Beach Photography Using Manual Mode

Tips & Techniques

This is a short essay for photographers who are new to manual mode. Beaches present some unique challenges for getting good quality photos, but they are also very rewarding subjects. Here’s what you should know if you’re excited to photograph the beach and want to use the proper manual settings.

The two main challenges to beach photography are that beaches are often drenched with light, and that horizons must be straight.  The first one makes exposure quite a challenge.  Light reflects off of the water and sand, and if not handled correctly, it can give you overly contrasty photos. Meanwhile, tilted horizons can make your photo look very bad and amateurish.

NIKON D850 @ 300mm, ISO 100, 1/800, f/6.3
NIKON D850 @ 300mm, ISO 800, 1/800, f/11.0

The horizon issue is the easy one. Just turn on the grid in your camera menu and then line up the water horizon with the grid lines. If you don’t have a grid in your menu, then try to line up your horizon with anything inside your viewfinder that can indicate a straight line. You then should check your horizon in post-processing software and straighten it when necessary (some straightening is almost always necessary).

You must also look at your horizon line for the barrel/pincushion effect that comes from lens distortion. This is when your picture seems to bulge or get concave at the horizon line. Most photo software has tools to correct distortion and eliminate this problem. I recommend correcting distortion first, then straightening the horizon second in post-processing.

NIKON D850 @ 62mm, ISO 100, 1/500, f/11.0
NIKON D810 @ 48mm, ISO 100, 1/1600, f/5.6

Exposure is a more complex problem. The two biggest challenges to exposure are excessive contrast, and over/under exposing your sky or water. Quite often, if you have a properly exposed sky, the rest of your photo could look really dark, nearly black in many cases. Whereas if you expose your subject properly, the sky could be overexposed. But there is a solution, and it involves setting your camera manually.

NIKON D850 @ 300mm, ISO 100, 1/500, f/11.0
NIKON D850 @ 85mm, ISO 100, 1/500, f/11.0

Let’s look at aperture first. I find that the range from f/5.6 through f/16 all make good apertures for beach photography. If you want all aspects of your photo to be sharp, then you would choose f/8 or f/11. If you want sunstars in your photo, choose f/16. But beware. When you want a sunstar, you can end up with a pretty dark photo to accommodate that bright sun.

Meanwhile, if you want to put some background blur in your photo or slightly blur the far horizon, then you would go to the wider end of your aperture range and choose f/5.6 through f/6.3. You may even choose very wide apertures like f/1.8 if you want the entire beach to be very out of focus, with just your subject being sharp.

One important thing to note about photographing the sun is that it can be quite dangerous to the eye if you are looking through an optical viewfinder. It is important not to look directly at the sun. Instead, consider using the camera’s rear LCD if the sun is in your photo.

NIKON D810 @ 300mm, ISO 100, 1/1600, f/5.6
NIKON D810 @ 24mm, ISO 100, 1/400, f/16.0

Next lets look at shutter speed. On sunny days, there is so much light that your camera’s meter will tell you to use a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second or even faster, such as 1/2000th of a second. However, if you follow this recommendation, you will often end up with a very dark photo. Over my years as a beach photographer, I have never needed to use a shutter speed faster than 1/500 or 1/800 second, no matter what the meter said. Essentially, the camera’s meter is trying to make the scene look a neutral “middle gray” tone, when in reality, you want the beach to look bright and sunny instead.

On overcast days, it is ok to follow your meter, because without all that direct sunlight it will recommend more reasonable shutter speeds. It’s also the case that on foggy or overcast days, you don’t want the beach photos to look especially bright anyway.

As for ISO, on a sunny day, you can keep it at base ISO with no problem. On most cameras, this is ISO 100. You will only need to raise it in low light. More on that in a bit.

NIKON D850 @ 28mm, ISO 800, 1/800, f/11.0

The next step in getting a correct exposure is to deal with the sky and the water. Almost every camera prioritizes metering for your subject, specifically, your focus box. You will find that the meter’s recommendation almost always changes as you move the focus box around the scene, even if you keep your composition exactly the same. In beach photography, since there is so much contrast, this can be a problem. If your focus point is on the water, the sky will be too bright. If your focus point is on the sky, the rest of the photo will be too dark.

What I always do instead, and it works great, is to aim my little focus box at the exact point between sky and sea. That is, you aim your focus point at the horizon line, making sure that both the sky and the water are in the box and metered simultaneously. This will give you a much better meter reading, and you can then manually set your settings with this proper meter reading in mind.

NIKON D810 @ 55mm, ISO 100, 1/2000, f/4.5

A word here about metering and focusing methods. My favorite metering method happens to be center-weight metering with a 12mm circle. However, at the beach, I often will change to matrix metering because it takes into account a much wider area of view. This can help with the variety of light conditions and contrast that can occur in a single image. Any metering method will work well at the beach if you understand all your other settings, and it is really just a matter of preference.

As for autofocus method, I generally shoot in single servo, but I change to continuous servo at the beach because of all the rapid motion that goes on there. When shooting gulls, moving boats, or moving people, continuous servo can ensure that you don’t miss out on anything. Any of the focus modes that you prefer will work in that context. I tend to use either single point AF or group area AF, and both work equally well.

