How to Do Seascape Photography Like a Pro

bird flying over ocean waves.

Do you have a passion for outdoor shoots and landscape photography, particularly photos of the ocean? Have you ever wondered how seascape photographers achieve those dreamy photos of flowing, smooth waves draping coastal rocks or photos of highly detailed crashing waves?

Would you like to learn how to shoot seascapes yourself? It is not all that complicated, but there are a few things to know if you want to achieve the best ocean, beach, or coastal photos. Things like gear, camera settings, and weather are all factors to consider, to name a few.  

What is Seascape Photography?

Seascape photography can be considered a subgenre of landscape photography – landscape photography being an all-encompassing and very broad term, including all outdoor photography.

Basically, seascape photography is defined by photos that include the ocean and/or coast. It can sound limiting, and frankly, one might think that they all start to look the same after a while. There’s nothing further from the truth!

It is also sometimes referred to as coastal photography, ocean photography, or beach photography. 

The ocean is in constant motion with its predictable wave patterns, but it is also highly unpredictable, being that it is affected by the weather, the moon, and other factors.

Some seascape photographs exude calm and tranquility – like a soft rolling wave on a white sand beach, for example. 

Couple walking on beach.
© Sandra Roussy – Galapagos Islands, Ecuador.

While other photos of the ocean can demonstrate the dramatic force and the unforgiving extreme power of water.

Winter storm ocean wave.
© Sandra Roussy – Atlantic Canada.

Also, seascape photography can include secondary elements and objects like lighthouses, boats, bridges, or even animals, for example – the primary element being the water.

Beach with morning fog and breakwater rocks.
© Sandra Roussy – Atlantic Canada.

How to Plan Seascape Photography?

You can always whim it and go out to shoot the ocean and/or the coast at any time. But, coming from experience, we recommend that you carefully plan your seascape photo shoot in advance. It’s always a good idea to prepare a seascape photography shoot in order to get the best possible results and most of all, keep yourself safe.

So how do you plan a seascape or coastal photo shoot? Here are the basic things to consider and prepare. 

Scout the Location

Scout the location before you bring all your equipment if you can. This way, you can be better prepared and already have in mind some composition options and specific areas where you will want to take photos. Scouting the location beforehand will also help minimize eventual equipment exposure to harsh and wet elements.  

At the very least, if you can’t make it to the location, use Google Earth to inspect the area before going. Don’t you love technology?

Weather Forecast, Tides, and Sun Position

One of the most important things to do when doing ocean photography is to consult and understand the local weather forecast, high tide and low tide, and coastal hazards in the area where you will be shooting seascapes. Armed with this information, you will be better prepared, and you will greatly minimize the risk of getting yourself into potentially dangerous situations. Essentially, check the cloud cover, the temperature, the tides, and oncoming storms. 

Some of the potential dangers when photographing seascapes are getting caught in a rising tide with limited access out of the area or being hit by big waves.

Use an app like Windy that accurately provides all weather and water conditions worldwide. They predict wind speed, swells, rain, thunder, snow, tidal currents, and many other factors that can impact your photo shoot. 

Another important factor to keep in mind is the sun’s position. We will get into it in a bit, but there are times of day that offer better photo opportunities than others.

Equipment and Clothing

Your photo gear should be adequate for this type of photography (we will get into that in a moment.) You should also have protection for your gear and for yourself. Wear clothing that is appropriate for wet and changing weather conditions, and also make sure that you have footwear that will keep you safe and dry. Shoes or boots with good traction will help you navigate wet rocks that may be slippery.

Helpful Tip: Try to bring an extra set of clothing if you can spare the space in your bag – especially if you intend on shooting for a long time. 

Best Times to Shoot Seascape Photos

Without a doubt, the best times to get the best shots are during the golden hour or blue hour – approximately an hour before and after sunrise and an hour before and after sunset. These are the times of day when the sun is low and creates a soft golden hue or blue tint and dramatic skies. With the sun being low, it casts long shadows that can create interesting and unique photo opportunities. Also, it’s a great time to shoot silhouette photographs.

children fishing at the sea.
© Sandra Roussy – Atlantic Canada.

Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself solely to these hours to snap a seascape image. The ocean and the coast are magnificent all day long. Often, cloud formations during the day will deliver high contrasts with the bright blue of the midday sun and offer great photo opportunities as well. 

blue water of deep sea.

You can also do nighttime seascape photos, including the stars and moon in your compositions. Although, this includes a little more prepping and practice and also more gear like a steady tripod. 

night time sea photography.

Developers have created apps specifically to track the sun and moon, and these apps are great tools to use as a landscape or seascape photographer. The PhotoPills app gives you the time of sunrise and sunset and also the moonrise and moonset. It also provides the ultimate times for the golden hour and blue hour in a specific area.

Essential Gear for Seascape Photography

Seascape photography does have its fair share of challenges when it comes to the necessary photo gear. Cameras and water don’t normally work well together, especially corrosive salt water from the ocean. You want to keep it out of your camera and lenses at all costs. Remember, this includes imperceptible mist, unexpected seaspray, and fog that accumulates over a period of time and can leave significant damage. 

That being said, there are ways to protect photo equipment to prevent damage to cameras and lenses. 

Camera

To successfully take seascape photos, you need a camera that you can adjust manual settings. At the very least, a camera that you can set the shutter speed manually.

Camera Protectors: Always think about protecting your camera and lens while you are shooting near water, especially for extended periods of time. Camera protectors, like rain sleeves, are available and will provide some protection against seaspray.

Camera Strap: Ocean photography comes with its obvious risks. Slippery or jagged rocks and surprise waves can have you scrambling to stay on your feet. Secure your camera with either a neck strap or a wrist strap

Lenses

As with most landscape photography, a wide-angle lens is the number one choice when photographing seascapes. A wide-angle lens will let you incorporate more elements into the images. Other than wide-angle lenses, a telephoto lens would also be a good option for achieving sharp images of distant objects.

Useful Tip: Don’t forget your lens caps. Seawater can be unforgiving to lenses and cameras. Put the lens cap on your lens when not actively photographing.

Lens Filters

Neutral density filters (ND filters) and graduated neutral density filters (GND filters) help to regulate light when shooting long shutter speed photos. ND filters and GND filters will allow you to shoot longer exposures, even in bright daylight. The filter helps regulate how much light comes into the sensor avoiding overexposed photos that are common when shooting in daylight with a shutter speed lower than 1 second.

Essentially, the ND filter is graded by the number of stops it provides. It can be anywhere from 1 stop up to 10 stops. The higher number ND filters will be used in intense light situations, and the lower number filters typically are used during sunrise or sunset.

Polarizer filters are also often used in landscape and seascape photography. They are primarily used to minimize unwanted reflections or glares that may happen when photographing water.

Remember, you may need some practice learning how to use filters if you have never used them before.

Tripod

A sturdy tripod is an absolute necessity if you plan to do flowing water effect photos or any other time where you will be setting the exposure under 1/40. Use the lightest weight tripod you can find in order to ease your load. 

Useful Tip: Hang your bag or other heavy items from the tripod when shooting to make it even more sturdy to avoid shake or any type of movement. Consider that heavy winds are often a factor to deal with when doing coastal photography.

Bags

Your regular camera bag may not cut it when photographing seascapes. Elements like seaspray and sand can permanently harm your equipment. It’s advised to invest in waterproof bags to keep your gear dry. The type of dry bags that boaters use is an excellent choice when taking photos near the ocean. 

Helpful Advice: Limit your gear’s exposure to salty water by keeping your camera and lenses stored in a case or covered up when you are not actively using them during a seascape photo shoot.

Microfiber Cloth

A soft microfiber cloth is helpful to wipe off any water that may come into contact with your camera body or lens. Wipe your lens more often than you normally do when out doing seascape photography.

Remember: Always rinse off with fresh water any gear that has come into contact with sea water – like your tripod, for example. 

Camera Settings for Seascape Photography

There are no general rules or camera settings when practicing ocean photography. There are, however, specific settings for specific outcomes. Here are some seascape photography suggested settings and tips.

Aperture

Generally, you want a large depth of field when doing seascape photography to capture a wider focal length. F-Stops between f8 and f11 are considered good settings for this type of photography.

