I’ve lately received some very big compliments about my seascapes from people on the Internet, some of whom have expressed their desire or dream to be able to do what I do.
It got me thinking.
While it is incredibly humbling and satisfying to receive such nice, genuine compliments, what I do is not something that others cannot achieve with some passion, know-how and practice.
There are a lot of very good seascapers out there, doing similar things to what I do. It is certainly achievable, so to that end, I figured I should share my approach.
This article will address what goes into my seascapes, and will hopefully give insight into how I achieve my images.
I will discuss my philosophy, equipment, techniques and post-processing.
Warning: This is quite a long article.
1. Why Seascapes?
The first question to be asked is why one would shoot seascapes.
When I got seriously into photography, I didn’t set out to be a seascaper. While most of my images nowadays are seascapes, the process of reaching this point was evolutionary rather than pre-determined.
Why do I like seascapes?
Firstly, there’s something about water. Humans are drawn to water. Water is essential to life, with most of Earth’s surface, and indeed most of the human body, consisting of water.
Secondly, there is the light. I shoot my seascapes in the very early hours of the morning, from first light through to the morning golden hour. The light at this time of day is most spectacular, colourful and visually striking, all of which contribute to a pleasing image.
The low light at this time also means a slow shutter speed can be used, and is often essential. The result is smooth water or blurred cloud movement, which can be used to create dynamism in a static image, or provide abstraction of water and cloud details.
I have become very fussy about light, and generally won’t shoot at times other than dusk, dawn or total darkness if the light is going to be a significant aspect of the image, or affect the subject matter.
Early morning light, and early morning in general, is a peaceful time. There is very little activity, and being out there by the ocean, greeting the dawn of a new day and seeing the first signs of life, is a rather pleasant way to spend a Sunday.
On top of all of the above, I like the look of seascape images. Water is very photogenic, and not unsurprisingly, often features in postcards and tourism literature. At dawn and dusk, and during the blue hours, it can look spectacular.
Naturally, certain equipment is necessary for dawn seascape photography.
The first item I use is a Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR camera, which has a ‘full-frame’-sized sensor; ie, it measures 36 x 24mm, which is the same size as a frame of 35mm film.
The larger sensor allows for lower noise, more dynamic range, a brighter viewfinder and a larger viewfinder, which makes focusing and composing easier.
In the lens department, I have seven at the time of writing, but I use one lens specifically for seascape and landscape work: my Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM. This is a fast, ultra-wide pro-grade lens which delivers fantastic image quality and a wide vista I like in a seascape image.
Most of my lenses are prime lenses, and my 16-35 is one of only two zooms I have, but I tend to use it like a prime, with it rarely deviating from the 16mm setting. I simply like a wide view with soaring skies and foreground detail which, depending on the angle of the camera, comes right up to the tripod legs.
That brings me to the next item.
A tripod is an essential item for landscape/seascape photography. The primary reason is for stability and sharpness, especially during long exposures. A secondary, but equally important reason, is for exposure bracketing, which I will discuss with my techniques.
As for head units, I have used both a ball head and a three-way head. Both types have their advantages. A ball-head is more convenient to adjust, but doesn’t allow the precision offered by a three-way head, which, as the name suggests, is adjustable in three ways: pitch, roll and yaw.
2.4. Remote Shutter Release
The next essential item is a remote shutter release. When shooting exposures longer than 30 seconds (which I often do), it is necessary to use the camera’s bulb mode, which keeps the shutter open indefinitely (battery life notwithstanding). It’s not practical to use bulb mode by using the camera’s shutter release button, as it’s necessary to physically hold it down, which could introduce camera movement during a long exposure, thus ruining the shot. A remote release allows control separate from the camera.
The model I use is the Canon TC-80N, which is a timer control/intervalometer unit, offering me the ability to dial in shutter speeds and have the shutter automatically shut once the pre-determined exposure has been made. I can also use this unit in conjunction with whatever shutter speed I’ve dialled in on the camera, with the advantage that the lack of physical contact with the camera’s shutter release doesn’t introduce the risk of minute movements from the pressure and weight of my hand actuating the shutter release.
The final essential item I use in my seascape photography is filters — specifically neutral-density and graduated neutral-density filters. They are both similar, but have a significant difference between them.
