Coastal Photography Tips | Chris Bray Photography
jonathan ives
Tutorial by Jonathan Ives

Coastal Photography

One thing I love about photography is the unique way a still photograph can warp the concept of time. The camera's ability to snap freeze motion, or blur motion - something our eyes cannot do - is an ability coveted and appreciated in equal measure. A fast shutter speed, say 1/4000 of a second, can literally snap freeze water droplets in mid-air. A slow shutter speed, say longer than 1 second, can blur fast moving water, such as a cascading waterfall or a wave peeling across a rock shelf. Even longer and waves can be almost smoothed over entirely. The process of using a slow shutter speed to show flowing movement in a photo is called 'motion rendition', or more often referred to as 'motion blur'. Using long exposures allows the photographer to incorporate crisp, sharp areas of the landscape with flowing movement of water. This means you can start to introduce the concept of motion into an otherwise static scene, even a scene where movement isn't particularly obvious to our eyes.

coastal photography tutorial

Here's a little example: Above is a typical sunset shot. The reflections of the wharf in the water caught my eye. The first photo is fairly 'standard', something auto mode would probably get you. The reflections from the wharf are present, but the water's surface is distracting and messy. It looks fairly 2D and static. The second shot is taken immediately after, controlling my setting to achieve a much longer exposure. The water movement makes for a far cleaner photo, ironing out the reflections, and the movement in the clouds makes the scene come to life.

Some of my favourite photography involves moving water and long exposures. Capturing that silky smooth motion blur in a seascape photo is on every landscape photographer's bucket list. I'm about to tell you how to get it off your bucket list and onto your camera's memory card.

What you need:

  • DSLR
  • Tripod - It's impossible to hand hold a camera when using a slow shutter speed. For this reason a tripod is essential.
  • ND or polarising filter (optional but handy) The ND filter allows less light into the camera, allowing slower shutter speeds in brighter lighting conditions. A polariser can be used to reduce the glare and reflection off water and rocks. It will also reduce the light a little, allowing you to access slower shutter speeds. See PREVIOUS TUTORIAL on UNDERSTANDING FILTERS.

Composition and visualising the shot - what to look for:

Movement opens up a lot of creative options in your photography but that doesn't mean that good composition rules should be ignored. With a little practice, it is actually possible to visualise a photo before taking it. When approaching a scene, think about the movement you could capture and how this will impact your final photo. This will in turn impact how you choose to compose the shot in order to enhance that movement. Of course you can always move your tripod around to get a better photo, but try and get in the habit of first composing the shot in your mind, aiming for good composition. Remember tips like the 'rule of thirds' for example. Try and put the horizon on either the top third or bottom third of the photo.

coastal rainbow
Aesthetic leading lines from water movement.
Quick Tip: After thinking about my shot, I usually select the composition I want by first hand holding the camera and looking through the viewfinder. This makes it easier to move around and try different heights. Once I'm settled on my scene, I set the tripod up accordingly.

Quick Tip: look for leading lines. With movement comes the possibility of using previously unseen 'leading lines'. Leading lines can be any sort of 'line' that helps guide the viewer's eye through a photo. Moving water, in particular, can achieve this result. Viewer's 'read' a photo in a very similar way that they read a book: from left to right. If it's possible, try and compose the movement you're trying to capture artistically, from left to right, to help your finished photo look more aesthetically pleasing. This is obviously not always possible, but worth being mindful of. If possible, try and frame the movement with static objects too.
drive mode for coastal photos
2-sec delay prevents
camera shake.


Before setting anything else, it's definitely worth changing your drive mode to a 2-second timer delay. This means the camera will take the photo 2 seconds after the shutter button is pressed. Believe it or not, it's possible to get 'camera shake' (or rather 'tripod shake' in this instance) simply by rocking the tripod when pressing the shutter button. A 2-second delay allows enough time for the tripod to return to a completely stationary position before the shot is taken, removing camera shake. An alternative is to use a remote timer so that the camera is not being touched when a photo is taken.

As with all photos, we're firstly aiming for correct exposure. So depending how bright or dark you want your photo, set your Exposure compensation (+/-) accordingly. For the vast majority of shooting, keeping it at 0 will give you what you want - mid brightness across the whole image. You can always change this on the go if you find your photos are coming out a little too dark or too bright on your camera's LCD screen.

Now we have to ensure we get a long shutter speed: There are a couple of ways to do this, remembering that Aperture values (f/stops) and shutter speed values are always paired. In the world of digital photography we therefore have the option of choosing to control one of these variables (either our Aperture or our shutter speed) and the camera will pick the other half of the pair for us.

tv or S mode for coatal photos
Using Tv (or S) mode.
Using Tv (or S) mode to select a shutter speed: When it comes to achieving a long shutter speed one option is to use Tv mode (for canon cameras or 'S' mode if you're using another model of camera) and scroll the value as far as you can before the Aperture value (the f/number automatically selected by the camera) begins to blink. When in Tv (or S) mode, just be aware of these blinking aperture values (f/numbers). The camera will still enable you to take the photo, but if there are blinking numbers it is trying to warn you that the photo you're about to take will not turn out with the exposure you've asked for. So assuming you're Aperture isn't blinking at you, you can select whatever length of shutter speed you would like. For something like a waterfall, even just 1 second (will look like 1" on your LCD) is long enough to smooth that beautiful cascading motion. When taking photos of waves, usually something much longer is required to smooth the surface of the water - sometimes 30 seconds (will look like 30" on your LCD). It depends a little bit on what shot you're trying to construct and how much movement you wish to capture. It will also depend on how much light is around. In low lighting conditions you'll be able to access longer shutter speeds before the f/number starts blinking at you. Use Tv mode if you're after a specific shutter speed.

