Magic of the Coast

Magic of the Coast

by Adrian Hendroff

When it comes to landscape photography, there is something magnetic that draws me to the coast. Perhaps it’s the state of flux, always looking different from one visit to the next. Or maybe the combination of the elements and power of the sea, keeping it on the edge of change, making it unpredictable. Its character and mood changes with the weather, wind and tide, with each ebb and flow washing its beaches clean, preparing it for a new cycle to begin. Here I come time and again to be inspired, to stand in awe and to be enthralled by the forces of nature, transformative light and spellbinding beauty that is the coast. Let it be the benign swoosh of water, muted clatter of pebbles, call of the gulls, wind blowing through the dunes or a roaring cauldron of white water and spray – it is a delightful treat for the senses. Then there are the vast expanses of windswept sand, rocky pools, hidden coves, soaring cliffs, jagged sea-stacks and ancient rock formations. All these make the coast one of the most exhilarating environments for me to immerse myself in landscape photography.
In this blog, I’m going to share some tips and ideas on stuff related to coastal photography. However, before I do, I’d like to invite you to a unique winter workshop run from dawn to dusk along Ireland’s beautiful Copper Coast. During the winter months, when the sun rises to the southeast and sets to the southwest, this stretch of coast is an absolute delight to photograph, especially during the golden hour. The low-angled winter sun also works to our advantage for photography throughout the day. Click here for more dates, details and availability. If you use social media, please share this or tag/tell your friend that might be interested.
Back to the tips (you’ll get a few more at the workshop).
Sea-stack on the Copper Coast, one of the places visited on our dawn to dusk winter workshop.

” The ocean stirs the heart, inspires the imagination and brings eternal joy to the soul.”
– Robert Wyland

1. Check The Tides

When it comes to planning a coastal photoshoot, the tide state and height are one of the first things I’d check. A stretch of coastline looks totally different at low, mid and high tide, so local knowledge is important prior to a shoot. Use the My Tide Times App or sites such as

A sandy beach will be clean and devoid of footprints when the tide is receding. If you’re there early or late in the day, chances are there’ll be fewer people or no one about. Low tide also allows you to wander around without getting your feet wet and scout for subjects to use as a focal point that you otherwise wouldn’t see. Ripples in the sand can also act as good foreground interest when the tide is out.
On the other hand, shores with rocky coves or ledges tend to be more photogenic around mid to high tides, giving visually striking images. The moving water will add drama and motion to your image. Plus, all the clutter of barnacle and seaweed covered rocks will also be hidden.
One important thing to keep in mind wherever you are: make sure you don’t get cut out by the tide.
Dollymount Strand at low tide.

2. Get Close To The Water

This is something that excites me most when out on a coastal photoshoot. On the shoreline, chances are you’ll get jagged rocks, smooth boulders, shapely ledges and tidal pools – all interesting features you can use as a foreground, leading lines or a ‘frame within a frame’. Depending on the conditions, you’ll also get a myriad of wave patterns swirling around the rocks or reflective pools of water. When you are close to the water’s edge, the drama will be heightened.

You’ll need a pair of wellies and it goes without saying that only approach the water as long as you feel safe. Check the wind direction using websites like If it is coming directly off the sea at more than 25km/h (15mph), you are almost guaranteed that your camera and gear will become coated with sea-spray and wave splashes. Ideally, you’ll want the wind to blow from any other direction than off the sea. Alternatively, you can also opt to stand further away and use a longer lens.

When shooting from the shoreline, a sturdy tripod is recommended to keep your camera steady from the wind and waves. Plant your tripod legs firmly in the wet sand or mount it securely on rock ledges before taking a shot. Also carry a couple of cleaning cloths and a small bottle of cleaning fluid in your pocket to wipe away any sea spray on your lens. Finally, when you’re back home, be sure to give your kit and tripod a good clean to avoid salt water corrosion.

3. Fill The Sky With Colours

Twice a day over the golden hour, given the right conditions, the sky is painted with a palette of dynamic colours. These conditions will render those big, bold skies over the sea with an element of emotion and romance. At low tide, a wet, sandy beach will reflect the beautiful colours in the sky. Remember to slot in your polariser to make the colours ‘pop’ and also to reduce any glare and reflections in the sand.

