Seascape Photography Workshops

As part of the club auction, Mr Hastie thought it would be a great idea to offer a seascape workshop by me for sale. This immediately made me extremely nervous, because I'm far from convinced that I am qualified or able to teach anyone anything about photography!

However, the aim was primarily to raise funds for the club, and to my amazement the workshop sold twice over. My aim therefore was to, at the very least, provide the bidders with a good day out to some beautiful places.

However, after completing the two workshops, I have learned a lot myself, and hope that the participants have taken something away from them too. I thought it might be worthwhile writing this blog to run through some of what we did on the trips, as there is an awful lot to remember, and I really don't think one day out is suitable for 'learning' the techniques involved. If members are interested in smaller outings like this in the future, then I'm sure they can be arranged.

Rattray Head Lighthouse

It may also be useful too, because the weather on both the trips was utterly dreadful. The sun shone, the warm breeze blew, and the sea was calm. Beautiful days to be on the beach in North east Scotland - terrible terrible days to be using a camera on the beach in North East Scotland.

I'm glad I chose the location I did, because Rattray beach is absolutely stunning, and the lighthouse offers a focal point for all sorts of photographs. It is also a real hotspot for wildlife, and all the participants were also excited to see some rarer birds and hundreds of seals on the day out (more on that later). The plan was originally to visit Collieston Harbour too, and then possibly Crawton at Stonehaven on the way home, but things don't always go to plan!

Workshop 1 - with Gordon, Jock, David and Jim - this was about 8:30am on Rattray Beach, and the sun was already incredibly harsh!

Workshop 2 - with Karen, Sally, Bita and Heather - not a cloud in the sky!!

The photo that sparked the idea - taken between brutal blizzards at 7:30am in December, with numb fingers and a camera caked in snow and sand.

So I guess this is the first 'rule' of seascape photography. Pleasant weather does not often mean good photography conditions, and frankly getting a great image is almost 100% weather dependent, and therefore driven by luck. The technicalities of arranging a workshop mean forward planning, and that conflicts directly with seizing the right weather conditions. Tides are also a major consideration, and both workshops coincided with neap tides, which are rarely ideal.

This image of the Deil's Heid at Seaton was taken on my first visit there. I had no plans to go there, but after a dull day in winter, the clouds began to break up and offer the chance of some nice light towards sunset, so I grabbed my gear and went for a walk, not expecting much. By pure chance the nice light coincided with a spring high tide, a really angry swell and easterly wind, and I captured this image. I've been back half a dozen times and never experienced light of sea conditions remotely close to this again. Pure luck - and perseverance.

However, workshops are perhaps more about learning the techniques than coming home with images to be proud of. Had I not previously learned the techniques, I wouldn't have been prepared to make the most of the conditions at Rattray or Seaton when the above images were taken.

Learning the 'basics' however can be difficult, because there are a number of steps to follow beyond normal photography, and it's very important not to miss parts out. One thing I learned on the workshops too is how different the approach can be with different camera models and brands.


The first thing to think about is always composition. It's an easy trap to fall into to get into the technical stuff before finding a strong composition - but the best advice is to really settle on a composition before getting into the technical stuff - because otherwise it's a big waste of effort! Rattray Head offers good examples of different types of composition, which is why I chose it to visit. At high tide, it is a fabulous place to produce minimalist images, especially when the sea is wild. Using a long exposure to smooth waves and moving clouds out can produce a pallete of subtle colours as a backdrop to the black and white lighthouse. At low tide the seaweed, rocks and causeway offer foreground interest and leading lines to the lighthouse.

It's also important to try to establish what kind of effects you want to create - do you use a long exposure to create a smooth ethereal look, do you want to some movement in the image, or do you want to freeze the action of a breaking wave?

Only at this stage should you start to think about the settings and use of filters etc.


