The Ultimate Guide to Photographing Oregon’s Tide Pools

Life is tough in the intertidal. The crazy swings from being exposed to the hot and dehydrating sun, to being slammed repeatedly by cold salt water, means you have to be perfectly suited to your niche in order to survive. And there are a lot of niches in the intertidal.

One of the most fascinating areas to explore is the rocky shore because of the sheer diversity of species you can see in one small space. Brilliantly colored sea slugs feast on equally colorful sponges, limpets slide away from predatory sea stars while scuplins each defend their own miniature pool. Rocky shore tide pools are treasure chests, and Oregon is chock full of them.

They are a must-see destination during any trip to the coast.

But they’re also a quirky, interesting challenge to photograph.

That’s why I’ve put together a guide so you can be prepared to have a blast and take images you’re excited about, all while keeping yourself and the tide pool inhabitants safe.

In This Guide

    1. Preparation
    2. Timing
    3. Field Guides
    4. Photography Gear
    5. Photography Techniques
    6. Safety
    7. Ethics
    8. Oregon Coast’s Best Tide Pool Locations

PREPARATION


Pacific sea lemon (Peltodoris nobilis) in a rocky shore tide pool, Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, Newport Oregon
Pacific sea lemon (Peltodoris nobilis) – a species of nudibranch, or “sea slug” – in a rocky shore tide pool. Newport, Oregon

Clothing

  • Light base layer
  • Warm outer layer
  • Rain coat
  • Boots
  • Knee pads

Extras

  • Water
  • Snacks
  • Reef-Safe sunscreen
  • Hat
  • Mini first aid kit

The Oregon coast is known for its shifting weather, and the temperature right at the water’s edge can vary practically by the minute. So, always wear layers no matter what the day looks like.

I include a base layer of t-shirt and jeans, then a flannel shirt, a wool sweater, thick socks and a raincoat. If rain is not in the forecast, the coat acts as an excellent windbreaker, and if rain is in the forecast, well, I’ll definitely have a raincoat with me.

Weather will determine your clothing to a great extent, but a trip to photograph the tide pools always includes a couple necessities: waterproof boots and knee pads. The former to keep dry and the latter for comfort while working. Those rocks can hurt!

My favorite boots are Xtra Tuffs. They’re light and thin enough that I can move with ease and navigate uneven, delicate surfaces while keeping dry.

My knee pads are actually installed in the knee pockets of a pair of Carhartt overalls. I love throwing on my overalls knowing that my outer layer won’t get ripped by rough rocks, and if they get wet or smelly, oh well! I can take them off before I get back in the car.


TIMING


A tidepool sculpin (Oligocottus maculosus) guards its turf among branching coralline algae. Newport, Oregon
A tidepool sculpin (Oligocottus maculosus) guards its turf among branching coralline algae. Newport, Oregon

Tide Chart Apps

  • Magic Seaweed
  • TideDataFree
  • Tides

Tide Chart Websites

  • Tide-Forecast.com
  • Tides.net

Unfortunately, we can’t just pick any convenient time to visit a tide pool. When they’re available for visitation is up to the earth, moon and sun.

Fortunately, tides are really predictable. There are two low tides in every 24-hour period, and at least one of those happens during daylight hours.

All you need is a tide chart to be able to plan your visit days, weeks, and months in advance.

Paper tide charts are available for free at the counters of stores, libraries, cafes and all sorts of businesses along the coast. Grab one of these, or use an app or website.

Negative tides

Visiting at low tide is obviously essential, but to really maximize what you see and how long you can stay, pick days with negative tides.

A negative tide (or minus tide) is when the low tide line dips below the average low tide water level, or “0” feet. On a chart, a negative tide will read something like “-0.5” for half a foot below zero tide height. 

What does this mean for you? Two wonderful things:

  1. More of a tide pool is exposed as water dips lower than usual, so creatures that live in lower tidal zones are now accessible for viewing. 
  2. More time to explore as it takes longer for the tide to fully recede and return. 

Duration

You have a roughly 20 minute window from when the tide reaches its lowest point to when it starts to rise again. But, that doesn’t mean you only have 20 minutes to explore.

