Michael Breitung Photography

Photographing Seascapes – Part 2

The salt in the air, the sound of the waves, the sand beneath my feet. Photographing seascapes is not only about the final photos, it’s about the whole experience. I enjoy those times at the coast, even if sometimes I return empty-handed.

Part one of this little series on photographing seascapes was about preparation. Now I go into the details of my typical seascape shoot. To really enjoy the time out and make the most of a photo trip there’s a few more things I can do right before and during the shoot.

Equipment

I really have to know my equipment and be able to operate it rather unconsciously. I should not have to think about technical stuff while in the field. This usually distracts me from the landscape around me and when shooting at the water’s edge distractions will often lead to damaged equipment.

Knowledge of equipment comes from practise and the more photos I take the more second nature dialing in the correct exposure or adjusting filters becomes. Besides that it’s important that I have inspected my equipment before heading out. When I plan a sunrise shoot for example, the evening before I will examine my filters, charge my batteries, test my headlamp, check the camera settings and pack my Satori.

Waves breaking on some rocks during a spectacular sunrise

I have another routine when I arrive at the coast: I put on my headlamp, belt the Terrascape Pouch with my filters, place some lens cloths* and a cable release in my pockets, a raincover goes over my backpack – then I head out.

This process has already become a habit and it ensures that I later don’t have to rummage through my bag for accessories. I’ll later just take out the camera. Otherwise the Satori stays on my back most of the time. The raincover is for those occasions when I have to take it off and place it on the wet sand or when I leave it further up on the beach to be more agile.

Adapt

The sea is very dynamic and despite all the planning I never know what I’ll get when the alarm clock rings in the morning. It’s all good to previsualize, to have a goal when heading out. But it’s even more important to stay positive, even if the conditions don’t agree with my expectations. After the preparation I have a good foundation for the shoot and if I have done the scouting right, I’ll also be able to adapt to different weather conditions, to find the right composition to fit certain cloud patterns.

The sea stacks at Wharariki beach under a dark blue twilight sky

If the colorful sunrise doesn’t happen, I can embrace the gloomy mood of the blue hour and try my best to capture it. I can look for shapes, which emphasise this feeling of mystery. Had I had more time, I would have certainly come back a few more times to Wharariki beach above, but when travelling I sometimes have only one or two chances to capture a seascape. And if things don’t fall into place the way I anticipated, this doesn’t mean I can’t create a good photograph.

Timing and Patience

It’s seldom that I get the photo I want with just one shot. Even if I capture it with the first photo I will usually take a few more just in case the light gets a bit better or the wave patterns become even more artistic. It’s both timing and patience that leads to a good seascape photo. Timing is important to release the shutter at the correct moment. I try to anticipate the movement of incomming waves. Sometimes the best moment is just before a big wave breakes on the shore, sometimes when the water flows back to the sea. A combination of both might be perfect.

To get the right timing I first watch the water and how the waves behave. There are beaches where the waves hit the shore very evenly. In other places I can encounter waves, which roll much farther up the beach from time to time. I should always be prepared for those in order to stay safe and keep my equipment dry.

Storm and big waves during sunset at Algarve

For the photo above I first observed the scene and saw that after some smaller waves often came a big one, which created a huge fountian of spray. Patiently I waited after setting up my camera. I could already see this one building up down in the cauldron and I was ready to release the shutter just at the right moment.

Technique

There are a few techniques, which help me get the seascape photos I want. First and quite obvious is to take a lot of photos. I often start with a quick focus-stack – focus front, click; focus back, click – and a bracketed exposure for the background. Then I focus to where the action is and for every wave that looks promising I take a photo, sometimes even a few. For very dynamic scenes it might help to use burst mode and fire away a couple of shots. To be honest I employ this mode very seldom because I hate sorting through the masses of photos it creates.

If I use bracketing for seascapes, I make sure to set the sequence to 0, -, +. This way I take the main exposure exactly when I want to and the exposures for highlights and shadows follow.

A lighthouse facing the stormy sea on a rocky shore

An important part is to vary the exposure times. To capture waves something between 0.3s and 1s might just be right. But it’s good to have a few longer exposed photos too, which I might blend in to parts of the image where too much is going on. Having the filters on my belt it’s easy to switch the setup. My usual workflow when it comes to changing exposure times is first to change the f-stop staying between f/8 and f/13, if possible. Then I use my Lee 0.9 ND filter or even my Big Stopper.

When I photograph before sunrise the exposure times will naturally be longer. I think this fits in quite well with the mood of dawn and creates kind of a mystic look. So I seldom increase the ISO to get shorter exposures during that time.

When you took photos on a beach what you might have noticed is the tripod sinking slowly into the sand. This happens especially, if water rushes around it. Ideally I find some rocks on which to position it but sometimes I have to place it right in the middle of the action. It’s important that I first extend the lower portion of the legs. This is always advisable before placing the tripod in the sand to keep the locks clean. But how can I stabilize it properly so the longer exposures are not blurred?

It took me some time to find a working solution. It’s very simple though. I just push the tripod legs into the sand until there’s no more movement. Often half of the lower leg portion gets submerged in the sand. But the tripod will sink no longer. Care has to be taken with rogue waves, I have to be still able to retrieve the tripod fast. So I’m always prepared for it.

One more thing about the tripod positioning: For a dynamic perspective I have to get down with the camera. This way the backflow of water around the tripod will draw the viewer into the image. But it’s important that I don’t go too low. I don’t want to sacrifice the middle ground. If I have rocks in the foreground, I’d rather like to see the water flowing around them than looking against a wall. I love compositions where one sees enough of the beach to imagine himself walking along it.

The steps I talked about in this article and the last one are a process I follow to get the most out of a photography trip. But to really come away with some awesome photos, nothing beats passion for what you’re doing and the experience that comes from years of practice.

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