Guide to Ocean photography
In this guide to ocean photography, we take a look at the significant difference between it and regular landscape or seascape work.
The ocean possesses a magical, compelling and mesmerising quality. With ocean photography, the trick is capturing that vibe and communicate the same emotion and sensation.
It’s no simple task, but with a few tips from our photography guide, you’re sure to reproduce the grace and beauty of the ocean in no time at all. Plus, your overall photography skills will elevate considerably.
You can ‘wave’ goodbye to mediocre prints!:-)
Table of Contents
What is Ocean Photography?
Ocean photography takes a little more of an artistic approach for relaying the mood and the fluidity of the ocean faithfully.
You need to slow things down and let the scene dictate how you build the composition.
A vital feature of this photography genre is to apply a slower shutter speed, so the flow of the ocean is captured with motion-blur to indicate movement.
Depending on the shutter speed, you can turn a choppy sea into a flat pane of glass with whispy smoke dancing upon it. Or, you can slow the shutter speed to demonstrate the inward or outward flow of the tide or a wave.
The ocean is forever in motion, and ocean photography needs to draw attention to that fact in every photo.
What Equipment do I need for Ocean Photography?
Before you set foot on a rocky shore, you need to understand the kind of gear required for ocean photography.
I’m going to walk you through the necessary equipment and knowledge for both casual shooters and the photography pros.
One of the biggest questions to answer is ‘what camera do ocean photographers use?’
In truth, you can work with the gear you have, or you can step it up with additional pieces of photography kit.
You want a camera with manual control for the core settings such as shutter speed and aperture – allowing you to play and experiment with various effects.
Controlling the shutter speed allows you to match your exposure time with the movement of the ocean. A slow shutter speed will capture the motion of a retreating tide. An even slower one turns the ocean to flat ice with no sign of movement at all.
The ocean is wet (surprise!), and cameras don’t like getting wet, so you need to be conscious of its safety. A wet camera is a broken camera, so the first rule is not to place it or drop it near the water. Even a dose of sand will ruin your afternoon on the coast.
I always recommend having your camera on a quality strap so that it sits around your neck and hangs at your chest, or invest in a waterproof camera case.
Many cameras have weather sealing and waterproofing – even weather-resistant cameras won’t cope with salt water as it’s corrosive. Here’s our guide to the best waterproof cameras.
I don’t believe there’s a perfect lens for every occasion in photography. I usually preach that the lens you have will work if you’re prepared to make it work.
For photography enthusiasts, an all-purpose zoom lens such as a kit 24-70mm is best. You have the 24mm end ideal for capturing vast expanses of the vista. The zoom end allows you to gain reach – this is handy if your location requires you to shoot from a distance.
Photography pros will benefit from a longer zoom with a wider aperture. The longer the zoom, the better to capture objects within the ocean such as outcroppings of rock.
As for the faster aperture, you may wish to isolate a section of the composition in full focus while the surrounds fade away into a creamy blur.
In ocean shoots, you need to work with long exposures, and the enemy of this work is camera shake.
A sturdy tripod is essential to avoid camera shake – especially as a wave may hit it. Tides and waves move at their own pace and having your camera positioned for the shot makes sense. That way, you’re ready to capture the incoming or outgoing tide or wave at just the right time.
You can have your camera set up on a tripod and make multiple attempts at capturing the same composition as the waves wash in and out. Simply sort through the photos later to find the best shots.
Bring a lightweight travel tripod with collapsable legs (like these models) – you’ll thank me when you have to grab your kit and run for the shore due to a big wave.
Camera lens filters allow you to control the amount of light passing through to the image sensor. Landscape, seascape and ocean photography all benefit from them – enthusiasts should not feel pressured to rush out and buy filters as you can get by without them.
Neutral Density (ND) filters come in a range of sizes and styles – they match the filter thread and include fixed ND and variable ND. ND filters also have grades of filtration that block a little or a lot of light.