A neutral-density (ND) filter is a dark filter which reduces the amount of light hitting the sensor. It is employed when a photographer deliberately wishes to use a longer shutter speed which the ambient light would not allow. These filters come in various light-reducing levels, usually measured in stops, although some also have half-stop intervals.
A graduated neutral-density (GND) filter is also an ND filter, but there is a transition from dark (filtered) to clear (ie, unfiltered). The idea is to even out the brightness levels between sky and land, as the sky is almost always brighter than the land, often by quite a few stops. Like ND filters, GND filters come in various densities.
I use the Lee creative filter system, which consists of a slotted holder, into which three filters can be placed in a stacked fashion; a lens adapter ring (for fitting the holder to the lens’s filter threads); and resin sheet-style filters, measuring 150mm x 100mm (GND) and 100mm x 100mm (ND and other types).
Filters of this size are the same size as what Cokin calls its Z-PRO system, and a filter system of this size is necessary for wider lenses to avoid equipment-induced vignetting (dark edges due to parts of the filter or holder being visible to the lens).
My own filters consist of a 0.9 (three-stop) GND, 0.6 (two-stop) GND and two 0.9 (two-stop) NDs. My GND filters have soft edges, meaning the transition between light and dark is more gradual and thus less abrupt. Soft-edge filters are best used for uneven landscapes, whereas hard-edge filters are useful for ocean horizons. I currently don’t have any hard-edge filters.
The last type of filter to use for seascape photography is a circular polariser. I have one for my 16-35, but tend not to use it much. Its main advantage is the reduction of glare and reflections, which at dawn I tend not to find problematic; but a secondary advantage is a reduction of two-to-three stops of light, making it a make-shift ND filter for lack of a real ND filter. Polarisers also intensify blue and green hues, which in some situations may be desirable.
2.6. Other Equipment
When out shooting I carry other equipment as well. The most useful and essential of these is a headlamp. When I am travelling, it is dark, and I need to navigate uneven, unlit and sometimes dangerous coastal territory in order to get to my location. The advantage of a headlamp is that it keeps my hands free (of torches) and also lights the area where my eyes are looking. The model I use is a Princeton Tec FUEL. It is an LED-based, AAA battery-powered headlamp with three brightness levels and a strobe mode.
Other useful equipment includes clothes/towels, plastic bags for covering my equipment, a lens cleaning cloth and a spare CompactFlash card.
Now that the equipment is detailed, I’ll explain the meat of what goes into my seascapes: technique and post-processing.
The techniques I use at the capture phase of my seascape photography aren’t unique or in any way special, but it’s worth explaining how I approach my work.
3.1. Camera Settings
Firstly, a word about camera settings.
I shoot in M (manual) exposure mode 99% of the time. I like the absolute control over shutter speed, aperture and ISO that this mode affords me; I don’t want the camera making decisions about these things. The only thing automatic is the metering.
I dial my ISO down to 100 for the best image quality. Lately I have been using ISO 200, as it still offers good image quality and very low noise, but also allows me to halve my shutter speeds, which in some lighting conditions can be critical, as the light changes quickly. I’d rather expose for one minute than two.
One thing I consider important is that the long exposure noise reduction (LENR) feature be disabled in the camera’s settings. The reason for this comes down to time.
The LENR feature works by firstly exposing the scene, and then immediately afterwards, making a black exposure (ie, with the shutter closed) for the same length of time, and combining the images using a technique called dark frame subtraction.
This obviously doubles the amount of time it takes to produce one image, and when the light is changing so rapidly, I cannot afford to lose time. Not only that, but if the image is a dud, I’ve lost precious minutes and need to shoot again. Additionally, noise reduction is something I’d prefer to do on a much more powerful computer rather than the camera, the latter of which I consider to be a capture device rather than processing device.
Speaking of processing, I shoot in raw mode only. A raw image is the raw image data captured by the camera, without any white balance or other processing (sharpness, contrast and colour) applied. My camera offers a 14-bit raw capture mode, which captures a lot of detail and more brightness levels than an 8-bit JPG can offer.
My advice is to capture the best quality image a camera can deliver, which means choosing the highest resolution the camera offers, and choosing raw mode. You cannot add what was not captured. Having the highest resolution, least-processed image available affords the most options when it comes to post-processing (especially when it comes to recovering details from under-exposure or over-exposure) later.
