Getting the most out of winter coastal photography

Though it’s true that you need to be a little hardy to do it, the winter months can be one of the best times to photograph Devon’s coasts. Not only are they much less crowded than in the summer, but the low sun (when you can see it at all), gives great lighting angles and a rich golden hue. What’s more, frequent storms ensure that the sea is constantly in a rolling, roaring state, which – along with some ragged, wind-blown clouds – lend an appropriately wild and rugged feel to the scene and your final images.

Using the winter light

All too often in winter there simply isn’t any worthwhile light to use. I wouldn’t recommend coastal photography on one of those flat, lifeless days when the sky is a uniform, almost smooth grey sheet. Grey sky, grey cliffs, grey beach and grey water generally aren’t a good look! Strangely enough, even the opposite extreme can be problematic – a completely clear blue sky can in itself make for some surprisingly monotonous landscape photos. But definitely much better than the flat grey days!

Sunset view on the beach at Rockham Bay, nr Morte, nr Woolacombe, Devon, Great Britain.

The best kind of winter light, for landscape photography at least, is what follows a storm. The wind is still strong, but not too strong, the clouds are stormy, but broken and ragged, allowing plenty of sunshine through, and together they provide the suitable rugged, wintery conditions that go so well in coastal photography. This does mean risking the occasional shower, but the reward is the potential for some wonderful rainbows, the icing on the cake for some excellent coastal scenes.

Particularly if you’re photographing cliffs, it is generally easier to shoot when the sun is out over the sea, illuminating the cliffs with its golden light. If you photograph when the sun is over the land, the cliffs are likely to be in shadow, which is not always a great look. So, if you’re on Devon’s south coast that usually means shooting in the morning, reverting to the north coast for the afternoon. If you’re photographing a beach or dunes, this is less of an issue, of course, but it’s still worth bearing in mind.

A quick word on filters

A keen photographer will want to know about neutral density graduated filters, mercifully shortened usually to ND grads. These are a rectangular filter, with one half completely clear and the other darkened. Placed in front of the lens it allows you to darken an area of the scene that is much brighter than the rest. It’s a common problem in landscape photography, usually due to the sky being much brighter than the land or seascape. In coastal photography, the sea will always be much darker than the sky, and although it’s no problem for the human eye, it can be for a camera sensor, frequently exposing the sea correctly, but leaving parts of the sky too pale or even burned out. An ND grad filter will fix that problem. On top of that it can also make an already dramatic scene look even more so in the final pictures, darkening clouds and making them appear really threatening and stormy. It is one technique commonly used to enhance the mood in a coastal photo, helping to compensate for the loss of the three dimensions and all that wind, noise and spray that help create mood in real life.

When light levels are low

You don’t have to shoot only when the sun is above the horizon. Before sunrise and after sunset can be fantastic times to get really moody images. You will need to put the camera on a tripod (and it will need to be a fairly sturdy one to avoid vibration in the wind) because exposure times will be long, but the rewards will be great.

A slow shutter speed will of course blur the movement of the water, enhancing the sense of energy and movement in the final photos. The exact kind of effect will depend on just how long your exposure time is: something of about 1/8 to 1/15 of a second will blur rolling waves and flying spray to give the appearance of shards of flying glass, creating images with a very agitated, fast-moving, energetic mood.

With an exposure time of anything over, say, five seconds, the sea will completely blur out into a lovely silky smooth finish, all sense of the waves lost, the sea topped instead by what appears to be mist, wrapping itself around rocks like some ethereal gossamer blanket. Quite surreal and perhaps not terribly realistic, but highly atmospheric nonetheless.

The former exposure time is the type you might get on a very dull day or just before sunset, while the latter is what you can expect to achieve before sunrise or after sunset but while there is still some daylight.

This is the one technique that can lead to great photos even on one of those flat dull grey days. By homing in on the waves crashing over rocks and having little, if any, sky visible in the frame, you can use long exposures to produce fantastic shots of the water swirling around and flying across the rocks.

A word on safety

The coast is never a wholly safe place, especially in winter. Coast paths can be slippery, the waves (particularly following a storm) powerful and not always predictable. Take huge amounts of care. Check tide times before you head out, and use them to your advantage and to keep you safe. Avoid clifftops and shoreline rocks at the height of a storm – no photo is worth your life, no matter how stunning it is.

After any coastal photo shoot, and esecially if it has been windy, your gear will probably be caked in a layer of salt. So wipe off your camera and lens bodies as soon as you can. Lens faces and filters can be tricky to clean as the salty water just smears as soon as you try to wipe it. Careful use of warm soapy water will shift it. Wash off your tripod to get salt and grit/sand out of the joints and locking nuts.

Ready for the winter coastal photography challenge? Get shooting!!

Wild Southwest, a new book

The photographs used to illustrate this blog all appear in Nigel’s latest book, Wild Southwest, about the landscapes and wildlife of southwest England, published in October.

You can find out more about Nigel’s Wild Southwest, and buy online at¬†and at

Wild Southwest is also available at all Waterstones and many WH Smith stores in the southwest, and online at Amazon.