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Ahhh, the beach!
A place where the sound of rolling waves, touch of warm sun on your skin and the hint of salt on the breeze combine to make one of my favorite places in the world. And it’s also one of my favorite places to take photos! But after living in the Caribbean and photographing the beach almost every day for the last year, I can safely say that not every photo does it justice.
Between harsh lighting conditions and unpredictable skies, it’s not uncommon to leave the beach with photos that fall flat. Since we’re quickly heading toward summer and people are finally starting to feel comfortable traveling again, I thought I’d share some of the beach photo tips I’ve learned over the last year of beach living so you can bring a little slice of your next paradise vacation home with you, too.
Time is precious and we can never have enough of it, so I don’t want to waste your time. This article does not cover any tips for taking photos of people at the beach. Though I have photographed beach weddings and portraits in the past, it’s been a while since I’ve done them with any regularity. For anyone looking for help with beach portraits specifically, I’ll defer to this guide on how to take beach portraits. It’s geared toward couples, but the tips really apply to any beach portraits.
Now, if your focus is on beach landscape photography, you’re in the right place! Read on to learn my top 10 beach photo tips.
While the beach seems to always look pleasing to the naked eye (or mine, at least!), the camera sees things a little bit differently. As such, there are certain times of the day that work better for taking beach photos.
Sunrise tends to be a popular time for many photographers, but I am not a morning person in the slightest, and especially not when I’m on vacation! So, I generally don’t hit the sand until around 10:00 AM. This is still a plenty early enough for photos, though. The sun is low enough to create those inviting palm tree shadows that everyone loves without being so overpowering that it washes out the texture of the sand.
Even if you miss the 10:00 AM window, I find the lighting stays good enough to work with until about 4 hours before sunset (which is around 2:00 PM in Barbados). By that time, the sun is in a position that causes unpleasant shadows and highlights, and dulls the colors of the sand and sea. It’s a great time to put the camera away and go for a swim or relax on the beach, instead!
I bring the camera back out about an hour before sunset – a time known to most photographers as “golden hour” for the beautiful golden glow the sun casts across everything it touches. During this time, the sand glitters like gold and the sky comes to life with the colors of sunset.
Before I move on to the next tip, I want to mention one other thing beach photographers like to consider. And that is: the timing of the tides.
Low tide usually makes for a calmer sea and sometimes reveals rocks or shells on the shore. High tide is better for catching bigger waves. While many others find this important to note, there’s only so much planning you can do, especially when on vacation! I tend to just go out and try to work with whatever conditions the time and day give me.
Everybody loves a perfect day on the beach without a cloud in the sky and no worries about rain. But, a clear blue sky doesn’t actually make for very interesting beach photos, as you’ll see below.
Luckily, a good sea breeze usually means that weather and clouds are constantly changing. If you have the time, stick around and wait to see if any clouds blow by. The texture and movement they add can bring an otherwise dull photo to life. Also, as long as you have some basic rain gear, don’t run from bad weather. Turbulent skies can be very dramatic and create a striking contrast against turquoise blue seas.
For those with less time to waste, think about composing your photo with less focus on the sky. I often aim down and try to capture the texture of the water, waves crashing along the shoreline or add in some foreground element to create interest.
Beach photos require a careful balance when it comes to clouds and the sun. As shown above, a nice cloudscape in your beach photos is great, but you’ll find that 100% cloud coverage with no sun peeking through at all will make the rest of the photo dull and lackluster.
On a particularly cloudy day, I spend a lot of time looking up and keeping an eye on when the next break in the clouds will be. Sometimes, the break might last minutes but other times it only sticks around for a few seconds, so I’m always prepared to snap a shot when the light shines through. You never know what kind of dynamic light rays and reflections you might end up with!
Okay, so we’ve covered what an ideal time is and what the sky should look like, but we can’t control everything. So what happens when the sky just doesn’t cooperate?
