Updated: Apr 29, 2019
Ever wondered how to capture those evocative landscape images where the surface of the sea appears as a soft grey mist? It’s almost as if a magic potion has been poured around the rocks and pebbles - but there’s no ‘dark art’ to this photographic technique. All you need is the right camera equipment, some careful technique and - perhaps most challenging of all - an eye for composition and light that will really benefit this style of photography.
Gear for long exposure photographs
Check that your camera has a Bulb setting. This enables the shutter to be opened for long exposures. Many cameras allow a shutter speed of up to 30 seconds in programme modes like Aperture Priority, which might be enough for the long-exposure effect you’re after, but you could well be dealing with exposures of several minutes or more using the technique described here.
For long exposures using the Bulb setting, you need a remote release to trigger and lock the shutter open. Some have a built-in timer so you can accurately time the exposure - but you could also use the timer on your smartphone.
With such long exposures, it’s absolutely critical that you take every precaution to reduce camera shake. A sturdy tripod is vital. Try to choose one that has a hook under the central column from which you can hang something heavy (like your camera bag) in order to reduce the likelihood of the tripod shuddering if there’s a brisk sea breeze.
Even the slightest movement could ruin your image - and that includes something as seemingly trivial as the camera’s mirror flipping up when the exposure is triggered. You can eliminate this by enabling Mirror Lock-up in your camera’s menu settings. It’s another very useful feature to look out for when considering the right camera for long exposure photography. Obviously, this isn’t an issue if you’re using a mirrorless camera system. Also, bear in mind that the mirror is already locked up if you are using the rear LCD screen in Live View Mode.
Lens choice is subjective and depends on your subject matter. You’ll want a wide-angle to capture a sweeping seascape, while a telephoto can isolate a single wave breaking on a rock offshore. Similarly, wide-angle lenses will help you achieve maximum depth-of-field, including everything from foreground details, like rock pools or distinctly patterned pebbles, to a distant island on the horizon, while telephotos will compress the scene - perhaps ‘stacking’ a series of coastal headlands one behind the other. Take a broad range of focal lengths and experiment.
Filters are the most important piece of specialist gear needed for long exposure photography. Unless you’re shooting when there is very little natural daylight (such as before dawn or during twilight), you need some way of reducing the amount of light entering your camera. Even with the lowest (least sensitive) ISO setting of 100 or 64, and your lens stopped down to its minimum aperture (say f22), you might still only achieve a shutter speed of around 1/15s. You need something 10x slower that. The solution is to attach a neutral density filter to the front of your lens. These come in a wide range of densities, but a favourite of many long-exposure photographers is the Lee Filters Big Stopper - a seemingly opaque square of glass that reduces exposures by 10 stops, ie: if your camera meter reads 1/15s, adding a Big Stopper will make it 60 seconds. Stop your lens down to achieve a shutter speed of 1/4s, and a Big Stopper will give you a 4-minute exposure. It’s this kind of long exposure that transforms a succession of waves into that mysterious misty effect, while keeping everything static (rocks, cliffs etc) pin-sharp.
Finally, there are a few important items of non-photographic gear to consider. Tide tables not only ensure you’re in the right place at the right time for photography, but also reduce the risk of you being caught in the wrong place on an incoming tide. Long exposure photography requires patience and lots of standing around. Be sure to dress warmly with waterproof and windproof layered clothing. If you want to include water movement in the immediate foreground, such as waves sweeping across a beach, you’d be wise to wear rubber boots or waders. Never place yourself in a position, however, that jeopardises your safety - whether that’s on a rocky shore or a clifftop. No photograph is worth the risk.
Technique for long exposure photography
Research your location
Basically, you are looking for somewhere that has a mixture of moving elements (waves, rapids, currents etc) and non-moving elements (boulders, groynes, piers, sea stacks, pebble beaches etc). The art of long-exposure seascapes is to try to visualise how the water movement will appear over, say, a 2-minute exposure, and how the effect will actually benefit the image. Don’t forget, you are not compelled to use a long exposure! Don’t overlook opportunities to shoot at blisteringly fast shutter speeds to freeze water droplets scattered by a crashing wave, or focus the eye with shallow depth-of-field.
Research your timing
It’s easier, less stressful and safer to arrive at your location on a falling tide, so you can work your way down towards the low tide mark. However, you’ll also be looking for the best light conditions (often early morning or late afternoon/dusk) and it takes careful planning to get everything working in your favour.
Work on composition
Before you start fiddling with filters and grappling with your tripod, take some time to study the scene before you. It’s all too easy to arrive at a cliff edge, inhale a bracing lungful of sea air and think that every long exposure you take will be a winner. Just because it’s something different, and perhaps a new technique for you, don’t overlook the fundamentals of composition that should be applied to all forms of landscape photography.
