Create Stunning Coastal Landscapes with These 7 Tips

Are you on your way to the coast for some stunning landscapes? Consider the following tips before your next beach photography adventure:

1. Try Different Perspectives – Not exactly a shocking tip since it's a general rule for photography, but it works so well when photographing coastal landscapes that it must be mentioned. A simple photo taken at eye level can be turned into something truly unique by lowering your perspective a bit.

Photo by jonmartin

In this image, the low perspective provided a unique view of the rocks, seen from an angle only achievable by getting low – this creates a strong foreground subject with much texture.

2. Use Wide Angle Lenses – In order to get a low perspective like in the image above, you need a wide angle lens to help you out. Typically, you’re in an environment where it’s difficult to capture all the elements in your field of view – such as the entire beach or, in the image above, both the rocks below and the bridge. A wide angle lens will work especially well for coastal shots of water moving along the sand or in between rocks.

3. Follow the Light – When photographing coastal scenes, focus on the light and how it can change your image. Sunsets and sunrises on the horizon line will cast a beautiful color across your photo, but it can also be a distraction since it can reflect off of waves as blown highlights. Depending on your intention, it can overpower your image.

Photo by Christopher O'Donnell

In this image, the reflections in the water do not distract too much from the rest of the image as it fills up an otherwise uninteresting foreground, but this may not be the same case for every composition.

Also note that you can photograph your coastal scene with the sun behind you – as in, if you live on the east coast where the sun will rise on the ocean horizon, you can still capture stunning light with the sun setting. It would be a good idea to scout your location first to find out how long your landscape will allow a front lit image (for example, if there’s a large hill behind you that will block the sun an hour before sunset).

When photographing into the sun, a wide aperture will soften and widen it, while a smaller aperture (f/11 and up) will give you those nice star-shape rays that we associate suns with (as seen below).

Photo by Christopher O'Donnell

Additionally, during the golden hours, the sun is at an angle where it will illuminate mist, giving you a great golden fog when the weather conditions permit it.

Dont let the Sun Go Down on Me Dunedin
Photo by Stephen Murphy

4. Long Exposures – Since water is a moving subject, using a long exposure can create wonderful images showing the flow of the ocean. There are typically two areas of long exposure photography when it comes to moving water – photos that have exaggerated movement, and photos that appear to be a clear sheet of ice.

Photo by Christopher O'Donnell

In this first image, you can see that the tide created these great lines in the water as it receded. This was a 3 second exposure and is a typical shutter speed for this kind of effect (1-3 seconds) – any longer would blur the lines too much, and any shorter wouldn’t be effective.

When trying to capture tidal movement like this, try to photograph the tide as it goes out instead of approaching as that is when these lines are created.

The other option for long exposures is to have a ridiculously long shutter speed (up to 400 seconds or beyond) using one or several ND400 filters. This will allow you to capture even the choppiest waters as a flat, smooth surface, which makes for great black and white photos. Moving clouds that are blurred are an added bonus to this method.

Beam this up - Stradbroke Island (Straddie)
Photo by Garry

5. What to Know When Shooting Waves – If you go to the coast to photograph waves, always start shooting a few seconds before you anticipate a wave crash and shoot continuously throughout. The most interesting photos could be right before the wave breaks.

If you’re in an unsecured location (that is, where the water can reach you), take precautions with your gear – especially when photographing approaching waves on the beach. The tide is unpredictable – just when you think you know how far the water will travel, a rogue wave will come up and take your gear with it. Many photographers have lost their camera, lens, and/or car keys from a wave that simply “came out of nowhere”.

Instead, calculate how far you think a wave can reach and add 20 feet to that amount. You can also leave your camera bag on your back, or put it high up on a rock – whatever you do, don’t leave your camera bag on the sand and never leave your camera on a tripod unattended. A wave can easily come up and knock it over – always be prepared to pick up your camera and tripod if necessary.

6. Nighttime Photos – Don’t underestimate photographing a coastal scene at night. Long exposures on a clear evening can give you some stunning stars, cloud movement, and a unique, soft light from the moon.

Night Rider
Photo by Garry

7. Scout Your Location – I think the best tip I can give any photographer looking to photograph the coast is to know your location. If it’s an area you’re not familiar with, scout it first, making note of any interesting rock formations, beach perspectives, or notable features on the horizon (like a peninsula or lighthouse in the distance).

This will allow you to not only plan where you’ll be taking your photos, but also give you a feel of what the light looks like. Are you on a sunrise or sunset coast? Will your scene be hidden in the shadows during the golden hours? Also remember to know your tide – a simple internet search will give you the approximate high and low tide times so you can make sure that your composition won’t be affected by the water (for example, important rocks in your composition that become hidden at high tide).

There are certainly a few things to consider when photographing the coast. However, the more time and preparation you put into your coastal shots, the more often you’ll come out of it with the image you were looking for. Alternatively, you can just visit the coast during good lighting conditions and see what you can come up with (what I usually do). Either way, the tips outlined above will surely help you capture the coast in unique and interesting ways.

Read more great articles by Christopher O’Donnell at his blog or follow him on Facebook.


About the author

    Christopher O'Donnell

    I'm a professional landscape photographer living on the coast of Maine. Through my work, I like to show a vantage point that is rarely seen in reality; a show of beauty, emotion, and serenity. Feel free to visit my website.


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