Take better beach photos

by Henry B Posted on June 10, 2010

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Sun, surf, sand! Is this what you imagine when you think of a beach? For many, this is probably true. However, beach environments can also include places such as lakes, rivers, and other water ways. Additionally, beaches are not always sunny. Thus, beach photography is not much different from any other outside photography which means that the same basic rules apply. In this article, I’ll discuss some techniques for getting better beach photos.

A beach environment can be one of extremes which can push all photography techniques to the limits. For instance, if it is sunny, it’s usually very sunny which creates extremely high contrast scenes. Additionally, the sand and water can reflect a lot of light adding to the overall visual harshness of the scene.

Thus, the first step in mastering beach photography is to recognize the various direct light and reflected light sources. Once these are recognized, they can be minimized or enhanced to create specific effects. For instance, you can take the picture with the sun to your back or to your front depending on the desired effect. Compare the following two pictures and notice the different effects:

The one on the left was shot away from the sun while the one of the right was shot more toward the sun. In this case, it’s not about which one is right. It’s about getting the desired effect. Notice that the slight fog over the water can be seen in the picture on the right.

Because beaches tend to be open, they lend themselves to wide angle lens. So, think large. Here’s a wide angle beach view:

You can also think small by using a telephoto lens as this photo demonstrates:

Notice the high contrast between the surf and the water. In this case, a light meter reading on the surf will probably give a more pleasing photo. However, as I already stated, it depends on the effect you want.

Where possible, changing the height above the water can drastically alter the effect of the photo. Here are a couple of photos demonstrating a low angle view:

Now, here’s a photo taken from a cliff above the beach:

A beach can be an almost endless source of interesting photos because the openness allows for good visibility of activities. Additionally, pets can provide excellent photo opportunity as the following photo shows:

Please take a moment to notice the components of this photo especially the contrasts between the different colored dogs as well as the surf and the water. The strongest light is from the left which creates the sharp difference across the face of the lighter colored dog. This may be fine for a dog photo, but it might be unacceptable for a person photo.

Some technical aspects of your camera can help minimize this if desired. First, if your camera is equipped  with a spot meter setting, it can be used to minimize the high contrast effects of the scene. A spot meter takes measurements from only a small part of the total area. This is especially useful for taking people photos on the beach by allowing you to take a meter reading only on  the face or a part of the face. Additionally, you can use your flash even on a bright day to provide light from a different direction. When used like this, it’s called a “fill in” flash because it helps reduce the harshness of very direct sunlight. This should give better people photos.

There are 2 accessories which can really help as well. The first is a lens hood (pictured above) which attaches to the front of the lens and blocks light from the sides. This side light can reflect off the flat surface of your lens and produce a glare on the image. The second is a polarizing filter. I won’t go into it’s details except to say that it’s useful for removing glaring reflections and for giving clearer images especially of the sky.

Finally, don’t forget about sunsets especially if you are at a west facing beach. So, take your camera to the beach and have fun. Just be careful not to drop it into the sand or the water.

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  1. Joey Says:

    As usual Henry, this article is very helpful and has a lot of tips. Our lake is flat as is most everything in my area, so there are no hills, or cliffs. We do have lots of trees though. I like the hood for your camera – makes perfect sense. I never even thought of that as far as blocking out the light. I did buy polorized filters for both my lenses when I purchased my camera.
    I love taking summer/lake photos because they seem better then the indoor photos. I love taking sunset photos and am always out trying to capture them. I like your sunset above. And the difference between the two photos above also. I still have lots to learn – your tips were very helpful!

  2. BarbaraJ Says:

    Henry, this is a great article. I have so many beach photos from Hawaii, to the Caribbean, I agree with what you have said and I want to thank you for all the great information.

  3. shannonr Says:

    Henry, I loved the examples you provided, the material in which you were talking about really became vivid to me with the examples, thanks.

  4. AnnAbbott Says:

    Great examples of lighting and the different types of beaches too. I have so many Northern California beach shots of fog and cliffs and those conditions are much different from the Southern sunny California beach shots. The rubber lens is an easy way to control the light. I never heard of that. Thanks again Henry.

  5. ElleSnaps Says:

    Great ideas!! I know I will be trying some of these things! I love taking pictures of the kids on the beach, that’s absolute favorite (while that and in front of the Christmas tree:) As always your articles are very useful Henry. Thanks!

more about Henry B

I first became interested in photography in 1969 when I purchased my first 35 mm SLR. I switched to digital photography in 1999 and bought my first DSLR in 2003. I retired in 2004 which means I can spend more time doing what I like. I got involved with photo books because they allowed much more than merely organizing photos. Additionally, stories can be created or documented much more clearly with a combination of photos and text.

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