The ocean is an excellent subject. While oceans give photographers plenty of opportunity to capture the perfect shot, they can also be notoriously challenging to shoot.
Conditions are ever-changing, so there are a lot of moving parts to consider before you start taking pictures.
Want to get the best shots of the ocean? We’ve put together this list of need-to-know techniques so that you can get the best shots every time.
Here are the most important tricks and techniques you need to know when photographing the ocean (see also “Techniques For Photographing Deserts“).
1. Shutter Speed
Your shutter speed is one of the most important factors to consider, and it will have a significant influence on your composition and exposure.
If you want to catch the drama rather than the calm of the sea, you can experiment with different shutter speeds to help control the waves. Slower speeds will let you blur the waves, creating a much softer appearance.
However, if you want to capture those dramatic, choppy waves, you should use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action and capture the moment as it happens.
Unfortunately, it’s tricky to give an exact shutter speed. It depends on what the ocean looks like on the day you’re shooting, and what elements you want to capture.
Be prepared for a lot of trial and error, but use the advice above as a general guideline to get the right shots. However, if the ocean is particularly wild and you want to capture the drama, using something like 1/500 of a second (or faster) can work well.
2. Play With Reflections
Although most photographers are drawn to the sea in stormy conditions, there are also some fantastic opportunities to get great shots when the waters are calm – and yes, the images can be just as dramatic!
If the ocean is still and calm on the day of your shoot, see if you can find an opportunity to capture a reflection. This may be in the sea itself, by the water’s edge, or even in a nearby tidal pool.
If the space for reflection also has some interesting features such as rock formations, you can get some impressive shots.
When you’ve found the right reflective spot, don’t be afraid to experiment with camera angles. Try shooting on a tripod and at ground level to experiment with different outcomes, and if you’re using a polarizer, remove it to reduce any glare in your images.
3. Don’t Underexpose
Remember: your camera has no idea what kind of exposure you want to use, and if you leave it to its own devices, it will usually opt for the middle ground to play it safe.
However, most ocean scenes require a slightly higher exposure level, especially if you want to capture the depth of its colors.
However, because most ocean scenes have pretty light and bright colors, your camera is more likely to automatically underexpose your images.
This can really interfere with the authenticity of your images. Ideally, you should aim for an exposure that’s a stop brighter than your camera automatically assumes.
Experiment with your exposure until you hit the sweet spot, but be careful not to overexpose, either. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to go in either direction, so again, trial and error!
4. Add Silhouettes
This technique isn’t for everyone, but personally, one of our favorite things about ocean photography is the opportunity to add in some excellent silhouettes.
These opportunities are usually at their peak and sunrise or sunset, and by adding a silhouette, you’ll really be able to capture and contrast the drama of the scene.
If you want to add a silhouette to your image, the key is to expose the sky and water, and leave your foreground to go dark.
However, this only works best when you’re using simple scenes and shapes as silhouettes. If you’re shooting something more cluttered like a collection of buildings, it won’t have the same effect.
Look for small, isolated opportunities such as individual trees or boats on the ocean that you can use as a silhouette, and play with the exposure until the shadowed elements become deep and black.
5. Include A Strong Foreground
Another great technique you can play with is a strong foreground. If you’re bored of shooting the ocean from your usual spots, why not see if you can find areas with a strong foreground that can draw your viewers attention to the scene, and pique their interest?
An appealing foreground can give your ocean shots a greater sense of direction and depth, and they provide so much opportunity to get creative.
Your strong foreground could be anything from a rock formation, a dune, trees, foliage, or an artificial structure.
However, a strong foreground will work best on shots that are taken at ground level, and can still capture the drama of the ocean at the center of the image.
If you find a good foreground location, bring your tripod along with you and play around with different camera angles to get the best shots.
Getting closer to the ground can allow you to capture more detail and depth in your foreground, and it’ll give you an opportunity to get closer to the waves.
If they’re particularly wild that day, you can use a fast shutter speed to capture their movement and contrast it with your foreground. There’s no right or wrong way to experiment, but experiment you must!
6. Shoot The Coastline
One of the easiest ways to completely transform your ocean shots is to reposition yourself so that you’re shooting the coastline rather than just the ocean.
By simply turning your camera slightly to face the ocean, you can add even more depth to your ocean images, and find plenty of new opportunities for your photographs. This could be anything from new rock formations, artificial structures, and even people!
However, if the beach is pretty busy, you can end up with a cluttered photograph. If you want to shoot the coastline, we’d recommend heading to the beach early in the morning.
This way, you’ll still be able to include a few people in your shots without large crowds distracting from other elements in your photographs.
If you’re at a non-commercial beach, you may even be able to find a few quiet spots on the coastline ahead of time!
7. Play With Lights And Clouds
Conditions at the ocean are ever-changing. Although this can be tricky to navigate, it’ll give you consistently new and exciting opportunities to change the composition of your pictures. Experimenting with lights and clouds is a great way to do this.
The lighting and cloud coverage at your chosen spot is likely to be changing frequently. We’d recommend setting up your tripod in your favorite spot and paying close attention to how the light bounces off the waves, and highlights (or darkens) certain spots.
The lighting can completely change the mood and effect of your pictures, so don’t be afraid to experiment with it.
Playing with cloud coverage can have a similar effect. Clouds can roll in thick and fast, and in just a few minutes, you can go from a calm, blue sky to a more dramatic horizon.
If your sky is littered with bold, dramatic clouds, this can make your landscape shots far more interesting. When paired with some good lighting and a few glimmers on the waves, your ocean shots can come to life in a whole new way.
Ocean Photography Safety
Now you have a few techniques to play with, you’ll also need to remember to stay safe on the ocean. Oceans can be dangerous and unpredictable, and in some cases, you may find yourself battling extreme weather to get the best shots.
Your safety should be your number one priority. Here are a few things to consider when prioritizng your safety at the ocean:
- A Flashlight: If you’re shooting at sunset, it can get dark pretty fast. If you’re at a non-commercial spot, don’t forget to bring a flashlight so you can see where you’re going.
- Be Mindful of the Wind: If you’re shooting in stormy weather, the wind can take you by surprise. Be careful when shooting in strong wings, and if you’re shooting from high vantage points, assess the safety of your surroundings and don’t stand too close to unexposed edges.
- Be Mindful of WIldlife: If you see any sea creatures on the way, please don’t touch them. Avoid interacting with sea creatures, as it can be hard to tell whether they’re dangerous.
The Bottom Line
Ocean photography is challenging, exciting, and always great fun. The ocean is never predictable, and that’s what makes it one of the most exciting things to photograph.
You can achieve completely different shots minute by minute, giving you plenty of opportunities to experiment and achieve the best results.
So, next time you’re down by the ocean, try out these seven tips and techniques and take your ocean photographs to new heights!