Photography at the Seaside – Long Exposure Guide

Categorized as Landscape photography, Long exposure photography, Long Exposure Techniques
long exposure photography

Coastal Landscapes

Long exposure coastal landscapes are very effective for long exposures because they often have moving waves and stationary objects, like rocks and ice bergs. This gives the photograph a strong contrast between the temporary and the permanent. The sea has always conjured our imagination as both provider and take-the away-er, of both home and voyages. Coastal Landscapes (Sea-scapes) capture the interaction at the sea-side… at the edge of the ocean. The movement of waves can create a more dynamic photo.

Small Group Ice Caving

Shutter speeds

Generally I advise half to two second exposures for Coastal Landscapes. The purpose is to show some movement of the waves as they interact with the edge of the shore. Too much exposure on moving water can create too much blur or just a big area of ‘White’ in you landscape photograph. The incoming or receding wave paints a white trail of blur during a long exposure, so timing is essential to capture a desirable movement. Observation is required to see where the interaction is most interesting. Pebbles scattered in sand create beautiful interactions and nice textures with receding waves.

Ideally the beach photographer would begin the exposure as soon as the wave starts to recede. This makes more sense because you eliminate prediction. When a wave is coming in, you don’t know how far it will come. It might fall short of interesting. It might come too far, changing the foreground or even making you move. If you wait for the right size wave that interacts with the beach in the way you want, then open the take your photo as the wave retreats, you will have a better keep rate.

Magic Cloth Technique

The long exposures during a Magic Cloth photograph can be too long to capture delicate interactions, but with care it is possible to use the long exposure to your advantage. Sand, pebbles or stones photograph beautifully when they are wet because there is more reflected light and some polarisation.


Neutral Density Filter

The Neutral Density filter was my used tool for Long Exposure photography. Read more about landscape photography filters.

Before and After.

long exposure photography
1/8th sec at f/7.1 iso800
Ice beach
25 sec at f/14 iso100

The shots above show the difference of a 6 stop Neutral Density Filter on the sea. Although the shutter speed on the right shows 25 seconds, the sea would have had half of this exposure. This is because it was covered by my cloth for about half of the exposure time. The area of the photograph wih the most exposure is the very bottom and bottom corners. The sky is bright, the sea is white and reflective. The sand is dark so it can be exposed for longer.

My Camera Gear

Canon 5D - full frame

Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 l

Gitzo Carbon Fiber Tripod

B+W 77mm SC 106 ND

Vestrahorn Mountain
5 sec @ f/9 iso200

The beach at Vestrahorn Mountain where a 5 second long exposure shows a beautiful wave run-off with the pebbles on the sand. Timing and composition are essential for the success of this photograph. The sea run-off creates extra textures for the foreground. This makes the scene more dynamic and an interesting photo.

High Tide

The position of the tide is critical for the foreground. If you arrive when the tide is too low, you might have very few foreground objects to compose with. If you arrive when the tide is too high you might not even be able to parts of the shoreline. If you are at an unfamiliar location it is important not to ignore any tide warning signs. The wrong decision could be your last.

Check tides and sunrise times


By Tony Prower

Tony Prower spent over 15 years photographing the landscapes of Iceland. Tony Prower is a pioneer of the Magic Cloth Technique and ran thousands of photo tours in Iceland over 10 years.

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