Photographing Coastal and Seaside Landscapes

Coastal and seaside landscapes have always been an extremely popular subject for both artists and photographers. There is a certain something that lures us to the sea. It is both benign and unpredictable, powerful and awe inspiring. Coastal areas have a wealth of interesting features, from large flat expanses of sand, rocky pools and coves, as well as soaring cliffs and sand dunes.

There are also the man made influences, ports and towns that spring up around key coastal areas. The photographic potential is vast. The coast and the sea have some of the best image capture potential that you could ever hope for.

A unique environment

If you are lucky enough to live near the sea, or are within a reasonable distance of it, you will probably be aware that it is an ever changing and unique environment. With the ebb and flow of the tides, the coast is constantly being washed clean, ready for a new cycle to begin. No matter how many times you visit the same beach for instance, the patterns, pools and gullies will always be different after each high tide. The sea state is in constant turmoil too. One day mirror flat, the next it is a roiling cauldron of white water and spray.

Plan ahead

With all this in mind, when you are deciding on a trip to the coast, it pays to plan ahead. Tide tables are invaluable to plan what time of day the high and low water is, as well as the height of the tide. The tide heights will vary throughout each lunar month from Spring tides (greatest height difference between high and low tide) to Neap tides (smallest difference between high and low tide). It is this that will govern what you have access too, as well as what may be visible as the water rises and falls. Any local knowledge regarding rip tides and fast flooding of beaches will also help to keep you safe.

Avoid the crowds

When deciding to visit a particular coastal venue, it is worth remembering that during the summer months, it is likely to be busy. That said, if you want the best light, then you are going to have to be there before dawn to have time to set up, so hopefully the only people you’re likely to encounter are other motivated photographers such as yourself. During the winter months, beaches are going to be much quieter too.

Keep it clean

We have previously mentioned how you need to keep yourself safe when venturing out. The same is true of your gear. Salt water spray and sand is a potential camera killer and the build-up of moisture on your lens is going to ruin your shots. Always closely monitor how clean your camera is and if necessary, keep sand and sea away from it with a good quality weather proof plastic sleeve that covers your gear, keeping it dry. A good lens cloth will also be needed to keep the front element of your lens free from contamination.

Cliffs or beach?

It can be tempting to stay close to the waters edge when shooting coastal landscapes, especially if there are a lot of interesting rocks, pools and sand patterns; it is worth considering the wider view from an elevated position too. If there are prominent cliffs, it may be worth the walk to the top and look back down onto the scene from up there. Depending on the time of year, the cliffs may be full of flowers or tall grasses and bushes that you can use as foreground interest. Plus you have the added bonus of a much wider far reaching view of the coast as it extends away from you in both directions than you did from the beach.

How slow do you go?

When shooting a coastal scene where the sea plays a large part in the composition, you are faced with choices when it comes to how you portray the water. It is a popular, if overused, technique to place a solid ND filter over your lens to extend the exposure time to several seconds or longer to soften the water and render it more like mist. If you want to retain all the shape and texture of the water, then you’ll want to keep the shutter speed up around the 1/60 of a second area. For freezing crashing waves completely, you’ll need to push it to 1/500 of a second or more.

Alternatively, try and shoot the sea at around 1/2 a second. This allows some softening of the water but it captures a sense of motion and the flowing of the water in and around rocks without becoming an amorphous fog.

Beware of the glare

If you are photographing on a wet beach or on rocks still wet from the high tide, consider using a polarising filter to help reduce unwanted reflections and enable you to see the detail. Rock pools, wet seaweed etc. will all benefit from the use of the polariser to reduce glare if you are shooting in bright conditions. It will help bring colour back into your subjects and it will also enhance the contrast and saturation of the shot.

Wide-angle and telephoto

Lens choices can be governed by the kind of shots you want to capture. Generally, a wide-angle lens, when used close to an isolated foreground element and with a short focal length around 16mm-20mm, can create a distorted perspective that is actually quite pleasing to the eye. It works well when your point of interest is fairly isolated and there isn’t too much going on the scene to create unwanted distractions.

Conversely, you can swap your wide lens for a standard zoom lens in the 70mm-200mm range to shoot very intimate miniature landscapes. This is where you capture very isolated elements of rock, water, sand and any interesting flotsam and jetsam washed up on the shore.

Rule of Thirds composition is worth keeping in the forefront of your mind as you set up your shot. The low contrast lighting of an overcast day is also great for these types of images, making the shot just about texture and form.

Enjoy your visits to the coast, take great pictures, just make sure you stay safe to return another day.

Mark Frost

Mark started work as a commercial artist during the good old days of Letraset, spray mount and having to process your photos at a local chemist. Having discovered his passion for photography, Photoshop and the wonders of digital image manipulation, he has not looked back. He is well on his way to owning more cameras than he’s had hot dinners.

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