The coastline has long been a favored location for photographers, and - with its ever changing landscape, light and moods - it's not difficult to see why. Beautiful seascapes shot in stunning locations can really enhance your image collection and help to take your photography skills to the next level. There are a few key tips that you can follow to increase your chances of success: read on to discover how to get it right first time, every time.

Advance planning

As with most photographic ventures, preparation is an important part of any successful shoot. Doing your homework before visiting the coast can save you time, keep you safe and increase your chances of bagging a winning shot.

Pick your spot

Man-made structures can sometimes make good points of interest in
seascapes: experiment to find out which ones work in your shots and
which are best left out.

The first task is to pick the right location. You can either do this by checking maps, then using a search engine to look up images and tips from other photographers who have already visited the area, or getting your hiking boots on and exploring on foot - my favored method.

Once you've honed in on a particular area, have a good look around at what's there. Are there any objects - like pylons or ugly buildings - that you'll want to avoid including in your final shot? Equally, are there any particularly interesting features - such as rock formations, fossils, rock pools etc - that would act as foreground interest and enhance your composition? Take some time to explore the area, taking some test shots from different perspectives and angles until you find a composition that you think works.

The right light

If spectacular colors are what you're after, stick to shooting in the
'golden hour' that follows sunrise and precedes sunset.

Once you've found a scene that you'd like to capture, research everything you can in order to determine the best time of day to return for your photo session. Light is one of the most important aspects that will determine the look of your shot. Obviously you can't do anything to control it, but you can do a bit of legwork to estimate when your scene is most likely going to be looking its best.

To determine the position of the sun in the sky at any given time of day, use a tool like the Flight Logistics Photographer's Sun Compass - available for roughly $40 from www.flight-logistics.com - or search the Web for one of the numerous printable / online calculators. There's even an iPhone app (Helios Sun Position Calculator - $29.99 from iTunes). These tools will help you work out where the sun will rise and/or set (generally the best times of day for shooting seascapes) - for amazing colors and drama, shoot during the 'golden hour' immediately after sunrise and before sunset and be sure to arrive well in advance of these times to give you the opportunity to get set up.

High or low?

A low tide reveals rock formations and other elements that can add further interest to your compositions.

Now you need to work out the days on which sun being in the right position will coincide with the tide, the timing of which changes on a daily basis, with seasonal fluctuations to take into account too. Thankfully, there's a wealth of information online, with websites like www.tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov (US only) providing detailed data for the tides on your chosen date(s) / time(s).

The best way to decide whether your chosen location looks better at low or high tide is to visit it at both. High tide can cover up unsightly features that might play havoc with your composition, but usually a low tide reveals hidden gems like rock formations and weather-beaten man-made coastal defenses that are prime candidates for points of interest in your shot.

Perfect your composition

The Rule of Thirds helps to create a pleasing composition in this
shot, while the path leads the eye from the foreground to the
lighthouse.

There are some tried-and-tested rules you can follow to ensure harmonious compositions that are worth sticking to initially. but don't be afraid to get creative and bend them occasionally too.

The Rule of Thirds is one such method you can rely on to compose your shots: simply imagine your scene dissected into thirds both horizontally and vertically (many camera models provide an overlay that does this for you if you shoot using Live View) then position objects of interest like rocks, the horizon etc. on the points where the lines intersect.

Leading lines are also aesthetically pleasing and prove useful as they draw the viewer's eye into the distance. Look for coastal defenses, piers and lines of rocks that stretch out to sea, or move around until you've successfully lined up some objects in the fore, middle and background: these act as visual 'stepping stones' that take the eye on a journey from the front of the scene right up to the horizon.

Once you've got your 'safe' shots, if the light's still looking good, it's time to experiment. Explore options like shooting from high or very low angles, tilting the camera up or down to include a greater proportion of the sky or land/sea than you would normally, and note the effect (this tends to work best if you have a particularly dramatic sky - like a fiery sunset - or stormy sea with crashing waves for example).

Weather the storm

The colors and light either side of a big storm can be spectacular for seascape photography.

You've chosen your location, picked the spot(s) you want to shoot from and worked out the date / time that the position of the sun and the tide will coincide to give you the best-looking scene; now all that remains is to keep an eye on the weather forecast and be ready to go if things look promising.

On the subject of weather conditions - don't just look out for fair weather, or you might miss out on something spectacular. For the most beautiful seascapes, at the very least you'll need some fluffy clouds in the sky - if it's completely clear it tends to lack color and interest. My favored conditions are either side of storms (as well as occasionally during, if it's safe): the cloud formations, colors and the wild look of the sea can really add another dimension to the shot.

