Everyone likes a trip to the beach. Even if you aren’t a sunbather or a surfer, walking the beach is a special experience. There’s something about the sense of renewal that is always there; the waves clean and churn the sand continually as the tide ebbs and flows. Visiting the beach reconnects us to mother nature and revitalizes our city-wary spirits.
All of this and more makes the beach an excellent place for photography. There’s dramatic lighting, every changing textures, motion, wildlife, and spectacular scenery. What more could a shutterbug ask for?
Here are 15 Tips for Taking Awesome Beach Photos
Always Have a Subject
Tip number one might seem like a no-brainer. But how many how-hum beach pictures have you seen? Most of the time, the thing lacking is a focal point. It doesn’t have to be something obvious, like a person or animal. Shells, dunes, fences, or even a worn footpath through the sea oats will work well.
The image needs something that draws in the viewer’s eye. It also helps to add depth to the photo. Try always to have a foreground, a middle, and a background. This is basic composition, but sometimes it’s easily forgotten when you’re at a place as beautiful as the beach. Beach landscape photography is no different than other landscapes, but often you have to work a little harder to add depth.
If you’ve never put a circular polarizer on your camera, you’re in for a real treat. When working near the water, it is a must-have accessory. Nothing will improve your beach photography more.
A polarizer works by letting you control which lightwaves enter your camera. As light reflects off different surfaces, the lightwaves bounce around randomly. The polarizer enables you to control which lightwaves you want to see, meaning you can make reflections on the water or sand more or less intense.
In tropical places with crystal clear water, a polarizer removes reflections and lets you shoot through the water like it’s an aquarium. In other areas, you can make the reflection more intense, which is especially handy for sunsets.
Polarizers have other benefits too that you’ll appreciate no matter where you’re photographing. They act as an ND (neutral density) filter and reduce the light by as much as a stop. This enables slower shutter speeds to pick up more detail. They also bring out the color and contrast in the sky and clouds.
Textures and Details
Textures often make great focal points for beach photos. The continually changing yet orderly sand ripples are fascinating and beautiful. Wind-swept dunes have all sorts of interesting details and textures to focus on.
The beach is also full of tiny details that go unnoticed. By focusing on them in the foreground and leaving the sweeping views in the background, you can broaden the scope of your composition and add interest.
Slow Shutter Speeds
Combined with a sturdy tripod, slow shutter speeds can take your shoreside photography to the next level. Slow speeds will blur the motion of the waves. Even slower speeds will blur the movement of the clouds, too.
The advantage is that your images will take on an ethereal, glassy quality like a fantasy world. Combine this technique with golden hour for images that are indeed out of this world. Here is more about the golden hour photography and figuring out exactly what time provides the best lighting for photography.
To get the shutter speed as slow as possible, combine what you know about the exposure triangle and use low ISO (100 is an excellent place to start) and high f-stops (f/18 or f/22).
Even still, beaches are brightly lit places, and getting your camera to go slow enough might be a problem. A neutral density (ND) filter is a big help. These are filters that reduce the available light going into the camera, effectively making the camera think it’s much darker than it is. That means you can use super slow shutter speeds in the middle of the day.
Use Your Lens Hood
The light at beaches tends to be exceptionally harsh, whether it’s straight from the sun or bouncing off the white sand. To keep your camera’s metering system accurate and to avoid unsightly lens flares, dig out your lens hood. If you’re like most photographers, it’s probably at the bottom of your camera bag and seldom used. But the hood is one of the easiest things you can use to improve your beach pictures.
Avoid Midday Portraits
If you’re headed to the beach for portraits, don’t do it in the middle of the day. The sun is too harsh when straight overhead and the light bouncing off the sand adds to your problems. Shooting in these conditions results in nasty facial shadows and blown highlights.
The better option is when the sun is low and close to the horizon. The quality of the light will be better and will be directional. If it’s late afternoon, you may want to try using a fill flash, or better yet a reflector, to even the light falling on your subjects.
Midday photography doesn’t have to be ruled out completely, however. Many photographers use the ultra harsh light to their advantage. With just the right composition, it works well when you’re after a hot summer in the sun vibe. You can use fill flashes, shades, or reflectors to shed light on your subject. If the theme involves swimsuits, sunbathing, or water sports, give it a shot.
