Ever see an amazing seascape picture with swirling eddies in the mid-ground foreground, a brilliant sun just dipping right behind a lighthouse casting light on a line of cliffs? Want to know how to take a picture like this? There’s a lot that goes on in setting up a perfect seascape or coastal photo; a lot of it is your photographer’s eye.
It’s a process that anyone can replicate, given the know-how, the right equipment and enough practice.
And I’m going to teach you everything you need to know on how to get started with seascape photography. Welcome to our 7000 word Ultimate Guide to Stunning Seascape Photography — there’s nothing else out on the web quite this comprehensive about seascape / coastal photography.
So sit back, grab a coffee, and get ready to get down and dirty with your camera, a tripod, and some cold hands. By the end of this seascape photography tutorial, you should be able to head out to your nearest coastline and start working on your seascape photography skills.
What is Seascape Photography?
Quite simply, photography that includes elements of the sea (or ocean) with or without the coastline in the frame. Think of it as landscape photography of the sea.
Landscape and Seascape photography are similar, yet also entirely different. Landscapes can usually be composed into static ground and foreground elements. Seascapes, however, with moving water (crashing waves, swirling eddies, or just the gentle sifting of water) taking up a significant part of your composition, are always in motion.
Coastal Photography vs. Seascape Photography
Coastal Photography is a combination of landscape and seascape, combining the land (cliffs, rocks, beach, surf, or shore) and the sea. A seascape may or may not contain land while a coastal photo will always have at last some part of the coastline in it.
So there is a difference, but you will find that for many people, seascape and coastal photography are interchangeably the same. So this type of photography is called seascape photography. Or coastal photography. Or oceanscape photography.
It doesn’t matter what you call this type of photography — pictures of water and land can produce some of the most dramatic images. If you are interested in landscape photography, you’ll want to get your feet wet (pun intended) with seascape photography too.
The key to controlling seascapes (and to a lesser degree, coastal photography) is to control the appearance of the water through your shutter speed settings. The RIGHT shutter speed can take a bland seascape and turn it into something spectacular. Master the shutter speed and you master the seascape, or at least exert a significant level of control over the mood you inject into the photo.
First Step: Have the Right Camera Gear
Seascape and Coastal photos need some specific types of gear. If you don’t want to pay to play, then you simply can’t play. I divide the equipment into two parts: camera equipment and filters.
Essential Camera Equipment for Seascape Photography
Seascape photography, in all it’s variations, is one type of photography with some strict equipment requirements. If you don’t have the right equipment, it’s hard to get the shot.
Fortunately, if you have a decent camera (DSLR or Mirrorless) and a suitable lens, you don’t really need that much besides the few essentials listed here:
- Camera: for best results, a decent DSLR or a Mirrorless (see our How to Buy a DSLR)
- Lenses: ideally, at least one Ultra Wide Angle range and a Telephoto range, Seascape and Coastal Photography usually use ultra-wide to wide angle focal lengths for the majority of shots (see our ultimate guide to landscape photography equipment)
- Lens Hood: blocks glare from the sun
- Cable Release: so you don’t touch the camera and introduce vibration into your picture
- UV Filter: this is very useful for seascape photography to protect your lens from splashes of salt water or from sea salt in the air
- Tripod with Ball Head: this is absolutely required. You will need the tripod to lower lower your shutter speed to capture the motion of the water which will be shown as smooth and silky (do read our Best Tripods for Landscape Photography for more info about tripods)
- Extra Battery
- Extra Flash Cards: You will be surprised at how full these can get, especially if you have Auto Exposure Bracketing enabled for multiple exposures
- Head Lamp Flashlight: to see your equipment without having to hold a flash light
- Towel and Lens Cloth: wipe any water off your equipment / lenses that splashes up from the sea
- Rain Cover for Camera: if you plunk your tripod into the water or near it, your camera can get hit with waves. Put a camera rain cover on to protect it and the lens from random splashes
- Camera Shoe Bubble Level: so you can get a nice even horizon) OR a panning clamp
Essential Filters for Seascape Photography
Once you have the basic camera equipment down, you also need to invest in some filters. These filters are really not optional if you want to capture good seascapes and coastal photos. You can, perhaps, get by without them, if you opt to use HDR, but you are better off having these filters to give you the maximum options for different exposures and compositions. If you want to know more about filters, read our Guide to Lens Filters.
You will need a polarizer, an ND filter/s, Graduated ND’s.
