Creativity in Coastal Photography

Landscape photography along our seashores

My fourth and final online talk of 2022 went ahead on 7th December, during which I covered the skills and techniques often used with creativity in coastal photography.

The whole talk can be watched simply by clicking on the You Tube link below. I hope you’ll enjoy it! You can also read on through this blog, which summarises much of what’s in the talk.

Capturing the beauty of the shore

From calm, sheltered estuaries, to wide and sweeping sandy beaches, to wild and rugged cliffs, there is so much subject matter to help us with creativity in coastal photography. Hugely variable, and photographable at any time of the year, the seashore is a wonderfully inspiring place for any landscape photographer to lose themselves in their art.

The aim of this article and its video is to give some pointers and tips towards really honing one’s coastal landscape photography skills.

Not only is the coastal environment enormously varied, but so are the types of photography you can get stuck into. Firstly, there’s the classic kind of photography, the large wide views of a clearly identifiable place, photographed in the middle of the day during calm and sunny summer weather. Such images are evocative of warm summer holidays, and are often the stuff of travel brochures and magazines.

Many photographers will often find themselves taking these kinds of images for a great many reasons, and although they generate good quality, attractive record shots of a place, they rarely satisfy the inner artist searching for creativity, mood and artistic beauty. For that, you need a rather different approach, at the very least shooting at the ends of the day, when the light is low and warmly coloured. Most of this article will concentrate on these more creative techniques.

The simplest form of coastal photography consists of shooting wide views in the middle of the day during calm, sunny summer weather.

Horizon, horizon, horizon

Before I go any further with creativity in coastal photography, I have to say a word about the horizon. It might be an exaggeration to say that coastal photography is all about the horizon, but it is an absolutely critical point.

That line where sea and sky meet way off in the distance is usually quite strongly visible even on a hazy or stormy day. And guess what: it is always, always, always LEVEL! A sloping sea simply can’t exist, otherwise all that water would just slosh off down the slope. So in coastal landscape photography it is imperative to get your horizons level.

It is perhaps acceptable in forms of photography where the landscape element is secondary, such as in an image of some action sport that dominates the frame, to have a background horizon sloping. But in landscape photography, particularly of the coast, in which the horizon is usually very visible, it must be level. I’ve seen so many otherwise perfectly acceptable coastal photography images ruined by a sloping horizon.

Creativity in coastal photography
In coastal landscape photography the horizon absolutely must be level.

Some essential creative techniques

Once you’ve sorted out the horizon, one of the first steps towards creativity in your coastal photography is the time of day you shoot. Photography during the middle of the day in summer is all very well – it certainly produces images that capture the idea of summer holidays – but such images usually lack atmosphere and artistry.

Photography during what is known as the golden hour, that is the first and last hours of the day, as well as during dawn and sunrise, and sunset and dusk. For roughly the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset the light will have a warm, golden or reddish hue, creating a wonderful richness in the landscape’s colours. What’s more the low sun angle will create strong shadows, greatly increasing the apparent three dimensionality of a scene, helping foreground elements to really stand out from their background.

Furthermore, shortly before sunrise or after sunset there can be wonderful colours in the sky, and while your landscape itself will be rather flatly lit (since the sun will be below the horizon) this is more than made up for by the colours in the sky. Of course, those colourful skies don’t always happen and they can be a little tricky to predict accurately. A lot of luck can be involved here.

What is much more predictable is that about an hour before sunrise and an hour after sunset everything will be quite blue, what is sometimes known as the ‘blue hour’. This is the final stage of lighting in the landscape before it finally becomes totally dark.

When photographing seascapes, it is astonishing how often I see photographers pack up and leave a scene the moment the sun has dipped below the horizon. Don’t do that! The sunset is only the start of the evening show: you have to wait to see what the sky will do over the next hour, until you’re well into the blue hour.

Creativity in coastal photography
For creative landscape photography shoot during the ‘golden hour’ when the sun is low in the sky.

Exposing sky, sea and land

One of the big technical challenges of coastal landscape photography is getting an exposure that is right for every element in the scene: sea, land and sky.

To be honest, the sea and land usually need a fairly similar exposure, so there’s not too much of a problem there. However, the problem comes with the sky. Even on a cloudy day, the sky is usually a lot brighter than either the sea or the land, something that the eye often doesn’t notice.

The human eye is incredibly adept at handly the large contrast range between sea and sky, and is able to see detail in both quite easily. Unfortunately, a camera’s digital sensor is nowhere near as sensitive as the human eye, leaving the contrast range between sea and sky far to great for it to cope.

The result? Usually you end up with images in which the sea and land are correctly exposed but the sky is hopelessly burned out, all those lovely cloud patterns lost due to significant over-exposure. It is particularly bad when shooting into the light, especially when the sun is low.

The solution is to use neutral density graduated filters (usually shortened to just ND grads). These are rectangular filters in which one half is darkened and the other half is left clear. They fit easily on the front of your lens with the help of a screw ring that has the same thread size as your lens, and a filter holder that slides over the ring.

All you need to do is put the darkened part of the filter over the brighter part of the image (usually the sky), and then line up the filter’s dark/clear transition line with the horizon. Immediately, you’ve reduced the contrast range to something that the sensor can handle, darkening the sky and brightening the sea/land. The result is an image that looks much closer to what you see with your eye than the ‘unfiltered’ image is able to manage.

