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Get Into The Wet Zone

Kurt Budliger gives us practical tips for creating dynamic coastal seascapes

Sunrise light along the rocky coast of Acadia National Park, Maine, photographed with a 3-stop grad ND filter.

Our affinity for and connection to the sea has been deeply rooted in our art and culture for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In the United States alone, there are more than 95,000 miles of coastline, with approximately 39% of the U.S. population living in a coastal county. And, of course, many millions more flock to the shore to recreate and vacation every year. It's no wonder coastal landscapes are some of the most published images in print media and extremely popular in contests and online photo-sharing sites. However, photographing in this dynamic and ever-changing environment can be tricky business. Fortunately, there are several tips and strategies that can get you well on your way to creating the stunning coastal landscapes you've always dreamed of.

This sunset image is a combination of several exposures that were blended for increased dynamic range, Olympic National Park, Washington.

Planning your shoot is of utmost importance, perhaps more so than any other type of landscape since there are myriad variables at play that can make or break your envisioned image, as well as impact your safety when working along the coast. The importance of consulting tide charts for any given location can't be overstated. If you're shooting in the Deep South, the Caribbean or close to the equator, the tide is much less of a variable since the difference between low and high often can be measured in inches and might not have a major impact on your subject or composition. But when you get further toward the poles, the tides can be very dramatic indeed. For example, in the Gulf of Maine around Acadia National Park, the tidal variance is typically 10 to 12 feet; further north and east in the Bay of Fundy, it can be as much as 50 feet. An average high tide in Olympic National Park is typically 7 to 8 feet, and because of the region's topography, you're able to venture very far from shore in search of interesting compositional elements at low tide.

When the tide is low, the intertidal zone will be exposed, which can reveal intriguing tide pools, algae and barnacle-encrusted rocks that make interesting foreground elements for your wide-angle shots or perhaps intimate landscapes in their own right. However, when photographing fishing harbors, low tide can leave boats stranded on the exposed bottom, and if you had planned to shoot intimate reflections, you'll be sadly disappointed. A low tide early in the morning is a godsend for sandy beach shooters since the outgoing tide will have washed away unsightly footprints, leaving the sand in a pristine, untracked state. And shooting breaking waves along the rocky coast of Maine at high tide with a long lens can be tremendous fun. The bottom line is that whatever the tide is doing, the coast will look different and unique, and you just might have to adjust your vision to match the prevailing conditions.

This scene along the coast of Acadia National Park was made with a 2-stop grad ND filter.

When scouting locations, it's a good idea to make note of the tide, especially if it's revealing or hiding something critical, so you can plan to return when it's at a similar level. It's also important to know if the tide is incoming or outgoing. There's nothing more frustrating than finding a great wide-angle composition only to have it flooded five minutes later by an incoming tide when you're finally ready to trip the shutter. From a safety standpoint, it's critical that if you've ventured into an area that's only exposed at low or extreme low tides, you leave yourself enough time to make the return trip before the incoming tide leaves you stranded, or worse.

Obviously, light and weather are extremely important variables in creating mood and atmosphere in our photographs, and they're no less important to the coastal landscape shooter. There's nothing quite like shooting sunrise along the rocky Atlantic coast in Acadia National Park or setting up to capture the last rays of the setting sun along the Pacific. But don't rule out shooting sunrise along the Pacific Coast or sunset in the East just because the sun will be at your back. While shooting in the direction of a rising or setting sun often yields dramatic results, the opposite direction can be just as good. For example, on the West Coast, features like sea stacks and rock outcrops are often portrayed in near silhouette when photographed at sunset. By contrast, early morning can provide an opportunity to photograph these features with sidelight, which highlights more texture and detail on the facades of these great monoliths.

Twilight at Split Rocks, Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington. The period when the sun is below the horizon, either at the beginning or the end of the day, is sometimes referred to as "blue hour" for reasons that are obvious in this photo.