Midday is also an excellent time to try your hand at some black and white beach photography. Black and whites are often best when contrast is high, and the midday sun creates severe contrasts.
Sunrise or Sunset
Sunrises or sunsets, depending on the way you’re pointed, are what beach photography is all about. Nothing is more dramatic than the sun dipping to the horizon with just the right pink, yellow, and orange clouds.
This is part of the appeal of the late afternoon photoshoot at the beach. The changing light is as dynamic as it is obvious. The quality of the light changes every few minutes, and a good photographer can learn to make the most of it no matter why they’re there.
The Golden and Blue Hours
After sunset or before sunrise comes the golden hour. This is the time of day when the light is soft and beautiful and warm like a sunset. Since the light is indirect, it doesn’t make harsh shadows on people. Golden hour is quite simply the best time to work on beach landscape photography. The sky is dramatic, the sea’s reflections are dramatic, and the light is perfect for capturing people and subjects in their absolute best light.
But if you’ve stayed this long, now isn’t the time to leave. After the golden hour, the blue hour comes. As the sun keeps getting lower, the light dims and turns bluer. This is a great time of day for long exposure photography. The first stars will come out, but there is still enough light bouncing around the atmosphere to get great landscape photos.
You can stick around for some astrophotography if you’ve got a sturdy tripod and clear skies. Here is a Beginner's Guide to Astrophotography that will give you tips to get started. Seaside locations make a great place to take star photos for a few reasons. For one thing, they tend to be away from light pollution, or at least pointed away from it.
Secondly, the scenery is perfect for stars. If the water is calm, you might even get some star reflections. If your camera is capable, try your hand at capturing the Milky Way with a super-wide lens. Keep the aperture open as much as possible and play with the ISO and shutter speed until you nail it. Most newer DSLR and mirrorless cameras do a pretty good job of shooting at night.
No matter what time you head out, look for reflections in wet sand or tide pools. Reflections add symmetry and interest to photographic compositions. Consider your lighting setup and how you can emphasize the reflections more.
Off Season Travel
One of the biggest problems with going to the beach is all of the other people. Crowded beaches aren’t great for photos. They’re busy, and you have no control over the background of your images. During the busy season, it can be impossible to find a quiet corner to yourself in popular vacation spots.
Many photographers enjoy sunrise and sunset at the beach when the light is better anyway. There will be fewer people, but there will still be joggers, dog walkers, and surfers.
Another option is to plan your beach trips when no one else does. Go when the weather isn’t great. Fog and dramatic storm clouds are phenomenal subjects for beach landscape photography. If you’re planning a beach getaway, look at traveling during the off-season. The rates will be better for travel and lodging, and the beaches will be spectacularly empty.
Depending on where you are in the world, you might be able to find an empty beach by doing a little exploring. It’s not always easy to do, but most locales have someplace that is off the beaten path enough that few venture there. Maybe it requires a Jeep or a hike, but the views will probably be worth it! Here are a few tips as you begin to plan your travel photography journey.
Add Light When Needed
Sometimes, no matter how you play your cards, you will need to add more light to get a little more control. It’s always best to start with natural light, but sometimes the shadows are just too hard. If you’re doing a portrait session, you’re going to have to be prepared for this eventuality.
The easiest way to soften shadows and add just a touch of light is with a reflector. You’ll need either a sturdy stand or an assistant to hold it, especially at the beach where the sea breeze is going to catch it and make it fly. Reflectors come in white, silver, and gold. The gold side adds warmth to the light that perfectly matches beach photography. Shades and diffusers can be helpful too.
If a reflector isn’t enough, you can start playing with a fill flash. A flash aimed right at the subject will tend to blow out highlights and make them look flat in an otherwise deep photograph. Try bouncing the flash off of your reflector, or trying a diffuser.
Monitor the Background
Beaches are such wide areas that sometimes it’s hard to keep an eye on everything happening in the frame. There are lots of things that will look out of place and awkward in a photo, like strangers walking along, trash cans, signs, and even clumps of seaweed.
