The Ultimate Guide To Beach Photography

By June 1, 2020 September 11th, 2021 Photography

Are you thinking about going out to the beach to take photos?

I get it.

Beaches are a favorite subject amongst photographers.

And it’s not hard to see why.

Beaches provide plenty of ideal subjects to photograph, from powerful waves to the ever-changing sand.

But to capture beaches successfully, you must be prepared.

To help, I’ve compiled an extensive guide to beach photography.

We’ll cover everything from gear to composition, to make sure you come home with a beautiful photograph.

Let’s dive in.

Beach Photography Settings

1. Shoot in RAW 

Beaches have high contrast lighting, making it difficult to accurately photograph exposure.

To combat this, I recommend shooting in RAW. 

RAW images have a wider dynamic range than JPEGs. 

This means that your camera will be able to identify brightness levels and capture exposure more accurately. 

Another great reason to shoot in RAW is that it produces higher quality images. 

This is because RAW images maintain all of their original digital information, whereas JPEG’s eliminate some to reduce the file size. 

With RAW images, even if some of your images are overblown or too dark, you can use post-processing to recover some of the details by adjusting the exposure. 

Finally, this leads to the final reason, which is why RAW images offer more editing flexibility than JPEGs. 

For example, with RAW images, you can easily adjust your exposure, shadows, highlights, and contrast, among other things, without affecting the quality of your image. 

Resource: RAW vs. JPEG: The Full Story

2. Use Small Apertures 

Cloudy day in Twelve apostles sea rocks

When shooting landscape photography, you typically want to place your entire frame in focus to highlight the details. 

Beach photography is no different. 

To do this, you will need to use a small aperture. 

Which aperture value should you use? 

Most people recommend that you use an aperture of f/16 to achieve a deep depth of field. 

While this does produce a deep depth of field, you may experience some diffraction, which will reduce your image’s sharpness. 

If you are looking for a deep depth of field while maximizing diffraction, the best option is to use your aperture sweet spot. 

The aperture sweet spot is typically located 2-3 stops from your maximum aperture. 

For example, if you are using a 16-35mm f/4 lens, then the aperture sweet spot is between f/8 and f/11. 

For the best results, test several aperture values and compare the sharpness and depth of field for each one. 

Once you have tested these values, you can choose which aperture value works best for you. 

Just remember setting your aperture to the smallest aperture your lens allows is not the best option. 

Although it is the easiest option, your image won’t be as sharp as it should, and its quality will suffer. 


Camera Basics: Aperture Explained (With Video)

9 Reasons to Take Photos With Small Apertures

3. Keep Your ISO Low 

During the day, there is typically sufficient light to capture properly exposed images. 

You can often keep your ISO at 100 without any exposure issues. 

On the other hand, if you’re shooting during the golden hour or blue hour, there may be limited light. 

As a result, you may need to increase your ISO to 200, but anything is higher is unnecessary. 

If you are shooting at night, then there is no doubt that you will need to increase your ISO to capture a properly exposed photo.   

At night, I recommend using an ISO between 600 and 1600. 

Start with an ISO of 600 and increase it until you reach your desired exposure level. 

Most digital cameras allow you to increase your ISO up to 1600 without experiencing significant noise. 

4. Experiment with Your Shutter Speed 

brown rocks during golden hour

When shooting beach photography, the correct shutter speed will heavily depend on how you want to capture motion. 

If you want to freeze motion, use fast shutter speeds. 

Freezing motion can include capturing waves or flying birds extremely sharp without any blur. 

For example, if you wanted to freeze the motion of a wave, I recommend using a shutter speed of 1/1,000. 

If you are farther away and not looking to freeze every single droplet of water, you can use slower shutter speeds such as 1/500 or 1/250. 

On the other hand, if you want to blur motion, you should use slow shutter speeds. 

Using slow shutter speeds is a popular option when shooting beach photography. 

It is often used to give water a silky smooth appearance. 

I typically use a shutter speed of ¼ to 2 seconds. 

To balance of softness and detail with a long exposure, I use a ¼ shutter speed. 

This value allows your camera to catch the general structure of the waves but gives the image a soft quality.

With exposures longer than ¼ of a second, you typically won’t be able to capture the form of the waves precisely. 

