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Beach Photography Tips

Heading to the beach this summer? Don’t forget your camera (or your drone). 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.

Lee Rolfe, Project Leader for Jessops Academy, has been shooting landscapes for years. He says: “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 I’m drawn to lighthouses.”

Taken at Westward Ho! in north Devon by Tracie White, this shot illustrates how a foreground focal point makes all the difference. “It was sunset so I used a Canon 18-55mm lens with a shutter speed of 1/160 and F4 aperture to make sure the stones on the beach were in sharp focus (I wanted them to be the main point of interest), while the surrounding composition was exposed to enhance the sunset for maximum effect.”

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.

Shot by Lee Rolfe on the Jessops Academy Snowdonia trip, this shot uses the lighthouse as the main point of interest, but the dramatic sky is the real star of the show. Notice how the long exposure affects the waves and clouds.

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. For more on filters, see our full range.

Go monochrome

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. As Lee points out, “Black and white can add a minimalism and stillness to an image.” His shot above shows how effective it can be to pull out a single colour.

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.

Long shot

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, one of Lee’s favourite techniques. “I use long exposure because the sea is always moving. I like the calm, ethereal look in the image”.

With the ebb and flow of the tide, long-exposure photography works really well at the beach – just remember to take your tripod with you.

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. Jessops have tough cameras for any occasion and any budget.

Inspired yet? We hope so because we want to see what beach images you’re shooting. ‘Tag us on Instagram using #jessopsmoment’

Words from the Photographers

“I shot this at Kimmeridge Bay in Dorset, a popular location for photographers and a place I’ve visited often. I got there just before sunset, hoping for some nice, soft colours on the horizon. Sadly there were no clouds but the combination of a high tide and calm conditions made up for it. I shot this about 20 minutes after sunset with a Fujifilm X-T2, a 10-24mm F4 lens and a 3-stop medium graduated filter with landscape polariser. I also added a 6-stop neutral density filter to flatten the water, although it was fairly still. I used a shutter speed of 50 seconds, F11 aperture and ISO200. To bring out the detail in the rocks and boost the saturation a little, I used Adobe Lightroom and NIK Color Efex 4”

Brightly-coloured beach cabins make the perfect focal point. This shot of Sheringham in Norfolk was taken on a photo walk, a great way to discover the coastline with like-minded photographers.