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Stunning Seascapes by David Munro

With its forever changing moods, the ocean provides many challenges for the photographer. Calm one day, and threatening the next, the sea has always held a fascination. Where it meets land it has sculptured coastlines into a never-ending variety of forms. People are drawn to its power, its beauty, and an ever-increasing number are trying to capture that power and beauty on film. Let me give you some advice, based on my experiences with photographing seascapes.

I like to use waves as a focal point to my images. To give a wave a sense of movement I use a slow shutter speed (1/8th to 1/2th a second) to slightly blur the wave. If the exposure is too long the wave will lose its shape and become an out of focus ball. You can create some moody images by using very long exposures if you wish, but if you want the waves to show, use the recommended speeds above. If the sun is in the right position then you can get some nice effects by having the sun light filtering through the tops of the waves. For this backlighting to be possible the sunlight needs to be coming from an angle to one side of the waves. The best lighting is achieved when the sun is just out of the field of view of your camera lens. Be careful to avoid lens flare. Try shielding the lens with your hand if you can see any flaring on the lens. The waves should be photographed at an angle, so that they form a diagonal line across the scene. A line of waves, all breaking at different times looks better than just a single wave. 

On a hot summers day there's nothing like a beautiful red sunset reflected in the calm water of the ocean. Let's face it, anyone can photograph a sunset, it takes skill to come up with something special. When you look at a sunset photo the first thing that catches your eye is the amazing colours. Look past that, and does the image still hold the same impact for you? If it doesn't you should look at introducing some creativity into your sunset image.

Try placing subjects like people or boats between you and the sunset and use their silhouettes to provide some interest. Jetties are a popular subject to photograph and look great when silhouetted against the sunset. Photograph the jetty so that it runs diagonally across the image. This will help lead the viewers' eye into the frame. People and lights on the jetty will add extra interest to the photo.


On the calmest of days the colours in the sky will be reflected in the water below. You can break the rule of thirds here by placing the horizon in the centre of the picture, so that both the clouds and their reflections have equal weight in the photo. Most of the time though you're going to have to put up with an ocean with little, or no reflections. What you can do here is find rock pools, which are usually pretty still, for some nice reflections. If there is no way of finding any reflections then exclude most of the water when taking the photo, and concentrate on the clouds.

The light levels in the sky are always brighter than those on the ground, so to even things up use a grey graduate filter. This is a square shaped filter that fits on the end of the lens via a specially designed adapter. As the name suggests the filter starts grey at the top and gradually fades to clear at the bottom. The grey grad can be moved up or down to cover the part of the scene you want to darken. Some people may wish to make the sky more dramatic than it is by using another coloured graduate filter, such as a tabacco filter, but I find it looks unnatural. The grey graduate is the only filter which equalizes the light levels without affecting the colours.


There is one thing that's vitally important to a good sunset, the right clouds. Too heavy, and they block out the sun. Too wispy, and they disappear. You can't watch weather reports and know for sure what you're going to get, so get down there and see what's happening. Even if the whole day has been cloudy there's always the chance that the sun may make a last minute appearance in the day. This can make for some dramatic lighting effects, where the foreground subject is highlighted by the sun's rays, but the clouds behind it are still dark and moody.

Most of the time people wait for the sun to set then pack up and go home, figuring that the show has ended. It pays to wait around for there will be colour in the sky for up to an hour after sunset. As the sun sinks lower behind the horizon the cloud formations will change in colour from bright red to deep blue.


To create one of those aerie images where the water look like mist you need to have an exposure of several seconds, or even minutes. This will blur all of the moving water, but leave stationary objects such as rocks sharp. Obviously a tripod will be needed, and a cable release. If you don't have one handy then use the camera's self-timer. To get a long enough exposure you need to photograph the scene well after sunset. Use a slower speed film such as 50 or 100 iso rather than a fast film, or you could be waiting a while. Meter from the ground and use a grey graduate filter to even out the lighting.

When using very long exposures there is a chance of reciprocity law failure. This is when the reading given by your camera or hand-held meter doesn't match the correct exposure your film needs. It differs between film brands, but most of them are designed to be used with exposures from 1 second to 1/10,000th second. Outside of this you may need to bracket your exposures around the reading your meter is giving. As a general rule you will have to increase the duration of the exposure 2 to 3 times. So, if you're beginning with a 1-minute exposure, take another at 2 and 3 minutes.

If using a slow film and it's too dark for your meter to give you a reading, then adjust the meter to read for a faster film, say 1000 iso. Working back to your original film speed you simply double the exposure for every time you halve the film speed. For example, if 1000 iso gives you a 1-second exposure, 400 will give you 2 seconds, 200 = 4 seconds, 100 = 8 seconds, and 50 will equal 16 seconds. If you're using a small aperture to get good depth-of-field then you can do the same thing as above with your apertures. If f16 isn't getting you a reading, try taking one from f/2.8, then double for each decrease in aperture. So 1-second at f2/8 becomes 2-seconds at f/4, f/8 = 4-seconds, f/12 = 8-seconds, and f/16 will be 16-seconds.


I like to use rocks as foreground interest in my seascape photos. A rocky headland holds much more interest to me than a smooth sandy beach. Sometime the rocks have an orange colouration to them, caused by lichens, that really looks fantastic when lit by the afternoon sun. When there are a lot of rocks together try to find one or two that stand out from the others. One that has a little more colour than the others, or one that's round and smooth, where the others are jagged and rough. To add further interest to the scene, photograph the rocks just as a wave is breaking over them. You can use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action, or a longer one to blur the water. If the beach is all sand then you can use foot prints to lead your eye into the photo.

Revisit your favorite seaside locations and you will see that it is forever changing. At times the beach might be all sand. Other times the sand will have washed away revealing rock formations that weren't there before. After rough weather the beach might be covered in seaweed. You can also check where the sun sets at different times of the year. There may be a particular time when the sun will highlight something you wish to photograph in just the right way. At high and low tides different parts of the coast are covered or exposed. You will need to check your local tide times to see when this is happening.


A real problem of seascape photography is salt spray. Even on relatively calm days it can be a problem. Combine this with blowing sand, and the beach is one of the most hazardous places for your camera. When you finish for the day wipe your gear with a clean cloth and inspect it closely for any grains of sand. One small grain in the wrong place can play havoc with you camera. By taking some precautions you can hopefully avoid any problems. Only bring your camera out of its bag when you intend to take a photo. Always have a filter of some kind on the end of your lens. If this gets scratched it's a lot cheaper to replace than a lens. Sea spray will begin to accumulate on the front of the lens. This isn't too much of a problem initially, but after a while it will begin to affect the quality of your images. Find a sheltered spot, away from the spray, and use lens cleaning fluid, or even distilled water, to clean the front element. Remember to keep the lens cap on until the last moment before taking the photo. If you're really concerned about the sand and spray then you could buy a waterproof housing for your camera. This could be expensive. A cheaper way would be to place your camera in a plastic bag, and use a rubber band to attach it to the lens. Obviously you would need to have openings in the bag for the lens and for the tripod.


No photograph is worth risking your life for, so when you're photographing something like huge waves breaking over boulders, keep your distance and always watch what the sea is doing. At times it may look like the waves are only breaking over a certain spot, but there is always that one wave that's bigger than the others. If the rock looks wet then it's probably not safe to stand on for any length of time. Beware of slippery surfaces. Always check if a surface is safe before committing your whole weight to it, and never jump from rock to rock.


With most of us living within a short walk or drive from the coast it makes sense that the beach is one of the most popular places to take photos. Taking photographs is one way to share our experiences with other people, and after a trip to the seaside, what a positive experience it will be.


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