How to photograph your family at the beach (even in winter) | Donna Green

How to photograph your family at the beach (even when the weather’s rubbish!)

Feb 18

A screech rent the air.

little girl in red coat and bare feet on Tyningham beach

The seagulls panicked, wondering which of their flock had fallen prey to disaster. Their beady yellow eyes glared at us.

This screech wasn’t a seagull though. It was my daughter.

Having blethered without drawing the breath the entire way in the car from Edinburgh to Tyninghame Beach about her hopes of finding a crab, it was looking like these hopes might be dashed.

She was looking diligently. It had been a while. Although according to her she’d been on her quest for five hundred million years. You know how it is.

She penguin-hopped from one rock pool to another, lifting stone after stone. There simply had to be a crab somewhere! Sea anemones wouldn’t do. Starfish were rubbish. Water snails, pffft, booooooring. It had to be a crab.

The protruding bottom lip accompanied much huffing and puffing, and this trip to the beach was looking doomed. She’d tried so hard, the water was so cold, and she was getting SO TIRED she might just have to sleep on the beach for the whole entire night. And THEN I’d be sorry.

I wasn’t quite sure why it was my fault we were as yet crabless, but thankfully her dad took over.

Stepping in to brave sharks, or at least shoo away seagulls, jumping into rock pools, overturning towering monoliths with his bare hands, impervious to the seeping cold, his perseverance was unwavering, his gimlet eye piercing water and rocks in relentless pursuit of his crustacean prey.

And me? I was documenting this epic adventure with my camera, just so I can give you some pointers on how to catch crabbers on camera. Or even just how to photograph your family at the beach – crabbers optional.

I know. I’m all heart, me. Nothing to do with my innate aversion to cold water and slimy seaweed, I promise.

How to photograph your family at the beach

little girl and daddy at Tyninghame Beach looking for crabs

What you need

Okay, listen up. You can do this with your phone, or a non-phone camera. Either’s fine. I took my big camera with me, but you can definitely use your phone if you prefer to travel light. 

Why do you want photos?

little girl walking with daddy through rock pool Before you even leave the house, it’s worth while thinking about what you actually want to get out of this trip to the beach.

Do you want some beautiful photos to remind you of a family day out? Do you want to capture your children having fun doing something a little different? Or do you want to take artistic shots of sand, sea, and sky? (And perhaps even seagulls!) 

While you’re pondering all this, have a read of my blog posts on “How to photograph events yet still be present” part i) and part ii) here.  Find out how to walk that line of immortalising the event highlights in photographs yet still being fully there in the moment to enjoy and really experience it! 

What to beware of

I’m sure you’ll realise electronic equipment doesn’t often get on well with sand and water, and particularly not salty water. Even if you’re “just” using your phone to take pictures with, remember sand can still get into the the headphone and charging sockets.

You think sand is bad in your dookers when you go swimming? That might cause a temporary irritation but at least nothing needs to go in for expensive surgery afterwards.

So just ca’ canny with getting too active when photographing around sand and sea, and as soon as you get back to the car, try and give the outside your phone/camera a wee wipe down just to get any salt or sand off it.

(Glasses wipes are good for this. Or alcohol. I won’t judge. But baby wipes are too greasy, so just, no.)

What to look for when you get there

little girl and daddy in rock pool at Tyninghame Beach looking for crabsTo go home with a really great collection of images that tell a story, here are some things to think about.

Look at the light

If you’re on the beach in the middle of a bright day in summer, you’re going to get some nasty shadows on people’s faces, and chances are they’ll be squinting in the harsh light.

You can either accept this, or catch them when their faces are turned slightly away, or even get them to stand between you and the sun so they’re silhouetted against it. 

Another thing to try is using what’s called “fill flash”.

Turn your camera or phone’s flash on and use it to brighten up those nasty shadows on your subject’s face whilst still keeping all the rest of the picture perfectly exposed.  (NB: this one might take a few attempts depending on how accustomed you are to using this technique.)

