Abstract Photographs of Cresting Waves

Oceans and lakes make great landscape photograph subjects. A technique known as wave panning creates a very abstract, almost painterly, image of a cresting wave. You can also do wave panning on large lakes when the wind kicks up vigorous wave action.

The technique also involves a bit of timing and coordination. You get the best results when you’re adjacent to the waves at a location such as a jetty or low-lying pier. When you’re at the ocean and want to try wave panning, follow these steps:

  • Choose your lowest ISO setting and switch to Aperture Priority mode.

  • Choose the smallest aperture (largest f-stop value) for your lens.

    Make sure the resulting shutter speed is at least one second in duration. If it isn’t, add a neutral density filter to reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor.

  • Cradle the underside of the lens with your left hand, brace your elbows against your ribs, and spread your feet shoulder-width apart for stability.

  • When you see a wave racing to shore, bring the viewfinder to your eye and zoom in.

    Your goal is to capture an image of the cresting wave and a bit of the ocean in front of and behind the wave.

  • Rotate from the hip, press the shutter button fully, and then pan smoothly to follow the motion of the wave.

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