We all like to take seascape photos in the tropics. Whether you live by a beach, or are just visiting, there’s nothing that screams “the tropics” more than a sandy beach, swaying coconut palms, an aquamarine ocean and a deep blue sky. At least that’s what the scene looks like to the naked eye, but so often when we photograph those scenes, the sky is washed out and sometimes almost white.
The challenges in taking seascapes in the tropics are the big contrasts between the light levels of the land and the sky, and the reflections off the beach and water. In cooler climates these can be challenge too, but they tend not to be such a problem because the sun is not so strong – especially in high latitudes.
The result is overexposure of the sky (and sometimes of the beach too) compared to other elements in the image. Therefore the photographer needs to be aware of this and take some action to compensate for it. Atmospheric haze can also contribute to washed out skies, and the hotter the day is, the more likely there will be atmospheric haze.
The first rule to follow to try and keep some blue in the sky is to shoot with the sun behind you. Of course, if it’s right in the middle of the day when the sun is overhead, that’s difficult to do, so try to avoid taking photographs in the middle of the day, and plan to do it in the morning or afternoon.
The best hours to take seascape photographs are the hours immediately after sunrise and before sunset. But unless you are intending to capture the actual sunrise or sunset, you’ll need to avoid shooting directly into the sun.
For the rest of the day, if you are going to be facing west, then shoot in the morning, and if you are going to be facing east, then do it in the afternoon. North-south orientations will depend on what side of the equator you are on, and the time of year, so think ahead when heading out to photograph your favourite beach scenes.
Even when you are shooting with the sun behind you, it is likely that you may still find the sky somewhat washed out if the day is hot and hazy. In which case it’s advisable to use a UV filter to reduce the amount of ultra-violet light entering the lens. Single lens reflex (SLR) cameras can be easily fitted with a screw-on UV filter, whilst for point-and-shoot cameras and smartphones, there are clip-on filters available.
For SLR cameras it’s actually a good idea to leave the UV filter on the camera all the time because it acts as a protective barrier for your camera lens and prevents it from getting scratched. As long as you keep the UV filter clean, it won’t degrade the quality of your photos at all.
But UV filters won’t make as much difference as two other types of filters that are regularly used by professional photographers. They are called polarizing filters and neutral density graduated filters. Let’s look at polarizing filters first because they are the most commonly used.
There are two types of polarizing filters available – linear and circular types. The linear types have specific uses in professional photography but are not generally used by photographers with SLR and higher-end point-and-shoot cameras because linear polarizing filters interfere with the auto-metering and auto-focus functions of the camera. For that reason, most of the polarizing filters that you’ll find in camera shops are the circular type.
Circular polarizing filters have two rims. The inner rim screws onto the camera lens housing, and the outer rim holds the filter glass so that it can be rotated when screwed onto the camera. As the filter glass rotates, the polarizing effect changes depending on the angle of the light entering the camera lens.
When looking through the viewfinder of the camera, you’ll instantly be able to see the polarizing effect. As the filter is rotated, the sky becomes bluer and the clouds more prominent as the contrast between the clouds and the sky increases.
The filter also works to cut down on reflections from the water and the sand, and the definition of the whole scene improves. Amateur photographers after buying their first polarizing filter often make the mistake of rotating the filter to the point where it has its maximum effect, but this results in the sky becoming almost black at the corners and a very unnatural looking image.
It is best to play around with the filter until you see that the scene is enhanced, but not overdo it to the point that it doesn’t look real. Remember also that a polarizing filter will cut down on the light that is entering the camera, so you will be shooting with slower shutter speeds.
For smartphones and simple point-and-shoots that won’t take screw-on filters, clip-on polarizing filters are available. For higher-end smartphones with built-in image editing software, another way to improve the sky is to tap on the sky after you’ve framed your shot, and have the camera expose the scene based on the optimum sky exposure (which will mean the rest of the photo is underexposed).
Then use the in-camera editing software to adjust the exposure of those parts of the image that were deliberately underexposed. Depending on the brand of smartphone and the sophistication of the in-camera editing software installed, this often works very well using just the editing software’s auto function.
Graduated neutral density filters
The other type of filters that are sometime used to reduce the exposure of the sky compared to the other components of the image are graduated neutral density (ND) filters. These filters act like simple non-polarizing sunglasses and are darker at the top than the bottom. They come in different grades depending on how much light they block out in the darkened part.
ND filters reduce the exposure of the sky but only work well if the horizon is right across the width of the image. If it’s not (for example if there is a headland on one side or a palm tree on the other) those components of the image above the level of the horizon will be underexposed and look unnatural.
Polarizing filters therefore give a more natural look to most photographs, but professional photographers often use ND filters to give a more dramatic look to stormy skies, or to reduce the exposure of the sky when taking photographs of sunsets when the sun is still above the horizon.
Of course, if there is no blue in the sky to start with, no amount of playing around with filters is going to improve the sky in the photograph. Those beautiful blue skies that you see in travel brochures and resort advertising are often added in post-production through a process called layering, but that requires a graphic artist with good Photoshop skills.
And talking about post-processing, be careful you don’t oversharpen your photographs. Many beautiful landscape photographs have been spoiled by the photographer applying too much sharpening to the image.
For most of us we have to just wait until the sky is really blue, and then use our shooting skills and knowledge, and maybe a polarizing filter as well, to capture a scene that looks as good as we remember it.