How to take beautiful abstract ocean photos / by Hannah Prewitt

Whenever I post an abstract ocean image like the one below online, I always get messages from people asking me how I did it. I love to share information and teach others, so today I’d like to share with you my top tips for creating these types of images for yourself.

1/4000, f/1.8, ISO 100

1/4000, f/1.8, ISO 100

Tip #1 - Use a wide aperture

This is because we want a shallow depth of field, so you want to shoot as wide open as your lens allows. I shoot with my 50 mm f/1.8 most of the time, and shoot wide open at f/1.8. It’s this shallow depth of field that helps to create these abstract images.

If you don’t have a really wide lens, then don’t worry. You can still try with what you have. I shot this image below at f/4, before I had a port for my other lens and it still looks pretty cool!

1/1000, f/4, ISO 200

1/1000, f/4, ISO 200

Tip #2 - Focus on the foreground

I’ve experimented with using single point focus as well as 3D continuous tracking focus for these images. Both actually work quite well so it’s up to you, but the main thing to remember is that you want to focus on the ocean, not the sun. We want the sun to be out of focus so I recommend setting your focus point in the bottom third of the frame. If you haven’t played around with your camera settings much, you might need to change your settings so that your camera takes a shot when you release the shutter, rather than only when it’s focused. If you don’t do this, you will probably find that you can’t take a photo because it will appear to the camera that nothing is properly in focus. (If anyone wants to know where to find this on a Nikon camera, feel free to get in touch).

Tip #3 - Shoot on high speed burst mode

I don’t think I ever actually take my camera off this mode, but it’s especially important to use when you’re shooting in the water. Even in fairly calm water, the light will constantly be moving around and dancing with the water, creating really unique reflections, so you want to capture it all!

Tip #4 - Shoot at sunrise or sunset

I hate to point out the obvious, but you’ll need the sun to be as close to the surface of the ocean as possible if this is the kind of image you’re after. If it’s sunrise, make sure you’re in the water at least a few minutes before the sun rises, because those first few minutes are when the magic happens. Once the sun reaches a certain height, it just gets far too bright.

1/2000, f/1.8, ISO 50

1/2000, f/1.8, ISO 50

Tip #5 - Follow the light

Don’t forget to look around to see where else the light is falling. The sunlight simply glistening on the ocean surface can also make for a really stunning image.

1/3200, f/1.8, ISO 50

1/3200, f/1.8, ISO 50

Tip #6 - Shoot in all different conditions

Don’t be fooled into thinking that you need a perfectly clear sky to get these kinds of shots. Cloud cover helps to create very different and more dramatic lighting conditions.

I’d like to keep this tutorial nice and simple, so I’ll leave it there. I would LOVE to see your attempts if you try out these tips for yourself, so please feel free to email them to me or send via my Instagram or Facebook page.

Happy shooting!

A variety of these images are available to purchase as prints online.

Photography tutorial - how to take beautiful abstract ocean photos