How to Photograph Tidepools


Everyone loves tidepools. The sea stars, sea anemones, and the other colorful creatures that live in the rocks at the ocean’s edge are colorful, weird, and fun and they make a living on the roughest place on Earth. In fact, tidepools are like Manhattan, a collection of weird creatures packed into the ecosystem that never sleeps.

But photographing tidepools is hard. Unlike beach photography, which is fairly straightforward, tidepool photography is tricky not to mention perilous. Here are some tricks to making better images of tidepool critters.

Get Wet
You will get wet. There’s no if about it: the rocks will be damp, the water will surge, and sooner or later you’ll move too slow as a wave comes in. Best to embrace it: dress for being in the water up to your knees and use a waterproof camera or one in a housing.

Waterproof Your Gear
Submersible point and shoot cameras are inexpensive, but sacrifice image quality. Waterproof housings for digital SLRs offer better performance but at a heftier price. Either can work. More than just protecting your gear, you can use the waterproofness to fully embrace he tidepool story: the action is below the water much of the time. Be prepared to manage the perpetual scourge of saltwater photography: salt and water on the lens or housing. Spray it first with Rain-X and keep a lens cloth and some fresh water handy to clean it off regularly.

Time It…If You Can
Tide pooling is about low tide. Photography is about good light. They often don’t coincide. When low tide comes at a time for rich light—morning, sunset, or the changing light of fog burning off—jump on it.

A polarizing filter is an essential piece of gear for intertidal. Because they cut glare and reflections, they’re critical for slicing through the surface reflections of pools, or cutting out the glistening reflections off seaweed the bits of white shells that reflect lots of light around. They also darken the sky, which can help with…

Manage Exposure Latitude
Much of the time, tidepool shots will be dark enough that if you show detail in the sky, you’ll end up with a washed out sky, and if you expose correctly for the sky the tidepool critters will be in dark shadow. There are a couple of ways to combat this. The simplest and often the best approach is to eliminate the sky from the image. Another is to use flash, but do this with care. On-camera flash can overpower the image quickly, especially if there are other reflective surfaces. Learn how to use the exposure compensation button on your camera and use the digital review screen with a vengeance until you get it right.

Get Close; Really Close
Go full-on macro. Bring your viewer eyeball-to-eyeball with an urchin’s spines, an anemone’s tentacles, or the pattern of a batstar. Good macro photography works best with some camera stabilization, such as a tripod or mini-tripod for small point and shoots or phones.

Knee Pads
Photographing tidepool creatures clinging to walls on the edge of the sea means kneeling on sharp barnacle-covered rocks, and that means your knees will be sore at the end of the day. A pair of kneepads will spare you lots of agony.

Learn What You’re Looking At
Photographing tidepools will get you interested in knowing what you’re looking at. Learn the difference between a chiton and a limpet, a mussel and a goose necked barnacle, and where to spot colorful sea slugs. Like being in Manhattan, watching the weirdos is half the fun. Find a good intertidal guidebook to your region of the coast and learn who you’re photographing.

By Neil Schulman

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