Polarizer: This filter is a photographer’s best friend and the go to filter for almost any situation. Polarizers will darken the sky on a sunny day while also increasing color saturation (by cutting through reflections). Generally, a polarizer will make the sky more blue (and the white clouds stand out) and generally increase the overall saturation. For seascapes and coastal shots, this is particularly effective as creates a more dramatic picture contrast between the sea and the sky. For the strongest effect with a polarizer, the sun should be at a 90 degree angle to the frame (to your side). Another useful feature is that a polarizer will hold back 1 to 2 stops of light, allowing you to lower shutter speeds even more to blur the water movement.
Neutral Density Filter: these reduce the level of light reaching the lens, allowing you to shoot with a slower shutter speed to capture even more motion. This is particularly useful when it’s sunny and there’s a lot of light out. Even with ISO at the lowest setting (usually 50 or 100 on a DSLR) with your aperture set at f16-f22, if you are shooting during the day, you may not be able to use slow enough shutter speed to capture motion. A ND filter adds between 1 to 10 stops more, allowing you to slow your shutter speed down, even in bright daylight. This effect is particularly useful for seascapes. Clouds are allowed some time to move through your shot, moving water blurs together in a silky stream, even becoming a mist if the water movement is particularly frenetic and the shutter slow enough.
Recommended ND Filters: there’s only one ND filter I recommend. That’s the Vari-ND by Singh-Ray. It’s by far the most flexible and easiest to use ND filter and you can get it combined with a warming polarizer and even a color enhancer. It’s expensive, but if you want to shoot a lot of seascapes, it’s WORTH every penny. If you are budget conscious, you can get a Vari ND from Tiffen which is less than half the price of the Singh-Ray.
UV Filter: these are useful, in some situations, for cutting back some of the UV light. In the old film camera days, excess UV could cause a blue tint to your image. In the era of digital cameras, however, UV won’t affect the color. a UV filter may in some situations cause ghosting and flare during bright lighting conditions. For the purpose of seascapes, however, UV filters have an important and very useful function: to protect your lens from salty water and salty air — both of which can wreck havoc on your lens. I recommend you do use a UV filter when shooting seascapes — it’s much easier to clean (and replace) a UV filter than it is your lens front.
Graduated Neutral Density Filters: this control the contrasting exposure difference between the bright sky and the darker foreground area.
If you don’t have GND’s, you can either expose for the sky at the cost of an overexposed foreground (white) or you can expose for the foreground but have a washed out sky. This filter has dark area on half of it with a clear area on other half. There are three types: soft, hard, and reverse. If you want more details about Grad Filters, read our guide.
Soft Graduate Filters are the most useful for seascapes with the boundary between the dark area and the clear area attenuating near the middle part. This means if you put the darker part over the sky, the middle area between the dark and clear parts of the filter won’t hold back as much light as the top part. The net result is intrusions into the horizon line such as mountains, buildings, trees that are dark won’t be as dark.
Hard Graduate Filters are useful when you have a clear, unbroken horizon. It’s simply a filter with the top half dark with the bottom half clear. The dark part fits exactly over the sky while the clear part fits over the foreground. Use this filter for seascapes with sunsets/sunrises directly over the sea.
Reverse Graduated Neutral Density Filter: these basically have a darker band right in the middle with the top a lighter dark and the bottom clear. It’s useful for the one situation where the sun is right at the horizon line.
Step 2: Research the Location
Find yourself gasping when you see an amazing seascape photo? What if I told you that single photo is likely the product of hours and hours of research, and hours of location scouting by the photographer, and perhaps, multiple photos over the course of several days.
Yes, perhaps one can get lucky and take the perfect shot the first time around, but more often then not, spectacular photos are the result of some serious legwork by the photographer, days before that actual photo shooting.
If you want to capture a perfect seascape / coastal photo, you need to SCOUT out the location first.
1. Pre-Location Research
Do your due diligence on Google to find out about the location and to find suggestions for good shooting locations in an area you want to shoot. This is the FIRST step you should be doing.
2. Look for Specific Shooting Locations and Compositions in Other Photos of the Area
Look for other photos of the same location to get some potential locations to shoot. If other photographers have found a perfect location, then don’t do the dirty work yourself! Find out where and try that spot out. Remember, each photo of a place is unique — the clouds, lighting, sun, ocean will all give a unique composition. You can use the location but put your own creative spin on the shot. I recommend you look at postcards, calendars, booklets, and do an image search on Flickr.com and Getty Images to find out EXACTLY where the best shooting locations are.
