Photographing Seascapes :: Digital Photo Secrets

Photographing Seascapes

by David Peterson 11 comments

Nothing inspires that inner photographer quite like the ocean. The crashing surf, those sailboats on the horizon, seabirds cruising just above the water - it would be a crime not to overshoot such a scene. So how come the photos you take home from the beach sometimes just don't manage to capture the drama and beauty of the ocean?

The answer of course is dimension, just like it is in so many other landscapes. The ocean is three dimensional and a photograph is not. To capture the full beauty of the ocean you must somehow also capture that sense of depth. But that's not all - ocean photography is all about timing, too, and finding just the right time and just the right beach is the key to a great seascape.

Normandie:Mont St Michel VI by Flickr user Peter Daems

Go In The Off-Season

If you like lonely beaches, it's a good idea to plan your seaside visits during the off season. A sad truth of modern beaches is that they attract tourists like ice cream trucks attract noisy children. Unless you particularly wanted a shot of a bunch of generic sunbathers representing all ages, sizes, and fashion-sensibilities, you'll probably want to stay away from the coast in high-summer (unless of course you just want to go for a swim, which generally isn't compatible with your DSLR anyway). For your photo shoots, try going in the early spring or in the autumn, when the chilly weather keeps the crowds at bay but you won't have to worry too much about nasty weather destroying your chances at a good shot.

Know Your Beach

Like everyone who has ever been a tourist - and admit it, you have been, we all have - you probably have had the experience of visiting a coastal town for the first time and hopping from beach to beach only to find that most of them were totally unsuitable for whatever you wanted to do. They were rocky, or small, or full of the aforementioned tourists. This is true when your mission is to take a great photo, too. You may find that you're stuck with a series of particularly ordinary-looking beaches when what you really wanted to do was photograph tide pools or lighthouses. For this reason, it's smart to download some brochures on your chosen destination, or to do a search on Flickr to see where other photographers have found great shots. I usually search for "beach" and the town I'm at. It also won't hurt to ask the lady at your B&B where the most scenic (or less-traveled) beaches are, because no one knows the landscape like a local.

Mars walkers by Flickr user gonzalo_ar

Camp Out

If you don't live near the ocean but plan to take photos there, camp out or stay at a nearby hotel so you can visit your location at dawn. In some coastal areas the fog often comes in overnight, and early mornings on the coast can provide you with some surreal lighting and beautiful shots of fog-shrouded beaches. Once the fog clears, you may still be able to get some great golden-hour images, too. And if there isn't any fog, any image of a sunrise on the beach is bound to be beautiful, provided you follow a few of my additional tips.

L'Accalmie au petit matin by Flickr user Manu_H

Put something in the foreground

How many tourist shots of the ocean have you seen that feature a straight horizon with a beach below and the sky overhead? Maybe there will be a little bit of spray as a wave hits the sand, or a nice little curve developing as the wave crests. But even with those small points of interest and maybe even for reasons that you can't pinpoint, the shot is, well, boring. Why? The short answer is because there is nothing in the image to give the viewer a sense of depth, a sense that he or she could actually be standing on that beach watching the waves come in. These shots need something in the foreground - whether it's a person, a rock, a shipwreck or a message in a bottle.

Turimetta Sunbake by Flickr user Tim Donnelly

Shoot the water at an angle

A straight shot of the horizon looking, well, horizontal is going to amplify that two-dimensional problem I talked about earlier. That doesn't mean that with the addition of something in the foreground and perhaps a dramatic sky you can't get a nice shot from this angle, but without all those supporting elements your photo may end up looking a little boring. Try looking down the waterline and shooting it from an angle instead of head-on. I think you'll find that there will be a big difference in how much you like one shot over the other.

"Keyboard" Beach by Flickr user Garry

Bring a tripod and a neutral density filter

It never hurts to experiment with special techniques, and the ocean is a great place to try out slow shutter speeds and ND filters. I'm sure you've seen images of the ocean where the water looks misty; those photos are taken with a slow shutter speed, and often with the assistance of an ND filter which will block a few stops of light and make it possible to capture a photo using a long exposure in daylight.

Great Ocean Road by Flickr user ccdoh1

There's more to the beach than just the beach

Don't get so hung up on those crashing waves that you forget the rest of the coast. Try looking down at the beach from up high, and focus on those tide-pools too. And don't forget to take some images of the nearby coastal town; those weathered buildings and windswept streets also make for beautiful images. These may not exactly be "seascapes," but they are an important contextual part of the landscape and shouldn't be ignored, even if the ultimate goal of your journey is to capture that perfect ocean image.


Lastly, try braving those waters. Yeah, I know I said to go during the off season, so it's OK if you don't want to get your feet wet (though shooting from the water back out towards the land can make for a compelling image, too). But be sure you aren't running away from potential shots because the tide is coming in. If you have to, bring a rain cover for your camera and a raincoat for yourself. You may find that some of your best shots are also some of your boldest.

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  1. Magda Möller says:

    Thank you for these very useful tips!

  2. Betty Schupp says:

    Your tips have really improved my photography and your book Digital Photography Secrets (which I ordered and received in record time) is a great quick reference and is now an important addition to my camera bag. I save all of your tips that I receive via e mail and when I am planning to photograph something in particular I refer to the tips I received before I actually do the photo shoot.

  3. Doc Robinson says:

    I've been both a contributor and an editor of boating and fishing magazines for quite some years. One point I did not see mentioned is the need to have the sea horizon level, either when taking the pic or in post production. I advise our contributors to leave enough room around the main part of the pic that they want to feature so it can be straightened up without loss of the core image.

  4. G Teo says:

    Thanks David your tips always refreshing.Looking at some shots I took along Taiwan beaches tell me why some shots are striking and some are flat

  5. tam Scotland says:

    thanks for another photography lesson

  6. Peter Poverello says:

    I'm relocating down to the south eastern part of South Africa where there are long stretches of beautiful beaches so will be trying out some of your tips. Thanks .

  7. Bren says:

    Great tips David, I WILL try them, thanks

  8. William Kee says:

    Thanks David your tip have helped me a lot.Tips on the beaches are great

  9. Matt says:


    Your tips are always very practical and helpful. Is there any way you could include some info on the photos you display, such as ISO, aperture, etc as well as any post processing that was done. Thanks.


  10. Kay O'Hara says:

    I too enjoy your tips and especially this one. I will be bold and brave to try your suggestion. Thank you.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.