NIKON D800 @ 72mm, ISO 100, 1/800, f/9.0

Another thing to watch out for in beach photography is composition. Too much water or too much sky? I have many photos where too much of the composition was taken up by water, with just a small strip of sky at the top. When I see one of those, I ask myself “what was I thinking when I composed that shot?”

The opposite can be true, too. When you have clear blue skies with nothing in them (like interesting clouds), and you somehow made that sky the biggest portion of your photo, that can bring on another “what was I thinking” moment. And yet you often don’t want to have an exact 50/50 sky and water ratio, which can look contrived and boring. Instead, try to compose each photo to emphasize its own strengths, for example, showing more of the sky if the clouds are very interesting that day.

NIKON D850 @ 28mm, ISO 100, 1/800, f/9.0

Another part of good composition in beach photography is to have something in your seascape shots besides just water and blue sky. The water/sky part is a sort of empty, blue canvas that is best used as a background. Your subject can be a boat, a beautiful cloud structure, unusual waves, a gull flying by, some land at the bottom, or sometimes even a swan slowly swimming by. Gulls playing in the surf, or flocks of birds, are endlessly fascinating. More unusual can be a person swimming in the water, a hang glider, or a wind surfer. A genre all to itself is surfing, which requires a whole skillset of its own to photograph.

If you want shore photos, shells and seaweed can provide material for a good composition. I love shooting waves lapping at the shore. Rocks and pebbles can make good foreground for shoreline shots, too. A nice sandbar can be a great part of beach photography. Dunes are always fascinating. A curvature in the shore line also provides interest, as can a jetty or a rock jetty sticking out into the water. If you combine any of these things with beautiful cloud structures, your picture is bound to be a winner.

NIKON D850 @ 28mm, ISO 100, 1/800, f/6.3

If it is a hot summer day, you are likely to find people at your beach. You can do all sorts of things with people photography. I tend to like my seascapes people-free, so I seldom go when lots of people are around, or if there is anyone around, I avoid putting them in my photo. I have one exception to that. If the people are very far away and small in my scene, I leave them in, as they can enhance the image quite a bit.

NIKON D800 @ 24mm, ISO 125, 10/1000, f/8.0
NIKON D800 @ 26mm, ISO 400, 10/4000, f/8.0

Sunset at the beach is simply amazing. You can go to town with your creativity, and all of it is satisfying. I love shooting sunsets at the beach. If you wait a while, you can have a whole other look with the sun’s afterglow. Dusk can be another creative moment. When dusk falls, silhouettes make an appearance and give a very special look to your photos.

NIKON D810 @ 72mm, ISO 500, 1/200, f/22.0
NIKON D810 @ 135mm, ISO 500, 1/100, f/22.0

As for sunset settings, you will need to change your camera settings as the light fades. You won’t want to make things look like daylight, so you will often want to take darker photos than what the meter recommends. I use longer shutter speeds to compensate for the diminishing light, and I will slightly increase my ISO if the photo is too dark. This is all assuming you are shooting handheld.

NIKON D800 @ 70mm, ISO 500, 1/3200, f/8.0
NIKON D800 @ 40mm, ISO 320, 1/2500, f/3.5

Another element of the weather that can make beach photos special is fog. Of course, it cannot be too dense of a fog, or you wouldn’t be able to capture much of anything for your photo. When you have a foggy day, everything at the beach looks different and mysterious. It can be a great experience for photography.

For camera settings, you will be working with a restriction in light. You may need to hike up your ISO to the 400 to 800 range, depending on the availability of the light. You would want a fairly open aperture, say f/5.6 or wider. (An aperture like f/11 to get more depth of field is unnecessary, since the fog will obscure the background anyway.) Meanwhile, your shutter speeds will meter on the long side because of the lower level of light, but that’s fine, as long as you are still getting sharp photos handheld. If shutter speed drops too much, you will need to increase your ISO further. See the reciprocal rule in photography for more details about which shutter speeds are safe.

NIKON D850 @ 48mm, ISO 640, 1/320, f/5.6
NIKON D850 @ 210mm, ISO 640, 1/500, f/5.6

One thing I never ever do at the beach is blur the water. Photographers get a little crazy with their tripods and long exposures (I don’t ever even bring a tripod to the beach). It has become a total cliché to blur water anywhere and in every scene, like waterfalls. When I see blurred water photos, I move on. Of course, this is a question of taste. If you like blurred water, go for it. Set up your tripod near or in the shallows, compose your picture, set your shutter speed to anywhere from 3 to 20 seconds, and you’ll get the blurred water that you want. With experience, you can manipulate your settings to let your creativity go to town and get different degrees of blur. But I prefer the beauty of simple water.

NIKON D800 @ 24mm, ISO 100, 10/1000, f/8.0
NIKON D800 @ 70mm, ISO 125, 10/1000, f/8.0

I hope this essay has been a help to those who want to shoot beach photography in manual mode. It is fun and creative to shoot in manual, and it is especially useful at a beach, where light conditions can be extreme and varied. Beaches provide endless opportunities to express your creativity as a photographer. Best of all, it is lots of fun shooting at the beach!

NIKON D800 @ 40mm, ISO 320, 1/1000, f/4.0
NIKON D800 @ 24mm, ISO 800, 1/320, f/8.0

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