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How I Photograph the Ocean

Editing Milky Way Photography

It’s fair to say that a lot, urm make that most, of my imagery focuses on the Ocean, seascapes and moving bodies of water such as rivers and waterfalls. How I photograph the Ocean is something that I do for myself, my way of looking and interpreting the motion of Mother Nature’s most powerful entity is a spiritual and emotional journey. The Ocean connects many people, it is an incredibly powerful entity that draws our gaze whenever it becomes agitated, when it becomes mirror calm and especially when it hosts the spectacle of a setting sun. A lot of the time people ask me what settings I use for my Ocean and Seascape imaging. In reality there is no hard and fast ‘one setting fits all’ answers to that. The Ocean dictates exactly what settings I use depending specifically on the ‘mood’ it displays at the time. Using some of my imagery below I will take this Blog post to illustrate the thought process I go through for specific imagery.

The Mood and Feel Relationship

When we look at the Ocean we immediately understand the mood. Whether that’s dramatic or calm based on the sea state I then decide how best I want to shoot it. To clarify at this point I’m only going to be discussing the use of longer exposure imaging for this blog post. By long exposure I’m talking anything from 0.5sec and slower. Some folks like to capture pin sharp imagery of the Ocean with waves or shorelines frozen in time. For me something as magnificent and majestic as the Ocean needs to convey as much motion in still imagery to really evoke the imagination, it’s very much a personal thing.


A moody Ocean shot with a 1.3sec shutter speed still captures the energy of motion.

When the Ocean is rough there is raw energy on display, the pure power of this liquid force is unrivalled anywhere on Earth and so I do my best to try and display that. When an Ocean is rough and interacting with a coastline it is only fair to try your best to convey that combat between liquid and land. A relatively slow shutter will allow you to keep some of that raw power on display whilst creating an almost silky effect to other elements of the scene. Conversely you can elect to choose a much longer shutter speed to completely change the aesthetic of a tumultuous Ocean into one of an almost dream like mistiness.


A five minute shutter transformed a scene of utter chaos into one of dream like tranquility. With such a long shutter even the surfers who were riding waves in the background were absorbed by the Ocean, how rad man!

My Settings

When photographing any moving body of water I try to show that motion. This requires stability so a good Tripod is the order of the day. I also prefer to use either an electronic shutter release or the inbuilt two second delay timer in the camera features. In some instances I will also use Mirror lock up. For the latter that would only happen when I’m in a still environment such as a forest shooting waterfalls or rivers to guarantee absolute stability. I, personally, don’t see the point of using that feature of the tripod may be set up in a windy situation and buffeting could be an issue. Just a personal preference.

Aperture wise I will close down to an f value between f11 and f14 to really ensure as much depth of field as possible. I also shoot at the lowest ISO, in my case ISO100 on my EOS 5DSr. Given I also shoot most of my Ocean and Seascapes with a 15mm Irix prime means that depth of field should be pin sharp at that aperture. With these settings I stand to meter the slowest shutter speeds possible in the ambient conditions without stepping into the realm of potential chromatic aberration stemming from smaller apertures. More about that in a future post. However, on a bright day you will still not be able to accomplish a slow shutter given the ambient light conditions. You would have to wait until later in the day, towards the evening hours when the ambient light fades or introduce the use of filters.


Waiting for the daylight to fade offers a photographer the chance to take long exposure photography without the need for filters.


Introducing Filters

Think of a beautiful Summers day, you’re out with the family at the Beach. You’re having a great time but the glare coming off of the Ocean is killing your eyes, so what do you do? You put on your sunglasses to reduce the amount of light, simple. We do the same with photography but instead of putting sunglasses on our camera we use filters that are called ND or Neutral Density filters. These filters do the same job as sunglasses insofar as reducing the amount of light entering the camera lens. Now unlike the human eye the camera is a machine. When shooting manually it cannot adjust automatically so when we place a dark element over the lens the only option, as long as the ISO setting remains untouched, to expose correctly is to slow down the shutter so as to allow more light into the lens. This is how we accomplish long exposure photography.

