6 Tips for Jaw-Dropping Coastal Photography

by John Stapel

tips for stunning coastal photography

Looking to capture stunning landscape photos of coasts, beaches, oceans, and seasides? You’ve come to the right place.

I’ve been photographing coasts for years, and in this article, I offer my best tips for stunning coastal photography, including:

  • The two key accessories most beginners forget
  • The best light for coastal photography
  • How to create stunning coastal compositions (that feature tons of depth!)
  • Much, much more!

So if you’re ready to become a coastal image expert, then let’s dive right in, starting with my number one tip:

1. Bring two essential filters

Before you head out to do coastal photography, I highly recommend you add two key items to your kit:

  • A neutral density filter
  • A graduated neutral density filter

Both of these items are critical if you want coastal images that are highly detailed and jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

You see, a neutral density filter restricts the amount of light that enters your camera lens, which in turn allows you to slow down your shutter speed to 1/10s, 1s, and beyond. And a slow shutter speed will let the waves or clouds move through your frame as you capture photos, leading to smooth, ethereal blurs. Check out the misty water in the shot below, which required a lengthy shutter speed:

Acadia-6

Serious coastal photographers tend to carry several neutral density filters, but if you’re just starting out, one is fine. I’d recommend a 10-stop ND filter, which is about as powerful as you’ll ever need. (And as your gear bag grows, you can always add lower-strength filters like a 6-stop or a 3-stop option.)

Graduated neutral density filters are like standard neutral density filters, except that they only reduce light in a portion of the frame. Check out the rightmost filter in the image below:

VFH100_FilterGroup Here’s a drop-in filter system with a GND on the right.

What’s the value of a GND filter? It lets you reduce light from a bright sky without affecting the darker foreground. That way, you can capture sunrise and sunset images without blowing out the sky or underexposing the foreground landscape. In other words, with the proper use of a GND filter, you can capture a well-exposed image of a bright sky above a shadowy coastal landscape.

One quick note: Some photographers choose to use high-dynamic range (HDR) imaging as a substitute for a GND filter. While HDR techniques are certainly effective, they do require extra processing time, so if you’re more of a “get-it-all-done-in-the-field” type of person, I’d still recommend investing in a good set of GND filters.

2. Go to the right location

Mullaghmore-1

When photographers get started with coastal photography, they tend to go to one of two places:

  • A scenic overlook
  • A beach

But both of those locations come with problems. For one, scenic overlooks tend to be high off the ground, which makes it difficult to establish foreground interest (more on that later!). You’ll have nothing you can use to bring the viewer into the picture, and your images will turn out frustratingly flat.

And beaches, while beautiful, are often rather boring. They’re just sand, and if you photograph sand in front of a beautiful sunset, your photos may be underwhelming. Sand is nice, but an eye-catching foreground subject – that is, a center of interest, such as a boulder, a boat, or colorful moss – will be far more compelling.

My point is not to avoid beaches or even scenic overlooks. Instead, before you head out, think about the beaches and scenic overlooks you’re familiar with. Research them on Google Maps. Look at photos that other photographers have taken.

And ask yourself: Will I find powerful foregrounds? Will I find eye-catching elements I can use to create a center of interest?

By the way, you can always scout out locations in advance, looking for areas of interest. Go out during the middle of the day, when the sun is high in the sky and the light is too harsh to capture nice images. And see what you can find! Then return to your prime locations when the light gets good for some stunning shots.

Cheeca-Sunrise-5

3. Head out at sunrise and sunset for the best light

Coastal photos look amazing when captured at the right time of day. If you can arrive before sunrise, you’ll soon witness beautiful golden lighting falling across the landscape. And if you arrive just before sunset, you can combine a stunning foreground subject with a beautiful sky for a gorgeous coastal image.

This tip is easy to follow, but it’s also easy to break, and I highly, highly discourage this. You see, coastal photos tend to feature lots of sky, and you need this to be (sunset-level) interesting. Plus, if you go out in the middle of the day, you’ll face harsh contrast that will lead to clipped shadows and blown-out highlights.

Unfortunately, many beaches and scenic coastal areas are closed and blocked off until sunrise or even later. In such cases, you may miss the best light waiting around for them to open. So pick your locations in advance, pay careful attention to opening hours and access, and make the most of your shooting time!

Green-Rocks

4. Use near-far compositions to create depth

Composition is an essential part of landscape and coastal photography, and by carefully arranging the elements in your scenes, you can create genuinely jaw-dropping photos. But it takes finesse. So how do you get started?

I recommend thinking about three elements for every image you take:

  1. The background
  2. The subject (or center of interest)
  3. The foreground

And then work with the three elements to get a beautiful, well-balanced result. The background is the easiest to handle; in coastal photography, the background will usually be the sky, and by heading out at sunrise or sunset, you can often guarantee a stunning background.

