(Last updated on July 21st, 2022)
If you just planned a trip to the beach and want to create stunning beach photography, it is best to plan ahead.
Beach photography is a tricky yet rewarding genre of landscape photography. The challenges must be accounted for if you want to walk away with successful images.
Below, I will take you through a series of tips and tricks focused on getting you ready for your upcoming beach adventure.
- Try New Things
- Don’t Forget to Have Fun
- Frequently Asked Questions
Having the right gear can make or break a beach photography outing. However, if you are just starting out, I recommend beginning with just a camera and one lens. Any digital camera and lens will suffice, but it is best to use a wide-angle lens, more on that below. There is no benefit over a DSLR or mirrorless camera for beach photography.
Once you are hooked on creating amazing images of the beach and ocean, there is the specific gear you can add to your kit in order to create more stunning images and a more enjoyable experience.
1. Use a Tripod
A tripod is the first piece of equipment beyond a camera and lens you want for beach photography. It is foundational, literally. Having a tripod will enable you to create longer exposures. When the sun sets, a tripod will enable you to continue creating images, making the most of blue hour.
When considering which tripod to purchase, bear in mind that ocean water is salty. Find one that is easy to clean. The corrosiveness of salt water can damage metal quickly, rendering a tripod useless. A carbon fiber tripod is a good choice, however, these are typically more expensive.
I like to use a ball head as it allows for the most flexibility in composing an image and is easy to manipulate.
2. Polarizing Filter
Filters are a landscape photographer’s go-to tool in many scenarios. For beach photography, polarizing filters are going to create more pop in the image. The filter essentially aligns the incoming light when it enters the lens and lands on the sensor. This helps reduce glare, which is great for water images. A polarizer filter also deepens the colors.
An added bonus with a polarizer filter is the fact it reduces the incoming light. This means you can slow your shutting speed. We will touch on that below.
Polarizing filters come in many forms and fashions. I recommend a circular polarizer because it will give complete control over how the light enters the lens. When using a polarizing filter, try to keep the sun at a 90˚ angle to the lens. This maximizes the filter’s effect.
3. Neutral Density Filters
Another way to reduce the amount of light that enters the lens is by using neutral density filters. This type of filter reduces the amount of light that enters the lens. To compensate, you have to increase the exposure.
You can raise the ISO, open up the aperture, or slow down the shutter speed. I always recommend keeping your camera at the Base ISO in order to maintain image quality. The aperture is more dependent on the subject matter. Thus, I always start by lengthening the shutter speed.
Neutral density filters come in many varieties; some screw onto the front of the lens and others are square and slide into an adapter. The thing to remember is the cheaper the filter, the greater the chances of a color cast being introduced to the image.
The filters come in varying degrees of light-stopping increments. While the nomenclature around these increments has not been standardized, generally speaking, the higher the number, the more light the filters stop.
For example, NiSi Filters go by 0.6, 0.9, 1.2, and all the way up to 6.0. Starting with a two-stop filter, the series goes up to a whopping 20 stops of light. Thus if you want the same exposure, you have to increase your exposure relatively.
4. Wide Angle Lens
A wide-angle lens is a go-to choice for many landscape photographers. As you will see below, it is the best way to create a compelling composition. I enjoy using a 14-30 mm lens as this gives me a wide range and the ability to create a vast feeling in my images.
The wider field of view will allow you to include more elements into the frame. While this can be a good thing, be sure to pay attention to every element in the composition. What I mean by this is to place things in the frame in a way that makes sense, is deliberate, and builds upon each other. The below image is a perfect example of using multiple compositional elements.
5. Maintain Cleanliness
Ocean water is the enemy to cameras. As I mentioned above, it is corrosive and can quickly render a camera useless. I once dropped a Minolta film camera in the ocean. Though it was in there a moment, it was toast.
Be careful when walking across ocean rocks and sandy surfaces. Wear good shoes that are supportive and provide solid footing.
The ocean is a wet environment and if you are photographing in inclement weather (more on that below) you will need a way to dry your lens element before creating an image.
Of course, after your successful beach photography trip, spend time cleaning your gear. Sand is ubiquitous at finding hard-to-clean surfaces and over time will wear down your gear. Ten minutes of cleaning after a session will keep your gear in top condition and ready for the next beach photography outing.
6. Always Choose RAW
Set your camera to create RAW images. If you want JPEGs to have for ease of sharing, most digital cameras today can save RAW images to one card and JPEGs to another.
RAW format is essentially an undeveloped digital negative. It is a way to create an image with as much information as possible. When you go to edit, there will be a higher degree of leniency among the darker shadows, brighter highlights, and the white balance.
This format is key to beach photography because it creates the greatest resolution and highest quality image your camera is capable of.
For example, if you forgot to switch the white balance back to auto and left it on fluorescent, you can simply change it to the correct color temperature when editing and the image quality will not be impacted.
7. Slow Down the Shutter Speed
The ocean is in constant motion. Creating images that convey this is a great way to step up your beach photography. To achieve smooth waves and create a sense of time in your photography, simply use a shutter speed slower than 1/15th of a second.
You will have to balance your exposure by stopping down the aperture and keeping the camera at its base ISO. However, sometimes it is still far too bright to get below even 1/125th of a second.
Here lies the biggest benefit of neutral density filters, see above. These filters allow the use of longer shutter speeds during the brightest part of the day.
