Capture beautiful seascapes with these simple camera skills and compositional tricks

Intermediate

The coast can be one of the most rewarding places to capture outdoor photos. Not only are you treated to huge open skies, dramatic rock formations and crashing waves, there’s also the opportunity to capture the motion of the sea as beautiful blur.

Here are 10 top tips to take your coastal photography beyond the norm...

1 Blur the waves


Blurred movement can elevate landscape photos to another level, so it’s a great technique to try out on moving water at the coast.

"Shutter speeds of around ½ sec - 3 seconds tend to result in a pleasing mix of motion blur and detail."

A touch of motion blur helps to convey the drama of crashing waves and smooth out the choppy surface of the water.

If shooting in low light all you’ll need is a tripod to keep the camera still, and a shutter release (or your phone) to trigger the camera without disturbing it. Shutter speeds of around ½ sec - 3 seconds tend to result in a pleasing mix of motion blur and detail. Set a shutter speed of around a second, and use a low ISO of 100 and narrow aperture of f/11 or more to compensate. In brighter conditions you may need to use a neutral density filter to stem the flow of light into your camera. As such, 3 and 6-stop ND filters can be very useful for coastal photography.

A December sunset on a windy day at The Blocks, St Monans. The Blocks is also known as the zig zag pier. A popular spot with photographers.
Stretch out your shutter speed to a second or two and convey the motion of foaming sea with beautiful blur. Photo by John Murray - f/5.6 | 1/4s

2 Study the ebb and flow


The rise and fall of waves creates all sorts of little rivers and streams as the water flows back and forth through sand and rock.

"...watch the way the waves make channels through the sand and rocks, and visualise how this might look as a long exposure."

These can make for wonderful foreground details in your coastal photos, creating natural leading lines that draw the eye towards the distant details. If you capture these streams with a long exposure, the foaming water will smooth out to create gorgeous white streaks. So before you set up, take a few moments to watch the way the waves make channels through the sand and rocks, and visualise how this might look as a long exposure.

The beautiful ice beach at the Glacier Lagoon in south east of Iceland
As the waves ebb and flow they form small channels and rivers that look fantastic when blurred. Photo by Jórunn Sjöfn Guðlaugsdóttir - f/16 | 1.5s

3 Get wet


If you’re using a wide angle lens then try bringing the camera in close to the waves to exaggerate the movement of the water.

"...try attaching your camera bag to the centre column to weigh the tripod down."

This might mean you need to get your tripod legs wet (and your feet too). When the legs are submerged the tripod can be shifted by the water, which may cause camera shake. Ensure the legs have a firm purchase on the sand or rocks, and if you need extra sturdiness try attaching your camera bag to the centre column to weigh the tripod down. Salt water, sand and grit can cause your tripod to seize up, so give the legs and locks a wash in fresh water afterwards.

Trinidad State Beach at Sunset. Rock Arch Formation. California, USA
You might need to get your feet wet to find the right angle or fill the foreground with water. Photo by Jeffrey Schwartz - f/18 | 1/15s

4 Capture the drama of waves


It might keep most people away, but bad weather can be the best time to head to the coast with your camera.

"...keep a microfilm cloth on hand to wipe spray off the front element of the lens."

The drama of crashing waves, brooding skies and drenched coastline makes for some of the best coastal photography. Of course, safety is paramount in these conditions so don’t put yourself or your gear at risk. Freak waves can be a real danger. Consider using a long lens to isolate distant details, and keep a microfilm cloth on hand to wipe spray off the front element of the lens.

Porthcawl lighthouse and pier in the jaws of a storm on the coast of South Wales, UK
The drama of crashing waves makes for some of the best coastal photography, but make sure you stay safe and keep your distance. Never put yourself at risk for the sake of a good shot. Photo by Leighton Collins - f/16 | 1/500s

5 Find a point of interest


A vibrant coastal photo is nice enough, but it’s been done. One way to really set a scene apart from the crowd is to find a point of interest, like a silhouetted person, an unusual rock formation or an interesting building to place in the foreground of your scene.

