Ocean Photography Tips and Techniques

Last Updated on June 3, 2021 | In Landscape Photography by Stefano Caioni Leave a Comment

Last Updated on June 3, 2021
ocean photography at sunrise

Ocean photography is one of my favorite styles of photography.

I live in Australia and I’m lucky to have access to some of the most beautiful beaches and coastal landscapes in the world.

The ocean offers spectacular and irresistible scenes for photographers. With such an unpredictable and powerful environment it can be really challenging for a photographer to get the right shot. Different light conditions at sunrise or sunset, on a stormy day with a big swell, the sea is an always-changing photography subject.
I put together for you my best tips to take amazing photos of the ocean.

1. Scout Your Location in Advance

Bronte Beach tidal pool. Long exposure photo
Bronte Beach tidal pool. Long exposure photo

I can’t stress this point enough. If you want to start crashing it in landscape photography and especially when it comes to seascapes, you have to make sure you explore the area you want to shoot in advance.

As I’ve explained in my articles Best Sunrise Photography Tips, and Long Exposure Photography, you have to explore the area where you want to shoot, if possible even the day before. Especially if it’s the first time you take photos in that location.

It’s fun and exciting when you go to a new place and start snapping away with your camera, but to take it to the next level, you need to study your composition.

ocean photography at golden hour

By knowing the area you can decide in advance where to position yourself, what lens to use and have at least a rough idea of what composition you want to get. This will not only save you time, but it will allow you to be in the right spot at the right moment and save you from missing a beautiful shot.

It’s also very important to prepare your photography equipment for the warmer months. To learn more about how to do it read the article How to Get the Most Out of Your Spring Photography

2. Check The Weather Forecast

Long Exposure Photography Tips. Cloud Forecast Map

So often this is an overlooked step. In ocean photography, the weather plays a fundamental role. If you don’t know how the sky is going to look (alright you’ll never know exactly) or if it’s going to rain or not, or if you’re gonna face a big swell, chances are that you’re not going to be able to go home with a sensational shot.

In ocean photography, the scenario can be so unpredictable that you have to prepare in advance. Use a weather app that not only tells you the weather forecast but also wind, tides and swell. One of the best websites I use is Willy Weather.

3. Shoot at the Right Time of the Day

ocean photography at sunset

Shoot when you have the best light conditions as possible. The golden hour is when you’ll get the most beautiful colors, light, contrasts, and shadows in a photo of the ocean.

The moment the sun comes out from the horizon or the clouds during sunrise is magical. It will add something special to your images.

During that time you’ll have some big opportunities to snap a fantastic shot with the sky and sea looking unique and dramatic at the same time.

4. Composition in Ocean Photography

Composition in photography. Rule os space

The composition is crucial in ocean photography. Like for any landscape photos, you want to create points of interest in your composition and drive the eye of the viewer through the image for a better experience.

Start by following these rules:

  • Rule of thirds
  • Rule of lines
  • Rule of space
  • Foreground interest

You can find more about the fundamental rules of composition here.

5. Camera Settings for Ocean Photography

Photography Tips and Techniques

Shoot in aperture priority (A or Av) and aim for along exposure. By setting your camera to aperture priority you’ll leave it to your camera to decide the shutter speed.

Here are the settings I want you to experiment with:

  • ISO set it to the base ISO to avoid grain in your final image (ISO 100 or 200)
  • Aperture this depends on the lighting conditions and distance from your subject, but for seascapes start with an aperture of f/8 and shoot different exposures by closing it down to f/16 or f/20 to get the most lighting information as possible.
  • Use a technique called exposure bracketing. It allows you to shoot three images of the same subject, one with the base settings, one underexposed and one overexposed image. You can then choose one of them or blend them together to get the most out of the light information you have. Find more about exposure bracketing.

If you want to know more about the different camera settings and how to use them, I have something for you. Read my article The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Camera Settings

You can read my Best Tips for Long Exposure Photography

6. Use a Tripod for Your Ocean Photos

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A tripod will be fundamental to take amazing seascape photos. The best light you can have is at sunrise or sunset (golden hour) and during that time of the day using a tripod will make sure you don’t get blurry images.

Despite the lighting condition being ideal to get more contrast and beautiful golden colors in your images, reduced light and slower shutter speed will make your images blurry.

You can start with a small tripod, you can avoid this and have fun with your long exposure.

7. Best Filters for Ocean Photography

Filters are also very important since they help you balance the light intensity that enters the camera sensor. Let me tell you that nowadays some people don’t use filters at all since with modern cameras is so easy to take advantage of the exposure bracketing technique. Read my article about exposure bracketing if you want to know more about it.

Personally I don’t think that exposure bracketing will ever substitute filters in my workflow since by using filters I save a lot of time when it comes to editing my photos.

There is a different type of filter for different needs. For seascape photography, I recommend using a Neutral Density graduated filter (ND grad) combined with a Circular Polarizing Filter.
The ND filter comes in different transition and you’ll need to choose the proper one depending on the scene.

For a flat horizon line, a hard transition is what you need to use, or you can use either a soft or mid-transition for an irregular horizon line.

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Depending on the lens you use filters also come in different sizes. Make sure you get the proper size for your lens and that your filter holder has the proper adaptors for your lenses.

Choosing the proper filter can probably a topic for another article. What do you think?
My filter system is the NiSi 100mm System V5-PRO and I think it’s one of the best on the market.

I highly recommend it:
The starter kit by NiSi includes the filter holder with several adapters for all lenses, Circular Polarizer, NiSi Glass Soft Grad ND Filter, NiSi Glass ND 6 stop + 10 stop Buy it Now on Amazon

8. Be Patient

photographer taking photos in stormy weather conditions

Patience is key in seascape photography. As we’ve seen different factors come into play, the weather, time of the day and lighting condition will determine the outcome of your images.

You have to wait for the right moment, and choose the right composition to get the best possible shot. Light can change rapidly during the first hours of the day or during sunset. The ocean (or sea) can be calm or you can have a big swell.

It’s a very dynamic subject and every time you’ll get back to the same location you might get away with a different photo. Wait, shoot, experiment and don’t be in a hurry. You’ll get that amazing shot, you just have to be patient.

Final Thoughts

The ocean is a beautiful subject and it varies a lot depending on the weather conditions. Taking photos of the same spot in different days will give you always different results, which makes of this photography style one of my favorites.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article about seascape photography, and as always ask me questions in the comments below!

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