Adventures in seascape photography

August 11, 2015  •  1 Comment

I think as photographers, if we stop pushing ourselves to learn new things then we are doing ourselves a disservice. I'm pretty sure I will never stop learning as far as photography is concerned. I've had some pretty amazing experiences already this year and I have seen the progress with my images. I'm expanding my portfolio and I'm shooting things in a different way with a new set of skills I didn't have at the beginning of the year.

This August, like most Augusts each year I am in France. However this time I am on the Mediterranean coast, when normally I spend some weeks on the Atlantic coast. As a result, I am in a part of France which is new to me. I am not far from the Camargue National Park which I am hoping to visit next week and hopefully get some wildlife shots. This is where the Rhone river meets the Mediterranean sea. Thus, I find myself right next to the coast. 

Before I arrived I did a little bit of research. This is essential to landscape photography. What I discovered was that I would be in and around what the French call "Calanques" - this is difficult to translate into English, but basically the coast line is made up of large and small coves. Some of the larger ones are only accessible by boat. I am situated close to some of the smaller ones. 

A quick iPhone snap of my camera and the Lee filters system. You see the filter sticking up on the lens, which is a grad ND filter.

I invested in two filters, the Lee Filters Big Stopper (a 10 stop ND filter) and a Little Stopper (a 6 stop ND filter). These filters are like sun glasses for your lenses. The block out the light and enable you to open up the shutter for much longer exposure times. This allows you to do some amazing things, particularly with moving water. It enables you to set a long exposure and effectively smooth the sea out giving a silk like or misty appearance. Not everyone likes this effect. Personally, I do like it and I think it can look very effective, creating mood and ambience in landscape and seascape imagery. A lot of Big Stopper photographers actually shoot for black and white conversions for printing. As this was my first outing with the technique I have stayed with colour for the time being. But over time I will look at shooting specifically for black and white once I get a bit more experience.

For those of you that don't know the Mediterranean is pretty calm when compared to the Atlantic. It isn't tidal and it does not get huge sets of rollers coming in from a far. This means I haven't been using the Little Stopper very often. I think this filter would lend itself to waves and shorter exposure times to create dramatic movement in the sea. For the Mediterranean I've been using the Big Stopper, this allowed me to expose from 30 seconds onwards and longer and smoothed the sea out to give that silky effect.

The first couple of mornings I went out, I was up at 6.30 which was around the time the sun rose, and I was at the beaches for around 7.00am. What I found was that at this time, with just 30 minutes of sun light, there was too much light to get the type of images I was looking for. The images looked ok, but they weren't what I was looking for. 

My first seascape with the Lee Filters, Big Stopper. The sun is to the left and you can see the difference as the light falls on the right side of the composition, yet the left still has shades. The sea is also very reflective and white, rather than a marine blue colour. 

Despite the results not really delivering, I really enjoyed the early starts. It kind of reminded me of being back on Safari with a 5.20am wake up. I'm not really a morning person. But despite the difficulties of pulling yourself out of bed so early, there is something satisfying about being outdoors before everyone else. You might meet the odd coastal fisherman who's up at the same hour and on the rocks for a different reason. But other than that, it's just you, the sea and nature and that brings with it a calmness which I really enjoy. 

Interestingly, and I've had this experience in Africa too...if you don't practice photography, you don't really realise just how quickly the sun rises and sets. It takes a matter of minutes for that bright orange orb on the horizon to pop up, or go to bed. Either way, blink and you will miss it. So you have to work pretty quickly with your gear and it's best to get set up and ready to go about 30 minutes before the sun appears. Like this you give yourself a little extra breathing space before taking the shot. Over the next few mornings through some trial and error I started to gauge the light levels both before and just after sun rise and was able to adjust exposures accordingly. 

In terms of kit and workflow what do you exactly need?

  • First you need a tripod. You won't be able to take any long exposure images without the camera being locked down on a good sturdy tripod. Any coastal wind can shake a tripod, so you want a sturdy one. Travel tripods are ok, but not for this type of photography. I brought my main tripod with me which is a Manfrotto tripod and fluid head. It's heavy and so pretty much sticks when you set it up. 
  • You will need a wide angle lens, and a mid range telephoto. I have the 16-35mm f2.8 and the 24-70mm f2.8 lenses for these types of seascapes. The wide angle lens works really well when you want to get low angles and close up to foreground interest. The telephoto is idea if you want to compose in tighter to a certain area of interest in the frame.
  • Obviously you'll need a filter kit. I use the Lee Filters system which allows me to add a filter holder to the lens, thanks to an adapter ring system. The 24-70mm f2.8 lens has a standard 77mm filter thread, and this adapter comes with the Lee Filters system. The 16-35mm f2.8 has an 82mm filter thread and this you will need to purchase separately. The filter holder allows you to add both the Big Stopper 10 stop ND filter and also ND grad filters. The ND grad filters are very useful for when you have too much contrast in the skies. However the Big Stopper needs to be the filter placed closes to the lens, with the ND grad being placed on top of the Big Stopper. This is a challenge as you can't see where the grad starts and ends in your frame. So you have to first compose with the ND grad then slide the Big Stopper in-between the grad and the lens.
  • A time remote or remote trigger. You want to eliminate all camera movement to release the shutter. The timer remote also gives you the longer exposure options when in Bulb mode.

