How To Photograph Waves Under A Pier - KAG

Under the Pier. Manhattan Beach, CA.

Under the Pier 3-7-16

Why I Wrote This Blog

Recently, I published this photograph to social media and it received a very strong response (almost 7,000 hits in one day), and many questions. I thought I'd give some background on the image for photographers and non-photographers alike.

Salt Water in My Veins

As long as I can remember, I've always loved the ocean. I love the look of it, the smell of the salt water, I love it when it is calm and when it is angry. I've never lived more than a few miles from the ocean my entire life, whether on the east coast or the west coast. So it's not really a surprise that when I am not in the water, I want to photograph it. HOW to photograph it well, that's the question for most of us. 

Leading Lines

If you have a pier nearby it can provide a great focal point for landscape photography. The pier can be the backdrop for the ocean, and the lines of the pier can lead your eye into a photograph, making it visually pleasing. 

Light and Time of Day

When photographing the water by a pier, I prefer when possible to photograph early in the morning or late in the evening. The softer light at the bookends of the day are easier and more pleasing to the eye. 

One of the nice things about photographing a pier is that the pier can block some of the harsh sunshine.  In this image the sun radiates in from the sides of the pylons and reflects off the water, bringing out the highlights. 

Shutter Speed

A primary consideration when photographing water is how you want the water to look, and therefore the corresponding shutter speed. A fast shutter speed (say 1/500th of a second or more) can freeze the water bringing out wonderful freeze frames of waves. A slower shutter speed like this one 1/5th of a second at f/4.5 slows down the shutter enough to show movement, but does not completely blur the water. You could use an ND filter to block more light and even go with a much slower shutter speed 10-20 seconds and get the silky look that many like to capture with waterfalls. I enjoy all the variations, and have shot many very slow speed images, but I really like the way this image turned out. I like to see the splashes of water and movement, but you can still tell it is wave. 


When I first captured this image I knew there was something special about it, but I was not happy with it. The original image was wider and included waves to both sides of the pylons. It took me a while to edit and recompose the photograph to make me realize I needed to crop it tightly to keep the focus on the waves. I left the image alone for a few weeks and came back to it. I use Adobe Lightroom and I leave my images in progress with a yellow border around them (hit #7 on the keyboard) that way I can easily search for them later.

Lens Choices

As a Tamron Image Master, I am incredibly fortunate to have a wide selection of amazing glass from Tamron USA to use for my photography. This image was photographed with the new 35 mm f/1.8. It is a terrific, sharp lens, and not to heavy to carry around on a long walk. The vibration compensation is also excellent, allowing you to slow the shutter speed more than you would otherwise and still handhold. If you are used to a zoom lens, you'll have to get use to the "sneaker" zoom, i.e. move around to recompose. Perhaps in this case, it should be flip flop zoom, since I don't wear sneakers at the beach. I'd encourage you to try a wide variety of focal lengths to see what they can do. I always recommend renting them from a local camera store, as many stores will apply a rental fee to the purchase price. If you have technical questions you camera store will have employees who can answer your questions. 


If you are shooting in low light, be sure to bring a tripod for stability. Also, if you are shooting long exposures you'll want a tripod as well.  I favor the Manfrotto 055 CF tripod and ball head.

If you have never used a ball head, give it a try. You won't go back to levers. Disclaimer, I am also a Manfrotto Ambassador, but I used their gear for years before they sponsored me. 


I would be remiss if I didn't mention being safe. Waves and under toe currents can be very unpredictable. Be careful. If you are unsteady on your feet or not a strong swimmer, don't stand in the tide, photograph from a distance, near a lifeguard. For this image, I wore shorts and walked into the water under the pier and set up my tripod in a number of different places. Each time the water pulled on me and I had to re-adjust my tripod. Have fun, but be careful.

Questions/Comments: I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an email:   If you enjoyed this, please follow me on social media @photosbykag on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest. Thanks! 

Please share this post if you enjoyed it!

Powered by SmugMug Owner Log In