Photograph the setting

Context is important. Things to think about:

  • Where are you? Is there a sign saying “to the beach”, or an information board showing where you are which tells what kind of things to spot when you’re there?
  • A wide seascape, showing what the weather’s doing. Is it calm and sunny? Or stormy and dramatic? What kind of day are you having?
  • A wide beach with land behind it – let’s see where the beach fits into this part of the country
  • Who’s with you? Who are you photographing? If there are several of you, try to get different grouping of folk to make your photographs of the day more interesting rather than just taking loads of shots with the five people in them all.
  • And please, for the love of goodness, please PLEASE hand your camera (or phone) over to someone else so you can be at least some of the photographs! You don’t want your children to look back in years to come and wonder if you were actually there, do you? Read here about the importance of existing in photographs and promise me you’ll do it, right? (Because otherwise you and I are going to have to Have Words.)
  • What are people wearing? Pay attention to what people are wearing as this really adds to the story of your trip. You’ll all be dressed for the weather, whatever it is, so capture this. 
  • Food you all ate – ice cream? Picnic? Flasks of tea and hot chocolate to keep warm? Again, these details tie in with the overall theme: “winter on the beach” or “roasting hot at the beach”. (Actually, maybe not roasting. Scotland, right?)

Top tip: try and keep your horizons straight. You may edit all your pictures afterwards, but just making that extra wee bit of effort to keep your horizon straight will save time later on.

Photograph the activities

What’s everyone doing? Crabbing intently? Leisurely building sandcastles? Or belting around after a football to keep warm?

family photographer Edinburgh - little girl picking up seashells on Tyninghame beachMake sure you capture what you’re all doing so when your family look back at your pictures of the day, they’ll instantly smile and be transported back to the fun they were having.

Photograph the details

Now you’ve got images of the settings you were in, how about the details? What are the little things that really sum up this kind of day for you all?

How about zooming in and appreciating the small things which make a trip like this what it is? Detailed up-close shots are like richly descriptive adjectives in your pictorial story of this beach trip.

Like:

  • children’s feet in flip-flops, covered in sand and mud
  • or wellies covered in sand!
  • hands holding seashells
  • sunglasses with your reflection in them
  • Slimy seaweed and barnacles
  • A CRAB!

Photograph the unusual

If a beach trip isn’t something you do very often, then just having photographs of you all there is enough to remind you all of the special day you had.

But if you go there a lot, try and catch something specifically different about this visit. Is the weather any different from normal? Has anything odd turned up whilst you were beachcombing?

For example, my family will always remember a virtually intact dead seal we saw washed up on the beach of Port of Ness on the Isle of Lewis last summer. Gross, fascinating, large, and very, very smelly.

Yes, of course I photographed it. No, I’m not posting it here. Not unless you ask me very nicely, but then I’d have to ask why you’re being so weird. To which you could quite legitimately respond to by asking me why I was so weird as to photograph it.

Moving swiftly on …

Photograph family traditions

So you’ve photographed the out-of-the-ordinary (despite the smell), and now you should capture the things you always do as that are also an important party of your family story.

If you go to the beach once every winter, you’ll have a visual timeline of how the people change and grow whilst the landscape of the beach and other things like it remain unchanged.

Tracing these changes through the years is something you’ll all greatly value so make sure you capture the ordinary too.

little girl walking barefoot through rock poolsWhat to do when you get home

Editing

Try converting some of your images to black and white – it can completely change the mood and feel of a shot. It’s particularly good if the skies are dull and colours are muted, as it can show texture more and add drama. Experiment and see what you think!

Make something

It’s all very well having made a beautiful collection of the photos which document your family’s beach visit, but what can you do with it?

If you want to stay digital, you could create a slideshow video at https://lumen5.com. You can then upload it to social media or share it by email so others can see it too – let Granny see what you’ve been up to this weekend!

Or if you prefer to see it all in print, how about making a photobook? You can do this very easily at www.photobox.co.uk. Why don’t you leave some blank pages too, where you can paste in (flat!) things like a piece of seaweed, a gull’s feather, some sea pinks or marram grass to liven it up?

But if the crabs your children found were dead, don’t let them put any claws or bits of shell into their photobook because they WILL stink. Just sayin’.

And as for us? What happened?

My daughter’s screech was one of triumph.

They won the day! A crab was found! In a rockpool! (I know. Where crabs tend to live.)

How to photograph your family at the beach - little girl with dad in rock pool looking for crabs

How to photograph your family at the beach – leave no stone unturned!

Our intrepid warriors weren’t cruel (or brave?) enough to pick it up out of the water, but no matter.

A crab had been found, madam would not sleep on the beach, Daddy could swagger, and I would not be sorry. 

little girl holding daddy's hand walking through woods

Dragons slain, crabs uncovered

The crab would live to nip another day, and the seagulls continued about their business.

Our winter trip to the beach was victorious.

And yours?

Have you ever photographed a family beach trip before? If so, show me!

Why not let me know on Facebook if you’ve ever intentionally set out to photograph a beach trip like this, and show me some of the pictures if so? Or maybe this has inspired you to try?