7 Top Tips for Coastal Wildlife Photography
With a vast array of wildlife and stunning scenery on offer, a trip out to the seaside can make for an amazing day of coastal wildlife photography.
Here are a few tips on how best to prepare for a coastal photography session and how to make the most of any opportunities that may present themselves once you’re there.
I’ll also cover some specific advice on photographing seals and a variety of seabirds.
1. Dress for the occasion (both you and your gear)…
Take appropriate clothing – even on a warm day, getting wet can get cold and uncomfortable quickly, bringing a premature end to your session.
Wear something waterproof that you don’t mind getting dirty and pack extra layers. I’d also recommend taking a towel and a change of clothes in case you get particularly wet.
PVC waders can be bought relatively inexpensively and can be a really effective way of keeping you dry as long as possible. They’re also easy to hose clean at the end of your session.
Take sealable bags to put things like your mobile phone, wallet, and keys in (you can buy reusable waterproof pouches for mobile phones relatively cheaply), so that nothing accidentally gets wet and sandy – this is a good idea even if your phone is waterproof.
Sand and salt can be disastrous for camera gear, so protect that too – keeping it clean is better than trying to remove sand and salty water after your visit.
A reusable waterproof lens and camera cover is a good investment. If you don’t have one, a makeshift cover fashioned from a plastic bag works too, although it obviously isn’t the most eco-friendly solution.
Avoid changing lenses on the beach to minimize the risk of sand or water getting inside your camera.
If you feel you absolutely must change lenses, check that your camera, lens, and hands are clean first, and ideally try to make the switch with your camera sheltered in your camera bag.
Keeping a hood on your lens can help protect the front element from sand and spray. If you do get sand on the glass, use a rocket blower to remove it or very carefully and gently wipe it with a microfiber cloth and some lens cleaning fluid.
Wash or discard the cloth after use so you don’t accidentally polish your lens with a gritty cloth in the future.
Keep a microfiber towel somewhere that will stay clean and dry while you’re out on the beach so that you can quickly wipe any moisture off your camera if it does get wet.
If you’re using a tripod, it’s best to try and keep it out of salty water. Before adjusting it, check the legs are clean so that the workings don’t get clogged.
For low-level photography, a beanbag can be a more practical option. You can always put it on a plastic tray or upturned frisbee to stop it from getting wet and dirty, and to provide a stable platform that’s easy to slide around as you move.
2. Check the tides
Knowing the times of high and low tide is important for safety and can also help you work out the best time to visit depending on what you’re hoping to photograph.
Keeping track of tides over a series of visits to the same location can help you establish whether there’s an especially good time in the tide cycle to visit that particular spot.
There are a number of websites that will provide tide charts specific to the location you’re visiting. In the UK, the Met Office website is a good place to start for reliable tide and weather conditions.
With sewage being actively released into the sea at many points along the coast, it’s worthwhile checking that your desired location hasn’t been affected by any recent discharge.
Surfers Against Sewage has produced an app called Safer Seas for both Android and Apple devices that provides this information, as well as tide and weather information for many UK coastal locations.
3. Check the weather
Weather conditions will obviously have a direct effect on the quality of the light, which can have a big impact on your images.
It’s probably fair to say that most people associate a trip to the coast with bright, sunny weather, and heading out in these conditions can be great.
Shooting from a low perspective, you can use this to create images that have a nice smooth colour gradient in the background, with the water merging seamlessly into the sky.
Having plenty of light available should also make it easier to capture crisp, clear images of even the fastest moving subjects, as you will be able to raise the shutter speed high without having to also ramp up the ISO, eliminating motion blur without introducing too much grain into the image.
Light glinting off the water and other wet surfaces can create interesting effects in the out-of-focus areas of your image, such as here, where the sun shining onto the wet seaweed is creating the little balls of light in the foreground:
However, particularly bright light, especially towards the middle of the day, can create images that look overly contrasty and harsh.
Exposure can become tricky, especially if there is already a lot of contrast in your subject or scene (e.g., if you’re shooting a black-and-white bird).
You may also encounter issues with glare and harsh reflections potentially becoming distracting elements in your shots. Haze can also reduce the overall quality of your images, even on cool days.
