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Long exposure images are fun to create and the results can look absolutely amazing if done well. Good long exposure images involve more than simply letting the shutter remain open for a long time. We will provide a brief long exposure tutorial for the beach to give you somewhere to start beyond the remote shutter cord.
Ocean photography, beach photography, and photographing waves all require long exposure to come up with that smooth, sometimes misty water effect. The long exposure camera settings have much to do with this, but some other aspects of photography also figure into our calculations and set up for this style.
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My long exposure tips are similar to many other special photography tips, at least as far as the number one tip. There’s a reason I’m constantly saying to plan ahead, do your research, previsualize, and take control of the imaging process from beginning to end - it makes the difference between getting good pics and creating outstanding images.
Since long exposure beach photography is basically the art of photographing waves, we need to know where the waves are. We need to know more than just “at the beach,” we also want to be aware of what time of day looks best, what special shore features could enhance our images, and what time is high tide.
Choose the Time
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The time of day is a variable that could completely change the final image as far as exposure, lighting conditions, direction of the light, and the color of the light. Sunrise and sunset may both look good for ocean photography, but the light will be coming from different directions, making shadows on opposite sides of other scene elements such as rock formations or man made structures.
There is sometimes a subtle color difference between sunrise and sunset, it depends on some other factors such as atmospheric conditions and the surrounding landscape, but there is a huge difference in light color from high noon to golden hour, sunset or rise, and twilight.
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The landmarks we use for navigating around the beach often make great visual elements for our long exposure beach photography. If all we have in the image area of our photograph is the blurred water, it may not look all that interesting. Including the shore features we enjoy in the images of ocean photography will add a lot of visual interest. Photographing waves looks great when they are part of an overall image.
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As the public safety part of our long exposure tutorial, it is vitally important to know when high tide is where you will do your beach photography long exposures. If you are caught up in taking photographs and don’t notice the water rising to cut off your way out, you could lose more than your camera gear. It could turn deadly.
Besides, the high and low tide will definitely impact the visual aspects of your beach and ocean photography. In some areas, it can radically alter the view. If you aren’t familiar with the timing of tides, it is super to find it online with a google search on your smartphone or computer.
Guard Your Gear
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Beach photography can play havoc with your photographic equipment. The sand and the salt air are the two biggest concerns. Blowing sand can mess up the mechanics of your camera and lens, the salt air can adversely affect the electronics. A rain shield of some type is a good idea, as is thoroughly cleaning everything once you get off the beach back home or in your hotel room.
You also want to guard your gear from accidents such as dropping them while you're climbing, dunking from a huge breaker or tripping into a tidal pool (yes, I’ve done that), or tipping over your tripod due to shifting sand underneath or a strong wind gust. Basically, if you just pay attention and be careful, you’ll be fine.
Use a Tripod
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And now, we get to talk about the picture taking part of our long exposure tutorial for ocean and beach photography. Since we are specifically looking at long exposures for photographing waves, keeping the camera position stable is a prime consideration. I like the carbon fiber tripods for beach photography, but any large enough tripod will work well.
Filter It If Light Is Too Bright
Sometimes, beginner and experienced photographers alike will lose sight of one very important option with regards to setting the exposure with a long enough shutter speed to create the right amount of blur we want to capture.
Daytime beach photography is already difficult enough for our poor exposure meters, often requiring us to dial in exposure compensation, but full daylight sun also generally means short shutter speeds to satisfy the exposure triangle.
The solution is as elegant as it is simple, use neutral density (ND) filters. A good ND filter will let you slow down the shutter speed to something that blurs the wave action even in high noon full daylight. You’ll want the filters to be very high quality so your image sharpness isn’t diminished, and you want them to be easy to use as well.
I am a big fan of filter holder systems for ND filters and graduated neutral density (GND) filters since they allow precise placement of the filter transition line for GND filters and are easy to add or remove filters for ND and other types such as circular polarizer (C-POL) filters.
Haida M10 Filter System
I’ve been enjoying the Haida M10 system and their fine set of high quality filters such as the 3 ND set with 6, 10, and 15 stop ND filters. Another great filter choice is the CPL+ND filter that combines a C-POL filter with a 10 stop ND filter.
As with any polarizer filter, you would adjust the filter by turning it until you see the effect you want in regards to darkening the sky or removing reflections or atmospheric haze. With the Haida CPL+ND filter, you ten also get to add in 10 full stops of exposure time. That can change a 1/250th shutter speed to 8 full seconds. That’s enough to blur out vigorous wave action.
If you use your ND filters at golden hour or twilight, you can achieve long exposure times of over a minute which can also give substantial motion blur to clouds and virtually flatten even a storm driven set of waves.
Diffraction Limited Aperture
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Since we’re using ND filters to change the shutter speed to a long exposure, we can now select our optimum lens aperture or f-stop. The optimum aperture for maximum sharpness is called the diffraction limited aperture. This means that it’s the f-stop that eliminates the aberrations caused by wide open apertures but before the smaller apertures start causing unwanted image softening diffraction. With most lenses, about 2 or 3 stops down from maximum aperture is the sharpest f-stop.
Obviously, if you want deep depth of field to go along with your long exposure for beach photography, you’ll use smaller apertures and just deal with the slight issues caused by diffraction. With high quality lenses, it can be only a slight problem anyways.
Composition and Other Concerns
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We still want to use good composition techniques such as Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines, and Golden Spiral in order to create an truly outstanding long exposure ocean photography image. After all, the blurred water effect we’re making looks best if we have a solid object for contrast with the motion effect.
A balanced composition and the blurring of moving water can create a serene, maybe even a surreal photograph. The long exposure is merely the part of the process that creates the blurred water effect, it still needs to be a good image before the effect in order to make a truly outstanding long exposure photograph of waves.
In this long exposure tutorial, we learned that iIf we plan ahead for knowing the tides and lighting conditions, take advantage of our special equipment such as ND filters, and use our basic landscape photography techniques such as rules of composition, we will end up with a fine collection of long exposure beach photography and have a whole lot of fun making them.