I usually use these shutter speeds if I want to capture water with a smooth and silky quality. 

The longer your shutter speed, the more smooth and white your waves will become. 


Camera Basics: Shutter Speed Explained (With Video)

Understanding Handheld Shutter Speed + Customizable Cheat Sheet

5. Use Autofocus during the Day and Manual Focus at Night

If you are shooting during the day, the easiest and most effective way to focus is using autofocus

During this time, your autofocus is typically working at its best and won’t have an issue focusing on your subject. 

If you are comfortable using manual focus, this will work during the day as well. 

On the other hand, if you are shooting at night, I recommend using manual focus. 

At night your autofocus is typically slow to work, and it isn’t guaranteed to focus correctly.

Your autofocus will have a hard time distinguishing between the different elements in your scene due to the lack of contrast and light. 

Manual focus will help you solve this issue. 

The easiest option is to set your focus to infinity and then check your live viewfinder to make sure it is sharp. 

When using live view, make sure you zoom in on a distant part of your image to determine if it is in focus. 

6. Bracket Your Images 

As mentioned, the beach typically consists of complex lighting and high contrast. 

As a result, getting a properly exposed image is not easy. 

To make this easier, use exposure bracketing.

Bracketing your images involves taking multiple exposures of a scene. One underexposed, one properly exposed, and one overexposed. 

You then combine these images in post-processing to create an image with each element that is properly exposed. 

There are two ways you can capture a bracketed exposure: manual or automatic. 


Manually bracketing your exposure involves taking multiple photos of the same scene at different exposure levels. 

Start by correctly exposing the largest portion of your scene that it has the same lighting. 

Next, take photos of the same scene underexposed and overexposed. 

When bracketing manually, you can adjust the number of shots you take as well as the number of stops you adjust exposure. 

To ensure that you don’t change the composition of your shots, I recommend using a tripod.

Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB) 

The second option for bracketing your images is using automatic exposure bracketing (AEB).

The benefit of using automatic exposure bracketing is that it’s faster and easier. 

Automatic exposure bracketing is a feature built into most cameras that automatically captures a scene at multiple exposure levels.  

When shooting in AEB, you can adjust the number of underexposed and overexposed images you take. 

The most popular setting is a three-shot AEB. 

But most cameras also include five-shot AEB and seven-shot AEB options.  

A three-shot AEB captures three photos, one underexposed, one overexposed, and one correctly exposed. 

Likewise, a five-shot AEB captures two underexposed, two overexposed, and one correctly exposed photo. 

You can also adjust the number of stops you want to adjust exposure. 

For example, you can set your camera to a three-shot AEB and bracket for two stops.

In this setting, your camera will capture one image two stops over-exposed, one image two stops underexposed, and one correctly exposed image. 

Use AEB to capture images with all your elements properly exposed, then combine them in post-processing.

7. Shoot in Manual Mode 

To keep full control over the appearance of your image, I recommend shooting in manual mode. 

In manual mode, you choose all three exposure settings: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. 

This will allow your frame in focus, while also being able to shoot long exposures.

Keep in mind, if you do so you will need to use an ND filter. 

Although the manual mode is more time consuming, the benefit you get on your image is worth it. 

Remember, if you are manually bracketing your images, then make sure you keep your camera in manual mode. 

Keep in mind, if you have an idea of the type of photo you are trying to capture, you can use a priority mode for added efficiency and speed. 

For example, if you are not worried about capturing motion, then using aperture priority is a good choice. 

In aperture priority mode, you set your aperture and ISO value while your camera setts your shutter speed. 

This will allow you to maintain full control over your depth of field. 

On the other hand, if you want to control how motion is captured, shutter priority is a better option. 

Shutter priority is often used when you want to control how motion is captured in your image, but I recommend avoiding it when shooting the beach. 

Although shutter priority allows you to control how motion is captured, it will do so at the cost of your field depth. 

Resource:  How to Master Manual Mode Photography in 7 Steps

Best Gear for Beach Landscape Photography

1. Camera 

For the best beach photos, I recommend you purchase a DSLR or mirrorless camera.

DSLR and mirrorless cameras offer high-quality images with greater control than point and shoot or smartphones.

The main difference between DSLR and mirrorless cameras is that mirrorless cameras are lighter and more compact.