Some things to keep in mind when you research a location: look for a good spot, an interesting foreground subject (lighthouse, rocks, an old house, stones, etc) to frame, and figure out the position of the sun in the composition. You will need to decide if the lighting will look best for sunrise or for sunset.
Again, by looking at other spectacular photographs of the same location, you can get a leg up on what sort of lighting works best, you can get a good idea for some interesting foreground objects, and a perfect location.
3. Visit The Location in Person to Study It
Once you find a suitable location from your research, get out into the field and visit the location yourself. You may even want to shoot with your camera and tripod at different times during the day to capture transient elements to ‘research’ the location for later. You can then decide, later, what the best composition is.
Shoot during low tide, shoot during high tide, shoot during sunrise, and sunset.
The more familiar with the location and the changing variables of the scenery, the better a picture you are likely to walk away with. This ultimately means more work for you as you will need to be at a location multiple times during the day, and for best results, over a couple days.
Step 3: Adjusting Your Camera Settings for Seascape Photography
Taking good seascapes requires you to master your camera settings.
Turn on Manual Mode
You need to be shooting in Manual Mode for the most control. While you can get by without manual mode to some degree, you really limit how well you can control your shot — especially the look of the water. If you don’t have a camera with manual mode, consider buying one. You can’t get serious about seascape photography if you don’t have one. Typically any entry level DSLR or Mirrorless will have Manual Mode.
Shoot at a Small Aperture
For most seascape shots, you want to maximize your Depth of Focus (DoF) to keep both the foreground and the background in sharp focus. When shooting coastal and seascapes, you typically will want slower shutter speeds which means you will need to often shoot at lower apertures to allow shutter speeds of half a second or more. Shoot with a narrow aperture at about f/16. You don’t want to have too small an aperture (above f/16) unless you absolutely need a slower shutter speed because you may get diffraction in the image. How small an aperture you can use depends on your specific lens, so you’ll have to experiment. As a rule of thumb, choose f/16. Go any lower (i.e. f/18 or f/20 or f/22 or more) and you may have diffraction degrade your image.
Set ISO to 100
For most seascapes taken when there is light out, you will want to keep ISO at about 100. Some cameras allow you to go even lower with a ISO 50 setting. Generally, ISO 50 is less quality than ISO 100, so unless you are trying to slow your shutter speed for seconds of exposure time and you need to need to hold back every stop of light, choose ISO 100.
Shutter Speed Settings
Your ISO and your aperture will typically be fixed for seascape photography (unless you shoot in twilight or at night).
Your shutter speed settings, however, will be consistently adjusted to produce different water effects for your seascape photos; your ability to adjust your shutter speed to get the effect best suited to the mood and composition of your seascape photo is what will make or break your seascape / coastal pictures. Because of this and how important controlling your shutter speed is to this type of photography, we will talk about shutter speed and it’s effect on the look of the water in your pictures in the next section below.
A Complete Guide on How to Control the Wave Effects
Your shutter speed is what gives you control over the look and feel of your seascapes. This is the primary difference between landscape photography and seascape photography — the moving water and your ability to fundamentally change everything about the picture (the mood, the composition, the exposure) by controlling the look of the water. Seascapes, Coasts, and Beaches will offer a dramatically different compositions and emotional atmosphere to your photos depending on your shutter speed.
For milky, misty water: If you want a misty milky look to the water, shoot at shutter speed anywhere between one to three seconds. You can further enhance this effect by including rocks in moving water. If your shutter speed is set for a couple seconds, you’ll often get the milky stream of water moving around the stationary object, providing a shape to the flow of the water. This effect can also be used to bring out the motion and shape of water flow as it eddies or in as it ebbs and flows in tidal pools. If you capture swirling tidal eddies, one of these can often be used as an interesting foreground object in the frame.
For waves hitting the shore: Shoot at a shutter speed of 1/2 a second — you’ll have a form and shape to the water flow, but it will still be somewhat smooth, recording a graceful wave motion with the water blended together.
For dramatic waves crashing against the coast, rocks, or a hard surface (like a lighthouse) with sharp drops of water frozen, you will want to freeze the frame with a faster shutter speed. I suggest you shoot with a shutter speed at or faster than 1/500 of a second. Let’s look at some specific types of wave and water effects and how you can achieve them with your camera.
The Glassy Water Effect (Long Shutter Speeds)
This is one of those seascape/coastal effects you’ll often see used by seascape photographers. If there is calm conditions present in the sea, you can inject a sense of peace and tranquility into your image by creating a flat looking sea. That is, the water will take on a glassy, silky look with the shoreline (where the water is most active) taking on a milky, misty look.
