Photographing the Sea :: Digital Photo Secrets

Photographing the Sea

by David Peterson 7 comments

One of the most dramatic subjects for your lens is the sea. It's calm, powerful, seemingly endless, and ever changing depending on the lighting. With all those characteristics, you want to ensure that your trip to the sea with your camera pays off, so I put together a few tips of ideas you may not have thought of... so, pack your sunblock and beach towel.

Choose a focal point

Everyone wants to photograph the ocean and beach, and everyone wants their photos to look original. Yet, how many images look just like the next, as though everyone took the same vacation? Enough that it's worth pointing out the importance of choosing a good focal point. Finding a focal point will keep you from taking yet another flat and boring vacation photo. It's easy to see the expanse of the ocean and to not be sure what to focus on. That's when finding a subject, such as this lighthouse, and making that the focal point adds character and interest to your image.
The beach is full of interesting focal points if you look around. From patterns in the sand, rocks, and boats. If you go at low tide, even more opens up, such as tide pools and more rocks and shells.

Black and White

Nothing adds mood like black and white, and with the drama of an ocean, you can't go wrong combining the two. I know most people want the "deep blue sea" or the "turquoise ocean," but on an overcast or foggy day, converting to black and white is just the ticket to an awesome photo. Add a great focal point, as we just discussed, set up your tripod and see what you can capture.

Black and white images tend to tell stories better than color ones. Try an find a great example of a picture that says 1,000 words. The lighthouse photo above would also be compelling in black and white. While you want to shoot in color, when you are home and uploading your images, test drive some of the dramatic ones in black and white and see if I'm wrong... or right.

Rule of Thirds: What's on the Horizon

It is not uncommon have a beach photograph ruined by a lack of an interesting focal point and good technique. This photo of the sea and sky meeting with the horizon basically down the middle is about as boring as it gets, right? So, to combat boredom, use the horizon as your divider for the rule of thirds. You want the horizon to use its lines to draw the eye to your subject.

Even if this image is not that much more interesting, my point is sharing it is that the horizon line is dividing the image into the rule of thirds by placing it in the top third of the image. And the sand starts in the bottom third. This automatically draws the viewer's eye around rather than being stagnant in the middle. The texture in the foreground helps with making it a bit more interesting, too.

Pack A Bag

Just like you'd pack a beach picnic with care, the same goes for a beach photo shoot. My recommended list of items includes:

  • Tripod - for lowlight situations and for keeping the camera level for those horizon shots.
  • UV filters - to protect your lens from the sand and salty air.
  • Polarizing filter - to darken those blue waters and skies, but also to cut down on glare.
  • Gradient Filter - for those evening and morning shots when you're dealing with heavy contrast.
  • Lens hoods - to protect those lenses. Just be careful of vignetting.
  • Multiple lenses - from wide to portrait to telephoto, you may have the chance to use them all.
  • Camera bag - to protect all of the above from the weather elements when you're not using them.

Clouds and Fog

The term "picture perfect" does not mean that every beach photo has to be a perfectly sunny day. In fact, quite the opposite at times. A clearing storm adds dramatic clouds. Fog adds mood. Rain creates clinging droplets on rocks and dissipating rings in pools. Look for the unexpected in a coastline or ocean view.

Moving Waves

Don't forget that shutter speed will be a big factor at the beach. The waves create movement that you will either want to freeze or allow blurring. If it's a huge, crashing wave, I recommend bumping up the shutter speed to freeze it just as its curl is at its peak. If the tide is low and the waves are rolling in around rocks with the sun setting behind them, slow down your shutter speed to blur the water's movement.

Dress for Success

Nothing ruins a photo shoot more than lack of preparedness, and naturally, beaches are going to have varying weather patterns depending on where you are and what time of year you're there. From colder climates to humid ones, be prepared for cold winds or afternoon thunderstorms. If you're photographing an area you haven't been to before, make sure you check the weather forecast before your trip and pack accordingly. A thunderstorm can drop temperatures twenty degrees in twenty minutes. Coastlines like in California are known for being cold in the summer... as Mark Twain said, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." Become familiar with the weather patterns of where you're travelling and pack for it so you're not stuck out in the rain or cold unprepared.

Lastly, it may take getting up early to capture those sunrise photos. Set your alarm and have your bag packed.

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  1. Abdallah says:

    Nice tips,
    but you may add a remote or cable release to the gear list to minimize shake although you can use the self timer in case the camera doesn't support a remote.

  2. matt says:

    Nice piece. Thanks

  3. sue says:


  4. Seeking your advice says:

    David you are the best! Thank you for your wonderful articles.

  5. stacey m says:

    Great tips. Useful information.

  6. Kevin says:

    As usual great tips and examples!

  7. Karthikeyan says:

    Sir, Greetings, I bought a SONY A 77 SLT cam, is it ok, option is is very tough,
    pls tell about that cam

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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+.