Use GND filters to tame bright skies and capture rich color

6 Step Seascape Photo Tutorial

Here at Sea to Summit we’re pretty well respected for our seascape images, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that our coastal photography workshops, like Santa Cruz and Big Sur, are among our most popular. The ocean can be a surprisingly tricky place to shoot and budding photographers want to know what steps they can take to bring their images to the next level.  Here is our 6 step seascape photo tutorial to help you to start producing some killer coastal photographs.

1) Get Proper Support

Tripods improve seascape photographyA good seascape starts with some essential gear, and a solid tripod comes in right at the top of the list. If you are getting serious about nature photography then you’re probably familiar with the upsides of using a tripod, the benefits of which go doubly for coastal photography. Not only does a tripod give you a stable base to photograph from to achieve tack-sharp details, it also allows you to use longer shutter speeds. Some of the best seascape images are taken with shutter speeds of 1/2 second to 30 seconds or longer, and if you’re trying to pull off hand held shots at those long exposures, your photos are going to be blurry disappointments. So slap your camera on a tripod and you’ll see an instant improvement in your images.

Top tip for tripods: push your tripod legs deep into the wet sand at the ocean’s edge, and if a wave wraps around the legs, push them deeper still. The wet sand will “cement” around the tripod legs and give you an awesomely stable base to shoot from, even if waves are rushing around you. And always always always make sure your tripod is level. The last thing you want is for your camera to take a dip in the ocean because your tripod was off-balance and fell over. 
 

A tripod gets you 90% of the way to having sharper photos, but to bring out the best in your shots use a remote shutter release as well. The remote release lets you pop off shots without actually touching your camera, so you can eliminate the camera shake that comes from physically pressing the shutter button. Remote releases come in many different styles from wired to wireless, and basic push-button types to fancy intervalometers. In the beginning the kind you buy is less important than the fact that these little gizmos help add extra crispness and detail to your photos. However, for the acidic marine environment, we recommend a god carbon fiber model. Both Jim and I use tripods by Induro.

2) Learn to Love GND Filters

How to use graduated neutral density filters for better seascapes.

Use GND filters to tame bright skies and capture rich color

Graduated neutral density (GND) filters are a must-have accessory which will bring your seascape photography up a few notches. Because these filters are dark on top and clear on the bottom they allow you to balance bright light in the sky with darker foregrounds, letting your camera capture the entire dynamic range of a scene. While it’s true that in this digital age many photographers are avoiding GND filters, choosing instead to bracket exposures to combine later in Photoshop, this practice will get you into hot water when photographing the ocean, for one simple reason: the ocean is moving. If you bracket exposures at the coast, the water will look different in each shot, and your exposure blend stands a good chance of coming out funky. Using GND filters ensures you can capture everything you want in a single frame. Check out the 4×6 (100mmx150mm) size from LEE which complement their foundation holder.

But be aware that GND filters are like magnets for salt spray, which is one of those unique annoyances that comes with photographing the coast. Every time a wave crashes it sends tiny droplets of salty water into the air. If it’s windy this salt spray can become a photographer’s nightmare: an ever-present mist that blows into your face and onto your lenses and filters. It’s a terrible feeling to think you’ve nailed a shot, only to find out later your photo is covered with water drops. To combat this problem keep a lens wipe or shammy cloth handy and be vigilant about wiping down your lens and filters.

Lens wipe tip: Paper wipes or absorbent shammy cloths are better than microfiber wipes, which can smear salt spray, leaving behind a residue on your lenses and filters. Always bring more than a few wipes with you because sooner or later you’re going to drop one into the ocean and you’ll need a backup.

3) Get Close to the Action

Improve seascape photos by getting close to the oceanThe number one thing you can do to improve the content of your seascape images is simple: get closer to the ocean. Don’t be afraid to get into the surf zone and get a little wet. By getting up close and personal with the ocean you will dramatically increase the impact of your photos. You’ll also be in a better position to show off ocean dynamics like wave action, crashes, splashes, whooshes, and cascades. The photos at left show the exact same subject matter and yet one is clearly more interesting than the other. The photo on top was taken 20 feet above the surf zone, whereas the photo on the bottom was taken in the surf zone and is consequently more dynamic, engaging, and full of impact. The simple act of walking 20 feet closer to the ocean improved this photo immeasurably.

