Shooting seascapes used to be my passion for some years and thus I have got some experience in it. People keep asking me about various tips and tricks, so I've decided to make an Act of Goodness and share my knowledge. I am going to make some kind of chapters or milestones and then cover and expand them.
So, let's start.
Well, essentially you just need a camera and a tripod. But that is only at the first glance. There's a whole lot of things you may require. I will make a list with short explanations:
- Camera. Of course you need a camera unless you are going to just watch the sunrise (which is nice to do as well).
- Tripod. You need it you shoot sunrise/sunset. What about the tripod itself? Most of the time you cannot make a nice seascape without making you feet wet. This means you have to stay in water. So every wave will try to knock you or your tripod down and it will make vibrations to you tripod as well. That is why you cannot go away with some lightweight tripod, you need a really heavy and sturdy one. And also it does not have to be something very expensive because sea salt will ruin your tripod in 6-18 months. Tripod head is up to you - it's a matter of taste. I usually use 3D head with 3 handles. Talking of company I'd prefer Manfrotto or Slik with some tripod around 2kg.
- If it is warm I wear thongs and either shorts or swimming trunks. If it is cold I wear gum boots with warm socks. You may also wear rubber shoes with holes, which are popular these days.
- If you have some nice water resistant backpack like I do (Kata) it is fine. Otherwise you will need some other waterproof container to store spare warm socks, t-shirt and a lot of tissues. This is an absolute must-have. You cannot always predict ocean or slippery rocks.
- Compass. You need it especially in two cases - when you travel and when you walk to make notes where it would be nice to catch some light.
- Timer. I have a stopwatch application in my mobile phone, but you may just carry a separate device around. You will need it to measure exposure time when it is above 30 sec. This is not essential, but nice to have.
- Filters. There are 2 ways of doing digital photos - either use filters as film photographers always used to or make several exposures and combine them later using some computer software. Most of the time I prefer first option, so I do have lots of filters. If you shoot sunrise/sunset you will need gradual filters. You may also need stopper filters (plain dark - to make exposures longer). That's it. Polarizing filters almost do not work this time of the day, so you may only need them when shooting during the day. I will describe how to use filters somewhere later.
- Some remote control to your camera. It is not a good idea to make long exposures pressing button with your finger as you will shake the camera. You could use delay function so that camera waits for 2 seconds and then shoots, but waves will not wait those 2 seconds - they will just disappear. So the best option is to shoot using some remote control. This will help to avoid vibrations and delay time. I use common IR remote control for 3 dollars and it does the job just fine.
General landscape rules apply here too. You should arrive about an hour before sunrise or an hour before sunset to catch nice light both with or without the Sun over the horizon. If you plan to shoot during the day (yes, you may get nice photos too) then you may pick any time, depending on the local features. Also, you could arrive at night to shoot star trails.
There are several periods during these 2 hours (1 before sunrise/sunset, 1 after). For simplicity I'll talk about sunrises and then just point out the differences. I recommend to visit the place you are going to shoot during the day, so that you may have an idea of what's around, determine where the Sun is going to be, maybe figure out some positions to start with.
The first light bubbles up to the sky around 30 minutes before sunrise. So you have 30 minutes to get into position, to wander around and to make some long exposure shots with moving clouds and fog-like water surface. Use this time to fill yourself with the silence and with the nature. This time is very important because you cannot arrive and go shooting straight away, you have to spend some time either wasting photos or aligning yourself with surroundings.
The next period is not that long - just around maybe 10 minutes. During this time the sky is somewhat coloured with exposures still long enough. You may do some half-surreal shots during this time. Bear in mind that even the slightest colour tint on the sky produces full cream colour in post production, so train yourself to see slightest differences in the light and colours.
We are approaching the most stunning period. It's another 10 minutes. During this time the Sun goes closer to the horizon, making it all brighter. If you are lucky enough to get high clouds and clear horizon line, you have a chance to see something spectacular. This is the time sky gets most colour. The exposure time goes down, you may now catch water trails. I recommend to make several exposures (bracketing) of a single shot. Your camera may not always catch the whole tonal range and will have to do some magic on your computer. It's not about "computer art", it's just to do with that your eye is a much better optical device than your camera.
