From ethereal, hazy seas to dramatic skies, nothing screams “creative pro” quite like a long exposure of the sea. Daytime long exposures are a great way to transition from average snaps to vivid, artistic impressions of your surroundings. But it’s not quite that easy. Achieving stunning, silky seascapes takes preparation and practice. Luckily, you don’t need to spend a fortune getting there!
1 – PICK YOUR GEAR
Sturdy Tripod (necessary)
ND Filter (necessary)
Remote Shutter (optional)
Graduated Filter (optional)
Don’t sweat it. If your camera has full control over your exposure triangle (that’s aperture, ISO and shutter speed), you’re golden. You ideally want to be able to focus manually and be able to use exposure compensation. This will allow you to brighten or darken each scene to your own satisfaction.
For lenses, you can be flexible. A wide-angle (10-24mm) lens can create dramatic images, but relies on a strong foreground (e.g. jagged rocks or wavy golden sands). You’ll also need to get nice and close – don’t get your gear wet, though! You can use normal lenses (24-70mm) for a more traditional, painterly image.
Choose a tripod that’s durable, sturdy and can take the combined weight of your gear. If you want both a lightweight (carbon-fiber) and stable tripod, expect to splash out. Choose a pan-and-tilt head rather than a ball head. They’re more stable, and better for traditional compositions.
Budget Tips: To ensure stability, keep your tripod as low as possible, and attach a weight to the bottom if you can. This works for cheap tripods too.
- Filters are vital. During the daytime, the light levels are far too high for your camera’s sensor. ND (neutral density) filters will take the light levels down between 1-12 stops (reduce light levels by 100% to 1200%). This will allow the silky smooth waters and dramatic cloud formations you’ve been dreaming of.
- ND Graduated filters will just make half your image darker. This means you can make the foreground’s exposure match the sky, or vice-versa, useful when there’s a large contrast between the two like during a sunset. Note: make sure your filters fit your lenses.
- Suggestions: ICE 77mm ND filter, HiTech 85 ND Grad filters
- Budget Tips: Use welding glass. You can get a decent make-shift ND filter for under $10. Learn how here.
- This is an important bit of gear. Using a remote shutter means your camera won’t shake and blur from you activating the shutter manually. Use either a remote shutter shooting mode or a countdown timer.
- Suggestions: Cheap and cheerful Amazon Shutter.
- You can use certain apps to plan out your shoot according to the sun’s positioning.
- Suggestions: The Photographer’s Ephemeris
2 – CHOOSE A GOOD LOCATION
With all photography, location is everything. Consider what could make an interesting subject. Look for dramatic cliffs, interesting rock formations, colorful pebble beaches, etc. Experiment with what works. Try finding an interesting foreground and a simple background. Look for interesting leading lines and perspectives – e.g. a wooden walkway out to the sea.
Ideally, you want a west-facing coast (during sunset) or an east-facing coast (during sunrise) for vivid, dramatic colors.
Photograph during the golden hour (1 hour after sunrise and before sunset). Scout your location in advance. You want warm colors, boisterous seas, and low wind levels. It’s not enough to just consider the time – you need to also check the tide levels. Ideally, the tide should be going out for glistening rocks and dramatic seas. Check Saltwater Tides (USA).
3 – SET UP PROPERLY
You’ve got the right gear and the perfect location. What do you do now? This is where you can either make or break a good image. This process is the most vital step. Here’s a step-by-step list for you to follow:
3.1: Composition – At your chosen location, set up your camera-mounted tripod. Compose the scene first, and focus manually so your foreground is sharp, then fit your ND filter. Keep your tripod low for stability and a more dramatic foreground.
3.2: Settings – Use Aperture Priority (A or Av) or Manual mode. This will give you sufficient control over your exposure. Set your Aperture between f/7-f/11. Keep ISO at 100. Your shutter speed should be a minimum of 10 seconds, reaching 1-2 minutes for ideal water and cloud blurring. Use bulb (B) mode for exposures of 30+ seconds. Remote shutter mode is another you can experiment with to see what works best.
3.3: The Shot – Use a remote shutter, and take a test shot. Is it too dark? Increase your exposure compensation. Too bright? Lower it. Use the histogram to see if your shot is under or overexposed. Play around with your position, perspective and the height of your tripod. Think about leading lines, the rule of thirds and the relationship between foreground/background.
4 – Keep Practicing!
Like anything, practice makes perfect. Contrary to many opinions, photography is an art-form. As you learn the fundamentals, you’ll quickly develop your own unique preferences, approaches and styles. Keep learning. Be prepared to experiment. Be prepared to fail. Be prepared to get wet! Keep developing your skills and techniques, and your photography will keep improving.