Over the past six weeks, I've photographed more sunsets than I can count along the coast. As someone who primarily shoots on land, I had a lot to learn about shooting the sea and have put together a few of the most important lessons I came away with for your next seascape location.
Whether you're new to the hobby or an avid professional, there are always things to learn and I couldn't have been more excited to push myself into new territories. I've shot a few seascapes over the years, but they've been few and far between. Living in my SUV and having the freedom to quite literally sleep on the coast meant I got a crash course into a new territory of photography for me. Some of the lessons were straightforward, while others were definitely a bit eye-opening, including falling into the water but thankfully only soaking myself and not my equipment.
In this part of the series, I'll cover opening up your world to new shots without getting yourself too wet, answering how important weather forecast can be along the coast, and lastly lessons to predict compositions with moving parts.
Get in the Water!
We'll start off with the tip that will give you the highest ratio of better images to the least effort. While there are many spots you won't find yourself even close to the water, the times that you do, you'll want the ability to get into the water. I spent a lot of time without the ability to get into the water comfortably. In a pinch, you can roll up your pants and go barefoot, but I don't recommend it for consistent visits to the water. Sometimes, whatever I'm traversing is not soft sand. Or in a location like Iceland, the water can be unbearably cold and you cannot leave your feet in the water for very long.
Flipflops or sandals aren't great either, as you'll end up losing them in the tide and they don't solve the temperature issue. Boots are a great place to start, but I decided to go all out and got chest-high waders. While I'm not winning any fashion contests, I am not nearly as worried about getting myself wet. This was pivotal for me because I don't have the freedom to return to a home or hotel and dry off. The ability to slip on waders over what I would normally wear, go get into the water, and then return to my vehicle at dusk. Being completely dry after removing them was a game-changer. This enabled me to get into the water every evening without a second thought or much worry about getting myself wet.
Regardless of what you choose that is best for your situation, being able to comfortably get in the water for long periods of time will have you feeling like a different photographer. Seriously, I'd compare it to only owning a telephoto lens and adding a wide angle lens to your kit. Getting in the water will open up so many more unique compositions. I spent too many times running away from waves and water in other locations, which caused more stress than necessary. The first time you trek out into the water without worrying about being cold and wet will change your enjoyment and perspective of seascapes. If you do find yourself out in the water, you'll need to be more careful depending on the conditions of the ocean.
Predicting Weather and Surf Conditions
As a landscape photographer, I have a potentially controversial opinion that predicting weather holds very little weight when it comes to getting good results. There is a time and place for gauging conditions like fog, cloud inversions, and clear skies for astrophotography, of course. I also recognize I'm spoiled with the ability to remain in an area until I get the conditions I want. The majority of people (myself included not very long ago) have to try to plan around preferable weather conditions, especially when planning weekend trips. I can confidently say that trying to use weather predictions along the coast is a waste of time mostly.
The image above was taken on an absolutely miserable day of overcast and rain. I remember paying to park and thinking there was absolutely no way I'd even see a sunset that evening let alone capture anything worthwhile. I was definitely wrong and proceeded to capture some of the most intense natural colors I've ever seen in photography. That was over four years ago.
Days where it rained all day gave me some of the best conditions I could have hoped for, while seemingly ideal weather conditions resulted in not even taking my camera out of the bag. One of the biggest culprits you'll discover along the coast is the marine layer, which killed a good portion of the sunsets I tried to capture. In my experience, the days where it rained that cleaned up a lot of particles in the atmosphere while also providing cloud coverage typically presented excellent conditions as long as the rain cleared enough during golden hour. My ultimate advice is just be out there regardless of the conditions.