How long you really have to visit depends on how just how low the tide is dropping. If you have a negative tide, then it’s likely that much of the tide pool area will be accessible well before the tide hits its lowest point.

Use tide chart information to determine when to arrive. A good rule of thumb to maximize your adventure is to arrive at least an hour before tide hits its lowest point. That gives you time to explore as the tide goes out, during its lowest point, and for a short while as the tide comes back in.

WARNING: It’s easy to get caught up in the experience and not pay attention to the turning of the tides. Set an alarm on your watch or phone for when the tide is set to rise again. Then keep a very close eye on the water, and your exit route from the pools back to high ground. Tides come back more quickly than you realize. The last thing you want is to be taken out by a surprisingly large wave or to look up and see the rising tide has cut off your “escape” path. More safety tips below.


FIELD GUIDES


Gooseneck barnacles at low tide at sunset. Yaquina Head, Newport, Oregon
Gooseneck barnacles at low tide at sunset. Newport, Oregon

When I’m around other people exploring the tide pools, the two most commonly heard things are, “Look at this!” followed by “What’s that?”

Visiting the tide pools is always fun. But if you don’t know what you’re looking at, it’s hard to get to that level of “profoundly excited” that is so much fun to experience.

Solution: bring a field guide!

I’m a total sucker for field guides and have dozens in my library, including quite a few specific to species of the intertidal zone. My favorite guides are listed here. However, if I were to pick only one that is both everything I might want to know in the moment and is easy to carry, it’s The Beachcomber’s Guide to Seashore Life in the Pacific Northwest.

If you are on a vacation and forgot to hit the bookstore before leaving home, you can pick up field guides or species identification sheets at most any visitor’s center located at nearby state parks, national parks, outstanding natural areas, or even many beach gift shops. 


PHOTOGRAPHY GEAR


A very young hairy hermit crab (Pagurus hirsutiusculus) under water, feeding in the center of a giant green sea anemone (Anthopleura xanthogrammica). Newport, Oregon
A very young hairy hermit crab (Pagurus hirsutiusculus) under water, feeding in the center of a giant green sea anemone (Anthopleura xanthogrammica). Newport, Oregon

Must Have

  • Camera
  • Lens with zoom or a short minimum focusing distance (like a macro lens)
  • Polarizing filter
  • Diffuser (or a big sunhat, or a friend who will cast a shadow)
  • Lens cloth or chamois

Good To Have

  • Variable neutral density filter
  • Monopod or tripod
  • Off-camera flash with a trigger
  • Waterproof LED light

Okay – you know what to wear, when to arrive, and have some naturalist knowledge in your back pocket. Now it’s time to get set up for the real joy of the visit: making photographs!

Let’s get one thing clear up front: You can accomplish some truly amazing photography using just the camera on your smart phone, or a basic point-n-shoot digital camera. It’s the photographer, not the gear, that makes the photograph. 

So don’t be intimidated by this section if you’re currently using “non-pro” equipment. A DSLR with a built-in lens and a macro setting (the little flower icon) can do extraordinary things to help you accomplish your photographic vision while you’re tide pooling. 

On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re really gung-ho about tide pool macro photography and are willing to put out the money for some serious gear, consider a small sized DSLR, a set of macro lenses, an underwater housing, and a dual flash kit…. but let’s not go down that rabbit hole in this guide!

Here’s what I use on a typical tide pool adventure:

      • DSLR camera body
      • 16-35mm for landscapes
      • 60mm macro for larger creatures
      • 100mm macro for tiny creatures
      • 500mm telephoto for far-away creatures (when awesome seals or shorebirds show up!)
      • Monopod

A note about tripods. Yes, if you’re set on a tripod for those tack sharp macro images with a wide depth of field, then pack one. But I find tripods to be a time-consuming, burdensome piece of equipment when at tide pools. Wrestling with one sucks away my joy of experiencing the habitat. Plus it’s tough to find three spots where I won’t harm any critters when I put the legs down. Instead, a monopod provides the steadiness I need for sharp images with WAY more flexibility.

TIP: Be extremely careful where you put a monopod leg down. You might squish a living creature. Aim for bare rock or sand, or brace it on the top of your foot. 


