Going Coastal: Awesome Seascape Photography Tips

Going Coastal: Awesome Seascape Photography Tips

General How-To

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.

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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. 

Behind The Lens: Paulet the Penguin

Behind The Lens: Paulet the Penguin

Behind The Lens

Behind The Lens: Paulet the Penguin

“Paulet” An Adélie penguin welcomes visitors to Paulet Island, located on the northeastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM Lens @ 35mm, 1/2000 second @ f/13, ISO 640.

The Eyes Have It

As a wildlife photographer, the importance of having your subject’s eye or eyes visible cannot be overstated. It’s almost essential. You always want your viewers to connect with your photo’s subject and there is no better way to help make that connection than through the eyes. As I state in my recently-published wildlife book, the eye is the wildlife portrait’s focal point and must be clearly visible and in sharp focus. There are some exceptions to this rule but those are few and far between.

Paulet the Penguin

For larger creatures, getting a clear and open look at its eyes is relatively easy. For smaller species, however, you need to get low to their level. In the case of Paulet the Penguin, I needed to lay down flat in the snow, rocks, and penguin poop with my wide-angle lens to get this eye-to-eye perspective. Paulet appears to be welcoming me with a warm hug – or an invitation to fight, I suppose. Everyone sees something a little different with Paulet’s body language here.

Paulet was captured with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV camera and Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens.

Paulet can be licensed or purchased as a print here.

Join The Adventure!

By subscribing to my monthly newsletter, you'll get timely updates on events, stories, my latest photos, and my favorite photography tips. Let me share this amazing world with you directly to your computer or phone. Come on, join the adventure!

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. 


Behind The Lens: Yellowstone in Winter

Behind The Lens: Yellowstone in Winter

Behind The Lens

Behind The Lens: Yellowstone in Winter

“Unforgiving” Two bison in less than ideal winter weather conditions, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x Lens @ 280mm, 1/800 second @ f/9, ISO 250.

Yellowstone in Winter

Yellowstone in winter can see some brutally cold, brutally bad weather. But bad weather conditions often result in the best photos. Let me repeat that for the sake of emphasis: Bad weather often results in the best photos. And so it is with Yellowstone in winter. Oh sure, heavy snow-laden trees and a cobalt blue sky make for some pretty impressive imagery too, but when I wake to find stormy skies with wind and snow blowing across the landscape, I become extra excited. Bad weather creates drama and helps tell a story.

The biggest obstacle is overcoming is your self reluctance. And inertia. That is, a body at rest and in bed will tend to remain at rest and in bed unless there’s some additional force applied to it, such as the possibility of the most dramatic photos you will ever create in your life. And if you happen to be in a popular national park such as Yellowstone in winter, you’ll enjoy the added benefit of most likely being the only other photographer with the guts to be out there.

I particularly liked this symmetry created by the two inward-facing bison and the jagged edge between the geyser basin steam and the distant snow hills. This image, titled Unforgiving, has been sold as a print hundreds of times and published dozens. Thank the heavens for bad, stormy weather.

Unforgiving can be licensed or purchased as a print here.

Join The Adventure!

By subscribing to my monthly newsletter, you'll get timely updates on events, stories, my latest photos, and my favorite photography tips. Let me share this amazing world with you directly to your computer or phone. Come on, join the adventure!

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. 


Behind The Lens: Cathedral Gorge

Behind The Lens: Cathedral Gorge

Behind The Lens

Behind The Lens: Cathedral Gorge

“Castles in the Sky”  Rock formations in an alien landscape, Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens @ 11mm, 1/125 second @ f/11, ISO 100. Converted to B&W in Adobe Lightroom.

Cathedral Gorge

Tucked into the southeastern corner of Nevada sits Cathedral Gorge State Park, a narrow, deeply-eroded valley exquisitely carved into the surface of the high desert. At first glance, Cathedral Gorge looks like a first-rate destination for creative landscape photographers, yet I found creating compelling compositions much more difficult than expected. I needed to work long and hard for a solid week in order to come away with just a handful of images that did justice to both the location and my own personal vision. A handful of images, in this case, could be considered a success.

