Have you ever risen early in the morning for a sunrise photo shoot only to be faced with fog? Often a feeling of disappointment sets in; I suggest, however, that such moments are full of opportunities—chances to try something new.
Such was the case one morning during our recent Sigma-sponsored Point Reyes National Seashore Field Institute “Seascapes and Wildlife Weekend” photo workshop. We arose around 5 AM to photograph early morning light at Drakes Beach. Upon arriving, fogged surrounded us.
Soon the dense cloud lifted enough to see down the beach but not enough to let the early morning sunlight shine through. So I encouraged our participants to grab their cameras, wide angle lenses, and tripods for some playing in the sand.
One of the best ways to have fun is to get wet, to head out into the surf. I prefer wearing waterproof boots; some photographers opt for sandals. Whatever footgear you choose, plan on getting into the lapping waves. You must go where few other photographers are willing to go. Think about it: Most casual beach photographers stay on dry land. Your images will stand out if you head out into the swirling waters. And it’s not necessary to go long distances out. Just go far enough—maybe three to six inches deep—to depict the bubbly water washing ashore. You will make your viewers feel like they, too, are in the water. Try to put your viewers into the scene.
When I photograph along beaches, I prefer to slow things down with long shutter speeds. I want to let viewers see not only new angles from in the water but also new durations of time. That is, our eyes cannot slow down crashing waves to milky blurs, but cameras can. To do this, screw on a circular polarizer, perhaps even adding a neutral density filter, stop down, and slow down.
I like to shoot around f/11 or f/16 for good depth of field and use shutter speeds from about 1/4 of a second to 1 or 2 seconds. At these slow shutter speeds, you can see that a tripod is a must. An added bonus of the tripod is that you can produce multiple shots of the same view, allowing you to create series of images of the same scene—a photographic theme and variation.
Experimentation is key. With digital cameras, you can see the results immediately and adjust shutter speeds and ISOs as necessary. If the shutter speed is not capturing enough detail in the moving bubbles or breaking waves, increase the shutter speed. If you need more blurring, decrease the shutter speed.
Besides varying the shutter speed, change your point of view and angle of view. Raising the tripod up a bit can help increase the amount of water in the foreground. And tip your camera down to include only small amounts of dull skies. Going wider can help depict more wave patterns. Just be careful not to make the surrounding dunes, cliffs, or other beach features look too small.
What about filters? The first filter to put on is a polarizing filter. Not only will it reduce exposure times by about two stops, but it will also increase contrast by reducing reflections caused by the water. On a foggy morning without direct sunlight, using a polarizer filter is really important. Sand, looking shiny from reflected fog-filtered light, will look deeper in tone with a polarizer, and mineral deposits and bubble patterns will become more evident.
If you need to slow your shutter speed even more, try adding a neutral density filter on top of your polarizer. This can allow you to shoot at minimal apertures and slow down to 2 seconds or more.
Finally, don’t forget to try these techniques on sunny days, too. Even fewer photographers use long exposures to create creamy looking waves on bright, sunny, days. Your resulting blue-sky, blurred-waves shots are sure to catch your viewer’s eyes.
So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and play in the sand!