Here are 10 tips I use. Give them a try!
1. Look for focal points
A friend of mine once told me that they don’t bother taking their camera to the beach because all beach shots look the same. I thought that that was a pretty sad thing to say because when I go to the beach I see it as a place brimming with photographic opportunities if you have the ability to look beyond the cliche shots. For example while many people take shots looking out to sea I find it interesting to go to the water’s edge and then turn completely around and see what’s in your frame from that angle. One common problem with landscape beach photographs is that while they might capture a beautiful scene they actually have no point of interest and can as a result be rather empty and boring. When taking a shot look for a point of interest or focal point that will give those looking at your photo a place for their eye to rest. Perhaps it’s a pattern in the sand, a set of footprints, the crashing of waves over a rock, a life saver’s tower etc. Also look for the little things that tell the story of going to the beach like shoes at the waters edge, sand castles, sunglasses, sunscreen lotion etc. Sometimes these can make wonderful little feature shots to break up your vacation album.
2. Timing is important
The start and end of days can present the best opportunities for shooting at the beach. For starters there will be less people there at that time of day but also you’ll find that with the sun shining on an angle that you often get more interesting effects of shadows and colors - particularly in the evening when the light becomes quite warm and golden.
3. Watch the Horizon
One of the most common problems in beach photography where there are wide open spaces with a long and often unbroken horizon is sloping horizons. Work hard at keeping your horizon square to the framing of your shot (more on this here). Also consider placing your horizon off centre as centered horizons can leave a photo looking chopped in half (more on this in our post on the Rule of Thirds).
4. Head to the Beach When Others Avoid it
Another timing issue is that the beach can really come to life on those days that everyone avoids it because of inclement weather. Stormy seas, threatening and dramatic clouds and wind slowing lifesaver flags and trees over call all make for atmospheric shots.
5. Exposure Bracketing
One of the challenges of shooting in the middle of summer on a beach is that it can be incredibly bright and your camera could want to under expose your shots if you’re shooting in Auto mode. If your camera has a manual mode it can be well worth playing with it at the beach and experimenting with different levels of exposure. I find that I get the best results when I look at what the camera wants to expose the shot at and then over expose it by a stop or two. Of course this depends greatly from situation to situation - brightly lit landscapes are generally very tricky - especially if you have shady areas as well as bright ones. Sometimes it’s a matter of working out which area you want to be well exposed and focussing on that area as to get everything right is often impossible.
6. Spot Metering
If your camera has spot metering you can overcome some of the above exposure problems. Spot metering is a feature that some cameras have whereby you tell the camera which part of the image you want to be well exposed and it will get that bit right. This is particularly useful in bright light when you want to get a shady area exposed well. It will optimize the shady area (and the other areas will be over exposed - but at least your main subject will be ok). This can be effective especially when photographing people as it allows you to face them away from the sun and to meter on their shadowy face and therefore avoid squinting (a common problem with photographing people at the beach).
7. Fill Flash
If you’re photographing people at the beach as a portrait and it’s bright you’ll find that they will almost always have shadows on their face (often cast by hats, glasses, noses etc). Switch on your flash and force it to fire when shooting in these situations and you’ll find the shadows eliminated and your actual subject is well exposed. This is particularly important when shooting into the sun when without a flash you could end up with your subject being at some stage of becoming a silhouette). If your camera gives you some level of control over how strong a flash to fire you might want to experiment with this also as firing a full strength can leave your subjects looking washed out and artificial. If your subjects do look overexposed and you cant decrease the flash strength try moving back a little from your subject and using your zoom to get a tighter framing as this will decrease the impact of the flash. As usual - experimenting is the key.
8. UV Filters
UV filters are useful for DSLR owners a couple of reasons in beach photography. Firstly they act as a protection for your lens (see below) but also they do filter out ultraviolet light in a certain range. This can cut back on atmospheric haze (often a blueish haze/tinge). The visual impact that they have is not great but they are the first thing I buy when I get a new lens for my DSLR.
9. Polarizing Filters
One of the most useful DSLR lens accessories that you can add to a digital camera is a polarizing filter. Without getting too technical, a polarizer filters out some light that is polarized. This means that it reduces reflections and boosts contrasts. The most noticeable places that this has impact is with blue skies (potentially it can make them incredibly rich and almost dark blue) and in water/ocean in which it can give a variety of effects. The way many people explain the results of a polarizer is the difference that polarizing sunglasses can make when you put them on (in fact I know quite a few photographers who shoot through their sunglasses if they don’t have a polarizer with them. Get a polarizing filter and experiment with it and you’ll quite literally be amazed by the results.
10. Black and White
One technique that I’ve been using a lot lately in beach photography (and other genres also) is to do a little post photo production and see what impact stripping a photo of color has upon it. There’s something about a black and white shot at the beach that completely changes the mood and feel of a shot. It’s also a great way to bring to life beach shots taken on dull or overcast days which can often leave a beach scene looking a little colorless.