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Seascapes are like landscapes… only more. I say that because just like landscapes, they contain open skies and land masses, but they also contain water—lots of water, and that’s where they differ.
Photographs © Allan Weitz, 2017
Landscapes and seascapes are ruled by the weather. If the sun rises and bathes the world in a golden glow—excellent! But if it’s foggy and/or raining, the goal is to make it work in your favor.
Fog and haze can often be photogenic, especially when the sun tries to burn through intermittently. Depending on any number of variables, inclement weather can be wonderful to work with, photographically speaking.
The weather can change slowly and predictably or swiftly and unpredictably. For that reason, as you peer through your viewfinder, always be alert to changes along the horizon and be prepared to react when the weather changes because, sooner or later, it will.
For maximum image control, shoot RAW whenever possible. When shooting JPEGs, I often toggle between the camera’s Auto White Balance setting and the various Scene-specific WB settings the camera offers (Sunny, Cloudy, Open Shade, Snow, etc.), picking whichever WB mode best suits the scene.
Sea and waterscapes can be captured with any camera. The key is to understand what your camera system can and cannot do—once you have a handle on these parameters, you can focus on taking pictures—good pictures.
The photographs accompanying this article were captured with full-frame (35mm) cameras, APS-C format cameras, point-and-shoot cameras, and waterproof point-and-shoots, and they each have unique visual signatures. I describe the photographs these various cameras produce as being the same… but different.
The photograph on the left was captured with a $279 waterproof point-and-shoot camera. The photograph on the right was taken with a full-frame camera and lens costing more than 10x that amount. As for which camera took which picture—it’s irrelevant.
As a rule, larger imaging sensors produce higher levels of image quality, with sharper detail, greater breadth of midrange, shadow, and highlight detail, and better low-light performance. Despite these “truths,” I’ve captured countless photographs using “lesser” cameras that make me say, “Wow.”
Most interchangeable-lens consumer cameras have native aspect ratios of 2:3 or 4:3, and many offer the option of “pre-cropping” the image to a square or 16:9 format. Unless you have a specific end use in mind, I always recommend shooting with the total image area and making decisions about cropping later in the editing process.
Considering that there are many possible outlets for seascape photographs, it’s always a good idea to shoot one version of a scene tightly composed and then another a bit “looser” so you can crop the image to longer, shorter, or narrower aspect ratios.
Depending on your subject-to-lens distance and how easy it is to change the camera’s vantage point, you can use almost any lens for water and seascape photography.
The accompanying photographs were captured with a variety of cameras and lenses ranging from ultra-wide angle (114° AoV) to long telephotos (5° AoV).
When choosing a lens, my goal is to frame the image tightly, leaving little if any "unneeded" image area beyond the frame lines. When possible, I prefer using fixed prime lenses, but if a zoom lens will enable me to frame the picture more to my needs, then zoom it is.
At left, a late afternoon thunderstorm approaches Miami Beach, as captured by an APSC-format 35mm camera with a wide-angle zoom lens. At right, billowing white clouds pop out of inky blue skies over the British Virgin Islands, serving as a visual anchor in this full-frame capture on a 35mm camera with a 20mm lens. Both images were shot through Polarizing filters.
Polarizers eliminate unwanted glare and reflections. They also saturate color and make clouds seemingly pop out of dark blue skies.
Neutral density filters are useful for extending exposure times, to blur moving water or any other moving subjects within the frame lines.
Graduated ND filters, color and neutral, enable you to control exposure differences between the foreground and background, especially skies at sunrise and sunset. They can also be used to add an extra dollop of density to the sky and/or foreground.
Graduated filters, neutral or color-tinted, come in handy if you want to further accentuate skies or foregrounds.
Although UV filters do help reduce the effects of haze, they are best used for keeping sand and sea spray off the front elements of your lenses.
Having the right cameras and lenses with you helps ensure that you will capture photographs that are—at the very least—technically competent. What it doesn’t guarantee is that they will be aesthetically pleasing photographs.
Think out your pictures while being mindful of the changing light. Frame your image by figuring out what’s necessary to the picture, as well as what isn’t. Most important, decide what should definitely be kept outside the edges of the frame. If the composition doesn’t work, chances are you’re not close enough, or perhaps not far enough away. Perhaps a higher viewing angle will help, or adding a visually interesting element to the foreground.
Water and reflections go hand-in-hand. Depending on the tide, wind, and time of day, reflections greatly affect the compositional dynamics of seascapes. Still water is best for capturing reflections of the sky, clouds, boats, and any surrounding geological formations.
This waterscape on the left was taken with a full-frame 35mm camera and a 300mm lens. The scene with the fishermen at right was captured with a full-frame 35mm camera and a 500mm lens.
Reflections are most powerful when they mirror the main design elements within the scene as well as the surroundings.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of the time of day. The sweetest light exists before, during, and just after sunrise, and again at sunset. This doesn’t mean the rest of the day is toast, but the golden, low-angle light rays that the sun sends our way at sunrise and sunset magically illuminates all of a scene’s nooks and crannies before they darken into the shadows.
If there’s a plus side to overcast skies, it’s that there are fewer (if any) shadows to contend with and the light is usually even all around. Just as a softbox bathes your subject in a soft, even light, overcast skies combined with the reflective qualities of water can illuminate a seascape with a pleasing glow.
Be aware of foregrounds, especially when using wider-angle lenses. Without a dominant visual element in the foreground, seascapes can appear visually rudderless, thus allowing our eyes to wander aimlessly through the image.
This is especially true when using wider-angle lenses. Without a visual anchor in the foreground or background, our eyes easily begin wandering aimlessly.
When photographing land and seascapes, you’ll inevitably run into rain, snow, ice, humidity, and heat. Precautionary items worth investigating include rain sleeves and storm jackets to protect your cameras and lenses from the elements, waterproof cases and bags to keep your gear dry when not in use, and insulated and/or weatherproof gloves to keep your hands and fingers warm and dry. Desiccants also come in handy for absorbing moisture in your camera and lens cases.
Tides ebb and flow, so if your plans involve deep, open waters, pay attention to the ebb and flow of the tides—this could mean the difference between a successful sunrise or sunset shoot and a blown opportunity.
Lastly, whenever possible, scout the area beforehand, so you can plan a course of action, regardless of weather conditions.