I have just published a long article on my blog detailing what goes into my seascape photography.
I'd also like to share my knowledge and experience with the great community we have here, so I have reproduced my article below.
I hope you enjoy and gain something from it.
What Goes into my Seascapes
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 seascapes 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 . I shoot my seascapes in the very early hours of the morning, from first through to the morning golden hour. The at this time of day is most spectacular, colourful and visually striking, all of which contribute to a pleasing image.
The low at this time also means a slow 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 , and generally won’t shoot at times other than dusk, dawn or total darkness if the is going to be a significant aspect of the image, or affect the subject matter.
Early morning , 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 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 department, I have seven at the time of writing, but I use one specifically for seascape and landscape work: my EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM. This is a fast, ultra-wide pro-grade which delivers fantastic image quality and a wide vista I like in a seascape image.
Most of my are prime , 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 legs.
That brings me to the next item.
A is an essential item for landscape/seascape photography. The primary reason is for stability and , especially during long exposures. A secondary, but equally important reason, is for 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 Release
The next essential item is a remote 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 open indefinitely (battery life notwithstanding). It’s not practical to use bulb mode by using the camera’s release button, as it’s necessary to physically hold it down, which could introduce camera movement during a long , thus ruining the shot. A remote release allows control separate from the camera.
The model I use is the TC-80N, which is a timer control/intervalometer unit, offering me the ability to dial in speeds and have the automatically shut once the pre-determined has been made. I can also use this unit in conjunction with whatever I’ve dialled in on the camera, with the advantage that the lack of physical contact with the camera’s release doesn’t introduce the risk of minute movements from the pressure and weight of my hand actuating the 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 hitting the sensor. It is employed when a photographer deliberately wishes to use a longer which the ambient would not allow. These filters come in various -reducing levels, usually measured in , although some also have half- 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 . 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 adapter ring (for fitting the older to the ’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 to avoid equipment-induced vignetting (dark edges due to parts of the filter or holder being visible to the ).
My own filters consist of a 0.9 (three- ) GND, 0.6 (two- ) GND and two 0.9 (two- ) NDs. My GND filters have soft edges, meaning the transition between 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 of , 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 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) mode 99% of the time. I like the absolute control over , and that this mode affords me; I don’t want the camera making decisions about these things. The only thing automatic is the .
I dial my down to 100 for the best image quality. Lately I have been using 200, as it still offers good image quality and very low noise, but also allows me to halve my speeds, which in some lighting conditions can be critical, as the changes quickly. I’d rather expose for one minute than two.
One thing I consider important is that the long 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 (ie, with the 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 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 mode only. A image is the image data captured by the camera, without any white balance or other processing ( , contrast and colour) applied. My camera offers a 14-bit capture mode, which captures a lot of detail and 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 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- or over- ) later.
My speeds vary quite considerably based on the and the effect I am trying to achieve. In the dark, pre-dawn , I am shooting long exposures, which introduces a challenge in calculating when the camera’s longest is way too short for the to even register the calculated .
The technique I use for determining a comes down to simple mathematics.
Of the three settings ( , and ), I already know the settings I want for two of them: and . What varies is the .
If it is very dark, I will tend to shoot at f/5.6 to halve my , as I usually shoot at f/8 or sometimes f/11.
I will either choose 100 or 200; typically the latter in very dark conditions, again for time reduction.
Based on a of f/5.6 and an setting of 100, I adjust the and/or to the brightest settings to try and bring the camera’s onto the radar. If f/5.6 and 100 is too dark for the to register an of 30 seconds or less, I dial the back two to f/2.8. If I can see the indicator in the display, I can tell what kind of I need.
For example, if I use 100, f/2.8 and 30 seconds, and can see that the metered is right in the middle of the (ie, correctly exposed), then I know that in order to shoot at f/5.6 (two apart), I will need to quadruple my .
100, f/2.8 and 30 seconds = 100, f/5.6 and 120 seconds.
This is a simple example, but depending on the , using the brightest of my with a of 30 seconds may still be inadequate. In that case, I increase the as far as necessary for a correct to register on the . Using simple halving/doubling mathematics, I again double my for each of I decrease, or for each down of .
For example, if I can achieve a of 30 seconds at 1,600 and f/2.8, in order to shoot at 100 and f/5.6, I will need a of 1,920 seconds (ie, 32 minutes).
Let’s break it down by firstly decreasing the , but leaving the wide open:
- 1,600 + f/2.8 = 30 seconds
- 800 + f/2.8 = 60 seconds
- 400 + f/2.8 = 120 seconds
- 200 + f/2.8 = 240 seconds
- 100 + f/2.8 = 480 seconds
After adjusting the to suit, let’s down the to achieve more , remembering that each down doubles the required :
- 100 + f/2.8 = 480 seconds
- 100 + f/4 = 960 seconds
- 100 + f/5.6 = 1,920 seconds.
Sure, this is a rather extreme , but illustrates the logic and mathematics which goes into calculating a long when the desired speed and are known, and when the is sufficiently dark that the camera cannot calculate a 30-second or shorter based on the metered .
Once I’ve found a suitable subject, I position my -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 , 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 and narrow 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 my 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 dark to focus, I generally look for a distant and point my camera’s central focus point at that. The contrast between the bright source and the night sky allows the camera’s autofocus system to achieve focus. From a perspective, this is not the most reliable way of focusing, but I have found it works quite well for me.
In better , 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 of f/8 (used most often) and a wide (which has inherently greater ), I can achieve the best compromise of image and deep .
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 to manual focus, but since upgrading to the EOS 5D Mark II from my previous 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 release button.
This means that I can 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 ’s AF switch to manual focus mode.
At this point, I have composed an image, calculated an , 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- GND filter, or both of my GND filters (giving me five of darkening in the sky) and adjust the horizontal position of the gradient to suit the and the .
Here is the key.
While I use filters to even out the , 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 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 by two thirds of a , or a full- , with each . I will deliberate over-expose marginally in order to capture the details in foreground rocks, which, being away from the increasing in the distance, are often shrouded in darkness.
I will also under-expose by several 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 waves, I will shoot numerous frames at the same 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 -based GND filters and manual blending.
My experience has told me that GND filters are helpful, but cannot get it 100% right in much of the 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 . I have shot in conditions where a GND filter alone was sufficient to achieve an even with good dynamic range; but even then I will still tend to employ 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 consists of conversion (with white balance, contrast and applied in Adobe Camera ), followed by blending, lightening, darkening, colour adjustments, contrast and all applied in Adobe Photoshop CS4.
My 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 are 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.
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.