Long Exposure Beach Photography: The Complete Guide

By August 14, 2019 July 14th, 2020 Photography

Everyone loves a great beach trip, and the same goes for photographers. This type of nature photography presents endless opportunities for eye-catching images.

With the beach’s timeless waves, ethereal coastline, and impressive skies, you’ll find plenty of elements to explore by the ocean.

Long exposure photography, in particular, can create stunning beach shots. Here, we’ll explore the basics of long exposure photography, along with how it can be implemented in coastal shots. Let’s dive in!

What is Long Exposure Photography?

Long exposure is a photographic technique that uses a long shutter speed to achieve a specific visual effect.

For instance, a long exposure may be used to create soft textures in an image. Or it may be used to capture the progression of time, displaying events in a way that we can’t often see with our eyes alone.

Specific shutter speed doesn’t define long exposure photography. The exposure must be slow enough to create a distinct effect.

When to Use Long Exposure Photography

The Golden Hour

The Golden Hour occurs at sunrise and sunset. During this time, the sun is positioned far down on the horizon. So, the rays of sunlight travel outward at a flatter angle. This creates soft, diffused light with golden highlights.

While shooting during the Golden Hour, pay special attention to subjects that look especially striking when illuminated by the golden light.

Think about ocean shorelines, shallow pools of water, and beach pebbles. These objects are stunning at this time of day.

If you plan to shoot at the Golden Hour, I recommend you arrive at least an hour early. Arriving early will allow you to get set up and ready before the light starts shifting into vibrant colors. This way you reduce the risk of missing out on the perfect moment for your shot.

The Blue Hour

The Blue Hour occurs before sunrise and after sunset.

My best advice for sunset beach photography is to never leave your location until the blue hour is over. If you leave the location as soon as the sun sets on the horizon, you’ll miss out on some of the best, most interesting lighting for photography.

While the sun may not be visible, it may still illuminate the sky with a gentle warm glow at the horizon. The glimmers of soft colors left by the sun, combined with the cool vivid blue of the early night sky can create some of the best backdrops for nature photography.

Overcast, Rainy, and Stormy Days

When the weather is temperamental, go to the beach with your camera.

A stormy sky makes for a dramatic composition. This can be true, even if you go out to shoot in the middle of the day.

I particularly love going to the beach on overcast days to shoot in black and white. With a 10-stop ND filter, you can create mysterious, moody photographs. Some of my favorite beach images were taken under these conditions.

Plus, beaches are usually empty when the weather is poor so you’ll have the whole place to yourself. You wouldn’t have to worry about avoiding people when composing your images.

Settings

Shutter Speed

There’s no set shutter speed to use in long exposure beach photography.

The right shutter speed to use is dependent on several variables such as the quality of lighting, water’s movements, and the aesthetic you’re trying to achieve.

Depending on the speed of moving water, I typically use a shutter speed of ¼ to 2 seconds when doing coastal photography.

For a balance of softness and detail with a long exposure, I use a ¼ shutter speed. This value allows your camera to catch the waves’ general structure but gives the image a soft quality.

With exposures longer than ¼ of a second, you’ll typically wouldn’t be able to capture the clear form of the wave. I usually use these shutter speeds if I want to create water effects that have a smooth and silky quality to it.

That said, remember to try out a variety of shutter speeds. You’ll need to experiment to figure out which option creates the visual effect that you’re going for.

ISO and Aperture

For beach photography, a narrow aperture is typically ideal. This allows you to create a deep depth of field, keeping both your foreground and background in focus.

Typically I use Aperture priority along with a closed down aperture of about f/9-f/14. Sometimes, if it’s not too bright, I’ll skip the ND filter and control brightness using narrower apertures, around f/14-f/16. 

That said, in most cases, you typically can’t achieve long exposure with a closed aperture alone. You’ll need to use an ND filter to achieve the effect that you’re going for.

For ISO, I suggest using the lowest possible for your camera. This is not only helpful in preventing noisy images, but it will also allow you to play with long exposures without worrying about overexposure.

Gear

Wide Angle Lens

A wide-angle lens is often my choice of lens for beach photography. You can successfully use other lenses, but a wide-angle lens will capture a greater scope of your scene.

Wide-angle lenses are also great for emphasizing depth in your photograph, creating the illusion of your foreground being closer and the horizon being far away.

These lenses are also known for their wide depth of field, making them ideal for beach photography where you’ll often want to capture most of your image in sharp focus.

