Coastal landscape photography can result in breathtaking images that feature stunning skies, beautiful water motion, and gorgeous wide-angle vistas; that’s why so many professional landscape shooters love working along the coast.
But photographing coastal landscapes is far from easy. These scenes offer up an array of challenging conditions, including sea spray, high dynamic range lighting, wind, storms, and so much more. Unless you know the right techniques, you’ll end up with blurry, poorly exposed shots that don’t look anything like the refined photos that you see in professional landscape portfolios.
Below, I share my top seven tips for gorgeous coastal images. I take you through all the key elements, including camera settings, gear, lighting, and composition – so by the time you finish reading, you’ll be ready to head off with your camera and create some incredible files.
Let’s get started.
1. Be there at the right time
While coastal landscape photography can be done at any time of the day or night, if you want great results, I’d recommend shooting during two specific times:
The golden hour refers to the hour or two just after sunrise and just before sunset; the low sun emits gorgeous rays of light that make the scene turn golden and beautiful. Plus, golden hour tends to coincide with stunning skies, which is always a great addition to your coastal shots.
Then there’s the blue hour, which is the few minutes before sunrise and after sunset. During the blue hour, the sun is below the horizon but the world isn’t completely dark – and while it can be difficult to perceive with the naked eye, the world tends to look a beautiful, ethereal blue.
You might be wondering: Can’t I shoot coastal scenes during the middle of the day? Unfortunately, midday lighting tends to be quite harsh and unflattering. While you can find softer light on cloudy days, overcast skies tend to look rather flat, so if you want to increase your chances of coming home with keepers, it’s best to stick to the golden hour and the blue hour as described above.
Note that golden hour and blue hour lighting tends to be relatively dim, so you’ll need to take certain steps to prevent camera shake from turning your photos into a mess of blur. Once you have the right gear and use the right techniques, though, you’ll find that dim light is actually a major benefit because it lets you lengthen your shutter speed to create stunning long-exposure effects!
2. Use a tripod (and reduce vibrations)
As I explained in the previous tip, the best time for coastal landscape shooting tends to be early and late in the day when the sun is relatively weak. Additionally, it’s generally a good idea to use a narrow aperture to keep the entire scene in focus.
What does this mean in practical terms? Very little light will be impacting your sensor, so you’ll need to use a slow shutter speed to keep your photos well-exposed. But here’s the problem: The slower the shutter speed, the harder it is to keep your shots sharp. Even the tiniest vibration will cause blur, instantly ruining your images. Therefore, you’ll need to take steps to prevent all types of camera shake.
First and foremost, purchase a sturdy tripod and use it all the time. You won’t be able to keep your shots sharp while handholding, so it’s best to avoid it entirely. Instead, every time you head out to do coastal photography, make sure you work atop that tripod. Note that some tripods are better than others – and as a coastal photographer, you’ll need a decently robust model that can handle heavier winds and rushing water.
Second, shoot in Live View or with a mirrorless camera. It may not seem like a big deal, but a mirror can cause vibrations when it flips up to expose the sensor to light, which can contribute to image blur.
And third: Get your hands away from your camera and tripod when you shoot. Trigger the shutter using a remote release; that way, you can fire off shots from a distance without causing any vibrations when your finger presses the shutter button. (Another option is to use your camera’s 2-second or 10-second self-timer. This strategy does work, but it’s difficult to time your shots when working with moving subjects – such as rushing waves – so I’d really recommend purchasing a remote.)
3. Get the right filters
Every landscape photographer should own a few high-quality filters, all of which will come in handy when shooting on the coast. Specifically, I’d recommend purchasing:
- A neutral density filter. This accessory will reduce the amount of light hitting your camera sensor, allowing you to lengthen the shutter speed even in bright light. It’s essential for scenarios where you want to create a long-exposure effect but the sun is providing too much light for a 10-second, 20-second, or 10-minute shutter speed.
- A circular polarizer filter. Polarizers filter out certain types of light, consequently reducing reflections and increasing color saturation. Not every scene needs a polarizer, but if you want to reduce glints of light on wet rocks or you’re looking to cut down on reflections on the surface of the water, a polarizer will do the trick.
- A graduated neutral density filter (also known as an ND grad). This type of filter is less essential, though many landscape photographers do rely on them pretty heavily. A graduated ND filter will block out light from a portion of the scene, which comes in handy if you’re shooting a vista with a bright sky and a darker foreground. By positioning the ND grad so it reduces light from the sky while leaving the foreground untouched, you can get an even exposure that includes plenty of detail in the highlights and shadows. However, it’s also possible to handle this challenge via HDR bracketing and processing techniques, which is a highly effective alternative to graduated ND filters.