If you plan to use a long exposure, then a tripod is essential. For seascapes, the sturdier the better - as good conditions for photography tend to include at least a stiff breeze. Even on the workshop days, the wind made it tricky to remove camera shake. This is especially true when using square filters, as they are terrific at catching the wind and moving the camera a fraction. The aim is always to ensure the main subject of the image is pin sharp, and this requires the camera not to move at all. There is a compromise to tripods - the sturdiest tend to be heavy and awkward to carry around. If it is really windy though, try to keep the tripod as low to the ground as possible, spread the legs of it as far as possible, and if the tripod has a centre column that can be raised, try not to use it unless absolutely necessary - this is always the least stable part of the tripod.

Another good tip is to remove your camera strap, or at least secure it to the camera or tripod to stop it flapping around in the wind. Even this much movement can ruin a good photograph by causing vibration in the camera.

Basic camera settings will vary from camera to camera, but here are some general ideas: -

  • For shorter exposures (less than 30 seconds typically) - use Aperture Priority mode;

  • For longer exposures switch to Bulb mode;

  • Turn off image stabilisation on your lens;

  • Use the lowest ISO you can - typically 100;

  • Try to set your aperture to where the lens is at it's sharpest - typically around f9 or f11;

  • connect a shutter release cable, or if you don't have one use a 2 second timer on your shutter;

  • Ideally use live view on your camera, although in very bright conditions this is not always possible. This is also tricky on Nikon cameras where the screen becomes unusable with filters on. Canon cameras use exposure simulation on the screen which is incredibly useful!

  • Use auto focus if you wish, but it's often beneficial to use manual focus, and zoom into your subject in live view to ensure it is exactly as you wish;

  • For a long exposure - once you have focused, switch into manual focus mode to ensure the camera doesn't try to refocus once you have put filters on.

Using the above steps will result in a stable setup, and a nice sharp image. However, your shutter speed will be dictated by the light available. Using this approach requires the use of filters to control the shutter speed and achieve the image you have in mind.


Do we really need filters? For seascapes with drama, in my opinion the answer is yes. There are other ways around it - taking multiple photos and combining in post production etc, but nothing beats creating artistic images in the field for me.

Rather than me typing for pages, I highly recommend this video by Thomas Heaton, where he explains the use of filters and why he uses them: -

I would agree with everything Thomas says in this video - and for anyone looking to invest in filters, the priority list is exactly as he describes it.

1 - Circular Polariser - the effects of this filter CANNOT be replicated in photoshop. The circular polariser works by filtering out reflected light. Where harsh light is reflected off glass, water or wet surfaces, these can be very bright in images. Reflections all around us via atmospheric pollution also flatten our images and wash out colours and contrast.

The use of the quarter-wave plate creates circularly polarised light, which allows your digital camera to still work effectively, whereas using only a linear polariser would cut out the reflected light but render your camera's metering ineffective. It's all very clever stuff!

The examples of the effects of using a circular polariser in Thomas's video above are excellent examples of why you should really have one of these in your camera bag.


Don't forget to rotate your filter to have the desired effect. The first step in the photography process once setting up your composition is to rotate the polariser to the right position. If you decide to switch from a landscape to a portrait composition - don't forget to reset your polariser, as it will have moved 90 degrees.

2 - Neutral Density Filter - the neutral density filter is much simpler - it reduces the amount of light that enters the camera. This lets you control your shutter speed without compromising the ideal camera settings explained above.

These filters come in a range of strengths, typically 4 stops, 6 stops, 10 stops and 15 stops. The 10 stop filter is the most common one - often called a 'big stopper'. As the name suggests, it blocks 10 stops of light from reaching the sensor.

Lee Filters offer a great free smartphone app that helps you calculate your exposure times when using filters. You will find with practice you can usually gauge this yourself, and trial and error is generally the best way to learn, but this can be very helpful to start with.

For example, if you have set up the camera as described above, ISO 100, aperture at f11, on aperture priority mode, your camera may be telling you that the correct exposure requires a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second. If you add a 10 stop filter, this will change your shutter speed to 30 seconds, by blocking 10 stops of light from entering the camera. 30 seconds will smooth the movement of all water to an artistic blur.

However, if you added a 6 stop filter in the same situation, your shutter speed would be 2 seconds. This would blur the movement of the water, but retain some detail, creating a more dramatic image.