Tips for better seascape photography

Heading to the beach this summer, or planning an off-season trip to the seaside? Our coastal landscape photography tips will help you get great photos at any time of year and in any conditions.
An HDR photo by Erik Colombo of the sun on the horizon of a turbulent sea breaking on rocks in the foreground, with warm evening colours in the sky.

There's a reason why coastal photography is such a popular type of landscape photography. Thanks to the striking contrast of shore and sea, the shapes the light creates as it bounces off the water, and the often-dramatic changes in weather conditions, seascapes are particularly compelling.

Italian photographer and photography teacher Erik Colombo loves shooting seascapes. He describes himself as "a 360° photographer" who has worked in every genre of photography, from weddings to high fashion to commercial video, but his great passion is landscape and wildlife photography. He has travelled extensively to photograph "the wildest and most iconic landscapes of our beautiful planet, from mountains to oceans, from glaciers to volcanoes." He also dedicates much of his time to sharing his skills and insights in courses, field workshops and photography tours.

Here, we talk to Erik to get his tips for successful seascape photography, and share some of the best Canon cameras and lenses for beach photography and shooting coastal landscapes.

A photo by Erik Colombo of a curved sheer cliff with single shell on rocks in the foreground, and streaky clouds in the evening sky in the background.

Whether the location is exotic or well-known, Erik recommends looking for unusual perspectives. However, he also advises using all the well-established techniques of composition – include leading lines and ensure there is something to draw the eye in the foreground, mid-ground and background. A composite of five images taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens. © Erik Colombo

A photo by Erik Colombo of a rocky outcrop with a natural arch through it, waves swirling over rocks in the foreground blurred by a long exposure.

Even in relatively good weather, your kit may be exposed to sea spray. Cameras and lenses have various levels of weather sealing – but even so, Erik regularly uses rain covers, and also advises that "one of the most important things is to buy a good backpack, to keep your lenses dry." It's a good idea to invest in lens hoods as well, to keep droplets off your lenses. A composite of three images taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens. © Erik Colombo

1. How to capture dramatic seascape photos

"Composition is the most important thing in photography, but especially in seascapes," says Erik. He advises spending some time in a location before taking any photographs. "Exploring without a camera helps you a lot," he says. "Only after having spent 20-30 minutes getting to know a place do I take my camera out of my backpack."

The open sea can be mesmerising in real life, but a still photo won't capture its dynamism. Look for features of the seashore to create compositions with classical elements such as points of interest at different distances, asymmetrical framing and leading lines. "Rocks are perfect subjects to create a dynamic composition," Erik says, "and flowers can create a great contrast of their warm colours against the cold colours of the sea."

In seascapes, a level horizon can make or break the picture. Many cameras have an electronic level, which can be overlaid on the image in the viewfinder or on the rear screen to help you avoid tilted horizons. The EOS R7 introduced an auto-level function, which uses the camera's in-body image stabilisation (IBIS) to level any slightly-tilted horizon to ensure perfect shots.

Whatever camera you use, Erik also advises switching on the grid feature to get shots level, to help with classic composition techniques such as the rule of thirds or to align diagonal picture elements.

In an HDR composite photo taken by Erik Colombo, waves rush over rocks, blurred by a long exposure. Dark grey clouds obscure the sun in the sky.

A vertical composition can highlight the contrast between sea and sky. Setting your camera to HDR mode, if available, will enable it to capture both, but don't worry if your camera doesn't offer this. With his camera on a tripod, Erik will often take several shots at different settings to capture different parts of the scene at their best, then use compositing techniques to blend multiple shots into a single image. This image is made up of three shots taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 16mm, 1/15 sec for the foreground to 1/125 sec for the clouds, f/13 and ISO 100. © Erik Colombo

In a photo by Erik Colombo, the Aurora Borealis shimmers in the sky, its colours reflected in the icy sea. The land is a dark line on the horizon.

What's going on in the sky can be just as striking as the sea, whether it's an aurora like this or just storm clouds. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 15mm, 15 sec, f/11 and ISO 100. © Erik Colombo

2. Shoot vertical seascape photos

These days, shooting vertically is just as important as shooting horizontally, even for landscapes. Creating images that work well for various social media platforms is a key part of many photographers' workflow, but it's also an opportunity to pick out interesting details that might not be so obvious in horizontal shots.

"I love vertical compositions," Erik says. "They're more interesting and less chaotic than horizontal compositions. For such shots, the search for a good close-up foreground is crucial to ensure an interesting and unique photograph."

3. What's the best time for seascape photography?

The same scene can look very different as the light intensity, direction and colour vary throughout the day. There isn't necessarily a "right time" but early morning and late evening during the "golden hour", plus either side of these at the "blue hour", will produce more interesting colour than the harsh midday sun.

If you're shooting early in the morning or late in the day, you may be able to capture some very striking seascapes with people, trees and other features of the landscape, or artificial structures in silhouette. For the greatest range of detail and more creative flexibility, however, use the same approach as for other low-light photography – use a wide aperture (low f-number) to let in as much light as possible, increase the ISO setting, and choose a camera designed for outstanding low-light performance such as Canon's EOS R System range.

However, the challenge is often very bright conditions, in the glare of the midday sun for example, rather than low light. For this, the EOS R50 and other Canon cameras include functions such as a Scene Intelligent mode and HDR (High Dynamic Range) scene modes, which are perfect for shooting in high-contrast conditions with the kind of bright reflections you often get at the beach.