If you prefer a lightweight, more compact camera, then mirrorless cameras are a better option.

Keep in mind, they are often more expensive and have less battery life.

Here is a list of the best mirrorless cameras for different budget levels.

Model TypeMPBudgetPrice
Nikon Z7Mirrorless45.7HighCheck Price
Canon EOS RPMirrorless26.2MidCheck Price
Sony A6100Mirrorless24Low Check Price

If you want a larger selection of models and price ranges, then DSLRs are the best option.

DSLRs do have longer battery life and less expensive for the same specs.

Here is a list of the best DSLR cameras for different budget levels.

Model TypeMPBudgetPrice
Nikon D850DSLR45.7HighCheck Price
Nikon D750DSLR24.9MidCheck Price
Nikon D3500DSLR24.2LowCheck Price

2. Tripod

When shooting beach photography, tripods are essential. 

This is especially true when you are shooting with long shutter speeds.

A tripod will give you the stability you need to use slow shutter speeds without experiencing camera shake. 

Tripods are especially crucial if you are shooting near or on the water. 

Your tripod will protect your camera from falling in the water and allow you to stabilize your camera against the crashing waves. 

When buying a tripod, always invest in a quality tripod.

While they cost more money, those additional bucks often mean a great deal of difference in performance. 

If you are looking for a high-quality tripod that won’t break the bank, I recommend the Manfrotto Befree Live Tripod.  

You get the amazing build of a trusted brand such as Manfrotto but at a fraction of the price.

There are times when the wind or water at the beach is too powerful for your camera to handle. 

To offer additional support for your camera, you can use the Vanguard SB-100 stone bag. 

The stone bag is a way you can add additional weight to your tripod. 

I typically use anything I find near my location, such as rocks, stones, logs, or my camera bag. 

The additional weight will give your camera sufficient support to combat strong winds or waves. 

Resource: Best Budget Travel Tripods (under $200)

3. Wide-Angle Lens 

Sunset at Souris Chaude beach in Trois Bassins, Reunion IslanIn most cases, you will want a wide-angle lens when photographing the beach. 

A wide-angle lens will allow you to capture wide scenes that include multiple foreground elements as well as the sky. 

 I recommend a 14-24mm or 16-35 mm lens. Both lenses offer a great ultra-wide-angle to a wide-angle range perfect for capturing vast scenes

I prefer the 16-35mm lens because it’s cheaper and allows you to use filters. 

Brand Focal Length
Maximum ApertureAF Motor Price
Nikon14-24mmf/2.8YesCheck Price
YesCheck Price
Canon11-24mmf/4YesCheck Price
Nikon 16-35mm f/4YesCheck Price
Canon16-35mmf/2.8YesCheck Price
Sigma18-35mmf/1.8YesCheck Price
Sony16-35mmf/2.8YesCheck Price
YesCheck Price

If you are using a crop frame, opt for a smaller focal length range. 

Since a crop-frame camera applies a crop factor using a range between 10mm and 20mm will match the same focal length as a 16-35mm on a full-frame camera. 

For example, a Canon APS-C camera will apply a crop factor of 1.6x. 

As a result, a 10mm focal length on a crop frame has the appearance of a 16mm.

Likewise, a 20mm focal length has the appearance of a 32mm lens. 

Although the speed of your lens is not as important when you’re shooting during the day. 

Having a lens with a large maximum aperture (fast lens) is great if you plan on shooting during the night or need to use fast shutter speed to freeze motion. 

If you do enjoy shooting at night, I recommend a lens with a fast maximum aperture such as f/2.8 or faster. 

4. ND Filters 

When shooting the beach, ND filters are a vital piece of equipment. 

ND filters are critical when shooting the beach because it will reduce your exposure without adjusting your settings. 

This is especially important when shooting during the day. 

Often, the settings required to produce the effect you want will result in an over-exposed image. 

ND filters are also great for giving water that silky smooth effect. 

Without an ND filter, it is nearly impossible to achieve this effect without overexposing your image. 

When shooting on the beach, I recommend a variable ND filter. 

A variable ND filter will allow you to adjust the intensity by rotating it. 

I recommend the Tiffen Variable ND Filter; it is a high-quality ND filter that can adjust from 2 to 8 stops.

