How to photograph the seashore

Discover how to take the best pictures of wildlife found on the coast. 

All images in this article have been taken by Laurie Campbell.
All images in this article have been taken by Laurie Campbell.

Of all habitats, the sea and shore is one of the least encroached on by people, giving it a wild, untamed feel, says wildlife photographer Laurie Campbell. Throw in different weather conditions and water’s reflective properties and you have an environment with ever-changing moods and a stunning backdrop for photographing many different species.

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“The choice of subject matter is vast, but needn’t be complicated,” says Laurie. “A simple family ramble along the high-tide line can turn up a surprising variety of close-up subjects – and you don’t even have to get your feet wet.

“However, the shore can be a hostile environment for both humans and cameras, so check tide times if you intend to venture far down the beach, protect lens surfaces from salt spray and carry a flannel in your camera bag to wipe your hands after handling wet and salty objects.

“Remember too that all shore life is influenced by the cycle of tides. During spring tides, around the time of the new and full moons, the lower shore is exposed for longer, offering a fantastic opportunity to search for species that are usually less visible. Just rummage around in a kelp bed to see what you can find. And learn to live with getting a bit soggy – it adds to the memories.”

1 Shoreline birds

Understanding animal behaviour is key, so you need to watch, learn and make the most of any opportunities. I took this photograph of a group of turnstones (above) using a fast (1/1600th of a second) exposure. Crouching low on the beach, I waited patiently on an incoming tide for a wave to disturb the flock and push it into the air.

Before you shoot It can be difficult to appreciate the density of birds congregated on a beach, so use an elevated viewpoint, such as a nearby clifftop, to get a sense of their numbers, spacing and patterns.

Choose your moment High tide is a good time to search for shorebirds in the autumn months. Return at low tide to erect a hide overlooking the roost, and be inside long before the birds are pushed towards you by the rising tide.

Know your patch Get to know your local stretch of coast. Note where the sun sets and rises over the sea and the difference between spring and neap tides, and how these can affect where birds gather to feed and roost. 

Use the sun A low winter sun and a clear blue sky reflected in the water combine to produce a colourful background and allows fast shutter speeds to ‘freeze’ the motion of the birds. 

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2 Mussels

To get a subject close-up and in context, use an ultra-wide-angle lens that has a close focusing distance. Bright sunshine is problematic because the extremes of contrast usually mean loss of detail in the deepest shadows. Instead use the soft, uncomplicated lighting of a cloudy day.

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3 Rockpools

I found this crab (above) placed among seaweed, which positively ‘glows’ in the darkness of a gloomy day. Getting down to the level of the subject and taking control of depth of field (by manually setting the focus and selecting a large aperture) ensures that the eye stalks are sharp and the main point of focus.

EXPERT TIP 

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“A polarising filter will enhance blue skies and reduce haze. It is very effective at removing the glare from wet surfaces, so you can see beneath the surface of rockpools.” Wildlife photographer Laurie Campbell