PHOTOGRAPHY TECHNIQUES


hermit crab under water
A hairy hermit crab (Pagurus hirsutiusculus) under water, resting on brown kelp. Newport, Oregon

Getting started

Sit still and stare at one pool for 5 minutes. Seriously. This is going to do three very important things:

  1. Your eyes and mind will sync up so you can notice the details of the tide pool, many of which aren’t apparent even after a minute or two of looking. Sometimes creatures that are right there in front of your eyes are so well camouflaged that you don’t see them. As you get into this zone of noticing details, you’ll be ready to craft more interesting photographs.
  2. When you do notice new species, you build a “search image” of them in your mind. This makes it easier to see the species later, and eventually what looked like just a stretch of rocks and seaweed is now absolutely teaming with cool creatures.
  3. The tide pool inhabitants start moving. When a small creature that is easy prey for larger animals sees a shadow, or the water is suddenly disturbed, they freeze or hide. With enough time, they start to return to business as usual. This is when you can get some really interesting shots!

Camera Settings

I strongly encourage using manual mode for tide pool photography. This allows you to get the right exposure no matter the contrasting colors or light.

That said, if you’re only comfortable in full auto mode, dare to go into the Macro mode for tide pool creatures. You’ll be happy you did.

Mobile Field Studio

One strategy for photographing portraits of tide pool species is to do so against a white or black background. There are some great guides out there for this technique. I recommend  The Field Studio by Niall Benvie.

Check out Meet Your Neighbours for how this technique can be utilized for very cool projects.

WARNING: If you’re going to use this technique, please review the ethical handling practices listed below.

Techniques to photograph
underwater creatures

Photographing creatures who are underwater, especially if you aren’t using a waterproof camera, is tough. The main objective is to remove as much interference from reflections and water as possible so you can get a crisp image.

   Use a diffuser to cast the subject in shadow, cutting the glare from the surface of the water as much as possible. This can include an actual diffuser, or a large hat, or a friend who can hold their hands over the area to provide a shadow.

   Use a polarizing filter. Circular polarizing filters screw onto the front of your lens, and you can twist it to add or remove reflections depending on what look you want to achieve. For tide pool purposes, you usually want to cut as much reflection as possible. A polarizing filter can work miracles in the right conditions. 

   Search shallow pools that have still water. The less the water is moving, the more likely you’ll get a sharp shot. Standing pools, which aren’t being fed by incoming waves, are best for searching out and photographing creatures at the bottom. 

   If water is moving, use a “burst mode” to fire off several shots in rapid succession. This increases your odds that your subject will be sharp in at least one of the images. This is also great for animals that are moving.

   Get directly above your subject if possible. This minimizes distortion caused by the water.

   If you need additional light for your image, try placing a waterproof LED light in the pool. Angle it to light the scene the way you’d like, then wait for the water to settle. Fire away!

Techniques to photograph
above-water creatures

Subjects that are above water have one main advantage: they’re above water! You don’t have to battle with distortion or glare. However, often you have to battle with a lot of contrast between highlights and shadows, as well as bright reflections from wet surfaces. 

   Use an off-camera flash to fill in the shadows and balance the light. This also makes the colors of your subject richer. By getting your flash off camera, you can angle the light to look more natural and reduce annoying reflections.  

   Use a soft box on the flash to diffuse the light and minimize how much reflection bounces off the wet subject.

   Use Live View for focusing. Turn on live view, then zoom in all the way (in your live view frame, not with your zoom lens) so you can pinpoint your focus.  This ensures you’ve locked focused exactly where you want it on the subject. Press your focus button until focus is locked, then take your shot. This is also helpful when you’re in a difficult position and can’t get your face to the viewfinder to see where you’re focusing!

   Consider a wide-angle macro lens for larger subjects. This will get viewers up-close with the main subject while keeping lots of landscape in the scene, providing great context for its habitat. 

   Try a GoPro for over-under landscapes. Put the GoPro part way in the water in front of an interesting underwater subject such as an anemone or urchin, or an area of a pool with tons of different species. Fire away! You’ll create a great sense of the entire habitat and what it’s like to live in the intertidal where water comes and goes!

