Heading to the beach this summer? Don’t forget your camera.
Whether you want to shoot landscapes, portraits or candid close-ups, the beach offers all sorts of photo opportunities… as well as some unique challenges.
Some people think beach photos all look the same and they’d never take their camera near the sandy stuff. But think like that and you’ll miss all the natural beauty, varied lighting and vibrant colours the beach has to offer, as well as some unique shots and angles you’d only ever find at the shore. Beaches also come with some challenges of their own, including the potential for damage, but read on and you’ll be fully prepared.
Find a focal point
One of the main reasons for thinking the beach is boring is because it lacks focal points, but find a point of interest to zoom in on and it’s a different story. Whether it’s a pattern in the sand, footprints, crashing waves, shoes at the water’s edge or even a simple bottle of sun lotion, a point of interest can tell a story.
It’s all about looking for a foreground interest – dark pebbles against brighter sand, lines in the sand caused by the motion of the waves. Wavebreakers are worth looking out for and lighthouses are well worth looking out for.
All in the weather
Even more than usual, weather and time of day will have a huge impact on your shots. The beach might look great under a blazing sun but that’s also when it’s more likely to be packed. If you’re shooting on a sunny day then arrive early or very late – not only will you avoid the crowds, you’ll also get better light and more vibrant colours. The midday sun is particularly unforgiving, so shoot in the morning or late afternoon when the shadows become more interesting. The so-called golden hours around sunset and sunrise are great for silhouettes, but there’s also the “blue hour” to consider. Once the sun has gone down, the sky goes a deep blue, the stars come out and there’s enough light still left to illuminate your scene.
While we’re discussing weather conditions, it’s well worth heading to the beach in the wind and rain, too. In fact, with ominous dark skies reaching off into the distance, stormy days can give rise to some of your best beach shots.
The horizon can be a common problem with beach photography. First off, try to shoot it square-on and make sure you keep it straight (unless you want it deliberately wonky). If you’re shooting out to sea, the horizon forms an unbroken line that cuts straight through your photo so you need to think about cropping (the “rule of thirds”) and definitely avoid having it slice through the centre of your shot.
Getting the right light
Getting your exposure right is one of the biggest challenges. It’s way too easy to overexpose and burn out the highlights, but dial down the other way and your shadows end up too dark. The best solution is to use bracketing – expose for the highlights then shoot a second image a full stop (or even two stops) slower to bring out detail in the shadows. Merge the two in Photoshop or Lightroom and you can control shadows and highlights without losing anything.
Another solution is to change the metering mode. Instead of matrix or evaluative metering, try spot metering. This will get the lighting exactly right for the important area of your shot. It works particularly well if you’re photographing people. Instead of making them squint into the sun, put them in the shade and expose for their face.
While we’re talking about people shots, consider taking a flash to the beach. With such strong light, it’s easy to see your shot ruined by shadows from the likes of sunglasses, hats and noses, but a fill flash can fix that. If you’re shooting into the sun, it can give you enough light to keep your subject from becoming a silhouette. If you really want to maximise the light (and you’ve got room), think about taking a reflector with you instead. You can use it to bounce the sun’s rays back onto your subject and pick out details to highlight.
Filters can be useful and at the beach they offer an extra level of protection. One filter you definitely want in your bag is a polarising filter. As well as cutting out glare from the sea, it works wonders with the sky, boosting the contrast and making your scene look richer. It’s exactly the same effect you get with polarising sunglasses, except that here you can vary the polarisation as you rotate the filter.
One way to make your beach photos stand out is to turn them into black and whites. If you’ve spent all day getting shots of perfect blue skies and bright yellow beaches, that might sound like madness – but stripping a photo of colour actually helps you look at it differently. Black and white can add a minimalism and stillness to an image.
The great photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams was famed for a particular technique that darkens blue skies. He used a deep red filter to transform the blue of the sky into an inky black. These days you can achieve the same effect with software. Give it a go in Adobe Lightroom – convert your image to black and white; then, under the “black and white” tab, adjust the slider that determines the blue conversion. It works best when the sky is bright blue.
Take to the air
When it comes to finding unusual angles from which to take your shot, there’s nothing quite like a drone. Obviously you can’t fly one over a crowded beach but generally there are fewer restrictions at the coast… and an abundance of great scenes to film. Rules vary wherever you go so be sure to check how they apply at your destination.
Piers and jetties make a wonderful focal point for a photo – especially if you catch them during sunrise or sunset. The big challenge is always how to make your shot different to everyone else’s. One way is to vary your camera angle. Shoot low or stick your camera on a tripod and lift it above your head for a high shot. Another way is to go for a long exposure shot, giving your image a calm and ethereal look”.
Protect and survive
The combined dangers of sun, sand and salty water are not to be underestimated. If you take your camera (or drone) to the beach, you’ll need to look after it. A single grain of sand is all it takes to damage your kit, so keep everything safely bagged up when not in use, and use UV protectors to keep sand from scratching your lenses.
A more practical solution to the sand/sea problem is to invest in a tough camera. They’re often ideal for underwater shots and, even if you don’t plan on getting your camera wet, thoughtful features will still keep it safe from the sand.