Don’t forget to check the wind conditions as wind strength and direction can have huge impacts on the condition of the sea, and even affect tides.
On a simple level, a strong wind may lead to a rougher sea which can look dramatic in images in the right context, but can also be distracting, adding unwanted texture and contrast to out-of-focus areas.
It can obviously also lead to a lot of spray and sand flying around, which can be detrimental to your gear.
I generally favour stiller days in the hope the sea will be calm, as I feel this is often the easiest to work with and produces the most pleasing results photographically.
4. Get creative with lighting
Knowing how the light is going to line up with your location in advance can be really useful in helping to plan a visit to achieve more creative shots.
You can use a website such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris or an Ephemeris app on your mobile device to get this information. These resources generate a map with the position of the sun at any point in the day overlaid on it.
Putting the light behind your subject will allow you to create silhouettes if shooting directly against the sky or a bright surface.
If shooting against a darker backdrop, you can highlight the subject with a rim of light around it.
While it may be theoretically possible to achieve these effects at almost any time of the day, it will be most effective during golden hour around sunrise and sunset, when the sun is lower in the sky and the light is less intense.
Shooting into the light at these times will also give your images a nice golden glow.
In overcast conditions, calm water can appear almost milky, especially if you shoot close to water level, and smooth wet sand or mud will often appear quite flat and grey.
Over-exposing slightly can create a high-key effect, which can be particularly effective with subjects that have brightly coloured elements, as these will be accentuated by the otherwise relatively monochrome surroundings.
It’s also worth looking for artificial sources of light, such as lights on buildings or boats, that you can incorporate into the scene to add unusual elements of colour or interesting bokeh effects.
5. Consider your surroundings
Flat, smooth areas of sand or mud with few points of interest are best used to create simple portraits, where the subject really stands out from its surroundings.
Colour can be a major factor in these shots, and little changes of angle can introduce a whole different colour palette into your image depending on whether you’re shooting towards the land, sea, or sky.
Shooting at the water’s edge highlights the coastal location and can add movement and texture to the image, by including incoming water, spray, or sea foam.
Man-made elements can also add interest to a shot, and in places with high human activity, animals can sometimes be more approachable, potentially allowing you to get a bit closer and use a wider lens to include more of the surroundings.
Read more: How to Photograph Animals in Their Habitat
6. Shorebird photography tips
While various coastal wader species are present in the UK year-round, the autumn and winter months are arguably the best time of year to photograph them, as both the number and variety are boosted by the arrival of migrant birds.
Bear in mind that some of the birds will have travelled huge distances to reach our shores, and during the time they’re here, they’ve got to fuel up ready for their departure, so prioritizing the welfare of the birds is crucial.
If photographing in the spring and summer months, be aware of breeding and nesting areas to avoid causing a disturbance.
If you want to try and photograph waders, use the longest lens you have. A lot of shorebirds are very small and nervous, so a long focal length will maximize your chances of getting photos without causing disturbance.
Get as low as possible – the best results are often achieved by getting right down to ground level.
Besides making you less noticeable and less threatening to the birds, reducing the chances of them flying off before you can even press the shutter, being at ground level should put you roughly at eye level with the birds.
Getting on eye level with your subject is a good general rule for wildlife photography as it creates a more intimate connection than looking down on your subject.
Shooting from a low level can also help create a shallow depth of field, making the bird stand out more in the photo, and may also give you more control over the elements of the surroundings you want to include in your photo.
It’s often possible to handhold your camera if shooting at ground level, as you can brace yourself against the ground to help stay steady.
If you want to use some extra support and don’t have a tripod that you can set flat to the ground, you can use a beanbag or a ground pod or a similar product (these can be expensive, although there are various guides for DIY versions available).
Let the birds come to you – trying to directly approach shorebirds will often cause them to take flight and waste valuable energy.
Once you’ve spotted a potential subject, watch which way it’s moving and set up well in advance of it. Stay as still as possible, and given time, it’ll hopefully work its way within range.
Waders are often fast and erratic, so keep the shutter speed high (upwards of around 1/800s ideally), and have autofocus set to a continuous mode. A single AF point or a small area selection can help you lock on quicker than leaving all your AF points open.