Note that you can find plenty of cheap filters online, but these budget options tend to perform rather poorly. Make sure you purchase well-made glass that will improve your images!
4. Include foreground interest
Coastal scenes often feature gorgeous backgrounds – but while bright colors and cotton-candy clouds are important, it’s also important that you capture compositions that draw the viewer in and keep them engaged.
In other words, don’t just point your camera at the coast and start snapping away. Spend some time carefully identifying powerful compositions, the kind that compels the viewer to really lose themselves in the scene.
A great technique to level up your coastal compositions involves incorporating foreground interest in the shot. Basically, you include plenty of beauty in the background (e.g., a stunning sky and a breathtaking horizon), but you also make sure to put an element or two in the foreground, such as wet rocks, patterns in the sand, or even a wave rushing forward.
When you’re just getting started with this type of composition, you may struggle to find foreground interest, but in my experience, a little scouting around a location will turn up all sorts of opportunities! It can help to arrive a few hours early and spend some time walking around. You might even take a few snaps of potential foreground elements with your smartphone, which you can then use as a reference when the light gets good.
One tip here is to get low over the foreground element. It’ll loom large in the frame, creating a real sense of depth (see the image below). But be careful; you don’t want your camera or lens to get splashed by a wave!
5. Experiment with different shutter speeds
Nearly every coastal scene includes moving water, which means you have all sorts of opportunities for artistic long-exposure effects. However, every shutter speed will give a slightly different result, especially when combined with water moving at different rates.
So each time you’re faced with a new scene, I highly recommend testing out a handful of different shutter speeds. Try a faster shutter speed that will potentially freeze the water and show its texture. Then try a slow shutter speed that will produce a blurry subject that still has some definition. Finally, test out an ultra-long shutter that will create a misty, ethereal effect:
Remember that your shutter speed, in addition to determining the appearance of moving water, will also influence the exposure. The slower the shutter speed, the more light that will hit the sensor and the brighter the shot will appear, so you’ll need to balance out the exposure by adjusting the ISO and the aperture. (And if you need to lengthen the shutter speed without further brightening the shot, you can also use a neutral density filter, as discussed above.)
6. Try a black-and-white conversion
Photographers are often drawn to coastal landscapes due to their magnificent colors at sunrise and sunset – but you can also create amazing results with a bit of black-and-white magic. A black-and-white conversion will emphasize contrast and can look especially great when combined with long-exposure motion blur, like this:
Note how the monochrome also adds a beautiful moodiness to the shot, which can work well when the sky is somewhat boring (i.e., on more overcast days). Black and white can also work great if you’re forced to shoot when the sun is high in the sky; the harsh shadows can look rather interesting when the color is stripped away.
And thanks to modern digital processing techniques, you don’t need to decide in advance whether an image is in color or black and white. You can simply shoot in color, import your photos into an editing program, and have fun testing out different black-and-white conversions. (That said, if you head into a coastal photoshoot knowing that you want to capture a black-and-white shot, the results will often be better.)
7. Turn around
This coastal landscape photography tip is quick but essential. You see, at popular photography locations at sunrise and sunset, folks tend to point their cameras in one direction: toward the sun. And they shoot in the direction of the sun the entire time, never thinking to look behind them!
The truth is that you can often find amazing light in every direction, and the area directly behind you (or off to one side) may offer lots of potential for gorgeous landscape photography.
So before you start shooting, take stock of the entire scene. Make sure you choose the best direction – and then, as the sun sinks below the horizon, keep an eye on the entire sky, not just the area in front of your camera. You never know how the sky will change, and you don’t want to miss an amazing opportunity simply because you were focused on a single part of the sky!
Coastal landscape photography: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you should be well-equipped to capture some beautiful coastal landscapes.
Just remember to carry the right accessories, keep your camera as stable as possible, and to shoot at the right time of day. With a little bit of practice, you’ll be creating amazing shots in no time at all.
So pick a coastal location. Pack your camera bag. And go take some stunning coastal images!
Rob Wood is the founder of Light Stalking. He recommends you check out “How This Award-Winning Coastal Photograph Was Taken” and this guide to “Landscape Photography for the Serious Amateur“.