Ambient light, that which surrounds you without any artificial aid, mixed with the look you are hoping to accomplish will determine just which ND filter to employ. Now if things were easy when we say we want to reduce the amount of light entering our camera by say four complete aperture of f values, called stops, then we’d simply throw on a 4 Stop filter. Wouldn’t it be simple if therefore ND Filters were labeled as such, as a 4 Stop ND or an 8 Stop ND. With everything photography there has to be a spanner in the works and the ND nomenclature is no different. When selecting an ND Filter we simply have to use multiplication. By reducing one full stop of light entering our lens we are in fact reducing by a factor of two the amount of light and thus the required ND Filter would be an ND2. To reduce light levels by two stops we would employ the use of an ND4, by three stops an ND8, four stops an ND16 and so on so forth. Two of the most used ND Filters for long exposure photography, especially where the Ocean is concerned, are the six stop or ND64 filter and the more extreme ND1000 that reduces light by a full ten stops.


Even on super sunny days the introduction of an ND1000 filter will allow you to take long exposure photography.

ND Graduated Filters

OK so it goes without saying that some, most, scenes are not uniformly lit. Some may have bright clouds in the sky but a darker lower segment so you need to balance that for the image to make aesthetic sense, for it to be balanced. I accomplish that by using another type of ND Filter, this time one that has only a portion of its form factor obscured by denser opaque area, this type of filter is called a Graduated Neutral Density Filter. What are termed as ‘Grads’ these filters come in three main categories, Hard, Medium and Soft. These categories are not indicative of the amount of opaque density the filters display but more to account for the transitional period between the opaque and clear elements of the filter. A Hard Grad means that transitional area is less forgiving so something like this should only be used when an Ocean horizon or clearly defined linear area of a composition is evident. By looking through my viewfinder when placing this filter I can fine tune the exact location of the transition line. Both the Medium and Soft ‘Grads’ expand on this criteria with a Soft ‘Grad’ allowing for potential obstacles that may appear on an Ocean horizon such as boats, Islands or other obstacles. The area of transition from clear to Opaque is greater and thus more forgiving.

By masking out a lighter portion of the composition with a Grad filter allows the darker areas to brightened with a longer exposure without compromising the highlights. These filters tend to come in densities not of whole stops but in steps of ND0.3 at a time. Common filters in all three categories of Hard, Medium and Soft tend to be ND0.6, ND0.9 and ND1.2. These filters can then be used in conjunction with the standard ND Filters I mentioned above.


A Soft Grad ND1.2 to protect the spectacle of the sunset colours in conjunction with a 6 Stop (ND64) to allow me to ‘see’ the detail in the cliffs at Cape Zanpa in Okinawa.

Circular or ‘Drop In’ square filters?

For the most part your lens will have the option to place screw in filters in front of the main glass element. This is not across the board though as some super wide angle lenses have a more domed front element that cannot physically allow filters to be used. For the most part such lenses do have the option to slide Gel filters into a holder in the rear of the lens prior to placing it on the camera. This, when is the case, tends to present a workflow that is more than tedious and is something I try to avoid at all costs. You can get all the ND’s in circular form for most glass between 37mm and 95mm with the extreme end at 95mm also carrying with it, extreme prices! Where this option, screw in filters, fails in my opinion is when we start looking at Grad Filters. If you place a screw in Grad filter onto a lens it is then the filter that dictates your composition, not you. As the Graduated area is fixed in this fitting option you can only compose a shot where the graduation allows.

I tend to use a Drop In filter option as it affords me the luxury to dictate exactly where that graduation line can sit in my composition. These drop in filters sit in a filter holder which simply screws into the filter threads in the front of its host lens by way of an adapter ring. With up to three filter slots then available to the shooter, in the Kani Optics system I use, means that I can then place and adjust filters as I like.

One filter that has not been mentioned until now is the Polarising Filter. In Ocean, Seascape and flowing water imaging I use a polarising filter to eliminate the shine from wet and damp surfaces like rocks, logs or vegetation that may be affected by the water. Polarising filters can also be used in many other roles such as Urban imaging for example to remove reflections from buildings and cars for example. They can also be used to gain greater clarity and colour saturation especially when photographing tropical lagoons etc. bear in mind though that the wider the lens you work with the greater the chance to get a ‘lump’ of polarised areas in the sky as most, unless they cost an arm and a leg, cover the complete field of view of extreme wide angle lenses. In this landscape role also they only really work when used perpendicularly (at 90 degrees) to the sun.


