How to photograph seascapes

First published:
January 26, 2021
February 12, 2024

How to photograph seascapes

First published:
January 26, 2021
February 12, 2024

Cover image by Tom Lowe

Seascape photography is an exciting genre that can result in amazing images. There are, however, a few extra steps and precautions that need to be taken before venturing out

Capturing the sea is a hugely popular subject among outdoor photographers. It's not as straightforward as ‘regular’ landscape photography, however. But by following just a few simple steps, you’ll see that your images instantly become a lot more interesting.

So, let’s hop straight into it and see how you can become a better seascape photographer...

Essential equipment for seascape photography

I’m a firm believer that a good photo depends on the photographer, not the equipment. That being said, there are some specific types of gear that you’ll need in order to capture the best possible seascapes.

Photographer getting prepared to photograph New Brighton Lighthouse, England
Ready to shoot a seascape with a tripod and shutter release set up. New Brighton lighthouse, England. Image by Jed Pearson

Some of these you might already have and some you might need to invest in. Don’t worry, though, you won't need to break that bank!

When it comes to a camera and lens, I recommend just using what you’ve already got. Personally, I prefer to use a wide-angle lens for seascape photography but using a telezoom can also give some amazing close-up images 

Let’s take a closer look at what you’ll need:

1 Microfibre cloths and lens wipes

Photographing seascapes means that you’ll often find yourself close to the action. I’ll come back to how it’s important to get close to the water (spoiler alert!) and for that exact reason, it’s essential that you’ve got a cloth to wipe off your lens. Companies such as Gobe/Urth offer fantastic lens cleaning kits.

In addition to a regular microfibre cloth, I strongly recommend having several pre-moisturised lens wipes in your pocket. These can be used to get rid of the salt and sea spray, or other debris, that sticks to the lens.

2 A tripod

Experimenting with the shutter speed is another technique you’re going to learn more about soon. This means that you will be playing with slower shutter speeds of up to several seconds or minutes. And in order to get a sharp image, the camera needs to be mounted on a sturdy tripod.

This is a tool that will come in handy for other genres of landscape photography too. And since you're in the water, it’s important that you also have a solid tripod that won’t break or fall in the waves. 

3 A remote shutter release 

While it’s not essential, a remote shutter release, which allows you to take an image without holding the camera, can come in handy for seascape photography. It allows you to capture the exact moment the waves look best, without creating camera vibration caused by pressing the camera’s shutter button.

A 2-second self-timer delayed shutter can be used, but it’s hard to time the perfect motion in the water and you may end up missing the best moment.

4 Waders or high rubber boots

A pair of waders or thigh-high rubber boots will be your best friend. Putting these on means that there’s no excuse not getting into the water and closer to the action!

Be aware of the tides

The ocean is not to be messed with - all of us have witnessed big waves and strong tides, and know just how dangerous the sea can be. Since the best seascape photography is often captured in rough conditions, there may be times where a photographer could potentially end up in a scary situation.

By taking some precautions you can stay safe and get the best possible images. Always plan your seascape photography sessions based on the tide times. Always be aware if it’s high or low, and whether it’s coming in or out.

Waves crashing against the shore at New Brighton, England
Always plan your shoots around the the tide times, and make sure you're aware of the tidal action when heading out - to avoid getting caught out in potentially dangerous situations. Image by Jed Pearson

I’ve been in a situation where I failed to plan this properly and ended up wading barefoot out of a cave with razor sharp rocks around – luckily the ocean was relatively calm that day. Had it not been, the outcome could’ve been a lot worse.

Websites such as Tides4Fishing are great to use for this purpose.

In-field tips for seascape photography

Now that we know a little about the best equipment and things to consider before going out, it’s time to look at how to capture beautiful seascape images.

1 Don’t fear bad weather

It’s often tempting to stay at home when the weather is looking ‘bad’. But these conditions are great for seascape photography. Dramatic clouds, wind, waves and moody weather are key ingredients you should be actively looking for when photographing the sea.

Many photographers tend to only go out on days with blue skies - this is not the ideal for photographing seascapes and wet surfaces, as the harsh light creates unwanted glare and shine.

