As the sun re-emerges we all start thinking about hitting the beach. For photographers, however, this takes on a completely different meaning. In this tutorial we offer our best seascape photography tips for using your 10-stop ND filter to shoot long exposures that tame the waves and convey a sense of movement in the clouds.
Words and images by Jeff Morgan.
We’re fortunate in the UK, where Digital Camera World is based, because we have such easy proximity to thousands of miles of beautiful coastal scenery, and most of us are within a couple of hours’ drive of the shore.
The advantage of costal photography is that such a huge variety of weather conditions can produce great images; dark and stormy overcast days can look great in monochrome, while puffy white clouds look fantastic in colour.
However, whatever the conditions, seascapes are invariably at their best when taken with a long exposure. Static waves and sea spray become a smooth, milky blur that has a dream-like quality.
Fast-moving clouds turn into impressive streaks that give the sky real texture, and distractions like birds – and even people walking along the beach – simply disappear.
But getting a satisfactory exposure is difficult in all but the lowest-light conditions and narrowest apertures, because effective exposures often need to be several seconds or minutes long.
To achieve this without resulting in over-exposed shots, the level of light hitting your camera’s sensor needs to be cut down using a neutral density (ND) filter – which is semi-opaque to reduce the amount of light without altering its colour.
While these have been available in varying strengths for many years, a more recent innovation is the super-strong 10-stop ND filter, which reduces the light hitting your sensor by a thousandth – or put another way, would increase a 1 sec exposure to more than 15 minutes! These filters are available from a number of manufacturers.
As well as an ND filter, you’ll need a tripod and midrange zoom (your kit lens is ideal). We went to Bedruthan Steps, Cornwall, for a long-exposure Masterclass. Here’s how we got on…
Seaside Photography Tips – 01 Break the rules!
We often talk about the ‘rule of thirds’ and the importance of placing the horizon at the top or bottom thirds of the frame.
However, reflections are the exception that proves the rule!
Putting your horizon dead centre makes for a dynamic composition as we’re creating interest in both the sea and sky.
The rule you don’t want to break, however, is not getting an even horizon. Use a hotshoe spirit level or Live View with the grid display to ensure your horizons are perfectly level.
Seaside Photography Tips – 02 Camera settings
Set your ISO to 100 for the best possible image quality and shoot in raw as this will give you more leeway for correcting exposure errors.
Don’t rely on Auto White Balance, use the Daylight setting instead to enhance the warm colours of dawn or sunset.
We’ll be using Manual Exposure mode set at 30 secs – or Bulb if longer exposures are required – and so a solid tripod and remote release are also important tools to ensure sharp results.
Seaside Photography Tips – 03 Attach the filter
Don’t attempt to meter or focus through a 10-stop filter because it’s simply too dark; set everything up manually first without the filter.
Put your camera on your tripod and compose the scene. Zoom your lens to the required focal length, and autofocus on a rock or other point of interest in the scene, then move the focus switch on your lens to Manual to lock the focus.
When attaching the ND filter, some zoom lenses and focus rings have a tendency to move easily; either hold them securely so they don’t budge, or use a few wraps of electrical tape to keep them from being moved accidentally.
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Seaside Photography Tips – 04 How to calculate exposure
A 30-second exposure will smooth the sea and sky – this translates to a 1/30 sec shutter speed with no filter (see below).
Set Shutter Priority mode and 1/30 sec, take a test shot (without the filter attached), and take a note of the aperture set by the camera.
Now set Manual exposure mode, dial in 30 secs and the aperture suggested by the camera, attach the filter and take your shot; examine the histogram then tweak settings as required.
Seaside Photography Tips – 05 Beach challenges
Webbed feet for your tripod are great for soggy sand! We used Manfrotto 230 Snow Shoes, which cost around £20 and will fit most makes of tripod.
For your own feet, all-terrain sandals or wellies are a good idea – and remember that seaside environments are slimy and slippery: steps can be hazardous, rocks are hard, and pools of water always end up deeper than they look!
Salt water and spray are hard on photo equipment, so be aware of tidal changes and avoid getting anything wet.
After your shoot, use a micro-fibre cloth to wipe down your camera, and rinse the tripod legs and webbed feet in fresh water.
READ MORE: 44 essential digital camera tips and tricks
Seaside Photography Tips – 06 When to shoot?
The best seascape images are usually shot into the light within an hour of sunset or sunrise. It’s also important to consult tide tables; a wet beach gives more reflections that add depth to the scene, so a retreating tide is best – and is also safer as there’s less risk of getting trapped by an advancing tide!
For our shot at Bedruthan Steps, which faces west along the north-Cornish coast, sunset was the best time to capture images.
On our chosen day, high tide was at 8pm and sunset 9.15pm – which gave us near-perfect conditions, with a glistening beach under the setting sun. Tide tables are available on the internet and apps for smartphones (we used the free Marine Day Tides app on the iPhone; www.tucabo.com).
The Photographer’s Ephemeris (free for computers, £5.99 iPhone/iPad; photoephemeris.com) is a great planning tool because it gives precise sunrise and sunset times for your location and displays them neatly with directional lines on a map.
Which filter to use for long-exposure seascapes
These super-strong 10-stop neutral density filters are available from quite a few manufacturers, and there are two main styles: square or round. Both have advantages and disadvantages.
We first tried the Lee Big Stopper (£100; www.leefilters.com) square filter, for use with its filter holder system. A big advantage was that it was so easy to remove and replace for focusing and composition changes, and it’s easy to use a second filter at the same time, such as a graduated ND or a polariser. It also had the most neutral colour of the filters tested.
The biggest disadvantage was that with strong side lighting, light would leak in, causing streaks at the side of the image, even though the filter has black sticky foam on the back to help seal it against light leakage.
Unlike the Lee filter, no additional filter holder is necessary (although it makes sense to buy the size for your largest diameter lens and use step-up rings to fit the filter onto smaller lenses), and the key advantage is that because the filter screws into the lens, light leakage from the side is completely eliminated.
The B&W filter had a slightly warm, brownish cast (although this was easy to remove in Photoshop). In contrast, the Heliopan filter was reasonably neutral, although it didn’t quite match Lee’s offering.
Overall, Heliopan’s filter offers the best compromise between quality and value.
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