How to Improve Your Seascape Photos

Seascape Photography Tips

by David Gibbeson

I am a real fan of photographing seascapes. Seascape photography is popular among photographers and viewers, and is often an area that photographers embrace. If you are a newer photographer or this is something that you haven’t tried before, here are some tips to help you improve your seascape photography.

Be aware of the tide and sea conditions

The first thing is that it is important to be aware of the sea conditions and the tides. Not only can these directly impact your safety, they can also dramatically affect your composition and final images. It is vital that you are aware of sea conditions before you set off. Make sure you know whether the tide is coming in or going out, and watch the sea, and how it acts before you decide on settling for a shooting position. It is important to plan an escape route for when that inevitable longer reaching wave comes much further up the beach/rocks. I like to try to stand next to some rocks that I can escape on to if needed, but if I am on a flat sandy beach this isn’t an option, so you must be prepared to run or get wet feet. Because of the mobile nature of photographing by the sea, I always keep my camera bag on my back while shooting, and if changing lenses, I retreat further away from the sea to do so.

Find a focal point to compliment your composition

While you can get some great, simple seascapes it is often good to find a complimentary feature or focal point. If you are shooting around rocks this could be a nice formation that has a good leading line into the image, and if you are shooting on a beach this can be anything from a boat, patterns in the sand, a path, a bit of seaweed, or anything that fits with the scene and catches your eye.


Westward Ho! seascape in mono

I tried to capture the movement of the water on this moody evening, without the water becoming just a blur. I love the mood of this in black and white.

Use the right lens and position yourself

Your choice of lens can really affect the perspective of your photographs, and it is no different when shooting seascapes. If you want waves to appear really high and be a strong feature, it is good to get low down and to use a slightly longer focal length. This can be where a good articulated screen on a camera can be helpful. I prefer to shoot wider images a lot of the time, as I like to convey the openness of the ocean and the scenes that I capture. This means that waves often look smaller, and are part of a wider scene. Try to ensure that your horizon is straight, it is obvious on seascapes when the horizon is not level. Try to consider where to place the horizon. you can use the rule of thirds to do this, the first fifth, or even dead centre for the right composition.

Don’t be afraid to get your feet wet

It is almost inevitable that you are going to get your feet wet at some point. If you are prepared to get them wet, it can be liberating. If it is safe I like to get a bit closer to the water in my wellies, as it allows you to capture a more immersive image, especially at a wide angle. I like to do this so that you can almost imagine the waves washing over your feet when you look back at the images later. I always take a towel and spare change of clothes with me in case I get too wet.

Choose the right time of day and make the most of lighting conditions

You can photograph a seascape at any time of the day, however if it is not raining I like to shoot around the golden hours and the blue hours. Both times of day have their own merits. I love the mood of the golden warmth that you get during the golden hours, and the sun can make a fantastic addition to an image. During the golden hours, I love to capture surfers etc which are often great as a focal point, or to provide a sense of scale in large waves, or to give a sense of space. I love the blue hours, which are more peaceful and still. This is a time missed by a lot of photographers who haven’t got out of bed early enough, or stayed out after the sun as dipped below the horizon. If it is raining, it can be great to head to the coast to capture moody images of the sea at any time of the day.


The sea crashes against the rocks at Westward Ho in Devon

The colour of sunset could barely penetrate this stormy seascape at Westward Ho!

Choose the right shutter speed

Your choice of shutter speed can drastically change the mood of your image when photographing the sea. If you use a fast shutter speed you can freeze the water, which is great for capturing the wave as it begins to crest. You can also reveal fantastic shapes in the water with a quick shutter speed. I generally use a fast shutter speed if I want to show the structure of waves in a composition, or if I am capturing water crashing over a wave or structure. A slower shutter speed can show movement in the water, or even smooth it out completely when shooting long exposures. A long exposure that smooths out the water is great for images that have a strong focal point to contrast against the sea, such as a pier or groyne. I often like to shoot slightly slower shutter speeds to show the motion of the sea, while the water still has structure. I feel that often this level of blur feels much more dynamic when I am trying to show the energy of the ocean.

Choosing the right filters for seascapes

It is not essential to use filters when photographing seascapes, however they can be handy when the sky is bright, especially during the golden hours. The sea is generally quite dark in the UK in comparison to the sky which most cameras do not have the dynamic range capability to capture in one shot. You can of course use multiple exposures and blend the sky. I don’t recommend HDR in general for seascapes, because the sea is so dynamic unless it is a long exposure. This can make it difficult to merge the images. If there is no strong feature on the horizon, I recommend a hard edge ND graduated filter for seascapes because the horizon is so sharp. If there are cliffs, piers or other features I tend to use a soft edge ND graduated filter instead. A good polarising filter can sometimes be useful for taking the glare off of rocks.

Keep your lens and filters clean – A problem often encountered when photographing the sea  is the spray hitting your equipment. I take a lot of lens cloths with me to clean my filters or lens while shooting. In a headwind, this can be a really frustrating task! It is important to clean your equipment once you return home to prevent any long term damage due to the salt.


Sunset at Westward Ho! in North Devon by David gibbeson

The spring tide was finally beginning to ebb, leaving some beautiful colours and patterns in the freshly exposed sand.

Know when to use a tripod

It is key that you know when you need to use a tripod, and when it can become a burden. In great light when you are trying to capture the energy of the sea, or the crest of a wave, using a tripod can become a disadvantage. At times like this it can be much harder to compose your shot in time. If the level of light is low, or you are trying to photograph long exposures a tripod is much more essential. It is important for hard edges of structures or rocks to be sharp so that they can contrast against the water.

Keep safe around the sea

I have already spoken about staying aware of sea conditions and the tides. I cannot reiterate enough; just how dangerous the sea can be when not respected. Please stay safe, and do not take unnecessary risks; a picture isn’t worth your life, and if you need to be rescued, you could end up feeling embarrassed. Make sure that someone knows where you are and when you expect to return, and always allow yourself plenty of time to get back from your viewpoint before it gets dark or the tide comes in. Here are some tips from a lifeguard about staying safe around the sea.

I hope you find these tips on how to improve your seascape photography useful. Do you have any seascape photography tips? Let me know in the comments below for everyone to read.

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