Here’s how to create this effect with your shutter speed:
You will want to shoot with a long shutter speed of at least ten second or more. To shoot with a ten second shutter speed, you are going to need to use a an 8 or 10 second Neutral Density Filter. The longer the shutter speed, the stronger an ND filter you will need to hold back the light. This filter is not optional — there are no in-camera settings that will let you shoot with a shutter speed of 10 seconds or longer during the day. To set this shot up,put the ND filter on and set up your camera to expose as you normal would. Assuming your camera is already set up before the ND filter for a proper exposure, you will likely need to adjust the shutter exposure setting for 10 stops more with the 10 stop ND filter on. Most DSLR cameras have their shutter exposure controlled by 1/3 an exposure change moving your dial to the right. If you need to add 10 stops more exposure time for your shutter, than means you are going to need to move your exposure dial for the shutter 30 times to the right.
Some Additional Tips:
- Exposure times for this type of shot can range from 10 seconds to much longer (20 or 30 seconds). You will need your tripod to be very stable. If you are shooting on sand or in the water, make sure you push the tripod deep into the ground to add more stability.
- Keep your fstop at about f/16 to prevent diffraction. In a pinch, you can crank it up to f/22 so you can lower the shutter speed even more.
- ISO should be at the default 100 setting. Some cameras allow a 50 ISO setting for even longer shutter exposure times
- If you are using an ultra-wide angle and a screw-on ND filter, you may find that at the lower ends of the focal length, the edges of the filter intrude into your image. You’ll either have to shoot at a non-wide-angle focal length or use a special screw-on filter made for wide angles.
- Use a polarizer with your ND for additional effects (more saturated colors, less reflection) and gain an additional 2 stops on top of your ND. Note that using a polarizer with your ND filter depends on what type of ND filter you have (circular or square) and your lens type (wide angle or not). Wide Angle screw-on filters don’t allow another screw on filter to be stacked while non-wide angle ND screw-on filters do. Basically, you should be able to stack a polarizer with a ND if you shoot at a non-wide angle.
- For best results, look at Singh-Ray’s special line of ND filters called the Vari-ND. These are adjustable screw on filters where you can adjust the strength of the ND by turning the filter to the right (just like a polarizer), adjusting the ND strength on the fly from 1 to 8 stops. They also have ND filters with a polarizer built in (Vari-ND-Duo) and a ND filter with a polarizer and a color enhancer built in (vari-nd-trio). Needless to say, with one of these filters, you can easily add 12
The Wave Trail Effect (Longish Shutter Speeds)
If you want to capture the shape of the water movement such as wave trails where you show the rhythm and movement of water currents while still retaining a softer look to the streaming water (i.e. water trails), shoot your exposure with a shutter speed of 2-8 seconds. This allows you to capture the motion of the water providing the view with a sense of direction to the water movement.
The slower your shutter speed, the more smooth your waves will look. So there is a lot of variation you can get depending if you shoot at the faster range (around 2 seconds) or the slower range (8 seconds). Different shots may look better at 3 or 4 seconds or at 6 to 8 seconds. You’ll have to experiment.
An ND filter MAY be required for this type of shot though not a 8 or 10 second one.
You can achieve 2 or 3 seconds by turning your ISO down to 50 (if you have that setting), and your f stop to f/22. With a polarizer stacked on, you can gain an additional 2 stops giving you even more flexibility. But if you want more than a couple seconds and there is at some daylight out still, you are going to need an ND filter between 3 to 6 stops.
Hint: use the Singh-Ray Vari-ND – you can easily get this type of shot (between 2 to 8 seconds) by simply turning the knob to adjust the ND strength. This means you don’t need to mess around with changing filters or anything for the different strengths and it’s easier to experiment with your shot at 2 or 3 seconds and at 7 or 8 to see what looks best.
Wave Power and Motion (Medium Shutter Speeds)
For certain shots, you want to show the actual wave striking rocks. This can show a sense of power and direction to the movement of the water. I find this setting useful to isolating the most energetic parts of the water which will show as an individual wave with water frozen in motion with less energetic parts of the water smoother and still a bit glassy. Basically, you can show a bit of power and direction to the water while focusing on a single wave.
Depending on your shutter speed, you can show the strongest individual waves striking objects while still having the general water silky or having a single wave frozen with the water around it somewhat sharp.
