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4 Tips for More Dramatic Beach Photos

For some of us, the beach is a way of life. Whether it’s barefoot strolls at sunset, surfing in the big waves, or simply relaxing in the sun, the beach can be a magical place that is food for the soul.

Capturing it in a photograph though, can be a completely different story!

Suddenly you notice things that weren’t so apparent before you took your camera out: super bright harsh light, and photos that look boring and that don’t convey the feelings you experienced when you were at the beach.

Bandon Beach, Oregon by Anne McKinnell

These tips will help you make the most of your time photographing at the beach, and ensure you come home with photos that are just as dramatic and memorable as your fun day in the sun.

1. Photograph during the Golden Hour

The middle of the afternoon, when the sun is high in the sky and the light is bright, is a great time for swimming and sunbathing, but not such a great time for photography. Just like other types of landscape photography, beach photography is all about the quality of the light.

At the edges of day, when the sun is low in the sky, you’ll find more gentle golden light that will make your photos glow. Sometimes you can photograph during the day too, but only when there are big puffy clouds in the sky that diffuse the light and create drama. If you have a big bright blue sky, it’s better to enjoy the afternoon swimming and visiting with friends, and save the photography for later.

Ormond Beach, Florida by Anne McKinnell

2. Use a Graduated Neutral Density Filter

Even at the edges of the day, the sky is usually quite a bit brighter than the sand or rocks in the foreground of frame, which makes it difficult for your camera to get a good exposure, without blowing out the highlights and creating dark shadows.

Try to even out the exposure by using a graduated neutral density filter which is kind of like sunglasses for your camera. It’s a piece of plastic or glass that is dark on the top, and light on the bottom, and you use it to darken the just the sky portion of your image.

3. Use foreground elements to create an interesting composition

The beach always looks inviting when we’re just about to step onto the soft sand with our bare feet. But when you photograph it just as you see it, it can end up looking boring.

Try using a foreground element in your composition to add interest to the scene. Is there something unique about your particular beach? Perhaps it has colourful rocks, big boulders, driftwood, or seashells. Try incorporating the unique element into the foreground of your image, to make your photograph more interesting.

Rebecca Spit, British Columbia by Anne McKinnell

You can also use a low angle and get really close to your unique element to emphasize it. If you have big colourful rocks, getting down low, and angling your camera upwards, will make them seem even larger. Whereas if you photograph them from eye level they may not look nearly as dramatic as you remember them being.

Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland by Anne McKinnell

Look around and see what you can use for leading lines that will guide the eye out to the sunset, or towards an important feature in the frame, like sea stacks, or a house in the distance.

Ross Bay, British Columbia by Anne McKinnell

4. Sunbursts and silhouettes

Try some new techniques to create dramatic images. If you are looking towards the sun, you can create a sunburst by including the sun in your frame and using a small aperture like f/22. It also helps if you can partially hide the sun behind an object.

If you have an interesting foreground element with a strong shape, use it to create a silhouette. To do this, use spot metering and expose for the sky, allowing your foreground element to go completely black.

You can even do the silhouette and sunburst together for even more drama!

Canon Beach, Oregon by Anne McKinnell

Next time you go to the beach remember these tips to help you come home with photos that are just as much fun as you had playing in the surf.

Do you have any other beach photography tips, or some favorite beach photos? Please share in the comments below.

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Anne McKinnell
Anne McKinnell

is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems.

You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

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