Spots where sand, sea, and sky come together offer certain challenges to photographers, but the results can be so amazingly rewarding. Conditions can change quickly as the sun hides behind a cloud, and conditions most certainly change slowly as the tides sink and rise and the sun and moon dance across the sky. The same patch of sea may be mirror calm and reflecting golden light, or it may be a churn of furious waves. Fogs, mists, and wind-whipped sand can make for gorgeous images even as they fool camera meters. There’s a world of possibilities waiting to be captured along these edges, whenever you visit, and with whatever Sigma lens you’ve got in your bag.
Beachscapes can be blocks of simple Euclidian geometry, with squares and triangles defining the divisions between sky, sea and sand, and beachscapes can also be amazingly complex explorations of fractal geometry. Depending on the time, and tide, and weather, and season, you may have a beach to yourself, or you may be one of the multitudes of people, or birds, at the edge of the sea. Empty or packed, blazing or misty, there’s amazing photos to be made. And from Fisheye to supertelephoto, any and every lens has great potential for the beach. Let’s go exploring!
Beach photography presents a couple of technical, physical, and aesthetic challenges for photographers. Let’s quickly tackle these.
Sand, the water, and the sun and moon can all wreak havoc with in-camera metering. Massive amounts of sand in the frame can lead to underexposure by fooling the meter, so if there’s a lot of sand, you’ve got to crank exposure compensation up a stop or so. Depending on the time of day, water can be dark, leading to the inverse of the sand exposure issue, or it can be reflecting sunlight sparkles, which also can throw off in-camera metering. And whenever the sun or moon are in the metered frame, these can confuse the camera’s meters. I usually spot-meter off something near 18% gray, and study the histogram and readjust as necessary in manual exposure mode. But it’s also very effective to employ exposure compensation in program modes after taking a few test shots.
Here are some of my basic exposure rules by the sea:
If there’s too much sand in the frame, I overexpose off the metered reading.
If there’s a lot of dark water in the frame, I underexpose off the metered reading.
If there’s a sun, or moon in the frame, I’ll meter off the sky nearby, but with the hot circle out of the frame. And this goes the same for sparkling waters.
Any time I use fill-flash, I meter for the background and dial the flash back ⅔ to 1 ⅓ stop–this works great for natural looking sunset portraiture.
If the overall dynamic range of the scene is compressed significantly due to foggy, misty, or twilight conditions, I’ll expose as far to the right without white clip as possible. You will get much cleaner images if you build back a black point rather than push darker tones towards the highlights.
And obviously, between the sand and the salty, moisture-rich air, and the crashing waves, there’s a couple of things that could seriously foul up some camera gear. Luckily, I’ve not had a serious accident involving gear damage, but I have had some close calls. The most important thing is to be alert and assess the conditions before putting you and your gear in a precarious position. Dropping a lens or a camera on the sand can be disastrous, and getting whomped by a big wave can really ruin an otherwise amazing photo adventure.
I’m now religious about using camera straps on the beach to prevent another unintentional camera drop, and I make sure the camera and lens is blocked from even the slightest breeze before swapping lenses. When I’m using a tripod or monopod, the legs are protected from the sand either by standing atop my sandals or inside couple of plastic bags. And when not in use, lifeguard stands can also offer a degree of security for hanging a bag during a gear swap.
Keeping gear safe is important, but much more important is keeping yourself safe. Always be mindful of rising tides that can easily cut off your exit route over the course of just a few minutes. Beach rocks can be slippery, even when appearing bone-dry. Sets of waves can be small for a long while, followed without warning by a much larger set that may knock you over and swamp your gear. Be mindful to not get so engrossed in the view through the lens that you don’t see what’s happening in the bigger picture!
And sunscreen is always a smart idea in the daylight, as it is all too easy to get engrossed in the magic of making photos and lose track of time. And in the warmer months, it’s always wise to have some bug spray in your kit for any outdoor adventures.
The most important thing is to make sure you use the lens you’ve chosen to make the strongest possible composition to tell the story you’re trying to tell. A photo may mean to convey a feeling of loneliness, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a clear visual path through the image or a defined focal point, or a rhythm of some sort. Look for patterns, and layers of intrigue to bring depth and an emotion into the image. And as you look for patterns, look for the asymmetry, too.
