Taking Dreamy, Misty Ocean Photos at the Beach

The beach is one of those idyllic, picturesque settings that begs to have its photo taken. No matter what kind of camera you have or how you take pictures at the beach, you almost can't go wrong when you're standing on the sand and shooting the ocean. But while most people tend to take pictures midday to capture a gorgeous blue sky with fluffy white clouds above the sand and sea, I'd like to suggest another way to shoot the ocean: Use a slow shutter speed to turn the water into a moody, foggy blur. This isn't the first time I've explained how to capture the essence of water motion with a slow shutter speed (check out "How to Photograph Waterfalls and Moving Water"), but this week let's look at how to apply this technique at the beach.

Cheating With Shutter Speed

People often see a photo like this one and try to guess how it was done. "Was it really misty there?" people ask. "Was there a fog rising off the ocean in the early morning?" And the answer, of course, is no and no. There's no fog, and the scene didn't look like this in real life. Instead, what you see is the effect you get when you slow down the shutter speed and capture a lot of wave movement in the same exposure.

Do I feel bad that I'm cheating to create a scene that didn't actually exist when I shot the picture? Not at all. Art is always about interpreting reality, and keep in mind you can get this effect entirely within a single exposure on your camera, with no photo editing necessary. It's no more "fake" than if I underexposed a photo to capture a silhouette or changed the aperture to blur the background.

Setting Up

To take a photo like this, you should have a camera that lets you choose a long shutter speed, so a digital SLR or a point-and-shoot camera with a shutter priority mode is ideal.

You'll also want a steady support, since the camera will be exposing for several seconds. I use a tripod, but that's not essential--you can also set the camera on a rock or some other rigid base. One word of warning, though: If you are using a tripod, make sure it isn't going to settle or drift in the sand. That means you should put the tripod in dry sand, and really dig it in so it doesn't shift through the exposure. I've made the mistake of setting my tripod in wet sand, and discovered too late that it sinks slightly over time. The result? When you review your photos afterwards, you'll see blurry ghost images caused by the camera moving through the exposure.

It's also a good idea to use a remote trigger of some kind so you don't have to touch the camera during the exposure. You can use a wired or wireless trigger (check your local camera shop to see if there's one available for your camera). If all else fails, you can use your camera's self-timer, but beware--use the lightest touch possible to press the shutter release, or you can push the tripod further into the sand and cause it to keep shifting through the exposure.

Taking the Shot

Ready to go? You'll get your best results in the early morning or late afternoon, sometime in the vicinity of sunrise or sunset. The low light conditions will allow you to get a nice long exposure, and the warmer colors in the sky can make the photo look more romantic as well.

You can get absolutely gorgeous results with a very wide range of shutter speeds, ranging anywhere from 2 seconds to 20 or 30 seconds, so try a few and see what works best for you. To try it, put your camera in Shutter Priority mode and start with a shutter speed of about 5 seconds. The longer your exposure, the more water movement you will capture. In the photo on the right, for example, I used a shutter speed of 15 seconds.

All of the photos don't need to look like dreamscapes, either: With a shorter exposure, you can capture the motion of the waves while still freezing other elements in a photo. I took the photo on the left, for example, by asking my model to stay as still as possible and then setting the exposure for about 2 seconds.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 800 by 600 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Rufous" by Jack Moskovita, Tacoma, Washington

Jack writes: "I took this photo of a male Rufous Hummingbird with my Nikon D5000. These little guys migrate over 2500 miles from across the Gulf of Mexico to Canada every year. He was gone the next day, probably in Canada by now."

This week's runner-up: "Agave Sky" by Brian Mork, Edwards AFB, California

Brian writes: "My wife and I were exploring the colors of the springtime desert west of Las Vegas when we discovered this agave flower standing about 18 feet high. I shot this picture in order to experiment with auto focusing against a distant, uniform background."

To see last month's winners, visit our August Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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