Beware when using Polarising Filters with extreme Wide Angle lenses as they do not cover the full field of view and invariably render an image void.

Time to Shoot!

OK so everything is set, I’ve decided on my lens, the filters I’m using and the composition. As mentioned previously I shoot a lot of Ocean and Seascape imagery. There is on element therein that could quite simply kill my camera in a split second if I screwed anything up, salt water. Salt water and cameras don’t mix, period. Timing is everything. If you find yourself looking to shoot a particularly rocky area I’d strongly suggest that you Observe, Plan and stay Focused. Step back for a moment once you’ve decided on your composition. If this means sitting down and watching the wave sets coming in for 30minutes then that’s what I’ll do. I want to get as much of an understanding of the area I have to shoot in with the least amount of risk, not only to myself but also to my gear. Once you understand the area set up your shot but make an evacuation route plan should you need to ‘get the heck outta Dodge’, rogue waves give no warnings! See how, and where, I shot the image below in the tail end of¬†this video on my YouTube Channel. Finally I’d say shoot with an electronic shutter release so that you don’t have to keep your eyes peering through a viewfinder. You’ll get much better results if you can observe the area with both eyes. Spatial awareness will forewarn you also about abnormal water movement outside of the standard wave sets.


Watch where you stand, where splashes may affect you and plan accordingly. Also plant and be very aware as to your safe route of the area if needed.

What Works in a Composition Sense?

Given the motion of the water and the plays you can enter with it means that you should time your shots depending the topography within your composition. Where rocks are present you can achieve two very different looks. That stormy look can be accomplished if you time your shot when an incoming wave breaks over, on or around them. This evokes a sense of power whereas if you wait until the water recedes around them that power of motion is very much dulled into a more tranquil vibe. Also as water recedes from a beach it creates extremely pleasing leading lines that can be shot in a way as to guide the eyes of the viewer to another focal element within the scene.

Other factors that should be noted are:

  • Use receding water as a way to create leading lines to a focal element in the scene
  • Get low for a more dynamic vantage point. Watch out for rogue waves and abnormal water movement. Your camera doesn’t have 9 lives!
  • In all forms of landscape imaging you need foreground elements to ‘anchor’ the shot and add dimensional depth to your image
  • Make sure foreground elements are solid. Logs can move as can some lighter rocks depending on the severity of the Ocean movement
  • Once you’re set on a composition that works use a range of settings and shutter speeds to nail the shot that really ‘works’

These pointers are above all guidelines to help you on your way to getting great results when shooting the Ocean or Seascapes. Rules, especially those in photography, are meant to be broken so if you find something else that works for you then that is awesome. You may want to simply take a shot of a wave, or a flow of directional water in a way that pleases you. This is what it’s all about, doing something that defines your artistic vision. Sometimes the shots with the greatest impact have the least amount of compositional elements.


So there you have it. That is how I shoot the Ocean and Seascapes. Obviously every shot depends on just how Mother Nature is acting on the shooting day in question. Everything is down to evaluation and being armed with the basic understanding of how to accomplish the look you’re after. I hope the points above go towards clarifying more about this style of shooting.

Changing the subject a little to Wildlife Photography, my core interest, there is a project I’m looking to try and get going later this year. It would, if successful, see my capture something imagery wise that has, until now, evaded the camera lens. Care to find out more and see how you could also be a part of that? Here’s more information on that. Feel free to fire off any questions via the Contact Page of this site.


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Emmy Award Winning wildlife cameraman and Internationally published landscape photographer Mark Thorpe has been an adventurer since he could walk! An ex-French Foreign Legionnaire and National Geographic underwater cameraman and field producer he's also been privy to a mixed bag of hair raising adventures. Currently based in Okinawa, Japan he's always on the lookout for that next big adventure, and for those who willing to support the same. He shares his adventures online with a totally organic social audience in excess of 230,000 followers. An audience garnered since his debut with Social Media in 2009. Mark is currently open to long term ambassadorship offers from corporate entities looking to add a dynamic content media marketing solution to their brand identity and social channels.

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