How to take great photos at the Beach

Lesson 5 Module 1

Blue water ,white sand, palm trees—the perfect tropical paradise. While you're there you want to capture the sunshine to cheer yourself up for the days when it's cold, rainy, and snowing back home, but the photos from your last beach vacation just didn't capture that sunny tropical vibe. You tell your friends and family that 'this looked a lot better in person'.

What went wrong?

Capturing the essence of the beach with a simple point-and-shoot camera isn't as hard as it might seem—you just need to understand a bit about how your camera works and make a few small adjustments to make sure that your shots look like they did when you were standing there with that powdery white sand between your toes.

This week we're going to look at how to take great photos at the beach.

Dull Grey Sand? Why understanding exposure will get you perfectly white sand every time

Does the beach in your photos look grey, dull, and unappealing?

Don't worry, this happens to most people when they take photos at the beach. It's actually the main reason why their tropical photos turn out boring and featureless.

The key to fixing the problem is understanding how your camera sees light and balances the exposure depending on what your lens 'sees'.

Every camera is designed to work properly for the normal day-to-day situations that most most photographers will encounter. Since most people buying digital cameras don't live on the beach, cameras are calibrated to deliver a balanced exposure when the surroundings are pretty uniformly colored and not extremely dark or extremely bright.

Do you see how this can be a problem at the beach?

Because the background on the white sand beach is so bright, the camera responds by trying to turn the white sand to more of a neutral grey. Again, this is because the camera has been set at the factory to deliver properly exposed shots under most people's 'normal' conditions—ie, indoors and not at the beach.

How to fix this

The key to bringing the brightness back to your beach is to let your camera know that it's on vacation. Ok, I'm sort of joking here, but you actually do need to tell your camera that it's in a different environment and the normal rules for exposure don't apply.

If you remember what you learned from our earlier lesson on exposure, you'll know that you can manually adjust the amount of light that goes through your lens to your digital camera's sensor.

Since your camera 'wants' to make the white sand grey (ie, underexposing it), you can fix the problem by overriding the default setting and 'overexposing' your white sand beach. Most cameras have an 'exposure compensation setting' that typically goes from '-2' to '+2'. This range of light values is measured in 'stops', with '0' being the normal or default exposure.

The best way to make your grey beach turn back to white is to intentionally 'overexpose' your shot by using the exposure compensation feature.

Typically, overexposing your frame by 1 to 1 and 1/3 stops will give you a perfect balance in most beach situations—just remember to switch the exposure back to '0' when the sun is low in the morning and evening or else you won't capture those amazing colors from sunrise and sunset!

Now that we've corrected the color of the sand in your photos, what happens if your blue water isn't looking as amazing as it appears from your beach chair under the umbrella?

What to do if your ocean isn't blue?

So imagine you're sitting in your beach chair, icy cold tropical drink in one hand and staring out at the sapphire-colored water stretching to the horizon as far as you can see.

You grab your camera to capture the amazing blues of the sky, the water, and the brilliant white of the sandy beach. The only problem is that when you check the photo in your LCD viewfinder, the shot looks like its literally been bleached of color, none of those amazing blues are coming through.

What went wrong?

Well, if you're like most people, you were wearing sunglasses while you were looking at the ocean. Most good sunglasses are built with some sort of ultraviolet or polarizing filter built into the lens.

These filters are designed to minimize the amount of reflections and glare you see when looking at a highly-refractory surface like the ocean. Your sunglasses literally block the distracting reflections that would normally prevent you from seeing all the colors in the water.

Problem is, your camera doesn't come with anything like a polarizing filter built in to the lens. But that doesn't mean you can't use a simple trick to correct this.

How to fix this

Use your sunglasses with your camera.

Most point-and-shoot cameras are built with relatively small lenses, and it's very likely that your sunglasses would completely cover the frame. Try holding your sunglasses in front of your camera lens as you're taking the photo of the ocean (or beach). If your sunglasses are polarized, try tilting the angle a bit to find the optimum amount of glare reduction—the amount of reflected light that the lens will cut will actually change when you rotate the lens.

You should see a big difference in the way your shots turn out—the blues should be a lot deeper and the contrast between the water and sand should also be a lot more dramatic.

Professional photographers actually use a specially designed filter called a 'circular polarizer' that does essentially the same thing. Any tropical beach photo you've ever seen in a magazine was almost certainly shot with some sort of polarizer.

But the good news is that you don't necessarily need to spend $100 or more on the filter when you've already got the same thing resting at the end of your nose!

How to take great sunset portraits at the beach

Even if you're just relaxing in a lounge chair, a day on the beach can go by pretty quick.

Those sapphire and cobalt blues from earlier in the afternoon are giving way to brilliant oranges, reds, and yellows as the sun slips behind the horizon of the sea.

And again, you want to capture the moment to keep yourself sane during the cold winter months when you're back at your desk. The problem is that every sunset photo you attempt turns out either so dark that no one can tell that the dark silhouette standing in the middle of the frame is actually you. And if the photo isn't too dark to see you, then it's so bright that all the amazing colors from the sky are completely washed out and overexposed.

How to fix this

Once again, you're running into the limitations of what the camera can 'see' vs. what you can see with your eyes.

If you remember what we talked about in our lesson about creative ways to use the flash on your camera, you'll know that you can tell your camera to fire the flash every time the shutter is clicked.

So before you shoot your beach sunset portrait, set the flash manually to go off every time you click the shutter. That way, when you press the button, the flash will deliver enough brightness to light up your face while the amazing colors of the sunset are preserved in the background.

What's next?

Now that you have a good overview of how to nearly guarantee that your photos are properly exposed when you press the shutter, it's time that we looked at the basics of what happens after your photos land on your computer's hard drive:

Editing in Photoshop.

Using a few simple techniques such as contrast or color correction can mean the difference between a good photo and a really great shot that is worth framing on your wall.

Even if you've never worked with Adobe Photoshop before, next week I'll introduce you to the quickest way to dramatically improve your photos as quickly as possible. It's also our first video lesson, so I'm excited to see what you think about it--see you next week on the small screen!