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Beach photography guide and tips

Beach scenes are often tricky to shoot because they’re subject to changing sun, wind, water, and light conditions

How to take better beach photos

Beautiful beaches have always captured the attention of people around the world. No wonder beach photography is a popular choice amongst photographers, from beginners to experts. Beach photography focuses not only on the surrounding landscape features like the waves, coastline, sand dunes, or horizon, but it can also encompass the people or wildlife that occupy beaches. 

Beach scenes are often tricky to shoot because they’re subject to changing sun, wind, water, and light conditions. This means beaches can vary from peaceful and serene to energetic and dynamic, sometimes at a moment’s notice. However, with the proper knowledge, techniques, and equipment, you’ll be able to capture memories, inspire creativity, and share the beauty of beach landscapes with others. This article covers tips for making great beach images, including lighting, composition, and the best shooting techniques.

Tips for taking great beach photos

Lighting matters

When approaching beach photography, timing the light available is everything. Lighting can change rapidly, especially with the movement of the sun, clouds, and tides. When shooting at a beach, it’s essential to pay attention to how light affects the mood and atmosphere of a scene and how you can use it to your advantage by tracking weather patterns and sunlight paths

For example, soft, warm light, such as early morning or late evening light, can create a peaceful and tranquil atmosphere, while harsh, bright light (think midday sun) can create a dramatic and intense mood. Another critical factor to consider is the light's direction at the beach. There are many ways to think about light at the beach, but in simpler terms, there is backlighting, side lighting, front lighting, and overhead lighting. 

Backlighting occurs when the light source is positioned behind your subject, causing it to be lit from the back. In beach photography, the sun is often a natural backlight source. It can create a beautiful halo effect, creating unique silhouettes in your beach scenes that contrast the subject with the background. Backlighting can make for dramatic, moody scenes. 

Backlighting also lends itself to sun stars, the star-like streaks of light that occur when taking photos in the direction of the sun, either directly or indirectly. Sun stars happen when an object such as your subject,  a palm tree, or even the edge of a cloud partially blocks the sun. When the sun is partially blocked, the light from the sun spreads out into beautiful rays or stars. You’re more likely to capture sun stars using a small aperture (or high f-number). Try experimenting with different apertures until you see something you like. Sun stars are a unique and striking way to create depth in beach images since beach landscapes can often feel expansive with endless sand, ocean, and sky. 

It’s not all rainbows and sunshine, though—backlighting can pose challenges such as overexposure and lens flare since the camera can be overwhelmed by the bright light source. To deal with these issues, try using lens hoods and polarizing filters to manage the light and control the exposure. 

Front lighting refers to light that is directly in front of the subject. Front lighting creates a soft, even light that flatters the subject and helps to reduce harsh shadows. Besides, when the sun is low in the sky, it has a warm, golden quality that can add a sense of nostalgia to your beach photos. Front lighting can also create a flat, featureless image, which, when done well, can create uncanny, surreal images similar to Kelia Anne MacCluskey's portrait work

Overhead lighting occurs when the sun is high in the sky. It creates harsh shadows that can be unflattering and detract from a beach’s natural beauty, and it can also cause overexposure in the brightest parts of the image, leading to a loss of detail in these areas.

However, if used correctly and you’re daring enough to work with it, overhead lighting can create interesting and unique images. For example, if your subject is a person lying on the beach, the overhead light can create a contrasting look with sharp shadows and highlights. Overhead lighting can be beneficial for portraits and beach fashion photography.

Side lighting is when light falls on a subject roughly ninety degrees to the camera. In beach photography, side lighting happens when the sun is at an angle to the subject. For example, your subject is lit from one side while the other is mainly in the shadows. Side lighting can add depth and dimension to a scene by contouring the side of your subject. Depending on which direction the beach you are shooting faces, sidelight may or may not be as prominent as the previously mentioned types of lighting. 

Composition is key

It may seem obvious, but creating a focal point in your beach images is important. It’s easy to lose depth when your photo is comprised of endless sand, water, and sky. A strong focal point draws the eye in and creates a main point of interest in the image.

