Go with the Flow: How to Shoot Striking Photos of Waves

All photos © Deborah Sandidge

(Editor's Note: You can read Deborah Sandidge's other "On the Road" columns here.)

Waves occupy a high position on my favorite photographic subjects list. First, I feel a natural emotional connection to them. Second, they offer a lot of ways I can portray that connection. Give me a subject that provides lots of possibilities and creative challenges, and I'm there.

With a simple shutter speed adjustment, I can stop a wave's motion in a photograph that reveals detail the eye can't see, or I can let that motion flow in degrees of silky smoothness. I can shoot waves so their textures take over as the subject of the photo. I can choose an angle or point or view that shows the waves' interactions with, or effect upon, their surroundings.

At Coral Cove Park in Tequesta, Florida, I decided 1/15 second would capture what I found fascinating: how the waves seemed to stretch out as they met the rocks. They were pretty aggressive, too, and I got that with my tripod in the water and a 14-24mm lens on the camera.

There's more: depending on the time of year, or the time of day, I can choose the amount and direction of light reflectance that determines their color tone. I can take up a position, crouch down and capture angry waves coming at me, or I can calm them down simply by waiting for the anger to dissipate.

The techniques are easy to apply; the results will depend on what you want to capture and share. Here are the steps I take to get those results.

Same location as the previous photo, but this time at sunrise and 1/8 second with the 16-35mm wide-angle zoom. My interest here was the way the tide was covering the rocks, and a slower shutter speed caught that. The challenge was to find rocks that worked best to get the textures and flow I wanted.

#1 Observe
What are they waves up to? How fast are they moving? What's the light doing?

#2 Evaluate
Okay, this is what's happening—now, what are my choices? Is the picture going to be about reflection, or power, or texture? What do I want to convey and share? Usually the answer to that last question is: something so expressive that people will feel like they're standing right there with me.

This time the story at Coral Cove was about crashing waves, which I caught at 1/1000 second with the 24-70mm zoom at full telephoto to get all the details. My tripod was in the water, and I composed the shot using my Z7's tilt-up monitor.

#3 Anticipate
What's happening with the central components? Is the wind shifting? Are the clouds moving? How fast? Is the sun likely to be obscured? How will I respond?

#4 Use the tools
What lens, f/stop and shutter speed am I going to need to convey my emotional response? If I need my tripod, where do I set it? Will a filter help?

This South Florida sunrise was giving me the waves I wanted but not much color, so I put a Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue polarizer on the 14-30mm lens and adjusted the filter until the water over the rocks turned colorful for this 1/15-second exposure. I can reference weather conditions before going to the area, but I never know exactly what I'll find, so that filter's always in the bag.

The truth is that I've had so much experience shooting waves, I pretty much know what the photo is going to look like two seconds into the process. I know that my reaction to the way the waves are breaking on the rocks will dictate the length of the exposure, and I'll know at the first shot if I got it right or if I need to adjust.

We all have our favorite subjects, the things we photograph because there's an emotional connection we can sometimes trace and sometimes can't. Perhaps most rewarding in the pursuit of these subjects is the creative challenge in trying to share these special connections with others.

Deborah Sandidge's website, deborahsandidge.com, offers a collection of her photographs as well as photo tips and a schedule of upcoming workshops, photo tours, and seminars.

By definition this is not a wave—it's a mountain stream in full rush and roar in the Maroon Bells territory of Aspen, Colorado, but at the moment I was into effect, not nomenclature. When I saw that the angle of morning light was revealing the golden reflected colors of the trees, I knew there was a picture to be made. I used my 70-200mm at 200 to isolate one section to emphasize the full impact of the water's power and beauty in a 1/6-second exposure.

This shot, taken at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, is what you can do with gentle waves and boats that feature touches of bright color. The story is the reflection—you don't see the boat at all. Neither do you see the wave, only its effect painted on the water. I took the photo at 1/250 second with my 70-300mm lens at 300mm. With a wide angle, like my 24-70mm, it'd be a different picture, and at a slow shutter speed it'd be too blurry. Timing is also a key: definition and depth of color are lost when the sun gets high in the sky; this photo was taken a few minutes before 10:00 a.m.

Looking south from my vantage point on the Flagler Beach Fishing Pier in Florida, I knew what I'd get when everything came together, especially when I turned the camera for a vertical composition that would extend the leading line of the wave. I shot this different look at a wave at f/16 with one of my favorite "round-up the real estate" lenses, the 14-24mm wide angle.