by Jack Howard
Spots where sand, sea, and sky come together offer certain challenges to photographers, but the results can be so amazingly rewarding. Conditions can change quickly as the sun hides behind a cloud, and conditions most certainly change slowly as the tides sink and rise and the sun and moon dance across the sky. The same patch of sea may be mirror calm and reflecting golden light, or it may be a churn of furious waves. Fogs, mists, and wind-whipped sand can make for gorgeous images even as they fool camera meters. There’s a world of possibilities waiting to be captured along these edges, whenever you visit, and with whatever Sigma lens you’ve got in your bag.
Where sand, sea, and sky meet can make for amazing photos, in any conditions. A pair of Eastern Willets hunt at the water’s edge on a very foggy morning at Sandy Hook, NJ. There’s a very simple geometric division of space here into three main blocks of sand, sea, and foggy sky. Sigma SD1, Sigma 50-500mm @ 112mm, 1/640 F5.6 ISO 100.
Beachscapes can be blocks of simple Euclidian geometry, with squares and triangles defining the divisions between sky, sea and sand, and beachscapes can also be amazingly complex explorations of fractal geometry. Depending on the time, and tide, and weather, and season, you may have a beach to yourself, or you may be one of the multitudes of people, or birds, at the edge of the sea. Empty or packed, blazing or misty, there’s amazing photos to be made. And from Fisheye to supertelephoto, any and every lens has great potential for the beach. Let’s go exploring!
Self portrait with frisbee at North Beach, Sandy Hook, NJ with New York City on the horizon. I set my camera on interval timer to and attempted this shot several times to ensure I’d be happy with one of them at this focal distance. I grew up a few miles south of here in a town called Manasquan, within walking distance of the beach. On stormy nights you could hear the roar of the waves and the call of the foghorns, and smell the salt in the air. Beach photography is in my blood! It is a subject I revisit, explore, and experiment with again and again. Canon EOS Rebel XTi and Sigma 18-250mm F3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM at 63mm. 1/400 f6.3 ISO 100.
Beach photography presents a couple of technical, physical, and aesthetic challenges for photographers. Let’s quickly tackle these.
Sand, the water, and the sun and moon can all wreak havoc with in-camera metering. Massive amounts of sand in the frame can lead to underexposure by fooling the meter, so if there’s a lot of sand, you’ve got to crank exposure compensation up a stop or so. Depending on the time of day, water can be dark, leading to the inverse of the sand exposure issue, or it can be reflecting sunlight sparkles, which also can throw off in-camera metering. And whenever the sun or moon are in the metered frame, these can confuse the camera’s meters. I usually spot-meter off something near 18% gray, and study the histogram and readjust as necessary in manual exposure mode. But it’s also very effective to employ exposure compensation in program modes after taking a few test shots.
Here are some of my basic exposure rules by the sea:
- If there’s too much sand in the frame, I overexpose off the metered reading.
- If there’s a lot of dark water in the frame, I underexpose off the metered reading.
- If there’s a sun, or moon in the frame, I’ll meter off the sky nearby, but with the hot circle out of the frame. And this goes the same for sparkling waters.
- Any time I use fill-flash, I meter for the background and dial the flash back ⅔ to 1 ⅓ stop–this works great for natural looking sunset portraiture.
- If the overall dynamic range of the scene is compressed significantly due to foggy, misty, or twilight conditions, I’ll expose as far to the right without white clip as possible. You will get much cleaner images if you build back a black point rather than push darker tones towards the highlights.
When the overall dynamic range of the scene is significantly smaller than the full dynamic range of your camera, you should always expose as far to the highlights without clipping as possible. You will get much cleaner images when you build back density and shadows, than if you try to push darker tones to the highlights. The top image shows the straight-from-camera histogram of this scene made with the Canon EOS 5D and the Sigma 70mm F2.8 EX DG Macro, and the second shows how I’ve spread the tonal values back across the full range in Adobe Camera Raw 7.0.