Seascape with rocks and waves
Capturing seascapes in bad weather will help you add drama and atmosphere to your images - but remember to bring a microfibre cloth and lens wipes!

2 Get close to the action

Don’t be afraid to get wet when photographing seascapes. The best images are often those where the photographer has stepped into the water - this is where the action happens.

I’m not asking you to go swimming - but place yourself where the water looks the best. Perhaps it’s pouring beautifully over a rock, or maybe it’s pushing in between a small gap. Just make sure that you keep an eye open for bigger waves – you might need to grab your camera when a big one comes!

Winter seascape with crashing waves at Lofoten, Norway
Not only should you get into the water, but also keep your camera at a lower perspective if possible. This makes the viewer feel like they’re in the water with you. Use the movement of the water to guide the viewer through the scene

3 Use a semi-slow shutter speed

The shutter speed is arguably the most important camera setting when photographing seascapes and makes a huge difference to the final outcome of the shot. An image captured with a quick shutter speed of 1/1000 second will look completely different than one shot at 1 second. See the examples below:

Golden hour seascape at the Faroe Islands
Image captured at a fast shutter speed - you can see noticeable lack of movement in the water
Golden hour long exposure seascape at the Faroe Islands
Shot with a longer exposure which allows the movement of the water to be captured

There’s no ‘correct’ shutter speed for seascape photography but I find that any shutter speed that introduces some motion or blur into the photograph looks better. This can be anywhere from 1/5th of a second to several minutes.

Seascape at Lofoten with waves in the foreground
Using a shutter speed of ½ second when the waves are coming in or going out can create some amazing results when you’re close to the action. Practice using different shutter speeds to see what settings work best
Seascape with rocks in the foreground
A longer shutter speed of anything from 30 seconds to several minutes will give you that silky smooth effect of moving water

Keep shooting

Normally, I recommend photographers slow down and take fewer shots, but for seascape photography I'd suggest the opposite. Every wave is different and it’s nearly impossible to predict the image. For that reason, you should take plenty of shots to make sure that you capture at least got one or two images where the shape of the water looks good.

Top tip:

For a truly spectacular seascape scene, find a handful of images where the waves look good in different parts of the image, and merge these together in a software such as Adobe Photoshop. Like the example below: 

Waves crashing against a breakwater in stormy conditions
Crashing waves brought together for incredible dramatic effect - 'Storm' - by Rafal Mieczowski

Next steps

Seascape photography is somewhat more challenging than ‘regular’ landscape photography but there isn’t much that’s needed in order to make a standard photo of the sea look incredibly atmospheric.

The most important aspect is to wade into the water and look for points where the incoming or outgoing water is nicely shaped around a rock or another element - like these examples here:

Wintry seascape from a low-down perspective with crashing waves
Getting close to the action adds a new dimension to the photograph, and along with an interesting foreground subject, instantly makes it more interesting
Long exposure seascape at St Mary's Lighthouse, Whitley Bay, England
Maritime structures such as breakwaters, groynes, lighthouses, ships and shipwrecks also make excellent subjects for seascape scenes. Image from Tom Lowe
A wrecked fishing boat on the shore at Lower Diabaig, Torridon, Scotland
A wrecked fishing boat on the shore at Lower Diabaig, Torridon, Scotland by Andrew Woodhouse. The long exposure of several minutes for this shot gives the water that dreamlike, silky smooth effect
Long exposure seascape at Cayton Bay, North Yorkshire, England
Rocky shorelines are excellent for finding interesting foreground features that will help guide your viewer through the scene. Image by Philip Mowbray

Always remember that safety comes first when photographing seascapes. Don’t take unnecessary risks and always keep an eye on incoming waves.

Now, go out there and have some fun!

All images by Christian Høiberg unless otherwise stated.

Video tutorial

Seascape photography (and landscape photography in general) can contain a lot of fine details. In order to increase the resolution and get the most out of these images, you can use the Super Resolution feature in Photoshop.

Here's our simple tutorial on how to use this feature to achieve higher resolution photos:

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