ND Filters

For long exposure photography, an ND filter is an essential tool. ND filters reduce the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor.

They allow you to use longer exposure times without overexposing your images.

When taking long exposure photos at the beach, ND filters can give water a smooth, silky effect. Depending on your exposure time, you can manipulate how your water will appear: soft and silky or smoky and mysterious. Without an ND filter, achieving this effect is nearly impossible without overexposing your image.

ND filters vary in strength with the most commonly used filters being two-stop, six-stop, and ten-stop. The higher the stop of ND filter, the more light it will prevent from reaching the sensor.

For example, a two-stop ND filter will reduce exposure by two stops. That is, to achieve the same level of exposure, you need to increase your other exposure settings by two stops.

ND filters follow multiple notational processes. The most common and easiest to understand is the “ND#” method. Using this notation a one-stop ND filter is notated as ND2. It is referred to as ND2 because a multiplication factor of 2 is applied to the number of stops it reduces.

For example, a two-stop ND filter is notated as ND4, and a three-stop ND filter is notated ND6. This makes it quite easy to keep track of the number of stops of light you are reducing.

I typically use three ND filters when I go out to shoot: three-stop, six-stop, and ten-stop.

I use a three-stop filter when I am using shutter speeds between 1/250 of a second and ½ second for giving waves a silky smooth appearance. When I am using shutter speeds longer than 1 second or on sunny days, I typically opt for a six-stop ND filter. It gives your images a more mysterious and moody feel.

Ten-stop filters work great if you are trying to shoot long exposure during the day. This filter allows the use of very long exposure times, creating a much more mysterious and moody feel.

One of the best features of ND filters is that they are stackable, which means that you can stack several ND filters together to enhance the effect.

Suppose you need a ten-stop filter, but you only have a four-stop and six-stop filter. To overcome this issue, you can place both of the filters on your camera to achieve the same effect as a ten-stop filter.

You can also use a special type of ND filter, a graduated ND filter. A graduated ND filter reduces light in a gradation. In most cases, the top portion of the filter is darker and applies more light reduction than the bottom half.

It’s common to use graduated ND filters during sunrise or sunset to correct for the stark differences in the brightness between the sky and the foreground. A graduated ND filter will help ensure that you don’t can properly expose your sky and background.

CPL (Circular Polarized) Filter

Another filter that can be useful during the long exposure beach photography is a Circular Polarized Filter.  You can use a CPL filter to remove reflections from water, enhance color, and reduce the shininess cast by bright light.

Also, be cautious when selecting the strength of your CPL filter. Similar to an ND filter, it reduces the amount of light reaching the camera’s sensor, typically around 1-2 stop reduction.  Using a CPL filter that is too powerful can give an undesirable appearance to your images.

Tripod

A tripod is a fundamental tool for all long exposure photography. It helps prevent camera shake and blurry images when shooting with slow shutter speeds.

For beach photography, I highly suggest that you bring a stable, durable tripod.

Winds are often high at the beach, making lightweight tripods likely to shake and sway. A flimsy tripod may even flip over when the tide comes in.

If you don’t want to carry a heavy tripod, consider bringing one that provides a hook you can use to add weight and stability to your tripod.

With these hooks, you can simply use your camera bag for added weight. Most photographers store enough gear in their camera bag to add an extra five to ten pounds to the tripod.

Finally, I recommend using a tripod that can be broken down into parts. Sand can get in the small crevices of your tripod, and being able to take it apart is the most convenient option for cleaning. If your tripod can’t be taken apart, it may very well become irreversibly packed with sand after a beach shoot.

Always remember to clean your tripod when you get home from a beach shoot. Saltwater and debris are bound to get all over it, so you’ll need to clean it promptly.

Tripod Spikes

As I mentioned above, the wind and movement of waves at the beach can cause your tripod to be unstable. This will, if the issue isn’t addressed, cause blurred, unclear photos.

To fix this issue, I find using tripod spikes to be an effective solution. The spiked feet allow you to wedge the tripod into the sand to keep the tripod secure.

If you have tripod spikes, you can keep your camera on the tripod even if you walk away while the tide is coming in. Tripod spikes are underrated. But, they’re a crucial tool for camera stability when you’re shooting at the beach.

Lens Cloth

A lens cloth is an essential tool to have whenever you’re shooting outdoors. Especially when you’re switching between warm and cold temperatures, the camera lens can become clouded and ruin your shot.

