Seascapes are about sky, water, the physical dynamics of the points at which they meet, reflections and mirror imaging and most of all, the unique qualities of moisture-filtered light that one can only find where sky meets water.
As with landscape photography, the time of day weighs heavily on the aesthetic attributes of your efforts, and color-wise, the best images are invariably captured during the 20 to 40 minutes leading up to and following sunrise and sunset, when the world is bathed in low-angle rays of golden light.
This is not to say you cannot capture good landscapes at midday or for that matter, on rainy days, but you’ll have to try harder to do so. If you find yourself shooting seascapes during the brighter midday hours, you’ll need some help in the form of Polarizing filters, or at the very least, UV filtration, especially in the summer months when the color temperature at the shore tips heavily toward the blue end of the visual spectrum.
Polarizing filters are invaluable for outdoor photography and should be part of any landscape photographer’s tool box. Polarizing filters temper the visual effects of stray light and glare, which intensifies the saturation levels of the scene’s native color palate. Reflections in water can be greatly reduced or in some cases, eliminated entirely, which depending on the particulars of the scenario you are photographing, can reveal the details of objects lying below the surface of the water, or simply render the water to near-black.
Skies, too, can be greatly enhanced through the use of a Polarizing filter. Depending on the angle and position of the sun in relation to your subject, Polarizing filters can deepen the intensity of the sky to deep navy blue while maintaining bright clouds that seemingly pop from their intensified surroundings. Optimally, the sun should be behind you, with its rays striking your subject from over your shoulder and slightly off to one side.
When using a Polarizing filter, don’t be surprised if the image looks best when it’s only partially Polarized. Depending on the visual characteristics of the scene you’re photographing, the image you’re composing might benefit from a bit of reflective light.
It’s also important to recognize the fact that Polarizing and UV filters are among the few filters that cannot be (accurately) emulated electronically using digital filter plug-ins or Photoshop filters, making them well worth considering if you want to get the most visual bang for your efforts. As for UV filters, due to the abundance of detail-robbing airborne moisture common to seascape environments, stronger variations of UV filtration (are preferred for many landscape applications, especially seascapes.
Graduated filters, which are typically clear on one side and gradually darken to a neutral density equivalent of one, two or three stops, are also well worth taking along for land and seascape applications. Graduated filters enable you to easily darken the upper or lower portions of the image area and serve to guide the viewers’ eyes to the central portion of the frame (in most cases) or closer to the main subject.
In addition to neutral density ‘grads,’ there are also a number of color graduated filters that go from clear to color densities, including some that transition from neutral to clear in the center to a graduated color on the opposite side. Although grad filters can be used for film and digital cameras alike, the effects obtainable through the use of grad filters can be emulated electronically and applied to digital image files long after the fact—and with greater control of where the transition starts and how dark (or colorful) you want the transition to be.
Rainy days, which take on a bluish cast, can often (though not always) benefit from a bit of warming filtration, usually in the form of an 81-series or 85-series filter. Depending on the dominant colors within the scene you’re photographing, Enhancing filters can also prove to be quite valuable in terms of improving the color values of land and seascape photographs.
Note: For further insights into filtration for landscape photography, see the article, Filters for Landscape Photography.
Many photographers choose to set the white balance setting (WB) to Auto out of laziness or an in-born fear of making decisions. Although Auto WB is usually accurate enough for average outdoor lighting conditions, Auto WB usually works against your better interests when you’re shooting early and later in the day because it inherently tries to cool the warmer tones you’re most likely trying to capture. That said, you should set your WB to Sunny (or your camera’s equivalent), which will lock the color temperature closer to a midday 5600°K, allowing the ambient warm tonality of dawn and dusk to hold true.
Similarly, you can also set your camera’s Scene Mode to Sunrise (or Sunset) mode, which accomplishes the same goal in terms of preserving the accuracy of the scene’s color palette.
Due to the higher levels of atmospheric moisture common to coastal air masses, there are a number of variables that often create unique color palettes across the sky, especially in wider angle seascape photographs, often resulting in areas of warm rays of light in one portion of the frame and cooler tones in others. But that’s one of the things that make landscapes and seascapes in particular, so enjoyable to capture and view in the first place.
Note: Many landscape and seascape photographers opt for Kaeseman Polarizing filters, which contain heavier duty moisture seals that prevent premature delamination caused by moisture infiltrating the layers of glass and filtration material. Kaeseman Polarizing filters are available from Heliopan, B+Wand Hitech.
Film shooters don’t have to fret over WB issues, since color rendition is established by your choice of film stock. If, however, you wish to tinker with the color temperature of the scene you are capturing, you can do so by using warming (81 / 85 series) filters or cooling (80 / 82 series) filters.
A particularly useful accessory film shooters should explore for seascape applications is a warm-toned Polarizing filter, which gives you the benefits of Polarization along with the scene-warming benefits of an 81 or 85 series warming filter. Warm-toned Polarizing filters are particularly useful when shooting during midday hours in the summer months when the high angle of the sun can be especially cold and brash looking.
There are also Polarizing filters featuring additional layers of UV filtration, which are equally valuable when shooting near open bodies of water, snow and mountainous regions that inherently require additional UV filtration, as well as Polarizing/Enhancing filter combinations that bring out foliage and earth-toned coloration.
Note: It’s a good idea to avoid stacking filters, as every additional layer of glass, regardless of its price and pedigree, degrades image quality to some extent. For this reason one should consider warm-toned or UV-coated Polarizing filters if seascape photography is your calling.
When photographing outdoors, there are a number of precautions one should take, especially when shooting in conditions that include moisture, salt and sand particles. When shooting seascapes, it makes sense to travel with a camera bag that features oversized flaps and pockets that can be zipped or “touch-tabbed” to keep sand, dust and other airborne nasties away from your photo gear.
When swapping lenses one should be especially careful, as moisture and blowing sand can cause havoc within your camera bodies and lenses. If you’re working in a location that lacks any form of enclosure or at the very least a wall to block the wind, you should turn your back to the wind and use your body as a shield against blowing airborne particles. Lastly, you should always aim your camera face down as an additional means of limiting unwanted detritus from entering your camera’s inner sanctum. Remember: gravity causes dust and sand to fall downward—not upward.
The rules of composition for landscapes are one and the same as the rules we follow for most forms of photography, including the classic Rule of Thirds, in which the scene is divided into three distinct portions, each of which complements the others, and together form a single uniform image.
Strong foregrounds and backgrounds are also key attributes of strong visual compositions, and may include objects, people or possibly expanses of land, sky or perhaps bold swatches of color. And though many photographers automatically default to a horizontal format when composing seascapes, if the image dictates otherwise, never hesitate to flip your camera 90° to its vertical position and shoot away.
Though a majority of landscape photographs are captured using wide-angle lenses, there’s no iron-clad rule that states you have to use wide-angle lenses. In fact, if you scan the horizon while out on photo jaunts, you’d quickly notice distant scenes that for reasons of logistics, safety, not to mention the compression of perspective inherent to longer telephoto lenses, you may have no alternative than to use a lens of 200mm, 300mm, 500mm or longer.
And remember: it’s the shot that counts; everything else is merely armchair chit-chat.
All photographs © Allan Weitz 2011