I am not an early bird but living in Sydney, Australia on the east coast leaves me no choice but to get up early once in a while for a dawn to sunrise shoot. The coffee and breakfast at a beach cafe make it worth getting up at the sparrow's fart (Australian slang for very early). I've been shooting seascapes for over 10 years and I have always found it to be one of the most rewarding and challenging of photographic subjects. No two seascapes are the same and once you add variable weather and sea conditions to the mix there are endless opportunities for photographers willing to get their feet wet, so to speak! I am still learning everyday how to stay dry and not get washed away.
01 USE A TRIPOD
It sounds obvious, but most beginners don’t bother with tripods; they should. Apart from giving you the freedom to choose a slower shutter speed, a tripod forces you to slow down and think about the image-making process. Where should you position the horizon? Should that rock be in the frame or would it be better left out? Should you use a slow shutter speed to blur the water, or would it look better sharp? Look for a sturdy tripod that can collapse down to provide a low shooting angle. Shooting low can create great drama in your images. I like to use Sirui Carbon Fibre tripods. Make sure to check your load capacity as it is worth spending the extra dollars to have a great tripod that will last for years. Always make sure to wash down your tripod after each shoot with fresh water. I have a friend who likes to shower with his tripod fully expanded. It sounds kinky but it's practical when water shortages are happening in some drought stricken areas of Australia. Even without droughts we still are careful with water usage.
02 LOW ISO
Choose your camera’s lowest ISO setting (normally 50, 100 or 200 ISO). This will not only minimize the appearance of noise in your image, but also allow you to use a slower shutter speed, which can be useful if you are trying to achieve the ‘blurry water’ effect you see in many seascapes. My Canon 5d Mark III allows me to go down to ISO 50.
03 SLOW SHUTTER SPEED
If you want to create the 'milky water' effect you'll need to use a slow shutter speed – slower than half a second. With your camera on a tripod, switch your camera to Shutter Priority (S or TV) and choose a shutter speed between 1/2 and 10 seconds. If it is too bright you will get a warning message indicating that the image will be over-exposed at this shutter speed. At this point you have two options. First, wait until it gets darker. Second, and this is my preferred option, place a Neutral Density filter, which looks like a grey piece of glass, in front of the lens to artificially darken the scene. You can buy ND filters of varying densities, from light to dark grey. I use a +10 stop ND NISI filter for most of my seascapes and find it works very well. If there is abundant water movement then you might also be able to get some nice effects at 1/8th or 1/15th of second without the ten stop filter.
Even though you’re shooting in Shutter Priority you still need to be conscious of the camera’s aperture setting. Look for an aperture somewhere around f/11. While you'll get more depth of field as the aperture gets smaller (higher f-numbers) keep in mind that most lenses are sharpest at a setting of around f/11. Best to do some research in regard to the sweet spot of your lens as every lens has the perfect f-stop to produce optimally sharp images. I prefer to shoot in full manual mode and control ISO 50, F11 for aperture and then change my shutter speed accordingly depending on the effects I am trying to get. If needed, then I will add on my filter.
If you’re using long exposures a remote shutter release will help you keep camera shake to a minimum. Failing that, you can use your camera’s self timer to fire the shutter ‘hands free’. The best and cheapest option is to download an app for your smartphone to control from as a remote, but for that your camera will need Bluetooth capabilities.
06 GRADUATED FILTER
To add drama to your skies try using a graduated filter which are dark at the top and clear at the bottom. A graduated filter can be really useful for shooting high contrast landscape scenes where the sky is considerably brighter than the foreground. I use a 3 stop soft grad Nisi filter for sunrises.
I have been soaked with waves and sudden swells many times. I have even fallen a few times on slippery moss covered sandstone rocks. Be careful when photographing near the coast. Conditions can change quickly and it's easy to get caught out if you're not careful. Don't become so preoccupied with taking photos that you forget what's happening around you. Err on the side of safety – there are worse things in life than missing the shot! I often check my location's low tide the day before. It's best to decide where and how you will be shooting as it may still be dark when you arrive. It is best to stand back for a few minutes and observe the tides. The Great Australian surf has taken many rock fishermen by surprise. I use rock fishing boots with spikes now to give me ultimate grip on these slippery surfaces. A head lamp in the darkness also allows me to be hands free with my backpack.
What's your favorite seascape tip? Share it in the comments section below.