Safety tip: Never ever turn your back on the ocean and be aware that rogue waves can occur at any time and can be much larger than other waves, so always keep one eye on the sea. This is especially important when you are shooting in the surf zone. Always have an escape route planned and keep your gear handy in case you need to make a dash for safety. If you do get hit by a wave, don’t try to run as you will most likely trip and fall. Instead, stand your ground and turn sideways to reduce your profile.

 4) Experiment with Shutter Speed and Wave Timing

Time your shots to produce different wave effects in your photos

Back to back shots taken at ISO100, f/20, 1/2 sec. By changing the timing of the shots, the waves look different in each

One of the great joys of seascape photography is the ability to dramatically alter the look of your images simply by changing your shutter speed. Playing with shutter speed lets us shoot “into the 4th dimension” by capturing visuals that our eyes can’t see.

Whenever there is motion in a scene, shutter speed can be used to capture that movement. Pick a fast shutter speed like 1/100th of a second to freeze crashing waves in mid-air, creating tension and drama in your images. A longer shutter speed of around 1 second can be used to create silky streamers and soft curls in ocean waves. And a very long shutter speed of 30 seconds is useful for creating a completely smooth, misty look to the water.

But what’s really fun about shooting the ocean is not just that it’s moving, but that it’s constantly changing. Unlike shooting a waterfall where back-to-back exposures at the same shutter speed will look identical, back-to-back exposures at the ocean can exhibit entirely different characters and moods, even if the camera settings remain the same. Depending on whether a wave is just beginning to crest, or rushing up the beach, or flowing over some rocks, or washing back out to sea, when you press the shutter button has a remarkable effect on the outcome of your image. So once you’ve found a shutter speed you like, experiment with timing your shots while the ocean is doing different things, and you’ll surely notice some fantastic elements being added to your photos.

5) Create Leading Lines with Water Movement

Leading lines direct viewers' attention in photos

Top: a foamy curve is used as a line to draw viewers into the scene. Bottom: out-flowing water is captured with a 2-second exposure to create silky, flowing lines.

Compositionally, one of the most important elements in a landscape photo is leading lines. Leading lines are natural pathways that move your viewer’s eye through your image, connecting your foreground to your background. The ocean does a wonderful job of creating leading lines for us, if you know where to look. One of the most obvious lines you can use in your seascape compositions is the line of foam a wave creates as it comes up the beach, as you can see in the top left photo.

But perhaps even more interesting lines are created by the motion of the water itself. By stretching your shutter speed out to 1-2 seconds you can capture the movement of a wave as it moves up and down the beach, creating beautiful running streamers of water that pull your viewer’s eye into your image, as seen in the image on the bottom.

Top tip for creating wave streamers: set your shutter speed to 1-2 seconds. Wait for a wave to crash, rush up the beach, and pause at the top. Just as the wave begins to flow back into the ocean, trip the shutter. Your 1-2 second exposure will capture the movement of the out-flowing water and create beautiful streamers.

No matter what you use as leading lines for your image, make sure that they flow into your photo. Lines that cut horizontally across your frame or flow out of the shot create visual roadblocks which lead your viewer’s eyes out of the image.

6) Switch to Full Manual Mode

Inconsistent results are produced when using aperture priority mode for shooting seascapes

Aperture priority produces inconsistent exposures. 3 shots, back to back at f/22, from L to R: 1/6 s, 1/1.3 s, 1/10 s

Many landscape photographers like to shoot in aperture priority mode because it’s easy: you pick an aperture to get the depth of field you want, and the camera decides the necessary shutter speed in order to get a proper exposure. However, when shooting seascapes your camera can be easily fooled into creating bad exposures. As waves are crashing and splashing through your scene, your camera will constantly be adjusting exposure to try to keep up with these changing conditions. And unfortunately, most of the time the camera will fail miserably and produce wildly varying results. Despite being taken back to back, the exposures at left shot in aperture priority vary by as much as 3 full stops!

By switching to full manual mode you will lock in an exposure which doesn’t change from shot to shot, meaning you get consistent and repeatable results as seen in the three bottom images.

