Right up there with Mountain Photography, I love being out on the coast shooting seascapes. The smell of the fresh salt air, the sound of the waves hitting the shore, the beautiful beaches, and the stunning rocky coasts are all reasons that bring me back again and again.
It’s not always “a day at the beach” as the expression goes. There are some challenges to capturing quality fine art photographs on the coast. California, Oregon, and Washington combine together for 1,300 miles of coastline. The Gulf of Mexico has 1,600 miles of coastline and the East Coast from Florida to Maine has 2,000 miles of coastline. Alaska, well that’s a whole bunch more.
So, there is no shortage of locations to photograph seascapes. Sure, there are some spots that are better than others, but finding the best scenes and compositions are probably the easy part.
1. Staying Safe
First and foremost, I do everything I can to stay safe and not get hurt. I rocky coastline can be a dangerous place. There are far too many stories of photographers trying to get some epic shot standing out on a slippery wet rock and a rogue wave comes in and knocks them over and a serious, and maybe life-threatening injury, results. This is a real issue on the Oregon Coast, in particular. No photograph is worth this and I implore everyone to not do this.
2. Keeping your equipment dry
This can be a challenge even in a completely safe location. Of course, you want to be down low to the water capturing the waves as they explode on the rocks. You can be sitting in a totally safe spot or standing in knee-deep water and huge splashes and wind-driven water can cover your and your camera. I don’t mind getting wet, but the camera isn’t too happy about it. Camera rain covers or plastic bags can help, but you can be sure there will be a lot of lens cleaning and drying between shots. It’s a challenge, but just a little one.
I was standing in knee-deep water with my camera and tripod when I was shooting the below photograph of Thor’s Well at Cape Perpetua on the Oregon Coast. These are the right conditions to capture the water falling into the well. Out of nowhere, a large wave came in and I had a few seconds to brace for it before it hit me. If it had knocked me over, my camera would have been toast.
3. Be Aware of the Tides
You get to the coast, get all set up in the perfect position, and then realize you forgot to check the tide tables. Now you’re wondering are the waves going to be getting closer or further away. You pull out your cell phone to check the tide app, but there isn’t any cell service. You realize that you should have done this quite some time ago. It’s not the end of the world, as you can always move, but it’s so much easier when you know.
While not knowing the tide schedule is not a huge problem in simple beach scenarios where you walk straight down to the beach, it can be in others. Maybe you need to go around a point of land that just has enough room to get around it. The tide comes in and you’re not getting back around without swimming, and that may be a problem for your gear.
Many years ago when I was new at this, I walked out on the flat rocks on the Oregon coast photographing tide pools. The tide came in so fast that the next thing I knew I was having to make it back in and had to wade through waist-deep water. I learned to do that activity on an outgoing tide.
I use the Tides Near Me app and have been quite happy with it. For the photograph below, I knew the tide was coming in, which was perfect. I wanted the incoming rush of the water to get closer each time until I got it just right.
4. Determining the Look with shutter speed
When I’m shooting on the coast one of the things I want to do is determine if I want to photograph the water as it looks with a fast shutter speed or slow it down and blur the water to make it look smooth. The long shutter speed could require the use of a neutral density (darkening) filter, which I always carry with me.
I don’t always know when I’m standing there the look I’m going to want so I shoot the scene multiple ways and figure it out later. At the beach, I tend to like a crisp line of white foam on the sand, which can act a little like a foreground. There are also times when I like to have a long exposure of the water coming in or going out. Usually, that’s about a three-second exposure.
The first image below uses a short exposure to get a nice crisp white foam line in the foreground. The second image below uses a long exposure to capture the water returning to the ocean.
5. Sunrise and Sunset Over The Water
The ocean is a great place to shoot sunrise or sunset depending on if you are on the east coast or west coast. I plan accordingly to be in place 45 minutes before sunrise. This generally requires that I scout the location the day before so I will know where I want to be. Trying to figure that out in the dark is never a lot of fun.
Although the maximum color will usually be when the sun is below the horizon, there can be great sunbeams shooting all over the place when the sun is behind a cloud just over the horizon. So, if you’re shooting, plan on being there and ready for that. There isn’t as much color in the clouds when the sunbeams are happening, but they sure are cool and make for a great fine art print.
6. Piers, Jetties and Lighthouses
Having grown up on the water, I did my share of exploring coastal areas. If there was a lighthouse or some other structure like a pier or a jetty, I was drawn to it. This has carried forward to today and I’m always looking to include them in my seascape prints.
Some of the lighthouses and piers are more interesting and attractive than others. Shown below is The Portland Head Lighthouse, which is the most picturesque lighthouse I know of. Also below is the Folly Beach Pier in Charleston, South Carolina. I love the intricate woodwork on the pier and the structures on it. Sunrise on the coast is always better at high tide, covering what might otherwise be a black rocky shoreline. So, planning around the tides is required.
7. Shooting the Storms
The words “Storm Photography” conjure up images of supercells and tornadoes from the mid-west. As fun as shooting those storms might be, I don’t believe they make for good fine art prints. What I’m talking about are offshore storms that create large waves or interesting thunderstorm clouds.
The first photograph below is from Thunder Hole in Acadia National Park. It was a beautiful day, but the remnants of a hurricane far offshore were causing huge swells resulting in Thunder Hole doing its thing in a great way.
Every winter the King Tides, at the high peak each month, resulting in these amazing and huge waves that crash on the shore at Shore Acres State Park in Oregon. Over and over again they crash and explode when they hit the rocky shore. It’s a blast to be there, even just to watch it. The only challenge is knowing in advance the tide tables and the day to be there.
8. Coastal Fog
I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with coastal fog. For most landscape photographers, if you mention there’s going to be fog, their ears perk up and they get quite excited about the prospect of it. Well, it can be a really nice atmospheric addition to the scene. At the same time, it can be so thick that you really can’t see a thing and there’s no photograph to be taken. It can also result in a plain gray sky that makes it really difficult to come away with a decent image for a print.
Most of my experience has been on the Pacific Coast although I know that New England can have some really think fog at times. In the image below from the Samuel Boardman State Scenic Area in Oregon, the thick morning fog was lifting which was the perfect time to photograph the scene. A small amount of the blue sky was beginning to show.
Further up the coast near Newport, Oregon at the Yaquina Head Lighthouse, it was the same situation with the morning fog beginning the clear. The area had just opened and I got down on the beach as quickly as I could. I decided that a long exposure look was going to blend best with the fog. The entire scene was mystical, just as I wanted it.
The challenge was watching the weather, predicting the best location and getting out early. Of course, being patient and waiting for the initial clearing is an important part of it.
Creating Fine Art Prints from the coastal beaches and rocky coasts is really a lot of fun for the photographer. There are a few challenges, but any worthwhile endeavor has those. I have enjoyed tremendously my time out on the coast and will be back again and again. Maybe I’ll see you out there!