How to take long exposure shots of the sea

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Learn how to take long exposure shots of the sea that blur the water and create a serene mood with this expert guide to taking control of shutter speed! So read on to learn how you can take better long exposure pictures of water.

Ocean Blur: how to take long exposure pictures of the sea using an ND filter

Timing is key to shooting great seascapes. You need to be there at the right time of day, but just as important is the timing of the exposure. For a raging, stormy sea, a fast shutter speed can be appropriate, but with calmer waters, the best approach is to take it slow. Very slow.

In this long exposure photography tutorial we’ll show you how to take control of your camera to take long exposure shots of the sea you can be proud of.

Shutter speeds that are seconds long turn even the gentlest waters into a smooth, silky blur, and the expanse of water takes on a milky white appearance that contrasts with the static rocks (find out some of the common mistakes at every shutter speed – and the best settings to use).

All landscapes will tend to look their best if you get up at first light, or stay out until dusk. But these dimmer parts of the day are particularly appropriate for milky seascapes, and the low light will give you longer exposures than shooting in the middle of the day.

However, a little bit of blur in the water isn’t enough to give you the effect you want, which means you either need to shoot after sunset or just before dawn, when the only light is reflected from the sky.

Alternatively, give your camera a helping hand by fitting an ND (neutral density) filter. These dark grey filters (not to be muddled up with graduated neutral density filters, or ND grads) block a percentage of the light entering the camera and enable you to use shutter speeds that are seconds long, even in the middle of the day.

SEE MORE: 5 essential photography filters (and why you can’t live without them)

ND filters are available in a variety of strengths. A three-stop ND will increase a shutter speed of 1/4 sec to 2 secs. A 10-stop ND will increase a 1/4 sec exposure to a full four minutes!

As these filters make your camera’s viewfinder very dark, they aren’t the easiest accessories to use, but our step-by-step guide will show you how to make sure you always come home with a great seascape.

SEE MORE: The 10 Commandments of Landscape Photography (and how to break them)

How to take long exposure pictures of the sea

How to take long exposure pictures of the sea: Step 1

01 Pick your location
Ideally you need somewhere where you can get down near the water as it breaks over the shore. You also need the sun to be low in the sky so it picks out the rocks. For all this information, try a program or app that lets you work out the best time, date and spot to head to. LightTrac, which costs £2.99 for iPad, iPhone and Android phones, is a good choice.

SEE MORE: 10 tips for better coastal landscapes

How to take long exposure pictures of the sea: Step 2

02 Watch the tide
It’s no good just turning up at dusk or dawn – you need to check the tides. As a rule, these shots look better if the tide is going out because this ensures that the wet rocks glisten, but you also need the water to be high enough to break against your chosen rocks. UK photographers can visit to check the tides online.

SEE MORE: The landscape’s greatest challenges: free photography cheat shee

How to take long exposure pictures of the sea: Step 3

03 Find your foreground
When you get to the location, you need to find the best camera angle, and it’s often best to hunt this out without your tripod. You need to find a focal point, such as a headland or lighthouse, as well as a good foreground – getting low helps you make rocks look big in the frame.

SEE MORE: Composing pictures with foreground interest – simple ways to draw in the eye

How to take long exposure pictures of the sea: Step 4

04 Keep a level head
Set the camera on the tripod. It’s essential that your DSLR is level – a sloping horizon is extremely irritating with seascapes, and this is hard to check as it gets darker. Use a spirit level in the hotshoe, or switch on Live View and use the grid overlay to make sure you get things straight.

SEE MORE: 4 tips to ensure a level horizon

How to take long exposure pictures of the sea: Step 5

05 Get set to take it slow
To get long shutter speeds, first switch to Aperture Priority mode and set a low ISO of around 100, with a narrow aperture of around f/16. Focus on a point about a third of the way up the frame – depending on the light, you might need to use a torch to light up this point.

  SEE MORE: What your histogram says about your landscapes

How to take long exposure pictures of the sea: Step 6

06 Check the focus and lock it down
Take a test shot to check the focus. If everything is sharp, lock the focus by switching off autofocus (find out how to use focus lock on your DSLR). Now fit your ND filter. Choose a strength that gets you an exposure that’s between 15 secs and 2 minutes long. A variable ND filter will provide you with a range of shutter speeds.

SEE MORE: Seascape photography tips: using your 10-stop ND filter for ultra-long exposures

How to take long exposure pictures of the sea: Step 7

07 Employ a graduate
With most seascapes, your shots will also benefit from using a second filter – a graduated ND filter that darkens the sky in the top half of the shot and lightens the foreground. A two-stop (0.6) soft-edged graduate is a good all-round choice that will do wonders for most landscape shots.

SEE MORE: 10 common camera mistakes every photographer makes

How to take long exposure pictures of the sea: Step 8

08 Minimise vibrations
With such long shutter speeds, you’ll need to use a cable release and Live View to avoid shaky shots caused by the camera’s mirror moving as it takes the picture. The combination of long exposures and Live View means your battery won’t last long, so make sure you have a spare (find out what Live View is telling you).

SEE MORE: Common mistakes at every shutter speed (and the best settings you should use)

How to take long exposure pictures of the sea: Step 9

09 Salty spots
Salt spray on the front of the lens is an occupational hazard, and if you don’t check for it, it can leave marks on your pictures that can be hard to clone out. Make sure you have a lens cloth at the ready – and a towel, just in case there’s a bigger wave that catches you unawares!


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  • thank you, helpful tips

  • MaryGreen

    Great tips! I adore making see photos, but they are not quite good, for a pity, maybe they’ll get better now)

  • maclough

    and also watch out for the humidity, nothing like humidty rising up across your water or sand to ruin a good photo. I live at the beachside and learned the hard way…

  • W Britton

    They say to switch to manual focus, but if you have your camera set up for back-button auto-focussing, as long as you don’t switch the camera off, it locks the focus and after finding the exposure, you can screw on your ND filter set the shutter speed according to the filter’s calculator sheet and fire away. I’ve tried it and it works.