7 Quick Tips For Better Beach Photography

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We all love the beach, but getting a decent photograph from your beach excursion can be a little tricky. Here are a few quick beach photography tips that should help you improve your results.

Visiting the beach can be one of many reasons – for a sun bath, a slow walk to get some air, collect the beautiful sea shells, watch life passing by, waves hitting the shore, seagulls and other birds flying  or for photography. Whatever the reason is, catching the scene as you see it is not so easy as it seems but with a few tips and techniques you can get beautiful beach photographs.

Cannon Beach, United States
Image by Jordan Steranka

1. Be Early Or Be Late

In general the best photos you will capture at the beach will generally be taken before the light becomes too powerful. That means shooting during the golden hour which is either around sunrise or sunset for great beach photos. If this is the time you plan to be at the beach, then you will probably be served better by reading our guide to coastal landscape photography which deals with shooting in lower light situations. 

When shooting beach photos, the right time and the right light are very important as the golden hour fills the air and the scene with warm golden hues – yellow to orange red as the sun hits the horizon. This is the time when you can avoid blown out highlights and badly exposed shots. Moreover, sunrise times are the best as there are fewer people or sometimes you may even have the beach to yourself so you can relax and compose your frame.

Although this is just a small piece of advice, don't regard it as unimportant – shooting at the right time on a beach can get you some stunning photographs and is much much easier than shooting at the wrong time when the sun is high.

Morro Rock at sunset on Morro Strand State Beach, Morro Bay, CA
Image by Mike Baird

Now, it's not always possible to get to the beach early enough though, so let's look at some tips for photography at the beach when the sun is blaring and things are bright.

2. Know The Limitations Of Auto

If you're shooting in auto mode at the beach in the bright sun, your camera will probably be predisposed to under-exposing your images. If you're having problems with the auto setting, then switch to manual and experiment with your exposure settings.

Now that you're off auto mode, let's cover some manual setting issues.

3. Mind Your Exposure Settings

A beach during the day throws up all types of exposure problems. Basically, it's really really bright. You may want to use the camera’s exposure compensation technique to get correctly exposed shots as the camera may be tricked into metering for underexposed shots because of the bright sky, sand and the sea. 

Very generally, in such bright conditions, you're going to need a low ISO setting (think 100 or 200) in combination with a narrow aperture (somewhere between f/14 and f/22) with a moderately fast shutter speed. This can all change though.

Adirondack chairs
Image by Aaron Burden

4. Play Around With Shutter Speed

Shutter speed in photography can be creatively used to photograph scenes differently and to get a variety of effects. Use shorter or faster shutter speeds to freeze actions like waves crashing and water splashing.

On the other hand, you can use longer exposures for getting those dreamy and surreal water effects in beach photographs. This will require a tripod and if the light is bright, you will need an ND filter.

Baker Beach, San Francisco, United States
Image by Daniel Seßler

5. Depth Of Field

If you want a narrower depth of field (for a portrait for example), then you will need to open up the aperture and make the shutter speed a lot faster. If you are photographing the beach scene, it is more like photographing a landscape where you will want a greater depth of field with everything in the frame in focus. In situations like these, narrow down the aperture to between f/9 and f/16 or even more depending on the sweet spot of the lens and your lens performance.

It's difficult to generalize about camera settings, so that takes us to our next point…

Caribbean starfish
Image by Topyti

6. Use The Sunny f/16 Rule As A Yardstick

If you don't know the sunny f/16 rule then it's a good yardstick for shooting in bright conditions. It probably won't work perfectly in beach conditions every time though. A beach at midday is just about brighter than any other landscape so you will have to adjust for that, possibly with faster shutter speed or an even narrower aperture. Experiment for the conditions you find yourself shooting in.

7. Consider Filters

Beach photographs can get better with the help of some filters if used for the right situation. There are three filters that you might want to consider using if you have access to them.

  • An ND filter will allow you to reduce the intensity of light hitting your camera's sensor.
  • A polarising filter will reduce reflections from the sea and help darken the sky. It will also help particularly if you are shooting in bright sun. You will need to have the sun at 90 degrees to the camera to get the best effects from this filter.
  • A UV filter is probably the least useful by blocking short wave UV light (which used to cause loss of detail on film). Many photographers don't like them as they can introduce lens flare.
Muizenberg beach, Muizenberg, South Africa
Image by Thomas Lipke

Bonus Tips For Beach Photography:

  • Always Shoot Raw – with beach photographs, you sometimes may get tricky with highlights and shadows as the dynamic range in the scene can be quite huge. In order for you to recover most details while post processing and to adjust white balance if required, it is good to shoot raw.
  • Don't Forget Flash – If you're shooting people and faces when the background is really bright, then you might need a little fill light to make sure the faces aren't underexposed. Force the flash to fire in this situation. You can also use flash if the light is too weak and you may want to fill in light to get details in the shadow areas of the image. Use a diffuser to get beautiful soft light.
  • Use The Right Metering Mode – this is helpful when shooting backlit portraits at the beach. Make sure you choose spot metering to get the exposure right on the subject if you do not have a flash to fill light.
  • Use A Tripod – you can shoot beach photos handheld, but as the sun goes down, you may have to shoot at slower shutter speeds and lower iso values for noise free images. So it is best to have your camera on a tripod. This is also helpful when you shoot for long exposure beach images.
  • Have A Blower And Lens Cloth – at the beach your gear is prone to collecting sand and it can be hard on your expensive gear. Have a blower in hand to blow off any sand falling on your gear. Also have a lens cloth handy in case any water drops from the sea land on your lens.

Photographing at the beach can be a fun thing to do, but care needs to be taken in order to protect your gear and careful attention paid to the light in the scene in order to use the right settings and accessories. You can shoot even after the sun has set for beautiful blue hour long exposure images of the beach as these have surreal blue and purple hues. These beach photography tips should help you get some keepers from your next visit to the beach.

Playa de la Misericordia, Spain
Image by Quino Al

More Beach Photography Resources:

  1. Better Beach Photography. Make A Splash With These Tips On Gear, Settings, And Composition
  2. Photographing at the Beach: 10 Tips for Better Beach Photos
  3. How to Shoot a Picture Perfect Beach Portrait
  4. How to Photograph Beach Life for Great Shots
  5. 10 Tips To Create Beach Photos You’ve Only Dreamed About

About Author

Rob is the founder of Light Stalking. His love for photography pushed him into building this fantastic place, and you can get to know him better here

“Force the flash to fire in this situation.”

I remember having to move heaven and earth to get the Nikon D40X to popup the flash when it thought I should not be doing so. I had to fake it into thinking I was doing something else first, then keep the flash up once it was up. Solution, – buy the D300 and tell the camera to do as you want it to do. The good AND the bad news is, it will 😉

Great tips, and I can really see the application in everything said here as I’ve been logging and learning with a lot of early mornings at the beach lately.

These are beautiful but they are not beach photos. They are rocks in water photos. I want to take really good beach photos—-sandy beaches, water, sun, umbrellas, people swimming etc. I hope you do an article on this.

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