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20 Coastal Landscape Photography Tips

Beaches of all types, sandy, shingle or pebbly have huge appeal to most people, especially photographers. Here's a quick introduction to the world of beach and coastal photography which can be an extremely rewarding activity. 

coastal photography
Photo by: Mark Wassell

There’s never any shortage of interesting subjects when you are near the shore, breathtaking skies, interesting cloud formations, sun streaks, rock formations, sea animals, shore birds, people and pets, surfers, sea weed, sea shells etc are just few of the subjects. Here are a few things you might like to pay attention next time you’re down by the coast for your next beach photography adventure:

Recommended Gear for Coastal Landscape Photography.

how to photograph coastal landscapes
Photo by: Andreas Fusser

Although you can capture stunning seascapes with nothing more than a point and shoot camera, to make the best out of every situation having a DSLR camera, a wide angle zoom lens preferably in the 16mm to 35mm focal length range and a tele photo zoom lens in the 70mm – 200mm focal length, a sturdy tripod and head, a cable release, a graduated neutral density filter, a polarizing filter, camera and lens cleaning kit are essential.

Caring for Your Equipment

Beaches have all the three ingredients that could cause a lot of trouble to your photographic equipment, sand, water and sun are all harmful and proper care should be taken so as to protect your gear from damage. Keep all you equipment in the camera bag and take out only when you are ready to shoot. Never put down anything (except tripod legs) on the sand. If you need to carry a lot of gear, hire an assistant or bring a friend along. Limit changing lenses to the minimum and clean all your equipment properly as soon as you are back from the beach.

Tips for Using Tripods when Shooting Coastal Landscapes

tips for using tripods at sea shores
Photo by: Jonathan Combe

A solid tripod is an essential piece of gear for shooting coastal landscapes. But using them at the beach requires some techniques. As the waves come and go the sand gets unstable and this would cause your tripod legs to shift (if it’s in the water) the trick to avoid such issues is to bury your tripod legs few inches into the sand and shoot when the sand has stopped moving with the receding waves. Remember to rinse your tripod thoroughly with tap water immediately after you get back from the shoot. And if your tripod allows you to disassemble and clean the legs, it will help you get the sand out and prevent it from damaging the tripod legs.

Coastal Landscape Photography Tips

1. Plan Well Ahead

Meticulous planning and precise execution are the secret to the success of any photo shoot and coastal landscape photography is no different.  Here are certain things that you need to consider while planning your session.

a. Study your location

seascape photography
Photo by: Chris Gin

If possible do a recce trip to the location you intend to shoot so as to familiarize yourselves with the landscape, walk around and find interesting elements that you can use in your shots; see how the scene looks during sunrise and sunset and decide on the best time to shoot.

b. Tide

If possible observe the scene during both high tide and low tide, the same scene might look entirely different. Depending upon the nature of the landscape some scenes look better during low tide as it reveals details like small puddles and rocks that would otherwise be covered with water. But certain other landscapes will look better during high tide as the water helps simplify the scene by covering most of the clutter. There are many online resources that will help you get tide tables for the location you intend to shoot.

c. Safety First

Costal photography has many dangers and could even be life threatening if one is not careful enough. Study the landscape thoroughly; shooting locations should always have a safe passage back even at high tide. Be extra careful when stepping on slippery rocks, never stray too close to the edge of cliffs and also don’t stand too near to the bottom. Always inform a friend, relative or someone at your hotel’s reception desk while travelling about the location you are visiting, expected time of return, whom to contact in case of any emergency etc. Do carry a small flash light with you always and also a mobile with good reception in that area just in case.

d. Check local weather forecasts and times of Sunrise / Sunset

beach lightning
Photo by: Mike and are very useful websites to check up weather conditions and also sunrise and sunset times for your location. Using these resources will be much more accurate as the times change constantly throughout the year. One good thing about coastal photography is that bad weather is actually good weather that will let you capture the coastal landscape with lots of character and mood.

e. Find the Position of the Sun

A sun compass could be a useful accessory as it could accurately tell you the exact direction from which sun will enter or exit.

f. Check the wind direction and strength

Shooting is difficult when strong wind is coming directly in off the sea. Your camera and lens will get coated with sea spray; cleaning filters and lens glass is difficult at the coast, as salty spray smears. So plan your shoot during times when the wind is coming from any other direction than directly in off the sea.  Alternatively, move further back the beach and use a longer focal length lens to capture the breaking waves with minimal sea-spray.

2. Timing Your Shots

If you are trying to photograph waves put your camera into continuous shooting mode and start shooting a few seconds before you anticipate a wave crash. The shots right before the waves break is usually the most interesting ones.

3. Photograph Coastal Landscapes at Night

tips for photographing beaches at night
Photo by: Carl Jones

Long exposure shots on a clear evening can produce some very dramatic results. Shoot during the time after sunset to the time before the sky turns completely dark for best results. You could capture stars, cloud movement and if there is moon the soft light from it could easily give a dream like quality to the landscape.

4. Find a Point of Interest

beach photography subjects
Photo by: Hakahonu

Always try to find an interesting focal point for your shot. Having a strong point of interest is critical to make beach shots interesting.  The point of interest draws the viewers’ attention to the shot which is otherwise comprised of mostly sky and water. The point of interest could be a physical aspect of the landscape like a rock in the sea or movement of water, waves or it could be some sort of texture or pattern like ripples in water or patterns in the sand. Once you start looking for it you will find many elements that work.

