Photographing waves at Cape Disappointment State Park

Many viewers have requested information on how I photograph my waves at Cape Disappointment State Park. To hopefully help those interested in photographing there I have provided information below that I use when planning my trips to photograph the wave collisions.

These are methods I use to plan and are certainly not an end all for planning a trip there. Others may use other methods that work for them. There is not one way to plan and photograph the wave collisions. This just happens to work for me.

I hope you find this useful, and all the best.



Find a good surf and tide report website.

If you join and subscribe to Magic Seaweed, you can search 16 days in advance and go back for historical reports as well.

Use the sites to look for surf/waves in excess of ten feet and high tides of seven feet or higher. Two high tides per day and one of the tides is higher than the other. Wave directions of WNW to WSW (250 – 270 True) usually work well. Look for wave intervals of around 16 seconds, 13 -16 seconds should work.

The biggest waves don’t always create best formations. Sometimes the waves are too big for detailed/intricate formations.

Plan to be there about three hours before high tide and up to an hour or so after high tide. Earlier or later and the tide is low that the waves don’t build much in the shallower water. Also, it is very popular, and it can be hard to find a place to stand that gives you the best angle.

Next look for high tide times and you want the high tide to be after 12:00-1:00 PM in the winter and summer. You face southeast when photographing so the best time is with the sun coming from the right to shine through the waves. Due to the sun rising more easterly in the summer it takes till about 1:00 PM for light to be off to the right. Early in the day you face the sun, and the waves are back lit which can be dramatic for black and white, however it can be a bit hard to control. With back lit waves you won’t get much color however the rim lighting can be very dramatic.

Go to the North Jetty parking Lot, at Cape Disappointment State Park. I normally try to position myself at the left corner of the parking lot to get that angle of the waves that I want. Another reason to get there early.

While the waves crashing on the cliffs below the light house looking SE are dramatic, those are not the images I usually try for. The dramatic wave images I have are from the collision of receding water colliding with incoming surf.

Surf comes in sets. You can watch for the higher surf and watch as a couple of waves crash on the cliff, The water cannot go forward so it has to go back out, and you can watch it collide with another incoming surf/wave. That collision creates the dramatic rising up of water you see in most of my images.

You can spend a little time watching and in short order you will learn to anticipate the wave crashing on the cliff and watching the water flow back out and see a new collision coming. It does not happen all the time. The above conditions need to work together.

At high tide, the frequency increases and you get more collisions happening more frequently. Take plenty of memory cards. You can take thousands of images in one day to get a few really dramatic images.


I use a 100-400 zoom lens. Sometimes if the light is bright enough, I will use a 1.4x extender to reach out to 560 mm for those tight shots.

F5.6 – f6.3 is usually adequate for good depth of field. The wave action is about 1,200’ and at that distance you don’t need f8 or higher.

Shutter speed of about 1/1600 should be fine.

Seven frames a second works just fine. The waves move slowly enough that you don’t need really fast frames per second.

I use a center focus spot and try to focus on the center buildup of the wave or wall that rises up. If you use a large focus group, the white-water spray in front can interfere with the focus.

Take snacks/water in your pocket/vest. You will find you stand for hours and don’t want to go back to your car and miss something. Extra batteries and memory cards in your pockets as well. A stool or chair works to sit and take a break and not lose your spot.


Here is a Google aerial view of the Cape Disappointment location.

I hope this helps in planning your trip. Don’t hesitate to call my cell (members can find it in the Roster) for help. A phone call can be easier to explain than multi emails.

Thanks for your interest and all the best.

Tim Clifton

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