Early morning sunrise over the sea with birds
Look for the unusual in your compositions to get a shot that hasn't been done before. Photo by Valentin Valkov - f/5.6 | 1/1250s
Cottage in the Faroe Islands, seascape
A point of interest gives focus and context to coastal scenes. Photo by Alex Stelmacovich - f/8 | 1/125s

6 Go minimal


A long exposure of thirty seconds or more can transform a choppy sea into a minimalist masterpiece by smoothing out all the detail in the water, resulting in a placid milky surface. It’s also a useful technique when capturing reflections in the water, as it can smooth out the surface for a more pleasing reflection.

"A long exposure of thirty seconds or more can transform a choppy sea into a minimalist masterpiece..."

Unless shooting after sundown you’ll need a heavy neutral density filter of at least 10 stops. The filter lets you elongate your exposure time into minutes. Of course, this requires a tripod to keep the camera still throughout, and you’ll also need a shutter release to lock the shutter open for a bulb exposure (which lets you make any length of exposure you like).

Begin by taking a shot without the filter to determine the right exposure for the scene, then switch to manual mode, attach the filter and use an exposure calculator to work out an equivalent shutter speed (or simply double the shutter speed for each stop added). If you’re using a DSLR then be sure to cover up the viewfinder as light can leak in during very long exposures and fog the image.

Long exposure image of sea defences at Felixstowe
Stretch your exposure length out into minutes with a strong ND filter to transform the sea into a milky smooth surface. Photo by Rick Bowden - f/5.6 | 2s

7 Watch where you stand


Footprints and kicked-up sand can be a horrible distraction in an otherwise pristine beach scene, so approach likely compositions with caution and tread with care. A receding tide can be very helpful here, as it smoothes out the expanses of sand for you. However, don’t let a few footprints deter you, they shouldn’t be too much of a problem to remove late on. Lightroom’s Spot Removal tool or Photoshop’s Spot Healing Brush let you deal with minor distractions like this with ease.

Sand and water abstract.
A pristine patch of untouched sand contrasts with the swirling water. Photo by Tom Lowe - f/16 | 5s

8 Plan tides and sunset


The coast is transformed twice daily by the rhythm of the tide, and this will have an impact on where you can access, and what you can photograph.

"The coast is transformed twice daily by the rhythm of the tide, and this will have an impact on where you can access, and what you can photograph."

The most interesting rock formations may only be visible at low tide, and high tide may be the best time to capture piers, groynes or jetties with the waves lapping at them.

Of course, if you want to combine low or high tide with sunrise or sunset, then there’s even more need to plan ahead. So check the tide times in advance. A receding tide is often preferable, as it means you’re less likely to get caught out by incoming waves. Local knowledge can give you an advantage too, so speak to other photographers, check photography forums for advice on specific locations, or revisit the same spot at different times to find out the best tide heights.

New Brighton Lighthouse just after the sun has set with the sandstone rocks leading into the scene.
Certain features like the sandstone rocks at New Brighton lighthouse may only be visible at low tide. Photo by Jed Pearson - f/11 | 177s

9 Stay beyond sunset


It’s always worth waiting around for sunset when at the coast, as the glorious colours, dramatic cloud formations and reflections on the water can result in vibrant seascapes. Once the sun has dipped below the horizon many would be tempted to pack up and head home, but twilight can also be a wonderful time for coastal photography.

The light takes on a melancholy blue hue as the warm tones in the sky gradually fade, the land falls into stark shadow and the conditions can often be perfect for super-long exposures. Just remember to pack a torch to help you pick your way back along the beach afterwards.

Blue Hour Pillar Boxes at Cayton Bay, North Yorkshire
Twilight can be a peaceful time to capture atmospheric seascapes. Photo by Philip Mowbray - f/14 | 61s

10 Capture coastal activities


The sea and the coastline may be the primary draw, but there’s so much more going on at the seaside. Activities like surfing, sailing and fishing, colourful boats and splashing swimmers can make for wonderful subject matter. What’s more, seaside resorts and coastal towns tend to draw all sorts of interesting characters, so it’s also a great scenario for documentary or street photos.

Surfers leaving the waves behind at a beach near Biarritz during sunset, France.
Low sunlight at dusk lets you capture silhouetted figures at the beach. Photo by Perry Van Munster - f/11 | 1/1250s