Yes, some of these things are easily removed in post-production. But it’s far easier to get it right the first time and pay attention while shooting. We all occasionally catch something we don’t want in the background, but the more you shoot, the better you’ll get at spotting things right off.
Break Out Your Drone
Aerial beach photography is a great way to capture a new perspective. Drones are easy to fly from the beach with a few caveats. For one, all that sand isn’t perfect for them, and their rotors will kick up a powerful blast of the stuff. If you can launch from pavement or grass, you’re golden. If not, you might want to invest in a portable landing pad to unroll and keep the sand off.
Some of the most engaging aerial beach photography is shot straight down. It doesn’t have a horizon, so it is entirely dependent on lead lines and other compositional elements. One great example is breaking the photo into sections with the surfline.
Keeping it all Clean
None of your expensive equipment likes the beach as much as you do. Sand gets in absolutely everything and tears it up. Then there’s the moisture and the corrosive salt in the air. Keep an air blower and several lens clothes in your camera bag to keep everything as clean as possible.
Planning how you’re going to handle your equipment while you’re at the beach is also essential. Will you use your main camera bag, or will you have a special beach bag with just the things you need for the day. It’s also a great idea to keep a dry sand-free towel next to the bag so that you can wipe your hands and arms off before you reach in.
If the weather is ugly and you risk getting salt spray on your camera, think twice about going out there. Fashion a bag or camera cover of some kind. But remember, if saltwater gets in your camera, it’s probably done for.
Camera Settings and Equipment for the Beach
The biggest challenge of shooting on the beach is the hard light. With light coming from many different directions, your camera’s metering can easily get fooled. This can affect your exposures and white balance. For the best luck, trying using manual settings. The preset sunny day and cloudy day white balances might come in handy, too.
Many DSLR and mirrorless systems have bracketing features that will take a set of photographs with varying exposures. This will enable you to combine or stack the images in post-production to get the best bits. This is handy when there are sharp differences between your highlights and your shadows. Another useful trick is to master the spot metering tool.
The RAW file format enables you to control a lot of these factors after the fact, in post-production. It’s especially helpful with white balance and shadow problems. Just remember when shooting that dark shadows are easily fixed, but blown highlights are impossible to get back.
One of the best beach photography ideas is to try slowing your shutter speed down. Using a high ISO and high f-stops will enable you to slow the shutter speed down a bit. An ND filter can help too.
The best camera for beach images is the one you have. A DSLR is helpful since it will have all of the tools to make manual exposure settings possible. Spot metering and RAW capture help too, but you can honestly take great photos at the beach with your smartphone if you try.
The first equipment you should think about are things that will keep your gear safe. A high-powered air blower and a good set of lens cloths are must-haves. A good camera bag with a waterproof bottom is also a good idea.
The lens you choose is most likely a wide-angle lens. For portraits, a normal or low-end telephoto might come in handy, too.
To make full use of those manual settings, a good tripod is a great idea too. Tripods are essential for any long exposure photography, even when using small apertures or ND filters during the middle of the day.
Other Great Beach Photography Ideas
Family Beach Portraits and Candids
The beach brings out the kid in everyone. We’re all more likely to play, to have fun, and to act naturally. The result is that the seaside is a great place for both formal poses and candid action shots. There simply isn’t a better place to do family portrait photography sessions. Beach photos are trendy in seaside towns, both with the residents and with visitors. You might want to read our Beginner's Guide to Family Photography.
Black and White Beach Photography
An under-utilized art form, black and white photography is perfect for the seaside. It’s especially useful for shoots in the middle of the day when the light might be bright and the images very contrasty. It’s a great way to bring textures and details to the forefront. It’s also useful when the colors are grey on winter days or when you want to make the sky or weather look even more dramatic. Here are 10 Top Tips for Black and White Photography and Portraits.
There are as many styles of beach images as there are beaches in the world. The only constant is that beaches are beautiful places that nearly everyone connects with. It’s nearly a universal truth that people travel to the sea for rest and relaxation. Use your photography to share a little piece of that with those who can’t travel, or to inspire people who have never thought about doing so.
Curate your best work and regularly update your portfolio website by adding work from recent travels. Your website is your showcase window to the world and the first point of contact with potential clients and collaborators. Here’s a great article on how to create a photography portfolio website.
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