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The beach can be a great place for photography. You are in a scenic environment. You typically have friends or family members with you. You are usually there on nice days. All these can contribute to great photographs.
But the degree of photography problems you will face on the beach might surprise you. Exposure can be tricky given the bright environment. Often, there is nothing but sand, so the composition can be dull. And of course there are elements like sand and salt-water that do not mix well with electronics. So I want to give you some tips for beach photography, dealing with these potential problems and make it a great place for photography.
If you are shooting in automatic mode, you might find that your pictures are darker and flatter than you anticipated. That is because your camera will try to reduce all things to a middle grey. Try shooting in Manual or Aperture Priority mode, which will give you additional control over your exposure. Use that control to slightly overexpose your picture. Set the exposure so that the meter in your camera is a little to the right of zero. If your camera uses numbers instead of a scale to show your exposure, start by setting it at +1. This will make your picture accurately capture the bright scene that you see in front of you.
At the beach, you will almost always be looking at a bright sky. Even though the foreground may be well lit, the sky will usually be much, much brighter. That can cause a dynamic range problem and, if you are not careful, your sky will be blown out or pure white.
To deal with this problem, break out a graduated neutral density filter. This is a square filter that fits on a holder in front of your lens. The top of the filter is be dark, while the bottom of the filter is clear glass. When you attach the filter to the front of your lens, it will darken the top portion of your picture while keeping the bottom portion at the same brightness level. This keeps everything within the dynamic range of your camera. The upshot for you is that it will darken your sky a bit to bring it in line with the foreground and keep the sky from blowing out. The beach is an ideal place to use these filters because the horizon is typically a straight line with nothing sticking up over it (such as trees or buildings).
If you do not have such a filter, try bracketing your exposures. You can then merge them later using Photoshop or an HDR software.
It might seem counter-intuitive to you, but the beach on a bright sunny day is a great place to break out your flash unit. You can expose your picture with an eye on the brightness level of the sky, and brighten up the person or thing in the foreground using the flash. Because the overall scene is so bright, the flash should not overpower it. I personally find that the beach on a sunny day is one of the best times to use a flash unit. Adding fill flash can dramatically improve your beach photos.
I once complained to a friend that I was having difficulty taking good pictures at the beach. He responded, “Of course you are, there’s nothing but a bunch of sand.” Sometimes, that sentiment is right. So you will have to work on finding a good subject to add to your composition. If you do so, you can turn your beach photos something great. Some ideas to look for are:
At the beach, you already have a ready-made background for your photos; that being the ocean and the sky. What will separate a great photo from a snapshot will frequently be the foreground. Focus nearly all your energy on making the foreground look as good and as interesting as you possibly can.
Using the subject matter set forth above can help you with your foreground. Having any of those elements in the frame will usually go a long way in making the foreground an interesting part of the photo. If none of those items are available, a lot of times interesting formations in the sand can also create a good foreground. Look for a pattern. They can be difficult to see though, sometimes you will need to have your eye to the viewfinder or be looking at the LCD to find them. Take a test shot if time permits.
Once you find your subject matter, consider your angle of view. Very often, we tend to shoot directly out towards the ocean. However, there are usually much more interesting views looking down the coast. Sometimes it is actually best to put your back to the ocean and get the sand and land formations in your frame. Just be sure you’ve considered all the angles.
As with most other forms of outdoor photography, the best light is usually predawn, or just after sunset. Try to get up early or stay late. These are virtually always the best times for photography, and many serious shooters will not shoot at any other time of day.
Of course, getting up before dawn or staying after sunset is not always possible. Rather than just put the camera away, you might want to try some midday shots. If you do, there are a few ways you can make your photos look as good as possible. I already talked about using a fill flash, and that can be a great way of cutting down on the harsh shadows you might encounter. In addition, to make your sky look as good as possible, consider using a polarizing filter. This will make your sky appear a deeper, richer, blue. Polarizers actually work best near midday, so you will get the maximum benefit from it if you are shooting at that time.
One final tip if you are shooting at midday and dealing with harsh contrasts is to consider converting your photos to black and white; it loves contrast. The overly contrasty light of midday photography can go from a liability in a color photo to an asset in a black and white photo. Once you’re back in front of your computer, try converting a few photos to black and white and see how you like them.
Sand and salt water do not mix well with expensive electronics. It is difficult to keep them away from your camera sometimes. Sand seems to get in everything.
Further, a crashing wave can send spray into the air and get into your camera. You will want to take a few precautions to avoid any such problems. You could actually buy a waterproof case for your camera, but these are amazingly expensive. The cases can cost more than the camera itself. They are often more than is necessary, particularly if you are making efforts to keep away from the water and sand. In normal situations, you can get a rain sleeve to cover your camera for just a few dollars. You might use one of these if there’s any chance that sand or spray get near your camera.
Another idea is to purchase a waterproof point-and-shoot camera. I normally recommend that you steer clear of point-and-shoots because of the inherent problems with them, largely stemming from the small sensor size. However, because you are typically shooting in bright light at the beach, a lot of the limitations of point-and-shoots are somewhat muted. Further, you can use the camera with confidence, even taking it into the water. They can be a lot of fun, and they are pretty cheap (relatively speaking).
These tips should make photographing the beach the fun occasion that you expect. If you know how to deal with the bright light, your pictures will look better. Finding good subject matter and using an interesting angle will make them interesting. And finally remember to keep your equipment safe from the elements to keep your day from being ruined.