You may have noticed that there's a trend at the moment for taking seascapes with long exposures. A quick search on Flickr reveals hundreds of beautiful seascapes, with amazing colours and inspired composition. Don't be deterred by the quality of some of these photos – it's not as difficult to take photos like these as you may think.
A lot of the work goes into the preparation – once you're in place at the right time of day the photographic technique itself is quite easy. I'm going to guide you through the process that I went through to take the above photo. All you need to do is follow these simple steps and you will also be taking beautiful seascapes.
Take a closer look at the photo. The key to the feel of this photo is the thirty second shutter speed that I used to take it. A shutter speed of this length blurs the water and anything else that is moving within the frame. The motion of the waves is smoothed out and the water takes on a misty, ethereal feel. If you look carefully, you'll see some shadowy figures on the rocks below. They are fishermen, and their silhouettes have blurred because they were moving during the thirty second exposure.
You can create blur with slower shutter speeds, but the effect is different. There seems to be something special about the quality of photos taken with shutter speeds of thirty seconds.
Another reason for selecting a thirty second exposure is that on most cameras it's the longest available preset shutter speed. You need to use the bulb setting to obtain longer shutter speeds. While the bulb setting is not complicated to use, setting a shutter speed of thirty seconds is easier.
Now, look at this photo, taken at a location very close to the first one on a different day. I shot the photo hand-held with a shutter speed of 1/80 second. It's still a good photo but the mood, colour and aesthetic is completely different.
Finding a Location
Location is important. You need to find a photogenic beach with all the necessary elements (rocks, cliffs, crashing waves and so on) that make a dramatic seascape. If you don't know a suitable place, try looking through books and magazines or searching online. Flickr is a good place to start. Look for the photographers that are taking the best photos in your area. Their work will inspire you as well as give you ideas for suitable locations.
My photo was taken at Muriwai, near Auckland. Searching on Flickr I found the work of Anthony Ko. After looking at his photos I gained some good ideas about viewpoints and the potential of the location before I'd even been there.
Decide When to Shoot
The time of day is important. The best and most dramatic photos are taken at either sunset or sunrise. Check the weather forecast – the last thing you want to do is arrive and find that the sun is completely obscured by cloud. You can get good photos in bad weather, but it normally relies on the sun appearing through a break in the clouds.
Whether you go at sunrise or sunset depends on which way the beach is facing. The Photographer's Ephemeris is a free program for PC, Mac and Linus that tells you the time and location of sunset and sunrise anywhere in the world on any date.
You also need to think about the tides. Low tide is often a good time for taking photos because it reveals rocks and pools of water that make good foreground interest. Try and pick a day when the sunset (or sunrise) is at low tide. This is important if you're travelling a long way to a beach to take photos – there's nothing worse than arriving to find a high tide has covered the beach and that there's nothing to take photos of (although in my case it wasn't so important, because I planned to take photos from the top of the cliff).
Get a Neutral Density Filter
The light levels have to be very low to obtain a shutter speed of thirty seconds. My photo was taken with a nine stop neutral density filter (they also come in strengths of 3 stops and 10 stops). A neutral density filter reduces the amount of light that reaches the sensor, so that you need longer shutter speeds to take photos.
Neutral density filters, especially the nine and ten stop versions, give you the option of taking photos with long shutter speeds when the ambient light levels are still relatively high.
For instance, if your shutter speed is 1/30 second at f8 and ISO 100 without any filters, the shutter speed will drop to 1/4 second with a three stop neutral density filter, to 16 seconds with a nine stop filter, and to 32 seconds with a ten stop filter. The nine and ten stop neutral density filters give you shutter speeds that you can't obtain any other way.
Ten stop neutral density filters tend to give a red colour cast. Be prepared to do some extra editing in Photoshop if you have one of these.
I bought my neutral density filter from Light Craft Workshop.
It's essential to have a strong tripod that will hold your camera completely steady throughout a long exposure. A cheap or flimsy tripod won't do that. You need an aluminium or carbon fibre tripod from a manufacturer like Giottos, Manfrotto or Gitzo (I use Giottos) with a good quality ball and socket head. Otherwise, your photos won't be sharp and your efforts will be wasted.
When you take a photo with an SLR camera, the action of the mirror flipping up vibrates the camera body. This doesn't matter if you are using a shutter speed that's fast enough to take hand-held photos. But it does matter if you're using slow shutter speeds because it can reduce the sharpness of your photos.
Avoid this by enabling the mirror lock-up. With this function enabled, the first touch on the shutter release button flips the mirror up, and the next fires the shutter. You can do this with a cable release (leave a gap of around ten seconds in-between to let the vibrations die down).
I use my camera's self-timer to do the same thing. The mirror flips up when I press the shutter release button, and ten seconds later the camera fires, without me having to do anything. Check your camera to see if it works the same way – this technique means I don't need a cable release and gives me sharp photos every time.
Wind can also cause camera shake. There was a strong breeze coming off the sea when I took this photo. I stood between the breeze and the camera during the exposure so that the wind wouldn't move the camera and spoil the photos.
Shoot in Manual Mode
Manual mode is the easiest way to shoot in these conditions. I started by setting the shutter speed to thirty seconds and putting it in shutter priority mode to get a suggested reading for the ISO and aperture. Then I switched to manual mode and entered all the settings manually. I took a test photo to check the exposure, and used the camera's histogram to check if the exposure was correct.
The advantage of this method is that the exposure reading remains constant from photo to photo. If the camera in automatic, the reading can be thrown out by light entering the viewfinder when you aren't looking through it (you can avoid this by clipping a cover over the viewfinder - they're built-in on some cameras and others have an accessory to do this on the camera strap). If the sun is slipping in and out from behind clouds this can also confuse your camera's automatic metering.
All I had to do is open the aperture or increase the ISO every so often as the light levels fell.
Shoot in RAW
I always shoot in RAW. There are lots of benefits to RAW, but the main one is that you can set the white balance in post-processing. As long as your monitor is calibrated, you can judge the effect on your computer screen and set it precisely. You can also use the noise reduction function to clean up any noise caused by the long exposure.
This image didn't need much tweaking in Lightroom. I set the Tone curve to Strong Contrast and the profile to Camera Landscape as a starting point. I set the White Balance to 4273 (with the tint slider at zero) to enhance the deep blue colours, increased the blacks a little to +8 to darken the shadows, and added a slight vignette to draw the eye towards the centre of the frame.
Your post-processing treatment should be dictated by the mood you want to create. I wanted a dark, moody photo with lots of deep blue colour – everything I did in Lightroom was with that goal in mind.
If you must shoot in JPEG, set the white balance to daylight. This preserves the natural colours created by the setting sun – it's the same as shooting with daylight balanced film. You may also need to enable the long exposure noise reduction function. Not all cameras need it at a shutter speed of thirty seconds – do a test to see if it makes any difference.
Keep the composition as simple as you can and go for mood and atmosphere. The focal point of my photo is the setting sun. The rocks in the foreground form two arrows pointing towards the horizon, and direct the viewer's eye towards the sun.
Have Fun Experimenting!
I hope you've found these hints and tips useful, and feel better prepared to head out and take a stunning seascape photo with a long exposure. Once you have the kit required (and have found a good location), it can be great fun experimenting with different compositions and times of day!