Wednesday, June 25, 2014

5 Tips for Great Beach Photos

We all love summer (well, most of us anyway). And going to the beach, enjoying the hot sun and the lovely sea, and lying on white sands is an excellent way to pass the summer days. And we usually take photos. A lot of photos. Photos of our kids building sand castles, of our girlfriends and boyfriends splashing in the water, or just of the sea and the sand itself.

Today, I will share with you a few tips for making your beach photos stand out from the crowd. Because, admit it, you must have noticed that there are a lot of boring beach photos out there. And the bad thing is, most people don't even realize why they are so boring (although they might subconsciously still recognize them as such).

Beautiful place, but how many things are wrong with this picture?

1. It's all about time, baby
Sadly, most people go to the beach between 11-16. The thing is, this is the Devil's hour in photography, with the high noon sun creating very harsh shadows, high dynamic-range scenes, that don't make for great photos. There is often haze, due to the heat, not to mention people squinting. Simply going to the beach at around 18:00 instead, will vastly improve the quality of light in your photos. The sun is lower in the horizon, creating warm, softer light.

2. Balance the contrast.
If you still want to go to the beach during the midday, you must find ways to balance the contrast somehow. In other words, avoid at all costs to have both deep shadows and bright highlights in the frame. No camera can cope with such dynamic range (not without fill-in flash anyway). Place yourself between the sun and your subjects, so that the sun is behind you.

3. Composition considerations
We're getting into important territory now. This is what separates snapshots from photos. To create meaningful photos, you must be able to tell a story. Don't simply place the horizon in the middle (often tilted, like in the counter-example photo shown above), with a vast expanse of water on the foreground and the cloudless sky in the background. Find new perspectives, new angles; find important elements that describe the whole - synecdoche, anyone? - like a small starfish on the sand near the breaking waves. Remember the end scene of The Thin Red Line, with the plant on the beach? Ponder for a while, why it worked so powerfully. What it signified, and how it worked within the frame.

4. More on composition, still: focus on emotions
You can't photograph everything. You shouldn't photograph everything (otherwise there is no subject, it's just a mess with water, sky, sand, people running around...). Focus instead on two things: a) what matters to you (whether it's a person, an item, or a vista, that's up to you); b) emotions. Focus not on how the subject looks like but on what kind of emotions it inspires in that particular moment. Why do you like the sunset over the bay? Does it make you feel free? Content? Sad? Then make these things show up on your photo (if you haven't done so yet, take a look at my Composition Series).

Not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but still a decent photo, doing a good job at expressing emotions. Notice how the old man helps bring a necessary tension into the composition; it would have been more flat without him

5. Have fun!
I recently went to a 1-week vacation abroad. Wanna know which camera and lenses I got with me? None! I used my phone camera to take all my photos (you can see that from the photos of this page). Why? Because I wanted to spend a relaxing week enjoying the sun and the sea, not fretting over photos, over dragging heavy cameras and lenses, or being worried all the time about the equipment getting damaged or stolen. The biggest obstacle between you and great photos is your stressing and not enjoying what you're doing. Take with you a camera that is expendable. A camera that you won't care if it's lost, if it's dropped into the water, or if it's stolen. Simply back up the photos of the day every evening, and you're all set.

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