If You’re At the Ocean . . .

by | Jun 9, 2012 | Tips & Tricks | 2 comments


Could you please post some tips on taking pictures of oceans?

1. Consciously Keep Horizons Straight
2. Shoot When the Sky is Colorful

Oceans really don’t change that much; but the sky does! If you are on the beach during the hours around sunrise and sunset, whatever subject you shoot will almost always look better. And it doesn’t have to be exactly when the sun is on the horizon. Several hours before the sun is on an equal with the horizon, and often half an hour or longer when it is below the horizon, the sky can often be quite beautiful and complement your oceanscapes well.

But really, it’s the clouds that make a sky look beautiful. Have you noticed that a sunset/rise with no clouds often looks kind of blah sometimes? But on the flip side of the coin, there can’t be too many clouds either. I’ve been at the beach more than once when there’s been a heavy cloud cover, It looks blah too. Having the perfect arrangement of time, location, and clouds isn’t always guaranteed, so when the do line up, take advantage of it.

Colorful Sunset_12-24-09_2304 (2)

3. Find a Good Subject

While the ocean and the sky can make great subjects, it’s always better to have something in the picture for the eye to focus on. Remember “Good Composition + Good Subject + Good Lighting = Emotional Impact”? There are plenty of good subjects along the ocean: lighthouses, boats, driftwood, oddly shaped rocks, piers, shore-birds, fishermen, joggers, shells, sandals, palm trees, and the list goes on for ever and ever. I’m sure someone who lived close to the beach would be able to think of many more ideas than I would.

Fishing Boat_07-12-10_1082

4. Freeze Action

The ocean is always moving. If you want to freeze the action of a wave crashing against a rugged shore, set your shutterspeed in Shutter Priority Mode to 1/500th of a second or higher to freeze every little droplet of water.

Capturing a crashing wave just at the right moment will take some practice. I’ve tired it before, and I tell you, it isn’t easy. The easiest way, though, is to set the correct exposure in Manual Mode, pre-focus and turn off the automatic focus, set the camera to your highest Burst Mode, and then use a tripod and shutter release to take a series of pictures when the crash comes. Be aware too that the same magnitude of crash and spray you see once may not occur again for several minutes, if ever at all.

Usually, this technique only works well when the sun is shining bright and directly on the water because it’s hard to get a fast shutterspeed without sacrificing quality on the typical amateur level cameras these.

Shore Acres State Park - OR

5. Smooth Out the Water

So after the sun sets, or if it’s a cloudy day, you can go the opposite extreme and creatively slow down your shutterspeed to create what I believe is the most beautiful technique you can use in water photography. I love to find rocky places where water from waves comes rushing in and out. The result of shooting this type of scene with a slow shutter-speed is an eerie mist that enshrouds the rocks.

This technique also requires a tripod, an ND filter sometimes (or a few of them), and lots of practice. I’ve tried this technique a few times, but I still don’t know all the caveats about it to really know how to make it work.

7945_New Haven-Connecticut-USA_Canon EOS 40D, 31 mm, 13.0 sec at f - 22, ISO 200

So those are my initial thoughts on taking pictures of the ocean. As bonus, here are a few little things to keep in mind:

  • Avoid just taking pictures of waves by themselves (because really, they are a good complement, not necessarily a good subject all the time).
  • Watch out for salt water spray (because it will ruin your camera, glass and tripod).
  • Go barefoot or wear footwear you don’t mind getting wet (because I’ve experienced the un-comfortableness of soaked hiking boots).
  • Remember to keep your pictures honoring to the Lord (because for some reason people think it’s ok to be immodest at the beach).
  • Bring both a long lens (for shorebirds and ocean critters) and a wide-angle lens (for your landscapes).
  • And don’t forget to bring along tracts to hand out to other photographers and folks you meet!

I’ll keep posting as things come to mind!

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  1. Everett

    This comment is a little late. I was just in San Diego last month and it is BEAUTIFUL there! I actually thought of you a few times and how much stuff you would find to photograph there with your high tech camera (vs my point and shoot). You really need to visit some of the cliff beaches out there. Hope everything is going well.

  2. James

    Great to hear from you, Everett! I didn’t know about the cliff beaches around San Diego so I’ll have to keep that in mind if I’m ever in the area again.


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