Beaches are a great source of inspiration and are brimming with photographic opportunities. However, photographing them presents a few unique challenges. Here are a few tips to help you maximise your next outing at the beach.
Use a polarising filter
A polarising filter is one of the best gadgets in the beach photographer’s bag because it reduces reflections, intensifies the colours and boosts contrast. You’ll be amazed by the results. It’s particularly effective with skies (it produces deep, rich blue skies) and oceans (it lets you look beneath the surface and makes waters look vibrant). It’s an affordable accessory (count on US$100 for a decent-quality polarising filter) and is easy to use - once it’s mounted on the lens, it just needs to be rotated by the photographer, who adjusts the level of the polarising effect.
Beaches offer fantastic opportunities to capture water sports scenes. Surfing, windsurfing, kitesurfing, fishing, snorkelling, kayaking, divers getting equipped – there’s no shortage of photogenic subjects. A fast shutter speed (aim for 1/1000) is essential to freeze the action and capture the moment with great detail. Most watersports require a good telephoto lens (in the 150-200mm range) as the subjects are usually offshore and you need to fill the frame.
Vary the settings and compositions
Not all beaches are created equal, so don’t stay on just one. Some may be exposed to big waves, backed by cliffs and fringed with green foliage, while others are rocky with still waters. Depending on the location, the sands have different textures and colours - it may be as soft as talcum powder, pink (from crushed corals), white, tawny, golden, black (from crushed lava), pebbly...
The backdrop is another parameter to play with and can offer various interesting patterns: palm or fir trees, mangroves, sea grasses, algae, boulders, rugged outcrops, lava rock, fishing boats, shacks, hotels, houses, piers, animals, reflections seen in the water’s edge... Another way to add interest and atmosphere to your beach landscapes is to shoot from different heights (eg, from a cliff, a dune, a lifesaver’s tower, etc). The combination of all these factors give a different feel to each beach location and will add dynamism to your pictures.
Kids building sandcastles, friends lazing on their towels, people playing in the surf... opportunities for taking portraits are rife. Frame and use a fast shutter speed. Don’t forget the flash; in broad daylight, a flash unit will fill in (and remove) shadows on a person’s face or under the eyes (especially if they wear hats, caps or sunglasses. Most cameras have built-in flash units with a fill-flash feature. Make close ups, but also zoom out to incorporate background and offer a context.
Don’t think that beach photography is only a matter of expansive views. It pays to change perspective and look beyond the cliche shots. Take the time to look around you for close-ups of patterns and textures – you’ll be surprised at how many subjects lie at your feet, literally. Start with footprints in the sand, small wild flowers growing in the dunes, sea shells half-buried in the sand. Zoom in on details and look for compositions and abstracts that are original and aesthetically pleasing. Play with the shapes of the rocks, the ripples in the sand, the waves pounding on the shore. Rock pools are also great subjects, with lots of tiny critters, such as starfish and crabs, that can easily be captured. Don’t forget your macro lens.
Beaches are interesting any time of the day because lighting conditions and sun angle at various times create altogether different atmospheres, feelings and effects. The late afternoon sun can offer some exceptionally eye-catching beach photographs, with lengthened shadows (of trees, boats, people) across the sand and warmer, golden hues. Sunsets are a great time for capturing enigmatic silhouettes. Early morning is also ideal, if only because there are fewer people.
Don’t be put off by inclement weather - storms, crashing waves and dramatic clouds can make for atmospheric scenes.
Protect your gear
Beaches are a harsh environment - salt water spray, wind, heat, rain and sand can take their toll on your lenses and may cause corrosion very quickly. You wouldn’t guess the amount of damage a few grains of sand can inflict on your gear. One cardinal rule is to avoid changing lenses or swapping memory cards on the beach; that will keep sand particules or stray droplets from sneaking in. If you do have to change kit, do so in a protected or sheltered area. Get a good camera bag to store all your gear and use a plastic bag to keep your equipment covered or continually wipe it clean with a cloth to avoid corrosion.
Bound for the beach in the near future? Pack a copy of Lonely Planet's Guide to Travel Photography.