One of those images is the one you see above, Castles in the Sky. It’s a rather pedestrian scene, to be honest, if not for the wonderful, streaming clouds overhead. The use of my Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens at its widest focal length (11mm on a full-frame DSLR!) distorted the clouds, curving their direction mostly in a dramatic sweeping gesture from left to the upper right.

At the bottom of the image frame, there are a few random rock fragments that trail off to the lower left of the image frame. This creates the perfect counterbalance to the opposite effect in the top of the image, creating visual motion in the form of a subtle “S” curve,

Visual Motion

Visual motion is the illusion of actual movement in the image or the movement the viewer’s eye takes when exploring visual elements within the image frame. When a viewer first looks at a photograph or piece of visual art, their eyes will move throughout the image from element to element on a particular path. Those with the heaviest visual weight will command the most immediate attention followed by less significant elements, as lines, shapes, and patterns help guide the visual motion from one area to another. This is key to creating dynamic compositions as well as controlling and manipulating the viewer’s experience. Establishing visual motion in Castles in the Sky – with the abstract “S” curve – saved at least one image for me during my visit to Cathedral Gorge.

Castles in the Sky was captured with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV DSLR and Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens and processed in Adobe Lightroom.

Castles in the Sky can be licensed or purchased as a print here.

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 is 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.


Essential Photography: Back Button Focus

Essential Photography: Back Button Focus

General How-To

Essential Photography: Back Button Focus

Cormorant Fisherman on traditional bamboo raft at twilight, Li River, Xingping, People’s Republic of China

By default, almost every camera arrives from the factory with two important functions assigned to one big conspicuous button: the shutter release. It’s conveniently located where the right index finger would rest when holding the camera comfortably in your hands. This button will engage autofocus when pressed halfway and fire the camera when fully depressed.

By configuring your camera for back button focus, you separate these two functions by 1) disabling autofocus on the shutter release button – perhaps the most important part of adopting back button focus – and 2) reassigning autofocus to a button on the back of the camera where the thumb comfortably rests. So now the shutter release button ONLY fires the camera when depressed by your index finger and no longer starts autofocus. The autofocus is all in your thumb.

Every camera is different, but they all should allow you to disengage autofocus from the shutter release button and reassign it to another button on the rear of the camera, preferably near your thumb. Consult your camera’s manual to find out now.

At first glance, it might seem like a more complicated way of doing things, but it’s not. After a minor adjustment period, it will soon feel as natural as the default set up, maybe more so. It’s just so easy; thumb focus, finger capture. There are many things we do in everyday life which involves using the thumb and index finger simultaneously. And some of these things are actually good.

I find back button focus most useful for rapidly-changing scenes or quick-moving subjects commonly found in street and wildlife photography. You now have the ability to autofocus and recompose the scene without having the camera refocus again when you take an image. Just focus on your subject, make a slight change to the composition by moving the camera while your subject stays in focus, and then shoot. Pressing the shutter release only fires the camera. It doesn’t activate autofocus again.

Red-eyed tree frog, Agalychnis callidryas, Monkey River, Toledo District, Belize.

The frog photograph above is a superb example of when back button focus will serve you well. Place one of the autofocus points over the frog’s red eye (you always want an animal or person’s eye to be tack sharp, even if other parts of the subject are not) and focus using your thumb on the designated autofocus button on the back of the camera. Then take your thumb off the autofocus button (essentially locking in focus) and quickly recompose. In this case, using the green branch from the bottom left corner to lead the eye into the scene. Take the shot with your index finger on the shutter release. Even though the focus indicator is no longer on the frog’s eye after moving the camera, the focus won’t change because that function has been removed from the shutter release.