Consistent results are produced when using manual mode for shooting seascapes

Manual mode produces consistent exposures when shooting seascapes. 3 shots, back to back at f/22, 1/2 sec

For a similar reason it’s important to use manual focus when shooting seascapes. When photographing a moving subject like the ocean your camera’s autofocus can search around a bit before it locks focus. If you are photographing a sequence of wave shots nothing hurts more than having a shot or two in the middle be blurry because your camera was hunting for focus. Use manual focus to avoid this issue. A good trick is to use autofocus to nail your focus initially, but then switch to manual focus and be assured that the rest of your shots will be tack sharp.

If you found this article useful, consider joining us on a photography workshop. We’ll teach you all of these skills and more in a fun, relaxed atmosphere that will have you producing fantastic seascape photos in no time!

18 replies
  1. Paul House
    Paul House says:

    Nice article, but you left out some important information .. DO NOT TURN YOUR BACK ON THE OCEAN !! IT WILL GET YOU AT SOME POINT IF YOU ARE NOT AWARE AND WATCHING !! .. Thanks .. Paul

    Reply
    • Josh
      Josh says:

      Thanks for the comment, Paul. You are absolutely right about turning your back on the ocean. I actually talk about this in part 3. Thanks for reading!

      Reply
    • Josh
      Josh says:

      This is becoming more and more of a common practice because of the flexibility and it certainly does have some advantages. But I maintain that for seascapes a GND will almost always serve you better than blending because you capture the scene in one shot. With few exceptions, exposure blending with ocean shots is problematic because the waves move in between shots and this can make your blend look really funky. There are a few workarounds with Photoshop but I’d rather spend my time out at the beach shooting than inside in front of the computer trying to achieve the same result.

      Reply
  2. Rick Stamm
    Rick Stamm says:

    Whole lotta great advice and instruction offered within this piece. If you’ll allow, I do have a few questions regarding tripod use/care and salt water exposure. Is this the optimum forum to ask them or, do you prefer some other location?

    Thanks again for taking the time to share such invaluable information with many who are landlocked at this time yet hope to incorporate such wisdom for those special opportunities when venturing to the coast.

    Reply
    • Josh
      Josh says:

      Hi Rick, glad you found the post useful. To answer your question, we’re working on setting up a forum to ask those exact kinds of questions. But until that’s up and running, you can ask questions here and I’ll do my best to answer them concisely. Cheers!

      Reply
  3. Rick Stamm
    Rick Stamm says:

    Hey Josh, I always find your sharing informative and thought provoking. Your ‘6 Steps To Better Seascape Photos’ prompted me to wonder how you care for your tripod after a day in the surf and sand. Knowing both to reek havoc on metal and fittings, I was wondering the following:

    1) What have you found necessary to perform in the way of post trip cleaning/rinsing and care of your tripod in order to ensure its longevity?
    2) Do you use a carbon fiber or alloy tripod?
    3) Any special care for the extension collars?
    4) Do you find it imperative to use any special cleaning/ lubricating treatments such as WD-40?

    And finally a few questions on practical coastal usage:

    1) When anchoring your tripod in the surf line, what technique(s) have you found work(s) best for ensuring it is anchored well for long exposures? 2) Do you use metal spiked tips or rubber tips for your saltwater/coastal shelf work?

    Your willingness to share your insights and expertise in these articles is greatly appreciated. And best of luck with your upcoming jaunt down to NZ. M’alob K’inn!

    Reply
    • Josh
      Josh says:

      Hi Rick,

      Glad you’re finding the posts helpful! Let me see if I can answer your questions for you.

      1) Once I get home I rinse my tripod immediately and thoroughly in the shower. I unlock all the mechanisms and move them through a full range of motion while rinsing. If it’s a particularly nasty day I’ll disassemble the whole thing and rinse it off. I also wipe the thing down to remove any salt water residue.
      2) Carbon fiber. I try to avoid metal wherever possible. Look for a tripod that has stainless steel or magnesium alloy hardware to minimize corrosion. If you’ve got the money to spend Gitzo makes a tripod specifically for hardcore ocean use.
      3) Just the same as #1 above: move the mechanism through its full range while rinsing and wiping down.
      4) In general you want to avoid lubricants because they can make your clamps and lock-downs slippery and ineffective. If you have a ballhead that is totally locked due to residue and corrosion, you can use a small amount of silicone-based lubricant to free it up, but be aware that this is a slippery slope (no pun intended) and probably means your tripod head is on its last legs (no pun intended).
      A better solution to using lubricants is buying high quality gear. I originally had a Manfrotto ballhead that bit the dust after 3 months of seascapes. Too much grit and corrosion inside the mechanism and it seized up completely. Now I use an Acratech ballhead which has a completely open design, so it’s impossible for grit or salt water to get trapped inside because there is no “inside.” Jim Patterson uses a very nice Markins ballhead which I believe continues to be smooth despite years of seascape shooting. And other photogs I know who use Really Right Stuff don’t seem to have any problems either. For the tripod legs, avoid latches, toggles, thumbscrew locking mechanisms. These things are magnets for grit and corrosion and will fail quicker than you can say “shooting seascapes at the sea shore.” The twist-lock mechanisms you see on higher-end tripod legs are much much better, not to mention easier to take apart and clean.

