Living close to the sea, I like nothing better than being alone on beach looking for a composition and waiting for the sky to come to life with the first or last rays of the sun. Over the last few years I have been asked many questions by fellow photographers about my seascapes. Not being one to ever hide my techniques or refuse to reveal my locations I always try as best I can to explain exactly how and where my images where taken. I tend to babble a bit when explaining how and when so below I will list exactly what I do. I am by no means an expert at this stuff but having followed and attended lectures many very successful photographers I think I am just about on par with my technique. So here go's... I'll try to be brief but thats unlikely knowing my happy fingers..... I'll list in the order I go about things...
I have a good few local areas that I frequent and they consistently produce decent results but when I am up for somewhere different this is what I do. I start by popping over to Google Maps. I then decide how far I want to travel and have a look at where I can get to within that time. Living on the East Coast I get nice sunrises over the sea but local to me there are very little elevated coastlines or rocky featured beaches. So I end up having a look on google maps in Satellite and Street view to see what features I can spot to use as some type of content/interest in my images. Orientation is also vital so I use this website - Sun Calc - to check where the sun will rise relative to where I might be shooting. Also check out 'The Photographers Ephemeris' (especially if you have an IOS device - iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch) for similar information as the SunCalc site but with a nicer interface and you can use it on the go...! After I have settled on a location I have a look at tide times...
To me the best time to shoot seascapes is with a low/falling tide at sunrise or sunset (but this is quite location dependent). Exposed rocks and sand will be wet from the receding tide which under the right conditions will reflect light from the sky. Its also quite a bit safer than shooting at the edge of an incoming tide for obvious reasons. There are also locations that might have features further up the beach where a full tide might suit better. Regardless having done your location research by now you should have worked this out...!!! So to find the tide times for the area you want to shoot in just do a google search for the closest harbor. Among the sites I use is The Irish Times weather section which is normally pretty accurate. Be aware also that tides can vary massively within very short distances so a bit of local knowledge can be handy. In one local location there is very little low and high tide differences while literally 500 meteres away the tide differences are about 1000m's apart...!!! No doubt theres an app for checking tides too (note to self... get looking...!!!). Next up its the weather...
Keep an eye on the TV forecasts as well as some online forecasts. I generally use the Met Éireann website (and sometimes MetCheck) but also a couple of apps I have on my iphone. I will typically head out in any weather conditions as there is always a shot to be got. To be honest the worst weather to me is sunny clear days..! Way to much contrast and boring skys. You'd be surprised at the results you can get on overcast dull mornings especially if it has rained and the ground is wet. Wet or moist conditions generally lead to more saturated colours and of course reflections. I always have a brolly in the boot just in case. My favorite weather to head out in is one of those days that the weather girl says "There will be rain, sunny spells, wind, thunderstorms and hail...!". With those conditions one generally sees dramatic skys and strong colours at sunset and sunrise. You may have to run for cover from the rain but stick around for a while and no doubt you'll be rewarded for your patience...! Here are a few shots taken under varying weather conditions - on of the stone details taken under a brolly while it was pouring rain....
Now lets talk about timing... we have already spoken about tide timing and location research. Part of this research should also include finding out what time sunset/sunrise actually happens at. You dont have to shoot at dawn or dusk but these are the times when the light is nicer.... the sun is lower in the sky (or not there at all...!) giving nice directional light, the colours are more intense in the sky but the light is softer and more diffused and often the sea can be clamer before and after the sun appears or disappears. If you want to shoot at other times of the day then knock yourself out... shooting during the middle of the day never really works for me. You can get away with it a little more in the winter as the sun never rises to high but in general I stick to these Golden/Magic 30 mins at dawn and dusk. So if I plan to shoot a sunrise I will check (again) on the internet (or on my iPhone App) for the correct times. I will then plan my travel times aiming to arrive at least 45 mins before the sun comes up. That way I have loads of time to scout the location for the best postions and angles etc. Theres nothing worse than mistiming your travel times and watching a beautiful sunrise from the drivers seat of your car... and yes its happened to me a few times... having small kids makes getting up at crazy o'clock that little bit more difficult. So set your alarm and get going. Best to prepare your gear the night before...! If you intend shooting a sunset, well the same applies but its just that bit easier. I personally prefer to shoot sunrise as if I am unhappy with the results I have the rest of the day to try shooting something else...!!! Ok next up is what clothes to wear.....
So this section might seem a bit obvious but you might learn something so keep reading. Regardless of the time of year I am shooting a generally wear pretty much the same clothes. You'd be surprised at how chilly it can be even in the height of summer before or after sunrise or sunset. I always air on the side of overdressing.... you can always remove some layers if it gets to warm. A good choice for the top outer layers would be something insulated and waterproof. My choice for the last 6-7 years has been Nike ACG products. I never bought into the brand leader 'The North Face'. Personally I think their products are overrated and overpriced. My current jacket is full Gore Tex (waterproof yet breathable) and heavily insulated. Being a Nike product you'd expect to see a big stupid tick mark on it but its tiny and positioned only at the lower back of the coat....! At times its too warm but as I mentioned above, if it gets too warm I take it off and keep shooting. As for what I wear on my legs well its an area I often neglect. I have a decent pair of waterproofs pull-ups but unless I'm planning doing some serious amount of walking through long wet grass they will likely stay in the car. I also have a pair of Gaiters that I prefer to use as they are easy to remove when no longer needed. When shooting seascapes you ARE going to have to walk through or into water at some stage so waterproof footwear is essential. Until recently I had been using a pair of Gore Tex boots for pretty much all of my outings. Those combined with the gaiters provided all the necessary waterproofing.... well that was until they started leaking...! Grrrrrr..... Anyway now, thanks to my loving wife, I have a pair of really good Toggi Hudson boots. They are very comfortable and I'd have no probs walking long distances in these things. Nothing worse than having wet or cold feet... not something thats going to happen with these. As for accessories I have a decent pair of tight fitting gloves like these ones, a lined Thinsulate hat (but I think I want a waterproof one...!) and a light scarf that will fit inside my jacket. Finally, a mate with friends in the right places just gave me a fantastic quality Canon branded photographers vest/jacket...! Very handy for those shoots where ye might want special access...!!! Right next up the gear and then the shoot itself.... its only taken me 1500 words to get here... I told you I had happy fingers....!!!!