Look out for predicted storms that are going to be followed by fine weather in particular - these conditions often lead to spectacular looking scenes with dramatic clouds and shafts of light illuminating portions of the land and sea as the sun starts to break through the clouds.

Prepare for the worst

Whatever weather conditions you're planning on heading out in, make sure you pack your kit bag to suit the situation. If it's likely to be wet and windy, wear layers of clothing to allow you to control your body temperature (add or remove layers if you start to feel cold / warm) and always take some waterproof outer clothing when visiting the coast: there's nothing worse than spending an entire shoot feeling cold and damp.

Conversely, warm weather can make you just as uncomfortable, so take plenty of sun block, wear a hat and cover up with light clothing to prevent getting burnt. Take plenty of food and drink to keep you fuelled for the duration of your shoot too: a comfortable photographer that's been well fed and watered will produce better images than a miserable, hungry one.

Take a torch, towels and soft cloths for drying off yourself and your equipment, plus a range of lenses so you can experiment if the conditions and light allow it.

Ensure that your camera gear is protected from the elements too: there are plenty of weatherproof covers available on the market to protect your camera body and lens(s), or you can fashion your own using clear plastic bags (so you can still see the controls) secured with rubber bands. Fit a UV filter to your lens to protect the front element from salt water - it's much easier to clean or replace a dirty / scratched filter than a lens!

The right settings

Selecting a small aperture ensures the foreground and background elements are all in sharp focus.

If your camera allows it, set it to capture RAW files and JPEGs simultaneously, as this will give you the most flexibility when editing your images post-shoot. For the uninitiated, RAW files are essentially 'digital negatives': images that remain untouched by the in-camera processing and compression that occurs when your camera captures a JPEG. The result is a file that can be manipulated more fully without degrading the image quality, and you have the option of saving your processed image in a lossless (uncompressed) format to ensure the best possible results.

Generally, you'll want to keep your ISO low to avoid unsightly noise in your shots, and your aperture small (large number, e.g. f16-22) to keep as much of the scene in sharp focus as possible (a wider depth-of-field). This means that you're likely to need to use slower shutter speeds to expose your images correctly (particularly in low light) so taking a sturdy tripod to support your camera is advisable if you want to keep your shots pin-sharp and shake-free. You can cut the risk of camera shake further by using a remote shutter release or activating your camera's self-timer.

Use filters

Copyright: Josie Reavely 2011 / www.jreavely.com
A Neutral Density filter was used to allow the shutter to be kept open longer, capturing some motion in the waves.

Sometimes - if the scene's too bright or there's too much contrast between the sea and sky for your camera's native dynamic range to cope with - you need to give it a helping hand. Neutral Density Graduated filters ('ND Grads') are shaded at the top, graduating to a clear finish at the bottom. Placed over the front element of your lens, you can position the filter to stop down an overly bright sky, allowing you to correctly expose both it and the darker foreground for example.

If you're keen on recreating the 'misty' look that many photographers favor in their watery compositions, a Neutral Density filter can also prove useful. This type of filter has a uniform tint that blocks out some of the light from entering your lens, allowing you to use slower shutter speeds than you would normally be able to without overexposing the scene. Both ND and ND Grad filters - like those available from Cokin and LEE Filters for example - slot into square holders that screw onto the front of your lens. These holders feature multiple slots, allowing you to combine filters (which are available with different levels of shading, measured in stops), stacking them to further cut out ambient light.

The longer the exposure, the mistier and less distinct the water - and any clouds - will appear. Lengthen the time for which the shutter is open to a few seconds or more to inject more movement and dynamism into your images, or shorten the exposure to freeze the motion of the waves. Around 1/2 second will give you the best of both: a little movement in the water, but the waves will still retain their shape.

A circular polarizer can also prove useful for seascape photography, as it cuts out some of the light, deepens blue skies and makes fluffy white clouds really stand out. This type of filter can also help to cut through haze, enriching colors as a result, and to reduce or eliminate reflections on non-metallic surfaces - including the water.

Be brave

Try out different viewpoints and perspectives to capture a unique view
of your favorite coastal spot.

The possibilities for achieving exciting, original results when photographing at the coast are endless. With so many opportunities to explore, you're likely to want to return again and again: each time you do, try something a little bit different - whether it's experimenting with filters, trying out a different camera angle, shooting several frames in succession to create a panorama, or using different lenses to gain another perspective on a scene -  before long, you'll have a portfolio burgeoning with seascapes to be proud of.


Josie Reavely is a freelance writer and photographer based in the UK. Before launching her freelance career, Josie was the Reviews Editor for Digital Photographer magazine; she continues to review the latest camera models and write features for a range of publications and websites, as well as taking on a range of exciting photography projects. For more details or to get in touch, visit www.jreavely.com.

All images © Josie Reavely 2011 / www.jreavely.com