At the beach, splashes of water can get on your lens or filters and obscure your shot. Bringing along a plain lens cloth will enable you to fix these problems by just wiping your lens and filters clean.

Remote Shutter Release

If you plan to use exposure times longer than 30 seconds, then a cable release is a must-have.

Past 30 seconds, your camera will turn to Bulb mode. This means that your camera will keep the shutter open until you physically remove your finger from the shutter button. Most people find this impossible to do without a cable release.

If you don’t own one yet and are planning to buy one, I’d recommend a mid-range priced cable release.

In my years as a photographer, I’ve seen inexpensive, knock-off brand cable releases that don’t even make it through one use. But, on the flip side, I’ve also seen advanced intervalometers lose battery power on location and become completely worthless.

Find a balance between these two prices while focusing on durability and functionality.

Techniques

Foggy Water Effect

Foggy Long Exposure Beach

One way you do coastal long exposure photography is to capture the water’s movement in the form of a fog.

To create this foggy effect, you have to have waves. A still, calm sea will appear as a straight line with a long exposure.

You’ll also need to use an extended exposure of around 10-20 seconds.

When you leave the shutter open for this long, you allow your camera’s sensor to record a culmination of different wave movements in a single image. The result is a soft, foggy visual effect.

This type of long exposure also gives the clouds a glossy texture. This makes for a fantasy-like appearance, especially when used as a backdrop to moving water.

The low-light during the blue hour makes it an ideal time to shoot this type of effect. You may also use an ND filter to capture long exposure photos in brighter conditions.

When you’re aiming for this effect, try to include a solid object in the image. Doing so will provide your composition with an anchor for contrast.

You can accentuate the foggy look by incorporating still objects, like pebble stones or a lighthouse. The fog will float around these objects, accentuating the feeling of time passing.

Consider using a zoom lens for this type of shot, too – I find that it will produce the best result.

Water Trails

long exposure seascape with rocks and waves on beach

There’s no specific shutter speed that you have to use to create this effect. Since you can never predict the speed at which waves move, you’ll need to experiment with what shutter speed works best.

I’d recommend starting at ½ of a second for this effect. But you may need to go as slow as two seconds for slower waves.

It’s critical to note that you must be standing in the water to create this type of shot. Dress accordingly and be prepared to get wet.

Bring spike feet and wedge your tripod into the sand, until the spikes are fully submerged under the ground. This will help prevent the tripod from moving as the water comes in and out.

Remember, it’s crucial to capture the water as it recedes, not as it’s coming in. Be patient and wait until a wave comes it and push your shutter speed as it recedes into the ocean.

Abstract, Long Exposure Beach Photography

Abstract Long Exposure Beach Photography

For most abstract coastal photography, the goal is to photograph the motion of the waves without blurring them completely. The form and color of the waves should be evident.

For these types of composition, you want to use a zoom lens. You’ll also want the waves to be average in size on the day that you choose to shoot.

In terms of shutter speed, experimentation is key. I suggest starting with a ½ second shutter speed, then making changes as you need to.

You may fail several times before you achieve the shot that you’re going for. So you’ll need to be patient.

When you go to shoot, recognize the tones and lines of the waves. You may or may not include the sky, depending on what it will contribute to your shot

Daytime Long Exposure Photography

Most images created during the day are shot with short exposure. This is unsurprising, considering the bright ambient light during this time.

But, with the proper tools, you can create wholly unique images with long exposures during the day.

Depending on your final goal, the exposure length that you need will vary.

For the surreal appearance of fog in the water, your shutter speed can vary from 20 seconds to one minute or longer. This will be dependent on the quality of light available. An overcast day will require you to use longer shutter speeds than a bright cloudless day.

The same principle goes for cloud streaks. Although your shutter speed for creating this effect will also heavily depend on how fast the clouds are moving. Slower clouds will require you to use longer shutter speeds than faster clouds.

Above all, you’ll need a dark ND filter with a minimum of six stops. This is one piece of equipment that you can’t glaze over – it’s crucial for long exposure shots in daylight.

Ideally, you’ll need a nine or ten-stop ND filter. Only with a strong ND filter will you e able to have an exposure longer than 30 seconds during the day.

The ND filter that you pick should enable you to use a one to five-minute exposure during the day. The ND filter you need will depend on the intensity of light but consider a ten-stop ND filter and greater.

