Photography / Tips and Solutions

10 Things to Consider When Shooting Water and Seascapes

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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

A seascape captured at sunset using a waterproof point-and-shoot camera. A number of available waterproof cameras offer inexpensive options for photographing seascapes and waterscapes without having to worry about water, salt, sand, and humidity.

1. Weather

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.

This photograph was captured using a full-frame 35mm camera and a 24mm lens during the opening moments of a hurricane making landfall, along the coast of Maine. The fog-enshrouded early morning light adds a dream-like quality to the photograph.

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.

2. Cameras, Sensor Formats, and Aspect Ratios

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.”

The photograph of the fishing shack (above) and the photograph of the boat dock (below) were originally captured using 24mm and 18mm lenses respectively on a full-frame 35mm camera. They were cropped post-capture to fit templates requiring wider-field images.



 

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.

The original photograph was captured with an 18mm lens on a full-frame 35mm camera. Post-capture, I was able to crop the file to fit layouts requiring square and long horizontal aspect ratios.

3. Lenses

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.

4. Filters

The most effective filters for seascape photography are Polarizing filters, neutral density (ND), graduated ND filters, and UV filters.

Polarizers eliminate unwanted glare and reflections. They also saturate color and make clouds seemingly pop out of dark blue skies.

This photograph, cropped top and bottom along the horizontal plane, was taken with an entry-level 35mm camera with an 18-55mm kit lens. A Polarizing filter accentuated the white clouds against the blue sky.

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.

The top of a fence serves as a visual framing element that helps guide the viewer’s eyes as they move across this photograph of a World War II-era Naval gunnery. Although originally embedded 900 feet from the high-tide line, it now sits in open water after decades of storms and erosion have eaten away at the shoreline. A graduated blue filter was used to intensify the sky, which was otherwise flat and listless.

Graduated filters, neutral or color-tinted, come in handy if you want to further accentuate skies or foregrounds.

To add some additional color and drama to the sun rising along the coast of Long Island’s South Fork, I positioned a graduated magenta filter in front of a full-frame 35mm camera with an 18mm lens.

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.

5. Composition—Framing Your Pictures

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.

6. Reflections                                

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.

7. Time of Day

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.

The last rays of the setting sun reflects off the sides of the Block Island Lighthouse, captured with a full-frame 35mm camera and a 500mm lens (5° AoV).
Captured in the late afternoon, this waterscape was taken with a full-frame 35mm camera and a 500mm lens.

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.  

The advent of sunrise on a cold mountain lake often gives rise to fog and mist, which quickly dissipates once the sun clears the horizon line. Remember, this sort of light is the reason people get up extra early—or stay up all night—to capture a scene that is over in an instant.

8. Foregrounds and Backgrounds

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.

The sun positions itself along the horizon only twice a day. Be there. Photograph taken using Sony A7s with a 21mm/f4.5 Zeiss Biogon ZM lens. I kept the camera and lens dry using a DiCAPac Waterproof Case for Mirrorless cameras.

This is especially true when using wider-angle lenses. Without a visual anchor in the foreground or background, our eyes easily begin wandering aimlessly.

9. Gear Protection

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.

10. Mind the Tides

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.

Discussion 18

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A very interesting artical to be sure but a note of caution on the use of wide angle lens and a polarizer. Polarizers donot uniformly cover the image and this is very noticeable in large sky areas. You should be prepared  to correcct this with valuable processing time.

To be more precise, Polarizers can onlt be used effectively using lenses no wider than 21mm on a 35mm camera, or any other lens with an AoV wider than 90-degrees. You can use them, but the darkening effects are typically uneven across the frame.

Thanks for stopping by Tim!

AW

Love the whole layout of the rowboat and man in it when the tornado was coming. That is such a beautiful picture. I am an artist and would love to paint a picture like that one you captured. I painted a foggy day at the ocean with a shrimp boat. I love the fog and the tranquility it gives to a picture. It seems to make the whole picture become clearer to the mindseye.

Kathleen 

Agreed about foggy atmosphers and thanks for the compliments!

Also glad you enjoyed the text.

AW

I would appreciate it is the camera settings were included with the images.....

DON'T FORGET BUG SPRAY!!!!!! Sand fleas are prevalent mornings and afternoons. Their bites are very painful and last at least two weeks.

Ooooooh good point there.

Along with sand fleas you also have mosquitos, black flies, and other itty-bitty flying flesh-seekers to contend with!

Thanks for chiming in...

AW

The excellent information is brought home by well considered photgraphic examples.  I particularly appreciate the camera and lens info included.  Very helpful article on otherwise oft read advice.  

I can't stress enough at both sunrise /sunsets near any body of water, watch out for animals that inhabit areas you plan to shoot at if alone. I have been surprised by may a deer, coyote, foxes and the occasional bear at daybreak/ dusk. Always bring bear spray canister for protection. Remember animals are in the hunting mode- be aware of your surroundings while shooting. Great article as well, Allan.

Whoa, you and Dietmar bring up interesting (and important) points - Dietmar with the bug-issue and you with the 4-legged preditor issue.

Luckily I've never had to face down anything more menacing than this onery horsefly that badgered me as I was trying to nail a shot that was too good to walk away from.

I'm convinced this horsefly was the reincarnation of somebody I seriously ticked-off in another lifetime.

Thanks Mike!

AW

When you are talking about Aspect Ratios and crops in #2 with the 3 photos of the fishing bouys, you say you changed the aspect ration in post crop, but somehow by cropping you have added information to the panoramic format that did not exist in the original photo.  This is not how it works, your original image in not the full frame image but another crop from the original image.

I noticed that, too.  The pot/trap buoy at the bottom of the "original 35mm" appears to have an additional foot of rack space added at the bottom of the 16:9 print.   A former SE Alaska fish biologist...  

Actually, the first photo is a different capture entirely; it was taken closer to the float racks than the succeeding two examples.  Notice the difference in separation between the floats at the bottom of the frame.

Pentax dSLR mid to pro range bodies are weather resistant when WR lenses are mounted. This includes dust,water and snow. You can skip the various jackets to keep the weather from damaging your camera.

Nice article thanks Allan.  Think ya made a mistake on the nd filters. "Neutral density filters are useful for reducing exposure times, to blur moving water or any other moving subjects within the frame lines."  They help to increase, not decrease exposure times.  I'm sure it's just a "typo."  Nonetheless........

I totally agree...Better proof reading (maybe out loud?) helps to prevent those kinds of errors!  (And I'm not even an English major! :) )

Dyslexia strikes again...

Good catch - you're correct.

It will be corrected shortly...

-AW

Gentlemen, 

Take pity on this lone copy editor. Between CES and the upcoming NAMM show, I have been inundated with copy. I am not allowed to proofread aloud because we all sit together at troughs in the same dairy barn. The egregious error has been righted, the information is now correct, and we will all likely be able to sleep the sleep of the just tonight. This former English major thanks you for reading closely, and hopes that you continue to enjoy the content on the Explora website.

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