Long Exposures for Seascapes

Patrick's Point SP11-138

Long exposures of a wave tossed ocean can lead to rather intriguing photos, as the waves blur into an otherworldly mist. Take the following scene:

Patrick's Point SP11-146

A pleasant enough scene, to be sure. Exposure time for this shot was 1/15 seconds. You get a little bit of blur on the waves, but not much. But with a 30 second exposure, you get this:

Patrick's Point SP11-143

This transforms the scene altogether. But how is such a 30 second exposure possible? In daylight, even if cloudy or in nearing twilight, it’s not possible to take a 30 second exposure without getting something all washed out. So how does one pull it off? With something like this:

Pasted Graphic

That is a ten stop B+W neutral density filter. The filter is so dark that, when once attached to one’s lens, the viewfinder is almost entirely dark. The photograph must be composed before attached the filter or through Liveview. The filter enables exposures even in broad daylight of anywhere between 15 seconds and well over two minutes.

The effect of long exposures can yield curious results, depending on the length of the exposure and the direction from which the exposure of moving waves is made. Consider the following image:

Luffenholtz Beach WI11-15

The photo is taken from ten feet above the ocean. Also notice that the surf is fairly modest. With a 15 second exposure, this results:

Luffenholtz Beach WI11-21

What is unusual in this photo is that makes the water clear, so that you can see through it to the “bottom,” as it were. That’s not the usual effect.

When using the 10 stop ND filter, I usually find myself getting 15 second exposure at f8. The fastest exposure I’ve gotten with that 10 stop ND filter was .3 seconds:

Northcoast Misc SP11-91

The reason why the image is a little soft is that it is taken at f1.2. At such an aperture, the depth of field is very narrow and what is in focus is not all that sharp. But this illustrates how dark these filters really are. At f1.2, you can burn out highlights shooting in daylight at 1/8000 second.

As you head toward dusk, you get even longer exposures with a 10 stop ND filter, as with this 119 second exposure of Sharp Point:

Northcoast Misc. WI11-571

For the mist effect, it helps to have large waves, which happened in the above case. But one does not always have to go for long exposures, or use the 10 stop ND. Sometimes, particularly around dusk, a two stop filter can be used to create just as compelling images, as in this 1.3 second shot:

Trinidad AU11-22

And in this 3 second shot:

Shelter Cove SM10-264

A decent surf is key (although if the surf is too large, that can be a problem as well). Other examples—

15 seconds:

Patrick's Point SP11-10

69 seconds:

Trinidad AU11-15

137 seconds:

Trinidad WI10-163