The beach is an ideal setting for photography. With sparkling water and a blue sky, how can you take a bad picture? However, when you snap pictures quickly in auto mode without thinking much about your composition, they often turn out dull or washed out with no clear subject or visual point of interest. A few tips for better beach photography will help you turn your mediocre, amateur beach snaps into professional, polished images.
Straighten the horizon
Arguably, the single biggest mistake people make with beach photos is shooting a crooked horizon. Straightening the horizon instantly improves any beach photo. When you’re shooting, pay attention to your horizon to get it as straight as possible in camera. Then make any final adjustments during post-process to ensure it’s completely straight.
There are a couple of different ways to straighten the horizon in Lightroom. Both straightening tools are located in the Crop options box. The first tool is a visual rotation tool. After you’ve clicked on the Crop tool and the grid has appeared, hover your mouse outside of the photo until a double arrow appears. Drag the cursor until you’ve straightened the horizon.
The second tool is the ruler or straighten tool in the Crop options box. Click and drag it over to the crooked horizon. You can drag it over the whole horizon or just a portion of it. Lightroom will calculate how far off it is from the horizon level, and rotate the image accordingly to correct it.
You can also fix crooked pictures with Lightroom’s guided transform tool. Watch the video below for more details.
Copyright: Christina Moraes
Shoot with a circular polarizer filter
A circular polarizer (CPL) filter is like sunglasses for your camera. When you’re shooting on a bright sunny day, a circular polarizer creates rich, detailed photos. Circular polarizer filters are particularly important when shooting beach scenes because they allow you to cut down on glare on the water and bring out the color in the water and the sky, creating a more vibrant, balanced image.
Focus on the details
Amateur photographers walk up to a beautiful scene, snap a picture, and keep moving. While a simple beach composition showcasing the sand and water may be stunning, spending a few minutes taking in the entire scenes will reveal other possible shots.
Copyright: Tim Rosenthal
Pay attention to the light
The current light conditions greatly affect the look of the beach at any given moment. Watching the light and planning to take pictures at certain times of the day will enable you to create images that simply aren’t possible in harsh mid-day sun. I like to use timeanddate.com to keep track of the current sunrise and sunset times as well as moonrise and moonset times. The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Sunseeker provide even more details about the direction of the light and shadow length.
Copyright: Trelina Anderson
Back lighting is another fantastic lighting technique to experiment with at the beach. Lighting a subject from behind instead of the front or side often proves more difficult, but when executed properly, offers fantastic results. Trelina shares a beautiful example with one of her daughters, back lit on a sunny day at the beach.
Copyright: Roger Hunt
Experiment with depth of field
Shooting with different depths of field is a simple, effective way to change the focus in an image. I love to find an interesting rock or a grouping of wild plants and then position the water behind it. When you’ve found a subject of interest, switch your camera to Aperture Priority (Av or A) mode. Dial in a wide aperture (i.e. 1.8, 2.2) and take a few shots, then slowly work your way to a narrow aperture (i.e. 16, 22), taking pictures at each aperture. See which aperture setting you like best for your subject and the overall composition.
Copyright: Frantz Konradsen
Experiment with shutter speed
Setting up a tripod on the beach and photographing long exposures of the water is a popular technique. If you’ve never attempted a long exposure, it’s definitely worth trying at least once or twice. Generally, you’ll have the best results with long exposures during the golden hours of the day when the light is low on the horizon. If you enjoy shooting long exposures, invest in a set of neutral density filters. Neutral density filters reduce the amount of light entering the camera, allowing for even longer exposures.
Frequent favorite spots in different seasons
One of my favorite aspects of living near Lake Michigan is visiting favorite spots throughout the year and photographing them in different seasons. It’s fascinating to see how the landscape changes from one season to next and how those changes affect the shooting conditions. A lakeside setting takes on a completely different aesthetic with colorful fall trees than it does with stark winter trees.
Shoot in manual mode
Shooting in manual mode gives you more control over your images. Shooting in auto mode at the beach means you’ll often end up with a blown-out sky and water without much detail. When you shoot in manual mode, you can select the settings to create rich, detailed images with minimal harsh shadows and blown-out areas. If you’re brand new to DSLR photography or have only shot in auto mode, it’s intimidating to make the transition to manual mode. However, it’s well worth the effort. Start in aperture priority or shutter priority mode, and build your skills from there.
Further reading: Making the Transition from Auto Mode to Manual Mode
Copyright: Josh Hairsine
Shoot in RAW
Shooting in RAW gives you even more control over your images. A RAW file is the image that a camera sensor sees. When you shoot a JPEG, the camera processes the image for you, making a lot of the editing decisions. Once it’s made these decisions, you can’t recover detail that gets lost.
For example, if the clouds are very bright with blown-out areas, you won’t be able to get much detail back.
On the flip side, if an image has deep shadows, the detail in these shadows is lost in a JPEG. Finally, shooting RAW enables complete control over an image’s white balance. Instead of selecting a white balance in camera, you can shoot with any white balance setting and then adjust the final white balance in your editing program.
Further reading: DSLR Photography 101: Don’t Be Afraid of Shooting RAW
Use Lightroom’s adjustment brushes
Beach landscapes often have varied lighting, which makes it difficult to capture the entire scene in full detail with balanced light. Our eyes process the varied lighting without us even realizing it in a way that cameras can’t. You see numerous beach photos with harsh shadows and/or blown out skies. Many people fine tune their exposures for landscape photos, including beach photos, by using spot metering. You can further perfect your images in post-process by using Lightroom’s adjustment brushes.
Over years of editing beach photos, I’ve created adjustment brushes for editing bright skies, cloudy skies, and long exposure water. I’ve used these brushes in nearly every image I’ve shared in this post and am sharing them with you. Adjustment brushes allow you edit select sections of a photo. Creating your own adjustment brushes for edits you make over and over again streamlines the post-processing routine, so you can edit more quickly. As with any brush, action, or pre-set, typically, you’ll have to tweak these brushes a bit for best results.
Download your sky and water adjustment brushes! After you’ve saved the folder, open Lightroom. Go to Edit > Preferences. Click on the Presets tab, and then the “Show Lightroom Presets Folder” button. Open the “Local Adjustment Presets” folder. Paste your new adjustment brushes in this folder. You may need to restart Lightroom before you can see the adjustment brushes.
Finally, keep your eyes open, so you can seize great opportunities for photos at the beach as they happen. Beach scenes change quickly, sometimes minute to minute as the light changes or the weather shifts. Brilliant colors appear, and then the next minute the entire scene is quiet and blue again. A fantastic boat will appear, but it’s moving quickly, which means you only have seconds to get the shot. You don’t want to miss these fleeting changes to capture stunning scenery.
I first saw this rainbow from my house. It was one of those drop everything and grab your camera moments. I was fortunate the rainbow stuck around long enough that I was able to get more than a couple of shots. You can see the full set on my blog.
I actually took this last shot with my phone. I was out for a walk with my husband and didn’t have my DSLR with me. We walk on the beach nearly every week when the weather’s nice, and I’d never seen this occur before. When I did return the next day with my DSLR, the landscape had completely changed. I’m so glad I got the shot with my phone.
Copyright: Angela Redmon
The images in this post without a noted copyright are my own images. You can see more of my photography on Instagram and my blog. The photographers who contributed photos to this post are members of the PRTV support group. Thank you for sharing your images! Learn more about becoming a PRTV member and joining our support group.
Do you have any additional tips for better beach photography?
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