Often during the day and when shooting long exposure, you may need to use stronger ND filters. 

Most ND filters don’t go up to 10 stops, so its best to purchase individual higher intensity ND filters. 

I recommend a 10-stop and 15-stop ND filter. These are great if you are shooting outdoors with long exposures.  

5. CPL (Circular Polarized) Filter

Polarizing filters are a great way to remove unwanted glare and reflections from objects on the beach. 

This is ideal because surfaces tend to be wet on the beach, and as a result, the sun causes unwanted glare and reflections. 

These reflections and glare can be a distraction and draw your audience away from your focal point.  

CPL’s are a great way to eliminate distracting elements and help your audience focus on your subject. 

Polarizing filters can also help make your colors pop. 

You can use this to enhance the colors in your scene. 

If you are looking for a polarizing filter, I recommend going with a CPL. 

CPL’s attach directly to your lenses thread and allows you to adjust by turning it. 

I recommend the B+W XS Pro Digital; it’s a high-quality CPL filter with an ultra-slim design, and it’s easy to use.  

If you are using a lens that does not have threads, I suggest using a filter holder such as Lee Filters Holder

Lee’s filters produce some of the best filters on the market, so you won’t need to worry about quality or effectiveness. 

6. Tripod Spikes

As I mentioned above, the wind and movement of waves at the beach can cause your tripod to be unstable. 

Without additional stability, your images will experience motion blur. 

To fix this issue, I find using tripod spikes to be an effective solution.

The spiked feet allow you to wedge the tripod into the sand to keep the tripod secure.

This is especially useful when you’re shooting against that water or strong winds. 

But, they’re a crucial tool for camera stability when you’re shooting at the beach.

I recommend you use these tripod spikes which come with rubber covers so you can use them for added grip on smooth services as well. 

Best Time To Shoot Beach Photography

1. Golden Hour 

Ruby Beach Driftwood and Seastacks at Sunset

Just like most other landscape scenes, some of the best lightings take place during the golden hour. 

The light at this time is much softer, making it the perfect setting for outdoor photography. 

When the sun is low on the horizon, the colors in the sky transform into warm, vibrant colors ideal for making beautiful pictures.

Pay special attention to objects that look especially striking when illuminated by the warm light. 

In particular, pay attention to the rocks around you as well as the colors of the waves. 

These visual elements tend to be stunning at this time of day.

I recommend you arrive early and stay late.

Aim to arrive at the location at least an hour before the Golden Hour. 

Great light typically starts before the sun rises and sets. 

Arriving early ensures that you’ll have enough time to get set up and reduce the risk of missing out on the excellent lighting opportunities.

Staying late is equally important, especially during sunset. 

Some of the most breathtaking colors can unfold just as the sun has gone below the horizon.

Stay as late in the location as possible. 

And if you can, try to wait till dark before leaving.

2. The Blue Hour

Another great time to shoot beaches is during blue hour. 

Blue hour takes place before sunrise and after sunset. 

My best advice when photographing the beach is to arrive early for sunset so you can take advantage of blue hour and golden hour. 

Don’t arrive early enough for sunrise or leave as soon as the sunsets; you’ll miss some of the best, most interesting lighting for photography. 

While the sun may not be visible, it may still illuminate the sky with a gentle warm glow at the horizon. 

The glimmers of soft colors left by the sun, combined with the cool vivid blue of the early night sky, can create some of the best backdrops for nature photography.

3. Overcast, Rainy, and Stormy Days

Don’t let bad weather stop you from going out to shoot at the beaches. 

Overcast, rainy, and stormy days are some of the best times to go out and shoot on the beach. 

A stormy sky makes for a dramatic composition. 

This can be true, even if you go out to shoot in the middle of the day.

Rainy days are also great for shooting on the beach. 

You can use the raindrops to your advantage and capture them in your photo 

This will add an interesting feature to your images that most don’t have. 

I particularly love going to the beach on overcast days. 

The cloud act as a natural soft-box making the light much softer and easier to manage. 

When shooting during poor weather use it to create mysterious and compelling compositions. 

Resource: 5 Ways to Take Beautiful Landscape Photos in Overcast Weather

Beach Photography Tips

1. Track the Weather 

Tracking the weather is an integral part of the success of your shoot. 