Plan to be at a location well ahead of time – I often arrive a full hour before sunrise or well over an hour before sunset. Tools such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris or PhotoPills are useful to plan the direction of light. There’s also no harm researching the internet, stock libraries or photo-sharing sites such as Instagram, 500px or Flickr to see what others have done. Finally, check the weather forecast and cloud cover using websites such as I will soon be running an online Zoom course on how to increase your hit-rate when it comes to photographing the golden hour. To register your interest, email

4. Fill Your Foreground

The coast has a multitude of interesting subjects that make a good foreground. In some cases, these also provide a natural lead-in line towards the horizon. These include boulders, rock formations, sea-stacks, sand dunes, tidal pools, harbour walls and wooden groynes. Side-lighting works well here, adding contrast and depth to your foreground subject.
A back-wash of waves can also fill your foreground with dynamic trails leading out to sea. If there are rocks or ledges, the water will swirl and also create leading lines. An exposure time of something between 0.5s to 2s will give you an image of the waves with its shape and texture maintained. Begin your exposure as soon as the waves start to recede into the sea.
A foreground consisting of a rock ledge and swirling waters against a colourful sky. Image (c) Adrian Hendroff

5. Get Creative

The coast is a perfect place to experiment with filters. I recommend investing in a set of Neutral Density (ND) filters both straight (3, 4, 6 and/or 10 stops) and graduated (Soft/Medium/Hard/Reverse) – LEE, Kase and NiSi are good brands. Along with your polariser, these will allow you to set your shutter speed between 0.5s to 30s. This will blur the moving water and breaking waves by varying degrees to give a sense of motion or calmness. Longer exposures of one to three minutes in bulb mode will even turn a choppy sea into a ghostly mist; in most cases it is used to completely smooth the water, giving a ‘milky’ effect. Such filters will also transform moving clouds into elegant brushstrokes, giving an ethereal and even romantic atmosphere. Filters such as the LEE Stopper range will allow you shoot long exposures even during the middle of the day, useful when the day is overcast or filled with moody skies.
At the workshop, we’ll show you and discuss when to use Soft/Medium/Hard/Reverse grads, how to effectively place them and how not to overcook your grad usage. Finally, if the light across the horizon is too strong, consider exposure blending or HDR. Take two exposures: one for the foreground and another to capture the sky, then later blend them into a single image in software such as Adobe Lightroom.
A 160s exposure taken at Rush sand dunes just after sunrise. Image (c) Adrian Hendroff

6. Less Is More

Solitary subjects like a single boulder or a sea-stack make good subjects in minimalistic images. By seeking out these isolated subjects, you will highlight just the key element and draw the viewer’s attention to it. Jagged rocks that protrude like daggers through the water and isolated stacks out to sea create mini-islands and powerful shapes – use a telephoto lens to frame your subject and make it stand out. Besides rocks and sea-stacks, other subjects like bathing rails, groynes and jetties can also be used.

7. Go Mono

For something different, consider converting your image into a monochrome version. This works well with the previous ‘Less Is More’ technique – dark, jagged rocks contrast well with soft, white water in a long exposure for example. Overcast conditions normally also work very well when converted to black and white, with the moody skies adding drama and mystery to your final image.
Sea-stack at Ballydowane Bay, Copper Coast. Image (c) Adrian Hendroff

8. Scout The Cliff Tops

The top of cliffs makes a good vantage point, giving a different perspective, often with spectacular views. The sense of context and scale is also magnified, especially by a wide-angle lens which will exaggerate the cliff’s height. In the spring and summer, cliff-tops are normally coloured with wildflowers such as sea pinks and yellow brooms – all ideal to fill your foreground with. Side-lighting also works well with wider cliff top compositions, with the directional light giving contrast, depth and texture to your image.
Cliff tops are also good places to photograph raging seas and powerful waves. However, stay well away from cliff edges and keep in mind the wind direction (you’d want to be sure the wind doesn’t blow you off the cliff and into the sea!) and strength (anything above 35km/h or 22mph is considered strong and should be avoided).
In some cases, the usage of a telephoto lens on a cliff top helps to create layered compositions, compressing the distance between headlands and coves by creating a ‘stacking effect’.
Cliff scenery along the Copper Coast shot at 100mm.

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© All images are copyrighted to Photographer Adrian Hendroff
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