How To Use Light To Enhance Your Ocean Photos

It’s almost impossible to take a bad picture of the ocean, but if you really want your shots to make their mark, you’ll need a few extra tips and tricks to make your pictures pop.

If you want to enhance your ocean shots, you’ll need to rely on one of the greatest natural tools in your arsenal – lighting!

How to Use Light to Enhance Your Ocean Photos

And no, you don’t need to wait around for a clear blue day to get the best shots. You can shoot the ocean in all sorts of conditions, as long as you’re using natural lighting to your advantage.

There are many ways to do this, and in this post, we’re going to share our top tips to help you use the light to enhance (see also: How To Use Light To Enhance Your Cityscape Photos)your ocean pictures.

1. Pre-Sunrise, Post-Sunset

Lighting can completely change the outcome of your pictures – including those of the ocean. If you want to catch the sea in all its glory, you’ll need to determine the best times of day to picture it. These are often pre-sunrise, and post-sunset.

Although all photographers are bound to have a difference of opinion about this matter, the truth is, these times of day can give you a huge amount of lighting potential to work with.

The skylight is not overbearing, but just enough to reveal texture in the ocean and its surrounding rock formations (if you’re photographing them).

The clouds are also likely to change color with this kind of lighting, and it may even illuminate certain shapes and outlines you hadn’t noticed before.

If your focus is solely on this ocean, this type of lighting can work wonders if the waves are a little rough. It’ll accentuate the wave patterns and water splashes, and add more to your ocean pictures than just a flat body of water.

Ideally, you want to head out around 30-45 minutes before sunrise, as the light will get stronger by the minute before sunrise. This will give you plenty of opportunities to capture the ocean from multiple perspectives.

If you’re heading out at sunset, this lighting will last 30-45 minutes post-sunset, and you can capture the same kind of conditions, depending on what colors the sky is treating you to on the day.

Pay attention to the texture of the ocean during these conditions for the best results.

2. Sunrise And Sunset

Although pre-sunrise and post-sunset lighting produces some amazing conditions to capture the ocean in, sunrise and sunset can also work just as well. Sunrise often paints the sky in beautiful gold and orange colors illuminate the ocean in new ways.

These colors naturally brighten up the ocean more than pre–sunrise, and when the sun is just perched on the horizon, its color opportunities are often at their peak.

If you weren’t able to create strong color contrasts with pre-sunrise lighting, you’ll definitely be able to now. Capturing a few rock formations in this lighting can contrast beautifully with the color of the waves.

Ideally, you’ll want to shoot with a wide aperture to achieve a shallow depth of field. So, shoot as wide as your lens allows to create more abstract pictures.

Even if you don’t have a super-fast lens, you can still experiment with what you have, and may be surprised by the final results!

Don’t be afraid to get pretty close to the surface of the water during sunrise and sunset, either. This can help you capture some beautiful reflections on the water before the sun gets too bright.

3. Avoid Having The Sun Behind You

To really take advantage of the sun, you’ll need to avoid having the sun positioned behind you. This is true for almost any type of photography, and it’s especially true for seascapes!

Having the sun situated behind you can be counter-intuitive and will dampen all the vivid details that you’d be able to see with the sun either in front or to the side of you.

However, if you want to photograph the waves specifically, you can take advantage of backlighting. This doesn’t mean the sun is behind you, instead, it means the sun is sitting behind the waves, and shining through them.

When you find this type of backlighting, the sun is able to reveal some truly beautiful colors in the ocean, including cyan and greens which can really make your ocean photos pop.

For best results, you should be standing on the beach at sea level, but don’t be afraid to step into the water a little bit to enhance your shots!

How to Use Light to Enhance Your Ocean Photos

4. Use Your Cameras Manual Settings

Good natural lighting can only get you so far. The outcome of your photographs will also depend on how well you can use your camera.

Sometimes, it’s better to not let your camera automatically choose your settings for you, and we’d recommend playing around with your manual settings to achieve the best results.

This is especially true if you’re shooting the ocean on a bright, sunny day where the reflections from the sand and surrounding objects can mess with your images.

Your camera’s automatic settings probably won’t be able to adjust themselves to suit the lighting, so make use of your manual settings to give you more control over exposure, shutter speed, contrast, and so forth, to get the best ocean shots possible.

5. Use A Polariser Filter

A polarizer filter is a type of photographic filter that can be used on the front of a camera lens to manage reflections, reduce glare, or even darken certain surfaces.

Using a polarizing filter on your camera can totally transform your seascapes by helping you remove reflections and glare on the sea, and improve the natural saturation of an image.

If you’re taking images from the shoreline and you can see visible objects beneath the ocean at low tide, you can use a polarizing filter to reveal them in your images.

You may need to play with the filter to remove any glare, so be prepared to take part in a lot of trial and error to get the best results.

Ideally, you’ll want to shoot the ocean when it’s calmer or capture a movement when the waves have back washed and are sitting still for a moment. If the water is a little more intense, you’re unlikely to get the best results with a polarizing filter.

6. Follow The Light, And Use All Weather Conditions

To capture the majesty of the ocean, you’ll need to follow the light. Before you start shooting, take a look around and see where the sunlight is falling on the ocean.

The little glimmers of light on the surface can make for some excellent shots, so make an active effort to photograph the sea where the light falls.

Another important thing to remember is that there’s no such thing as a bad time to photograph the ocean (Also check out What Makes A Bad Photograph).

When we think of lighting and ocean photography, we can often fool ourselves into thinking that we need a crystal-clear sky to take the best shots. This just isn’t true.

Even with a little cloud cover, you can take some great photographs, so use the weather conditions to help determine the mood of your images, and be bold with your approach to shooting in all weather!

Lighting Guidelines For Great Ocean Photos

There are so many kinds of lighting to shoot the ocean with, including:

  • Darkness
  • Pre-dawn light
  • Dawn
  • Post-dawn
  • Daylight

While some produce excellent results, others can be more difficult to use. It goes without saying that total darkness should be avoided for seascapes – it only produces great results when used for astrophotography.

However, if you want to include the sky in your ocean shots, you could shoot in darkness, as long as there’s some moonlight to guide your way. Open aperture is best for shooting in darkness, and around f/28 is ideal.

For pre-dawn, dawn, and post-dawn shots, the light will be strong enough to highlight some of the best textures of the ocean.

Your camera settings for these times will vary, but you can expect to need long exposure with a shutter speed between 30-180+ seconds.

If you’re shooting in the daytime with a strong skylight, the exposure will be significantly shorter. At this point, you can also increase your ISO to reveal new textures and bring new subjects to the forefront of your images, if you desire.

The Bottom Line

Capturing the perfect ocean shot is easier than you might think, and learning how to use light to your advantage will help you get there faster.

Whether it’s clear or overcast, you can use whatever light the sky provides to give your ocean shots more texture and definition, and when paired with the right camera settings, you’ll be well on your way to mastering the art!

Are you ready to achieve display-worthy ocean shots? Why not put these tips and tricks to the test and let us know the results!

Laura McNeill
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