During more than 10 years I’m now photographing landscapes one of my favorite subjects has always been the sea. I love seascape photography: the photography of rocky coastlines, steep cliffs dropping straight into the ocean, waves breaking around huge sea stacks and of secluded coastal villages.
In this article I want to share some important steps with you, which help me to achieve the envisioned results when I’m out photographing seascapes. There’s always the part about luck and weather, which I can’t influence. But I can address certain points prior to a shoot, which increase the chances of a good seascape photo and dry equipment.
Above I talked about envisioned results. This means that most of the time I have a very concrete idea, what kind of photos I want to take during an upcoming seascape photography tour. There are different types of seascapes and not on every trip will I be able to capture them all.
An example are dramatic coastal scenes with waves exploding on huge rocks. If I expect to take such photos during a trip to the Baltic Sea, I’ll likely be disappointment. So it’s important for me to know beforehand how the coast I want to photograph looks.
First off I use Google, Flickr and 500px to search for photos of an area I want to visit. On flickr I usually find Exifs containing the date a photo was taken on. This helps me put it into a seasonal context. After a first rough overview I might pick out some appealing photos and try to find out where exactly they were taken.
But what about untagged photos? Or photos that lag keywords and have only vague titles. Searching different platforms will likely show similar photos of an area. Even if they are not completely the same, I might be able to correlate them. This will eventually provide me with some keywords – especially if I include the portfolios of stock agencies into my research.
To really pin down a location I look for distinct landmarks in a photo: A characteristic bend in the coastline, an island or a set of larger sea-stacks. I then try to find those on google maps.
I have to be careful to not concentrate my research too much on one photo though. Chances are that I’d later just copy it once I’m there. This can even happen unconsciously. I rather try to get a more general impression of how an area looks. Finding the locations of individual photos just shows me which places have potential for a successful seascape photography shoot.
Once I know where my next seascape photography trip will take me I have to plan it. At what time of the year should I visit to get the best conditions? What tides do I need to capture the desired photos? How accessible are the areas I want to photograph and how do I get there? Those are a few questions I have to answer.
The exifs in the photos I found on flickr might give me a first hint, how the sea looks during different seasons. Take photos of Porthleven for example. The most spectacular photos of that place are taken in winter, when huge storms roll across Cornwall.
Another thing I have to take into account is the position of the sun. Last October I visited the Algarve with its south facing coastline. In autumn the sun rises and sets over the sea in the south-east and south-west. This gave me the opportunity to include it in many of the photos I took during that tip.
In summer the sun’s trajectory is more nothward. For the photo of Praia da Marinha above it would have appeared over the land to the left and the composition wouldn’t have that balanced feel to it.
I get a wealth of information about the movement of sun and moon from websites like suncalc and timeanddate.com. If I want to be very precise in my planning, I sometimes use the Photographers Ephemersis app.
Now that I know during which season I want to travel I’m interested in the tides. In some places those can make differences of up to 12 meters in the water level. This means, if I want to photograph a specific cove for sunset, I have to make sure that it is not submerged at that time. So I get a tide forecast at Tides4Fishing.
Generally I prefer to take photos during receding tide. This way I don’t have to worry that the incoming tide will cut off my way back and I don’t have to deal with footprints in the sand. I cannot always plan my photo tours to coincide completely with such conditions though. Tides change and while one day it might be perfect to shoot a specific beach, two days later I might no longer be able to get the photo I want.
I usually plan the visit of some major spots in congruence with the tides and when they are too high I opt for locations with elevated vantage points, if available.
Finally I want to know, how to get to the desired locations. With a car it’s easy most of the time, but there might also be hikes involved. In that case I try to find out as much as possible about the trails and their conditions. Outdooractive is a good source when it comes to trails but sometimes I’ll also buy maps, if available in sufficient scale.
In certain areas of the world it’s also good to do some research on local fauna. I’m currently planning an island (not Island) trip for next year and just found out that one can encounter King Cobras and a good selection of poisonous vipers there. A quite valuable information, if you plan to do bushwhacking. Well, I might just skip a few locations on that particular trip…
Planning is one thing, but what really matters is to get an own impression of how an area looks. Scouting for me is the most important part when it comes to successful seascape photography. Even if I skip the first two steps and just travel through the world, ending up in different locations, I never skip scouting.
If I arrive at a location just in time for sunset, run for the beach and setup my tripod, this might likely not be the ideal spot. I should rather use the last light to find a good composition for sunrise photography the next morning than taking mediocre photos in the evening.
There are exceptions and a few times I have been able to just show up at a cove and take a good seascape photo. But for a great photo I have to scout: during noon the same day or day before, or I at least arrive an hour before sunset. I need time to explore. Looking at photos on the internet is one thing, but they only represent another photographer’s point of view. It’s a filtered reality.
During scouting I try to take it all in and later setup my own filter, which will allow me to take a photo that shows the beauty of a place.
On coasts I always have to keep in mind how the water level changes the photo opportunities. Submerged rocks are revealed as the tide recedes and it’s good to know beforehand where they hide. I’ll have a printed tide table with me to check, if the water will later be higher or lower.
As final part of the scouting I try to imagine how the scene will look in different light. I can think about what kind of sky would best complement the landscape in front of me. And I can do this vice versa, thinking about what compositions best work under different conditions. Now the concrete idea from the beginning has turned into a very clear image or even a set of images.
Next it’s up to me to return to this place as often as possible until I see this envisioned photo on the back of the camera. After the preparation comes the realization. And this will be part of my next article, which I’ll release soon.