The weather will dictate what you should wear, what gear you need, and the waves you’ll encounter. 

The more you keep track of the weather, the better you can prepare. 

For example, if you were to go out and shoot on a foggy or cloudy day, you may not have the visibility necessary to capture your image. 

Understanding the weather will help you adjust and plan how you are going to compose your image.

I highly recommend using an advanced weather app rather than the weather app that comes with your smartphone. 

I recommend the Accuweather, which is an advanced weather tool that will help you track and plan your shoot. 

This app will give you detailed information, including weather radars and maps, accurate forecasts, historical weather patterns, wind speeds, and visibility.

2. Track the Tide 

Being knowledgable about the tides is crucial to photographing the beach. 

Some locations are more picturesque when the tide is low, while others are more ideal when it’s high.

When scouting a location, check what the tide is. 

It can be that the composition you found only works during low tide and is submerged in water during high tide.

For example, many caves near beaches are completely submerged during high tide. 

If you do plan on shooting a location like this, make sure your shooting during the correct tide to capture your photo. 

Further, the tide can also affect the movement of water. 

Typically, low tides provide more water movement away from the shore while high tides provide more water movement towards the shore.

To track live tide data, you can use Tide Forecast

This site offers a live view map and tide tables of the entire world. 

This will allow you to find detailed information on the tide, current, and future conditions regardless of where you are.

This site is excellent because it tells you exactly when the next low tide or high tide is and how long it will last. 

This information is useful when you are planning your photo shoot.

3. Expose for Highlights 

If you prefer not to bracket your images, a good alternative is to expose for your highlights.

When dealing with high-contrast scenes, exposing for highlights will allow you to preserve as many details as possible in your image.

This is true, even if it entails leaving the rest of your photo dark or underexposed. 

Since most modern cameras are powerful, you recover the underexposed digital information using post-processing software. 

When exposing for highlights, you likely will overexpose some elements. 

This is expected, especially around your light source.

Plus, slightly underexposing images tend to give them more vibrant colors. 

If you’re lucky enough to be shooting a vibrant sky, exposing your highlights can make your picture look more compelling.

4. Adjust your White Balance

When shooting at the beach, you will encounter a variety of different lighting situations. 

As a result, your images will likely have a color cast. 

Color cast causes the colors in your scene to be inaccurate. 

As a result, they will not match the colors you see in real life, due to your color temperature. 

The best way to eliminate or enhance any color cast is by using a white balance. 

A common situation you might encounter color cast is during the golden hour.

Golden hour will cause a warm color cast over your images, causing a red-orange tint. 

You can counterbalance any white balance issue using auto-white balance. 

You can also use white balance to enhance the colors in your image. 

For example, if you’re shooting during sunset, but the colors don’t exactly pop as you would like, you can use white balance to enhance it. 

I suggest you use a preset if you want to enhance your colors quickly.

If you use the overcast preset, it will enhance the warm colors in your image.

Likewise, if you use the sunset preset it will enhance the blues in your image. 

Resource: Understanding White Balance: The Ultimate Guide

5. Include a Sunburst in Your Composition

Sunset at Rialto Beach

Sunburst are a great way to make your beach images stand out, and they are easy to create. 

To create a sunburst, set your aperture anywhere from f/18 or f/22. 

The high f/stop creates a small aperture, which causes the light to bend around its edges through the lens. 

This bending is what creates the sunburst effect. 

Keep in mind that the appearance of your sunburst will depend on the number of aperture blades your lens has. 

Lenses with an even number of aperture blades produce sunburst with an equal number of rays as aperture blades. 

On the other hand, lenses with an odd number of aperture blades produce sunbursts with twice the number of blades in your aperture. 

To enhance the effect of a sunburst, find a way to block the sun partially. 

Partially obscuring the sun will exaggerate the sunburst effect by diffracting the sunlight before it goes through your lens.

You can partially block the sunlight in a variety of ways, such as photographing it through a tree, a cliff, or the horizon.

Try to frame your composition from different angles. 

A subtle shift in framing can have a significant impact on diffraction and the appearance of your sunburst.

Finally, when creating sunburst, ensure that your sensor is free of dust. 