The final 10 minutes before the dawn are my favourite. The sky is still nice and coloured, the exposures go further down and you may use shutter speed of around 0.5 sec, which is my favourite way to capture waves and water rush.
Then as the Sun appears, the light is a bit dull for some minutes and then "The Golden Hour" begins, which is so much talked about I doubt I have to repeat it. I will however mention this in Techniques section.
The sunset is pretty much the same with the only difference that it is usually brighter. The light is dependant on the particles in the air - the more particles, the more red is the air. During the day the air heats and thus becomes more humid. And the red sunset light is even more spread through this haze.
All you need to know about sunsets is that it is usually brighter and the sequence of periods is mirrored from those on sunrise.
The amount of time when the Sun is above horizon can be adjusted with the season, i.e. you can stay 2 hours after sunrise in winter, because the Sun is much lower than during summer.
If the weather is overcast, everything depends on the thickness of the clouds. If they are heavy and volume you may shoot all the day long. Usually thick clouds grow dark and heavy when the Sun is directly behind them.
There are several things I strongly recommend to consider when going out. Let's represent them as a check list.
- Let someone know where you go and where you might go after that.
- Always have some waterproof container with warm socks and a spare t-shirt.
- Always have a set of tissues or wipes to wipe your camera and lens as soon as possible if they become wet.
- Always look at the rocks - if they are wet, but the water is several meters away and you think it's safe to walk, STOP. If they are wet they will be eventually hit by a big wave. Trust me. This is the knowledge you get by getting wet to the underpants.
- If you are not shooting at the moment - turn off your camera. This has nothing to do with the battery charge. If it happens that you get stricken by the wave or you camera falls into some pool or gets very wet for any other reason, it has a chance to survive if it is off. And do not turn it on if you think it has water inside! Get it to the repair shop. I do not mean some splashes you get from time to time - they are mostly safe for modern cameras providing you wipe the water out quickly.
- Watch for the sea plants - they usually grow on the wet rocks. These guys are extremely slippery.
- If you play hopscotch on some rocks, poke your target rock first with a tripod! It may be unstable.
- Never take the camera strap off your neck. Lots of wicked things may happen! Once my camera has fallen from the tripod right into water. And it was turned on… It wasn't fully under water, but it died in seconds beyond repair together with the lens. So always, whatever you do keep your camera strap on your neck. Even if it is on the tripod.
- Try to always check current swell and tide when you go out. Firstly, it will give you an idea what the sea will be doing. Secondly, you will know what to expect - either waves will become bigger or smaller with time, either sea level will rise of fall etc.
- Check wind direction on your local weather site. If the wind is strong and gusty and is directed towards the sea, do not go to the cliffs, shoot on the rocks below. If the wind is strong and blows from the sea it is pointless to go at the sea level - it will constantly make your lens wet blowing of spray from the coming waves and it's not easy to wipe out salty water from the glass! If there are no big waves, the wind from the sea will not make any problems.
- If you are planning to shoot a thunderstorm, you should be aware that when you chase it, it chases you! No kidding. I was once shooting a distant thunderstorm and went to the coastal cliffs to make a photo like - rocks on foreground, ocean on middleground and clouds with thunderstorm on background. And while I was setting everything up, I heard SHHHH! and then something pushed my umbrella BOOM!. Before I could somehow react, I saw a discharge coming from umbrella handle to my finger. Yep, it was a lightning that struck my umbrella. Luckily, I wasn't touching neither camera, nor tripod at the moment and I had rubber shoes. Pure luck, if you know what I mean. Since that I think twice, then thrice more when choosing location for thunderstorm shoot.
- If you think it might be dangerous out there - don't go. Is that photo really worth your life?
In the following articles I'm planning to cover following aspects of seascaping: How to choose proper location, how to make a photo like on the example, which camera settings to use. These will be given in a short articles starting with a sample photo and followed by all the information required to make a photo like that. So stay tuned!
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