Scott Mead‘s adventure in beach photography started back in 1975 when his grandfather gave him a Kodak Instamatic and sent him off on the sands of Maui. Since then, he has been creating striking images of sand, sea, and sun. Here are some tips for taking full photographic advantage of your next trip to the beach.
What do you look for in a good shooting spot on the beach?
Typically what I’m looking for is something that has a really solid foreground to anchor the image. If I’m shooting a sunset, it obviously has to be west-facing, but it also has to have some really good wave action. I like to have some motion within the image. You also want to make sure the sun isn’t going to be the bullseye in the image. You have to have it off at least a little bit.
What is your scouting process typically like?
I spend a lot of time just looking for the right spot. You have to observe how the water is moving, how the under water topography is affecting the waves. Eventually you find that one perfect spot where everything comes together and from there it’s just a waiting game for that perfect light. The beach isn’t a bad place to wait around.
Sunrise and sunset are obviously great times for beach shots, but what do you shoot in mid-day sun?
You can shoot the beach any time of day. Everything is always changing at the beach. If you have really shallow water, you wan wait until the sun is really high and in back of you and that light will come through the water. It’ll hit the sand and reflect up, so as the waves curl, you’ll get some incredible aqua colors.
You can also pull out a macro lens and shoot foot prints or little crabs. Different beaches are made up of a multitude of different things. If you wait until noon when the sun his high in the sky and do a really tight macro on some wet sand, it can really look incredible.
Do you use any filters when shooting sunsets?
When it comes to sunsets, I use split neutral density filters 100% of the time. It’s really the only way to balance the light within the camera so you make sure you retain all the detail within the shadow areas without blowing out the clouds that are close to the sun. It has the added benefit of letting you drag the shutter a little bit to catch that wave action.
What does your normal gear set-up look like?
I don’t leave anything at home. I typically carry a 5D Mark II and a 5D Mark III. I set them both up side by side. The 5D Mark II is basically shooting time lapses. The 5D Mark III has the split ND and is taking the individual beauty shots. Both cameras have a Canon 16-35mm F/2.8L zoom lens. I also carry with me a 24-70 F/2.8L and a 100-400mm lens as well. I also have a 15mm fisheye. It’s a fun lens because I can put it on the 5D Mark II, get it less than an inch from the water and it looks very cool.
Can you run us through your process for shooting a sunset?
I start shooting maybe 25 minutes before the sun actually goes down. The scene keeps evolving for that entire time. A lot of people see the one final image that I present, but the time lapse shows how things progressed. It’s not just the sun, but it’s everything around it. If you have a sailboat in the scene or surfers, they help tell the story. The main subject is the beach itself but incorporating those secondary objects that draw people’s eyes. They don’t just glance at it. They pick up all those little details that make it a living, breathing thing.
How do you predict the tides and the wave action?
You can learn the timing of wave sets. You have a small wave, which builds up to larger waves and then it goes back down again. Surfers have been using this for decades. Each break has its own timing. You can just go out early and watch the waves. You’ll notice a series of maybe eight to 10 waves. In that set, you’ll see a real big one in the middle. Spend some time watching and that will give you an idea of how long you’ll have to wait to get the one you want.
There are a few smartphone apps for tide predicton that list the tides for where you are. It will show you when high and slack tide will be. That enables you to predict your setting days ahead. You can make sure you’re at high-tide, which will give you bigger waves and better action in your photos.
How do you decide whether to use a slow shutter speed to blur the waves or a fast one to freeze them?
It depends on what I see the waves doing. Are they breaking high enough to give me a decent curl? Is there light behind the wave to give me a crystalline effect? You have to watch to see what’s going to work. Sometimes I’ll pull a slow shutter speed like 1/6-1/8 sec. and let the wave curl over to give it a sense of motion. Pan blurs also work really well with waves. Go to 1/30th sec. or so and follow the wave with your camera. If you want to catch every single little water droplet, you can bump it up to 1/500-1/800 sec. and freeze everything. You’ll find out what works for you pretty quickly.
Do you find it tricky setting up a tripod in the sand? Seems like it could be a nightmare getting it level.
It’s not a problem at all. The best thing I’ve ever purchased is the Gitzo explorer tripod, which lets you lock the tripod legs in any position you want. Sand, and if you’re here in Hawaii, lava can make it tricky to set up a tripod if you can’t move the legs freely. I also use a Acratech head leveler. I set the tripod down and I’ve got everything level within a minute.
Do you do anything special to protect your gear from all the sand and salt at the beach?
The one thing I utilize that people will probably laugh at are the small, clear garbage bags from Costco. They’re one of the best cheap ways to take care of your gear. I’ll poke a hole in the end, stretch it over the lens and let the rest drape over the camera. I have storm covers that I use if it’s raining or if I’m out on a boat shooting whales, but the clear bag lets me make quick adjustments to my camera.
Do you clean your gear before putting it back in the bag?
I always keep a blower bulb or a can of air handy because sand can really get into everything. Before I put anything back in the bag, I’ll give it a quick blast to get the extra sand off. When I do get back to my studio, I thoroughly clean all my gear with a damp terry cloth towel. Knock on wood, in my eight years of continuous shooting over here, I’ve never had a camera fail due to salt exposure.
What are some common mistakes people should avoid when composing beach shots?
Probably the biggest mistake I see people make is that they don’t take in the whole scene. They’ll see something they like, step up and snap it. Then when they get back and look at the photo, they’ll say, “This doesn’t look exactly how I saw it.” You need to ask yourself what’s really making it an awesome scene.
A lot of people shooting sunsets will grab a shot and their camera’s meter takes an average of the scene, giving you a nice glow, but it loses the foreground and the background. That’s where it’s really important to utilize cloud cover if you don’t have an ND filter. You can shoot a beautiful sunset without the sun in it.
How do you keep your landscape and sunset shots feeling fresh and interesting?
Sunsets are like snowflakes in that no two are ever alike. You can have a really clear night that will give you vibrant yellows and deep oranges. Other nights, you’ll have low-lying clouds and you’ll gets those wonderful pink tinges. After the sun goes down, wait for another 15 or 20 minutes. Sometimes after the sun goes below the horizon, you can get incredible colors in the clouds.
A lot of photography is about patience and persistence, but you need a dose of luck as well. It’s not uncommon for me to go back to a location maybe five times just waiting for the right sunset. Experimenting is so important.