You'll likely notice that as you scroll to longer and longer shutter speeds, the f/number (being picked by the camera) will be getting larger to compensate. The larger the f/number the larger the depth of field in your photo (amount of the photo that's sharp). Depth of field is something to be mindful of, which is why I prefer to actually control my Aperture value instead...

AV mode
Using Av (or A) mode.
Using Av (or A) mode to select your Aperture (and control your depth of field): Aperture controls the depth of field in the photo. Therefore, personally, this is more often than not the variable I wish to control, particularly as in the case of coastal exposures (or most sorts of landscape shots) I want to ensure I have a big depth of field so that both the foreground and background are in focus. F/numbers relate to depth of field. If I use a SMALL f/number I'm going to get a SMALL depth of field. If I use a BIG f/number I'm going to get a BIG depth of field. So for a landscape shot I want to select a BIG f/number.

How does that relate to shutter speed? Well, because apertures and shutter speeds are paired, when we use a BIG f/number (which is actually a very small hole, making light trickle through the lens) the camera automatically requires the use of a long shutter speed to achieve 'correct' exposure. When the biggest f/number available to our lens is selected, the camera will automatically give us the longest shutter speed available in the lighting circumstances. In lower lighting conditions - like just before sunrise, just after sunset or in a rainforest - this usually means we can achieve shutter speeds long enough to blur motion.

It is worth keeping an eye out for any blinking shutter speeds. Just like in Tv mode when the f/number blinks if we've scrolled too far for the camera to deal with, in Av mode the shutter speed will be the variable to blink. However, given that the longest photo a camera can take is 30 seconds (30"), unless it's particularly low light it's unlikely you'll ever reach this limit. Therefore, you're a little bit safer simply selecting the biggest f/number available in Av mode as it's unlikely you'll reach the camera's shutter speed limit. Normally the challenge is achieving a long enough shutter speed in brighter lighting conditions. This is where setting the ISO can help.

MF for coast photos
Use AF to focus, then lock into MF
Using ISO to access slower shutter speeds: ISO is how sensitive the camera is to light. It is NOT a brightness control. It's difficult to achieve long shutter speeds if the camera is set to a high ISO. That's because a high ISO means that the camera is very sensitive to light and therefore won't need much time at all to collect the required amount of light for the photo. Since we're trying to achieve long shutter speeds in this tutorial, to enable the blurring of motion, we need the camera to have a low-sensitivity to light. Having a LOW ISO will require the camera to take a longer time to collect the available light, which will in turn achieve movement blur due to the slow shutter speed. For long exposure exercises I generally set my ISO as low as possible (on my camera this is 100).

Autofocus: Your camera's autofocus is much quicker and more accurate than trying to use your eye and manually focus. Autofocus on something that's important in the photo but that is still and stationary, such as a rock, log or pier. If the scene is too dark to autofocus, try using a torch to light it up. Once the camera has found an autofocus, you can 'lock' this focus distance by flicking your lens over to Manual Focus (MF). Assuming you do not move the camera, the focus distance won't change.

Overcoming Lighting Limitations:

There are some circumstances where it's impossible to capture a long exposure. This is when the available light is just too bright that, even when using the lowest ISO and the biggest f/number available, opening up the shutter long enough to blur movement will let too much light into the camera and the photo will be over-exposed. This is why shooting long exposures in the middle of the day is nearly impossible. The easiest way around this is just to wait until the lighting changes, eg at sunset. There is another option, though. It is possible to use a filter to block out some of the light and achieve a similar effect to low lighting conditions. A Neutral Density filter (ND filter) is a dark plate of glass that will block off some light from entering the lens. This in turn means that to achieve 'correct exposure' the camera will need to open the shutter for a longer period of time, enabling the movement to be captured. A polarising filter, while not designed specifically for this purpose, can achieve a similar result - but to a lesser extent. If you take lots of landscapes, both types of filters are worth having in your kit. For an overview on filters and their uses, check out my previous tutorial on Understanding Filters.

Also be aware that the longest shutter speed the camera can give you is 30 seconds. In some very low light situations, sometimes 30 seconds is not long enough to capture correct exposure when a large F/number is selected (i.e a tiny hole). In these rare circumstances you may have to choose a slightly smaller f/number which will allow more light into the camera. Alternatively, by increasing your ISO (your camera's sensitivity to light) your camera won't need quite as much time to collect the light required for correct exposure.

Step By Step Summary:

  • Think about good composition and then set up the camera on a tripod. Make sure the horizon is straight, think about rule of thirds and look for leading lines.
  • Set your drive mode to 2 second delay (to prevent tripod shake when pressing the shutter button).
  • Select a large f/number in Av/A mode (which will in turn pick the longest shutter speed possible for the lighting conditions). Alternatively select a specific shutter speed in Tv/S mode. Be aware of blinking settings.
  • Select a low ISO.
  • Autofocus on what's important in the scene. Pick something that's stationary about a third of the way into the scene - something like a rock or a pier.
  • Gently press the shutter button.
  • Marvel at the beautiful water movement on the back of your LCD screen.
  • Adjust your exposure compensation (+/-) accordingly if the photo came out a little too dark or a little too bright.
It's great fun and very satisfying when you begin to achieve the photos you've always wanted to capture. I really hope that these ideas and tips have sparked some similar creative ideas in your mind. Long shutter speeds open up a whole new realm of landscape photography where the sense of movement is incorporated into a scene. Try experimenting with faster and slower shutters to achieve the results you're after!

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