How do you take photos of water in motion? Capturing the ocean in photos takes good equipment, a little skill, and a few techniques. Learn more.
How do you photograph the ocean? It’s a simple question with a surprisingly complex answer, since unlike other types of landscapes, the ocean is constantly in motion.
Ocean photography requires that you have the right equipment—and the right set of best practices—for capturing this motion, including both the movement of the water and the way the light reflects off of it. Done right, though, it can leave you with magical, showstopping images and a stunning representation of the ocean landscape in all of its inherent beauty. It can also help draw awareness to the need for ocean conservation and the many reasons why our oceans and the life within them are so worthy of protection.
Here’s what to know about getting started with and excelling at ocean photography, including quick tips for ensuring your ocean photos really make an impact.
When we talk about ocean photography, we’re (usually) talking about more than just straight shots of the water.
The field of ocean photography encompasses many different perspectives, with a lot of opportunity for creativity in location and point of view. Which type you pursue depends on the equipment that you have and what you’re trying to achieve with your work, though many ocean photographers experiment with various perspectives, even within the same collection of images.
Beach photography highlights the ocean without making it the sole subject of the frame. There’s a strong compositional element, since sky, ocean, and sand must be in balance, along with any additional structures such as rock outcroppings or trees. Another star in beach photographs is the horizon, which tells a markedly different story depending on the time of day you’re shooting.
On-the-ocean photographs take the viewer right into the water and are usually shot from boats, though with proper safety precautions, you can definitely hop into the ocean with your waterproof equipment. In ocean images like the one above, the focus is almost entirely on the water itself, but due to the nature of the water, the image is still teeming with variation in color, saturation, light, and movement.
Who needs color when your subject is so naturally vibrant? Black and white ocean photography sacrifices color but none of its drama, and there’s a lot of power behind the subtle—and not-so-subtle—changes in light and shadow. In many ways, light plays an even more important role when you’re shooting in black and white, with the sun (or lack thereof) bringing life to the frame in unique and often unexpected ways.
Drone cameras let us see the ocean from a completely different angle than we’re used to, in turn showing us shapes, patterns, and features of the water that we don’t often get to appreciate. In the image above, it’s the surf that grabs your attention—and in particular, the way it connotes depth and movement throughout the frame. Drones can help you capture what’s going on beneath the surface, too, at least when the water is more still.
There’s a whole world under the ocean’s surface that’s just waiting to be explored with a camera in hand. Underwater ocean photography requires a specific degree of experience, equipment, skills, and knowledge, but it’s something anyone can learn if they’re truly interested in pursuing it. And if your amazement with the ocean comes not just from the water but from the flora and fauna that inhabit it, underwater photography might just be where your calling is.
According to scientific estimates, there are about a million unique species of animals in the ocean, from the smallest plankton to the largest mammals on the planet. We’ve only classified about 10% of them, but even the minuscule amount of wildlife that we can see and capture with our cameras under the water is magnificent to behold.
Ocean wildlife photography gives viewers an up-close look at the whimsical creatures in the ocean’s depths and serves not just to inspire awe but to remind us of who we’re protecting when we take better care of our oceanic surfaces.
The beauty of the ocean doesn’t disappear when the sun goes down. On the contrary, shooting the ocean at night brings an entirely new dimension to your efforts, from the stars in the sky to the eerie unknowns of dark water. Let the moon light your way, and discover just how different the ocean appears under its glow.
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Many types of outdoor photography require specialized equipment, and that’s especially true when water is involved. Most photography equipment is not inherently waterproof, nor is it intended for use in or around water without some sort of protective casing. So as you determine what you’ll need to photograph the ocean, think in terms of not just general equipment but photography equipment that’s intended for these types of shoots.
These are some of the basic categories that you’ll want to consider.
Note that if you’re going to be shooting solely from dry land, you don’t need to splurge on waterproof gear. You’ll still need the basics for photography and photo editing, but nothing out of the ordinary.
The ocean is a suitable subject for beginner photographers, but you’ll want to do your research first to make sure that you optimize your shots. This is especially true when it comes to capturing motion, since you don’t want your images to come out blurry.
There are plenty of online photography classes you can take, but here’s a quick breakdown of what you’ll need to know in order to excel with ocean photography.
In ocean photographs, as in all photographs, the essential rules of composition apply. One of the most important is the rule of thirds, which is based on the notion that all frames can be divided into four equally spaced lines—two horizontal and two vertical—and that the focal parts of your shot should be lined up at the spaces where these lines intersect.
Use a tripod for more control in setting up your composition, and consider the layout of not just the water but the elements around it.
Optimize your shutter speed depending on the type of motion you want in your image. A slow shutter speed will help you capture the dreamlike motion of the waves through long exposure, while a fast shutter speed will allow you to capture split seconds in time and choose a shot with the most dynamic movement.
There’s so much more to the ocean than just blue on blue. Color adds dimension to your ocean photography and tells the eye where to travel, so look for variations in color that you can highlight, such as the white of the surf, the smoky gray of rocks, or the purple-pink of a beachy sunset.
Light and shadow will always be major players in your ocean photographs, even if you’re not shooting purely in black and white. Select the correct lens filter for the light conditions you’re working in to create more contrast between light and shadow in the piece, and make light a defining feature of your image by choosing an ideal time for the shoot, such as golden hour or post-storm, when there’s a hazy glow to the sky.
There are tons of places to look if you’re in need of inspiration for your ocean photography. Social media is a good place to start, as are publications that heavily feature the art form, such as National Geographic and Oceanographic, which gives out an annual award for astounding ocean photos. Look for photographers who are doing the type of work you want to pursue, then take notes on what makes their photos so special, particularly in terms of composition and color.
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