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Photographing Seawater

The sea can vary from being flat on a summer day, to stormy with huge braking waves in winter and have a variety of modes, colours, and action.

You can have clear, near transparent water, like often found in the Caribbean, or muddy or silt laden water that you can see nothing through.

In addition we have the tides, bringing the water in and out twice a day, and varying in strength depending on the combination of the gravity pull of the moon and sun together.

Given these variations plus the affect of different times of day and different light, few if any days would produce the same images.

To photograph the sea we need to consider:-

  • Our own safety

  • The protection of our photographic equipment

  • The tides

  • The sea forecast and what we find when we get there

  • Light

  • Season of the year

  • Motion or movements

  • Composition

Other articles we have on coastal photography include:-

Coastal Paths and Heritage Coasts (Overview)  

What you can photograph/see on Coastal Paths  

Time planning for coastal photography  

Coastal Lenses  

Coastal Water and sand proofing  

Filters for Coastal Photography

You will also find under coastal paths in the alpha index many individual paths as well as a list of all  available coastal paths detailed.

In our reference section we have information that allows you to calculate the time of tides, anywhere in the world, for any date. You can find this under reference then tide tables from the menu bar on the left or by clicking here Tide tables are a good estimate, they rarely tell you what is going to happen exactly. Wind or other factors may slow or advance things.

In our health and safety age, the sea is one of the few dangers that you are allowed to play with. Safety relating to photography of the sea is an area that we all get caught out on occasionally, so far I'm still here, but I have managed to make a fair few mistakes over the years, like walking round headlands thinking I had plenty of time, and then spending more time taking photographs than I anticipated, ending up nearly getting cut of a few times and ending up with wet feet. The other area that I have made mistakes is in climbing cliffs, going up is easy, and you often feel that as long as you can see a route to the top, its worth a go. More than once I have seen grass on the top, but on reaching the top, discovered this was a just a narrow piece and the sea was a sharp drop on the other side also. In some cases its been possible to go back down, on other occasions there have been too much loose material for this and I have had to work along sideways until I could get to a top I could climb onto. The worst location had a rusty barbed wire covered lookout post balancing on the edge and the only way to reach solid land was to climb over it.  So I can say from experience that there are real dangers, and if you are adventurous you may have some exciting times. 

The effects of shutter speed

To freeze a large winter wave breaking over the sea front we need a reasonably fast shutter speed, but not exceptionally fast, faced with this I would start with 1/250 second but suspect that quite a lot slower would work. Generally the nearer you are to a moving item the higher the shutter speed required to stop it in its tracks. So if you are going to actually be close enough to get wet, you may need to go higher, while a breaking wave in a bay can often be captured at 1/125th of a second or slower.

To capture the water as it goes over rocks or around objects and similar can be treated the same way.

If you use a slower shutter speed you will record movement, and in some cases this can create the image you want. If its a shutter speed lower than the focal length i.e. 50mm slower than 1/50th sec, then use a tripod if you don't have a stabilised lens, where you can go considerably slower.

Getting down to a slow speed may require you to turn down the ISO, and if this is still not a working exposure then consider adding a neutral density filter.

You will see some images, and its a fashion at this time in some photographic magazines, where the sea looks like silky material, often white with no detail of waves, this is produced by having far longer exposures   so the movement of the sea occurs and is recorded over a period. For this you just use a far longer exposure and put the camera on a tripod. You will usually need to use a  neutral density filter to slow things down enough for this to be practical.

You can find out more about neutral density filters in the article on this, and more on a range of filters within the filter section.

When at the coast next try a range of shots with different shutter speed to see the various effects you can produce.


By: Keith Park Section: Key:
Page Ref: photographing_seawater Topic: Beaches, Bays and Coastal  Last Updated: 04/2009

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