Photography News

Safety Tips For Seascape Photography

May 22, 2013 by Bob Simpson

Some years ago, I made a serious error of judgement that could easily have brought my time on this planet to a messy end. I’d gone down to my favourite fishing spot on the tip of a rocky headland and was far more intent on catching dinner than thinking about my safety.

Shortly after I arrived, a set of extra large swells rolled in and swamped the rock platform where I stood – the first only wet me up to my knees but I could see the next ones were bigger. There was no time to retreat to higher ground and the second wave picked me up and bounced me across the rocks before dumping me into deep water off the edge of the platform. Through sheer luck, the next wave didn’t pound me back into the rocks, but dragged me seaward where for the next twenty minutes I bobbed about in the foam like a shark bait.

Of course I survived to tell the tale, thanks to assistance from a couple of sightseers on the rocks who directed me around to a quieter cove and then dragged me to safety. The only injuries I sustained were some ugly gouges and cuts on my feet and hands, lots of bruises and scrapes and a broken toe – although I suspect I also used up at least six months worth of normal heartbeats in just twenty minutes!


The power of ocean waves makes for dynamic images, but when conditions are like this, you need to think carefully about where you’re standing.

The obvious moral of the story is that rocky, wave-prone shores deserve a lot of respect. On average, around 100 people die each year in Australia in ‘coastal drownings’, and around a quarter of these are people who are washed off the rocks. That’s a statistic that every keen seascape photographer should take seriously.

Photographers love to get down close to the wave zone and fill the foregrounds of their compositions with close-up details of rocks and swirling white-water. I’m no different – I enjoy capturing these sorts of images and do so regularly, but if there’s one thing an experience like mine does it’s to teach you to go about the task mindfully and with a healthy sense of self-preservation.

Getting washed off the rocks is perhaps the worst outcome a photographer could experience, but there are other hazards to be aware of as well. So here are some of my top tips for making your seascape photography safe and productive.

1. Survey the situation before charging in.

A photographer confronted with a dynamic rocky shore scene, rapidly changing light, and with an empty memory card in his/her camera, can easily be overcome with the excitement of the situation and charge in like a bull at a gate. But if you want to go anywhere near the wave zone, you need to put your impatience on hold and spend some time watching from a safe distance. How long you spend observing will depend on the swell and weather conditions, but if the swell is big enough to send any spray into the air and there is foamy white-water about, take at least 15-20 minutes to watch how waves break on the rocks and how high they push up the shore. Even then, in rough conditions it is usually prudent to shelve any plans to approach the wave zone – instead, use your creativity to find alternative seascape compositions from higher vantage points.

2. Time your photo-shoot to coincide with a dropping tide.

Great seascape images can be captured at any stage of the tide, but by far the safest time is on an outgoing tide. If the tide is rising, waves will push successively higher up the shore, so a spot that was relatively safe when you arrived can quickly become prone to wave action. When the tide is dropping, you can be more confident that your chosen position will only become safer.

3. Never turn your back on the sea.

This old adage is as relevant and as important to your safety as ever. It’s also an easy one to forget when you get caught up fine-tuning your compositions, but you have to learn to work with one eye firmly set on the direction from which danger is likely to come. You should also be ready to retreat to higher ground if you see a large swell rolling in.

4. Tread carefully.

Slippery rocks are a very real hazard on any rocky shore. With an experienced eye you can often identify riskier areas by the presence of algae or just by the smoothness of the rocks, and take a course around them. But you can’t let your concentration waver – it only takes one false step to roll an ankle or worse. The more rockhopping you do, you will learn to aim to step on rough rather than smooth areas of rock, to use cracks in the rock to help anchor each footstep, and to test the stability of boulders before you put all your weight on them. It sounds a little daunting to concentrate on every footstep like this, but with a little practise it’s really pretty simple and quickly becomes second nature. After all, we humans have been doing this sort of thing for tens of thousands of years.

5. Choose footwear wisely.

The type of footwear you choose comes down to personal preference. It needs to be sturdy enough to handle sharp rocks and barnacles without hurting your feet, but there is also something to be said for rubber-soled sports-shoes that bend with your feet and give you better feel and grip. I know people who prefer neoprene diving boots, and I’ve known anglers who attach cleats to the soles of their boots to help with grip. I prefer soft-soled sports shoes – they provide good feel and it doesn’t matter if they get wet. Any footwear will slip on rocks if you don’t take care where you walk – just make sure you avoid thongs and gumboots.

6. Clothes

From a safety perspective, it’s best to wear light-weight clothes around rocky shores. That can be a bit hard to take in winter, but comfortable light clothing allows for plenty of freedom of movement as you make your way around the rocks, and in the event that you end up in the water. Quick-dry hiking clothes are a good option – you can wear several layers if it’s cold, and top it off with a light wind-proof jacket. There are also very comfortable safety vests available with built-in buoyancy if you want to go that extra step and really protect yourself against the risk of drowning.

7. Take a friend

This one is a case of “do as I say, not as I do”! An oft-quoted safety tip is to never do this sort of thing alone, and it’s hard to argue with the logic. If anything goes wrong, there will be someone available to either help or to raise the alarm. But like a lot of landscape/seascape photographers, I prefer to work alone – and it can be difficult to convince a friend to get up at 3 am to accompany you on a sunrise photo shoot! My excuse is that I’ve been doing it for years and I’m confident in my judgement to stay out of harm’s way. I know that’s a little flimsy but it’s the best I can come up with right now. Just be aware that there is safety in numbers.

8. Stay in touch.

Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return, and always carry some means of communication. A mobile phone will serve you well in a lot of areas, but for more remote locations where phone reception can be poor, consider buying or renting a personal locator beacon. None of these things will be much use if you’re washed off the rocks, but can be invaluable in the case of other mishaps.


The power of ocean waves makes for dynamic images, but when conditions are like this, you need to think carefully about where you’re standing.

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Well that’s a quick rundown of my safety tips for seascape photography. I’d be happy to hear from anyone who has other suggestions.

Rocky shores make great photographic subjects and are invigorating places to visit. In my experience, seascape photography is a very safe pursuit as long as you remember to apply some good old commonsense and judgement.

has been a photographer for nearly 40 years, and specialises in landscape photography. Whilst not out shooting, Bob can be found writing for various blogs, websites and newsletters.

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