An ND filter that lacks in strength simply won’t do the trick – daylight requires this tool to achieve long exposure shots.

A Few Things You Need to Consider with Day Time Photography:

When you use an ND filter with over six stops, a magenta hue will be visible in color images.

This phenomenon happens because while ND filters cut out light that can be seen in the visible spectrum, infrared light still comes through.

The magenta cast isn’t widely liked by photographers. Unfortunately, it’s tricky to remove it in post-processing. If this is an issue for you, consider converting your image to black and white.

Vignetting is another issue that you may run into. Vignetting is when the corners of a photo darken, and it happens when the ND filter blocks out light from the scene.

Filters with a thick mount are more likely to create this effect. Vignetting is also more common when you “stack” filters.

If this is an issue for you, you can try minimizing the vignette in post-processing, or you can crop out the corners of your image.

Composition Tips

Timing

When you’re working with moving waves, timing is everything. Waves move back and forth, rising and receding over and over again.

Perfecting your timing may take some time and practice, so you’ll need to be patient.

Some photographers like to use the burst/continuous mode on their cameras when photographing waves. This enables you to shoot continuously and see what you get at the end.

What I found, however, is this method also leads to a huge volume of non-quality shots after the shoot, since there is not a  high degree of accuracy in timing. So, I would highly recommend manually controlling the shutter button.

The best time to press the shutter is when the waves recede – not when the waves are coming in. White foam appears when the waves recede, which makes for lovely leading lines in an image.

That said, there are times when pressing the shutter as the waves come in can work as well. For instance, this may work if you want to show water hitting the rocks and create a striking look of splashes.

Another recommended strategy is using a remote cable release. Although it’s certainly not mandatory, having one can help minimize accidental camera shake that can result in blurry images.

For shutter speed, I usually work with ½ of a second to 2 seconds, but make adjustments depending on how the waves behave that day. Beach photography is all about exploration and trying new things, so keep your mind open.

Level the Horizon

Make sure your camera is leveled when composing your shot. Although an off-level horizon can be fixed in post-processing, this isn’t always ideal.

If you fix the leveling while editing, you’ll need to trim the edges in your frame. If there are key visual elements at the edges of the images, you may run into problems while cropping.

One of the easiest ways to level your horizon is to use a tripod. This is especially true if your tripod head has a built-in bubble level. 

Using a tripod will allow you to make small adjustments to your camera until its perfectly level with the horizon. 

Whether you are using a tripod or not, the following tools will help you level your horizon. 

To keep images from coming out slanted, you can also turn on your camera’s gridlines. Most cameras give you the option to display a 3×3 grid on your live view screen.

To use the gridlines, select the menu button on your camera and scroll until you find the “grid display.” When you choose “grid display,” you will be prompted with one of two screens. 

If your camera only has one grid setting, you will be prompt with “yes” or “no.” Select yes to activate the grid view on your cameras. 

The standard for most cameras with only one option is a 3×3 gird. 

On the other hand, if your camera has mulitple gird options, you will need to select from a list. Most cameras provide a small image of what the grid looks like next to the setting. Select a grid option with horizontal lines so you can level your horizon. 

I recommend using a 3×3 or 6×4 grid. These will come with enough horizontal lines to give compositional flexibility. 

Another option for leveling your horizon is using the cameras built-in level. Most but not all, DSLR cameras have a built-in level that you can activate in the menu. Some cameras also allow you to display the level on your live view.

This can be extremely useful when composing an image but can be a bit disruptive if you are still composing your image. I recommend activating the built-in level once you have composed your image. 

If you want to keep your live view clean and strictly for composing your images, you can use a bubble level to make sure your horizon is level. In most cases, the bubble level connects to the hot plate on your camera. It functions exactly like a traditional carpentry bubble level. There is an air bubble suspended in liquid, and when the camera is leveled, the air bubble will fall to the center. 

Vertical Format

It’s easy to forget about turning your camera vertically when shooting landscapes.

Looking side to side instead of up and down is far more intuitive and natural to us. Plus, cameras are built to cater to the landscape orientation more than portrait orientation.

This is especially true for cameras that are large and heavy. These types of cameras are tricky to rotate to a vertical format and trickier to stabilize in that position.

As a result, most photographers intuitively opt for a landscape format.

While this is the best choice in many circumstances, there are times when vertical format could provide more benefits for an image.