The subject is very important but varies dramatically from scene to scene (and from photographer to photographer). I certainly recommend you include a main subject – either a natural element, like boulders or plants, or a human-made item, like a boat or a lighthouse. Your subject can even be an intangible thing, like a leading line or a shape. Just make sure you include something eye catching, something that ties the image together; otherwise, you’ll end up with a mere snapshot.

Finally, you’ll need to pay careful attention to the foreground. It’s often the hardest part of the picture to set up, but it’s also the most important. You want to use foreground to create a sense of three-dimensionality, of depth; you want to make the viewer feel like they can just walk into the image. Look for interesting sand patterns, as well as rocks, boulders, or vegetation. Even a rolling wave can serve as your foreground, though you’ll need to time it carefully!

If you follow these steps – that is, if you carefully include a foreground, a background, and a subject of interest – then you’ll end up with a powerful, eye-catching composition. Over time, you’ll get better at finding and incorporating these elements into your images, and the process will become much easier!

El-Matador-4-2016-05-10

5. Select the perfect settings for your coastal photo

If you can nail your camera settings, then you’ll create a high-quality shot with a detailed exposure and lots of mood. But to get this right, you cannot simply set your camera on Auto and let your camera do the work; instead, you’ll need to switch over to Manual mode and carefully choose the perfect settings.

First, I recommend you think about your shutter speed. If you’re working with a tripod – as you should be! – you’ll want to consider slowing down the shutter to between 1/8s and 1s; that way, you can blur moving water to create a magical effect:

El-Matador-5

Alternatively, if you want to emphasize the power and harshness of the sea, a shutter speed of 1/320s and above will generally do the trick.

And if you want a misty-looking ocean, you can use a very slow shutter speed, in the range of 10s or more. Here, though, you’ll definitely need a sturdy tripod, and you’ll also need relatively calm conditions, because wind will cause camera shake that blurs the entire shot.

Unfortunately, you can’t just dial in the perfect shutter speed, then forget about it; in order to achieve a good exposure, you’ll generally need to adjust your aperture and ISO alongside the shutter. If you’re working in low light and you need a fast shutter speed, widen your aperture and/or boost your ISO.

On the other hand, if you want to slow down the shutter speed, I’d recommend narrowing your lens aperture and using your camera’s lowest native ISO (usually 100).

In certain cases, especially if the sun has set and you’re working with limited light, a low ISO and a narrow aperture will reduce incoming light enough to allow for a slow shutter speed. However, you’ll often find that you simply can’t use a slow shutter speed without overexposing your images, which brings me to my next tip:

6. Use a neutral density filter to slow down the shutter speed

If you dial in a slow shutter speed, you’ll frequently have too much light and your photos will turn out overexposed.

But as I discussed earlier, a neutral density filter is specifically designed to block the light.

So if you want to use a slow shutter speed and the light is too bright, simply attach an ND filter to the front of your lens. You’ll lose light, and you’ll be able to achieve the perfect shutter speed (though you may need to tweak the aperture and ISO to get a nice exposure!).

For example, let’s say you are currently shooting a coastal scene at 1/60s, f/16, and ISO 100. You’re getting a well-exposed shot, but you want to slow the shutter speed down to around 1s – to blur the water – and your lens won’t go narrower than f/16, while your camera won’t go lower than ISO 100.

If you screw on a 6-stop neutral density filter, you’ll lose 6 stops of light. Once the filter is mounted on the lens, you can slow down your shutter speed by 6 stops until you achieve a proper exposure.

What is 6 stops slower than 1/60s? Each stop roughly corresponds to a halving of the shutter speed, so you’ll drop your shutter speed to 1/30s, then 1/15s, then 1/8s, then 1/4s, then 1/2s, then 1s. At that point, you can capture a well-exposed image with a 1s shutter speed, and you’ll get plenty of detail and beautifully blurred water:

Okaloosa-2

Of course, this is just one example. Different neutral density filters will give different results – for instance, if you had a 10-stop neutral density filter, you could lengthen your shutter speed to 15s instead. And if you only had a 3-stop ND filter, you could lengthen your shutter speed to 1/8s.

And you also have your ISO and aperture to work with, too. If your lens narrows to f/22, you always have the option of stopping down for a longer exposure. Alternatively, if you want a faster shutter speed, you might widen the aperture and boost the ISO to 200, 400, 800, and beyond. That way, you could capture a shot like this one:

Destin-Wave

Coastal photography tips: final words

Hopefully, you now feel confident in your coastal photography; after all, you now know where to go, when to go, how to compose, what to bring, and much more!

So the next time you head to the coast, keep these tips in mind. And don’t forget your ND filter!

Now over to you:

Which of these coastal photography tips is your favorite? Which do you plan to incorporate into your workflow? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

6 Tips for Jaw-Dropping Coastal Photography