Beach photography :: Digital Photo Secrets

Beach photography

by David Peterson 5 comments

If seascapes are about nature, then beach photos are about people. I don't have to tell you that your approach to each of these subjects is going to be very different. When shooting the water, rocks and the shoreline in general, you want to communicate a mood of tranquillity and beauty, or perhaps even one of ferocity, depending of course on the weather. But when you're shooting the beach on a sunny day, you've got a very different mood to capture. Summer fun, family time, youth, sports and recreation - you're going to need to tempo up a little and change your perspective. Here are a few tips for getting the most out of those beach photos.

  • Nikon D300
  • 100
  • f/20.0
  • 0.008 sec (1/125)
  • 35 mm

Everyone needs a getaway by Flickr user kennymatic

Don't forget to follow a few basic rules

You have to use a little bit of caution when taking photos at the beach, because it's not exactly the same sort of environment as other public places. People in swimsuits, for example, may not want to be photographed. As a general rule, don't photograph strangers at the beach unless you get permission first. Remember that in many places there are regulations about photographing people you don't know, especially children. And even if your intentions are entirely innocent some people won't perceive it that way, so if you'd like to photograph a child you don't know ask his parents for permission first. This could potentially help you avoid a legal problem or worse, having sand kicked on your camera.

About that sand

(and other beach hazards)

Speaking of sand, remember that the beach is fun but fraught with peril, especially for cameras. While you will certainly require sunscreen, make sure that sunscreen doesn't get on your camera - especially if it's a camera with a shiny paint job. Sunscreen can corrode paint, so always wash your hands after applying it and before touching your camera. And if you're using the spray-on stuff, make sure you stand downwind from your camera.

And of course you already know about sand, and the havoc it can wreak on your camera if you don't take precautions. But it's worth repeating, because just one moment of carelessness might actually destroy your beloved DSLR.

— Expired films & backpacks 4. by Flickr user -MRGT

If sand gets inside your camera, it can ruin the electronics. It can scratch your lens, it can clog buttons and it can penetrate the gears inside your equipment. You may even be able to hear its maniacal laughter as it mercilessly murders the thing you love. So don't let it. Following a few simple rules will prevent the worst from happening, as long as you follow them every single time you go to the beach.

  1. Don't bring your camera to the beach on a windy day. You will almost certainly have a nasty encounter with that nemesis of all beach photographers.
  2. Don't ever change lenses at the beach. Pick one and stick with it. Leave the others at home. Changing lenses on the beach is like opening a door to those little invaders and inviting them inside.
  3. Don't ever put your camera down in the sand. Sand will find its way in.
  4. If you think you got sand in your camera, don't be tempted to turn it on to see if it still works. It may actually still work, and that's the danger. Turning it on will get those gears moving, which will get that sand wedged into places you don't want it to go, and then it may stop working for good. Instead, keep the camera turned off until you can take it to someone who has experience in cleaning sand out of cameras.
  5. Put a rain sleeve on your camera. This will help protect it from sand and will also have the double bonus of protecting it from saltwater, which can have a corrosive effect on your equipment.
  6. Ask yourself how important those photos are. If you're trying to create a masterpiece, a DSLR is certainly warranted. But if you're just taking snapshots for your family scrapbook, consider a "tough" point and shoot camera. These cameras are waterproof, impact proof and most importantly can be washed in water after use. The same construction that keeps water out of the inside of these cameras will also prevent sand from getting in - and if you get sand in any of the cracks and crevices on the outside of the camera, you can simply soak it in water and the sand will wash away.

Now for the photos

Once you're quite sure your camera is protected from sand and sunscreen, you're ready to start taking photos. Remember that people are the heart and soul of most beach photos, though you can certainly get an excellent shot of a beach without them. Even so, those people are going to be implied by those lone flip flops, standing beach umbrellas or footprints in the sand.

Go early, go late

In beach photography, the magic hour isn't only useful because of the golden light (although golden light is particularly beautiful against sand) but also because there will be fewer people on the beaches at those times, which will make it easier to find a focal point and keep those often-distracting crowds out of the background.

  • Kodak DX7590 Zoom
  • 80
  • f/4.5
  • 0.001 sec (1/1000)
  • 6.3 mm

Tropea2007 - Under the sun by Flickr user de²

Look for color

Short of finding some way to magically capture the heat itself, nothing says summer like bright colors. Beach umbrellas, beach towels, colorful beach toys - all of these things make for photos that scream "summertime."

  • Canon EOS 350D Digital
  • 100
  • f/14.0
  • 0.017 sec (1/60)
  • 20 mm

imperfection by Flickr user davidmmcneil

Find some unique angles

We've all seen photos of kids running through the water or building sand castles. While these shots can still be fun, you should try to mix it up with some unique angles. Try shooting in macro mode--a piece of interesting driftwood, for example, or a pair of sunglasses shot from beach-level with the ocean in the background might make for a cool photo. Or try getting a long shot of the entire beach from a higher vantage point. Or, start from a footprint in the sand and then let those tracks lead your viewer's eyes to the child who made them. Try wading out into the water with your well-protected or waterproof camera, and get some shots from the waves looking towards the beach.

Pay attention to the light

You may have no choice but to shoot at noon, and you already know how challenging that can be. If you find that your subjects all have raccoon eyes, try using a turning on your flash or a portable reflector to minimize those shadows (this tip is particularly important if the sun is behind your subject, unless you want him to appear as a silhouette).

