Shooting Seascapes

By Steve Jones

Seascape photography can be one of the most appealing genres, whilst also a challenging one to do well!  Unless careful thought is given to subject matter and composition, a seascape image can end up as a sprawling, complicated mess, unable to capture the attention of the viewer and easily dismissed. Lighting is the other key element to get right, else you may be left with a flat, lifeless image that in no way conveys the bustle and brightness of the healthy reefs we love.  Here are a few tips to help get it right.

1. Choose the right lens

Seascapes need wide lenses. My go-to lens is a fisheye, but ultra-wide zooms such as a 16-35mm (on full frame) are also useful, especially if you want to pick out a dominant subject on your seascape such as a turtle.

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Description: The soft corals & crinoids in this scene are the dominant subject. Taken in Raja Ampat, Indonesia. SEACAM Nikon D700  1/60th / F9 / ISO 400

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2. Consider your subject

Is your subject the entire reef, or is there a dominant element of the reef such as a coral that you want to emphasise? If it is the entire reef, then careful consideration on how to light the scene will be required.

 seascapes02 sjones 500x800px

Placement of elements to create depth

Overlapping and placing subjects at various distances can help create depth in a 2 dimensional image.  Taken in Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea. SEACAM Nikon D2X  1/50th / F8 / ISO 100

3. Think about your Composition

Consider which of the principles of composition can be applied to your image, such as rule of thirds, positioning of the elements to create depth, overlapping horizons and leading lines. Consider where the viewer’s eye will fall and the journey the viewer will take when observing the image.

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Negative Space

Models can help manage negative space and lead the viewer’s eye to the main subject, which in this case is the unusual Salvador Dali sponge in Gorontalo, Indonesia.  SEACAM / Nikon D2X 1/250th / F6.3 / ISO100

4. Negative Space

Put very simply this is the area of the image that is not the main subject. Blue water often accounts for much negative space in underwater wide angle images, and fisheyes can certainly create lots of it! Negative space, when used well, should emphasise the main subject. If you are struggling to make it work, models can help you manage it by leading the viewer’s eye to the main subject.  

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Title: Balanced Lighting

Description: Strobes have been used on the foreground of this reef-scape in Anilao to lift the colours, but it still remains balanced with the naturally lit (but less colourful) background. SEACAM / Nikon D700 1/40th / F11 / ISO 200

5.Balanced Lighting

Effectively lighting reef-scapes can be challenging.  Generally two strobes are needed to give adequate angle of coverage, but you really need to master balanced (blended) lighting. This is where the scene is lit by natural light and the strobe is then used to lift the colour and contrast of the foreground.  In order to practice this technique, expose your naturally lit background correctly then build up your flash power in a way that it doesn’t overpower your foreground. Cousteau coined a phrase that is completely applicable to this technique: “Paint with light using a kiss of flash”.


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Title: Paint with Light

Description: Strobe light is essential to bring out the colours of the reef. Taken in Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea. SEACAM Nikon D2X  1/160th / F9 / ISO 100



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Title: Lighting Dominant Subjects

Description: In this image, the fan coral is the dominant subject and has been soaked in flash light, with a slightly underexposed background helping to make the dominant subject stand out. Taken in Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea. SEACAM Nikon D2X  1/50th / F8 / ISO 100

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Ocean Geographic Explorer (OGX) is a diving adventure resource with a special focus on marine photography and ocean conservation. Our content is divided up into six primary categories: Travel, Sea Science,  Equipment, Photography &Video, Conservation, and Lifestyle. We endeavor be a portal for people with all levels of interest in the marine environment  to learn about and become part of a community of like-minded ocean lovers who enjoy sharing their knowledge of and experiences in our fascinating ocean world.

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