Long exposure ocean photography is one of the most popular types of long exposure photography.
Capturing those silky smooth ocean waves and smoothed out skies makes for stunning images. Every time I shoot at the beach, I’ll end up shooting at least one series of long exposure images.
But if you’ve never tried shooting long exposure of the waves, then it can be intimidating. So here are 4 steps you can follow to start creating epic long exposures at the ocean.
1. Planning The Shoot
Creating great landscape photos starts before you ever get to the location. Planning out the shot is even more important when it comes to shooting long exposures at the ocean.
Check The Tides
Any time you plan to photograph at or near the ocean, you need to be aware of the tides.
Not only do the tides change the appearance of the landscape, they can also put you in unexpectedly dangerous conditions. This is especially true if you are shooting on or near ocean-side rock formations or caves. The changing tide can easily trap you in a position and cause your gear to be submerged or, in the worst case scenario, pull you out to sea.
So be aware when the tide will be coming in and out, so you know if the spot you are shooting from will become covered in water eventually.
It’s usually a good idea to shoot when the tide is going out. That means get there at or just after high tide and shoot as the tide goes out. There are a couple reasons for this.
First, it lets you see where the ocean level is at its highest so you can plan accordingly and be safe.
Second, long exposures tend to just look better when the tide is receding. You’ll get better surf trails and less crashing waves that make the long exposure look messy. But more about that later.
Overall, just remember that the ocean is unpredictable, so know when the tides change, be aware of your surroundings and plan accordingly.
Know Where The Light Will Be
Now as far as the aesthetic of the image goes, knowing where the light will be is absolutely critical.
Just like most other types of landscape photography, the best times to shoot long exposure ocean photos are around sunrise and sunset.
For the more blue calm serene look, try to shoot in the hour or so before sunrise or after sunset. This will make it easier to get really long exposures and turn the moving ocean into a smooth looking sheet.
If you want a long exposure that shows the waves and their path you will want to shoot when the sun is above the horizon. That more direct light will be picked up by the white surf and really accentuate the lines it creates.
For planning the times and direction of light, I use an app called Photo Pills. It basically has everything you could possibly need to plan a photoshoot.
2. Setting Up
Get a solid base
Other than a camera, the most essential piece of gear to shoot long exposures is a tripod.
Since you’ll be shooting exposures of 1 second or longer at least, your camera needs to be locked in place. You really can’t get a good long exposure image handheld.
If you’re shooting from the sand, you’ll need a good set of legs that will be stable as waves hit it. Of course, even if you are shooting from solid ground like rocks, having a solid, well-made tripod is critical.
If you are relatively new to photography or using a tripod, beware because there are a lot of absolute garbage tripods out there…especially in the consumer electronics stores. Also, you want to avoid any tripod that connects the legs to a center column. Those aren’t too useful for landscape shooting because you’ll rarely find yourself on flat solid ground.
You can spend over $1000 if you want the best of the best when it comes to tripods, but if you are looking for a great value try checking out this Benro Tripod on Amazon, or for the really budget-conscious buyer, this K&F Concepts Tripod does a good job for a really affordable price (though it won’t last as long as some of the better options).
An ND Filter Makes Things Easier
You can shoot long exposures without an ND filter but you would be limited to the times before sunrise or after sunset, and even then, you couldn’t get real long exposures. So while it’s not a necessity, having a good ND filter does let you shoot long exposures a lot more often.
An ND filter is like sunglasses for your lens. It cuts down the amount of light going into the lens without changing the appearance of the image. Good ND filters will have very little to no effect on the colors in an image while cheaper ND filters can create a color cast that would have to be fixed with photo editing software.
For most long exposure photos, you’ll need at least a 6-stop ND filter (that means it lowers the exposure by 6-stops). I keep a 6-stop and a 10-stop in my bag for these kind of photos.
The filters I use are from a company called Breakthrough Photography. They have just about zero color cast on the images and are very sturdy and well built. I like to get 82mm filters and use step-up rings on any lenses that are smaller than that so I don’t need to spend money on filters in every size.
3. Finding A Composition For Long Exposure
Find The Movement
Long exposure photos are all about capturing movement. After all, a 3 minute long exposure of something stationary is the same as a 1/250 second exposure.
That is why long exposure ocean photos are so much fun. There’s movement all over the place. The waves are moving as well as the clouds in the sky.
So pay attention to the direction and the speed of that movement. Faster moving parts of the image (like waves) will blur more than slower moving parts (like clouds).
Contrast With Stationary Objects
So now that you have identified the areas of movement, you want to find elements of the scene that don’t move.
Things like rocks, driftwood, or even your own feet (if you keep very still) are some examples of things that will remain sharp in a long exposure.
These stationary objects create a contrast with the moving blurry parts of the image. This contrast usually makes the image more compelling and also helps add to the feel of motion in the blurry parts. I think on a subconscious level having points of stationary sharp elements in an image tells the viewer that the blurry parts are movement rather than an out of focus lens.
Follow The Path Of The Water
Another very useful benefit of including stationary objects in the image is that they can control the flow of water.
For example, look at the image above. The waves receding create straight diagonal lines in the flat area behind the rock. This is good and alone would be somewhat dynamic. But the rock in the foreground causes the waves to curve around it forming somewhat of an ellipsis shape framing the rock.
This helps keep the viewer’s eye from drifting off the frame. As an added bonus the rock itself points up to the seaside town in the background drawing the viewer in even more.
This is just one example of using the flow of the water to create the composition you want.
4. Long Exposure Ocean Settings
For the most part, your long exposure ocean settings will change based on the scene, available light, amount of movement you want, and whether you’re using an ND filter. But here are some basics to get you started.
There’s nothing special about the aperture settings for long exposure compared to your typical landscape image. Something in the 8-16 range will get you a decent depth of field to capture most or all of the scene in focus.
You may want to tend towards the higher end (smaller apertures) if you want to extend the exposure as long as possible.
Try to avoid the highest apertures of your lens as this will cause some image softness because of something called diffraction.
I generally start around f/12 on most scenes and adjust from there.
Choose the right shutter speed
Shutter speed for long exposures of the ocean are where the creativity really kicks into high gear.
You can change the look and feel of an image considerably by simply changing the shutter speed.
A shorter shutter speed (1/2 to 2 seconds) is great for retaining the structure and highlights in a wave as it moves down the shore or flows around the rocks of a jetty. This is a useful technique when there isn’t any compelling objects in the foreground. A wave will create its own leading lines to add to the composition.
Another approach is the very long exposure. By using a shutter speed of 30 seconds or more, you can flatten out all the waves of the ocean and create a smooth surface. As compared to the energetic action you’ll capture in a 1-2 second exposure, the ultra long exposure gives you a peaceful and tranquil feel to the image.
One of my favorite ways to use the approach is by capturing waves hitting an uneven rocky shoreline. The combination of the water splashing up on the rocks and a 30+ second exposure will create a mist effect.
Like anything else in photography, there is no one right or wrong way to do it. So get out there and try different approaches and shutter speeds. Keep practicing and learning new techniques.
The beach is one of my favorite places to be (whether I’m shooting or not) and it is long exposure ocean photography is a fun creative way to enjoy the beach.