When shooting long exposures, more light passes through to hit the sensor – excess light results in a blown-out photo. An ND filter limits the light while still keeping the shutter open for a long time.
Alternatively, fit a Circular Polarising Filter (CPL) to reduce any reflection and glare from shiny surfaces. The light that reflects off water has become polarised, and the filter helps to cut that down.
Long exposure photography chews through batteries and memory card space – always pack your spares and have them handy.
When doing any photography near the sea, you’re bound to get sand and water on your gear. Don’t just grab the edge of your shirt and wipe the front glass – chances are you will scratch it.
With a blower or brush remove any large particles before removing any signs of moisture or dust with a microfibre cloth. Once you return from your ocean photography outing, thoroughly clean your kit as sand is abrasive, and seawater is corrosive to camera gear.
If you plan to get serious with your photography, there are a range of underwater housings to suit the most popular cameras. These allow you to submerge your camera several meters and are beneficial if you intend to go deeper.
8 Ocean Photography Tips
You have the right gear and right ideas, now let’s discuss some practical tips on ocean photography to ensure a fantastic photo every time.
1. Safety First
Before you step onto a beach, please consider some essential safety tips.
Check the weather and also the conditions on the sea and ensure others know where you’re heading and when you’ll be returning.
Research the tidal movements of the area and watch those tides to ensure always have access to land. Also, keep an eye on the behaviour of waves as they’re unpredictable with the size and intensity changing in an instant – be aware of how close you’re to the crashing waves.
Obtain local knowledge about the conditions of walking paths, cliff tops and rocky outcroppings – make sure you have the right footwear.
Also, if you intend to stand in the water, know the local species of sea life that are dangerous and wear beach-shoes.
2. Know The Tides
Given ocean photography involves capturing the motion of water; you need to know the times of the tides. Coastal areas will often have a ‘tide-watch’ segment in the weather forecast, but there are countless sites and apps that can also give you this information.
Knowledge of the tides is critical to capture the right mood in your composition. Timing your arrival and preparation for an incoming or outgoing tide will make all the difference.
When capturing an incoming tide, it’s not always clear how high the wave will come in. It can put you and your gear at risk of getting wet or something more sinister.
Shooting an outgoing tide with long exposures is considered better and easier as you’ll know the tide line and that it will only drop further.
Plus, your composition will benefit from shots where the retreating waves stream away from the camera.
3. Choose The Right Light
Having the available light impacting your composition at the right time can make a world of difference.
Making the most of sunrise and sunset makes a lot of senses as you achieve dramatic outcomes with ocean and sky elements. Shooting during the golden hours will change the overall mood of your photo as the golden light is cast.
Finally, the blue hour is best to frame moody and darkening compositions. With the right timing of the tides and the best lighting conditions, your ocean photography will elevate exponentially.
Another important and popular lighting technique is to include a sunburst or sun flare in your shot. With the sun low against the horizon or just peeking out from behind an outcropping of rock, the camera will pick up the sunlight bursting out in lines or rays.
4. Compositional Elements
As with any other genre of photography, the composition will make or break your set of images.
Surveying the scene and points of interest is key to success – knowing where to place those elements within the frame will ensure success.
The rule of thirds sees your frame equally split by two horizontal and two verticals lines that create ‘thirds’. When framing your shot, you should put your horizon on either of the horizontal lines as opposed to placing it in the middle of the frame.
If there are unique elements such as an outcropping of rock in the frame, align that with one of the two vertical lines as opposed to placing it dead centre.
With the rule of thirds, the image has a more exciting flow that leads the eye around the scene to points of interest – where the horizontal and vertical lines intersect.
Another compositional consideration is to ditch to the landscape method where we frame wide shots with expanses of land in the frame. With ocean photography, be daring and shoot tighter compositions that don’t include the sky or coastline – just the ocean doing its thing is often enough to steal the show.
Finally, if you’re brave, you could set up a tripod in shallow water and shoot back at the shore. Capturing the movement of the waves from this angle will generate a fascinating ocean picture.
