If there’s one type of photo that viewers seem to respond to more than others, it is an image of the coast. There’s something magical about shorelines, where land, water, and sky meet in an uneasy truce, and they seem to invariably trigger an emotional response when captured in a photograph. Coastal environments are dynamic and ever-changing, meaning that although conditions can be challenging and unpredictable, opportunities for unique images abound. Here are my top five tips for coastal photography.
1. Know the tides: This is the single most important “pre planning” strategy you can employ when photographing coasts. You will soon learn that tides are everything—photographically speaking, that is. High tides might obscure details that are unphotogenic, whereas low tide can reveal interesting features that bring your coastal images to life. For some areas, high tide is best, for others, low tide will give you optimum photo opportunities. And sometimes, somewhere in between works best. Knowing the tides, combined with scouting and a willingness to return to a location during different tides to see the results, is critical to success when working the coast.
2. Watch the water: Pay attention to what the water is doing, and not just because of potential sea monsters lurking beneath the surface. Water is your best friend, in terms of successful coastal composition. Incoming waves create unique shapes which can relate to shapes of the land or of clouds in the sky. Experiment with motion blur by using different shutter speeds; sometimes 1/15 of a second or longer can yield interesting results. Exposure times longer than several seconds will totally blur the water, creating a misty look and mysterious mood. Although you should always be using a tripod for landscape work, this is especially true when working with long exposures.
3. Clouds are key: There’s nothing worse for photographing the coast than blue skies, except perhaps completely overcast skies. Everything in between is good to go. Clouds with texture add drama and character to coastal photos, and with enough breaks in the clouds, you can get some stunning sunrises and sunsets. Pay close attention to the shapes formed by the clouds, as these must relate to foreground shapes in order for your compositions to be successful.
4. Get your feet wet: If you are afraid of getting your feet wet, then you are going to miss out on a lot of great compositional opportunities. I always bring a pair of water sandals with me when working the coast. The water may be cold, it may be slimy, it may be teeming with ravenous sea monsters just beneath the surface—but if you get a great shot, it is worth some mild discomfort. Unless, of course, Nessie eats you.
5. Stay safe: Coastal environments can be very unpredictable. Rogue waves, fast tides, slippery rocks, strong currents—and, of course, the afore-mentioned sea monsters—can all turn a pleasant coastal excursion into something deadly and violent. Don’t go too close to the water if the waves are high, and be exceptionally careful when entering the “wet zone” where slippery rocks might lead to a fall. Make sure to drop camera bags well above the high tide line, and well above the occasional high wave. Keep an eye on the tide at all times to make sure you don’t get stranded. Store equipment in dry bags when not in use, just in case. And remember that sea water and sea spray can wreak havoc on equipment, especially tripods exposed to the water; rinse tripods with fresh water before collapsing the legs. Above all, pay attention to what is going on around you, and make safety a priority!
About the image: I took this photo on the Isle of Harris along the Scottish coast (“Na Hearadh” is the Gaelic name for Isle of Harris). Two things were critical to this image: the beautiful sunset clouds in the sky, and the incoming wave in the foreground. I took perhaps twenty or thirty exposures of incoming waves until I got one with a shape that I liked. No sea monsters were harmed in the making of this photo. Canon 5DII, 17mm, 2-stop graduated neutral density filter, polarizer filter, ISO 50, f/16, 0.4 seconds.
To see more of my Scotland images, visit the Recent Work gallery on my website. Also, check out my most recent blog posts here and on the Outdoor Photographer blog: Awesome Meter Permanently Set to Awesome and The Selkie’s Lair.
P.S. If you would like to learn more coastal photography techniques, my next coastal workshop is in Acadia National Park in October. We’ll be photographing the stunning rocky Maine coast during the height of autumn color. The workshop is filling up fast, so sign up now to ensure your reservation!