A guide to seascape photography (Part one) – Australian Photography

By Jake Traynor | 17 November 2021

This is the first part of a two part series on seascape photography. Look out for part two next week. 

I remember the first time I flicked through a photography magazine and saw a photo of silky water and an amazing fiery sky. At this point I was very new to using a camera, and the world of seascape photography seemed very daunting and complicated.

Another Sapphire Coast gem, Camel Rock is home to rough seas. It’s always fun to come here in the afternoon’s golden hour when the light hits the side of the camel humps. The ever-changing tide against the many layers of rocks also makes for a different way to compose this spot every time I visit. Sony A7R II, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens @ 17mm. 0.4s @ f10, ISO 100.
Another Sapphire Coast gem, Camel Rock is home to rough seas. It’s always fun to come here in the afternoon’s golden hour when the light hits the side of the camel humps. The ever-changing tide against the many layers of rocks also makes for a different way to compose this spot every time I visit. Sony A7R II, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens @ 17mm. 0.4s @ f10, ISO 100.

But now, just three years on, I know I couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only are seascapes super easy to learn, but they’re also my favourite kind of photography. Here’s a few tips and tricks I’ve learnt along the way in my seascape photography journey.

1. Shoot at the right time of day

The best times to shoot seascapes are dawn and dusk, where the light is at its softest. This is for a few reasons, the first being the low light allows for longer exposures without blowing out your image or the need to stack multiple Neutral Density (ND) filters. The softer light also means little to no harsh shadows and a well-balanced exposure overall.

The second reason is that the colours you see at sunrise/sunset and golden hour make for beautiful photography opportunities. Not everyone gets to witness these conditions, especially at sunrise, so introducing colour from a sunrise or a sunset is the easiest way to add a bit of wow-factor into your shots on top of a good composition and careful use of exposure and shutter speed.

Better yet, there’s usually no one else around at these times meaning you have a freedom of choice for compositions.

Tip: Always shoot in RAW so you can recover highlight and shadow detail, as well as alter any white balancing mishaps, in post processing.

No matter the weather, Camel Rock is a seascape photography dream. All it takes is for a decent swell amongst rocky terrain to make for a great snap. Remember to watch the tide and adjust your position if you need to. Sony A7R II, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens @ 17mm. 0.4s @ f8, ISO 100.
No matter the weather, Camel Rock is a seascape photography dream. All it takes is for a decent swell amongst rocky terrain to make for a great snap. Remember to watch the tide and adjust your position if you need to. Sony A7R II, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens @ 17mm. 0.4s @ f8, ISO 100.

2. Timing is everything

Shutter speed is the most important setting to consider when shooting seascapes. Different shutter speeds completely change the way water looks, and even a half-second alteration can make a big difference.

When water is photographed with a fast shutter speed to freeze it in time, it has a certain “snapshot” quality. If this is what you’re going for, great! But if you want to start using the ocean as an artistic tool, longer exposures are really where things come to life.

Shooting with a shutter speed of 1/10s or longer is the best starting point. This is where you’ll see water transform into something artistic. The longer your exposure, the smoother your water will be.

Bombo Quarry near Kiama NSW is the perfect place to watch some aquatic fireworks. Using a relatively fast long exposure (between 1/4s and 1/10s) I was able to capture the movement of the waves as they crashed into the rock pillars. This was also taken just before the sun rose above the horizon, turning a cloudless sky into a beautiful gradient of pinks and blues. Sony A7R II, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens @ 19mm. 1/4s @ f8, ISO 100.
Bombo Quarry near Kiama NSW is the perfect place to watch some aquatic fireworks. Using a relatively fast long exposure (between 1/4s and 1/10s) I was able to capture the movement of the waves as they crashed into the rock pillars. This was also taken just before the sun rose above the horizon, turning a cloudless sky into a beautiful gradient of pinks and blues. Sony A7R II, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens @ 19mm. 1/4s @ f8, ISO 100.

Seascape photography is also about capturing the energy of the ocean. One thing you’ll quickly notice is the way the water changes as it builds to a wave, crashes over rocks and gets sucked back out to sea. All these moments, when captured, change the dynamism of your final image.

While there’s no right or wrong timing, waiting until the water is being sucked back out to sea with a shutter speed between 1/10s and 0.4” can create leading lines to your subject. Conversely, taking your shot as the wave crashes against the rocks with a shutter speed between 1/3s and 1/5” can create a sense of danger and excitement. It’s well worth experimenting with different shutter speeds at different points of water movement.

