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10 Tips For Breathtaking Beach Sunset Photography
Taking beach sunset photos is really popular. But how many times have you looked back at your photos and thought how much less impressive they are than the scene itself that you remember!? Well it certainly happens with me a lot! I suppose a photograph can never fully match the mental images you form after being in a beautiful part of the natural world.
But a photo of sunset on a beach isn't meant to be like being there. It's a rectangle for a start! The scene is abruptly interrupted by the four walls of the frame. You've got to make it look good within that space. You have to choose what to show and how, technically and creatively...
Technical Tips For Shooting Beach Sunsets
1. Use manual controls for the best exposure.
You can get a cool photo of sunset with just about any camera. But it's a big help if you are able to manually set the aperture and shutter speed (and perhaps ISO too).
With sunset photos it's really important that you expose the sky well. But the sky is always a lot brighter than the foreground of the beach. So it’s easy to end up with either a dark foreground (to get the sky right) or a burnt out sky (to get the beach right)!
Fine tune the exposure manually so that you get as close to the right exposure for all parts of the picture as possible. Full guide to digital camera settings.
2. Shoot in Raw for perfect exposure.
Using manual controls is a big help when taking beach sunset photos. But you still end up having to compromise. Why not use manual controls and shoot in a Raw file format? That way you get a decent image, which can be fine tuned to perfection in the Raw file converter (e.g. Photoshop/Elements).
Read my guide to using a Raw file format if it's new territory. It's a piece of cake! You'll be able to retrospectively tweak the exposure of a beach sunset photo and create several versions of it, each with the perfect exposure for different parts of the image, and blend them all together!
3. Use spot metering mode.
Whether or not you like the idea of shooting in a Raw file format, spot metering will help you produce the right exposure for your original image.
Taking a photo of sunset is challenging because of the contrast in brightness between sky and foreground. Spot metering reads the light (and in turn suggests exposure) from a really tiny area in the frame - so it's really accurate.
Take readings from several areas and work out the best balance. Don't worry about taking some duff shots to begin with! It will help you move towards the right aperture and shutter speed values. This is a guide to using a photography light meter.
4. Use a tripod.
Anyone can take beautiful sunset photos, no matter what equipment they have. But a tripod is the one extra piece of kit that is pretty important to have if you're really keen to explore this type of photography.
Why? Well, since the light is less strong at sunset it can be tricky to avoid camera shake resulting from a slow shutter speed. This is especially true since most beach sunset photos look best with a large depth of field (small aperture), placing more emphasis on slowing down the shutter speed. A tripod steadies the camera and increases your freedom over exposure settings.
I tripod also opens up lots of cool creative possibilities which I'll explain below! Here's a guide to choosing tripods for digital cameras.
Creative Tips for Beach Sunset Photography
5. Get there early!
Although you are looking to take a photo of sunset, your preparation should start well before the actual event. Why? Because otherwise you will not do justice to the amazing light when it arrives, by messing around looking for a good foreground, setting up the tripod etc!
Get yourself set up in advance. As far as possible find your shot before the sunset comes. I know you have to react to exactly how the light falls on the landscape as it happens, but there's a lot you can do to maximise your time for shooting when the window of opportunity arrives.
Explore the available angles, check out what foreground textures are on offer, choose your lens, set up the tripod, take some test shots to get the composition right etc.
6. Don't just shoot the sky.
Beach sunset photos are great because they combine beautiful natural light with interesting landscape/seascape. Sometimes the amazing sky can draw your camera like a magnet - because that's what you want to look at - and take over the whole image!
Don't neglect all the brilliant opportunities for photography that the beach offers in its own right - and that are improved when shot at sunset. Things like lighthouses, sea defences, wildlife, rocks, stones, big waves, boats, cliff faces and so on. Here is a guide to photography composition.
Digital Potography School's book on Natural Light is one of the most valuable tools for landscape photographers I've come across in a long time.
7. Use the water for texture.
Beach sunset photos often look really cool when the visual potential of the water is used. It often makes a great foreground. Explore its 'texture': the ripples it makes close to the shore, the way it shines on rocks and stones, disperses as waves hit the beach or forms in little rock pools.
Sometimes it's a good idea to get low when taking a beach sunset photo. It allows you to really capture the detail and texture of the surface of water in the foreground. So don't wear your best clothes in case you get splashed!
I actually took this picture at dawn, but the same principles apply!
8. Use the water for a cool 'misty' effect.
Another great way to use the sea in your beach sunset photos is to slow the shutter speed right down to produce a peaceful, 'misty' effect. The motion blur of the waves creates a really cool, soft texture.
You'll need a tripod to achieve this of course, otherwise camera shake will make the entire scene blurry. Play around with different shutter speeds. 1 or 2 seconds will be just enough to for the rushing waves to create a bit of a pattern. 20 or 30 seconds will make all patterns disappear and produce a beautiful, perfectly smooth surface. This is a great technique for producing beautiful sunset photos.
9. Before the sunset.
Apart from planning the shot, what can you do before the sunset actually arrives? Well, earlier in the day have a good look at the sky and check the weather forecast.
Learn to get a sense of what looks like a promising sky. You want cloud for texture and detail, but not so much that it blocks out the amazing light! Look out for days when there is enough cloud, so that it will enhance the sky at sunset. Totally clear skies are usually boring!
10. After the sunset.
Although you have to be quick to react to the changing character of the light at sunset, the whole thing goes on for longer than you might think. It would be a big mistake to pack up and go home as soon as the sun passes under the horizon.
For 15 or 30 minutes after sunset there is often an incredible light. The final rays of the sun illuminate the sky and sea from beyond the curvature of the earth. Sometimes this is the most magical few minutes of the 'magic hours' (dawn and sunset). You can get deep reds, subtle pinks and rich blues - brilliant for photographing! So hang around until the day’s last hurrah is finally over!
Another thing - when taking beach sunset photos always keep a close eye on the tides. The sea can carve into the beach in really weird ways. I once found myself almost encircled by a 'moat' after becoming completely absorbed in taking pictures!
The water had cut a channel into the beach as the tide came in and it grew and grew, filling up more quickly than everywhere else. I was just able to leg it out of there, but it was quite unnerving and I certainly won't let something like that happen again! So be very careful!