      To answer your practical questions:
      1) Jam your tripod legs deep (6-8″) into wet sand. That will hold the tripod really steady even if waves are washing around you. You’ll still get some vibration from the big waves, but if you are in a spot where you’re only getting 6″ of water around the tripod legs you’ll be fine. Or find some solid rock to shoot from; that will give you the best platform.
      2) I use rubber tips since they provide better traction on bare rock. Or if I’m shooting from the sand, my tripod legs are buried in the sand so the tips don’t really matter. I could see the spikes being useful if you are shooting on something soft, like algae or moss or seaweed, but so far I haven’t needed to use mine.

      Cheers!

      Josh

      Reply
      • Rick Stamm
        Rick Stamm says:

        Greetings Josh,

        I greatly appreciate your in depth reply and all the efforts you and Jim put forth in providing online insight for folks like me who live on the other side of this country and are unable to participate in one of your workshops as often as I’d like. Both of you have always produced outstanding landscape imagery, and in Jim’s case, underwater compositions also. In my humble opinion, what places you guys over the top is your willingness to be available and approachable to share your hard earned wisdom in order for others to improve as well. Such efforts will no doubt produce stronger images for those who heed your advice and will always cast you both in favorable light with others down the river of life. Looking forward to applying many of your well honed insights as I continue to venture within this realm of creative artistic expression.

        M’alob K’inn! (Mayan for, “Have a good day in the sun!”)

        ~ rick ~

        Reply
  4. Dave
    Dave says:

    What strength is do you use for your GND? Is it the screw on type or do you use a filter holder?

    Also, do you use a ND filter for the long exposures or do you just adjust the aperture?

    Reply
    • Josh
      Josh says:

      Hi Dave,

      Unfortunately the only question you have with a straightforward answer is the one about screw-in filters: the rectangular filters used with filter holders are much, much better than the screw-in filters because of their flexibility and ease of use.

      To answer your other questions:
      The strength of the GND varies greatly depending on the situation. I almost always start out with a 3-stop soft, but if I am shooting into the sun a may add another filter on top. If I am shooting away from the sun I may use a 2-stop or 1-stop. Shooting reflections also usually requires a weaker filter like a 2-stop.

      For most of my long exposures I simply adjust the aperture. But that’s because I like to shoot around sunset/sunrise when the light is low. If you want to shoot longer exposures in the middle of the day then you will need an ND filter.

      Hope that helps!

      Josh

      Reply
    • Josh
      Josh says:

      Hi Maimai,

      It really depends on you. Some people love that ultra-wide look, others like a more standard zoom. Ultimately you have to decide for yourself, but you should know that most of the photos you see in the galleries on this website were shot at the equivalent of 18mm. So if you like our photos and want to create photos like them, I recommend the 16-35. And if you join one of our workshops we can teach you to use it to create a lot of depth and perspective in your images.

      Take care,

      Josh

      Reply
  5. Ron
    Ron says:

    Could I expect to get the same quality image from a T5i crop camera as I would get from a full frame camera so long as I keep the print size down to below 20×30?. If not could you give a brief explanation what the issues would be?

    Reply
    • Josh
      Josh says:

      Hi Ron,

      Generally speaking the main differences in image quality between a crop sensor and a full frame would be amount of grain, and tonal smoothness. But there is no question that if you know how to use your equipment well to get the best possible image quality (low ISO, good exposures, no excessive processing, good lenses, etc.) then you should have no problems blowing a T5i print up as large as you like. I have shots from a 12mp crop sensor I’ve blown up to 45″ wide prints that look awesome. Keep on crankin’!

      Josh

      Reply

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