My Canon 5Dmkiii on my Manfrotto tripod, a very sturdy set up that can actually get down very low and shoot some nice low angles. Very versatile for compositions (iPhone snap)

The Lee Filters ND grads comes with the 10x10 filter holder which is compatible with the Big and Little Stopper. The filter ring allows the filter holder to be attached to the lens. (iPhone snap). 

For the set up;

  1. Get your tripod and camera set up and attach the timer remote.
  2. Add the adapter ring to the lens.
  3. Now start to compose the image. Get your settings dialled in. Use Manual mode (M) to set aperture, and iso. You want the iso as low as possible as longer exposure times can induce more noise. Then balance the exposure with shutter speed. Make a note of the shutter speed the camera is telling you.
  4. Lee Filters provide you with a quick guide to dial in a new shutter speed for the exposure times taking in to consideration the 10 stops difference the Big Stopper will add. This is a very handy guide to have. The 10 stops means you have to recalculate the exposure time and hence the shutter speed. This is why you need to note the shutter speed of a normal exposed frame before adding the filter.
  5. [Note the 10 stop calculation is as follows, 1 stop a metered exposure of 1/30th of a second doubles to become 1/15th of a second, 2 stops makes 1/15th become 1/8th and 3 stops makes 1/8th become 1/ the time you get to 10 stops like this you are at 32 seconds]
  6. Add the grad filter in the outer filter slot first. Check the grad is correctly on the horizon.
  7. Now focus, using Autofocus. Once the camera has locked focus, switch the lens to manual focus. This is needed for when you trigger the shutter with the remote.
  8. Now finally add the Big Stopper to the filter holder. Slide it in carefully so as not to move the grad ND if you have one in place.
  9. Dial in the new shutter speed taking into consideration the 10 stops of exposure. 
  10. Trigger the shutter release to take the shot.

Note - for Canon cameras the longest exposure in Manual mode (M) is 30 seconds. To shoot over 30 seconds you need to use Bulb mode (B) and dial the exposure time into the remote control. 

Lee include this excellent exposure guide which helps you convert a normal exposure to the exposure time needed with the Big Stopper.

This all seems quite complex, but actually it isn't. Once you start shooting it becomes second nature. The most important thing is setting up and composing before adding the Big Stopper, because once you add the filter you are literally working blind. So it is important to get all your ducks in a row, before adding the filter and hitting the shutter release, otherwise you will end up with some surprises and have to start over!

After several mornings now exploring the coast, I'm now getting images I'm happy with. When shooting seascapes it is all about quality over quantity of images. This is not about going out there and taking 10 or 20 images. Some morning's I've been lucky to get 4 shots, and with the 4th shot I've been pushing my luck as far as the light is concerned. It is better to focus on one or two compositions and working to optimise those. Trying to chase after locations will just eat up time and you'll soon find yourself out of time as the sun rises and the bright light creates strong harsh reflections on the sea and contrasty skies. As the sun rises (or sets) your light dramatically changes so you have to constantly adjust that exposure calculation for your shutter speed to compensate. For example at 6am one morning I exposed in Bulb (B) mode for 4 minutes. Then at 6.30am I was down to 2 minutes 30 seconds as the sun began to rise. It is important to take the filter off the lens and check what the shutter speed is for a normal exposed composition. The shutter speed will increase the more light there is and hence with the filter the exposure time will be less. 

So what have the results been like?

Here's a selection of images that I've taken. Keep in mind, I'm an absolute beginner with regards to seascapes! It's been a huge amount of fun. I've loved the whole experience!

Using the 16-35mm f2.8. I first tried a wider composition. f9.0, 19mm, ISO 100, 4 minute exposure.

I went in close to the rocks with the same 16-35mm f2.8 lens. I now had a little more light to play with which helped with the colour of the sea which I accentuated using Lightroom's HSL sliders. f9.0, 16mm, ISO 100, 3 minute 20 second exposure. 

I had to climb down a cliff to get to this small cove! 16mm, ISO 100, f10, 1 minute 35 seconds exposure. 


25mm, ISO 100, f10, 1 minute 20 second exposure.

25mm, ISO 100, f10 1 minute 20 seconds.

I used the 24-70mm f2.8 lens to compose this shot at 70mm f18, ISO 100, 30 second exposure. I was some distance from the harbour wall and lighthouse, which is why it is a good idea to carry a telephoto lens in your bag. 

Next week I head to the North of France, on a completely different stretch of coastline in Normandy and I am really hoping to get out on that stretch of coastline and repeat the experience. I'm pretty sure it will make for some pretty rugged and very different seascapes than those I've taken this week.




Oscar Fernandez(non-registered)
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