Beach photography is not just for the summer. In fact, I find myself photographing at the beach more in the winter than I do in the summer.
In the winter the waves are more interesting and the beach itself is quieter. I especially enjoy beach photography when the weather is a little wild. When the skies are moody, the sea is churning and the sun is breaking through the cloud barrier.
Either way, though, summer or winter, the challenges are similar when photographing on the beach.
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What are the challenges of beach photography?
The three main areas of difficulty for photographing at the beach are: exposure, light and interest. Let’s look at why they are more of a challenge at the beach.
While in winter the beach may not be as bright as in summer, when it comes to setting exposure, the same rules apply.
A beach landscape is a bright and open expanse – there is a lot of sky and a lot of light coloured sand and reflective water. Just as in summer, in order not to overexpose the sky or underexpose the sand, we need a few tricks up our sleeves.
This leads to the next challenge for photographing at the beach.
On the beach, you’re very exposed to the sun. While that’s great if you’re there to work on your tan, if you’re there to take photographs, this can be challenging. Not impossible though. It just requires a bit more thought and planning than locations that offer shade.
In the city or the countryside, there will always be a lot to include in the image as a point of interest. On a beach, there is very little in comparison, especially a beach without boulders or a handy shipwreck. If you’re photographing, people, you’ve got your point of interest already, but if you’re there to photograph the landscape, you need to work a little harder.
So, you need to think carefully about what to include in the image to make it interesting.
Tips for successful beach photography
Now we know the challenges, let’s look at how to work with the environment for great beach photographs all year round.
1. How to meter for a well exposed photo
Meter off a mid-tone
If you’re inland, you can point your camera at the grass in your scene to meter the exposure. On a sandy beach, everything you point at is going to be quite bright, so your camera’s meter will be confused and will try to underexpose the shot.
In the UK most of the beaches are pebble beaches, so I look for a patch of mid-tone grey pebbles and use spot metering. Even better, use a grey card to meter the exposure.
Override your camera’s metering system
If you don’t have any of the above, use exposure compensation or shoot in manual mode and overexpose by a stop or two. Viewing your images on the back of the camera will be difficult, so keep an eye on the histogram instead to make sure your exposure is okay, especially if you’ve got sparkly or reflective water in frame.
Further reading on exposure: How and when to use exposure compensation
2. How to handle the light at the beach
Shoot at the best time of day
The time of day you photograph at the beach is really important as you don’t want to be out there when the sun is high in the sky. At the start and end of the day the sun is at a lower angle, which is more flattering for portraits and brings out texture for more interesting landscapes.
Shoot into the sun
Speaking of photographing people, although it is more difficult for you, it is better if the sun is behind your subject so that they are not squinting into the light. Then use a reflector or a flash to fill in the shadows and so avoid blowing out the bright background. If you really want the light behind you, use a diffuser to soften the shadows on your subject.
Further reading: How to use a reflector properly and why you really need one
Another handy tip is to use a polarising filter to bring out the blue in the sky and make clouds stand out. Polarising filters are also great for cutting through reflection on water.
Prevent lens flare
Lastly, ensure that direct sunlight doesn’t hit your lens, unless you want lens flare. Use a lens hood and, if you need further shade, use your hand to shade your lens. If you have someone with you, ask them to block the light and cast a shadow over your lens (another handy use for a reflector).
3. How to make a beach photo more interesting
Find a focal point
A flat, sandy beach without a focal point for interest can be a bit dull, even though it is beautiful. So look for points of interest to include in your image, like rocks in the foreground, a lifeguard hut, people, dogs, boats etc.
Compose with the horizon in mind
If you’re including the horizon in your image, make sure that you’re holding the camera straight. A wonky horizon is really going to stand out in a beach photo and ruin the shot. Speaking of horizons, don’t put it in the middle of your photo, make the composition more interesting by having your horizon one third from the bottom of the image, or if you want a lot of foreground, make the horizon one third from the top of the image.
Further reading: Why you need to know the rule of thirds – and how easy it is
4. Camera care
An additional point to consider when photographing at the beach is keeping your camera safe from sand, water and wind.
Don’t ever put your camera down on the sand. If your hands get sandy, wipe the sand off thoroughly before handling your camera. Getting sand in your camera would be disastrous.
Likewise water. While it is very tempting to get down close to the water for an interesting viewpoint or to shoot reflections, be very aware of waves, even if they’re gentle. It is too easy to get lost in the viewfinder and not think about the water.
Wind and beaches go hand in hand, especially in winter. While a whipped up sea looks great in photos, changing a lens at the beach is asking for trouble. The moment you open up your camera you’re allowing salty sea air inside. Stay safe and don’t change your lens at the beach, especially if the wind is blowing.
That’s it, you’re all set for photographing at the beach in summer or winter! Or a salt flat for that matter.
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