The key to achieving this is to just slow the shutter down a little bit, but not enough to blend the water together too much. you’ll want to choose a setting between 1/10 and 1/2 a second for best results. With this shutter setting, you’ll still see the waves, but the slower shutter speed will blur them just a little bit, taking away the jagged edges that a faster shutter speed would capture. 1/2 a second will create a more misty look to your waves, showing BOTH direction of the water flow, accentuated by the power of a waves crashing on rocks. 1/10th a second or faster will freeze the action of the waves, showing more wave power but less direction and motion of the water:
Another example where you have a slight blur to the water but no jagged lines:
You don’t need a ND filter for this type of shot UNLESS you are shooting in the middle of the day with blue sky. To set up this shot, simply keep your ISO at minimum while lowering the aperture. You’ll still need to use a tripod, however, as hand holding will result in a blurry image at this shutter speed setting.
Wave Power (Fast Shutter Speeds)
If you really want to capture the power and ferocity of the waves, then you need to freeze the frame. I find generally shooting at 1/250 or faster injects a sense or power and force into the picture, especially if you capture a wave slamming into the rocks. At this shutter speed, the entire motion is frozen — you’ll see the individual drops of a wave and the churning backdrop of the surrounding water. You don’ need an ND filter for these types of shot. A tripod is also optional, though for the sharpest images and the best composition possibilities, you’ll still want to use one.
Here’s a shot done by someone at 1/250:
Here’s one shot that’s done at 1/500th of a second:
For action shots of surfers on a wave you will want to shoot around 1/2000 to 1/2500 of a second. You don’t need a tripod. Here’s a shot at about 1/2500 shutter speed:
Capture Water Crashing Against Something: This type of shot always looks best when you capture a wave a split second after it crashes against a hard surface — a rock, a wall, the side of a cliff, a lighthouse, etc. You may have to shoot multiple times to capture the perfect moment, but if you do you can sometimes get some spectacular results.
The Shutter Speed Guidelines are ONLY Guidelines: Don’t lock yourself into only choosing a certain shutter speed because we suggest it’s best suited for the look you are trying to achieve. Sometimes you may want to shoot at 1 second or at 40 seconds. Use our guideline as a rough estimate to the general water effect you want and go from there. You may find a slightly different shutter setting achieves a better look for your specific photo.
Practice and Practice: Getting your shutter speed correct takes practice. You are not going to be able to just read this shutter speed guide and walk into the field and take a perfect picture. You’ll need to experiment with different settings in the field. Shoot at a range of different shutter speeds, use grad filters, shoot at different times — you’ll develop an innate sense about what shutter speed will look best for what composition.
Step 4: Getting the Shot
Once you have the right camera equipment, you’ve done the location research and picked out some key spots, you know the sunset/sunrise times and the tidal times, and you’ve got a good idea what to expect for the weather, and you have a basic idea how to adjust your shutter speed for different water effects (you are going to have to practice this part a lot), what’s next? Well, now you actually need to GET THE SHOT. This means composing your shot and exposing it correctly. Simple in theory, but perhaps complicated in practice. Here’s how to get started with getting some good shots.
What To Shoot for Seascape & Coastal Photography
The problem with seascapes and coastal pictures is that without picking out some interesting subjects that break up the monotony of sea, rock and beach, your seascapes/coastal shots can look quite bland.
You need to pick something that will make your picture stand out in some way.
Interesting Subject Ideas: Keep an eye out for lighthouses, coves, beaches, harbors, boats, yachts, piers, wet rocks, colored rocks, pebbles, tidal pools, reflections, patterns in the sand, rock patterns, marine life, birds, waves crashing over rocks, cliffs, algae.
Also keep your eye out for something you can use (some of the things listed above could be a foreground object) as a strong point of interest that can turn a boring photo into something spectacular.
Seascape Composition Suggestions
Some of the rules of landscape photography composition apply to seascapes and coastal images of course. However, there’s also seascape-specific elements to consider when composing for your image.
The Rule of Thirds
Ah, the Rule of Thirds — probably the most well known rule of composition. And for good reason — it works!
For any sort of composition, first follow The Rule of Thirds which has you place the foreground object of interest on one of the intersecting grid points. Try this one first before opting for a different composition — you may find this old rule gives you the best composition the first time around. But don’t be afraid to experiment with other composition ideas too.
Include an Powerful Foreground Subject
Take a look at any stunning seascape photo and you’ll notice one thing: there’s a strong foreground object that balances out the composition. Shoot ONLY the sea, sand, and sky without an interesting foreground subject and you’ll often get boring photo. This is by far the most important element to a strong seascape / coastal photograph. When you choose your location to shoot, it MUST include a strong foreground object — so do your research first. For seascapes, the usually chosen foreground is a lighthouse. But there’s often not a lighthouse handy for every seascape composition.