As you can see in the image below, there are – generally speaking – two types of ND grad, hard and soft, the former having a sharp transition between dark and clear, the latter having a more gradual one. The hard filter is of more use in coastal photography, though it’s also more difficult to use well. Beginners to ND grads may find the soft filter easier to use initially.

A basic ND grad filter kit, consisting of two filters (hard and soft ND grads), a holder and adaptor ring.

Although the ND grads’ main use is to correct for a failing in the digital sensor’s performance, creating images that more closely resemble the real world, they can also be used to great effect to enhance and exaggerate mood and cloud patterns.

In this use, it is common to deliberately over-darken the skies, enhancing the clouds’ visibility and often exaggerating the ‘angriness’ or storminess of a scene. The result is an image with lots of brooding mood, and often a very dynamic sense of energy.

Creativity in coastal photography
ND grads can often be used to enhance mood, exaggerating the storminess of the clouds in a landscape.

To blur or not to blur moving water

The sea is, of course, a very dynamic environment, the water constantly on the move, full of energy, driven by invisible forces. Unfortunately, when you take a still image of that environment there is a danger that all the movement is lost, resulting in a very static image, one that completely misses the sea’s all-important dynamic mood.

One of the most popular ways to overcome this is to use a slow shutter speed. This will blur the moving waves, something that immediately puts the sense of energy and movement back into your still image. However, just how much blur you put in will have a big impact on the mood of your image. A shutter speed of say somewhere between one-tenth of a second and one second will result in an image containing a very agitated and dynamic sea, in which waves and spray are still clearly visible, though their movement is blurred.

On the other hand an exposure time of over about four seconds will result in the sea completely blurring out into a smooth sheet, often with what appears to be a veil of mist above the water, resulting in a very soothing, ethereal and artistic scene, something that may run quite contrary to the actual mood of the real scene.

Needless to say, these shutter speeds are just guess-timates, as just exactly how much blur you get depends very much on how fast your waves are moving and how big they are. This is part of the joy of this kind of photography: you don’t really know what you’re going to get, and so you often just have to keep on shooting, allowing different waves to create different patterns in your images.

This kind of photography is quite straightforward – provided you put the camera on a tripod – when light levels are low, such as at the start or end of the day, or in cloudy weather. However, when shooting in the middle of the day, and particularly in sunny weather, you’ll need to use a neutral density filter – one that cuts down the light right across the lens – to reduce the available light sufficiently to make a slow shutter speed possible.

That said, there are times when using a fast shutter speed to freeze the movement of the sea is appropriate. This is particularly so when the waves are quite large, or when you want to home in close on a wave to show every droplet of spray flying through the air.

Creativity in coastal photography
Blurring the movement of the sea can be very effective at putting energy into an image.

Photography of stormy conditions

It is tempting to want to go to photograph the stormiest of stormy conditions, to capture the drama of nature in the raw. However, unless you are shooting something that is genuinely newsworthy, I would generally caution against it for the following reasons:

  • The light is nearly always terrible;
  • Salt spray and rain will very quickly cover your lens and filters making it very difficult to shoot. Salt spray in particular can be very hard to clean off;
  • The wind is usually so strong that you’ll struggle to hold the camera still enough. And a tripod will get blown over in seconds, even a sturdy one;
  • It is just plain dangerous, particularly along the most exposed coasts, such as – in the UK – Cornwall and west Scotland.

For these reasons, it is far better to wait for the main storm front to pass before venturing out. At this time, the cloud cover will usually break, allowing for some sunlight, including rainbows and dramatic shafts of sunlight. Furthermore, the wind strength will be a little lower, but the waves will still be big and angry. Coupled with the improved light this can result in some very dramatic scenes.

Spray and rain will be less of an issue, and you’ll be able to use the camera safely – hand-held or on a tripod – and all without the risk of being blown off the cliff (really, it has nearly happened to me).

What’s more, with the use of such techniques as a moderate blurring of the waves, coupled with some dramatic low light (including shafts of sunlight breaking through clouds), it is possible to produce images that, though shot in moderate conditions, actually look as though the weather was quite stormy.

Creativity in coastal photography
Dramatic shafts of sunlight breaking through heavy cloud can enhance the apparent storminess of a scene.

A word on safety

This article would not be complete without a word on safety. The sea is a wonderful environment to photograph, but it can be dangerous, especially for the unwary. To minimise risk follow these guidelines:

  • Always know the tide times for the area you’re shooting in, and plan around them;
  • Be aware of risks of being cut off by a rising tide, and avoid them;
  • If shooting on a surf-bound shore close to the water’s edge, keep a sharp lookout for regular wave surges that can drive up towards you without warning;
  • Always take a fully charged phone with you, but don’t rely completely on it – many stretches of our coast have no phone signal, so also make sure you tell someone at home where you’re going;
  • Avoid photography at the height of a storm, particularly on an exposed clifftop.

So now you’ve got all that lot sorted out, get out shooting our coast and really enjoy it!

Future talks

My free online talks take place every three months, so the next one will be in March 2023. I’ve yet to decide on a title, but that will be forthcoming shortly. If you’d like to attend the live talk, all you need to do is to register so I know to send you the link.

To stay up to date with plans and events, click on the link below to join our mailing list. To register for future talks you will be able to do so shortly once the next one has been confirmed.

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Author: Nigel Hicks

Nigel Hicks is a highly experienced professional photographer and writer, based in Devon, southwest England, but frequently working around the world. He shoots for a range of clients and is a member of the National Geographic Image Collection. He has written over 20 books, covering travel, wildlife and photography subjects.