Specks of dust become most apparent when using small aperture settings.

6. Use Reflections

Beaches are perfect for creating incredible mirror reflections.

You can experiment with perfect reflection elements such as shallow pools and wet sand.

If you plan to photograph shallow pools to create reflections, consider bringing a polarizing filter (CPL). 

A polarizing filter can help eliminate glare on the water, enabling you to capture reflections.

Using a CLP filter is also useful in bringing out the blues in the sky and enhance the vibrancy of the colors in your scene.

If you plan to photograph reflections using tranquil pools, shoot on days with little wind. 

Wind will disrupt the surfaces you want to use for reflections. 

If you’re shooting on a windy day and want to create a perfect mirror reflection, consider using wet sand instead. 

Although this is often not as smooth as shallow pools of water, it works excellent in mirroring large visual elements such as the sky or sea stacks.

To photograph reflections using wet sand, set your camera to slow shutter speed (½ second or slower). 

Once you’ve settled on shutter speed, press your shutter as soon as the water starts receding into the ocean.

For both wet sand and shallow pools, using a narrow aperture is generally best. A narrow aperture will enable you to capture reflections with great detail. 

7. Include a Foreground Element

Sunset above Vestrahorn in IcelandIncluding interesting elements in your foreground is a great way to create unique beach photos. 

Beaches are typically filled with a variety of distinct elements you can add in your foreground. 

The coast provides an endless variety of elements you can capture, such as soft shifting sands, rolling waves, rocks, tranquil pools, and piers. 

You can use rocks on the beach, sand formations, paths from waves as great foreground elements when shooting your beach photos. 

Placing wildlife in your foregrounds, such as seagulls, crabs, or seas turtles  are  also a great way to make unique and engaging images.

Always make time to explore your location to find interesting elements you can include in your foreground. 

Doing so will allow you to capture images with features that will captivate your audience.

8. Level Your Horizon

Before you start shooting level your horizon. 

You can fix your horizon in post-processing, I recommend you avoid it. 

In post-processing you might need to sacrifice your edges and adjust your composition unnecessarily. 

The easiest way to level your horizon is to use a tripod. 

Use a tripod to stabilize your camera.

Tripods will allow you to make minor to adjustments to your composition easily and accurately. 

There are some other tools you can use as a photographer to help you level your horizon.

One of the easiest tools to use is your cameras gridlines.

Most DSLR cameras allow you to apply a 3×3 overlay to your live view screen. 

To turn on the gridlines, select the menu button on your camera and select “gird display.” 

Gridlines will make it very simple to level your horizon since you will get multiple horizontal lines to use as your guide.

Using your camera’s level feature can be extremely useful as well. 

The level feature is distracting when composing your image so remember to activate it after you have composed your image. 

To keep your live view mode clean while composing, you can use a  bubble level to make sure your horizon is level.

You can purchase a bubble level that connects to your camera’s hot plate. 

It functions exactly like a traditional carpentry bubble level. 

An air bubble is suspended in liquid, and when the camera is leveled, the air bubble will go to the center.

Use these tools to make sure your horizon is level in your image. 

9. Utilize the Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a compositional technique that leverages asymmetry to create dynamic and visually exciting compositions.

This rule divides your frame into nine equal boxes using two horizontal and two vertical lines. 

The result is four intersection points that are off-center where you should place your focal point. 

Instead, the rule suggests that you align your horizon along with one of the horizontal lines. 

This naturally places a heavier emphasis on either the foreground (land) or the background sky, creating asymmetry.

If you prefer to highlight your foreground, align the horizon with the upper horizontal line. 

On the other hand, if you want to put more emphasis on the sky or your background, align your horizon with the lower horizontal line.

Once you have your horizon aligned, position your focal point along one of the lines or on one of the four intersections. 

This naturally places your focal point off-center, which again utilizes asymmetry to create aesthetically pleasing images.

Resource: How to Use Rule of Thirds in Photography 


Now that you have the tools to create beautiful beach images, it’s time to head out to the sandy shores.

Your compositions and technique may take time to hone and adjust. 

But, with practice and perseverance, there’s little that can stop you from capturing images worthy of hanging on your wall.

So, don’t hesitate – grab your camera bag and make your way to the coast. The ocean is calling your name. 

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