5. Long Exposure Settings
Long exposure requires the sensor shutter to remain open longer than in a regular shot.
With this photography, prolonged exposure achieves the most desirable outcomes. When slowing the shutter speed, the camera has more time to capture the flow of the ocean.
So rather than a crisp image of the edge of a wave, the ocean will be smooth with whispy elements floating throughout.
- Shutter Speed
When photographing ocean pictures, you want a slow shutter speed – it all depends on the look you’re going for and also the amount of motion evident.
I recommend starting with 1/4 to 1/1 of a second shutter speed. It exposes the sensor long enough to capture the motion of the waves. Harsh elements will soften, and the chop in the waves smoothes out.
However, there’s no reason to stop there as you experiment with longer shutter speeds – try 15 or 30 seconds and see what the outcomes are.
With a longer shutter speed, the sea turns as smooth as glass with the mist from waves appearing as ethereal wisps of floating light.
Remember the longer you have the shutter open, the more light hits the image sensor and increase the exposure. Controlling the aperture and also applying ND filters manages this.
Aperture is the setting that controls how wide the opening within the lens is. A wide aperture is a larger opening (represented by a small f-number ) and allows more light.
A narrow aperture is a smaller opening (defined by a larger f-number) and restricts the amount of light.
If you want everything in the composition in focus, dial in a narrow aperture such as f/8 – f/16. Remember, a narrow aperture restricts the light so you’ll need a longer shutter speed to give the light more time to hit the sensor.
If you want a key element such as a nearby rock in focus but everything else soft and blurry, use a wide aperture such as f/2. But, a wide aperture lets in more light so you’ll either need to use a faster shutter speed or a strong ND filter.
6. Read The Waves
As with the tides, knowing how the waves behave can help you to master this genre of photography.
As the waves roll in and out, you want to capture the motion – a slow shutter speed of 1/4 to 1 second is an excellent place to start.
As waves pull back out, they leave trails of white foam, bubbles and even debris on the sand. With a slow shutter speed, you’ll capture that trail as it slowly appears and disappears before the next wave comes in.
Incoming waves have a life of their own as they form, crest and crash over and over again. Capturing this movement delivers incredible photos, especially if the water gushes around or over a large rock.
With a slow shutter, the movement of the water is made evident, and the spray that forms from the impact creates a fanfare of ocean spray.
There are times when the retreating tide leaves a pool of water on the beach or in a rock pool. Or, the sand is left so wet that it casts a reflection of its own.
Using these reflective surfaces in ocean photography is a great way to catch a unique shot – use a CPL filter.
Get yourself into the right position and at the best angle to make the most of the reflection. Composing a shot where a pool of water reflects a large outcropping of rock is a winner.
For best results, shoot from a low angle to make the most of the reflection.
8. Close Up Ocean Photography
With a telephoto zoom, you’ll get much closer to the action than with a wide lens.
Getting in close to the crashing of waves or a big curling surf wave will deliver dramatic photos.
Purchasing an underwater housing for your camera is another way to get in close – but that’s a whole other level of dedication as you’ll be in the water too.
With this one, you’re safe and dry on the shore while capturing a fantastic photo of the rolling sea. A telephoto zoom is also an excellent way to capture the ocean interacting with areas of the coast you cannot reach.
Shooting top-down from a safe boardwalk or shooting back into a cove allows you to photography the water hitting the shore.
Final Words on Ocean Photography
Ocean photography doesn’t involve hiring a wetsuit, jet-ski and dropping your camera in the ocean. Although if you’re keen, you’d get some fantastic ocean pics this way.
With the right gear, safety consideration and careful understanding of our tips, anyone can give it a shot.
What’s more, through taking a crack at this style of photography, the better a photographer you’ll become.
This genre of photography is fascinating to view and is an essential skill in the catalogue of genres just waiting for you to master.
If you have any questions about this or any other photography genre, please leave them below, and I’ll get back to you.