In the Deep – Mindful Photography in the Ocean

The ocean is my personal favourite subject to photograph, whether at the shoreline or out in the water, it’s something I’ve always been drawn to. I was always more of a general landscape photographer, going where ever the season drew me to, but these days it’s all about the ocean. More often than not, you will find me bobbing around in the water at dawn down at my local beach. I’m writing this blog to share my experiences with you, offer some tips if you fancy giving this a go yourself and sharing some of my favourite recent images made out in the water.

My first tip before you even consider trying this yourself is to protect your gear. I shoot on the Fujifilm X series camera and lenses, and I invested in a Seafrogs Housing around about a year ago. There are a few options out there for varied budgets but its essential to ensure whatever you invest in, it needs to do its job well! I also use a Go Pro Hero 8 which is great fun. Its easy to travel with and take on all kinds of water adventures.

Next observe the ocean; are you familiar with being out there? What’s the swell doing, the tide doing? What the weather doing? Is it safe to venture out? There are plenty of weather and sea apps to check; one of my favourites for seeing what the ocean is doing is Magic Seaweed.

Once you are ready to get out in the water, think about when you want to shoot. You will usually find me out in the water making my images at sunrise. Sunrise is my favourite time of day as a photographer and just personally. It might be difficult getting up to that 5am alarm call but its so worth the effort. To be met by an empty beach with no one around except for the occasional dog walker and to witness the magic of a beautiful sunrise is just mind blowing. With most people being tucked up in bed, it really feels like nature is putting on a private show just for you!

Something else to consider when out in the water is how you want to represent that scene. There are many options when choosing settings and a shutter speed. When it comes to photographing the ocean, there are benefits to both fast and slow shutters and its completely personal preference. I generally just go with my gut and how I feel that particular morning and how the sea makes me feel, how I think I can do it justice.

The ocean can be really interesting when photographed at slow shutter speeds, creating a dreamy effect in the water. This isn’t just about the longer exposure but being out in the water you have the added movement of the water too.

I’ll go for a faster shutter if wanting to act fast and concentrate on certain ripples making their way past. Its such a fleeting moment that you can try 50 shots of this nature and there will be one that jumps out as ‘the perfect shot’ when you get home. Its all part of the fun and an experience I enjoy immensely! A quicker shutter is also useful when I am shooting my fellow swimmers, surfers, boats etc. – anything you want to be sharp in the frame.

Compositional choices is an interesting one out in the water, as you may not have a specific or traditional ‘subject’ to focus your images around, like being on the shoreline where it may be a groyne or some rocks. For me its watching how the ocean is behaving. Is there a foreground to be captured, the elements moving around you, is there something that jumps out compositionally? It’s all personal preference and again it’s something I act on impulse with, reacting to how the sea is behaving around me. I very rarely used to shoot into the sun, its something that I just wasn’t keen on but these days my opinion has changed. To photograph the sun rising over the horizon from sea level can be absolutely incredible! For those initial moments the sun can be a dark golden colour, or held back by thin cloud or mist and for those moments it can be the perfect balance. Talking about exposing for that, I would say never overexpose. I underexpose and shoot in RAW so that you retain all that detail and when I get home and get into Lightroom I have the added benefits of extra dynamic range and can bring back those darker areas. My preference is to get it right in camera but the benefit of RAW is definitely around recovery and that is essential when you are working so quickly during these fleeting moments.

Most importantly for me, when shooting out in the water it’s all about that moment. The here and now and staying present without getting lost in thoughts. I can’t possibly worry about other things when I am literally so immersed in the water and seeing the beauty that nature holds right in front of me through my lens. Listening to the waves, the seagulls, observing the patterns created in the rippling water or crashing waves and feeling the ocean supporting my body.

So what else do I get out of shooting in the water? The last year or two has seen the rise in open water swimming and it was the lockdowns that saw me delving into the ocean daily. My nearest beach is about 5 mins cycle away so that made me feel incredibly lucky indeed.

There are so many benefits to be had and lots of info out there if you just have a google but something I want to talk about is probably the main benefit of sea-swimming; mental health. Getting out in the water is well known to reduce levels of anxiety and depression. It has such a relaxing and meditative effect on the body and mind, and as a result, can significantly reduce stress.

Have you heard of the ‘Ice Man’ Wim Hof? He bathes in ice and puts his body through extreme cold measures of discomfort to reap the benefits physically but also to build mental fortitude.

A sea temperature below 13°C (55°F) for swimming is considered cold water and yes British waters are cold, but not that cold in the summer. It’s approx. a wonderful 17 - 18 degrees during August in the Bournemouth waters I call home. After going through a cold winter of dipping for just a few minutes each time, this is positively tropical! I get to spend as much time as I want to, bobbing around photographing the surface of the water without worrying about getting cold.

But honestly, during those cold months at first its uncomfortable but worth pushing through. You acclimatise and get a buzz out of it for the accomplishment! In the winter I absolutely loved that tingly sensation your skin gets out of it! So yes, that means it has to be skins! No wet suits! But honestly, I will wear one if wanting to stay out in the water longer or if I am hanging around shooting the surfers.

To summarise, being by the water with my camera makes me happy, and that can never be a bad thing, right? To be out in the water with my camera, merging my love of nature and photography is my favourite thing to do. It makes me truly appreciate where I am and the beauty of nature all around me.

As always, thanks for reading,

Emily x

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