By Curtis Jones
Your skin tingles with the almost imperceptible drop in temperature as you step out from the forest canopy. A low growl rises on a damp wind alluding to something powerful, something primal just out of view. With every step, you feel anticipation building in your chest, mirroring the energy of the waves formed miles off the coast. Gulls surf turquoise surges, pitching with each new push; taking flight just long enough to wait out the biggest of rollers, before settling back down for another set. Somewhere on the horizon, a storm is building. You know, even before the brooding clouds move in, you can smell the change in the air. Breaking over a low rise you catch the first glimpse of your saltwater quarry. With the sun hanging low, yellow light dances over the dark undulating water, giving it the appearance of liquid gold. The sea has many tales to tell, what will yours be?
Seascapes are easily one of my favourite forms of outdoor photography. Growing up on an island with culture and community anchored to the ocean, it’s no surprise that saltwater is always near to my creative heart. Over the years, I’ve certainly shot more water-based imagery than landlocked and though compositionally certain rules and fundamentals apply equally to both – I have learned that seascapes possess unique qualities. I’ve found that my approach to seascapes falls somewhere between a harmonious balance with nature and barely making it back to the car in one piece. Here are six tips to consider when wading into seascape photography.
1. Get low, get wide, and prepare to get wet. You can capture wonderful images of the ocean from the relative dry security of the beach. But if you want to create those immersive, dynamic images that make your viewer feel like they are there in the water, getting drawn into the scene; well you need to be there in the water yourself. Use common sense and shoot safely. Watch the water, know the tides, look for the high-water mark and then tip your toes in. Adventure on calm days and go with friends to start. Wear waterproof boots if it makes the rest of your day more comfortable, but expect a little splish with your splash. By getting low and shooting with a wider lens, like a 16-35mm, you can capture the water as it moves past the camera and out of frame. This will help pull the eye into the image and establish an immediate connection to the ocean.
2. Use shutter speeds to help tell your ocean tale. One of the biggest advantages of using the ocean as a compositional element is that it is alive. The ocean is an active participant. It’s shape, colour, and luminance can and will change, sometimes shot to shot. Knowing what shutter speed to use will help you not only create striking images but control the narrative of your seascape as well. For example, a single wave shot at three different shutter speeds can covey three different feelings. Shot at 1/1000s or higher you can catch a wave at its peak, just before it breaks. This shot carries energy, power, anticipation. The same wave, shot as it retreats from the beach, at 1/3s might carry a lighter more peaceful energy – the ocean appearing more relaxed. And finally, several waves shot over 20 seconds or more could still the ocean to nearly motionless as it moves into the arena of minimalism. The resulting image evoking a sense of calm and tranquillity.
3. Finding focus in a sea of waves. The sea is perpetually on the move. Moving objects are always going to be more difficult to focus on than static. Increase your odds by working with an aperture of around f16. Keep in mind this is just a starting point, every lens and situation is going to be a little different. The point is the same; to use a smaller aperture to get a greater depth of field and most of your scene in focus. When the waves start rolling you won’t always have time to mess about with settings and check for sharpness. Alternatively, if sharp waves are not what you are after, simply focus as you normally would on a stationary part of the scene, like a rock, and lock your focus there. As the water crashes around the rock, the motion of the sea will create wonderful blurry patterns leaving your rock tack sharp.
4. Get friendly with filters. Neutral Density (ND) filters are perfect for bringing down the overall exposure of an image so you can play with those slightly exaggerated shutter speeds. Adding an ND filter to your lens will allow you to capture those beautiful patterns and tendrils of silky motion, as the ocean advances and withdraws from your scene. You may get away with longer shutter speeds, filter-free, in the moments of dusk and dawn, but filters will certainly allow you to compose well into the light. Polarizers are also useful. Polarizers cut through reflections and glare making them ideal for seascape images where you want to reveal what lies beneath the surface. Keep in mind that not every scene requires that treatment, and sometimes you will want to capture the reflected patterns and colour of the sky or clouds in the water or on the beach.
5. Be the photographer with the plan. Visit a location at different tides to see how the seascape changes. Visit the same places in varied light and weather. Use wave prediction apps and tide charts in tandem with weather forecasts to plan your ultimate dream shot. Remember every swell will bring small variations in wave breaks. Couple that with different shutter speeds, light quality, and cloud patterns and you have near infinite creative possibilities.
6. Keep the glass clean. My final tip in this article cannot be overstated. Bring and use a lens cloth. I’ve ruined dozens of images because I was too lazy or simply forgot to bring a cloth to wipe my lens between shots. Even the gentlest of oceans can cover your lens in sea spray. Water spots not only mess up your clean composition, but they also reflect and refract light in all kinds of wonderfully unwanted ways. A dust spot is a pain to clean in post, a water spot with light flare, can be a nightmare.
These are just a few quick and simple tips that I hope give you a leg up when you next head out to capture your favourite ocean view. Remember nothing is written in stone and almost always creation comes from a place of playful pursuit, practice and patience. Embrace these fundamental lessons that the ocean offers freely and you’ll be well on your way to telling your own unique stories born from saltwater joys.