Look for other interesting objects: colorful (or interesting looking) rocks, trees, logs, shells, people, docks, piers, and buildings can all be strong foreground subjects that add a sense of scale to your composition.
Include a Point of Interest
Your photo should have a point of interest somewhere. This could be the an interesting object in the foreground, or it could be the main point of interest in the mid ground area (and placed at a key location as per The Rule of Thirds). The location is important, yes, but more important is that you actually HAVE a point of interest. If you don’t have an obvious point of interest, there is a BIG risk that your photo will just be another boring photo. Look at the example below.
Can you guess what the point of interest is?
Foreground Object of Interest Centered on Bottom
Another composition option is to include interesting foreground objects near the center bottom of the image which creates a contrast between the distant background and the close foreground object. This near / far contrast can produce some interesting results. This effect is particularly interesting if you have some interesting patterns in the foreground.
One example might be an interesting formation of rocks, patterns in the sand, etc. For this type of composition, you’ll usually notice the foreground occupies the bigger portion of the frame (usually 2/3 from the bottom up, with the sky taking up the last 1/3 of the frame). Which brings us to our next seascape photography composition tip below:
Open Sky or Wide Foreground
If you have an interesting foreground area and a less interesting sky, you may want to opt to frame the composition so your foreground area takes up 2/3’s of horizontal frame with the sky as the last third.
Generally, showing the land with an interesting foreground in the bottom 2/3’s of the frame with the sky as the top 1/3 is the typical coastal and seascape composition.
Look at this example with the interesting water and foreground taking up the bottom 2/3’s with the top 1/3 the sky:
And another example with the foreground taking up 2/3 of the frame:
If you have a dramatic sky with a less interesting immediate foreground area, you may want to compose your frame with the sky taking up 2/3’s of the top horizontal frame and your foreground the last 1/3, as below:
Shoot the Same Seascape at Different Tide Levels
The tide is the most important variable in your seascape composition. Depending if you shoot during low tide or high tide, your entire composition will change. There are a couple things to know about the tide levels and how they will impact your photo. You will need to do some research about your location to find out when the low and high tide occurs.
Go Into the Water (and Shoot Low)
Some of your best, most dramatic compositions may require you to get your feet wet — literally. Often, getting your camera very low to the ground (or water in this case) can yield a powerful composition or a unique perspective. It can be a bit dangerous for your camera equipment shooting over the water — especially if your camera close to touching the water.
To prevent any mishaps, try shoving your tripod legs as deep as you can into the muck or sand so any moving water or waves won’t push your camera. If you head into the water and shoot low, you may get a unique, interesting perspective as this photographer did below:
Shoot from a High Point
Also look for high points to shoot from, like the top of a cliff or hill. This may present some interesting shooting possibilities. Here’s an example of shooting a seascape from the top of a hill:
Look for Leading Lines
Sometimes you can make use of leading lines to enhance your composition. Look for a pier or dock with a straight line leading outward, directing the eye the eye to the center of the frame. For example old wood sticking out of the water leading your eye into the frame:
You can also find a dock or pier and center it in your image by standing directly behind it. This will lead your eye straight out into the center of the frame:
You can use any structure that’s straight as a leading line:
Look for Straight Diagonal Lines
You can also look for straight (ish) diagonal lines leading out into your frame from the side, which often break your frame into two triangles split by the diagonal object. This has a tendency to draw your eye outward with the diagonal object. This composition works best IF the diagonal line leads your out outward towards a dynamic sky, sunset, or something interesting in the distance. The diagonal object is often used as the solitary Point of Interest in the composition.
For seascapes, that diagonal line is often a dock or pier:
If you can, try and aim the diagonal line towards an interesting cloud formation or sunset / sunrise:
Another example of a dock working as a diagonal leading line. Not how simply yet powerful this image is, with a solitary dock splitting the water and the sky:
Rocks also work as a diagonal line too:
Anything that’s remotely a line that leads your eye can be used, such as the motion of water leading your eye inward. Look for stones or old wooden posts from decrepit docks as diagonal line:
You can also use the natural line of cliffs, the coastline, or a beach as diagonal (or leading) line to draw the eye forward too:
Look for Cliffs
Some locations have dramatic cliffs cutting into the water. A common composition is to take a picture from the side with the sea on one side of your frame and the cliffs on the other side of the frame. This creates a divide between the left and right sides of the picture with your eye often following the trail of the cliffs from bottom to the top. As in the section above (leading lines) you can also use the line of a cliff to lead your eye into the frame.