Sunrise and sunset scenes often present exposure challenges because of the extreme dynamic range inherent during the golden hour. I'm still a huge fan of using graduated neutral-density filters to tame dynamic range in the field and find I most often reach for a 3-stop reverse grad when shooting along the coast. Of course, you can also bracket your exposures and use photo-editing software like Photoshop to combine properly exposed highlights and shadows into an image that more closely resembles what we see in the field. Regardless of which technique you choose, it's important to maintain the relative luminosity values present in the scene to avoid garish and unrealistic results. Often, the most intense color arrives well before the sun rises and after it sets. Shadow areas in these low-light scenes tend to be very dark so don't be afraid to portray them as they look. Black isn't necessarily a bad thing in a photograph.

I would argue that if sunrise and sunset are the only times you photograph along the coast, you're missing out on an awful lot. Although midday light tends to be cool and somewhat harsh, it can be a great time to shoot black-and-white landscapes, which often benefit from higher-contrast light. It's also a great time to photograph backlit waves breaking on shore or offshore, and the extra light will allow for faster shutter speeds at lower ISOs to capture the peak action. I personally love to shoot the coast on foggy days, especially the myriad fishing harbors and villages that dot the Maine coast around Acadia National Park. Fog has a profound effect on the mood of an image and allows for more simplified presentations of subjects that are often plagued by complexity and chaos. And, of course, don't forget about the blue hour (30 minutes before sunrise or after sunset) for otherworldly representations of the coastal landscape, often with very long exposures.

When it's time to shoot, we want to put all the pieces together in a dynamic and engaging composition. One of my goals in any seascape image is to present a scene that puts the viewer "there" and captures the soul and mystery of a place, and one of the best ways to accomplish this is to find and incorporate an interesting and/or dynamic foreground element. In most coastal environs, there's no shortage of interesting rock formations, tide pools, piers, docks, fishing boats, offshore sea stacks and the like to use as foreground elements. One element that many people overlook and can be used very creatively in the foreground is the water itself, more specifically, the shapes and patterns it makes as it moves through a scene. Here's where your choice of shutter speed becomes a much more important variable than simply controlling how much light reaches the sensor. When I'm composing seascapes, I spend a great deal of time working the scene while handholding the camera so that I'm free to experiment with a variety of perspectives while being unencumbered by my tripod. Pay particularly close attention to the way waves and water currents move in, out and around elements in the scene, trying to anticipate how they could be rendered with moderate to slow shutter speeds. Wave foam, which admittedly is pretty un-attractive stuff, can be used very effectively as a leading line or arcing curve extending into the frame when rendered in a soft blur.

Once you've found a good composition, set up your tripod and dialed in your aperture for depth of field, you'll want to think critically about shutter speed and how it affects the overall composition and mood in the image. Really long shutter speeds like 10, 20, 30 seconds or even upward of one minute will render successive waves and moving clouds as ghostly apparitions, which can be used to create otherworldly and ethereal images. In the low light before dawn or the blue hour after sunset, ultralong exposures are often necessary and unavoidable unless you crank up the ISO. But if you're seeking longer shutter speeds at other times of the day, try increasing your aperture (careful of diffraction), dialing down the ISO or perhaps using a neutral-density filter. If, however, retaining texture and structure in the water is critical to your composition, you'll need to adjust aperture, ISO or filter choices to gain faster shutter speeds. By simply removing a polarizer, for example, you can restore between one and two stops of light and increase a shutter speed from 1 to 1⁄4 sec., which may be just enough to hold texture in a powerful wave.

Weather Updates
Regardless of what aesthetic you're trying to achieve, it pays to study the weather and plan your shooting accordingly. There are several go-to sources for up-to-date weather and cloud information that have drastically improved my rate of success over the years. The first is the NOAA website ( Beyond getting the basic long-range forecast with details on temperature, wind and precipitation, I use the hourly weather graph, which predicts the percentage of sky that will be obscured by clouds at any given point in the day. If it's predicted to be 40% to 60% at the time of sunrise or sunset, I usually feel pretty optimistic about catching some nice sky color and drama. If, on the other hand, it looks to be 0% at sunset, I might opt to hit happy hour instead and enjoy a relaxing dinner before heading out for the blue hour. The hourly weather graph will also give you a sense for whether conditions are trending in a positive or negative direction when you'll be out in the field. I also like the graphical forecast, which provides a satellite image map overlay of the cloud cover and even includes future-cast modeling. Another fantastic weather forecasting tool with an amazing free app for your smartphone is Intellicast ( The app provides real-time satellite imaging overlays of cloud cover and the option to run future models. This real-time data allows for changes in shooting itineraries that can increase your productivity in the field. For example, if there has been a low-pressure system in place for several days and its exit coincides with early morning or late day, you might be in store for a dramatic light show.