There are conditions you should always check if you're going to be near the water though and that is tide, swell, and swell period. The tide indicates when the sea will be highest and lowest relative to the land you're standing on. Swell indicates the height of those waves on average. Swell period is the time in between waves. Something important to know is the longer the swell period, the more powerful the waves will be. So, a 5 ft swell at an interval of 8 seconds is not the same as a 5 ft swell at 15 seconds. To track this, I highly recommend the very popular app Windy. It tells you everything you could possibly want to know when it comes to weather, surf, and wind conditions. Furthermore, it has forecast and model data from numerous sources. Magicseaweed is a great app dedicated to tide, swell, and surf data. This will overlap with Windy, but it's always good to have multiple apps just in case something goes wrong with one of them.
Unlike many other areas of landscape photography, some seascapes require you to predict and envision what an image could be if everything aligns perfectly. This is unlike planning out something such as a Milky Way shot or lining up certain elements because you can predict those conditions very accurately with modern technology. When it comes to waves and their interactions on the coast, there is nothing to tell you exactly where they will be, if they will be interesting enough, or even if they will work in the composition you're trying to capture.
I could write endlessly about different compositions you can find along the coast, but for this, I'm going to focus specifically on practicing and learning how to find shots that aren't quite there until the right moment happens. Take the above moment, for example. There are a lot of great elements we look for as landscape photographers: color in the atmosphere, a decent sunburst, foreground elements to help the viewer through the image, beautiful colored reflection on the wet rock surfaces, and we even have some movement in the waves. Even with all that, it severely lacks emotion. A dull moment in a beautiful scene. But this is what you'd see as you scan the coastline, just a few rocks getting hit by waves. You could easily pass by this area without a second thought.
However, if you just pause and take a few minutes to absorb your surroundings, you might notice this composition comes alive in all the right waves (I love puns). Those crashing tides on the lower rock add a moment of turmoil, and if the swell gets just big enough, they add so much energy to that empty part of the frame. You're now capturing an emotional moment in a beautiful scene, which makes for a much more interesting photograph. It is something that won't ever happen again in the same way, and that is what is so absolutely beautiful about seascapes. They change constantly, meaning you can come back to a spot you've shot 100 times and get something new.
What this means for your first, tenth, or even thousandth time taking seascapes is to slow down. Visit spots when the light isn't great and watch how the tide interacts with your location. Start looking at spots for what their potential could be rather than what they are in any given moment.
We'll talk more about this in the second part of this series, where I visit the same location for almost a week trying to capture the same image that I have in my head and just can't seem to get the conditions I need. We'll also go over slowing down your shutter speed so you can capture all these beautiful moments in much more interesting ways and cover what accessories or other practices you'll need when shooting along the coast.
Excellent article and tutorial - thanks for this! I especially like your advice about patience and being willing to venture out regardless of what the weather may do.
Thanks Jeff :)
Alex I have to disagree with you about weather forecasting on the coast being a wast of time, I live on the west coast so I can see weather changing in real time but by accessing satellite images you can watch weather track for four hour periods which can be most valuable. It can tell you of an incoming front or, extensive clearing later in the day and allow you to time your visit to the ocean with more predictable outcomes. Yes, weather often clears or skies change in early evening so a rainy cloudy morning often has no bearing on how the day will end up and yes to the old adage, red sky at night, sailor delight, red sky in morning, sailor's warning. The red at night means a high pressure system is moving through whereas red sky in the morning signifies that the atmosphere has a high water content.
The other weather indicator to consider is wind direction, on the west coast wind out of the northwest indicates an approaching high pressure system and out of the southeast wind and rain with clouds. A westerly wind is either ahead of an approaching front or at the end of a front moving through and out of the east means high velocity outflow winds flowing from the land mass out over the ocean.
Great article though, waders can be flattering in the right light, thank you.
Ill admit I don't have the experience of longevity to comment on weather of the coast for extended periods of time. I only know what I experienced and after trying to predict conditions based on the weather, I found myself just doing the opposite of what I thought haha.
I have to imagine if you're better at reading forecast and weather than me, you can garner a lot better information than I am. But the truth is I'm an idiot especially when it comes to reading this stuff. I have no clue what I am doing and just grasp the basics. Even trying to predict using coverage etc, it just never really changed whether I got a shot or not.