An HDR composite photo by Erik Colombo of the setting sun seen through a natural arch. In the foreground the sea laps against a rocky coastline.

Shooting during the "golden hour" (the hour just after sunrise and just before sunset) is a great idea for seascapes, as the warm colours and the low sun create some classically beautiful lighting conditions. An HDR composite image made up of five shots taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 16mm, from 0.3 sec for the foreground to 1/160 sec for the sunburst, f/11 and ISO 100. © Erik Colombo

4. Camera settings for better seascape photography

If you can't avoid shooting in the bright light of the middle of the day, Erik advocates using an ND (Neutral Density) filter to reduce the amount of light getting into the camera. He himself likes using a strong ND1000 10-stop filter. "This will filter the quantity of light to enable you to use long exposure photography to create motion blur in the sea," he says.

Erik likes this technique because creating a sense of movement in a seascape can add interest to an otherwise average scene. Two key areas to focus on are the sea and sky, which are both relatively slow-moving. Capturing an impression of their movement (instead of freezing it) requires a slow shutter speed and a camera support, typically a tripod.

Keeping your ISO low and aperture small (large f-number) will allow for longer shutter speeds. To avoid camera shake when pressing the shutter button, you can control your camera remotely using the Canon Camera Connect app. Try shooting at a long exposure of 10 seconds or more to see how moving clouds and water running up the beach blur into a silky smooth wash of colour. Alternatively, raise your shutter speed to super-fast to capture the individual droplets of breaking waves.

5. Depth of field in seascape photos

Erik often wants a particular part of the scene to be in sharp focus and the rest more blurred (shallow depth of field). In these situations, he turns to manual focus and a helpful feature of the mirrorless Canon cameras he uses, manual focus peaking (MF peaking). This is particularly handy when light levels are lower or conditions are hazy, making focusing more difficult.

"Although autofocus is very useful," he says, "when weather conditions make it tricky, focus peaking is a lifesaver." With MF peaking switched on, you can focus manually with confidence, as the camera's screen or viewfinder will highlight exactly what is in focus by overlaying a bright colour on the in-focus parts of the scene, and you can see the highlighted areas changing as you adjust focus.

Conversely, in landscape photography, you sometimes want as much of the scene as possible to be in sharp focus, from foreground to background. A great technique for this is called hyperfocal distance focusing. The hyperfocal distance varies with the lens, aperture and focal length you're using, so the easiest way to work out where you need to focus is to use the depth of field and hyperfocal distance calculator in Canon's free Photo Companion app. If you don't have time for calculations, a rough rule of thumb is to focus approximately one third of the way into a scene.

A photo by Erik Colombo of crashing waves frozen in motion, with hazy rock formations in the background lit in warm sunset colours.

In this dramatic photo, the water droplets thrown up by crashing waves are frozen by the fast shutter speed. The pebbles in sharp focus in the foreground contrast with the striking rock formations in the background, made indistinct by sea spray and distance haze. An HDR composite of three shots taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 70-200mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 105mm, 1/250 sec for the foreground and waves to 1/160 for the sky, f/11 and ISO 100. © Erik Colombo

6. What's the best weather for seascape photography?

Weather can add real interest to a seascape shot, be it smooth, wispy, golden clouds or dark, stormy, foreboding ones. Learning to see interesting weather patterns and knowing how to make the best of them photographically is a great skill to learn. "I always say to my students, there are no bad weather conditions, only bad photographers," Erik says. "The beauty of landscape photography is the unpredictability of nature.

"During my travels around the world, the best weather conditions I always found were after a rainstorm."

Shooting in an unexpected downpour? That's an opportunity, not a problem. "During a sea storm," Erik suggests, "use a zoom lens to take photos of waves using a fast shutter speed of around 1/1000 sec to catch the drops of the wave, or alternatively, a slow shutter speed of perhaps 10 seconds to create something abstract."

7. Best cameras and lenses for seascape photography

To minimise the weight he has to carry, Erik often takes just one camera – a full-frame EOS R System camera with a wide angle RF zoom lens.

For ultra-wide-angle shooting, which is a great choice for seascapes, a full-frame camera such as the EOS R8 paired with the RF 15-30mm F4.5-6.3 IS STM lens is a winning combination for capturing those wide-angle vistas in a small, travel-friendly package. The EOS R8 is also capable of fast continuous shooting at up to 40fps, which is ideal for capturing the moment a wave breaks over the rocks.

A more affordable alternative, the 24.2MP EOS R50 paired with the RF-S 18-150mm F3.5-6.3 IS STM or the RF-S 55-210mm F5-7.1 IS STM lens results in an even lighter, easily portable but highly flexible kit that is ideal for a day at the seaside.

These lenses give you a wide, very versatile range of focal lengths. If you want a super-telephoto option, the RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM is a great choice paired with a full-frame camera, and gives you even more reach on an APS-C camera.

If you already have EF lenses and want to use them with EOS R System cameras, the Drop-In Filter Mount Adapter EF-EOS R offers an added bonus: not only does it enable you to use EF and EF-S lenses with no loss of quality or functionality, but it also adds the ability to use drop-in filters. It is available with either a V-ND filter or circular polarising filter, both invaluable in the bright glare at the seaside.

The seaside isn't just a place for fun with friends and family, it's full of potential for great landscape photography whatever the weather.

Written by Astrid Pitman & Sarah Bakkland

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