This is especially true for images that have plenty of tall, vertical elements. In such cases, portrait orientation can add depth to an image, leading your viewer’s eyes to travel up and down.

This as opposed to looking from side to side, which is the tendency with horizontal formats.

Using vertical orientation is a great way to highlight the height of the palm trees in your beach photo. It is also a great choice in cases where you’re using the shoreline as a way to lead the viewers through your image.

So, take the risk and try vertical format when you’re out on a shoot. You may struggle a bit to stabilize your camera, but the work will be well worth it when you end up with an original shot.

Focal Point

Just as in other types of photography, you need to thoughtfully select a focal point in beach photography.

An image with a focal point will engage viewers, while an image without one will confuse them.

Keep an eye out for palm trees, sandcastles, rocks and other elements you can use as your focal point.

You can also use wildlife as your focal point. You’ll be surprised at the number of creatures you’ll find on the beach. From seagulls to starfish, coastal wildlife provides a great variety of options for your focal point,

Some other popular examples for focal point include boardwalks, lighthouses, shadows, and silhouettes.

Foreground

Adding a foreground element in your composition is a great way to add visual interest to your coastal image. Since the visual of a beach is constantly changing, your foreground can contain any number of variable elements.

For example, sandy beaches often have large rocks upon which the waves crash. The rocks can be a solid aspect in your foreground, providing contrast to the fluid water.

One of my favorite elements to add to the foreground are round pebbles in the ocean-soaked sand. These pebbles create interesting patterns that serve as an outline of the receding sea.

Other small bodies of water, such as streams and pools, also make excellent foreground objects. These smaller bodies of water create a striking perspective for the overwhelming sea further back in the image.

When you’re scoping out a location, consider the foreground one of your priorities. Explore the area and see what interesting elements you can find.

Practice Minimalism

In photography, we’re challenged to create by taking away visual elements instead of adding them. This is in contrast to other art forms, namely drawing or painting, in which the artist must add to a blank canvas.

A well-defined composition will have fewer visual factors to pull the viewer’s attention away from your key subject. This may be difficult to do when working on sweeping scenery, such as beach photography.

But, an image with too many details is rarely effective. Minimalism in photography is about honing in on what’s crucial to the overall message of the image. It’s your decision as to what’s important and what’s not. You have complete control over the direction and perspective of the photo.

Before you hit the shutter button, decide on the element that is most important in your image. Then, organize the composition so that the element is the most visible.

Check your work in the viewfinder and make sure that you have a focused, clear shot. If something is distracting, eliminate it.

Focus on simplicity and clarity in your composition. Consider the big picture rather than the minuscule elements, and make sure that every subject you include plays a valuable role.

Double-Check

It’s extremely tricky (and takes a degree of luck) to have all of the most enrapturing waveforms in just one shot.

So, one of my favorite methods in coastal photography is to blend several images with varying waveforms.

In particular, I take the top waves from three separate shots and combine them using editing software.

To try this technique, be sure to keep your tripod in the exact same place until you have all the shots you need.

Once you have all of the shots that you want to use for a composite shot, you can move the tripod. Doing this will make the post-processing work that you have to do later much easier.

Also, besides waves, ensure that you’ve captured all of the elements that you want in the composition prior to repositioning the tripod.

For instance, if you want a sunburst in the composite image, take a shot that’s exposed for the sunlight before moving on.

Have Fun, But Take Care

Always come prepared when doing beach photography. Wear waterproof gear, namely waterproof shoes and pants, if you’re planning on standing in the water.

The sea can be turbulent, and beaches can be infamous for rough, unpredictable waves. So, always be diligent and pay attention to what comes your way.

Conclusion

Seaside shoots produce incredibly interesting, beautiful photographs.

The ocean is expansive and mysterious, unpredictable and timeless. It’s no wonder the photographers flock to the seaside with their cameras, aiming to capture the beauty of the waves.

In this article, we’ve covered how you can use long exposure photography to shoot striking, unique visuals.

There is a plethora of potential subject matter available to you by the ocean. So, prepare yourself for the sea’s enchanting waves and head out to create your own stunning coastal images.

Additional Resources 

The Ultimate Guide To Beach Photography

About The Author

Photographer. Explorer. Story Teller. For the past 5 years, I’ve voyaged across the world seeking the next great photograph. If you’re anything like me, you love to travel, capture beautiful moments, and live life to the fullest.

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