And obviously, between the sand and the salty, moisture-rich air, and the crashing waves, there’s a couple of things that could seriously foul up some camera gear. Luckily, I’ve not had a serious accident involving gear damage, but I have had some close calls. The most important thing is to be alert and assess the conditions before putting you and your gear in a precarious position. Dropping a lens or a camera on the sand can be disastrous, and getting whomped by a big wave can really ruin an otherwise amazing photo adventure.
I’m now religious about using camera straps on the beach to prevent another unintentional camera drop, and I make sure the camera and lens is blocked from even the slightest breeze before swapping lenses. When I’m using a tripod or monopod, the legs are protected from the sand either by standing atop my sandals or inside couple of plastic bags. And when not in use, lifeguard stands can also offer a degree of security for hanging a bag during a gear swap.
This lifeguard stand adds a geometic foreground element to this shot of the sand and surf and fogged-over horizon. Without the stand, this image would be lacking something, I think. And during the quiet hours of morning, evening, and off-season, lifeguard stands also offer a place to hang a camera bag above the sand. Canon EOS 5D and Sigma 70mm F2.8 EX DG Macro. 1/2500 F5.0 ISO 100.
Keeping gear safe is important, but much more important is keeping yourself safe. Always be mindful of rising tides that can easily cut off your exit route over the course of just a few minutes. Beach rocks can be slippery, even when appearing bone-dry. Sets of waves can be small for a long while, followed without warning by a much larger set that may knock you over and swamp your gear. Be mindful to not get so engrossed in the view through the lens that you don’t see what’s happening in the bigger picture!
And sunscreen is always a smart idea in the daylight, as it is all too easy to get engrossed in the magic of making photos and lose track of time. And in the warmer months, it’s always wise to have some bug spray in your kit for any outdoor adventures.
To capture this shot, I was squatting, waiting for the right wash to hit the stone in the foreground as I fired the shutter, then quickly stood up to move the camera and lens out of the way of the oncoming water. What really works for me here if the repetition of the wash hitting the rock and the wave breaking in the background. Shot with the Sigma SD1 and Sigma 17-50mm F2.8 EX DC OS HSM at 17mm. 1/3200 F5.6 ISO 800. Processed in Sigma Photo Pro and tuned for the web in Adobe Camera Raw 7.0. And yes, I was risking my equipment to make this shot!
Great oceanside images can be made with any lens in your kit. To illustrate this article, I shot with the Sigma 15mm F2.8 EX DG HSM Fisheye, the 8-16mm F4.5-5.6 DC HSM, the 17-50mm F2.8 EX DC OS HSM, the 70mm F2.8 EX DG Macro, the 18-250mm F3.5-5.6 DC OS HSM, the 50-500mm DG OS HSM, the 120-300mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM, and the classic 17-40 F2.8-4.0!
The most important thing is to make sure you use the lens you’ve chosen to make the strongest possible composition to tell the story you’re trying to tell. A photo may mean to convey a feeling of loneliness, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a clear visual path through the image or a defined focal point, or a rhythm of some sort. Look for patterns, and layers of intrigue to bring depth and an emotion into the image. And as you look for patterns, look for the assymetry, too.
On a clear day you can the Empire State Building from the beach on Sandy Hook when looking north. But on a recent foggy morning on the friday before Memorial Day, visibility wasn’t even a quarter mile! The lonely lifeguard stands show a pattern, and there’s an entire row of them implied, and invisible behind the fog. Canon EOS 5D and Sigma 70mm F2.8 EX DG Macro. 1/800 F5.6 ISO 100.
Looking south from this same location on this foggy morning offers a different version of the story. Here, the pattern of the lifeguard stands in the fog is broken up by a great element that tells a different story and make for a very different image overall. Which version do you prefer, and why? Canon EOS 5D and Sigma 70mm F2.8 EX DG Macro. 1/1600 F5.6 ISO 100. Canon EOS 5D and Sigma 70mm F2.8 EX DG Macro. 1/800 F5.6 ISO 100.
