This is our simple, thirteen step introduction to the world of beach and coastal photography, which can be an extremely varied and rewarding activity. Seasonal changes transform these natural locations from colourful postcard views to brooding winter scenes in a matter of months, but whatever the season, there’s always something to capture!
Step 1: Introduction
One of my favourite photographic locations is the beach. I’m not talking holiday snaps with the family – I’m thinking more creative landscapes and natural beauty. In the UK, we’re very lucky to have such vast and beautiful stretches of coastline only a short distance away and, even though I’ve visited many beaches with my camera, I always find something unique at each location.
Whether it’s the breathtaking skyline on a summer’s evening or an intricate rocky outcrop, there is never a shortage of things to capture.
Step 2: Finding Your Location
It’s always good to have a rough idea of what you’d like to shoot before heading out, you might even want to make a shot list. You’ll have to pick your location depending on what sort of coastline shots you’d like. There are many variables, large wide beaches, small quiet coves, private harbours, historic piers, chalky cliffs & rock pools filled with wildlife to name a few. Take a few minutes to browse online and you should be able to find the most suitable spot.
Step 3: Picking Your Moment
After choosing your location, you’ll need to consider carefully the time at which you’ll want to visit. A lot can vary between seasons and even between the time of day. Make sure you check the weather and tidal information, as both natural light and beach visibility will be dependant on these. The seasonal and light changes will have a dramatic affect on the shots you take.
Be prepared. Obviously on a warm summer’s day you’ll be wanting to enjoy the weather, but in the autumn/winter months you don’t put yourself in unnecessary danger and risk getting cut off by the tide or getting caught in a storm.
Step 4: Equipment
Travelling light is always a luxury, and for casual beach walks you could always just head out with your camera. But if you’re serious about getting your beautiful coastline shots you’ll need to carry a few bits of kit with you.
A tripod is always essential when working with water, whether you want to freeze it in motion, or want to smooth it out with a long exposure. With this in mind, it’s always good to have a few filters with you. A couple of Neutral Density filters make long exposure shots that much easier and, if you’re heading out to capture sunset, sunrise or a bright sky shot, a graduated filter will come in very useful.
It’s also very useful to have a zoom lens with you, as some areas of the coastline might be inaccessible or points of interest quite far away.
Step 5: Looking After Your Equipment
The last thing you want when you get home is a camera full of sand or sea water. Make sure you take a case or bag with you to store all your equipment – it’ll save you the headache of cleaning everything out when you get home.
Avoid putting anything down on the sand as you want to minimise the risk of sand scratching your lens. If you’ve got too much stuff to carry, take a friend or partner to help you out, but make sure you buy them an ice cream to say thanks!
It also goes without saying, but trying to change your camera lens with sand flying about on a windy beach is a recipe for disaster. Be super careful when changing lenses on the beach, and avoid it if at all possible.
Step 6: Sunrise/Sunset
If you’re aiming to capture a sunset or sunrise, make sure that you pick an appropriate beach. My particular favourite beaches are all west facing, which means the sun sets over the horizon, offering beautiful swathes of evening colour.
Obviously you’ll need to be facing east for a sunrise, which can often offer even more dramatic skylines than sunsets. You’ll just have to set your alarm a lot earlier than usual! As I mentioned earlier, a graduated filter will help to enhance the colours and drama of your sunrise and sunset shots.
Step 7: Seek the Sunshine
The sun is the our greatest light source, and on coastlines and beaches it can prove to be a particularly strong asset for a photographer. On bright days you can afford to select a quick shutter speed to capture movement or detail. Try facing in different directions – the angle you shoot at with regard to the light might mean that that extra bit of detail is revealed.
Shooting into the sun isn’t always recommended, but you might find interesting shadows are cast. You can also use the light creatively, as it reflects off the water or use it as a backdrop to create a silhouette.
Step 8: Silhouettes
Some of my favourite coastal shots are of silhouetted objects on a bright sunny day. There is a multitude of subjects, such as rocky outcrops, family and friends, groyne posts and surfboards which can act as great shapes to cast into darkness in front of the bright shining sun.
Be careful not to overexpose the image by letting in too much light, and watch out when post processing that you don’t alter the light too dramatically as it can look really unnatural.
Step 9: Landscape
If you’ve decided to shoot a natural coastline, you can apply many of the same principals as you would with landscape photography. Take time to achieve the most dramatic composition. Can the rule of thirds be applied? Are there any strong diagonal lines? Is the horizon straight?
It’s also important, as mentioned earlier, to consider the light. Now, there’s not much you can do to change sunlight, but waiting that extra 15 minutes for those beams of sunlight to peak through the clouds may transform your seaside shot into a breathtaking coastal panorama.
Step 10: Foreground / Natural Objects
Within a large scale landscape shot, it may help to try to include something in the foreground to suggest scale. On a beach, that could be rocks, shells or an animal (or a person), which can really add to the depth of the image. You may, however, want to use these smaller points of interest as the focal point of your image.
It’s important to pay attention to detail. Look for interesting shapes and textures that you could highlight, think about the mix of colours and tones, as well as the possibilities of framing the object. Don’t just stick to the angle at which you first approached the object, have a walk around, are there any defining features to your subject that you can highlight?
Step 11: Structures
More often than not, the most popular beaches are located near ports, docks or tourist spots, which should mean that there are plenty of structures such as a pier or harbour to capture. Once again, it’s important to think about composition – it’s likely that in this situation, you shot will be busier than a coastal landscape shot, so think about how you can simplify the composition to enhance the drama of the shot.
As the evening draws in, the street lamps and harbour lights will be turned on. These could be a hindrance, but think about the possibilities of using them to your advantage as they reflect in the water and bring a simple boat yard to life.
Step 12: Water
The sea is the reason that the coastline is so special, so it would be rude not to pay it some attention. If you feel like getting your feet (and tripod) wet, try standing in shallow water to capture the smooth lines of the horizon with the mixed tones of sea and sky without the intrusion of any land.
Alternatively, head up onto the shore and wait for the tide to come in to capture the waves crashing against the sea walls, use a quick shutter speed to capture the water flying up into the air. Maybe even select burst mode to ensure you get the shot you want, and make sure you keep an eye out for those extra large waves!
Step 13: Be Creative!
The most important thing is that you enjoy yourself. There are vast opportunities for capturing great coastline shots, whether you want a dramatic landscape or an evening harbour shot, make sure you travel prepared to avoid disappointment.
Don’t be afraid to be creative and try different techniques and angles, as you never know what you might find. It’s well worth visiting the same location a number of times as it will look very different at depending on the time of day and will vary through the seasons.