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5 Important Things To Know if You’re Shooting Photos at a Beach and in the Surf

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I love shooting landscape photos at the beach. It’s an ever-changing landscape dominated by the sea and its waves. You might think shooting photos at such a location is easy, but you have to know a few things before you go there. It’s all about safety.

I decided not to write about settings and equipment in general. That information is shared enough already, and a search will offer a lot of useful tips about shooting photos at the beach and in the surf. This article covers the things you have to be careful about. Still, let me say a few words about the use of filters.

About the Exposure Length and Filters

You probably want to use filters when capturing the movement of the water. Often, dark neutral density filters are used, like the famous Lee Big Stopper or similar 10-stop filters, like the Haida Red Diamond I always use.

But you have to realize, the longer the exposure length, the less movement will be captured. Make the exposure length long enough, and the water will turn into a flat and tranquil surface.

If you truly want to capture the dynamics of the water, keep your exposure length between 1/4 second and 2 seconds, depending on the direction of the water and its speed. Choose the neutral density filter that allows you to use that desired exposure length. Don’t just choose a neutral density filter and use the exposure time you end up with.

Besides the settings and filters you use, there are other things to be aware of when photographing at a beach and in the surf. These are not often mentioned, but are very important nevertheless. 

1. Know the Beach and Its Risks

Shooting at a beach can be quite dangerous if you’re not familiar with the characteristics of that beach. The surf can be very unpredictable, or the tides can go faster than you realize. Know what to expect, and it will make photographing at the beach a lot safer. I have a few examples.

Tides at the Opal Coast

The tides at the Opal Coast in France vary between one and nine meters. It means the sea will sometimes rise more than one meter per hour, which is a lot. If you’re not careful, you might get trapped on a rock with no way back to safety. You have to keep an eye on the water levels at all times, and be sure the way back isn’t blocked by the rising water.

Boulders at Unstad beach

A part of the beach Unstad at Lofoten is covered with massive boulders. Photographing the flow of water between the boulders can result in great images, until that one big wave you didn’t see coming hits you. Whatever you do, don’t grab your camera and tripod and quickly walk backwards. I’ve seen photographers do that, with the risk of tripping over that one big boulder behind them. In the worst-case scenario, you will hit your head on another boulder.

Sneaker Waves at Reynisfjara

You probably know about the famous beach at Reynisfjara in Iceland, where the big sea stacks called Reynisdrangar offer great compositions. Many tourist and photographers have been surprised by sneaky waves. Even during a calm surf, where you think you’re at a safe distance, a sneaky wave will run you over. They result in deaths almost every year.

2. Place Your Tripod the Right Way

Not every beach is as dangerous as the three examples I mentioned. Some beaches are relatively safe, and you don’t need many extra precautions. In that case, you can place your tripod in the surf itself to capture the patterns by the movement of the water.

If you do, make sure your tripod is placed the correct way. Press it firmly in the sand or as stable as possible on rocks. Always point two tripod legs towards the flow of water, and one leg with the direction of the water. At sea, with water flowing in both directions, determine which direction has the most force and set up the tripod accordingly.

By placing your tripod this way, there will be less risk for tipping over if a wave hits. Still, water has a lot of force and it’s heavy (one cubic meter of water weighs a thousand kilograms, imagine that bumping into you), meaning it can move the heaviest of tripods. Just stay close to the tripod so you can hold it upright if a wave hits it too hard.

3. Never Leave Your Camera Bag Unattended

Whatever you do, be careful where you open your camera bag. I’ve seen photographers place their camera bag very close to a surf. Some even leave the bag open and wander off while the bags stays unattended. If you do, you might end up with a camera bag full of seawater. I rescued bags of a few photographers last year, even though I warned them about the risk.

Never take any risk at sea. If you want to change lenses or you need to grab something from your bag, place your bag at a safe distance from the surf, preferably on higher ground, and keep an eye on the sea and the waves. If you’re done, take the bag with you again. Never leave it unattended or exposed to the risk of a huge wave filling the bag with water.

4. Always Take a Towel With You

No, this has nothing to do with the most important rule of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Yes, it has everything to do with keeping your camera and lens free from water. Especially when shooting from a low angle, the risk of getting water onto the lens is high. In that case, you want not a regular towel, but a dishcloth. Make sure it has been washed several times because then it will be free of loose fibers and particles.

A dishcloth can also protect your camera and lens against a rain shower or falling snow. It will also help when shooting waterfalls. It’s just a very handy thing that makes it much easier to shoot at sea and in the surf.

5. Clean Your Tripod Afterwards

You know seawater is salty. If the water dries up, the salt will remain. Any metal on your tripod will corrode much more quickly if you don’t clean it. The tripod legs, which often are made of carbon, are okay. But the screws and other metals won’t fare as well. That’s why it’s wise to clean your tripod thoroughly afterwards.

It’s not necessary to start cleaning the moment you reach home; somewhere in the next days is often soon enough. I wrote an article with instruction on how to clean a Gitzo tripod in case you want to know how to do this.

It might also be wise to clean your camera. If parts on your camera turn white in the next days, you’ll know seawater got in contact with them. Take extra care of your hot shoe because it’s one of the places on your camera where salt can cause damage. There are electrical contacts for communicating with a flash or flash trigger. Salt will ruin this connection eventually if you’re not careful. Use a wet dishcloth to rinse your camera to get rid of the salt. You see, that towel does come in handy even after you’re done photographing. Fort Prefect of the Hitchhiker’s Guide might be right after all.

Do you have any additional tips for shooting photos in a surf? Please share these in the comments below. It will help a lot of others to shoot great photos while staying safe.

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