8. Use Manual Mode
Manual mode is the best setting for beach photography. The lighting is often uneven and challenging for even the most advanced digital cameras. Manual mode allows you to creatively select which part of the image you want to be properly exposed. It also helps create silhouettes.
With manual mode, you can expose to the right easier than in Aperture-Priority or other modes. Exposing to the right guarantees the shadow and darker areas of the image are properly exposed. Be sure to avoid too much highlight clipping but know that you can pull back the highlights and whites in post without damaging the image.
Many times the foreground is darker than the sky. Because of this, I create an exposure for the sky and one for the foreground. This is called bracketing and is strongly recommended for beach photography.
9. Choose a Focal Point
This is the element in the image that draws the viewer in and keeps the eye in the photograph. Every image should have one and it is essential to great beach photography.
It is easy to create images with the ocean, the horizon, and a small wave washing ashore. But these images fall flat because there is no one focal point. Without the visual weight of a strong compositional element, the viewer’s eye will bounce around, get bored, and stop looking at the image.
Beach photography is full of focal points. Sea stacks, tide pools, clouds, people, animals; the sky is really the limit. When composing your images, find a solid focal point and use the rule of thirds to place it within the frame.
A great way to draw the viewer’s eye toward the focal point is by using leading lines. There are also plenty in beach photography. Waves and sand bars are great sources of leading lines. As are rock formations, clouds, docks, and anything that is linear in nature.
10. Find a Foreground
A solid focal point in your image is better off if it is balanced with a strong foreground. We all like to be drawn into the image from the bottom. It provides the sense that we are actually there.
Having a foreground in your image will create a sense of scale, and depth, and strengthen the composition.
Again, the elements of the coast are aplenty for a foreground element. Waves crashing into a rock can be a strong foreground element when the focal point is a lighthouse or sea stack. A colorful tide pool, full of life, is a great foreground for any beach photography.
Think outside the box and find foregrounds that stand apart from other beach photographs out there.
11. Get Low
Changing the perspective is a great tool to enhance your beach photography. We never see the world from sand level, unless sunbathing, so creating images from down low provides a unique look into an amazing location.
One of the best times to get low in your beach photography is while photographing incoming waves that are crashing on rocks. If you can find a spot where you are below the waves but will stay dry, stay there and create. It is a stellar location.
Tide pools are one of my favorite places to get low and photograph. It is an uncommon and miniature world. Creating images from a lower perspective takes this tiny world and makes it larger than life.
12. Keep the Horizon Level
We perceive the ocean as flat. Your images must have a level horizon.
If you find yourself in Lightroom editing your images and one or two are askew, there is a level tool in the crop panel. Most other editing softwares have this feature. It can save a great photo gone wonky.
13. The Golden Hour
The golden hour is the best time for beach photography. The light will be soft, and golden, and provide a dynamic scene full of shadows. This golden light will complement the blues and greens of the ocean and tidal zone.
At a certain point, the sun will be low enough towards the horizon to be photographed without losing any detail in the brightest part. This is due to atmospheric haze that gives the sun an orange low. Use this to your advantage and include the sun in your composition.
But when it sets, do not go home. Stay through the blue hour. This give or take an hour after sunset is a great time to work on your long-exposure wave images. You will not need as much power in your neutral density filters if any.
14. Sun Stars Add a Dynamic Element
But while the sun is still out, create a sun star to add a dynamic element. To achieve this, be sure your camera is stopped down to at least f/11. Then include the sun in your frame and expose it properly. You may need to bracket.
The light will ‘leak’ through the blades of the aperture and create rays. If done correctly, it will bring a whole new life to your beach photography.
Once you get the hang of it, keep it in your compositional tool kit. Pull it out whenever an image needs that extra pop.
15. Do Not Shy Away From Bad Weather
I know it can be hard to drag yourself out into a storm to create images. But in all landscape photography, those that endeavor the wind and rain, walk away with some of the most stunning images.
Clouds are essential in beach photography. A clear blue sky is boring and adds little interest to the image.
If you’re out during the golden hour and there are clouds, you will not only get to enjoy a stunning sunset but have the opportunity to create amazing beach photography.
Don’t Forget to Have Fun
That is the most important thing to remember. While beach photography can be challenging, it is not without rewards.
Next time you head to the beach, pack your camera and tripod and whatever other gear you have and put these fifteen tips to practice. Spend a few hours on the beach and with these tips in hand, you could come home with new images for your portfolio.
You do not need anything special. A camera and a lens will suffice. The camera should have a manual mode to allow full control of the image. It should also allow you to record images in RAW format.
Manual mode is by far the setting that has the most leeway. It offers complete creative control while allowing you to determine the best exposure for dynamic lighting situations.
Smooth waves synonymous with beach photography are accomplished through the use of long exposures. Either when the light is low or with filters, you can achieve this effect quite simply.
The best thing to include in your image is foreground elements. Using the rule of thirds and leading lines to direct the viewer’s eye towards your focal point is also helpful.
Beyond a camera and lens, a tripod is important to have. A polarizing filter will deepen the colors and reduce glare. Neutral density filters help when creating longer exposures.
Richard Bednarski is a freelance writer, photographer, and videographer. Photography is his passion and he draws from my experiences as an archaeologist and a father of two in order to connect with communities. He also holds a master’s degree in Media Innovation.
Richard has focused his career on documenting the American West and human stories while also writing about photography. When not writing stories that matter, Richard can be found traveling and camping with his wife and two daughters, tending a garden, baking bread, and playing the banjo.