Beach Photography Perfection: Hot Tips for Cool Pics when Hitting the Beach

beach photography opener

Top Tips for Beach Photography

With summer’s heat on the horizon, now is a great time to hit the beach and brush up on your Beach Photography Skills. Here are some essential tips to make your photos shine.

Whether using manual settings or your normal smartphone, the following tips can help boost your Beach Photography.

Use Wide Angles to enhance open Horizons

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A visit to the beach can give us more than sun and water. Sure, sun and sand are important, but one visual factor that can influence us powerfully while at the beach is its vastness. The wide open horizon of the beach is one of the characteristics that allow our minds to feel free and lighter.

This may be beside the point, but recently I visited a beach on a lake by my city. The beach was crowded with sun-starved residents all inching for their place on the sand, even if that meant setting up their umbrellas directly in front of you!

But I digress, in addition to the obstacles of a view, the lake was narrow and you could see land just across it. Although there was technically sun and sea, I felt robbed of my lack of view and horizon! To relieve myself mentally from the stresses of the day-to-day, I was craving the feeling of freedom that comes with the visual vastness of a shore.

If you are on a wide-open beach, cherish it, and let it show in your shots!

Look for Symmetry

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In addition to vastness, the minimalistic environment of a beach can open doors to recognizing gratifying patterns and symmetry. While the horizon line itself can divide our frames geometrically, you may also find other structures such as bridges, boats, walkways or rocky shores that can lend themselves to a greater feeling of balance in your photos.

Mind your Horizon Line

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It’s true that you will usually want your images to be on an even keel, but another factor when considering your horizon line in beach photography is determining where your horizon will fall. When your horizon cuts your image in half, you can achieve symmetry. However, you may want sometimes to highlight the large coast and raise your horizon line higher or point out the magnitude of the sky and lower your horizon line to give the clouds more weight.

The image below is a good example of lowering your horizon line to bring out the sky.

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Experiment with the Sun’s Direction

It has become somewhat common knowledge that when you want good lighting the sun should be at your back and pointed toward your subject. This rule of thumb is good to use, but in beach photography, the sun’s angle offers many different opportunities for new effects.

Allowing your subject to be lit directly by the sun can cast shadows on the face or even the shadow of the photographer if low enough.

It also almost goes without saying that the time of day will affect the direction of the sun. In the early morning and at sunset the sun is low to the horizon and offers, long soft shadows, a warm beautiful light that can enhance any shooting environment.

Shooting directly into the sun, however, can also provide interesting silhouettes and even sun flares to jazz up your shoot and add emphasis to the feeling of heat and the presence of the sun itself.

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What Settings should you use for Beach Photography 

The following tips are general settings that you can begin with to ensure the best exposure and technical results. These settings can be achieved with an SLR (Single Lens Reflex) or a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera. Additionally, there are some smartphone apps and iPhone camera settings to manually adjust your exposure. 

Remember though, that rules are made to be broken, and adjusting one setting to achieve a specific effect (i.e. slow shutter for soft waves) will result in the need to counter your other settings to compensate (i.e. smaller aperture to compensate for slow shutter).

For a deeper dive into mastering your exposure settings click here!

Use a Low ISO for Sharper Beach Photography Images

Your ISO setting on your digital camera, or on analog film, will adjust the light sensitivity when capturing an image. The lower your ISO setting is, the less sensitive to light your sensor or film will be. Likewise, high ISO settings will give you greater light sensitivity, meaning you need less light to capture a scene.

The downside to higher ISO settings is that with the increased light sensitivity comes increased noise or grain as the capturing of light information tends to be much faster and less accurate. 

For beach photography, choose the lowest setting you can. On a sunny day, you should have more than enough light to be able to move freely along the beach, hand holding your camera, and still manage to capture sharp images. A low ISO will allow your images to be clear and free of noise. The lowest setting will generally start at ISO 100 for most cameras. 

After all, who needs noise when you have sand.

Adjust Shutter Speed for Wave Effects

Again, generally speaking, you want to use a quicker shutter speed to ensure sharp pictures. In addition to waves, there can be many moving variables on a beach such as birds or people. Unless you going for blurry movement, use a fast shutter speed (i.e. 1/125 and above) to avoid motion blur. 

If you want to freeze splashing water or water sports, try using a very fast shutter, for instance 1/500, and adjust your ISO or Aperture to counterbalance your exposure.

Compare these two images below. 

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As mentioned before, the first image to the left successfully freezes waves and water using a very fast shutter speed. The texture of the image is sharp and well-defined. 

However, slowing your shutter speed down can also yield interesting effects. In the image to the right, a slow shutter speed is used to abstract the waves and water movement into abstracted lines. This style of beach or water photography can be used to create a kind of camera painting. 

This particular image has also been created using a long lens to zoom into this particular wave. Using a longer lens allows for greater abstraction when photographing moving water or even reflections on the water. 

Use a Small Aperture to Keep Detail in the Distance

While I am a fan of wide-open apertures for silky backgrounds and bokehlicious effects, in beach photography, I prefer to keep the background sharp. Because the setting of being on the beach is central to the images, blurry the background only removes that context. Instead, I like to highlight the beach location by preserving detail and using a middle to small aperture when possible.

For a good example check out this image below by Jacub Gomez.

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Here the cave, the person, the bird, and the waves are in focus while the horizon line is still relatively sharp. All these elements work together to complete a picture of this moment. Such detail from the foreground to the background can only be achieved with a relatively small camera lens opening.

According to the Sunny 16 Rule, your average camera setting on a sunny day outside will require an Aperture opening of f/16 (with an ISO of 100 and a shutter speed of 1/125).

Contrastingly, consider this image below.

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Although there are some nice details to this shot, the emphasis is on the individual experience of the Photographer. The image is more ‘about’ being on a trip and enjoying the morning with a cup of coffee while being at a great location, and less focused on the location itself. The beach and lighthouse simply blend into the blurry background.

If such an image was part of a longer series from the trip it would be ok, given that we see the background in other images. Alternatively, if this image constellation, with the Point of View perspective and the cup of coffee, became a repeated motif at multiple locations, where the location was always out of focus, then it can work, but again, the focus is on the experience and not on the location.

Personally, I am more interested in the lighthouse and beach than in the cup, but I realize that this opinion is subjective. What do you think?

Exposure Compensation

The last tip I would like to offer in regards to camera settings in Beach Photography is using exposure compensation by an especially bright sky or light-colored sand. Often on white sand beaches, you may have more light being reflected from the ground into your camera, than what is actually lighting your scene.

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In other words, your camera thinks it’s brighter than it actually is, and will adjust or signal that you need to allow less light into your shot. The results are images that are darker than need be.

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You can adjust for this extra bright reflection by telling your camera to go lighter than it thinks by one or two steps. If you are using a smartphone you can point to the area on the screen where your light meters are measured. For instance, pointing at the sand instead of the sky. This will help tell your camera which specific areas need to be measured for light.

Beach Photography Take Aways

If you love photography, your inner eye lens will glisten at the beach. Take advantage of both worlds: relaxation for the body and the soul, by using these beach photography tips and optimal camera setting to capture the warmth, water, inspiration, and sunshine the sea has to offer.

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