Beach Scene Mode

Your camera will likely take photos that are a little dark when at the beach because the bright sunlight and reflections confuses it's light meter. So set Beach scene mode on your camera.

Or try using exposure compensation (which is all beach mode actually does). Keep checking the images in your viewfinder and make adjustments as the light changes. You can also use spot metering to meter for your subject's face, which may mean the rest of your scene will be poorly exposed but will ensure that your subject is correctly lit.

Remember of course that bright light calls for a low ISO (100 or 200) and a small aperture (f/22 or so). Your shutter speed will probably also be fairly fast.

Bring UV and polarizing filters

(and maybe even a neutral density filter)

A UV filter is particularly important because it will help protect your camera from that aforementioned evil sand. But you may also find yourself needing a polarizing filter, which will help darken the sky on a bright day and will cut back on unwanted reflections. You might also want to consider bringing a neutral density filter, which will reduce the intensity of the light and allow you to slow down your shutter speed, just in case you want to capture some motion blur.

Some ideas for subjects

We've already discussed ways to find unique angles, now let's look for some unique subjects, or unique ways to approach obvious subjects. It's very easy to fall into the creative doldrums at the beach. Those standard photos of beachgoers doing beachy things can get tedious if you don't find an interesting way to present them. Remember that even if you are just shooting for your family album, breaking up all those endless shots of family fun is a good idea, even if it's just to give those beach photos some context and uniqueness.

Kids. If you're a parent, you already have a great subject or subjects on hand every time you go to the beach: your kids. Remember to shoot active kids with a faster shutter speed (1/400 or greater) and get down to their level. As adults, we already see the world from a 5 to 6 foot plus perspective - but a compelling photo of a child needs to be seen from her level, or maybe even slightly below. Make sure to include plenty of context with your kid shots: keep that ocean in the background, and make sure your viewer can see all that sand (which of course is nowhere near your vulnerable camera).

Silhouettes. You don't always want to avoid backlight; in fact, backlight can create interesting images of beachgoers. Backlight in the late afternoon says, "we've been here all day and don't want to stop having fun, even though the sun is going down." To capture a silhouette, simply shoot your subject with the sunset behind him.

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
  • 100
  • f/2.8
  • 1/4000 sec
  • 16 mm

Surfer feelin' good by Flickr user Garry -

Reflections. The sunlight reflecting off of the water can have a certain kind of charm--so can reflections in sunglasses, wet expanses of sand and other reflective surfaces. Try capturing a whole scene in a reflection, or just focus on the interesting way that the setting sun reflects on wet surfaces or the water itself.

Beach stuff. Those beach umbrellas, beach towels, flip-flops, sand castle construction equipment and beach balls can all make for colorful and interesting focal points, both with or without beachgoers.

    Naples Fishing Pier Sunset at Beach by Flickr user Captain Kimo

    Man-made structures. Sailboats on the water are an obvious photographic opportunity, but don't forget about wooden piers, boats that have been pulled up on the shore, or even interesting bits of beach junk that have been washed up by the tide.

    Happy pup by Flickr user Kevin Conor Keller

    Animals. Dogs are great fun at the beach and can make for wonderful photographic subjects. Try capturing a dog frolicking in the waves or just watching the surf. Photograph some seagulls while you're at it, or even better, snap a picture of that dog chasing the seagulls. And don't neglect those smaller life-forms too - tide pools are great places to find good photos. A child staring at wonder at a starfish in a tide pool is an even better photo.

    The beach at night. Bonfires on the beach after sunset (where legal of course) can make for some great shots, too. If you're planning a camping trip to the beach or just a gathering with some friends, this can be another opportunity for great photos. And don't forget those city lights if you happen to be in a place with an urban beach or a beach boardwalk.

    Sports. The beach is a great place for an impromptu volleyball game or water sports like surfing, parasailing, jet-skiing, kayaking etc. All of these activities can make for great action shots. Turn up your shutter speed to freeze the action or try to capture some motion blur - either way you're bound to come up with an interesting image.

    Yes, the beach can be a scary place for a DSLR - but that shouldn't intimidate you too much as long as you take the precautions outlined above so that your camera will be protected from that destructive little grain of sand and all of its friends. But if you think your DSLR is going to hold you back, just put that waterproof/sand proof/impact proof point and shoot on a floating wrist strap and get out there in the water with everyone else. Either way, don't let the fear of a little sand convince you to keep your camera at home. A damaged camera is a tragic thing, but missing all those shots would be pretty tragic, too. And you don't have to suffer either tragedy if you prepare, use caution and respect the sand.

    [Also see 24 Outstanding Beach Photos]

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    1. Helen Neal says:


    2. alicia says:

      thank you for all the tips and ideas. I greatly appreciate them :)

    3. Buddy says:

      There is no law against photographing people at the beach, kids or adults. There are other laws about privacy can't photograph people where they expect privacy. You can't publish the image of a kid with their name and location that is under protective custody. You can't publish people in a way that damages their character. There are also moral boundaries, respect those unless you want to get in to a is not much fun being right if you get hurt. You can not legally harrass people either, so if they ask you to stop, you must try to accomodate them. For police, be polite, but offer them no invitations to look at your may be okay for them to casually push view on your camera lcd to scan the images, but its not okay for them insert and read and view your external cards without a warrant....your photographs can not be deleted.

    4. David Peterson says:


      Do you mean watermark your photos? How to watermark


    5. Ansie Clementz says:

      Thank you for the interesting tips. Could you tell me how to sign my photographs? Regards, Ansie.

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    16 minutes
    About David Peterson
    David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.