3.2. Calculating Exposure
My shutter speeds vary quite considerably based on the light and the effect I am trying to achieve. In the dark, pre-dawn light, I am shooting long exposures, which introduces a challenge in calculating exposure when the camera’s longest exposure is way too short for the meter to even register the calculated exposure.
The technique I use for determining a shutter speed comes down to simple mathematics.
Of the three exposure settings (shutter speed, aperture and ISO), I already know the settings I want for two of them: aperture and ISO. What varies is the shutter speed.
If it is very dark, I will tend to shoot at f/5.6 to halve my shutter speed, as I usually shoot at f/8 or sometimes f/11.
I will either choose ISO 100 or ISO 200; typically the latter in very dark conditions, again for exposure time reduction.
Based on a shutter speed of f/5.6 and an ISO setting of 100, I adjust the aperture and/or ISO to the brightest settings to try and bring the camera’s metering onto the radar. If f/5.6 and ISO 100 is too dark for the meter to register an exposure of 30 seconds or less, I dial the aperture back two stops to f/2.8. If I can see the exposure indicator in the display, I can tell what kind of exposure I need.
For example, if I use ISO 100, f/2.8 and 30 seconds, and can see that the metered exposure is right in the middle of the exposure meter (ie, correctly exposed), then I know that in order to shoot at f/5.6 (two stops apart), I will need to quadruple my shutter speed.
ISO 100, f/2.8 and 30 seconds = ISO 100, f/5.6 and 120 seconds.
This is a simple example, but depending on the light, using the brightest aperture of my lens with a shutter speed of 30 seconds may still be inadequate. In that case, I increase the ISO as far as necessary for a correct exposure to register on the meter. Using simple halving/doubling mathematics, I again double my shutter speed for each stop of ISO I decrease, or for each stop down of aperture.
For example, if I can achieve a shutter speed of 30 seconds at ISO 1,600 and f/2.8, in order to shoot at ISO 100 and f/5.6, I will need a shutter speed of 1,920 seconds (ie, 32 minutes).
Let’s break it down by firstly decreasing the ISO, but leaving the aperture wide open:
- ISO 1,600 + f/2.8 = 30 seconds
- ISO 800 + f/2.8 = 60 seconds
- ISO 400 + f/2.8 = 120 seconds
- ISO 200 + f/2.8 = 240 seconds
- ISO 100 + f/2.8 = 480 seconds
After adjusting the ISO to suit, let’s stop down the aperture to achieve more depth of field, remembering that each stop down doubles the required shutter speed:
- ISO 100 + f/2.8 = 480 seconds
- ISO 100 + f/4 = 960 seconds
- ISO 100 + f/5.6 = 1,920 seconds.
Sure, this is a rather extreme exposure, but illustrates the logic and mathematics which goes into calculating a long exposure when the desired ISO speed and aperture are known, and when the light is sufficiently dark that the camera cannot calculate a 30-second or shorter shutter speed based on the metered light.
Once I’ve found a suitable subject, I position my tripod-mounted camera and compose. I use both landscape and portrait orientation. I’ve never considered how I compose; it’s just something I do naturally, and I tend to stick very close to the rule of thirds, in that the key focal point is positioned along one of the intersection points that would exist if the frame was divided into thirds by lines across the horizontal and vertical planes.
I also position my horizons on either the top third or bottom third, depending on whether the land or sky respectively is to be given more prominence in the frame.
Without getting much into the details of composition, things I am unconsciously doing include the use of leading lines, S-curves and filling the frame, as well as the rule of thirds.
One of the techniques I like to use in my photography is subject isolation. I want the subject to be very obvious, fill the frame and dominate the scene. Examples of this can be seen in my images captured at Long Reef, where I isolate a single boulder on the reef and place it very prominently in the foreground, with the beautiful colours of the water and sky receding into the distance.
Of course, subject isolation with a wide lens and narrow aperture is not as easy to achieve, but it can certainly be done.
So what I am I looking for?
Mostly, drama. I want to see photogenic rocks, beautiful colours in the sky, interesting clouds, sky reflections in still rock pools, odd-shaped rocks, waves crashing over rocks and cascading water. There needs to be interest in the foreground, middle ground and background. It is not easy for me to verbally describe what I see or what I want; my eyes just know it when they see it.
How do I achieve focus, especially in the dark?
There are two techniques I use. If it’s too dark to focus, I generally look for a distant light and point my camera’s central focus point at that. The contrast between the bright light source and the night sky allows the camera’s autofocus system to achieve focus. From a depth of field perspective, this is not the most reliable way of focusing, but I have found it works quite well for me.
