Celebrating the sea: ocean photography tips and techniques

A black-and-white image of a wave during a storm, with spray coming off the top of the wave.
Ocean photographer Rachael Talibart named this shot of a monstrous storm wave Medusa. Rachael prefers photographing the sea in wild weather because she likes the dramatic shapes thrown up by the spray. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM) at 160mm, 1/1000 sec, f/9 and ISO200. © Rachael Talibart

Translating the ocean's power and grace into an image has been a lifelong mission for many photographers enchanted by its mystery. Not only is ocean photography an infinite creative challenge, it can also provide a way for creatives to document the importance and fragility of our oceans and marine life.

Here, top pros share their different approaches to ocean photography – from dramatic stormy seascapes and abstract portrayals of the coast, to underwater photography, and split-level sea photography – as well as their favourite methods and kit recommendations.

A black and white image of a wave during a storm.
Pairing the 50.6MP Canon EOS 5DS R, which shoots up to 5fps, with a fast-aperture telephoto zoom lens made it possible for Rachael to capture images of remarkable clarity and detail, even in low-light conditions. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 200mm, 1/1000 sec, f/10 and ISO400. © Rachael Talibart

1. Freeze dramatic stormy waves with telephoto lenses

Inspired by her fascination with stormy seas, fine art coastal photographer Rachael Talibart creates bestselling prints that transport viewers to the middle of the ocean. People are often astonished to discover that Sirens, her critically acclaimed series of storm wave photographs, was shot from the shore of Newhaven in the UK, on her Canon EOS 5DS R with Canon zoom lenses. "Pretty much every image was taken with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, handheld, usually while lying or crouching on the beach, which often surprises people as they think I must be in the sea," she explains.

"I only take these photographs during really big storms, because I need the waves to make big shapes – I need fast winds and a high tide. You can't go in the sea during a force 10 storm, but with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens you can get fairly close. I've got longer zooms, but they're harder to hold steady when you're being buffeted by the wind. That doesn't happen with the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, as it stays relatively compact for a long lens."

Shooting in such stormy conditions can be a challenge, but combining a lens which can cope with low-light conditions with the weather-sealed controls of the Canon EOS 5DS R, setting shutter speeds of around 1/1000 and shooting in high-speed continuous mode allowed Rachael to isolate powerful crashing waves in mid-air.

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"I shoot high-speed continuous with lots of bursts, sometimes for up to six hours – I've probably got a shutter count you'd expect from a wildlife photographer rather than a landscape photographer," explains Rachael. "But my camera is powerful, dependable and delivers high-resolution images. My biggest market is in the USA and they like really big prints – some up to 180cm wide."

Rachael says choosing a camera with weather sealing and using a lens hood are essential for shooting stormy seas. "Even if it's not raining, the spray is like rain on stormy days," she explains. "Without a lens hood, you would spend all your time cleaning the spray from your lens, so that's a really important bit of kit. One of the things I like about Canon's L-series lenses is that a lens hood is included.

"I always wipe the camera and lens down, paying attention to metal parts such as the hotshoe," says Rachael. "It can be quite useful, especially if there's sand about, to use a little soft brush [to sweep] behind all the dials."

An abstract shot of a beach scene, the colours blurred.
This bold abstract was created through a combination of panning and slow shutter speeds. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 371mm, 0.3 sec, f/22 and ISO100. © Carla Regler
An abstract shot of a beach scene, with blurred mountains in the background.
Carla panned across the mountains at a slow shutter speed for this image taken on the Isle of Harris. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM lens at 70mm, 0.4 sec, f/14 and ISO50. © Carla Regler
Six sperm whales surfacing for air, as freediver Guillaume Néry swims beneath them.

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2. Try panning to convey movement

Award-winning landscape and sea photographer Carla Regler has built a business selling photography prints, captured in the coastal town of Porthleven, Cornwall, UK, her former home, and the Outer Hebrides, where she now lives.

Carla, who usually shoots with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, says her most popular images are of the waves crashing against the Porthleven clock tower, but she also likes to try new techniques and has become known for her imaginative abstracts and experimental panning. "I love the fast action of powerful waves, but at the same time I actually quite like standing and watching the water, then applying slow motion effects," she says.

Carla's more ethereal photographs often combine fun, experimental panning techniques with slow shutter speeds. "For a straight horizon, I pan swiftly from left to right, keeping the camera on the horizon, as level as possible. I set a two-second shutter delay, so pressing the shutter doesn't cause the camera to move up and down.

"Sometimes I pan with more intentional movement, utilising mountains in the distance and waves in the foreground to create texture and criss-crossing water movement. I move the camera left to right with the waves, and up and down the mountain ridges."

Carla says her Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens is a firm favourite and enables her to hone in on wild waves from a safe distance. "It's my go-to lens; I tend to use it a lot. And I can pair it with the Canon Extender EF 1.4x III, which turns it into a 560mm lens and gives me that extra reach."

An underwater shot of a diver swimming through a cave of stalagmites and stalactites.
Robert Marc Lehmann uses strobe lights positioned as far away from the camera as possible to light up particles in the murky water from the side and reduce their impact on the shot. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens at 11mm, 1/50 sec, f/8 and ISO1250. © Robert Marc Lehmann

3. Use light intelligently underwater

Conservation photographer and filmmaker Robert Marc Lehmann has been diving for more than 10 years and has worked as a marine biologist. He is driven not so much by a desire to take beautiful images, but to highlight the plight of the creatures that inhabit the marine environment.

Robert, who was named National Geographic's Photographer of the Year in 2015, says even dark, murky waters with small-scale marine life can make for standout pictures. This is especially the case with intelligent use of strobe lighting, which can help to eliminate backscatter – particles in the water illuminated by the camera flash.

"The key factor is bringing the light underwater," he explains. "In the area where I live and photograph, 95% of the time I'm diving in very murky water with sediment, so strobe technique is very important. You need to position the strobes as far away from the camera as you can, at a 30-40-degree angle, so they hit the particles from the side, rather than lighting them up from the front."

Robert uses a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a waterproof housing and strobe lights, alongside a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM and Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens. Using such wide lenses helps him glean as much light as possible from the underwater environments and achieve those all-encompassing perspectives. This, teamed with the improved ISO capabilities of the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III (up to ISO 102,400, expandable to 819,200), helps to bring light into challenging environments, such as dimly lit underwater caves.

A split-level image of a blue shark swimming under the water, and the clouds in the sky above it.
This split-level image of a blue shark was one of Robert's more difficult shots. He had to make sure there was no water on the underwater housing that would blur the final image. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) at 15mm, 1/160 sec, f/7.1 and ISO320. © Robert Marc Lehmann

4. Take on the split-level challenge

Fast-moving underwater subjects such as sharks and dolphins make the sharp autofocus and 20fps continuous shooting features of the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III essential for Robert. But it's his iconic split-level shots that are the hardest to master.

"You want your levels equally split, and the strobes need to be lit, with the reef or animal in the foreground. It's very hard to keep everything in focus, so a really small aperture such as f/22 is the way to go.

"The most difficult thing is removing the water on the underwater housing's big glass dome port. You have to spit onto the dome port, tip the camera into the water and let the water run off. Then, you have less than 1.5 seconds with a clear view to press the shutter."

Written by Lorna Dockerill

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