Eye autofocus can be helpful if your camera has it, but I find that, especially in brighter conditions, it can get confused by light glinting off wet surfaces and will sometimes try to lock on to the wrong thing.
Having your camera set up so you can override this and quickly pick an AF point yourself may be useful. Shooting in short bursts, rather than single shots, will increase your chances of sharp images and of capturing behaviour, such as a bird pulling a tasty worm from the sand.
Timing your visit to coincide with a low or receding tide can be beneficial as more ground will be exposed, increasing the area for birds to feed, meaning activity should be high.
However, the birds will often retreat with the tide, so they will gradually get drawn further away from you, leaving you to slowly crawl over a wet surface if you want to try and keep up without disturbing them.
It’s worth bearing in mind that at some locations, low tide can expose areas of very soft ground that can be unsafe to venture into, and these aren’t always noticeable by sight alone.
7. Seal photography
There are two species of seal native to the UK – the grey seal and the common (or harbour) seal. Greys are actually the more common of the two species, with a total of around 120,000 individuals – almost 40% of the global population – calling Britain’s shores their home.
Outside of times when they are pupping, moulting, or breeding, there’s no one good time to find seals hauled out on land. Personally, I’ve had more luck at low tide than at high tide, simply because there’s more land available for them to rest on.
A slow, careful approach is key if you come across a group of seals resting up on land. Use a long lens and avoid the temptation to try and get too close.
A good rule of thumb is to maintain a distance of at least 20m between you and the seals, starting much further back than this and moving closer over time.
As you approach, keep a constant eye out for any telltale signs of stress – if the seal is watching you intently, and especially if it starts to make any movements away from you, you should carefully back away.
Bear in mind that seals will almost always head for the water if they feel threatened, so absolutely never position yourself between a seal and the water.
Seals are big, heavy animals, and while incredibly agile in water, they are very ungainly on land and can easily injure themselves rushing for the water in panic if disturbed.
Staying low to the ground when trying to photograph seals has many of the same advantages as previously discussed, both in terms of reducing chances of disturbance and achieving the most compelling images.
Seals may be big, but they’re low-slung, so to get that all-important eye-to-eye perspective, you’re going to need to get down to their level.
If you spot a seal in the water, you may be able to photograph it from the shore. Seals can be quite curious, so if you position yourself a little way back from the edge of the water, you may find it will swim past to investigate.
Be wary of making sudden movements, as this may frighten the seal – a quick, splashy dive is a sign that the seal is afraid.
Positioning your camera as close to the level of the water as possible will create good eye contact and help produce a shallow depth of field so that, even if only a little bit of the seal’s head is sticking out from the waves, it will still stand out in the photo.
Although grey seals can be spotted year-round, the opportunity to get guaranteed shots of them on land, and the added promise of cute, fluffy pups means that the most popular time to photograph them is during their birthing season.
The precise timing of this varies from colony to colony, depending largely on location.
While seals can seem approachable at this time, they are still very susceptible to disturbance, and there are now measures in place at the pupping grounds of several of the largest grey seal colonies in the UK to prevent close access to the animals at this time.
Grey seal pups are utterly dependent on their mothers for the first few weeks of their life, and excessive disturbance can cause seals to abandon their young, leaving them to starve to death.
It’s very important never to get in between a mother and her pup, and it is also crucial to avoid any kind of approach that risks sending the pups towards water.
Until the pups have molted their fluffy, white baby coat, they are not waterproof, so if they enter the water, they will drown.
The grey seal breeding season coincides with the time that they’re hauled out to give birth. This gives extra potential for behavioural shots as bulls compete with each other for mating rights, and individuals interact and mate.
Read more: How to Photograph Seals in the UK
Coastal wildlife photography can be challenging, but ultimately very rewarding, with some really interesting species and surroundings on offer.
Prepare well – knowing the conditions can be hugely beneficial, especially if you’re planning on multiple visits, as you can start to track exactly how the tides and weather affect the location you want to visit.
As is often the case in wildlife photography, patience and respect for your subject are the key, and taking the right clothing and gear will help you to stay warm and comfortable while waiting for that perfect shot to present itself!