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

I love taking pictures of landscapes at the beach. It is an ever-changing landscape dominated by the sea and its waves. You may think it’s easy to take photos in such a place, but there are some things you need to know before you go there. It’s all about safety.

I decided not to write about settings and equipment in general. This information is already shared enough and a search will offer many useful tips on taking photos at the beach and in the waves. This article covers the things you need to watch out for. However, let me say a few words about the use of filters.

About exposure time and filters

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

But you have to realize that the longer the exposure time, the less motion will be captured. Make the exposure time long enough and the water will turn into a flat, quiet surface.

If you really want to capture the dynamics of the water, keep your exposure time 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 the desired exposure time. Don’t just pick a neutral density filter and use whatever exposure time you end up with.

Besides the settings and filters you use, there are other things to consider when shooting at the beach and in the waves. These are not often mentioned, but are nonetheless very important.

1. Know the beach and its risks

Shooting at a beach can be quite dangerous if you are unfamiliar with the characteristics of that beach. The surf can be very unpredictable or the tides can go faster than you think. Know what to expect, and it will make beach photography much safer. I have a few examples.

Tides at the Opal Coast

The tides of the Côte d’Opale in France vary between one and nine meters. This means that the sea will sometimes rise more than a meter per hour, which is a lot. If you’re not careful, you could find yourself trapped on a rock with no way to get back to safety. You should keep an eye on the water levels at all times and make sure the way back is not blocked by rising water.

Rocks at Unstad Beach

Part of Unstad Beach in Lofoten is covered with massive rocks. Photographing water flowing between rocks can make for great images, until a big wave you didn’t see coming hits you. Whatever you do, don’t grab your camera and tripod and back away quickly. I’ve seen photographers do this, with the risk of tripping over that big rock behind them. Worst case scenario, you’ll hit your head on another rock.

Sneaker Waves in Reynisfjara

You are probably familiar with the famous Reynisfjara beach in Iceland, where the large sea stacks called Reynisdrangar provide stunning compositions. Many tourists and photographers were surprised by sneaky waves. Even in calm surf, where you think you’re a safe distance away, a sneaky wave will knock you over. They lead to deaths almost every year.

2. Place your tripod the right way round

Not all beaches are as dangerous as the three examples I mentioned. Some beaches are relatively safe and you don’t need a lot of extra precautions. In this case, you can place your tripod in the surf itself to capture the patterns through the movement of the water.

If so, make sure your tripod is placed the right way round. Press it firmly in the sand or as stable as possible on the rocks. Always point two legs of the tripod towards the water current and one leg in 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.

Placing your tripod this way will reduce the risk of it tipping over in a wave. Yet water has a lot of force and it’s heavy (a cubic meter of water weighs a thousand kilograms, imagine it hitting you), which means 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 when opening your camera bag. I have seen photographers place their camera bag very close to a surfboard. Some even leave the bag open and walk away while the bags remain unattended. If you do, you could end up with a camera bag full of seawater. I saved a few photographers’ bags last year, even though I warned them of the risk.

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

4. Always carry a towel with you

No, it has nothing to do with the most important rule in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Yes, it has everything to do with keeping your camera and lens safe from water. Especially when shooting from a low angle, the risk of getting water on the lens is high. In this case, you don’t want an ordinary towel, but a tea towel. Make sure it has been washed several times as it will then be free of fibers and loose particles.

A tea towel can also protect your camera and lens from a downpour or falling snow. It will also help when shooting stunts. It’s just a very practical thing that makes shooting at sea and in the waves much easier.

5. Then clean your tripod

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

You don’t have to start cleaning as soon as you get home; somewhere in the next few days is often quite early. I wrote an article with instructions on how to clean a Gitzo tripod in case you want to know how to do that.

It may also be a good idea to clean your camera. If parts of your camera turn white in the next few days, you will know that seawater has come into contact with them. Pay special attention to your hot shoe as this is one of the places on your camera where salt can cause damage. There are electrical contacts to communicate with a flash or flash trigger. The salt will eventually ruin that connection if you’re not careful. Use a damp cloth to rinse your camera to get rid of the salt. You see, this towel is useful even after you finish photographing. Fort Prefect of the Hitchhiker’s Guide might be right after all.

Do you have any additional tips for taking pictures in a surfboard? Please share them in the comments below. It will help many other people to take great pictures while staying safe.

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