Long Exposure Coastal Shots

Seascape Photography
by Martin Steele November 06 2017

To me, seascapes are my favourite genre to capture. I feel drawn to the sea and it’s a relatively relaxing way to enjoy your photography watching the waves roll in and the sounds of the seaside, but not only that, you can always come away with something even if the weather isn’t great due to the fact you’ve always got motion in the water to capture.  You can shoot seascapes any time of day, but I still prefer to head out to the east coast for some sunrise seascapes due to the nature of the warm early light and generally if you’re on a busy stretch of coastline, less folk to get in your shots at this time of day.

I do like to shoot most scenes in both landscape and portrait format, I’ll generally only post the one I prefer, but for the sake of this blog to compare, here’s the same scene in both formats.

I often get asked about how I choose what location to shoot in and why. The truth is, I rely on some great photography tools. Firstly, choosing what location to shoot, Google Earth is key, I spend hours searching up and down coastlines for locations that look good, and then I’ll go and check out the location through the day time, when I have time, and if they work, I’ll then go onto The Photographers Ephemeris, this lets you plot when and where the sun will rise or set and how the light will fall across the sea and land.  Obviously being by the sea, I always check tide times, I use The Beach Guide online rather than any apps, as it gives a more accurate time for the location you want. I find tide apps only give you the closest station, which sometimes can be miles away, and with the sea you can never be too careful. The last thing you want is to be cut off by an incoming tide.

I generally prefer to head out either on a high tide or a couple of hours either side, as I find on the north-east coast at low tide the area can be quite messy with seaweed on the rocks, and I much prefer a clean composition. Although certain locations do work at low tide, I find on a high tide there’s more water movement to play with, and this is where you can experiment with shutter speed.  I’ve shot anything from 11 minute long exposures at 16mm, to 1/1000th at 400mm.

So, what do you need to shoot seascape photography other than your camera? A sturdy tripod is key here, you don’t want the camera shaking if it gets hit by the water, or if you’re on wet sand make sure you get the tripod firmly planted in the sand to avoid it sinking, and creating blurry images.  In the past, when shooting on wet sand, I have also used large sea shells under each foot of the tripod, as it spreads the weight better and stops the legs sinking.

"Of course, when using your camera on a tripod, always switch off image stabilisation"

I personally don’t have a strap on my camera either as it blows about and could vibrate the camera just enough to reduce the image quality.

The use of ND (neutral density) filters, certainly graduated filters are almost a full time requirement to balance the exposure between sky and foreground, not only in seascape but landscape photography in general. The use of a full ND depends upon how you want your image to look, the stronger the ND filter, the longer your exposure time will become, and the flatter the sea becomes in your final image.

This is the difference between shutter speeds and using a solid ND filter and not using one.

Both images were taken with a 0.6 hard edge ND graduated filter over the sky, and the long exposure was taken using a 128x ND filter (7 stops) to lengthen the exposure time to smooth the water and capture the motion in the clouds.  If you tried to go for 41 seconds without the ND filter, you would just massively over exposure your image.

"There’s more to seascape photography than just pressing the shutter."

Reading the sea is an art in itself, I like to study how the waves are rolling in when I first get to a location, I will even stand in the surf if it’s safe to do so, mainly because you get a good feeling for the speed and motion of the sea this way. My favoured shutter speeds range from 0.6 to 2 seconds depending how large the swell is and how quickly the waves are rolling in and breaking. I feel working between these shutter speeds gives the best motion in the image. If I’m on a flat rocky part of the beach with the water washing across it, I like to shoot as the wave rolls in, but if there’s groins or old posts to use in a composition I shoot as the wave drags back out around the posts, rocks etc giving a lovely motion in the image.

I feel I have an affinity with the sea, and regularly travel over to the Northumberland coast from my base in Cumbria. The north west coast doesn’t really do it for me, and I feel the Northumberland coastline is one of the best the UK has to offer in terms of locations and diversity. Whilst I love the drama of the Atlantic coastlines of Cornwall and the Hebrides, the North Sea just draws me back time and time again.

When seascaping, it’s inevitable that your gear will get wet from splashing waves, covered in spray from the waves and that means salt, corrosive sea salt all over your equipment. To clean my filters, I use soft microfibre cloths when out on location, but will clean them again when I get home using warm soapy water, followed by a rinse to remove the soap then dry again with a clean soft microfibre towel. With the camera itself, I normally just give it a quick wipe down with a microfibre, and the same with the body of the lens. The lens element generally won’t get covered if you’re using filters, and I try not to touch the element at all. My tripod I take apart and clean and service about once per month just to make sure it all works as it should, again just using warm soapy water to rinse off the salt residue and sand.

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