Include a Human Element
Sometimes adding a touch of humanity to the photo creates something special and provides a sense of scale too:
Look for Minimalism
Sometimes, a photo with only one or two elements in the frame can be all the more powerful for it. Seascapes can provide the perfect platform for this type of photography, especially when you capture ONLY the sea combined with a solitary point of interest — a sail boat, a dock, or something. The key here is there should only be 1 or 2 elements in the photo. Look for open water with sky or a frame where the colors are all similar expect for one single point that’s not.
Like this example:
Here’s another example. A solitary object like a sailboat on the ocean when the lighting is the same between both the sky and the water creates a minimalist effect:
You can combine the effect of a leading line with minimalism for additional impact:
10 Tips for Capturing Stunning Seascapes
Finally to finish off this article, here are some general tips to heed when taking seascape pictures.
Tip 1: Timing Counts
Seascape photography is all about timing — capturing the perfect movement with the perfect shutter speed and the perfect lighting. Since, unlike landscape photography, there is a lot of motion going on, there’s a lot of trial and error to this type of photography. Every photo of the same composition– even with a couple seconds apart — will yield a unique and sometimes dramatically different image. While this may be annoying for some, it’s also an powerful tool — you can sometimes get an amazing, once in a lifetime photo, if you capture the perfect moment.
The Time of Day: Your seascapes will look dramatically different depending WHEN you shoot. Sunrises provide a soft golden light while sunsets give a more orange gold color. You can take advantage of this golden light by shooting an hour before sunrise and up to an hour after sunset. If you stick around long enough after a sunrise, you get a whole different lighting from twilight.
The Changing Weather: The weather is always a changing variable when it comes to any picture involving the seas. Some of your best, most dramatic images can come from stormy weather — with dark moody clouds and huge crashing waves. A calm sunny day with a blue sky are also wonderful for seascapes, with the blue sky and white clouds accentuating the blue of the water. Fog and rain are also interesting to shoot in, adding extra effect and atmosphere to your image. Take advantage of ALL types of weather — sun, rain, fog, cloudy, storm — you never know what sort of shot you’ll get!
The Changing Tide: you can shoot at low tide and high tide. The tide will change everything about your photo, removing some photo possibility yet providing a whole set of different ones too. High tide can bring with it crashing waves or water streaming over exposed rocks, swirling eddies, and other interesting possibilities. Generally, if it’s high tide, you can focus on the motion and direction of the water. If it’s low tide, you often have an assortment of interesting foreground subjects to include — exposed pebbles, rocks, tidal pools, and marine life.
Tip 2: Look for Reflections
If you can find calm water that’s casts reflections, you have some interesting shooting possibilities. Some of the most stunning seascape / coastal photos may include a reflection as part of the composition. Reflections work best when the sun is hidden behind some clouds and you’ll want to use a polarizer to to enhance the reflection. Typically, when shooting seascapes, you won’t be able to get a reflection from the moving sea or ocean.
But there are three ways to get a refection:
1) Wet Sand / Shallow Water on Sand
Often if the sand is wet or there is a thin layer of water over the beach, you can get a solid reflection of the sky.
Sometimes you can capture a faint reflection of the sky, But sometimes, especially during sunset, you can capture the general sunset glow on the sand as a reflection on the wet sand.
Here’s another example of this effect:
2) Tidal Pools: Tidal pools (especially during low tide) can give you a perfect reflection.
Here’s another example of tidal pool reflections:
3) Sunset Reflections When the sun is low in the horizon, it’s often possible to get a strong reflection of the golden light on calmer water. Even if you can’t get an razor sharp reflection of the sky, you can still get a reflection of the light from the sky on the water.
Tip 3: Photograph Seascapes and Coastlines at Night
If you find a fantastic location that delivers some stunning photos during the day, also head back at night (especially if there is a full moon) and get a night shot too. You might just be surprised. Seascapes come alive during the night in a whole new way — you’ll often get a dramatically different sort of image, with pale moonlight casting and eerie mood on the picture and the stars, if it’s dark enough, adding even more impact to the overall image. Moonlight is a different lighting then sunlight all together and can provide some interesting an unique seascape photos.
If you can, aim to get the moon in the frame too:
Keep in mind that night photography is a completely different photography, however. You’ll need to combine your seascape photography knowledge of capturing the right water look while also trying to capture the stars and moon.