5. Look for Reflections

Reflections in water of colorful sky or other interesting elements in the scene helps add depth and create interest in your shots. Work with reflections for getting the best out of it, you can control or completely eliminate reflections by changing the shooting angle or by using a polarizing filter on your lens.

6. Create Foreground Interest

How to Photograph the Coast
Photo by: Sacha Fernandez

Photographs shot at the beach often do not have any interesting elements in the background. Often the background simply consists of the horizon (sea meeting the sky) and nothing else. So it becomes all the more important to add an interesting element in the foreground to attract the viewers’ attention to the picture.

7. Use Small Apertures

coastal landscape photography
Photo by: Michelle Brea

Coastal landscapes work well when the entire image from the foreground to the background is in acceptable focus. Use small aperture and focus on the hyperfocal distance to achieve maximum depth of field.

8. Try Changing  Perspectives

Create Stunning Coastal Landscapes
Photo by: AJ1008

Changing perspectives often has very dramatic effect when shooting coastal landscapes. A relatively uninteresting shot taken at eye level can be transformed into a very dramatic one by simply altering your perspective, lowering the shooting height, changing shooting format from landscape to portrait or changing focal length.

9. Working with Movement

how to photograph sea shores
Photo by: Jonathan Combe

The movement of the water presents many photographic opportunities to the creative photographer; more so when you have still elements along with moving ones. Experiment with different shutter speeds to either freeze or capture movement of the water in your shots; both could produce very different effects.

10. Using Color to Convey Mood

beach photography
Photo by: Chris Lofqvist

Coastlines are very colorful places especially during the golden hours. It could be either shades of blue or yellow. Different colors convey different moods and the photographer should work with the colors to accentuate the prevalent mood to make his/her shots more interesting.

11. Look for Fine Details

beach photography tips
Photo by: A Guy Taking Pictures

Ultra wide angle shots of coastlines could be interesting, but that’s not all. The coast is full of wonderful small subjects with stunning details, take out your macro lens and photograph all those shells, sea animals, seaweed, texture on the rocks and patterns on the sand. All of these things can make for a wonderful image.

12. Introduce a Human Element

tips for photographing seascapes
Photo by: Jose Luis Cernadas Iglesias

Adding a human element could often add interest and scale to your photographs. It could be a single person, a group of people or even things that reveal human presence like a pair of slippers, a surf board or an umbrella.

13. Shoot from the top of Overhanging Cliffs

beach photography ideas
Photo by: Paul Bica

If you are willing to put in the extra effort needed to hike up the steep cliffs lugging your gear, shooting from the top of cliffs could produce breathtaking scenes with a completely different perspective than when shooting from sea level.

14. Visit Coastal Villages

When planning your trip to the beach always remember to dedicate some time to visit the fishing villages nearby. They have a lot of potential as photographic subjects; you can easily find many interesting shots, of people, accessories used for fishing etc.

15. Seasons and Tides

tips for photographing sea shores
Photo by: Sacha Fernandez

Coastal landscapes change dramatically during the course of a day and also with changing seasons. Even the tide going out and coming in could completely change the mood of the scene. To make the most out of a location, visit it during different times of the day and during different seasons. You will be able to get a very diverse set of shots of the same location.

16. Shoot Silhouettes

The high contrast scene at the beach with light coming off from one side is ideal to shoot silhouettes. If you look out you will find many interesting shapes to use as silhouette.

17. Include Man Made Structures

coastal landscape photography
Photo by: Fougerouse Arnaud

Many times you will find that there are ports, docks, pier, light house or harbor located near popular tourist beaches. They make interesting subjects, but the major challenge when including such structures in your composition is finding a way to keep the composition simple as these busy places could overwhelm an otherwise beautiful scene if not composed right.

18. Turn Around

The most common mistake beginners make while photographing coastlines is to ignore what’s happening on the other side. They always try to include the sun in their shots and thus remain completely unaware of the drama that is playing right behind them.  As the sun rises or sets from the ocean, the first light from it could create a beautiful scene in the opposite direction with beautiful tones in the landscape and sky at your back. So remember to look back every once in a while.

19. Add Drama by converting your shots to Black & White

tips for better coastal landscapes
Photo by: Carl Jones

If you have a cloudy day with relatively dull lighting conditions you can easily add a lot of drama to your shots by experimenting with shutter speeds and converting the images to black and white. Also consider giving blues a little boost while post processing your coastal landscapes.

20. Have Fun

fun at the beach
Photo by: Aaron Brown

Travel well prepared to the beach, bring lots of water and snacks to keep you energized and well hydrated. Be creative with your techniques and shooting angles and don’t get too immersed in the technicalities that you forget to have some fun. There are plenty of opportunities for capturing great coastal landscapes the most important thing is to enjoy the time you spend over there and great images will happen automatically.

Related Reading

  1. 22 Tips for Photographing Stunning Seascapes
  2. A Quick Tip to Get More Interesting Shots of Mountains
  3. Professional Landscape Photography Tips - Using Telephoto Lenses for Shooting Landscapes
  4. Metering Technique for Photographing Sunsets
  5. Professional secrets of Night Photography for Capturing Stunning Star Trails and Moonlit Landscapes

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