How To Take Great Beach Photos – Essential Tips

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One of the most popular ways to get out of the house, whether for a vacation or a weekend getaway, is to pack up and head to the beach. You don't have to wait in line to get in, there's plenty of room for everyone and there's no dress code. In addition, you can work on your tan after spending all week under the artificial lights of home and the office.

And if you like to document your adventures with your digital camera, the beach is an excellent location with plenty of light and color to liven up your photographs. Although you do have to take precautions when using your camera at the beach, you don't want to get sand in your lens or get sand kicked in your face (not everyone wants to be photographed in their swimsuits), if you follow these techniques, you can come away with some memorable photographs.

Seek out interesting subjects

If you just whip out your camera and take a picture of the open sand, sea and sky, you will likely impress no one. Sure, you may have a beautiful landscape, but there will be nothing to distinguish it from the thousands of boring photos of open land, sea and sky that already exist. Find something to make your photographs stand out: a sand castle one of your kids made, a crab fighting its way through the tide, your significant other buried in the sand with the sun setting behind their head. Look for subjects to focus on while letting the beautiful scenery serve as the backdrop for your composition.

Time of day makes a difference

If you know what kinds of photos you want to take, you can get more productive use of your time by choosing a time of day that is most appropriate for your goals. If you want human interest, or you want to focus on the chaos of the crowds, plan to shoot midday when more people are on the beach. There will be lots of activity and plenty of opportunity to capture interesting interactions between people and nature. The trade-off is that the sun will be high and bright, so expect less-interesting lighting during this time of day. However, if you want a more creative lighting environment, plan to shoot earlier in the morning or later in the evening. The sun will be lower in the sky and will make longer and deeper shadows on your subjects as well as provide richly-colored skies as a backdrop. There will also be fewer people on the beach if you want to focus on the scenery.

Consider the placement of the skyline

The best way to make your beach photographs look amateurish is to skew the skyline. Try to keep it horizontal in your picture plane. But do try to offset it a bit from center so that your photos do not look too symmetrical and boring. You also might want to read up on picture composition. Your photographs will start looking like they were shot by a pro.

Don't be afraid of the weather

When everyone else is avoiding the beach, you might want to show up and take advantage of the unique environment. How many stormy beach photos have you seen? The rolling waves and dark, foreboding cloud cover can make for some compelling shooting opportunities. Just watch out for lightning.

Beach photo
Beach in Crikvenica, Croatia. Photo taken by Jan Polzer

Experiment with your manual controls

If you camera allows it, play around with your exposure controls to make your shots more interesting. Often the bright sun and reflections on the beach will cause your camera's auto exposure to wash out your shots. It is programmed for a more typical range of photographs in and around the house. You'll often find that if you drop the exposure by a few levels below what the camera automatically selects, you'll take photos with a richer color palette.

Use the in-camera meter

One tool that has always set professional photographers apart from amateurs is the light meter, which no pro would be without. While you probably don't own or even need one of these devices, your camera may have a build-in meter that lets you base the exposure on the brightness of a particular area of the picture plane. That way if you want to photograph something in a shady spot, you can get a proper exposure on your subject rather than the camera basing its exposure on the average brightness of all objects in the frame. It's a very useful feature if you have it.

Use secondary lighting

If you have ever had your picture taken in a studio, you probably noticed the various lights at different angles that the photographer used. They may also have used a reflection card or photo umbrellas to direct the lighting. These devices are used when photographing people to counter the hard shadows caused by direct lighting sources across a person's face, making the resulting images softer and more pleasing. You can get the same affect with a fill flash or by using a white sheet or beach umbrella to reflect secondary lighting into the shadow areas of your subject.

Filter the natural light

Professional photographers never use a naked lens. They always use some kind of filter on the camera, and one of the most commonly used one is the UV filter, which is like putting a pair of sunglasses on your camera. Besides protecting the lens from scratches, which is especially an issue in the field, it eliminates the ultraviolet haze that can affect photographs taken in direct sunlight.

Weed out unwanted reflections

Another common filter that the pros use is the polarizing filter. While also protecting the lens (any filter does this), this filter helps to eliminate unwanted reflections in direct sunlight by redirecting the chaotic direction of sunlight into more uniform paths. You'll also find that this filter improves the contrast in your images and gives you deeper ranges of values in your skies.

Get artsy with your photos

One trick to make your photos look like a photographic artist rather than a weekend tourist did them is to load your work into an image manipulation program (like Photoshop or GIMP) and convert it to black and white. This technique really highlights the tonal values in landscape photography and will give your photos a classy look. While you are in the program, consider adjusting your brightness/contrast controls to see how playing with the lighting in post-processing can enhance your final product.