When you think of seascapes, you probably think of long, sandy beaches, beautiful rock formations and the crashing surf. And it's certainly true that most people don't get tired of these scenes, no matter how samey they may be. There's something about the ocean that inspires us, and any ocean lover will tell you that there's just nothing boring about the sea.
But it's probably also true that if you spend a lot of time photographing the ocean, you start to wish for a little variety. You can find that by looking for places where the ocean collides with civilization - like marinas, boardwalks and piers. But there's a trick to capturing both the wild and civilized faces of these locations - keep reading to find out how.
Old Fishing Pier by Flickr user Ken Rowland
Equipment and settings
You’re going to find a lot of opportunities for different types of photographs in this environment, but keep in mind that changing lenses at the beach is never really a good idea. If sand or sea spray gets inside your camera, it can wreck havoc and may even result in the ultimate destruction of your equipment. So it’s best to go to the beach with only a single lens—put it on before you leave the house and don’t take it off again until you get back home. If this means visiting the pier three times—once for wide-angle shots, once for macro shots and once for zoomed-in shots—then that’s what you’ll need to do in order to ensure the safety of your equipment.
Another nice-to-have is a tripod, which you’ll find handy for macro shots (when you shoot macro, you need camera stability both because of slower shutter speeds/smaller apertures as well as to ensure that you can maintain the correct focus point). Along with a tripod you’ll need a cable or remote release, or at the very least knowledge of how to use your camera’s self-timer function.
Any ocean setting can be a place of high contrast—you know how you have to put your sunglasses on whenever the sun comes out from behind those clouds? A great tool to have on hand is a graduated neutral density filter (GND), which I recommend for any scene that includes a horizon. Place the division between the dark part of the filter and the light part right at the horizon, with the darker part over the sky, and you’ll be able to capture greater overall detail throughout the frame.
Willunga Surprise II by Flickr user Crouchy69
If your camera is capable of shooting in RAW, pack an extra memory card and shoot all your beach photos in that format. RAW uses up a lot more space on your memory card (and hard drive) but the trade-off is that you’ll get images with a lot more recoverable detail in both the highlights and shadows, even on very contrasty days.
Remember that if you’re including the surf in your images, your shutter speed plays a huge role in the sorts of images you’ll be able to capture. A fast shutter speed of 1/1000 or higher will freeze individual water droplets as the waves crash against a pier or other manmade structure. A slower shutter speed, on the other hand, will make the water look soft and silky in appearance. A very slow shutter speed will make a furious surf look utterly surreal, reducing the waves to an almost translucent mist (you’ll need a tripod to do this, of course).
Safety first—not all piers are accessible to the public, so you can’t just spot one from the highway and make the assumption that it’s safe or legal for you to shoot there. First, find out whether it’s OK for people to be there—if there are swimmers or other beachgoers nearby and there are no warning signs or fences, it’s a safe bet that you can set up there. But even public piers can present a hazard if you don’t take care and stay aware of your surroundings. It’s a good idea to know the times for low and high tide and don’t put yourself in a situation where you might get trapped by rising water or worse, surprised by a sudden, camera-destroying wave.
Under the Bridge by Flickr user dwan.mac
Like a railroad track, a pier is a natural vanishing point—if you photograph it the right way, you’ll give your viewer’s eye a strong line to follow from foreground to background. That will help give your image a feeling of depth and dimension, which can sometimes be difficult for ocean scenery, since oceans and beaches usually contain a lot of horizontal lines. Besides that very obvious vanishing point, piers also have some amazing patterns. Walk under one and look up—the boards and supports will be arranged in regular patterns, and depending on the time of day those patterns may also have sunlight shining through them.
Unless the pier was built yesterday, it’s also undoubtedly going to have some great texture. Look for rusty bolts, sea-worn and waterlogged wood, seaweed and barnacles and get close to that texture with a macro lens.
Some piers are more popular than others, but for the most part you should be able to get some shots that exclude people. Beach boardwalks are another story altogether. Beach boardwalks are often all about people, so excluding them is not usually the best strategy. But it can be difficult to capture a beach boardwalk photo that doesn’t scream chaos, because by their nature beach boardwalks are chaotic places.
The best strategy for beach boardwalks tends to be very wide shots, which incorporate both the beach itself as well as the boardwalk, rides and crowds, or to get close and try to give your viewer a minimalist perspective. You could, for example, shoot through the tracks of a roller coaster at the ocean beyond. Or shoot down at the beach below from the gondola. If you’re having some trouble including both sand and amusements, try simply suggesting the presence of the beach. You can shoot the rides against the sky just as the fog starts to roll in, for example, or you can include seagulls in your photo.
Not all beach boardwalks are packed with tourists, of course—some are simply that: boardwalks on the beach. If you find one in a more remote place, you can shoot it in much the same way as you shot one of those ocean piers—use it as a vanishing point to help draw your viewer’s eye from foreground to background.
Like busy beach boardwalks, marinas are full of visual information and have to be approached conservatively. It’s rarely a good idea to just hang back and shoot the whole marina, because it’s very likely that there will be a lot of multi-colored boats of all shapes and sizes, people moving on and off of the docks and general recreational and/or occupational mayhem pretty much anywhere you look.
A good approach for any place that has a lot of visual information is to find patterns. A cluster of sailboats will have one big thing in common—all those vertical masts. The bows of a row of boats also make for great patterns, and you can find leading lines in the docks, too. For the most part, you will want to limit your shots to a few regular elements—stop before the pattern is destroyed by an incoming boat or some other element that breaks the pattern in a jarring or visually unpleasant way.
Marina in Sausalito by Flickr user wili_hybrid
You can find good line and great details in marinas, too—look for weathered boats and lines in hand rails and the boards that the dock is constructed from. Ropes, rows of lights at sunset and rusty details all make for great elements in your marina photography. And zoom in on individual boats, too. If there’s too much chaos in the background and you can’t angle it out, use a larger aperture to blur it and thus give it less overall importance in the composition.
Remember that your goal is to take out-of-the-box shots of the sea—images that don’t look like all the other seascapes you’ve seen on Flickr. Now, obviously shooting piers, marinas and beach boardwalks is not a brand new idea, but it’s one that you can do a lot of unusual things with if you think it through and look for unusual angles and perspectives to shoot from. Try to get a nice juxtaposition of the man made and the natural—this conflict always makes for compelling photography. And because the ocean is never boring, you’ve got something working in your favor before you even get your camera out of the bag.
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