All the images in this guide were photographed using some or all of these strategies. 

giant green sea anemones in sand at sunrise, rocky shore tide pool, seal rock, oregon
Giant sea anemones seem to spill out of a pool into the sand. Sunrise, rocky shore tide pool, Oregon.

SAFETY


 

Acorn barnacle, Semibalanus balanoides, feeding. Tide pools of intertidal zone, Newport, Oregon
Acorn barnacle, Semibalanus balanoides, feeding. Tide pools of intertidal zone, Newport, Oregon

When we take our cameras into the splash zone, we’re usually thinking first and foremost of the safety of our equipment. Salt water means almost certain death for electronics. But your safety is far more important.

Here are a few tips I’d love for you to keep in mind when you are out photographing tide pools:

  • Pay attention to the tide schedule
  • Keep one eye on the ocean to watch for sneaker waves, a very real, unpredictable and deadly threat
  • Stay away from logs, which are easily lifted and moved by incoming waves and can crush or trap you
  • Supervise children at all times
  • Know your skill level as a swimmer just in case you get swept out

ETHICS


 

A delicate six-armed sea star (Leptasterias aequalis) showing off its tiny tube feet. Newport, Oregon
A delicate six-armed sea star (Leptasterias aequalis) showing off its tiny tube feet. Newport, Oregon

Tide pools are new and exciting places for many people. It’s easy to be either unaware of the fragility of the creatures in the intertidal, or so enthusiastic that you don’t realize your own impact. Here are pointers for when you’re visiting, so you can do the least amount of harm to the habitat as you take your beautiful photographs.

Dos

  • Know the rules for the area you’re visiting. Many locations are protected and may have restricted zones. It’s best for the wildlife that needs a human-free zone, and best for your wallet because fines are no fun.
  • Walk only on bare rock or sand as much as possible. Tide pool species are hardy when it comes to wind and waves, but extremely fragile when it comes to the weight of a human stepping on them.
  • Handle species gently, and for a very limited time. If you do handle something, keep it low to the ground to minimize harm if it falls.
  • Return species to the exact spot you found them, and replace any cover you shift while looking for species. Even a flopped-over bit of kelp could be critical habitat for a critter waiting for the water to return.

Don’ts

  • Pry things from the rocks. “If you pry, it will die” reminds us that tearing something from the rock will likely damage it beyond healing.
  • Collect anything. Collecting is not only damaging to the pools, but also illegal in many locations.
  • Move animals from place to place. Interestingly, many tide pool species are territorial or closely tied to a single location, and moving it into a new location causes all sorts of problems for the little guys.
  • Poke things. Species like anemones store the water they need to stay alive while the tide is out. Poking species and causing them to squirt that water out in defense may kill them.
  • Take only pictures, leave only… well please don’t leave anything behind. No one likes a litterbug.

OREGON COAST’S BEST TIDE POOL LOCATIONS


giant green sea anemone (Anthopleura xanthogrammica), yaquina head outstanding natural area, newport, oregon
Giant green sea anemone (Anthopleura xanthogrammica) revealed as the tide recedes. Newport, Oregon.
  1. Harris Beach State Recreation Area
  2. Lone Ranch Beach
  3. Rocky Point
  4. Port Orford
  5. Cape Blanco State Park
  6. Five Mile Point
  7. Cape Arago State Park
  8. Sunset Bay State Park
  9. Neptune State Park
  10. Cape Perpetua

11. Yachats Recreation Area
12. Seal Rock State Park
13. Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area
14. Otter Rock
15. Cape Kiwanda
16. Cape Lookout
17. Maxwell Point
18. Cape Meares
19. Haystack Rock
20. Ecola State Park

rocky shoreline, coastal Oregon
Landscapes are also an amazing element of any tide pool visit. Rocky shoreline, coastal Oregon

Download the Free eBook

This 24-page book details five easy-to-learn naturalist skills that will help you see what wildlife is in the area, predict behaviors for amazing action shots, and maximize your photographic opportunities every time you go outside! Also included are 5 exercises and 2 downloadable templates to use in the field. A few minutes a day building these skills will advance your photography from lucky snaps to highly crafted images.

Yes, I want this!

[mc4wp_form id=”1536″]


Ready to book your adventure now?