Virtual Scouting
Prior to making a trip to a new location, I spend a considerable amount of time scouting locations virtually using applications like Google Earth. When using Google Earth, you can zoom into a location until it switches to a street view, allowing you to get a sense for what it's actually like to be standing there. You can rotate the canvas, providing a view in all directions, and as an added bonus, if you click the sun icon in the upper-left portion of the toolbar, it will run a simulation of how the sun will track across the sky and interplay with the topography of your location. You can quickly determine the optimal direction for shooting, as well as see how shadows will track across the landscape throughout the day.

Another variable critical to how the water action will be rendered is the timing of shutter release with wave position. By tripping the shutter in advance of a wave, you'll be able to capture interesting patterns and lines of water as they spill over a foreground rock or perhaps the leading arc of foam advancing onto a pristine sand beach. A split second too late and that foreground rock can disappear in a massive blur of white. In contrast, if you time your shutter with a receding wave, you can capture some wonderful streaking lines as the foam retreats back to the sea. Regardless of your goal, you'll likely need to shoot a lot of frames in order to get one that pulls it all together in perfect harmony. Don't give up after your first several attempts; reevaluate your shutter speed and/or try hitting the shutter at a different interval to alter how the motion is rendered. I'm a big fan of Live View in these circumstances because I can actually see how the water will flow through my composition in real time and because the mirror is already in the lock position; all I have to do is hit the shutter release at the decisive moment. I also find that using a cable release or remote trigger is absolutely critical for success. It's hard enough to decide when to trip the shutter on a wave, but if you also have to account for the 2-second delay of a self-timer, then you're doomed.

One of my favorite photography adages is "If you want your photographs to look different, then you have to photograph differently." If most of your seascapes are made with a 70-200mm lens, then it may be time to get into the "wet zone." It can be a bit intimidating at first, but with the right approach and equipment and a little practice, you'll be rock-hopping your way to more dynamic images in no time. Admittedly, I'm a wide-angle junkie and enjoy getting in close to my subjects, and when working along the coast, that means getting a little wet. During summer and in warm climates, a pair of quick-dry shorts and sports sandals will do the trick. But when shooting along the rocky coast of Acadia National Park or during colder seasons, I wear a pair of fishing waders and a Gore-Tex® jacket with insulating layers underneath to keep me warm and dry. Since most of the rocks and algae exposed at low tide are extremely slippery, I use boots with studded or felt soles for extra traction. I also keep my camera slung around my neck and inside my jacket when getting into position, which frees up my tripod legs to be used as a walking staff. It's very common for the spray from breaking waves or windblown water to end up on your lens or filter setup. I keep an absorbent cloth towel tucked in my waders or jacket pocket to wipe away spray between exposures quickly.

Great care should be taken when working in the wet zone since one missed step or rogue wave can send you or your gear into the drink, and there's no shot that's worth risking your life. It's also a good idea to bring only what's essential into the wet zone. You'll want to leave your gear bag and extra equipment on higher ground well out of the way of crashing waves and the incoming tide. After shooting in the wet zone, it's important to give your equipment a thorough wipedown to remove corrosive salt residue.

See more of Kurt Budliger's work at

CLOCKWISE, FROM ABOVE RIGHT: Petzl TIKKA headlamp, Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Singh-Ray graduated ND filter, Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II USM and EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS II USM.

Kurt Budliger's Gear For Coastal Landscapes

Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II USM
Canon EF 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L II USM
Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS II USM
Singh-Ray graduated neutral-density filters (2 to 3 stops)
B+W circular polarizer
Feisol CT-3372 carbon-fiber tripod
Kirk BH-1 ballhead
Cable release
Apple iPhone 5
F-Stop Tilopa BC camera backpack
Patagonia breathable waders and wading boots
Petzl TIKKA headlamp
Absorbent cloth (usually from the hotel)


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