3. Shoot where the water breaks

Like any other form of photography, composition is important. However, unlike some genres of photography, not only do you want to consider your foreground and background elements, but where you take your shot from. Often, standing close or in the water will yield unique vantage points that allow you to sculpt the perfect composition.

Rather than shooting from the lookout above, get amongst the intimate crevices and cracks of the shoreline to find an interesting composition. It’s often the finer details like rock pools and rock shelves that make for the best images.

Getting out and exploring your local area is the best way of finding unique places to photograph. This chasm is popular amongst thrill-seeking cliff jumpers, but rarely photographed. I find that some locations can look a bit flat without light, so waiting for the golden hour glow of pre-sunset or post-sunrise can give certain places a new surge of life. Sony A7R II, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens @ 16mm. 0.3s @ f9, ISO 100.
Getting out and exploring your local area is the best way of finding unique places to photograph. This chasm is popular amongst thrill-seeking cliff jumpers, but rarely photographed. I find that some locations can look a bit flat without light, so waiting for the golden hour glow of pre-sunset or post-sunrise can give certain places a new surge of life. Sony A7R II, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens @ 16mm. 0.3s @ f9, ISO 100.

There are times you won’t be able to, or maybe even won’t want to, get close to the splash zone – and that’s okay. Numerous spots along the Great Ocean Road for example look incredible from the viewing platforms.

However, as a general rule keep this in mind: the closer you get, the better the energy. Shooting high above the coastline certainly has its time and place, but if you want more dramatic seascape images you’ll need to be where the action is.

4. The best of the best

It’s not always possible to capture all the details of the scene in one shot – especially when shooting at sunrise/sunset and during the night. Depending on your camera’s dynamic range (the amount of detail that can be captured in the highlights and shadows), you may not even be able to see foreground detail without blowing out the sky.

The Milky Way rising behind Horse Head Rock. Astrophotography is one way to take your seascape shots to the next level. This is a great example of what can be achieved by combining two different frames in Photoshop. I took a separate photo for the sky to get the Milky Way in focus, then another photo to get the foreground in focus and blended them together. Not many people get to experience the night sky in all it’s glory, and it’s amazing to be able to share it with them. Sony A7R II, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens @ 16mm. Foreground: 20s @ f9, ISO 100, Night sky: 13s @ f2.8, ISO 3200.
The Milky Way rising behind Horse Head Rock. Astrophotography is one way to take your seascape shots to the next level. This is a great example of what can be achieved by combining two different frames in Photoshop. I took a separate photo for the sky to get the Milky Way in focus, then another photo to get the foreground in focus and blended them together. Not many people get to experience the night sky in all it’s glory, and it’s amazing to be able to share it with them. Sony A7R II, 16-35mm f/2.8 lens @ 16mm. Foreground: 20s @ f9, ISO 100, Night sky: 13s @ f2.8, ISO 3200.

Almost 100% of the time I know I’m going to be combining two or more images to get my final image, so I will capture a darker exposure for all my sky detail and a brighter exposure for my foreground and blend them together in Photoshop.

Knowing this means you have a better chance of capturing your dream image. You can shoot your sky exposure when the colour is at its best, then shoot your foreground exposure 10 minutes later when there’s enough light to capture a detailed shot with minimal noise.

If you’re starting out, blending images in Photoshop can seem daunting. But rest assured, it’s really easy. A simple technique is to open all the images you want to blend together as layers in Photoshop, and then use a layer mask and the brush tool to paint away any details you don’t want.

There are hundreds of tutorials online for this, and it’s well worth trying if you’re finding single-shot photography isn’t giving you the results you want.

5. Let the creativity flow

While combining multiple images in Photoshop is perfect for those high-quality low light results, you don’t have to stop there. Combining different exposure times can yield creative and unique results.

If you’ve ever taken a super long exposure of moving clouds and like the streaky, surreal effect it gives, but don’t like how it turns the water into flat mist, you can take a shorter exposure of the water and combine these two in editing to create a beautiful avant-garde scene.

A new thing I’ve been dabbling in is what I like to call “twilight blending”. This is combining a shot from twilight/blue hour where the stars are still shining with a shot from sunrise/sunset to add a little bit of magic to those clear sky photoshoots. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Look out for part two next week. 

About the author: Jake is a seascape and landscape photographer based in Canberra. You can follow his work on Instagram @traynorjake.

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