9 Tips for Beach Photography

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9 Tips for Beach Photography
(And Seascapes/Coasts in General)

9 Tips for Beach Photography – As this posts, I’m lounging on vacation at one of the most famous tropical islands in the world. And I’m definitely on “vacation” and relaxing, but since and I’m in a beautiful spot on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, I’ll be taking some (a lot of) pictures…

For the most part, beach photography doesn’t really differ that much from all landscape photography; The general principles I exercise in the mountains of Colorado or the canyons of Utah still apply if I’m at a beach. But there are some considerations to always keep in mind so here are my 9 Tips for Beach Photography:

Tips for Beach Photography

I shot this during mid-day light, but with the contrast between the white bangka (focal point) and the turquoise waters of Palawan (Philippines), it turned out to be one of my favorite images from that trip.

1. Focal Points & Foregrounds

A common problem with beach photography is many photographers may capture a beautiful scene, but they don’t actually have any point of interest in the image – it’s just sand, water, and sky. This leaves the picture empty and sometimes straight up boring. When you’re shooting at the beach, you need to make sure to look for a point of interest (focal point) that will provide your viewer a place for their eyes to rest. This might be a leading line of a pier or dock, interesting curves or patterns in the sand, a reflection in a tide pool, the crashing of waves over a rock, or footprints in the sand (intriguing, right?). A beautiful beach with a colorful sky and the calming blue water don’t necessarily make a great image.

Keep in mind that in order to truly capture those patterns (or footprints) in the sand or the reflection in a tide pool, you’re going to want to get low with a wide angle lens to really draw your viewer in. It’s very rare that I use longer focal lengths at the beach. (I’m not a ‘details’ guy – I don’t care about those shells on the ground!)

2. Shoot During the Golden Hours

Like with all landscape photography, you want to shoot during the golden hours with the sun lower in the sky, creating beautiful, soft, warm, and hopefully colorful light. Not only will the lighting be better, but there will most likely be less people on the beach clogging up your compositions. Nothing will ruin a picture more than a fat guy in a speedo, unless you’re into that sort of thing.

3. Wait for the StarBurst

With a clean line of sight to the horizon (usually), capturing a sunburst just as the sun sets below that range can help add another dimension to your beach photography with an extra ‘pop.’ Make sure to use a small aperture (f/16-f/22) for the best results – with the lens closed down, it creates a smaller opening which exaggerates the rays of light through a small diffraction (bending of light) creating a point source (starburst) on your camera’s sensor.

Tips for Beach Photography

With this image from El Nido in the Philippines, I captured a reflection of the sky and Cadlao Island (compelling composition), during the golden hour (good light), and with a starburst (additional dimension).

4. Ignore Tip #2/3 & Shoot Mid-Day

Well don’t totally ignore those tips entirely – sunset and sunrise will still be the best time to shoot, but depending on you’re location, mid-day shots can be extremely beautiful as well. I don’t know the science of why some water turns so turquoise (reflections and light scattering and whatnot), but I know it looks pretty awesome under some mid-day sun. I wouldn’t dream of pulling out my camera in front of the carnies at Old Orchard Beach (Maine) during the flat mid-day light because the image just wouldn’t be worth my time, but I promise that I’m coming home with a ton of high-noon shots of the turquoise lagoons from this trip. The waters of the Philippines were so beautiful that a lot of my favorite shots (Palawan, above) were nowhere near the golden hours.

5. Pay Attention to Shutter Speeds & Use ND Filters

Shutter speed is a huge component to the image you’re looking to create so you need to think about that final scene you want to produce – with a fast shutter, you’re going to freeze the motion of the water and with a slower shutter, you’ll convey that motion in a blurry effect. Personally, my rule of thumb is to freeze the wavy, violent waves (conveying the power), while blurring out the rolling, smoother water.

To create that blurry effect, I always have a neutral density (ND) filter handy because it reduces the light passing through the lens reaching the camera’s sensor. In turn, this allows me to use longer shutter speeds, even in really bright conditions. When using a longer shutter speed, make sure to review your images as well – there is a fine line between a good silky effect and too much of a misty or foggy look where you lose all the detail in the water.

Tips for Beach Photography

For this shot on Corn Island, Nicaragua, in my opinion I used to long of a shutter and created too much of a milky effect that looks foggy – I’m not a fan.

Tips for Beach Photography

But then for this shot of Sweetheart Rock on Lanai, Hawaii, I only used a 2-second shutter and got that nice silky effect on that water that I love.

6. Use a Tripod & Make Sure it’s Stable

When shooting at slower shutter speeds, you always want to make sure to use a tripod to keep your camera as stable as possible. At the beach, the sand throws an extra curve-ball into using a tripod though because as waves come in, they change the composition of the sand, which can cause your tripod legs to move as they sink into the changing sand. If your shutter is open when this happens, you’re going to get a blurry image and even worse, your tripod could tip as the legs sink to far. Soaking your camera in the ocean will end your shoot real quick! Watch the waves (especially rogue waves!) and always make sure your tripod is stable and level.

7. Be Aware of the Season and Tides

Coastal locations are constantly changing both on a seasonal, daily, and even hourly basis. Since I don’t live anywhere near a coast, I’m typically traveling or vacationing and will be shooting the beach regardless of tide, but I have seen tides change, and therefore compositional changes, from one sunrise or sunset to the next. If you’re setting out on a beach/coastal specific shoot, make sure to do your research ahead of time so you have an idea of what you’re heading into. You probably wouldn’t be too happy to go shoot a beach only to find out that it disappears at high tide!

8. Make Sure Your Horizon is Straight (or at least fix it)

Even after so many years of photography, it’s unbelievable at how bad I am with keeping a level horizon… Nothing ruins a beaches or seascape faster than a crooked horizon so if you mess it up in capture, at least fix it in post. Little infuriates me more than seeing a totally obvious crooked horizon in pictures online.

9. Use Bad Weather

Again, since I don’t live remotely close to an ocean so this final tip is not from much personal experience, but I’ve seen some incredible beach shots with inclement weather. Stormy seas and dramatic clouds seem to make very interesting and moody shots so make sure to head out anyway, even if the forecast doesn’t look to be in your favor. (Convert your shot to black and white as well to really boost that mood!)

Tips for Beach Photography

The weather wasn’t great one morning on Corn Island, Nicaragua. I used a 30-second shutter to blur out the water and clouds and came away with a pretty moody image.

Again, beach, coastal, and seascape photography is not much different from landscape photography in general, but I hope you found some useful tips in this article that will help you capture some incredible images on your next trip to the beach.

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