Wide angle lenses–both Fisheyes and rectilinears– can be amazing for landscapes and beachscapes, but be sure not to fall into trap of trying to take too much of everything in, without having an obvious focal point or some strong leading lines in the image. Use the ability of wide lenses to emphasize a foreground element, and experiment with your angles. The same scene shot with the same ultrawide lens at a slightly different camera height and angle can have significantly different feels! Let’s explore the same 20×20 square of rocky beachline with a 15mm Fisheye and 8-16mm ultrawide zoom.
This stretch of shoreline at Sandy Hook is riddled with an old rock getty shored up by some crumbling planking. It’s about twenty feet to where the shoreline hits in this image, shot from a very low camera position pointed level to the horizon. I like how this frame is equally divided between the busy ground and sea, the the very homogenous square of misty sky. I stopped way down to F/11 for serious depth of field in this image. Canon EOS Rebel XTi and Sigma 8-16mm F3.5-6.3 at 8mm 1/160 at F11 ISO 100.
Now we’ve moved much closer to the shore break, to just inches in front of the boulder just touching the horizon in the previous image. There’s a very different feel to this image, shot with the same settings as the last image, isn’t there? Do you feel closer, or further, from the water than in the last image?
Now all we have changed is our camera height and and we’re shooting obliquely to the horizon. We’re taking advantage of that deep depth of field and expansive angle of view of this ultrawide lens. to really give a foreground punch to this shot. There is a very different feeling to this image than to the one above, isn’t there? Which do you prefer, and why?
Now, I’ve switched to the 15mm F2.8 EX DG Fisheye. This is the same rock as in the last image. I’m right on top of this rock, less than an inch away from it while making this frame. Notice how bowed the horizon is in typical fisheye fashion just a tiny bit above the center line of the lens. And notice the shallow depth of field effects possible when close-focusing with this lens even at F7.1! Canon EOS 5D and Sigma 15mm F2.8 EX DG Fisheye. 1/320 at F7.1 ISO 100.
And here’s a very different image made by slightly changing shooting angle stopping down to F16 for both increased depth of field and a bit of motion blur in the creeping surf. And notice how dramatic the horizon curvature is as that straight line gets closer to the edge of the fisheye frame. Of these images, which do you prefer? Why?
Ultrawides and Fisheyes are also fantastic for making digitally stitched panoramic images. And with each generation of software, the tools are becoming so much more refined. The newest build of Adobe Photoshop, CS6, recently did an amazing job of merging three ultrawide slides of mine from a visit to Orient Bay on Saint Martin back in 2001, made with the Sigma 17-40mm F2.8-4.0 which was my trusted ultrawide for many years.
When I captured this series of shots from water’s edge on Orient Bay in 2001 on Kodak EVS100 slide film with my Sigma 17-40mm F2.8-4.0, I always wanted to stitch it together to make a panoramic image. But back then, the tools to do so weren’t nearly as easy to make this happen. However, the tools have now evolved significantly, and I was very excited at how well Adobe Photoshop CS6 automatically stitched these three shots together to pull in the full sweep of shore at this legendary beach.
It took over a decade for me to finally have these three ultrawide slides stitched the way I’d envisioned it from the start, and I was so very excited when I first saw the final image cropped and displayed full-sized on my computer screen! Theboy looking out over the water gives a natural focal point to this pano.
I wasn’t able to get the fourth frame to align with the others in this pano-sweep burst of shots, but I’ve included it here to show how very different the feel of an image can be when the image is recomposed. That’s the same jet ski, and same three people as in the far left of the pano, but here the shoreline and the deck chairs follow to a vanishing point between the peaks in the background. All four shots were made on a Canon EOS 1N with Sigma 17-40mm F2.8-4.0 on Kodak EVS100 Slide film. Exact exposure settings not remembered at all!
Use your lenses to their strengths whenever possible. It’s something you can’t repeat as a photographer too many times! For example, Fisheye lenses curve the field to take in a huge angle of view, and this can be used as a compositional element very effectively at the beach. Let’s check out two photos where lines were deliberately put near the edge of the frame to take advantage of the curved field.
