Beach Photography Exposure

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One of the great things about photography in the summer is there are so many mid-tones – greens, blues, reds, etc. – that getting the right exposure becomes less of a challenge. Just point the camera at something that is mid-tone with the light falling on it the same way it’s falling on your subject, lock the exposure, compose your shot and press the shutter release. Actually, it’s a lot easier to do than to write. In the daytime, outdoors, in bright sunshine the old Sunny 16 rule can be your trusted friend. Want a 2-stop shallower depth of field; open the aperture by 2 stops and increase your shutter speed by 2 stops.

Still, there are times where your surroundings will “fool” your camera into an incorrect exposure. This can be especially true at the beach, especially during the day. I know, if you want great outdoors shots take them during the “Golden Hour” but sometimes you have to take the photo when the opportunity presents itself.

To make this more difficult, different beaches have markedly different colors of sand so there aren’t any hard and fast exposure rules that will apply to every beach. For example, if you find yourself on Panaluu Beach on the big island of Hawaii the sand is black, very black. In places like Destin and Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, or the Seychelles, the beaches look like they’re covered with granulated sugar. Both situations may require some exposure manipulation.

Beach chairs at "Weiße Düne" beach

If you’re shooting photographs at a beach where the sand is very white, depending on how you have your camera set for exposures, the camera will want to expose the sand as medium gray and your photo will be underexposed. There isn’t anything wrong with the image being underexposed and that may be exactly what you’re trying to achieve, but if you want the beach to look white, you’ll need to increase the exposure, either by opening the aperture or slowing shutter speed. Just as with snow, the general adjustment is to “open up” two stops as pure white is two stops “brighter” than medium (or 18%) gray. However, I find that sometimes has a tendency to “blow out” the sand and I want the sand to have some detail so I usually open up 1 1/3 stops or 1 2/3 stops.

Cuban Beach

To be truthful, I will usually take a number of different exposures just to make sure but once I have it the way I want it, I adjust the “exposure compensation” by whatever amount I’m increasing the exposure and that usually solves the problem. Then I get white sand like you see in this image.

Beach, Dog and Fog

Of course, all that fancy stuff goes out the window when you’re capturing an image like this one of the man, the dog, the beach and the fog. In some parts of the world, like the Pacific Coast of the U.S. and Canada, the light can go from bright sunlight to dense fog in a matter of minutes.


Beached Out

While the beach can present some interesting exposure challenges, there are also a tremendous number of opportunities to capture some great images.

Take your camera to the beach and experiment. Once you become comfortable working with some difficult lighting situations, you’ll be glad you gave it a try. In addition to shutter speed and aperture to adjust your exposure, don’t forget to experiment with Neutral Density and Circular Polarizing filters if you have them.

Photo Credits:
Beach Chairs at Weiße Düne by palestrina55 on Flickr Commons
Cuban Beach by phunko82 on Flickr Commons
Beach, Dog and Fog by colin.jagoe on Flickr Commons
Beach by tricky on Flickr Commons
Beached Out by Weng on Flickr Commons

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  • Loubaril

    I wish I could make it to the beach… But I am here publishing a test comment so you can test your comments. Hope that worked.

  • Loubaril

    Posting here via Facebook, did not work though

  • Kenn Jerger

    Per your request, here’s a comment. When I think about beach exposure, this isn’t what I have in mind. What did you THINK I was going to say?

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