How to shoot minimalist seascapes

First published:
April 7, 2023
January 31, 2024

How to shoot minimalist seascapes

First published:
April 7, 2023
January 31, 2024

Explore the different approaches to minimalist seascapes and learn how to shoot extreme long exposures using a Big Stopper

Minimalism in coastal photography has become incredibly popular since Big Stoppers/10-stop ND filters became available; it’s the ability to extend exposure times to minutes that has helped this style of photography to blossom thanks to the way water can be completely smoothed while clouds take on a streaked appearance. 

This blur, and hopefully lots of it, puts greater emphasis on the static focal point of the image to create a visual anchor that holds the simple composition together. This solid object can be a groyne, a rock, a tree branch or any kind of solid structure that remains sharp to contrast against the blur a long exposure creates.

There are varying degrees of minimalism, and like most photographic approaches there’s an element of personal opinion as to what constitutes a minimal seascape. The main point here is simplicity, and less is always more. And you don’t necessarily have to shoot long exposures, but this approach works well because it further simplifies the scene.

In terms of composition, the same rules as seascape and landscape photography apply, but with minimalist seascapes rule-breaking can also work extremely well. A centrally composed subject with the horizon line across the middle of the frame can work incredibly well. But like every location, one size rarely fits all so you have to take the compositional approach that works best.

When shooting extreme long exposures, weather is important like any other type of landscape photography, but when it comes to minimalism you’re not necessarily going to get the best results at sunrise or sunset. Overcast days and those with scattered clouds and diffused light can be the best because the light is soft and diffused, while exposures are much longer than in brighter conditions.

Standard exposure
Long exposure

1 Set up and take a test shot

Use a lens that suits the scene and subject, make sure that Image Stabilisation is switched off and attach your camera to a tripod. Set your camera to aperture priority mode around f/11 with ISO 100. Manually focus either on the subject, for more intimate scenes, or 1/3 of the distance into the scene beyond the foreground interest if it’s a wider scene. Attach your polarising filter and an ND graduated filter if required, then apply exposure compensation if needed and take a test shot. When you’re happy with the overall exposure make a mental note of the shutter speed.

2 Attach Your Big Stopper

Attach your big stopper which may require you to temporarily remove your ND grad filter if you used one in step one. Insert your Big Stopper into the filter holder and then replace the ND grad, or if using a screw-in Big Stopper simply screw it onto the front of your lens. The lens should already be manually focused from the previous step so you don’t need to worry about that for your current composition. If you’re using a DSLR you’ll need to cover the viewfinder to avoid light spill and flare on the camera sensor, while mirrorless users don’t need to worry about this.

3 Calculate exposure time

Install an exposure calculator app on your smartphone such as the NiSi ND Calculator or the Lee Stopper Exposure Guide. Open the app and set the strength of the ND filter being used – in this case 10 stops – then set the shutter speed required under normal conditions which is the one you used for the test shot in step one. The app then calculates the exposure required for the ND filter being used and offers a timer that can be used to manually time the exposure which will be necessary if you need to shoot in Bulb mode.

4 Camera settings

Set your camera to Manual mode with the aperture and ISO set to the same settings you used in step one. Next, rotate the shutter dial until Bulb is shown on the LCD screen. Some cameras allow you to set exposure times up to an hour long. In Bulb mode, you need to use a shutter remote and press the button to open the shutter and then lock it open, which is either by engaging a physical lock or long pressing the shutter button. Simply unlock or press the shutter button again to close the shutter. Use the app timer or a stopwatch to manually time the exposure.

Minimalist seascape tips

1 Use a static element

Minimalist pier. Photo by Yannick Lefevre

The key to successful minimalist long exposures is having a static element within the scene that acts like a visual anchor point for the long exposure blur to surround. This can be a large object within the frame or something smaller.

2 Think about composition

Sentinels. Photo by Lloyd Austin Photography

The rules of composition still apply, so use devices such as the rule-of-thirds, foreground interest and lead-in lines to add visual interest. Minimalist images can also look great with centrally composed subjects so don’t be afraid to experiment outside of compositional conventions.

3 Colour or black & white

Many photographers convert their Big Stopper shots to black & white, which is a type of abstraction that further adds to the minimalist look of images. It works well, but colour corrected long exposure images can look equally interesting.

4 You don’t have to use long exposures

Minimalist seascapes/coastal images often use a long exposure to smooth water and blur clouds to simplify the scene further. While this is a tried and tested approach, you can still achieve great results with a ‘standard’ exposure.

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