How To: Photograph Beaches, Cliffs and Coastlines

By: steve

June 7, 2011

Summer is coming, which for many of us means a good old-fashioned holiday, and although there’s a world of temples, deserts and mountains out there, many people just want some time on the beach. But does the quality of your photography have to suffer the moment you get sand between your toes, or can you still come away with some great pictures of your time away?


On the beach

Beaches are surprisingly hard to photograph. They might look beautiful when you’re looking at them, but a raft of things can spoil how they look in a photo: seaweed, a wastebasket or even a couple of lobster pink, overweight nudists. The way to get a really good photograph of your beach is to get there early in the morning when it’s deserted. The light is going to be better at this time too: warmer, softer and far more atmospheric.



Tresco, Isles of Scilly. By Steve Davey

Tresco, Isles of Scilly. Get up early to photograph a beach in good light, and before it gets crowded.


Rather than just looking up or down the beach, a good angle can be to stand by the sea and look along the waterline, making your picture a mix of the sea and the beach.



As people are often in various states of undress, photographing people on a beach can be a tricky prospect. In the UK there are generally no legal restrictions to photography in public places and in private places you can only be requested to leave. However, you should be sensitive to the wishes of anyone else on the beach. I find it better to be obvious when taking pictures, rather than trying to sneak shots, which will make people suspicious – and always ask permission if other people are significantly in your shots. It’s worth being aware of any specific laws or cultural restrictions in other countries you are visiting.



Photographing sports (beach volleyball, water-sports etc) can be a good way of getting pictures of people who aren’t a part of your group. If you’re photographing these from the beach then you will often need a powerful telephoto lens so that you can fill the frame with the action. Select a fast shutter-speed if you want to freeze the action.

Kite surfer, French Polynesia. By Steve Davey

Kite surfer, French Polynesia. Look out for watersports, and use a powerful telephoto lens to fill the frame from the beach.


If you’re photographing friends and family on a beach, try to take natural rather than posed pictures. The secret to this is just to keep shooting. People will soon forget you’re there and ignore you. Try to compose the shot with your subject in the side of the frame, with the beach or sea filling up the rest of the space, to give a sense of place. You’ll often be taking pictures in the middle of the day, so use fill-in flash to lighten the shadows on people’s faces. Simply switching your flash to the forced, or ‘always on’ mode can help in times when the sun is overhead and people have deep shadows on their faces.


Local atmosphere

Depending on where you are, there are lots of other things connected with beaches, from multi-coloured beach huts through to ice-cream sellers, or fishing boats and swaying palm trees. Photographing these can be a great way to show the local atmosphere.



Cliffs and storms

The coastline is about more than just beaches. Remember to photograph cliffs and rocks too. Being more rugged and atmospheric, they will result in more dramatic shots. Cliffs can also be great vantage points for photographing the sea, and can give a unique viewpoint down onto beaches. If you’re photographing cliffs themselves, filling the frame with the cliffs will make them appear larger than if there is a lot of sky in the picture.

Rocks at sunset, Sark, Channel Islands. By Steve Davey

Rocks at sunset, Sark, Channel Islands. Looking down from the cliffs gives a unique angle on this pebble beach.



Don’t just be a fair-weather photographer: coasts and the sea can look stunning in bad weather. In fact, if you can’t count on a perfect sunny day, the next best thing is a stormy day, when the waves are huge and whipped up onto the beach by stiff winds. These kind of scenes make for distinctive and evocative images.

Storm, French Polynesia. By Steve Davey

Storm, French Polynesia. Don’t be a fair-weather photographer. Take pictures on stormy days for atmosphere.



Sunsets, sunrises and sea

Coastlines are perfect for reflecting sunrises and sunsets too: you often have a clear horizon with an unobstructed view and the water will reflect the colours of the sky. Whether you can shoot a sunrise or sunset will depend on which way the coastline faces of course, but remember you can also photograph the coastline being lit by the spectacularly warm light. To preserve the colours, use the daylight white-balance setting if you’re shooting JPEGs, and adjust the colour temperature to enhance the sunset if you are shooting the more versatile RAW format.



If you’re lucky enough to holiday in the tropics, you can bring out the turquoise of the water by using a polarising filter to reduce the reflections on the water when you’re taking the picture, then warm it up slightly in post-processing, This is best done in RAW processing using the colour temperature slider.

Seychelles beach by Steve Davey

Seychelles. Use a polarising filter to make the colour of tropical water appear more intense.



Protecting your camera

Coastlines and beaches are notoriously hazardous for cameras and lenses alike. Water, spray, salt and sand can all ruin expensive equipment. Keep your camera in a sealed case when it’s not being used, and crucially make sure that you hands are clean, dry and free of sand before you touch the camera at all. Keep a UV filter on your lens to protect it, and blow any sand off the lens with a blower-brush before using a lens cloth, to avoid scratching.

Categories: Our Places