I can’t think of many better ways to start a day than with a stroll along an ocean beach. There’s something intoxicating about the salt air, the perpetual motion of the waves and the open expanses of water and sand under a morning sky. It’s also one of my favourite places to take my camera, but the very nature of the environment can make it challenging to capture engaging images that reflect the feeling of the first-hand experience.
With so much open space, and few subjects to focus on other than sand, water and sky, photographers often take a minimalist approach to beach photography, relying on large areas of open space in their compositions to convey the expansive atmosphere of the beach environment. That approach can be very successful, but it is easy to get stuck in a rut and struggle to find creative new ways to photograph your favourite beach.
To keep things interesting (for ourselves and for the viewers of our photography), we need to find ways to focus attention and create engaging beach images despite the apparent lack of structure in such an open environment. Here are a few ideas I’ve found useful.
1. Make clouds an integral part of your composition
It is a mistake to view clouds as some random and incidental addition to a landscape/seascape image. Their shapes and patterns should be an integral part of a strong composition, and most good photographers pay them as much attention as any other element in the scene they are photographing. Cloud formations can be effective framing devices for seascape images, or they can be a focus of interest in themselves. As with any element of composition, look for overall balance in the arrangement of clouds, and make interesting cloud shapes and textures key parts of your composition.
2. Use the shoreline as a leading line
In the absence of much other structure, the shoreline of an ocean beach makes a great leading line to draw the eye into an image. The difficulty here is that the line is continually moving as waves push up and down the beach, so you need to get in place and anticipate this motion. A good approach is to aim to press the shutter-release just as the incoming wave reaches the top of the beach and before it starts to recede.
3. Use the foreshore as a source of reflections
The narrow strip of sand that is exposed as a wave recedes can be an effective mirror to reflect cloud shapes and sky colour. The wider this strip, the greater the opportunity for reflections, so look for shallow gradient beaches where there is some protection from the prevailing swell provided by an offshore island or by the direction the beach faces. Even along an unprotected beach there will often be areas with a shallower gradient (and wider reflective area) created by localised patterns of sand deposition.
4. Think about the tides
There are at least two good reasons to time your visit to a beach to coincide with a low or a falling tide. Following on from point 3 above, a low tide will usually expose a broader foreshore area that is conducive to reflections than a high tide. And if, like me, you’re a fan of sunrise photography, a low tide early in the morning means a freshly exposed foreshore that will be devoid of any footprints or other disturbances.
5. Be creative with shutter speeds
The beach is a dynamic place with continual wave motion, but there is plenty of room for creativity in deciding how to present this motion in an image. Choice of shutterspeed is a key element here – a long exposure, say more than 4-5 seconds, will transform the waves into a white, silky blur that can create an ethereal, other-worldly look to your images. A fast shutterspeed, say 1/60th second or more, will freeze the motion which works well when you want to capture the detail in a breaking wave. In between these extremes is a range of shutterspeeds that will partially freeze the motion but also allow some motion blur. There is no correct shutterspeed for any given scene so experiment and discover what you like and don’t like – investing in a set of neutral density filters will increase the options available to you. I often prefer an exposure of around 1 second to 1/10th second to create an appealing amount of motion blur while retaining some detail in the water.
6. Get down low
Like any landscape images, beachscapes often benefit from the inclusion of an interesting foreground. While you might not find rocks or other structure to use as foreground interest on a sandy beach, there is always something available – you just have to look a little harder. Subtle contours and hollows in the sand, tide lines, or a lone shell or piece of weed, can all help to focus attention in a beach image. Even getting right down close to the bare sand and using the texture of the grains or tiny pieces of shell as foreground interest can be an effective way of leading the eye into an image. And to be honest, what better place than a beach to get down on hands and knees and pretend you’re a kid again?
7. Take multiple images of moving water
No matter how long you sit and watch the waves on a beach, it is impossible to predict exactly how the next one will break. You can anticipate when it is going to break and how high it might push up the shore, but the shapes and trails created by the white-water, and the way a wave interacts with the other waves around it, are different every time. When you set up a composition that includes waves, it pays to capture several duplicates of the scene so you can review them later on the computer and decide which one is most appealing. Something as simple as an unexpected swirl in the white-water can elevate your image beyond the ordinary.
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Those are just a few ideas – the most important thing to remember, as with all landscape photography, is to be aware of what is going on around you and respond to whatever it is that catches your eye at the time. Interesting reflections and interplays of light and water can change quickly, especially around sunrise and sunset, so become absorbed in your surroundings but stay aware. But mostly, just enjoy your trip to the beach.