Beaches are great places for photography. Not only is the beach a fun place to visit but there are a variety of subjects to capture – birds, waves, piers, people, activities, bikinis and stories.Look for architectural elements to add interest to an otherwise boring scene. Scout out piers, boardwalks, boats, sand castles, jetties, lighthouses, chairs, umbrellas or other “structures” to add to your composition and to avoid just a sea of blue with a blob of yellow on the horizon.
Look for stories – find people interacting with the landscape, having fun, enjoying themselves or simply relaxing. Don’t be afraid to include people in your shots. People in photographs humanize the landscape. People can add scale to the scene and add interest to the foreground.
Watch the weather and look for clouds. A cloudless day might be great for seeing the actual sun bob down over the horizon but rarely does a cloudless sky create much interest. Clouds add drama and give the final rays of light something to reflect off for a more colorful display. They also add a element of surprise for the photographer since you never quite know when the sun will disappear behind a cloud or pop out of one. Best to plan several days for your sunset or sunrise hunts since every day brings the possibility of a dramatic sky.
For beach portraits, bring along a flash. You can shoot people bathed in beautiful low light but if you want the sunset in the background you will need the fill flash. Otherwise the people will be silhouetted against the brighter background. Of course this effect of people and structures as black shapes can be effective also. You might have to play around with the contrast or black settings to totally make the people and structures black.
Shoot at a variety of exposures – if you let your camera decide what shutter length to shoot at you’re likely to get a shot that doesn’t really capture the beauty of the light. Quite often the shot will be under exposed because the sky is still reasonably light.
Instead of relying upon the camera’s auto mode a sunset is an ideal time to switch your camera into aperture or shutter priority mode and to take a variety of shots at different exposures.
The great thing about sunsets and sunrises is that there is no one ‘right’ exposure and that you can get stunning results using a variety of them. Also keep in mind that different exposures (aperture and shutter speeds) will produce a variety of different results so it’s worth taking more than just a few shots – the key is to experiment.
Shooting in RAW format will also give you the most latitude when you are back at the computer doing post-processing work.
Be sure to take camera out of Auto White balance mode – when you set your camera to ‘Auto’ in it’s white balance mode you run the risk of losing some of the warm golden tones of a sunrise or sunset. Instead try shooting in ‘cloudy’ or ‘shade’ which are usually used in cooler lights and tell your camera to warm things up a little. Alternatively – if you’re shooting a sunrise and DO want a cooler moody shot you can experiment with other white balance settings.
Whatever you do, don’t just hang around the spot where all of the other “photographs” choose to sit and socialize. Move around. Find your own angle and composition. Also don’t be too quick to run off after the sunsets. Often the sky really explodes with colors in the twenty minutes or so after the sun sets. Keep shooting and experimenting. Some of your best beach shot might be taken after everyone has left.