Going Coastal: Awesome Seascape Photography Tips

“Bowling Alley West” Sunset at Bowling Ball Beach, Point Arena, California USA

“Every time I stand before a beautiful beach, its waves seem to whisper to me: If you choose the simple things and find joy in nature’s simple treasures, life and living need not be so hard.”

Psyche Roxas-Mendoza

As a landscape and nature photographer, there are few experiences that compare to walking out on the beach in the dawn’s faint light, examining the sky, the clouds, the mood of the surf, and anticipating what the next hour might bring. After experiencing this sensation hundreds of times throughout my career, it never gets old.

So what is it exactly, that unceasingly beckons the photographer back to the edge of terra firma time after time? Is it some visceral, primal urge to “go back from whence we came,” as John F. Kennedy once speculated about the kinship of human beings and the sea? Or is the seemingly boundless ocean a visual metaphor for the infinite photo possibilities offered the photographer? How about the local seaside tiki bar that serves up a kaleidoscopic array of boat drinks with miniature umbrellas during the idle light of midday?

Whatever the reason or excuse, coastal landscapes are a favorite subject for many nature photographers, including this one. So with spring soon turning to summer and the unofficial start of beach season, here are some tips for awesome seascape photography for any season.

Find a Point of Interest

Beaches are often nondescript, featureless expanses of sand and endless water without an apparent focal point. With no obvious visual fixture, the scene might leave a photographer confused and viewer of the image bored and uninterested. Locating a conspicuous geological feature, rock, tree, tidal creek, piece of driftwood, or serendipitous conch shell to use as a foreground object can provide a necessary visual anchor that makes for a more compelling image.

“Timeless Tide” Sunset over Unstad Beach on the northern coast of Norway’s Lofoten Islands. 

Experiment with Shutter Speeds

The ocean is a dynamic body of water, heaving and churning with the ebb and flow of each and every wave. Photography is an interpretative art form, so the shutter speed you choose will greatly influence both the look and feel of the scene to potential viewers.

For example, a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second or faster can freeze the water’s motion, projecting a feeling of power or urgency. Any shutter speed of one second or slower can tame even the most furious ocean swells and ascribe a certain grace or fragility to the sea. Extremely long exposures of 30 seconds to several minutes can smooth out the ocean’s swells creating a much more simplified or minimalist interpretation. Unless you are out very early or late with low light conditions, you will need neutral density filters to help absorb some of the incoming light which will allow exposures this long.

A range of 1/20 to ½ of a second with an advancing or receding waves or foam is a good compromise, giving water the illusion of motion yet retaining important detail as well. The focal length, physical distance, and water’s velocity will all vary the visual effect of the wave’s movement for each shutter speed, so the examples cited above are merely rough guidelines. I think it’s important to experiment with a variety of speeds before ultimately deciding on what you prefer for each situation.

Look for Reflections

As mentioned earlier, beaches can seem featureless with little “working material” to assist in assembling a composition. Reflections in wet sand and tidal pools, however, can add some interest and depth to an otherwise ordinary scene.

Tidal pools and puddles can reflect the sky or clouds like a mirror if there’s little or no wind and the thin film of water left on the sand by a receding wave produces reflections that can be impressionistic and expressive.

“Sea and Sand” Sunrise over Hunting Island Beach, South Carolina USA,

Patterns and Textures

Wind and water can conspire to create captivating dunes, mini dunes, ripples, ridges, and basins in the sand. These features can be used as a component of a larger, expansive scene or they can become the primary subject themselves. Look for conditions created by low-angled, directional lighting where the verge of light and shadow add yet more compositional elements with which to work.

These conditions can be difficult to visualize under flat or direct midday light. But when the angle of the sun in lower on the horizon, the textures, patterns, and lines will reveal themselves. Work quickly, as the light and shadows will be fleeting.

Arrive Early – Stay Late

Arrive early and stay late should be mandatory advice for any landscape photographer – coastal or otherwise. But does the world really need yet another photograph of the sun setting or rising over the ocean? My short answer would be, “Sure, why not?”

I prefer to bracket and blend exposures in post-processing for sunrise or sunset scenes that need usable detail in both the sky and foreground, but the level, unobstructed horizons are ideal graduated neutral density filters as well.

But if beauty for beauty’s sake is too banal for your tastes, you still have the twilight wedge, dawn or dusk’s glow, and low-angled, warm sunlight during the golden hours to compliment the landscape. Snobbery is no excuse for sleeping in.

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Protect Your Gear

The best advice for keeping your gear looking and working like new: Take someone else’s camera to the beach.

Seriously, the saltwater, sand, and wind can run roughshod on your camera gear. Even if the camera is not actually submerged, saltwater spray and mist from the pounding surf can do damage over time. I always wipe down my camera and lenses with a damp, freshwater towel and let dry.

Tripods can become corroded and completely inoperable if the legs are submerged in saltwater. Since I cannot resist getting into the water, I carry an old, backup tripod on my coastal excursions and just go for it. It’s still a good idea to rinse off the sand and saltwater off the tripod legs when you are finished shooting to extend its life as much as possible.

“Swept Away” Small shapely iceberg on the black sand beach at Jökulsárlón in southern Iceland,

Get Wet

Despite the previous point of advice, it often helps to get your feet and tripod wet in order get an interesting perspective. Wading into the water and getting a low angle to onrushing waves can provide a unique viewpoint while vicariously injecting the viewer into the scene.

Waves can move the sand and tripod during long exposures, often resulting in soft images. For this reason, I push the tripod legs as deep into the sand as possible before an incoming wave arrives. This usually stabilizes the tripod and camera sufficiently.

“Dark Karma” Praia da Adraga at dusk, Portugal. 

Plan Ahead

Your favorite coastal photo locale has many different faces and characteristics, which all depend upon the tide level. Knowing when high and low tides occur and how they correspond to sunrise and sunset is vital to both your approach and your planning for a future photography trip.

Tidal information can be found online. For the United States, http://www.saltwatertides.com/pickpred.html is a good place to start. A quick Google search for “tidal chart” for your area will produce several similar results.

An excellent application for your phone is Tide Graph, which gives tidal information for hundreds of coastal locations, which can then be quickly accessed and deciphered. I’ve used it for years.

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer in the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.