How to Photograph the Coast
Have you ever asked yourself why we are so drawn to water, particularly the sea? I’m sure there are plenty of logical, scientific reasons why, but I can only give a personal response – I simply love being by the sea. The coastline close to where I live in North Cornwall is rugged and wild – an ever changing landscape, bursting with mood and motion. Sandy bays form large, open spaces, with so much opportunity and freedom to be creative. The sea just keeps luring me back… sound familiar?
Few landscape types are more popular, varied or photogenic than the coast. It can be wild or calm, moody or tranquil – the big question is; how do you capture its character and beauty in a photo?
First things first – it is important to plan your shoot. Doing so will not only maximise your chances of taking good images, but it is also important for safety.
The weather will play an important role, so check the forecast first. Personally, I avoid the beach on clear days – cloud will add interest, depth and drama to coastal images. Also check the wind’s strength and direction – too much spray will make photography impossible. You should check the sun’s position too to help determine if a dawn or evening shoot is best. Apps like the Photographer’s Ephemeris, Sun Scout and PhotoPills will help you plan.
Tide height is important, radically altering the look of the beach and the resulting photo opportunities. Some locations work better at a high tide, while others are better at low tide. When visiting a sandy beach, I find a receding tide best, as the beach will be washed clean. When the tide is coming in, you are constantly having to retreat and more likely to misjudge waves and get wet feet.
Knowing tide times is also important from a safety viewpoint. The sea can be a dangerous place and it is easy to get cut off by the tide when engrossed by taking photos. Always tell someone where you are heading, and put your safety before a photo.
What to Look For
The coast is a varied landscape. While shooting at sea level is the most popular option, don’t overlook elevated cliff-top views, sand dunes and harbours. Cliff-tops are a particular good option when spray makes shooting from beach level impractical. Spring is a particularly good time of year to shoot from the coast-path, as coastal flowers – like thrift – will carpet cliff-tops, providing colourful foreground interest.
The beach offers the most potential for creative photography – there is rarely a shortage of foreground subjects. Rock pools, sand patterns, driftwood, tidal pools, rocky outcrops, smooth boulders, slipways and groynes are among the things that you can incorporate into your compositions to add interest, scale and imply depth. The most dynamic images often result from using a wide focal length and getting close to your foreground object. The key is to recognise your composition quickly, as you will often only get a short of window of opportunity before you have to change viewpoint in order to compensate for the ever changing tide height.
If you can safely get close to the water’s edge, do so – it will allow you to capture motion as the water swirls around rocky ledges, pebbles and boulders. Look for white water channeling between rocks, and employ an exposure in the region of 1 second. A shutter speed of this length will blur the water sufficiently to look intentionally, but still retain the water’s texture. When capturing this type of foreground motion, it is normally best to trigger the shutter just as water drags back toward the sea – water looks more chaotic when rushing toward you.
As always, light is a key ingredient – its quality will make or break your shot. It is no surprise that the ‘golden hours’ – at dawn and dusk – are generally best suited to coastal photography. The sky will often be colourful or moody, while elevated cliff-tops views work best when the coastline is bathed in warm, soft light. Locations will also be quieter at either end of the day, meaning clean, virgin sand.
While sunrise and sunset will typically produce the most atmospheric conditions, the coast is one of the few landscape types that can be photographed well at any time of the day and in almost any type of light. Water is a very photogenic element, adding motion, interest and colourful reflections to images. Therefore, strong directional light isn’t essential. Overcast light is well suited to long exposure photography, so consider using an extreme ND (a solid ND with a density upwards of 6-stops). A strong sky, boasting texture and mood, is preferable, but the water’s motion will add interest and depth to foregrounds whatever the weather.
Low light is a particularly well suited to coastal photography. Some of the very best conditions will be before sunrise and up to an hour after sunset – so arrive early and don’t pack up too soon. Predawn colours can be spectacular – as can the afterglow. Exposure time will naturally be long, so you can discard your solid NDs. Reflections work well as foreground interest in low light, so look for suitable rock pools or a stretch of wet sand. By mirroring the sky above, the reflections will add interest and light to foregrounds.
We often talk about motion in photography and how best to record it. In many respects, it is an odd concept – in reality, you can’t really record motion in a still image. Instead, as photographers, we can try to communicate the perception of movement – and this can prove a very powerful visual and compositional tool. How you render motion – sharp or blurred – will have a significant impact on the look and feel of your final shot. While some photographers hate the ‘blurry water’ effect, I like it. In low light – specifically at dawn and dusk – shutter length will be naturally slow, creating motion blur. However, when required, it is possible to artificially lengthen exposures by attaching a solid ND filter.
They are available in a variety of strengths and as both screw and slot-in types. They are designed to ‘absorb’ light to allow photographers to select a longer exposure. They are creative filters, well suited to coastal photography. I always carry 3-stop, 6-stop and 10-stop versions with me when I head to the beach. The 10-stop filter (or Big Stopper) is known as an extreme ND. By lengthening exposure by 10-stops, it is possible to generate long exposures of up to several minutes, which can have a profound effect on moving water and also cloud. TTL metering will automatically adjust for ND filters with lower densities. However, you will typically need to manually calculate and apply the settings for extreme NDs. As NDs can significantly darken the viewfinder image, always add the filter last of all – compose, focus and apply other filters first.
You don’t require any specialist kit to photograph the coast, but a good range of focal lengths will prove useful. Personally, I find I take most of my shots using a 16-35mm wide-angle zoom. Its wide perspective allows me to get close to foreground interest and motion. The flexibility of a zoom suits coastal photography, allowing you to alter composition quickly. They also reduce the need to change lenses, which is important – you don’t want to change lens often while on the beach, due to the risk of sand or spray entering the body.
Regarding filters, a polarizer, ND grads and solid NDs are all important. The LEE Filters system is regarded as the best available, but there are also Hitech and Cokin brands of filters that are good choices too.
A good tripod is essential. Gitzo’s Ocean range is anti corrosive and designed for use in water, but is very pricey. Due to its design, the Manfrotto Neotec is also good for coastal photography. However, if you carefully clean it with fresh water after you have been to the beach, your standard tripod will do the job nicely.
Keep a lens cloth close to hand. I also carry Zeiss lens wipes, which are good for cleaning smeary filters.
Finally, one of the most important bits of kit is wellington boots. They might not be the most glamorous items of footwear, but they will allow you ‘paddle’ and greatly reduce the likelihood of returning home with wet feet.