Before I emigrated to Australia (eight years ago) I didn’t get too many chances to shoot coastal landscapes. Sure I’d use my camera when we went on holiday, but a week away with the family is not enough time to get to grips with this demanding type of photography. However (like most Aussies), I live near the coast now and it’s the place where I spend most time with my camera. All of which has given me the opportunity to discover some of the practicalities of shooting coastal landscapes and I’d like to share that information with you guys.
The coast can be a bloody dangerous place and no landscape photo is worth dying for. I don’t want to sound like your concerned Aunty Pam, but try not to become one of the closing stories on the evening news. They don’t put those ‘Dangerous Cliffs’ signs up for vanity.
Even if you’re a regular visitor to the coast, you should pay special attention to the surf forecast. Photographers can and do get swept off rocks, just like the rock fishermen do. You can sit and observe the same spot for 15 minutes making sure it’s not getting hit by waves but this does not account for long frequency swells in which monster waves roll in every 30-60 minutes. Unless you’re a very experienced waterman, the safest way to photograph a big swell is from a safe vantage point on land through a zoom lens.
In terms of weather, don’t be put off by a poor forecast. The coast often looks its most dramatic when there’s a storm blowing in.
Check the tide times too and try to time visits on a receding tide so you have more shoreline to play with and less chance of getting cut off. Low tide may prove unsuitable though because all you’ll get is weed and detritus and not enough actual ocean in your shot.
Before you go, let someone know where you’re heading. Tell them how long you expect to be there and if you over-run, call and let them know that all’s well and what your revised departure time is. Before I head out the door I always let my wife know what my plans are and if they change I call her.
If you’re planning to shoot sunrise or at night then visit your chosen location in the day first in order to work out likely vantage points. Work out how you get on and off the location and where you can safely leave your stuff, particularly if you’re the sort of photographer that takes every bit of photo gear they own with them on their back.
Personally speaking I travel light. Really light. Generally speaking I take my camera (I only have one) and a maximum of two lenses, one of which is on the camera and the other is in my pocket. I’m not sure what the advantage of lugging a suitcase full of photographic equipment around is, but I can only imagine that it restricts movements and leads to moments of hesitation when you’re wondering about which glass to stick on the camera next.
In terms of filters I use precisely one – a circular polariser. If you subscribe to the ‘getting it right in the camera’ mantra, then by all means bring along your collection of ND grads, but personally I just shoot bracketed shots (usually three, sometimes five). I don’t want to miss out on a shot because I’m fiddling about lining up the horizon with the slab of smokey glass stuck on the front of my camera.
I use a Manfrotto Travel Tripod. It’s light, relatively cheap and very well built. When your tripod is always immersed in saltwater its lifespan is going to be limited but I find that a quick drenching under the beach shower on the way back to the car is sufficient to remove all the salty water. Yes there are much sturdier tripods around but I wouldn’t fancy clambering over rocks with some hefty hunk of metal under my arm.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I like to keep myself as mobile as possible and while it means sacrificing a bit of flexibility, it more than makes up for itself in portability. Shooting on the coast, particularly right by the water is so much better if you can quickly react to the rapidly changing conditions.
When it comes to clothing, I always dress so that I can get wet if required – boardshorts, a hoodie and a pair of Crocs on my feet. Crocs are the perfect footwear for the coastal landscape photographer – grippy, happy in the water and very comfortable. Why would you restrict where you can stand by wearing a pair of trainers?
While any camera’s perfectly capable of taking good shots of the coast, there are definitely features that are worth having and far and away the most useful of those is weatherproof housing. While I have a Canon 550D (which is about as waterproof as a teabag) there are great advantages in knowing that an incoming wave or a rain shower is not going to destroy your camera. You can of course add some sort of waterproof covering to your camera, anything from a cheap plastic enclosure to a full-blown underwater housing.
In terms of features it’s best to have a camera with the flexibility to set ISO, exposure and aperture. That doesn’t mean you need to buy a DSLR, many point-and-shoots now have this capability and are infinitely more portable than a hulking great Canon or Nikon.
Typically speaking there are two main kinds of shot that I take when I’m at the coast – a quick exposure to freeze action (such as waves) and a longer exposure to capture the blurred movement in the water. When I’m down at sea level photographing water flowing over the surface of rocks I try and aim for about 1/8th of a second exposure – I’ve found that’s the sweet spot for retaining the look of water while getting some nice blur in it. Any longer and the water starts to look like mist and any shorter and it’ll freeze it.
Don’t be afraid to ramp your ISO up a bit as light start to fade. My Canon’s not got the greatest high ISO noise reduction but I’ll happily go to 400 in order to keep my exposure in that 1/8th of a second region and those of you with better/newer cameras can go way higher than that.
In terms of aperture I shoot almost everything at f/8 because that’s the sweet-spot on my lens (10-22mm) – if you want to know what your lens’s sweet spot is, there’s a good guide over at BHPhoto. If I’m shooting a sunset then I’ll sometimes switch to f/16 to get that nice bokeh from the sun’s rays.
I shoot absolutely everything in RAW. I have no interest in seeing how my camera has decided to process an image – I want to make those decisions in Lightroom. Also with a RAW file you can maximise the captured light to its fullest by boosting shadows and dropping highlights to bring back detail on the right side of the histogram.
As I said, I shoot with a super-wide angle lens and I can thoroughly recommend this for all coastal photography. In order to get the most out of these lenses you need to get very close to your foreground subject and for this reason be prepared to get down low. I quite often pre-focus the camera and then sit it on a rock, lining up the shot with the screen on the back.
While it’s great to have a point of interest in your photo, such as a shell, a bit of seaweed, a rock, a person or a boat – don’t forget that the light can often fulfil this requirement. If you’ve got a great sunrise or sunset, look for light pooling in the rocks or on the surface of the ocean and use that as your point of interest. In short – don’t obsess about having some perfect little sea shell in the bottom left of your frame.
You’ll hear lots of talk about the rules of photography, such as the rule of thirds. I try and ignore each and every one of these because I think they’re utter rubbish. When you put that viewfinder to your eye you can work out what the best composition is yourself without relying on some crappy grid of nine squares. If that means putting the horizon line in the lower eighth of your frame, then so be it. If it means putting that point of interest right on the centre line of the frame, then so be it. Be lead by your own eye, not by some worthless compositional rules.
Remember that you don’t have to shoot everything three inches from the crashing waves and that the best shots are often to be found above and behind the coast. Check out the view from the back of the beach or up on the cliffs too.
Photographing the coast can be exhilarating and provide you with stunning images. However it’s a dangerous place and you should prepare for a visit. Many of the techniques you’d use on standard landscape photography (such as long exposures) work equally well (if not better) on the coast so don’t be afraid to apply your existing expertise here.