Well, that’s when I’d suggest finding a foreground to add interest to your photo in a different way. Palm trees, shells and rocks tend to be common and easy to find foregrounds for beach photography. And if you take a step back even further, you’ll often find that the pathway to the beach can make for a lovely image, too.
This one is a quick and easy trick to instantly improve your beach photos. White balance can drastically change the look and feel of a photo without requiring any knowledge of photo editing. During the day, I tend to set my white balance to “daylight/sunny” mode to capture the richest turquoise and blue colors of the ocean. And at sunset, I swap over to “cloudy” white balance. This adds warm tones to your photos, enhancing the reds and yellows in the sky.
Without getting too deep into the nitty gritty of camera settings, it’s still worth mentioning that the better you know your camera and your settings, the better your photos are going to be. My quick beach photo setting tips are:
I plan on writing a separate article to go further into these details, but for now these should work as a starting point.
Now to touch on the photography gear side of things!
I have experimented taking beach photos with every single lens in my bag. Ultimately, I always end up back at the same choice: my 14-24mm wide angle lens. But different lenses do serve different purposes, so read on to see examples and the benefits of each.
For those more focused on capturing beach portraits, birds or other finer details, a 70-200mm lens will do you wonders. I love standing back and zooming all the way in on a subject to get some beautiful bokeh out of the water in the background.
Another lens I want to give a shout out to is my Nikon 28mm prime. Though it offers less versatility and range, it captures colors more true and beautifully than any other lens I own. No filter required!
But for those pure, beach landscape photos, a wide angle lens captures entire shorelines and beautiful cloudscapes all in one. Wide lenses cause a slight perspective distortion that captivates the eye and draws the viewer into the scene. I would estimate that around 90% of the beach photos I take are with the Nikon 14-24mm lens.
This isn’t a tip I’d necessarily recommend for everyone, but for those who are more focused on photography, it could be important.
Many (many, many) of my beach photos have been taken in Barbados during the peak of COVID-19. Which basically means that I’ve rarely had to navigate shooting around people. Now that tourism and travel are starting to pick up again, some of the beaches are filling back up with crowds. Needless to say, this can make capturing a wide seascape a bit more challenging.
To minimize the challenge, try planning your beach trips during the off-season when the crowds will be thinner. You can also research the area you’re visiting and try to find locations off the beaten track. You never know what kind of hidden gems you’ll discover!
Not every beach is suitable for this tip, but if there are tide pools or any standing puddles of water, they can create stunning reflections that will enhance your photos. For the cleanest reflection, the water should be still, which means the ocean crashing on a steep beach doesn’t usually work.
Last but not least, I want to encourage any readers to experiment with things I haven’t tried yet.
My background is in music photography, which is a completely different ballgame than landscape photography. I’m used to fast shutter speeds and no need for filters or tripods! But, I would feel amiss if I didn’t mention a few other common tips for better beach photos (even though I don’t do them myself).
Many landscape photographers recommend using polarizing filters and neutral density (ND) filters. Polarizing filters negate light, producing more vibrant and clear photos. Meanwhile, ND filters are used to even out exposures – like when a sky is significantly brighter than the foreground. The downside of filters is that there are very few systems that work with wide angle lenses, so I don’t actually make much use of them. Thankfully, with some simple post-processing in Lightroom or Photoshop, it’s not too hard to recreate the effect of an ND filter.
Additionally, use a tripod to play around with slower shutter speeds. This can result in those magical looking beach photos that capture crashing waves with a soft motion blur, or stunning starscapes over the ocean. While I have played around with tripods, I’m not a fan of traveling with them, so most of my beach photos are just handheld.
Finally (and I can’t stress this one enough), don’t forget to experiment with the gear YOU have. We don’t all start with an endless budget and full collection of lenses. Practice with what you have and what you can afford, because no matter how much gear is in your bag or how expensive it was, you can’t buy the creative eye for photography!
Explore my blog to find more beach photos and inspiration below.
Share your favorite beach photo tips in the comments below!
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