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

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

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.

A long exposure time is easy to achieve with a dark neutral density filter. But it removes all details from the water. No movement is present anymore. If that's your goal, it's okay.

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.

The tide difference at the Opal Coast is seen in this comparison. The time between the two images is only one and a half hours.

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.

These boulders are a great subject. But if you stand in-between, don't run away if a wave hits you. It's too dangerous.

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.

The Black Beach of Reynisfjara at Iceland. It's a dangerous beach because of the sneaky waves. Believe me, these will surprise you.

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.

The proper way of placing your tripod, with one leg in the direction of the water movement.

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.

A few thing were happening. Incoming tides made the water rise incredibly fast, I couldn't run from this wave because of the rocks, but the way the tripod was set up kept it in place.

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.

You might think you're safe placing the camera bag at that spot, but the next wave might go over it. Do you want to take 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.

At Unstad beach, these photographers were listening. No bags on the beach, no running, but the tripods could be placed better, I think. At least they didn't leave the tripods standing unattended.

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.

My dishcloth, a permanent item in my camera bag. It has come in handy more than once.

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.

Cleaning your tripod will guarantee it will keep on working for many years to come. Look, there is the dishcloth again. 

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.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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I just got back from a trip to the western US. I didn't get near any water. But, sand was prevalent. I could feel grit in the locking rings of both tripods. So, I broke both down, cleaned and lubed both. Not fun. But, better than buying new ones. As for leaving bags unattended, you've literally got thousands of $1 bills just laying there ready to grow legs. My bag stays attached to me at all times.

I'm going to suggest that a large microfiber cloth will be better than a dishtowel. First, it absorbs far better and faster. Second, it dries quickly, unlike cotton. If you need to use it after a day on the beach, clean the camera, then wash the cloth to remove residual salt and sand. By morning it will be dry and ready for the next round.

Another point is to NOT take one's entire camera bag to the beach. Take only that which one plans to use that day, leaving everything else in a safe location. The reason should be obvious...

Finally, lever lock legs (like on the older Linhof tripods, are far easier to clean under a faucet compared to Gitzo and other twist-lock legs.

According to my personal experience with microfiber cloth, it doesn't allow you to dry the surface completely when there is a lot of water on it. It might absorb better, but it kept leaving traces of moisture behind when I wiped the front lens.
Perhaps I have the wrong microfiber cloth, I don't know. But the dish towel does the trick for years. It never let me down.
By the way, I used to have lever locks, but I hate those things. I prefer twist-lock. These work much better and faster for me. I guess it's a personal thing.

I have found microfiber to be terrible at absorbing water, compared to cotton. In fact, it absorbs so poorly that you literally can't wipe ALL of the water off of a surface. It will always leave traces of water behind, whereas cotton or paper towels will absorb all of the water so that there isn't any left whatsoever.

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

1) There is sand. Lots of sand.
2) Scantily clad people about.
3) You hear the crashing of the surf.
4) Your feet keep getting wet.
5) The air smells like the ocean.

That's how I know if I'm shooting photos at a beach and in the sun.

(Sorry, as a journalism major for a year, I just couldn't resist…)

Scantily clad people about ...... hmmmmmm ..... where? I spend a lot of time photographing at various beaches around the west and east coasts of the U.S., and hardly ever see any scantily clad people there. In fact, there are often no people there at all .... miles of beach, and I am the only human in sight for hours on end. That's my typical beach experience. You must go to very different beaches than I do, or you go at very different times of the year than I do.

The beaches were scantily clad people can be found, aren't the most beautiful beaches for photography - you won't find me there
Unless you choose another subject for photography, like scantily clad people.

Some scantily clad people are the most beautiful things on the entire earth!

And other scantily clad people are the ugliest things on all the earth.

Homo sapiens vary too much in appearance for me, from one individual to the next ... I'll stick to my wildlife subjects, where members of each species pretty much are all either cool looking or ugly looking.

Nando Harmsen asked,

"Do you have any additional tips for shooting photos in a surf?"

I advise that one take extra care to protect spare camera batteries from the salt water.

When I was at a beach in New Jersey, I found a Seal on the sand, up away from the surf. To get the photo I wanted with the background I wanted, I had to get out into the ocean a ways. I had a spare battery for my Canon 1D Mark 4 in the pocket of my waterproof parka. I forgot all about the fact that the pocket had a couple of drain holes in the bottom of it. So, when I went into the surf, some salt water made its way through those small drain holes and into the pocket where the spare battery was. When I took the battery out of my pocket an hour later, it had that weird looking blueish greenish pasty corrosion stuff effusing from the terminals. Looked like the terminals on a car battery that has long been neglected. The battery was completely shot - good for nothing anymore.

If I had only thought to put the battery into a sealed ZipLok bag before slipping it into my pocket, there would have been no problem. ZipLok bags - both big and small - are your friend when you go to shoot at the beach!

Lesson learned. Fortunately, the pics of the Seal have sold rather well, and I more than recouped the replacement cost of the 1D Mark 4 battery.

A good tip, Tom. Thank you.

It was good that you mentioned keeping safe.
As a commercial photographer I shoot on beaches once in a while in LA. On my scouting trip I asked the lifeguard about what we need to do. He said that if we were on dry sand no lifeguard was needed, but if anyone "got their feet wet" at least one lifeguard would be required.

It is easy to get distracted out there, and the waves don't care.

I just shot some long exposure pics at the beach where there was a lot of salt spray and fog. So far, I've cleaned all the equipment that were exposed to the elements, but there is dearth of information regarding how to desalinate bag and cases. Specifically, I'd like to get salt off the filter pouch for 150mm filters as I had to pack salt encrusted filters and filter holder into the felt lined case when I was done with the shooting. What do you all do with absorbent materials like inner lining of camera bag and lens/filter pouches?

Depending on the filter pouch, perhaps rinse it in water and let it dry?
I never had any problems with the inner lining of a bag, since I keep it closed when there is a lot of salt water spray. Why open it at those locations anyway? If you need to grab something from the bag, walk to a place where there is no salt water spray?