The Secret to Photographing Beaches/Waves


I’ll often get the question about what’s the best shutter speed to capture moving water/waves on a beach. Do you want a longer shutter speed or a shorter one? I always hate the answer I’m about to give you, but I’m going to say it anyway. It depends (don’t worry, I won’t leave you with that) :) The surf, tides, winds and so many other factors come in to play when you consider a wave crashing on a beach and the water rushing toward the camera. So it’s impossible to give a formula and a specific shutter speed. But I do have 2 little secrets, tips (or whatever you want to call them) that’ll greatly increase your chances to get that killer shot on a beach.

Secret #1 to Photographing Beaches and Waves
The first secret to photographing beaches and waves is to set your camera to continuous shooting mode. See, the waves are moving at all different speeds as they approach you. One set of waves may move faster, the other may move slower and from a different direction. As the wave crashes and the water moves toward you, it makes various patterns. Here’s a few examples, taken in Bandon Beach, OR. Make sure you click to see the photos larger because it really helps.

(click to see the photos larger)



If you just take one photo, you’re stuck with where ever the water was when you took that photo. But if you capture a bunch of photos in succession, you can later (when you’re not dodging water trying to keep your gear dry) look at what the perfect position and pattern of the water is, and choose the best one. So that’s the first secret – continuous or burst mode.

Secret #2 to Photographing Beaches and Waves
The 2nd secret is to turn on the bracketing feature on your camera and shoot in Aperture priority mode. Because you choose the Aperture (and it stays locked down), the bracketing feature will vary the shutter speed for each photo in the series it takes. So what’s this do? This gives you more chances to capture something different/great. If you simply just set the camera on continuous/burst mode, you’ll capture the waves in different places as they approach you. But if you bracket, and the shutter speed changes too, not only does the position of the water change, but the patterns of the water change too. Because some of the photos in the series were taken with a faster shutter speed, the overall “spread” or area that the water covers in the photo will seem smaller (which can work for some photos). And because some of the photos were taken with a slower shutter speed, you’ll get some of those smooth silky water patterns that you can only get with a longer shutter speed.

Note: I shoot a 5-frame bracket separated by 1-stop between each photo.

Because it’s nearly impossible to time this kind of thing perfectly, these two little secrets combined can help you dramatically get better results. I’ll admit it – some of this involves luck. Persistence is a big part too. When you combine luck and persistence with some thought as to watching the water and seeing what it’s really doing, I think you’ll find you can walk away with some really different, dramatic and beautiful beach photos.

What About The Exposure Changes From Bracketing?
Good question. If you bracket the photos like I just mentioned, you’ll end up with a group of photos that looks something like this. Some too dark, some too bright. But the water will be very different in each one of them.

Some will be under-exposed and some will be over-exposed. But for the most part, even if the water looks really dark or bright, you should be able to adjust the Exposure in Lightroom or Camera Raw/Photoshop no problem. You may need to get a little creative with some layers if the sky is blown out in the one photo, but good in another. But overall, I think you’ll find that, even in the most over/under exposed photos, you’ll be able to get the overall Exposure under control without resorting to merging multiple images and layers (I was able to simply just adjust the Exposure slider in Lightroom for all of the photos above).

Even though there’s some random-ness to all of this, I think it’s like all things. The more you practice it the better the chances you walk away with a great photo. Enjoy and have a good one!

  • PaulP1234

    When you bracket, do you do it on 1/3, 1/2, or 1 stop increments and how many shots would you recommend?

    • Matt Kloskowski

      Great question Paul. I’ll add this to the post as well, but I shoot 5 frames all separated by 1 stop.
      - Matt

  • Dennis Zito

    Matt, Great information! I’ve done the continuous firing, but never thought to bracket. My Canon can only do 3 shot brackets so would you suggest using 2 stops between images?


  • mikespivey

    Matt, once again you thumb your nose at the anti spray-and-pray group. I love it. Those guys are gonna scream when they realize you have suggested you would possibly take a picture at 2 stops over and adjust it in post. But I’m with you. I would rather have a great image and a bunch of “deletes” than a so-so shot and be proud of my surgical precision timing.

    • Matt Kloskowski

      Lol Mike :-)
      It’s more like a controlled spray-and-pray mentality. I’m with ya though… we’re using the equipment, technology and gear enhancements to our advantage is the way I see it. ;-)

  • Christine Roosa

    Oh you’ve just given me another reason to get a new camera. Mine doesn’t do bracketed shooting (I have to manually adjust my exposure every time). I’ll put this reason on the list to upgrade and maybe hubby will start to see my point.

  • David Hobbs

    Matt, these are great tips that I used when we travelled to South Australia recently. I turned on bracketing, but unfortunately left my ISO as Auto. So my Canon unfortunately varied the ISO not the shutter speed :( At least settings were for about 1/6 second, so there was movement in the water, but not what I planned. :-0