How to make the most of photo opportunities when you’re close to water.

The transition between land and sea has plenty of potential for interesting and aesthetically pleasing photographs. As long as you’re within easy reach of the coast, finding suitable locations should be straightforward. Many cities can boast coastal beaches and, even if you live inland, you are likely to be within reach of a river, stream or lake, any of which can provide a suitable site.


A typical beach shoreline on the north east coast of Victoria, photographed from a low angle with an ultra-wide angle lens to create a different perspective. Canon EOS 400D, 10mm focal length, ISO 100, 1/60 second at f/18.

Photographing shorelines introduces a number of questions for each photographer to answer and you will often employ quite different tactics to capture the essence of the subject on any one shoot. Factors to consider include: Your approach to the subject. Does it lend itself to representational, impressionistic or abstract treatment ““ or should you try out different approaches to see which ones work? Should you aim for the ‘big picture’ ““ or concentrate on details by taking close-ups?

How to orientate the picture. Whereas straight landscapes and seascapes are often recorded with the camera held horizontally, some shorelines may require a vertical orientation in order to trace the boundary between water and land.

Where to place the horizon. With the water’s edge being the main subject, most shots will have high horizons ““ and some may not include any sky at all. You may even change the image aspect ratio or crop shots after they have been taken to focus attention on the main subject.


This picture of the shoreline at Macquarie Island in the Southern Ocean is an example of how a representational shot can provide an overview of the key features of a specific location: rocky shoreline with overhead misty clouds and an abundance of wildlife. Canon EOS 400D, 24mm focal length, ISO 100, 1/200 second at f/11.


All the tools required for photographing landscapes and seascapes can be used when taking pictures of shorelines. Indeed, because this subject lends itself to so many different approaches, just about any camera and lens combination can produce interesting results. (Compact waterproof cameras will allow you to shoot in places that would be off-limits for normal cameras.)

Unlike some other genres, shoreline photography is best carried out with the camera hand-held because this gives you maximum flexibility for choosing vantage points and shooting angles. Image stabilisation ““ whether in the lens or in the camera body ““ is a real asset in these situations.

Effective stabilisation should enable you to use shutter speeds between two and four f-stops lower than you could without stabilisation.

Graduated filters can reduce differences in brightness between sea and sky. The best ones are ND (Neutral Density) or grey graduates, which don’t alter the natural colours in the subject. Coloured graduates should only be used for dramatic (and unnatural) effects.


1. Large expanses of white sand can trick your exposure meter into underexposing if you use the Program AE or fully automatic shooting modes. To compensate, set the exposure compensation to between +0.7 and +1.3 EV and check shots with the histogram display switched on. The graph should reach all the way to the right of the baseline without extending across the right side boundary. (In an under-exposed shot, the peak of the graph will be biased to the left.)


Penguins and fractured pack ice add interest to this shot of the rocky shoreline of Danco Island on the Antarctic Peninsula. This shot was cropped to remove an uninteresting area of blue sky. Nikon D200, 42mm focal length, ISO 160, 1/400 second at f/11.

2. Bracketing can help you to obtain the correct exposure in tricky lighting conditions, particularly if your camera can bracket across more than three frames covering at least +/- 3EV. Choose the frame that looks the best in the sequence but don’t discard frames at the limits of the exposure range as they may come in handy for HDR (high dynamic range) merges at the editing stage.


Bracketing in 1/3EV increments between -1.0 and the metered exposure enabled this shot to be correctly exposed. The optimal exposure was -0.3EV. Canon PowerShot G10, 6mm focal length, ISO 80, 1/800 second at f/6.3.

3. Bracketing is valuable when using in-camera adjustments and add-on filters until you develop a feeling for the effects they have. Many cameras provide auto bracketing for exposure, white balance, focus and some digital effects. If your camera doesn’t support auto bracketing, simply capture a series of shots with different exposure compensation, white balance, focus or effects settings.

4. Horizons in beach shots are best kept horizontal. If you want a different approach, go for dramatic tilting as a slightly canted horizon is disturbing to view.


The low angle of the light and slight under-exposure have turned a rather ordinary beach scene into a picturesque seascape, created by combining a low shooting angle, normal perspective and fast enough shutter speed to ‘freeze’ breaking waves. Windmill Beach, Kangaroo Island, Australia. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 50mm focal length, ISO 200, 1/320 second at f/11.

5. Look for different shooting positions. Try higher ground for a ‘bird’s eye’ view that will emphasise the structure in the scene. A ‘worm’s eye’ view will focus attention on details along the water’s edge.

6. Capitalise on reflections, particularly when the sun is low. Reflections of trees, rocks and other structures on calm water usually produce pleasing results.


Dusk falls on the still waters of the Whakatane River estuary at Whakatane in New Zealand. Canon PowerShot G10, 25mm focal length, ISO 100, 1/30 second at f/5.6.

7. Make use of natural features in the landscape, such as rocks, trees and other vegetation to frame scenes.

8. Take advantage of opportunities to shoot panoramas. Sometimes this is the only way you can encompass a shoreline in its entirety. Shooting a panorama can also allow you to concentrate on presenting a section of shoreline in order to emphasise particular features. Depending on the camera’s orientation, the lens focal length, the overlap between shots and the angle covered in the panorama, you can create some impressive pictures and achieve some interesting effects with well-composed pans.


This picture of the Kimberley coastline in Western Australia was taken from a helicopter. The structures produced by tidal extremes create interesting patterns in the shot. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 40mm focal length, ISO 200, 1/350 second at f/11.


A set of tide tables (or tide charts) can help you to fi nd the best times for shooting shorelines ““ and also enable you to avoid being caught out by a rising tide. These tables show the daily times and height of high water and low water for particular locations.

Most governments publish tide tables for specific areas, often on the Bureau of Meteorology’s website. A simple Google search on ‘tide tables’ or ‘tide charts’ should take you to a site with tables for your locality. Some newspapers also publish this information and booklets containing tide predictions for a whole year are often available in newsagents, ship’s chandlers and stores selling boating and fishing equipment.

Some landscape photographers specialise in photographing the variations in the coastline caused by extreme tides. The pace of the water, particularly as it rushes out across a sandy beach, can produce interesting patterns; so can the moving water itself. These regions are particularly suitable for aerial photography.


A four-shot panorama of Vivonne Bay, Kangaroo Island, captured with the Canon PowerShot G10 using the 6mm focal length, ISO 80, 1/500 second at f/5.6.


A panorama created from six shots with the camera held horizontally. A 24mm lens and an overlap between shots of roughly 30% produced an exaggerated perspective that lends drama to the scene and emphasises the lowering sky. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 24mm focal length, ISO 200, 1/250 second at f/14.


General advice on photographing coasts

Tips for photographing beaches

More tips for beach photography

Examples of aerial photographs taken in regions of extreme tides

This article is an excerpt from Nature Photography eGuide.