10 Top Tips for Shooting on a Sandy Beach
I always love shooting at the beach, I think it brings out a bit of summer holiday spirit in everyone. West Wittering near Chichester where I live, is probably the best beach within easy reach of London, being golden sand instead of the more usual pebbles on the south coast. It also has good toilet facilities and and a cafe, important if you want to keep young (or indeed older) children happy. These are my top tips for shooting on West Wittering or indeed any other sandy beach.
Safety should always be your number one priority. Always make sure you are aware of any potential dangers before you start shooting. If you are anything like me, once you start shooting you’ll be concentrating on the next shot and not the environment around you. For example, the beach at West Wittering has a safe bathing area marked by flags and patrolled by life guards, further down towards East Head there are strong currents and bathing is not recommended. Whichever beach you are at make sure you are aware of any potential hazards associated with it.
2. Take care of your camera equipment.
Obvious really but it’s important to do all you can to keep sand out of your camera. Normally I set up my camera before I get on the the beach, so I don’t have to change lenses or memory cards in a sandy environment. The areas that are worst for drifting sand are above the high water mark, where the wind will tend to blow sand everywhere, if you have to change lenses either go down onto the wet sand or return to your car . If you want to shoot in dry sand East Head at the far end of the beach is better as it’s much more sheltered.
Another top tip is to bag up your more expensive equipment with sealable food bags that you can get from the supermarket. That way if you take your bag onto the beach you have a second line of defence – Sand WILL get into your camera bag.
3. Keep an eye on the weather.
I find the easiest weather for shooting on the beach is bright but overcast weather, it’s flattering, you can shoot in any direction without your subject squinting and the beach will be less busy. Sunny days are also great but it’s important you pick either early in the morning or late afternoon to get the best light. Also it’s important to to make sure your subject isn’t looking into the sun and squinting, and that there isn’t any harsh shadows falling across their face.
One thing to remember is to not just look at the cloud conditions but also make note of the wind speed. I lived only a mile or two from the beach and it’s amazing how much stronger the wind is on the beach compare to even a little way inland. As a rule of thumb an indicated wind speed of 20 mph. will seem very strong in a beach setting and will severely impede you. If it is very windy you can get some respite sheltering in the dunes, but you may want to admit defeat and visit another day.
Another tip is top keep an eye on the cloud formations to the west of you (or wherever the prevailing wind is where you live) . If rain is coming this is where it will come from, and on the coast you can see it coming 10-20 minutes before it arrives. I’ve done many a shoot where I’ve able to shoot between rain showers in this way.
4. Think wide – think details
Beaches are a great place for environmental portraits. Use a moderate wide angle to really pull in the surroundings around your subject. Alternatively little ones love picking up shells and stones focussing in close to their hands give another great picture option.
5. Don’t forget the Sunblock
If you’re busy shooting you won’t feel the sun until it’s too late. Be warned
6. Time of Day
You can shoot successfully on the beach at anytime of day if you are careful, but the light is definitely best early in the morning or in the evening. It is also quieter then which is an added advantage.
On beaches like the Witterings there is a big difference between high and low tide, bear that in mind when you plan a shoot and plan accordingly. There’s no point turning up to shoot on the sand flats when the sea is lapping around the top of the beach, if you wanted to shoot waves or surfers they are only around at the high tide. The sea also comes in fast, often moving 10 or 20 yards up the beach before you’ve realised, there’s not much danger of getting cut off on this particular beach, but you could easily ruin anything you left on the sand while you were working. Make sure you know whether tide is moving in or out.
8. Light Modifiers
Reflectors are useful but vulnerable to the wind so you’d need an assistant rather than relying on a stand. Off camera flash in an umbrella would also be asking for trouble on a breezy day unless the stand was held down by a sandbag or willing helper. Remember some light modifiers are less likely to blow over than others and small flash units are easier to weigh down. Speedlights offer less power than a studio light and battery pack but are more weather sealed.
I know filters are one of those issues that split photographers. Some insist on having one permanently on very lens they own whilst others fret that a filter would rob their lens of precious sharpness. On the beach you have the delightful combination of damp salty air and abrasive blowing sand to contend with. Sand in particular is hazardous not so much when it lands on a lens but when you try to get it off. Never try to clean the lens at the beach with anything other than a rocket air blower unless you are certain it is totally sure it is sand free. Personally I think a filter is the best compromise, especially if you are using expensive lenses. A simple UV filter is the best insurance against damaging a lens. If you do scratch a lens don’t despair, small scatches do almost nothing to affect optical quality, but they do have an impact on the resale value.
10. Home Again
I have a set routine that I follow when returning from a day’s shooting at the beach. The first thing I do is remove everything from the camera bag and then hoover the bag out. There is always a good teaspoon of sand hiding in the bottom of it, no matter how careful I think I’ve been. Second I do a visual check for sand on my lenses and cameras, using a rocket air blower to remove any that I find, remembering to check the back of lens caps – the spring catches are a good trap for sand. Next I try the focusing rings for any sand in them, I’ve found that if you can’t blow the sand out, a piece of photocopy paper can remove sand from any joints, I don’t know if this is the best solution but it is surely better than leaving sand to wear away at mechanical components.