As I said, I find this way of focusing most valuable when I’m doing wildlife photography but I use it for any scene where I’m using autofocus. Focusing with my thumb is now a grooved habit that has taken quite a bit of time of set in. The middle of an expensive Africa safari is not a good time to experiment with back button focus if you’ve never used it before. Under stressful situations (a lion stalking your safari vehicle with a setting sun over it’s left shoulder, as an example) you will defer to the familiar without even thinking and this shot of a lifetime will be out-of-focus because you assumed it was focusing with the shutter release button. Practice, practice, practice. Practice so much that it becomes second nature and you don’t even have to think about it.

Join The Adventure!

By subscribing to my monthly newsletter, you'll get timely updates on events, stories, my latest photos, and my favorite photography tips. Let me share this amazing world with you directly to your computer or phone. Come on, join the adventure!

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. 


Essential Photography: Telephoto Landscapes

Essential Photography: Telephoto Landscapes

General How-To

Essential Photography: Telephoto Landscapes

Most photographers, particularly beginners, believe only wide-angle lenses are used for landscape photography. In fact, I’ve seen and heard some of my workshops students pull the wide-angle lens from their bag and exclaim, “I’ve got my landscape lens!” That’s a partially true statement since wide-angle lenses are indeed used for landscapes, especially near-far compositions where there is a compelling foreground to anchor the composition. But experienced landscape photographers know that a telephoto lens is every bit as important as a wide-angle when pursuing landscape images on a photography trip.

When it comes to creating telephoto landscapes, here are a few things to consider.

Telephoto Lenses Compress Perspective

Different focal lengths create different perspectives. The first image was captured with a 100mm focal length. The second image was captured at 400mm after backing up some distance. Although the foreground rocks are the same size in both examples, their relationship in size to the background mountain has changed dramatically.

While wide-angle lenses create spatial separation between foreground and background elements, making near objects disproportionally larger and distant objects much smaller than normal (this is exaggerating the visual effects of diminishing scale), telephoto lenses do the opposite – they compress perspective. Telephoto landscapes, such as a layered mountain scene you see above, can appear flat or two dimensional, even though the actual physical distance between the ridges is significant. To accentuate the mountain ridges, the telephoto lens can not only omits any unwanted foreground or excessive sky, but it flattens the perspective, amplifying the progression of repeating ridge patterns. What’s actually happening is that diminishing scale is nearly eliminated. 

The Art of Exclusion

By eliminating the many distractions near this tree (other nearby trees, a messy foreground, a bright overpowering sky) I am able to use the tree’s graceful shape as the backbone of the image and simplify my visual message.

Telephoto landscapes can isolate a small portion of the world in front of you. By paring away the unimportant and distracting visual elements to reveal only the most essential parts of the scene, you are practicing the fine art of exclusion. Visually distracting foregrounds and boring skies can be edited out of the image frame by simply zooming into what’s important. As a result, telephoto landscapes tend to “speak” with more clarity then wide-angle compositions that contain more visual information. 

A strong composition is vitally important when creating telephoto landscapes. Where wide-angle scenes tend to communicate a sense of place, telephoto interpretations do so to a much lesser extent. Refer to the example above. The image says nearly nothing about where this might have been captured. It literally could be almost anyplace where there are trees and a river. Telephoto landscapes say more about the photographer’s personal vision than sense of place. 

Lenses For Telephoto Landscapes

I suppose we could start a lively debate as to which focal lengths constitute a telephoto lens. A 70-200mm zoom is too short for most wildlife photography applications (and would probably be referred to as a “short” telephoto at best by wildlife shooters) but this focal range is nearly perfect for landscapes. For a photo trip that i know will be exclusively landscapes, I will pack a 70-200mm f/4 model rather than the heavier and more expensive f/2.8 version. Super large apertures and fast f/stops are rarely needed when doing landscape photography. Here are some superb options (all links to Amazon).

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L is II USM Lens
Nikon 70-200mm f/4G ED VR Nikkor Zoom Lens
Sony FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS Interchangeable Lens

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 is 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.