3 or 5.6 – perhaps ‘flat objects’ where a shallow depth of field will suffice, like St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. However, as much as the general/ technical ‘rules’ apply, much of this process comes down to personal taste.

7. Take a note of the shutter speed the camera then defaults to

In A-priority mode, your camera will provide you with a default shutter speed reading based on its light metering capability. Make a note of this shutter speed as you will need it later on in order to determine what filter strength is required.

8. Set Camera to Manual Mode & Lens to Manual Focus

It is imperative you following this – if you do not switch the lens to manual mode, it will try to re-focus once you de press the shutter button to take the exposure and will potential throw your image completely out of focus. Not exactly what you want to discover has happened when you get home after all that effort..…

Furthermore, by switching the camera to manual mode you will have full control over its controls such as shutter speed, aperture, ISO & metering modes. This ensure you control all variables as required to get the image you want, and that the camera doesn’t try to re-compensate it exposure values for the filters you may attach the front of the camera….

9. Set desired shutter speed for desired effect , set aperture for depth of field and Focus lens to ensure frame is in accurately in focus

Just like it says on the tin – set all three above and you are almost ready to go. Next, recall the note you’re made of the camera’s shutter speed readings. To determine the correct ND Graduate Filter strength to use, subtract the foreground reading from the sky reading. For example, 1/250 minus 1/125 would give 1/125. This final reading is an exposure value of ‘1 stop’. Therefore you would need a 1 Stop ND Graduated Filter to correctly expose the sky and maintain the highlights, as it 1 Stop brighter than the foreground.

10. Attach polarizing filter and any other filters

This final bit is where, initially, you may find yourself needing the downloadable PDF shutter speed chart attached at the top of this Blog entry.

A polarising filter will reduce the light entering your camera’s sensor by approximately 2 Stops. Therefore, using the chart, if your foreground reading above was 1/125 use the top column entitle ‘No Filter’ and locate this same shutter speed. Go down to rows to identify the correct shutter speed now the filter is attached.

Finally, use Column three entitled ‘Light Reduce in Stops’ to determine the amount of light stops you need in order to achieve the photographic effect you are looking for (in degrees of motion blur – see article on motion blur here).

This will tell you both the filter strength you need to insert and also the estimated shutter speed.

For example, if you wish to make the water surface completely smooth ‘like silk’, you would probably require a ten stop filter strength. Therefore, go down column three and locate ‘10’ – go right two columns and find the shutter speed for the column 1/125, and in this instance it is given as 8 seconds – now you have your final shutter speed value – set the camera to this, use your remote/ cable release if you have one, sit back, relax and enjoy the results of you well prepared and planned out photoshoot.

Disclaimer; please note, the final shutter speed may vary due to light intensity levels on the day and is an approximation only). It is likely you may need to make minor adjustments to achieve your desired effect.

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