I truly have no idea who built this circle, and to what purpose, if any, for which it was built. But I did know that this found composition on the sand in front of the row of rocks just a few yards behind where I was earlier exploring would make for a very cool abstract patterns-and-repetitions-and-scale image when shot with the Sigma 15mm F2.8 EX DG Fisheye on a Canon EOS 5D. 1/800 at F7.1 ISO 100.
And here, the curved field of the fisheye lens is employed to imply tension on this fishing pole. And by keeping the horizon very near the middle of the frame, the distortion of the horizon is minimized, which make the bend in the pole that much more dramatic. Same settings as previous image.
Use your lenses to their strengths whenever possible. It’s something you can’t repeat as a photographer too many times! For example, Macro lenses can bring tiny things to a grand scale, and also close-focus on a small detail with lovely defocused background for a very different take on the scene in front of you. And of course, a macro is also great for portraiture and as a general lens, too!
At one point on my recent foggy day visit to Sandy Hook, the fog got so thick and deep. So I changed gears and explored the drift line and discovered this tiny little scene of a shark’s purse apparently lounging beside a wind break! Canon EOS 5D and Sigma 70mm F2.8 EX DG Macro and Sigma EM-140 Macro Flash. 1/200 F9, ISO 100.
And here I used the Sigma 70mm F2.8 EX DG Macro to close-focus on the sea-beaten details of this single board in this jetty. It tells a very different version of the same story of this small patch of sea, rocks and sand. Canon EOS 5d, Sigma 70mm F2.8 EX DG Macro. 1/2000 at F3.5 ISO 100.
Of course, everything that makes a Sigma macro amazing for high-magnification work also makes these primes perfect for general photography, too. Here we focus farther afield and create a misty scene featuring a pair of fishermen. Remember to always look around for different compositions happening around you. Canon EOS 5D, Sigma 70mm F2.8 EX DG Macro. 1/3200 F4.5 ISO 100.
Any beach photography article without a mention of birds would incomplete. Birds and beaches are forever entwined. But depending on the species, the location, and even the whims and caprices of individuals, they may be fearless and allow you to get very close, or they may be very, very skittish. In my experiences, it is usually the latter. But when it all comes together, shots of birds from the beach can be so rewarding. But please remember to always be respectful of marked and unmarked nesting sites. On many beaches, nesting areas for endangered shorebirds are off-limits. Respect the boundaries and make shots from outside any cordoned-off areas. Don’t chase, and chase, and chase a particularly skittish bird. Slow down, relax, and they may become more comfortable with your distance. And if not, move on and find something else to point your camera at!
This Eastern Willet’s zone of comfort extended about 75-100 feet, so I’m glad I had the versatile 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 mounted to my Sigma SD1. In the foggy conditions, I shot a lot of frames to get a few winners zoomed all the way to 500mm. 1/640 F6.3 ISO 100.
Notice how shallow the depth of field is at 500mm at the wide-open F6.3 maximum aperture on the 50-500mm F4.5-6.3. Notice the lovely little bokeh effect on the tiny pebbles just ashore of the surfline in this image. Tiny little details can add to an image. Again at 1/640 F6.3 ISO 100 on the SD1.
Whenever there’s sand and water, there’s probably going to be gulls. I’d metered off a wet patch of sand before locking in a manual exposure to track some herring gulls in flight last summer with the Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM on a Nikon D3 at 300mm (1/3200 at F2.8 ISO 200). If I’d relied on straight in-camera metering, all the sparkling sunlight on the water’s surface would have significantly impacted the exposure, resulting in a darker-than-desired composition. But here with a dead-on exposure for the gull, all that reflected sunlight is just gorgeous highligh bokeh encircling the bird. There’s a lot of challenges to making shots on the beach, but it can be very rewarding!
