On the beach - eight tips for shooting sea, sand, and sun


Taking photos at the beach can be a bit of a struggle, but it needn't be.

Team Photocritic is currently separated by a 25° Celsius temperature differential, so while one of us is seeing the odd snow flurry, the other is enjoying some time on the beach. Given that someone on Twitter asked us for some beach photography tips earlier this week, now seems as good a time as any to share ours.

1. Story

Every photo starts with the story, and your beach photos should be no different. It doesn't matter if your photo is a sweeping panorama, a dramatic seascape, a romantic sunset, bright and bouncy children, or a shell macro, it needs to say something. Think about what you want to convey to your audience, and you're most of the way to a great photo.

 Just me and my sandals at Mullalloo beach. And a dolphin, as it happened.

Just me and my sandals at Mullalloo beach. And a dolphin, as it happened.

2. Time of day

If you're going to the beach with the express purpose of taking photos, as opposed to playing in the sea with your children or walking the dog and taking spontaneous photos of the fun, do think about when it's best to go. You might find that avoiding the harsh midday sun and aiming for the hours around sunrise or sunset is better. Not only will the light be softer and easier to work with, but you'll get interesting shadows and effects, too.

 Catching the surfers at Bondi beach, first thing in the morning

Catching the surfers at Bondi beach, first thing in the morning

3. Exposure

With big open skies and so much reflected light from the sea and sand, exposure is probably your biggest challenge at the beach, especially if you're there during the middle of the day. Your light meter is likely going to be convinced that it can't possibly be that bright out there and will suggest an exposure value that makes all your images far too dark. Ignore it. Dial in some positive exposure compensation and things should look much better.

 Experiment with exposure compensation

Experiment with exposure compensation

4. Composition

The first rule of beach photography is to keep your horizon away from the centre of the frame. The second rule of beach photography is to ensure that your horizon is level, so that you don't make your viewers sea-sick. After that, you might think it's all plain sailing, but there is a little more to beach photography composition than that.

 This one uses the golden ratio, by the way

This one uses the golden ratio, by the way

The vast expanses of sea and sand can be a double-edged sword: they present you with a beautiful blank canvas and they can leave you wondering how best to draw attention to your subject. The secret is to draw on just about every compositional rule you can think of. You might not necessarily want to employ the entire gamut simultaneously, but do keep all of them in mind.

Use the rule of thirds. Look around for lines to direct the eye to your point of focus, whether that's the shoreline, the skyline, rows of parasols, or ridges in the sand. Think about colour theory. Bear in mind negative space. Keep a eye out for patterns and repetition. And don't forget about frame orientation.

5. Fill flash

Photos taken when the sun is overhead will likely be subjected to the ghastly misfortune of deep, dark shadows. While it might work for dramatic effect in some circumstances, I doubt it's what you want if you're photographing children playing. Introducing some fill-flash to light up your subject and balance the ambient light could be just what you need.

 Okay, so I didn't use any fill-flash here, but I do love this sea-front portrait

Okay, so I didn't use any fill-flash here, but I do love this sea-front portrait

6. White balance

You should be paying attention to your white balance whatever you're photographing, but with so much light bouncing around at the beach, it's worth giving it some extra love. Manipulating your white balance in unexpected ways can have a dramatic effect on your photos.

 Tweaked white balance

Tweaked white balance

7. Metering

We've already had words about exposure compensation, but if you're finding it really tricky to get a well-exposed photo, try switching your metering pattern. Evaluative metering is great as a general rule, but sometimes you need a little more control. Try spot-metering for stunning silhouettes or partial metering if your subject is back-lit and you want to expose it properly.

 Meter just off of, but not on, the sun for silhouettes. And remember the rule of thirds!

Meter just off of, but not on, the sun for silhouettes. And remember the rule of thirds!

8. Need a filter?

It might be worth thinking of using a polarising filter to help reduce the prevalence of glare and reflection in your beach photos. It can help to intensify the colour of sea and sky, too.

 No filter here, but don't shy away if you need one

No filter here, but don't shy away if you need one