Ok so by this stage you are probably asleep and here I am going all tech on ye...! Anyway most of you will already be aware that I shoot Canon equipment. So in my bag when shooting seascapes/landscapes is the 5D2, the Canon 17-40 F4L, Canon 70-200 F4L IS and sometimes the Canon 85mm F1.2L which I find brilliant for doing stitched panoramas...! The odd time I'll have the Sigma Macro lens with me too but that kinda depends on where I am shooting and how far I have to walk. I also have sometimes bring the 24 Tilt and Shift lens but found that its not as sharp as I'd like on the 5D2. I also have a 12mmm lens but to me its far to wide on full frame (everything looks miles away) so generally it stays at home. Also in the bag is my Lee filter system. That includes full ND filters (up to 10 stops) and also graduated filters. These are essential for balancing exposures..... expensive but worth every penny as they are completely colour neutral. I also use a Canon remote release (TC-80N3), mirror lockup and timed shutter release to ensure everything is dead steady. From shooting architecture I am bit crazy about having everything 100% level when shooting (Instead of having to fix in post processing) so I have a hot shoe level on the camera. As for tripods I use a Manfrotto 055ProB with a leveling head (theres the craziness again....!) and a Manfrotto 410 geared 3 way head. Simple all this isnt it...! I always have a few lens cloths, spare CF cards, batteries and a small torch for when I'm trying to find my way back to the car in the dark or suss out a new location before the sun rises...!!! Ok so over to the shoot now.... Jesus this is getting exciting..... Zzzzzzzzz.....! 😎
Ok so you are all prepared and you have arrived a good while before the event... get your gear on ye and get walking...! Start scouting out the location looking for possible subjects for foreground and start determining where the sun might rise/set. Pick a few spots and also keep an eye out for little details (like shells or nice colourful washed stones).
Look out for patterns in the sand or lines in rocks that might lead you into the picture. Also dont be afraid to move things around a bit... like if you see a nice boulder/branch/log but its in a shitty location then move it.... artistic licence...! Think about the angle of light and how it might effect what you are about to shoot. When you have decided roughly where ye want to stay get your tripod out and set up. Be careful if on sand that its not sinking. Either put a bit of weight on it or put some nice big flat rocks underneath each leg. try you best to get the tripod head roughly level to begin with but you can tweak it after you attached the camera. Now attached the camera and start composing the shot. As a basic level of advise try to stick to the thirds 'rule'.... so maybe put the horizon on the 1/3rd line and have some level of detail and or interest in the bottom 2/3rds. Postion leading lines in sand or rocks and if possible have them point at something in the distance. Listen this is just some advise to help your pictures to be more immediately appealing... they are by no means rules but are often called this. There are many occasions when ye have to break these 'rules' but done worry ye wont end up in prison...! In time composing your photographs will become second nature and something ye wont even think about. Next up ye want to get ready to do a few test shots. I shoot almost exclusively in Aperture Priority (thats 'A' or 'AV' your mode dial on a camera) as this allows me to control the depth of field and kind of ignore the shutter speed. If I want to lengthen the shutter speed I normally add an ND filter but you can also increase your aperture or decrease your ISO. So now start pressing the shutter button. I always watch my histogram and image review on the back of the camera. If I see blinking highlights on the image I dial in a bit of exposure compensation. In general I tend to bracket anyway. Remember you are shooting digital and can keep shooting past 36 images..! haha. Try experimenting with different shutter speeds to see the effects it has on the water (and clouds in the sky if you can push it that far..!). If shooting sunrise and the sun is now well and truly up start having a look at the details you searched for before the sun came up. Get in good and close and maybe use a macro lens to capture loads of detail. If shooting pebbles try wetting them to bring out more colour and detail. After you think you've enough taken head back to the car and head on home to bed for a snooze (if you can get away with it...!!!!!)
Before you hit the bed it might be a good idea to clean your equipment (camera equipment that is....!!!!). Sea spray and sand can do horrible things to lens, cameras and tripods. Wash down your tripid legs with water and afterwards spray a ting bit of WD40 onto the legs to keep em smooth. Clean your lens and filters with some lens cleaning fluid ( I get mine in the opticians... cheaper there) and a lint free cloth. After that remember to download and BACKUP your images...!
Most of the above technique could also be used shooting any type of landscape or even some types of architecture. I know I've left bits out but I'll let you fill in the blanks....I cant give away all my secrets... hahaha. I'd love to hear your feedback on the above post and hope it helps you get something better out of your seascapes... Any questions please ask.... thats it... here are some of my favorite seascape images shot over the last few years.