I’ve been to a lot of beaches around the world, and even as the same stretch of beach may be very different from day to day, so does every beach in the world have its own character, its own energy, and its own feel based on both the whims and caprices of natural and human history. There are amazing tools available for online research to learn about any given patch of sand. Google Earth offers fantastic virtual location scouting, and there’s very often a lot of photos to view for reference. Travel sites describe what’s unique about this or that locale,, and a bit of advance research can go a long way. Check the tide tables and moon and sun rise tools such as the Photographer’s Ephemeris and Astroid to plan the perfect time for your shoot, and it can make your shots even stronger. Do some virtual footwork in advance, and don’t be afraid to talk to the locals–they probably can share a lot of great tips for what happens on the local beaches. And check with local Audubon chapters and the state and county wildlife commission to see what birds pass through at different times of the year.
Maho Beach on Sint Maarten is legendary for its location directly in front of the runway of Princess Juliana International Airport. Airplanes of all sizes fly just a few feet above the heads of beachgoers on the beach. I wish I’d been able to research the time of my visits to this beach 11 years ago to be there when the huge jets were flying overhead. But as it is, I locked in my exposure, and got a nice frame of a small prop-liner coming in for a landing. There’s always next time! Canon EOS 1-N and Sigma 17-40mm F2.8-4.0 on Kodak EVS100 Slide film.
Later that day, I made this frame as the sky turned from sunset to night in the islands. I was on this trip with friends in a Jersey Shore band that got invited to play many of the popular bars in St. Maarten. They were playing “Badfish” by Sublime at Sunset Beach Bar as I captured this moment. Since then, I can’t ever hear that song and not think of this precise moment. It’s become even more a meaningful connection as my friend Joe, who was on drums that night, passed away recently. Some images you make have a lasting impact, they really do. Original slide shot with the Sigma 17-40mm F2.8-4.0 and copy slide made with the Sigma 70mm F2.8 EX DG Macro on a 5D.
And don’t think sunset means the end of making photos on the beach! Bring a tripod and explore the dark side of beach photography, too. Long exposures can turn the water into misty, smoky, ethereal flows. Star trails above a surfline offer opportunities, as do moonlit nightscapes. I’m very excited to experimenting with some star trail and Milky Way Time lapses later this summer during a visit to Cape May. Be sure to check back for updates!
It was about ten degrees, with a serious wind chill the night I made these photos in the dead of winter with my Sigma 17-40mm F2.8-4.0 on Agfa Scala slide film back in early 2003. If you can believe it, I had the beach totally to myself! That’s the Belmar Fishing Pier, Belmar NJ, in the background. I used a million-candlepower light to paint light on the snow on the rocks in the foreground over the course of a 30-second exposure at F/11. Beaches are always there, and great photos can be made in any weather, or time, or tide, when you’re willing to work for it!
A vertical variation on the above image. Notice how the water is smoky and misty around the rocks as it ebbed and flowed during the exposure. And the little lens flare above the middle light works so very well in this composition that we’ve left it in the image instead of smudging it out. This shot hangs in my living room–for us, it’s the variant that’s more appealing. Which of these works for you?
There’s a world of images waiting where the sand meets the sea. My advice is always going to be the same: pack your gear, do some research before you go, and then go whenever you possibly can! Explore, learn, and enjoy the experience. Any time of day, any day of the year, you’ve got the right gear to make some great beach images!
On a sunny day, this image would have a totally different feel to it. But it was foggy when I had a day on the beach, so here’s what I made with the Sigma SD1 and 50-500mm F4.5-6.3. I went with a super-fast shutter speed to try to freeze the line mid-cast, and got lucky on this one at 138mm. 1/8000 at F6.3 ISO 800.
Crashing wavelet. Look around, Look far, look wide, look to the sand, and the surf, and the sky, and you’ll find fantastic images to make at the beach. Sigma SD1 and 50-500mm at 244mm 1/640 F6.3 ISO 100.
And even if you don’t nail any winners, remember that at the end of the day, it was still a walk on the beach!
Do you have you own amazing shore and sandscapes? We’d love to see them on our Facebook page!