Sometimes, seascape night images with man-made structures make for awesome photos too:
Tip 4: Obey the Rules of Composition
Seascapes, like Landscapes, are also subject to the rules of composition. A good seascape photo requires good composition first, then good exposure second. Don’t ignore the basic rules of composition.
- the rule of thirds with an point of interest
- finding a strong leading line to draw your eyes into the frame (a beach, a line of cliffs, rocks leading into the water, etc)
Tip 5: Convert Your Seascape Photos to Black and White for More Drama
You can inject more drama into your seascape photos by converting them to black and white. It’s worth playing around with this effect on your existing photos to see what you get. You might be pleasantly surprised!
Tip 6: Look for Man-Made Structures
Not all seascapes need to be nature orientated. Sometimes, adding a human made structure adds a lot more interest to the composition. Some ideas: lighthouses, docks, piers, old fishing huts, village houses, boats, etc.
Tip 7: Shoot Silhouettes
If there is a lighting situation with a lot of contrast, you may find shooting a silhouette a very effective composition. Keep an eye out for some interesting subjects to make a silhouette from.
Tip 8: Use an Ultra-wide Angle Lens
The lens of choice to use for seascapes is an ultra wide angle. This lens can create an extended foreground and wide open sky with both foreground and sky leading inward. There is a reason why most seascape photographers usually opt for a wide angle lens as their first lens of choice when it comes to composing a frame. If you shoot LOW to the ground, an ultra wide angle can produce a particularly dramatic image.
Tip 9: Use Grad Filters
For many seascapes, especially shots that involve sunrise or sunset, there is simply too much of a dynamic range between the sky and the foreground to have both properly exposed. To get around this, you can either shoot multiple exposures for an HDR image (see next tip) or you can use Grad Filters to level the exposure difference.
Personally, I find Grad Filters are almost always the better choice because you fix the exposure difference optically in the camera rather than having to resort to post processing, which can give your image an artificial look. You can always use your better exposed images produced by grad filters later on as HDR images too, if you need. So make sure you have a grad filter kit with a 2 or 3 stop soft grad and maybe a 3 stop hard grad. If you add a few more grad filters to this kit, you will have more precise control over the contrasting lighting.
How to use grad filters is itself an entire article which I won’t cover here. Make sure you check out our Grad Filters 101, How to Use Grad Filters, and Guide to Grad Filter Holder Systems for extensive tutorials on grad filter usage.
Tip 10: Shoot Multiple Exposures for HDR
HDR photography can produce some powerful seascape images. HDR can give you a much more balanced exposure, especially if there is contrasting lighting (sunset/sunrise or shadows between rocks).
Some of the most spectacular seascape photos I’ve seen are HDR ones. As a rule of thumb, shoot at least three different exposures (-2, 0, +2) for each frame.
Each of these pictures below is a different exposure with a 2 stop difference that can be combined into a single exposure:
If your camera allows more than 3 exposures per frame, then shoot 6, 9, or even 12 exposures per shot for even more dynamic range. Most decent DSLR and Mirrorless cameras have an Auto Bracketing Feature that will automatically take different exposures of the same frame with the newer cameras supporting MORE than 3 exposures per shot. You can later recombine these images with software to produce an HDR photo.
The Final Word
Like any type of photography, you are going to have to get out into the field and practice. I’m not going to bullshit you and say seascape photography is easy.
It’s not. There’s a lot of competing variables you need to manage correctly to get a perfect shot (the tide, the weather, the right shooting time, the right location, an interesting point of interest, the right shutter setting, the right exposure with grad filters or the HDR technique, and more).
Did I mention you also need some LUCK to make everything come together just right?
So don’t expect to get draw-dropping images when you first start out taking seascape and coastal pictures.
There is a learning curve you will need to master, especially when it comes to capturing the best water effect. Like regular landscape photos, you’ll also need to consider the lighting possibilities. You’ll need to consider the tide and how it affects the composition and the water effects.
Finally, you’ll need some sort of interesting foreground image. There’s a reason why many of the best seascape / coastal shots include some dramatically interesting foreground like a lighthouse.
If you can find a lighthouse (or some other interesting image), you can often fix your shots around that, looking for some other remarkable scenery, waves, and sunset/sunrise to bring out the best effect.
If you practice, practice, and practice (and use SOME of these tips I’ve given you in this gudie), you can drastically increase your chances of a better seascape photo.
So get out there, grab your tripod and camera, head to the nearest coastline and start shooting.