Seascape Photography (Part 1)

Those of us that are fortunate enough to leave near the coast have an excellent subject to work with.  When I first started taking landscape photos, the coastline of La Jolla was (and still is) my stomping ground.  There is such a variety of subjects within a small area.  I was able to do a lot of experimenting with this style of photography because I was working with the Canon D30.  This was one of the first digital SLR cameras on the market, and certainly it was the most affordable at the time.  At 3 megapixels, the resolution seems very low now.  However, it was perfectly adequate at the time ($3000 worth of adequacy to be specific).

I spent a lot of time getting to know the area by visiting the coast several times a week.  It was awesome being able to shoot the beach during different tide, surf, and sky conditions.  Even the sand placement changes quite a bit from week to week. Most of my initial shots were accomplished by luck.  However, I soon learned to predict the conditions, and learn to anticipate my shots.

Now that I am shooting large format where it takes a long time to setup for a shot, I really have to leave nothing to luck. I use a free app on my iphone (TideApp) to give me a current tide table.  That way, I know what to expect when I get there, and if the tide is coming in or going out.  It also plots the time of sunset, so it’s easy to see where the tide will be.

One of the things that I have learned from shooting seascapes is to pay very close attention to the size and frequency of the waves.  Before shooting, watch the surf for a while, and get a feel for the patterns of the sets.  If you watch the waves roll in for several sets,  you will begin to see patterns in the relationship between waves. For example, each set may have 4 or 5 waves.   The first might be small, the second and third might be larger, then it tapers off as more waves come in.  If you see that the second wave in a set provides ideal wave action, try to shoot the second wave in the next set.  This helps make the wave action in your photos to be a bit more predictable. When the light is right, you will have a plan, rather than shooting and praying.

When setting up my tripod, I always prefer that it is on rock.  That way, the camera will not be moved by the waves.  However, there are certain times when you will need to setup your tripod in the sand/mud. I have learned a few tricks to help with this.  I use Gitzo Tripods, which have the G lock mechanism.  This means that there is a wedge shaped shim in the leg locks.  The more weight is put on the leg lock, the stronger they hold.  I force the legs down into the wet sand so that it is held in place quite well.  By pushing the legs in a bit (not fully spread), then forcing the tripod into the mud, it will expand the legs without stressing them.  If available, I will also wrap some seaweed around the legs to expand the surface area, and discourage erosion.

Another topic I will cover in this post has to do with shutter speeds.  What looks best?  Well that really depends on the beach, and the size of the waves.  In the conditions around La Jolla, I typically like to use about a 2 second shutter speed.  This allows for plenty of wave movement in the foreground, but you can still see the waves in the background.  If your shutter speeds become too long, you end up with foggy looking water.  This can be interesting, but I would much rather have the detail of the swirls and other movements of the water.  Also, your best wave action is usually when the waves will retreat and wash back into the ocean.  This provides sweeping lines that add a dynamic feel to the composition.

A shutter speed of 2 seconds should be possible just after sunset by stopping down your lens.  However, you can always use a Neutral Density filter to help slow your shutter a bit.  A polarizer is great in these situations because it blocks about 2 stops of light.  You really won’t need it for the polarizing effect (there will be very little effect if you shoot toward the direction of sunrise/sunset), but the light loss can be nice.

In future blog posts I will discuss Grad ND filters, and other techniques.

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