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed selected is quite important when doing coastal photography. The shutter speed setting will determine the overall look of a seascape photograph.

Flowy silky water photos will require a shutter speed under 1/4s (remember, a tripod is necessary for this slow shutter speed). This is essentially called long-exposure photography. Long exposures require a tripod because the camera sensor remains open for a long period and gathers all the information during this time. Any movement of the camera will cause blur. A very long exposure will blur all moving water and make it look soft and watercolor-like.

motion of the water.

Photographing waves with a fast shutter speed, like 1/250 and above, will provide a sharp and detailed photo of the motion of the water. 

Big wave at sunset with fishing boats on the Pacific ocean.
© Sandra Roussy – Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico.

ISO

Under normal situations, It’s a good option to set the ISO to automatic to let the camera analyze the lighting and determine the setting that is best to achieve the finest quality. Of course, you may want to adjust the ISO if you are shooting in low light and with a slow shutter speed.

Remember: The lower the ISO, 100 for example, the sharper the image. Most new cameras can shoot in low light with high ISOs, but always try to keep the ISO low to minimize grain.

White Balance

Auto white balance is sufficient when shooting in most coastal photo conditions.  You may want to occasionally verify the histogram on your camera, especially if the light is changing.

Photo Quality

Shoot in RAW in order to preserve the details of your photos. This makes it easier to edit them as much as you want while post-processing.

Editing

Post-process your photos in a photo editor if needed. You can remove unwanted elements, adjust colors, crop, and remove noise and lens distortions. While editing, you can also add a visible watermark or imbed metadata to your photos if you plan on sharing them online.

Seascape Photography Tips and Ideas

There are a variety of ways to capture the beauty and magnificence of the ocean and coasts.

1. Long Exposure Seascapes

Long exposures, also called slow shutters or time exposures, create interesting and unique photos where the static objects are sharp and focused, and the moving objects show a blurry effect. This technique is used in seascape photography a lot because the result produces fascinating soft water results.

long exposure photo of the sea.

This is achieved by leaving the shutter open for a length of time that is more than 1/4 second up to several hours (although not recommended). The longer the time the shutter is open, the more information the sensor records. The camera needs to be placed on a tripod and remain completely still in order for long exposures to be successful. Also, an ND filter and setting ISO 100 can help to achieve better results.

2. Find Reflections

Water is reflective when it is calm. Tranquil seas can provide a great opportunity to shoot the sky’s reflection on the water.

sunset reflection on water and canoe.
© Sandra Roussy – Atlantic Canada.

3. Look for Foreground Interest

We often forget that we can inject something in the foreground of our photos. This sometimes can help lead the viewer’s eye over the photograph.

4. Shoot from a Cliff

When scouting, look at all angles available for possible compositions. Obviously, shooting from the ground and from a cliff will provide exponentially different photos. 

wild atlantic sea.

5. Photograph in Winter

Seascape photography isn’t limited to tropical beaches and palm trees. Look for opportunities to photograph coasts and beaches during winter. Mother nature never ceases to amaze.

winter ice on beach.
© Sandra Roussy – Atlantic Canada.

6. Edit to Black & White

Try to edit some of your color photos to black & white. This often adds a dramatic effect to the photo and gives it a mysterious feeling. 

photo of seascape in b&w.

7. Don’t Forget about Negative Space Photography

Many composition techniques can be used when photographing the ocean. Use blue water or solid sand, for example, to fill most of the space in the photograph to create a mysterious photo.

8. Take Ocean Photos with a Drone

Another great way to photograph seascapes is with a drone. Aerial photos provide a superb view from an angle not many people get to see every day.

ocean photography from a drone.

Conclusion

Here are the main things to remember when doing seascape photography:

  • Scout the location beforehand.
  • Wear proper clothing and protect your photo gear from the water.
  • Check the weather forecast, the tides, conditions, and the sun position of the location.
  • Use a sturdy tripod and lens filters for long-exposure photography.
  • Have fun!

Seascape photography is a stunning technique to learn. It sometimes takes a lot of practice and some trial and error to learn how to achieve the techniques needed for ocean photography. Get out there every chance you get to photograph magnificent oceans and coasts. 

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