There’s something about the ocean and the beach that has always been a magnet for landscape photographers. The meeting of land and sea is one of mother nature’s most attractive features, and can make for some incredible photo opportunities. Seascape photography has always been one of my favourite subjects, and I’m going to show you a how to create more dramatic seascapes.
One of the unique characteristics that make seascapes so attractive is that you have a moving body of water crashing up against un-moving earth. The meeting is ever changing, and no two moments in time appear that same. When you can capture water crashing up against the earth, and flowing back off it, you can convey drama that’s difficult to capture in other landscape scenes.
If no two moments in time are the same, how do you capture as much drama as possible in your seascape photography? You take multiple exposures of the same scene and blend them using a simple technique called exposure stacking. Have you heard of focus stacking? It uses a similar technique, but instead of each exposure having a different focus point, each one captures a different moment in time.
Gear For Seascape Photography
You don’t need any special gear to exposure stack for seascape photography. There are a few must-haves and a couple of nice-to-haves, though.
1. Camera. It doesn’t matter what kind of camera you use. DSLR, mirrorless, medium-format. It just needs to be digital.
2. Tripod. There are plenty of times that I shoot handheld, but this isn’t one of them. You’re going to be photographing these seascapes at shutter speeds that need a tripod to remain sharp. You also will be capturing many exposures without moving the camera. If you enjoy seascape photography, a solid, lightweight tripod is a necessary investment.
3. Microfiber lens cloth. Your lens is likely going to be getting at least a few splashes on it, probably a lot more. I like using alcohol lens wipes because they get the salt water off better than a regular lens cloth, and they’re cheap as chips.
4. Remote shutter release. This isn’t essential, but it’s nice to have. Being able to open the shutter at exactly the right moment without touching the camera will make this technique easier and keep your images sharper, but you can make do without it.
5. Circular polarizing (CP) filter. Again, not a necessity, but a CP filter will help cut reflections on the water and wet rocks. This is another item that I would recommend investing in. CP filters help to capture better colour in your landscape and seascape photography. I love the filter kit from NiSi, which includes a fantastic CP filter.
6. Neutral density (ND) filters. Whether you need ND filters will depend on how much light there is and how long you want your exposures to be.
7. Photoshop. It doesn’t need to be Photoshop, but you need to have some kind of post-processing software that allows you to blend exposures together.
With this type of seascape photo you want to find a scene where the waves are crashing against or over a solid surface that won’t move. Rocks or cliffs are prefect. A sandy beach won’t work so well because the sand will move with the waves.
Once you’ve found a good location, you need to make sure you go when the tide is at the right height. There’s no optimal tide height. Each location will be different. High tide will work for some, low tide will work for others. Most will be somewhere in-between.
Try to time your seascape photography so that the best tide coincides with great light around sunrise or sunset. This will give you the best light and waves for your seascapes. I use the PhotoPills app to plan for sunrise/sunset and a tides app like Tides Near Me.
Shooting Seascape Photos
First up, the sea crashing against rocks can make for some very dramatic seascape photography, but isn’t ideal if your body gets between them. Many a photographer has died because they underestimated the ocean and waves. No photo is worth your life. Make your safety your number one priority.
When you get to your location, find a spot where the waves are crashing onto and flowing off the rocks in various places. This technique works by combining exposures in different parts of the scene, so the more points of interest in your shot the better.
The usual rules of landscape composition still apply to seascapes. Try to frame a balanced scene with rocks, sea, and sky. The interest is going to be in the waves hitting the rocks, so make that part of the scene at least half, preferably two-thirds of the frame.
Once you’re happy with your composition, make sure your tripod is locked down tight so it’s rock-solid. You want to time your exposures so they capture the movement of the water as it flows onto and off the rocks. This is where a remote shutter release comes in handy as you can time each exposure perfectly without camera movement caused by your hands.
The shutter speed you choose will have the biggest effect on the look and feel of your seascapes. It will take a bit of experimentation, but I find that shutter speeds between 0.5 and 1 second are ideal for this technique. It will capture the movement of the water without creating the soft, foggy long exposure effect.
If you’re shooting at either end of the day in low light, you can often get away without ND filters, but in daylight you’ll need a 3 or 6-stop ND filter. Anything more than that, such as a 10-stop ND will probably be too dark and your shutter speed will end up being too long.
I often come home from shooting seascapes like this with over a hundred exposures. You can’t take too many. When it comes time to blend the exposures in Photoshop, the more you have to choose from, the better. As you’re shooting, watch each part of the scene and try to make sure you’re capturing interesting water movement everywhere.
Exposure Stacking Seascapes
When you’ve imported your images to your computer, you need to spend a bit of time going through them all and selecting the best. Using Lightroom, I go through each image one-by-one and flag (P) the ones that have captured the movement of the water well. There will be many that are very similar. That’s ok, flag them anyway.
Once you’ve flagged all the usable images, filter them based on flag status in the Filter Bar (\), then select each image that has similar water movement in the same part of the scene. Take these images into the Compare view (C) and find the best of them by removing the ones you like least.
Do this with each group of similar images until you only have a few that have captured the best water movement in each part of the scene. It could be anywhere from 2-10 images. Any more than that and you’re making unnecessary work for yourself in Photoshop. For this example, I ended up with six images.
With your favourites selected, go into the Develop Module (D) and do a basic edit of one of the images. All I do at this stage is colour and exposure correction. With that done, sync your edits to each of your selected exposures by clicking the “Sync” button below the right-hand panel.
Now comes the fun part. Making sure each image is still selected, open them all in Photoshop by right-clicking on one of them and clicking “Edit In > Open as layers in Photoshop”. As expected, Photoshop will open each image as a separate layer in one document.
I could walk you through how to blend your exposures together into one epic seascape photo, but this video explains it far better than I could.
Once you’ve finished blending and have an image that you’re happy with, you can do your final edits. I like to use a combination of Photoshop and Lightroom for this, but it’s up to you how you like to process your photos. I definitely recommend using the dodge and burn tools in Photoshop to add some punch and pull the viewer through your image.
That’s it. This process takes a bit of work, but it’s a lot of fun. If you’re near the coast, you should give it a try. The more you do it, the easier and quicker it becomes.