One of the key features of a long-exposure seascape is its ability to simplify the image. When you look at a procession of waves, you see each individual breaker, along with the marbled pattern of froth from spent waves, the slight ripples on the surface caused by a sharp squall, the detail of spray and so on. But allow this dynamic scene to play out over an exposure of a minute or more, and all the complexities of the sea are merged, diffused, softened and simplified. For photographers, this has two profound effects. Firstly, the sea becomes a beautiful, surreal mist. And secondly, static features become bolder against a sea stripped of detail. Visualise this end-effect and you can achieve striking compositions which might otherwise appear cluttered and weak with a ‘traditionally exposed’ sea.
Another important aspect of composition to consider is how to use the static elements in your scene to lead the eye into the picture. A wave-beaten groyne cutting diagonally across the frame often works well (and is perhaps used too often). Try to be original. Look critically at jumbled boulders on a beach until you find a viewpoint that creates balance and harmony in the foreground, inviting you into the seascape and holding your interest. Low tide can sometimes reveal bands of rock strata with striking diagonal lines that can be used to draw the viewer into the scene.
On a smaller scale, a vein of quartz snaking through bedrock can be equally effective. Up on the cliff tops, you’re faced with a different set of compositional challenges. Inevitably, you’re looking down on the sea, perhaps to a distant headland where your focal point (crashing waves, a lighthouse or sea stack) is located. Try to frame the scene in a way that uses foreground elements (clumps of coastal vegetation, a rocky outcrop, or even a chink in the cliff edge) to channel your view into the scene, lead the eye and hold interest.
Finally, the movement of water itself can add a strong dynamic element to the composition. You may need to try a few test shots to ‘realise’ whether this works or not, but good situations to look out for include strong fluid lines recorded over several minutes as waves pour in and out of a rock pool, or a particularly distinctive wave pattern created offshore due to a rip tide, sand bar or hidden reef. Use all of these features and techniques to strengthen your long exposure image.
Setting up and taking the picture
Take your time. You’ll be handling filters, setting up tripods and perhaps dealing with wind and spray, all while keeping an eye on the sea and cliff edge. Working slowly and methodically will ensure you remain safe and that nothing gets dropped.
Set up your tripod ensuring it’s as stable as possible.
Consider hanging your camera bag under it to add extra weight and stability.
If you are using a filter system (such as Lee Filters) that requires a filter holder to be attached to the front of the lens, make sure the adaptor ring and filter holder are fitted.
Attach your camera securely to the tripod.
Attach a remote release to your camera.
Compose your shot.
If you’ve included the horizon, check that it’s level. There are a number of ways you can do this: some cameras have a built-in level finder that can be activated on the rear LCD screen; others have a grid that can be viewed both on the LCD and in the viewfinder (line the horizon up with one of the horizontals on the grid); or you can go low-tech and slide a mini spirit-level into your camera’s hot shoe.
While you are in Menu settings, enable Mirror Lock-up if you have this feature.
Choose an ISO of 100 or 200.
Set the camera to Aperture Priority and dial in an appropriate f-stop. Typically, you’ll want maximum depth of field, so an aperture of f16 or smaller is a good starting point.
Focus approximately a third of the way into the scene.
Press the depth of field preview button (if your camera has one) and adjust your focus point if necessary.
Once you’re happy with the focus and depth of field, switch your lens to manual focus (if you haven’t already done so).
Take a meter reading by pressing the shutter button half-way down. Make a note of the shutter speed.
Carefully slide your 5- or 10-stop neutral density filter (such as a Lee Big Stopper) into the filter holder. If you are using more than one filter (a graduated filter for example), make sure that the neutral density filter occupies the slot nearest the lens. Ensure that the filter completely covers the front of the lens and that there are no gaps.
Close the viewfinder curtain (or place the viewfinder cover that’s on your camera strap) over the viewfinder to prevent stray light entering when you take the long exposure.
Switch the camera from Aperture Priority to Bulb.
Dial in the same aperture setting (ie f16)
Consult the exposure chart that comes with your filter to calculate the new shutter speed that’s required with the neutral density filter in place.
Holding your remote release, press the button once to activate ‘mirror lock-up’, then press it again to start the long exposure. Depending on what type of remote release you have, you will either need to lock it in place and time the exposure manually using the timer on your phone, or your remote release can be set to the required long exposure.
Once the exposure has been taken, preview the image. If it’s under-exposed, set a longer exposure and vice versa. If it’s correctly exposed but there’s not enough blur or motion in the sea, set a lower ISO or smaller aperture, together with a correspondingly longer shutter speed.
It might take several attempts, but the results will be worth it! If you fancy putting this technique into practise on some of the UK’s most spectacular coastline, why not join me on one of my photography workshops in Cornwall? With just three people per workshop, you’ll get expert personal tuition and we’ll also visit a diverse range of locations where you can try out long exposures - from the wave-gnawed cliffs of Cornwall’s North Coast to the tide-sluiced boulders at Porth Nanven in Far West Cornwall.