Tips for Safe Seascape Photography

In light of the recent rock fishing-related deaths and my own potentially dangerous encounter with the ocean at Kiama not long ago, I felt the desire to compile and post some tips for safe seascape photography.

Now, admittedly I do not practice all that I am about to preach, but my experience has prompted some thinking, I am much more conscious of the safety issues, and I will be putting some of these measures into practice.  Knowing that I could get injured or killed and never be found again is a frightening thought, and it’s not just myself to consider.

So, here is my list of tips, in no particular order.

1.  Tell someone where you’re going.

It’s a good idea to tell someone where you’re going, especially if you’re going at dawn, dusk or late at night when such places are more isolated, or if they’re isolated locations in general.

Many Sydney seascape locations such as Turimetta Head (Warriewood), “Canyon X” (further north of Turimetta Head), “Devil’s Cauldron” (south of Whale Beach) and Cape Banks are quite remote, can take a while to reach, and can be dangerous to reach (Canyon X in particular).

If you do get into trouble, it could be difficult if not impossible to find you, so tell someone where you will be and when.  Arrange to call someone you know at a pre-determined time to check in and advise that you are safe and well, and make sure you do make the call.

On that note…

2.  Make sure your mobile phone has sufficient charge.

Ensure your phone has sufficient charge so you can make your pre-arranged call, or in case you otherwise need to make a call. Of course, if you’re in a location with no mobile coverage (generally not an issue along Sydney’s coastline), that’s a risk which requires mitigation.

3.  Never under-estimate the power of the ocean.

The ocean is very powerful, and its appearance can be deceptive.  Don’t assume that an area is safe because it looks safe.  Study the ocean for a while; observe its patterns.  It has a rhythm to it, and every so often, larger waves will come in.  I’ve been told that every 40 minutes or so, a larger-than-usual wave (I’m hesitant to call it a rogue wave) comes in.

Look for signs of recent water contact from splashes and waves as opposed to a previously high, outgoing tide.

Be aware of the tide.  Know its direction and when it will be high, as it could leave you stranded. I use the Manly Hydraulics Laboratory to check the tide, and I also have the Pocket Weather AU app on my iPhone, which sources data from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and in the paid version, provides tidal information.

Never turn your back on the ocean; a “rogue wave” can come out of nowhere and pound you. It happens very quickly.  Keep an eye on the ocean and be prepared to retreat.

Having experienced the fury of the ocean on more than one occasion, I can relate personally how powerful it is.  The velocity of secondary water contact (ie, splashes after a wave hits a rock) can knock a person off balance.  The volume of water can be huge, and will thoroughly drench a person and everything nearby.

The danger also lies in the fact that the water must recede back into the ocean.  The “rock current” can be quite strong, and its speed, combined with slippery rocks and unstable rock shelves, can sweep a person into the ocean.  There could be jagged rocks on the shoreline, or submerged dangers.  A strong swell can pound a person into those rocks and cause severe injury or death.

Don’t put yourself in harm’s way; a fall or a powerful wave can mean the end of you.

4.  Watch your step.

Seascape photography often involves navigating rocky shorelines, often in darkness or near-darkness if you’re a dawn or dusk shooter.  Dangers include uneven terrain, slippery surfaces from moss and moisture (some moss is black and hard to see), crevasses, rock pools and other pot-holes.  It is not difficult to mis-step and scratch a leg, or worse, sprain or break it.

5.  Be visible, and be able to see in the dark.

Wear high-visibility clothing in case you do run into trouble.  Wear a battery-powered headlamp for navigation in the dark.  This is far superior to a hand-held torch, as it keeps your hands free (which you need for balancing or carrying other gear) and also points where your eyes point.  These are essential for navigation in the dark, and can also assist with autofocus.

6.  Protect your gear.

As I’ve experienced, electronic equipment tends not to like being wet.  Invest in a weather-resistant camera bag, and also carry plastic bags which can cover your camera in case it rains or in case a splash makes contact.  Use zip-lock bags for smaller items you wish to protect from water (eg, mobile phones, GPS units, wallets, keys, remote shutter releases, memory cards, etc.).  Bring towels, a chamois and other drying equipment in case it’s necessary to dry yourself or your equipment.  If you’re not using some item in your gear, keep it in your bag; this will prevent it from being lost or damaged if water comes into contact with it.

Insure your gear, and make sure your insurance policy covers accidental damage, and also covers your equipment while it’s out of your home.  Having it insured only while it’s in the home is useless for a device that was intended to be portable.

7.  Go with someone.

Seascape photography can often be a solitary hobby, but being alone in remote, dangerous locations in the dark can add to the general danger level.  It is better to go with at least one other person.  If either of you runs into trouble, the other can lend assistance.

Having a mate with you can also be handy if you encounter other dangers, such as aggressive, drunken fools out in the streets (or partying in an isolated location) after a Saturday night on the turps.  You’re less of a target to would-be attackers if you’re not alone.

8.  Dress for the occasion.

It is essential to wear shoes which both provide grip, and can get wet.  Hard-core rock fisherman have metal cleats on their shoes which provide good grip.  I personally have a black pair of Dunlop Volleys which have good rubber grip, are inexpensive, light and can get wet.  I throw them into the washer and dryer with no problems.

Now, I have slid on rock shelves whilst wearing these; they’re possibly not the most effective shoes for rock-hopping, but they do a fairly decent job.

Wear shorts, not jeans or other heavy long pants. I wear shorts even in the winter.  There are two benefits.  Firstly, you can be knee-deep in water without having drenched clothing.  Secondly, if you do get swept into the sea, it’s less weight to restrict your mobility or weigh you down.  The down-side is that your legs are exposed to the cold, and to sharp rock edges which could scratch or gouge you.  A light weather-proof jacket is a good idea, too.

Seascape photography can be dangerous business.  Hopefully the above advice will prevent you being injured or killed.

You may like to view Brent Pearson’s video on extreme seascape photography at Devil’s Cauldron to see how dangerous the ocean can be, and how suddenly it can lash out.


6 thoughts on “Tips for Safe Seascape Photography

  1. Pingback: Kiama Dawn of Death | Xenedis Phoblography

  2. Kaiser

    Brilliant, yet practical and common sense ideas, Xenedis.

    I’m just starting out with photography, and find your images incredibly motivating. It seems you’ve managed to hunt down (and capture in remarkable detail) every great spot along the greater Sydney area coastline!

    Looking forward to checking back often.


  3. Pingback: Don’t Put Your Life on the Line | Xenedis Phoblography

  4. Mike Hodgson is a site I stumbled across about a year ago, and it is absolutely essential for seascape shoot planning, IMHO. It shows current & forecast conditions for so many different locations (stuff you don’t find on BOM), and with the very convenient tabs at the top of the page you can get forecasts on swell, wind, tides, weather, rainfall very quickly & easily. It’s almost a one-stop shop for seascape shoot planning (the only other tool I need for planning is The Photographers Ephemeris for stuff like azimuths, altitudes & relative bearings of the sun & moon at various times/dates overlaid on GoogleMaps data).

    For example, here’s the swell forecast for a popular photography spot on Sydney’s Northern Beaches:
    (Sunrise on Mon (Jan 23rd) on the rising tide is looking a little hairy.)



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