In better light, I focus on subject material a third of the way into the scene. This provides the best form of focus, and combined with a relatively narrow aperture of f/8 (used most often) and a wide lens (which has inherently greater depth of field), I can achieve the best compromise of image sharpness and deep depth of field.
In the dark, a torch or headlamp (or even flash) can be handy for temporarily illuminating subject matter in order to allow the camera’s autofocus system to work.
Once I have achieved focus, I switch the lens to manual focus, but since upgrading to the Canon EOS 5D Mark II from my previous Canon EOS 5D, I have taken advantage of the separate AF button on the rear of the camera, and disabled the control of AF via the shutter release button.
This means that I can meter and capture the image independently of autofocus. If I want autofocus, I use a separate button on the camera for that purpose. A by-product of this separate AF functionality is that I need not toggle the lens’s AF switch to manual focus mode.
At this point, I have composed an image, calculated an exposure, dialled in my various settings, and I’m just about ready to shoot. When shooting into the lightening sky as I typically I do, I attach either my three-stop GND filter, or both of my GND filters (giving me five stops of darkening in the sky) and adjust the horizontal position of the gradient to suit the light and the composition.
Here is the key.
While I use filters to even out the exposure, I am interested in giving myself the most options when it comes to post-processing my images later on.
What this means is that I employ exposure bracketing and manually blend components of lighter, medium and darker exposures to maximise details and colours.
I will typically shoot five or six images of the same scene, varying the exposure by two thirds of a stop, or a full-stop, with each exposure. I will deliberately over-expose marginally in order to capture the details in foreground rocks, which, being away from the increasing light in the distance, are often shrouded in darkness.
I will also under-expose by several stops or increments thereof to achieve a dark, richly-coloured sky.
Lastly, I expose for the ‘just right’ scenario, and if I am shooting water crashing into rocks, I will shoot numerous frames at the same exposure settings to capture the unique moment when the water is moving over the rocks. I can then blend the best parts of multiple exposures in post-processing.
So, the key to my seascape photography and the amount of dynamic range I can achieve lies in the use of both lens-based GND filters and manual exposure blending.
My experience has told me that GND filters are helpful, but cannot get it 100% right in much of the light in which I shoot. They sure help, but manual blending of multiple identically-framed exposures taken at different speeds gives me much more flexibility.
Of course, it all depends on the light. I have shot in conditions where a GND filter alone was sufficient to achieve an even exposure with good dynamic range; but even then I will still tend to employ exposure bracketing and blend in a darker sky.
This brings me to the final phase: post-processing.
I have recently published articles detailing the processing techniques I use on my images, and I intend to publish more in the future, so in this section I will not go into the finer details, but instead will briefly explain some of the techniques I use.
My basic workflow consists of raw conversion (with white balance, contrast and sharpness applied in Adobe Camera Raw), followed by blending, lightening, darkening, colour adjustments, contrast and sharpness all applied in Adobe Photoshop CS4.
My workflow consists of non-destructive processing techniques using adjustment layers and layer masks. This is where the blending of multiple exposures is done. When I have a stack of identically-framed images, I create a layer mask, invert it, and brush in the content I want from another frame.
I use curves quite extensively for selective lightening and darkening of parts of the scene, such as the sky (typically darkened) and foreground rocks (typically lightened). I also use curves for vignetting, which is simply a form of edge darkening intended to draw the viewer’s eye into the scene. Selective or whole-of-image contrast is increased with curves adjustment layers, too.
Other techniques I apply with adjustment layers is the use of selective warming or cooling filters, saturation and desaturation, or individual colour channel adjustment.
As this section was only intended to give an overview of the sort of processing techniques I use, please see my post-processing tutorials for more detailed walks-through.
Hopefully this article provides some insight into my choice of subject matter, the equipment and techniques I use to capture it, and how I work my images in Photoshop to bring out the final result for maximum visual impact and technical correctness.
This should also serve to illustrate that there isn’t a lot of magic involved in seascape photography, but fairly simple techniques and equipment that can be used by most people with a little know-how. Most of the magic lies in the conditions of the sky and water at the time, and in my experience, it’s unpredictable (the sky, at least).
So, armed with my experience and the philosophies and techniques I have shared, all you aspiring seascapers should get out there and give it your best shot.