Here are some tips to help you create a strong focal point in your beach photos:

Create contrast: Highlighting the subject by creating contrast between it and the surrounding environment can make it stand out as the focal point. Lighting is a great way to create contrast and focal points. For example, you can use backlighting or side lighting to create a bright edge around the subject or position it against a darker background to create a more dramatic difference.

Lead the eye: You can use elements in the scene to lead the eye to the focal point. For example, try using leading lines or shapes in the natural environment to direct the viewer's gaze toward the subject. Sand dunes, rocks, waves, sand, and even clouds can all be used as leading lines.

Use simplicity: By reducing the number of elements in the scene, you can make the subject the dominant feature and create a clear focal point. Simplicity can be particularly effective for beach landscapes, where an uncomplicated composition can help emphasize the scene's beauty and tranquility.

Experiment with scale: With a subject at hand to give scale, it can be easier to create a center of interest in beach photography. Simply by using an aspect of the landscape or including a person for scale, you can create a strong focal point. To take it a step further, experiment with the size of your subject in relation to the beach landscape and surrounding elements. For example, photographing a small, isolated subject, such as a unique shell against the vast, expansive background of the ocean, creates a dramatic focal point.

Below are some other composition tips to level up your beach photography skills. 

Play with symmetry: Symmetrical compositions can create a sense of balance and order in a scene. There’s something about perfectly symmetrical beach umbrellas that just feels right.

Frame your subject: Use elements in the environment to frame the photo's subject, such as trees, rocks, or even people. Try experimenting with the coastline around you, creating foreground interest by framing the beach with sand dunes. 

Include negative space: If you’re at a heavily trafficked beach, try including empty space in your beach photos to create a more dynamic sense of tranquility and emphasize whatever your subject may be. Even if the beach and sand are filled with people, there’s plenty of other negative space to work with: the clear blue sky or the endless ocean.

Experiment with different perspectives: Try shooting from high up or lying down on the sand to get a different perspective. Experimenting with different viewpoints can lead to unique and creative compositions. You might want to focus on textures in the sand or reflections on the water. Aerial beach photography is another great way to mix up perspectives. Gray Malin is one of the best aerial beach photographers out there, and his style creates a view that showcases the scale of the world’s colorful coastlines. It used to be much harder to achieve aerial beach photography—helicopters can be expensive to charter. But with the proliferation of drones, aerial beach photography is more accessible than ever.

Shooting techniques show range

Below are three shooting techniques to experiment with in your beach photography. 

  • Long exposures capture an extended period in a single image through slow shutter speeds. Long exposures create a sense of motion and flow, a technique often used to capture waves or clouds. Don’t forget to use a tripod to keep your camera steady or have a neutral density filter handy to reduce the amount of light that enters your lens.
  • Panoramic shots involve taking multiple images of a scene and stitching them together to create a single, wide-angle image. Panoramic images can capture just how expansive some beach landscapes are, providing a more immersive experience for the viewer. You’ll want to have your tripod handy for this technique as well. Or, your camera might automatically stitch your images together for you.
  • High shutter speeds mean capturing images at a high frame rate, typically in the range of several frames per second. Think of sports photography, which freezes motion, like a surfer making a fierce bottom turn on a wave, or something as simple as waves crashing on the shore or pelicans diving for fish. High-speed photography requires a fast shutter speed, a high frame rate, and a fast memory card to capture the images.

Beach photography is an important form of visual storytelling that captures memories, inspires creativity, and shares the beauty of the beach with others. It’s a place to document precious memories like a day spent at the beach with friends and family or a special engagement. It’s also a way to preserve a particular moment in nature, like a whale flipping its tail in the air or a bird riding a wave. There are plenty of reasons to shoot beach landscapes, but here at VSCO, we hope you make images because photography inspires your creativity. Use it to tell stories that matter to you or simply create captivating images to share the natural world’s beauty with others. Just remember to carry an air blower and lens cloth so you can keep your camera gear clean—sand can end up in places you wouldn’t think possible.

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