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Taking pictures at the beach

Posted by Eric Bauer, Staff  July 31, 2008 12:22 PM

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Seagulls flock to the shore in South Boston at dawn.
Sometimes you'll find a great beach photo if you look away from the sand and the water. Dina Rudick captured these seagulls at dawn on a beach in South Boston.

By Dina Rudick
Globe Staff Photographer

Looked at one way, a day at the beach with your camera is, well, a day at the beach. The sky is a beautiful blue, sea foam dances in gorgeous curls around your toes, and sandy children create castles on the shore. Memories hang like easy fruit for your lens.

Looked at another way, that same day is fraught with challenges. Saltwater plus high precision instruments equals mechanical failure. Noon-time sun flattens every color and shape to a mere cutout, and after three minutes, everything starts to look the same.

Here are some easy tips to improve your beach photography.

  • Rule of thirds. Place your horizon line either in the top third or the bottom third of your frame instead of in the dead center. This draws your eye more actively through the frame and emphasizes either the sky or the beach/water, creating a more dynamic and interesting composition.
  • Backlighting creates silhouettes –- for better or worse. If you've lined your kids and the dog up for a family portrait and the sun is at their backs, you're likely going to get a bunch of black figures against a brilliant sky rather than the smiling faces your intend. This can be a neat effect if they are, say, running across the beach and their figures cut interesting shapes against the background. But if you're looking to capture their dimpled grins and sandy knees, make sure the sun is on their faces –- not their tushies.
  • Be smarter than your light meter. Light reflected off the sand can trick your meter into thinking the beach scene is brighter than it really is, and can cause your camera to compensate with too-fast a shutter speed or too-small an aperture. Either check the image after you shoot (if you're working with digital) and compensate if the image is too dark, or center-weight your metering (for film camera) and meter off the main subject of your picture.
  • Clean up those backgrounds. Get low, get high, and watch out for umbrellas coming out of people's heads. Draw emphasis to your subject by eliminating distracting elements from your composition by moving your point of view. If you're shooting kids digging in the sand, try standing on a cooler and shooting from directly overhead (just watch out for your own shadow). If you're shooting the birds skittering on the beach, get on your belly and take advantage of the natural mirror-like reflection created under their feet by the wet surf and sand. Experiment, and whatever you do, don't assume that you'll "Photoshop it out" later.
  • Seek out the golden hour. The beach is primo territory to exploit nature's studio. Go out before dawn and capture the diamond ring effect of the sun creeping above the ocean (assuming you're on the east coast). Turn around 180 degrees and shoot the reddish-gold light playing on the sea grasses. Follow your shadow around (which will be very long in the mornings and evenings. Line your family in a seated row facing the sun and shoot them from the side with a long lens. See the beauties emerge when the sun begins to set.
  • Pay attention to your white balance. Do not just leave your white balance on auto. Doing so will drain your images of vibrancy and color. Experiment with the cloudy and shade settings at sunrise and sunset. Try out the sun setting at noon.
  • Play with your focus. Because the space at the beach is so vast, you can experiment with large apertures and selective focus. Try pushing the focal point far, far away and stack up many objects in the intervening space. Experiment with focusing inches away from the camera and overexposing the background a little for a dreamy feel.
  • Take care when changing lenses or film/memory cards. Sand, salt and sun will destroy your camera. Grains of sand are insidious saboteurs of all things mechanical, and direct sun will damage the insides of your digital gear. So take your camera inside or at least away from the elements to open it up for any reason.
  • Above all, take the pictures you would want to see, and don't try to imitate the postcards. Have fun and good luck!

More Dina Rudick photos

Want to keep improving, or have some tips to share? Check out all of our tipsheets or submit your own.

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