Wide angle lenses–both Fisheyes and rectilinears– can be amazing for landscapes and beachscapes, but be sure not to fall into trap of trying to take too much of everything in, without having an obvious focal point or some strong leading lines in the image. Use the ability of wide lenses to emphasize a foreground element, and experiment with your angles. The same scene shot with the same ultrawide lens at a slightly different camera height and angle can have significantly different feels! Let’s explore the same 20×20 square of rocky beachline with a 15mm Fisheye and 8-16mm ultrawide zoom.
Ultrawides and Fisheyes are also fantastic for making digitally stitched panoramic images. And with each generation of software, the tools are becoming so much more refined. The newest build of Adobe Photoshop, CS6, recently did an amazing job of merging three ultrawide slides of mine from a visit to Orient Bay on Saint Martin back in 2001, made with the Sigma 17-40mm F2.8-4.0 which was my trusted ultrawide for many years.
Use your lenses to their strengths whenever possible. It’s something you can’t repeat as a photographer too many times! For example, Fisheye lenses curve the field to take in a huge angle of view, and this can be used as a compositional element very effectively at the beach. Let’s check out two photos where lines were deliberately put near the edge of the frame to take advantage of the curved field.
Use your lenses to their strengths whenever possible. It’s something you can’t repeat as a photographer too many times! For example, Macro lenses can bring tiny things to a grand scale, and also close-focus on a small detail with lovely defocused background for a very different take on the scene in front of you. And of course, a macro is also great for portraiture and as a general lens, too!
Any beach photography article without a mention of birds would incomplete. Birds and beaches are forever entwined. But depending on the species, the location, and even the whims and caprices of individuals, they may be fearless and allow you to get very close, or they may be very, very skittish. In my experiences, it is usually the latter. But when it all comes together, shots of birds from the beach can be so rewarding. But please remember to always be respectful of marked and unmarked nesting sites. On many beaches, nesting areas for endangered shorebirds are off-limits. Respect the boundaries and make shots from outside any cordoned-off areas. Don’t chase, and chase, and chase a particularly skittish bird. Slow down, relax, and they may become more comfortable with your distance. And if not, move on and find something else to point your camera at!
I’ve been to a lot of beaches around the world, and even as the same stretch of beach may be very different from day-to-day, so does every beach in the world have its own character, its own energy, and its own feel based on both the whims and caprices of natural and human history. There are amazing tools available for online research to learn about any given patch of sand. Google Earth offers fantastic virtual location scouting, and there’s very often a lot of photos to view for reference. Travel sites describe what’s unique about this or that locale,, and a bit of advance research can go a long way. Check the tide tables and moon and sun rise tools such as the Photographer’s Ephemeris and Astroid to plan the perfect time for your shoot, and it can make your shots even stronger. Do some virtual footwork in advance, and don’t be afraid to talk to the locals–they probably can share a lot of great tips for what happens on the local beaches. And check with local Audubon chapters and the state and county wildlife commission to see what birds pass through at different times of the year.
And don’t think sunset means the end of making photos on the beach! Bring a tripod and explore the dark side of beach photography, too. Long exposures can turn the water into misty, smoky, ethereal flows. Star trails above a surfline offer opportunities, as do moonlit nightscapes. I’m very excited to experimenting with some star trail and Milky Way Time lapses later this summer during a visit to Cape May. Be sure to check back for updates!
There’s a world of images waiting where the sand meets the sea. My advice is always going to be the same: pack your gear, do some research before you go, and then go whenever you possibly can! Explore, learn, and enjoy the experience. Any time of day, any day of the year, you’ve got the right gear to make some great beach images!
And even if you don’t nail any winners, remember that at the end of the day, it was still a walk on the beach!
Do you have you own amazing shore and sandscapes? We’d love to see them on our Facebook page!
Jack Howard is a lifelong photographer and author of two editions of the how-to book, Practical HDRI. Based in Central Jersey, Jack's go-to photography spots are backroads and beaches of his home state. He loves to travel far and wide with his wife and daughter, visiting national parks, museums, tropical islands and more along the way.